Down deep in the foret

Auberge De L'hermitiere; Foret de Berce, 72150 Saint Vincent du Loirouer, Loir-et-Cher, France. Tel: 0033(0)243448445. Open March to November, Mon-Sat lunch noon-3.30pm and dinner 7.30pm-9pm, Sundays 7.30pm-8.30pm. Table d'hote menu, from 140FF. Major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
I Dare Say I've known it hotter here in past years, but today's swelter has driven all such memories from the mind. Shopping is hell, visiting local chateaux hell times two. There are only three bearable activities left. The first is reading something untaxing in the shade with minimum movement; the second is the paddling pool, or better still the beach by the lake; the third, the cool shade of the forest and a fine, unhurried, lunch.

The children are too energetic to settle for option one and we've invaded the beach five times in the past week. Option three gets everyone's vote. Auberge de l'Hermitiere is one of the best local restaurants. It also has swings, plenty of space for running around, a babbling brook, and a little muddy lake kitted out with fish.

L'Hermitiere is hidden away in the Foret Domaniale de Berce. It's all too easy to miss the turning that leads down through the tall trees, planted originally to provide masts for the French fleet, to the solid 19th-century, ivy-clad building. Weekday lunchtimes are slow, so it's easy to claim one of the half-dozen outdoor tables.

The menu reads like a guide to the gentle local dishes. We're not far off the great Loire valley, tucked away in the valley of Le Loir, a sweetly meandering river which seems to generate a douceur de vivre for all those within its reach. The menu du terroir houses the almost universal starter in these parts of crudites, usually including a carrot salad, sweet roast beetroot, tomato salad and celeri remoulade. A warm salad of andouillete (a not-to-be-scoffed-at tripe sausage) and potato echoes another favourite first course.

Jennine, who is not good on innards, heads for the artichoke soup which can be served hot or cold, selon votre gout. Her gout is, curiously enough, hot. Luckily it is a hit, smoky flavoured, a strange slatey grey colour, creamy without being over-rich. Pete, of the enormous appetite, opts for terrine campagnard accompanied by a sticky onion marmalade, which knocks him for six. Meanwhile I've headed for the not-very-local foie gras, cooked simply au torchon, in a cloth, and as melting and tender as only foie gras can be.

Three-and-a-half-year-old Florence has been deeply smitten by the little amuse-gueules served in egg cups, with half a quail's egg perched gaily atop a light moussey froth of cream and mushroom caviare. She is also mightily pleased by the bread - round loaves of airy tender white crumb with crisp crust, cut into sizeable quarters and served warm. The children's menu is as stylish as they come, with that same excellent terrine as a first course, cut into batons, served with crudites, all prettily arranged to form a face, followed by the most delicious little shards of chicken, courgettes and carrot in a lip-smacking jus, complete with a generous scoop of gratin dauphinois.

Sudden crashes of thunder, and the first drops of rain send us scurrying into the large dining-room. Our main courses arrive with the deluge. I've pulled the short straw with the one poor dish of the meal. Zander is an immensely popular fresh water fish here, with a delicate, sweet white flesh. This fillet tastes tired and dull, and the sauce is gluey and dull too. A shame, as it is made with Jasnieres, a local wine which can be remarkable.

Jennine, who is normally a picky eater, is tucking into her guineafowl and girolles with gusto. Quite right too, for the flesh is tender and moist, and the sauce imbued with the flavour of the first wild mushrooms of the summer (the Foret de Berce is renowned as a prime mushrooming spot). Pete, who had never eaten fish at all until a few weeks ago, is furthering his new love affair. Now that he has romanced brill, monkfish and tuna, he is turning his attention to trout. Luckily, this first trout is delicious, with none of the muddiness that so often taints farmed fish. Rolled up and sliced into discs, it is dressed with a sweet-sour vinaigrette, imbued with sprightly herbs.

Though the Jasnieres has not fared well in my main course, it merits pride of place on the wine list. La jeune patronne recommends a 96 demi- sec, which is so very good that we speed off the next day to buy some. Following the clutch of Jasnieres, the best of two other local wines, Coteaux du Loir and Coteaux du Vendomois take star billing; a fair selection of wines from the Loire valley follows with the rest of France and few other odds and ends trailing behind. How refreshing to see a wine list that is put together with such regional pride, and intimate local knowledge.

One of the puddings shocks me into attention - a terrine of roast peaches wrapped in rhubarb leaves. Are they trying to poison us before we even get round to paying the bill? "Non, non, madame!" It is an idea they unearthed from 19th-century cookbooks, and the leaves are blanched thoroughly before use, rendering them, she assures me, harmless, but leaving a delicate tartness as a souvenir. The terrine is marvellous, with the soft, scented flesh of white and yellow peaches, melded together and held in check with a band of softened leaves. A lakelet of almondy cream, with a lightly nubbly texture sets it off elegantly. What's more, I've lived to tell the tale.

Jennine has found room for a frozen hazelnut mousse, topped with puffed rice and sharpened with a red fruit coulis, while Pete is lost among the trio of puds on his assiette composee. The white chocolate mousse and the dark chocolate and coffee cake get full marks, but it has to be said that the French do not understand the principle of a crumble. A light scattering of crumbs on the surface of the fruit is considered quite sufficient and when you tell them that any self-respecting Brit considers this mean in the extreme, they just look perplexed. The apple crumble which completes the trio is decidedly French. The children's raspberry ice-cream is also decidedly French in the best possible way, tasting of nothing but the most perfect, sun-drenched, perfumed raspberries.

By the time we emerge, the rains have stopped. The sky has lightened, unlike us, but a thin layer of cloud still blankets the dampened world. The humid heat has returned unabated. Time for option two - the shade of the garden and the cooling effects of the paddling pool.

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