Market fare: Food and gifts from the Loire Valley

'Watch silk brocades being woven on period looms'
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The Independent Travel

The renovation of central Angers has also made its historic centre particularly pleasant for shopping, with upmarket clothes and household shops around rue des Lices, and an extraordinary number of good chocolate shops. The local speciality is the quernon d'ardoise, a lilac-grey chocolate around a caramel centre intended to look like a slab of local slate. (One remaining workshop, the Étains du roy René, keeps up the medieval tradition of pewter work.)

The first place to shop in Tours is the excellent covered food market on place des Halles, with additional produce on the square outside on Wednesday and Saturday mornings (and a junky flea market on place de la Victoire). Busy rue Nationale is good for chain stores and a branch of Galeries Lafayette. More original small shops can be found on the pedestrianised rue Colbert, while rue de la Scellerie - or the rue des antiquaires - is the place for high-quality antiques shops and some unusual modern design outlets.

For an insight into some of the savoir faire and craft tradition that once furnished the Loire châteaux, visit La Manufacture Le Manach, a silk-weaving factory founded in 1829, where you can watch silk brocades and velvets being handwoven on listed period looms for the world's top interior decorators. Visits are organised by Tours tourist office. Look out also for the hand-printed wallpapers of the Atelier d'Offard at Joué-les-Tours, sometimes using as many as 15 individually inked blocks of colour.

Gien is known for its faience, while pottery centres in Anjou, which use local red clay, include Raivies and Fuilet. Cholet's speciality is handkerchiefs; it also has a factory outlet complex called Marques Avenue. Then there are some more offbeat craft specialities. The troglodyte village of Villaines-les-Rochers is known for its handwoven wickerwork made from local willow. Several workshops produce not only traditional baskets but also furniture and arty modern creations. The equally troglodyte Doué les Fontaines is famed for its roses and the traditionally distilled rosewater of La Sablière, packed in pretty blue bottles. Meanwhile you can find traditionally made soaps at the Savonnerie Artisanale Martin de Candre at Fontévraud.

Amboise has several places near the château where you can buy tapestries, and Angers does a good line in modern textile work linked to the Musée Jean Lurçat. A possibly English-influenced curiosity is Anjou's boule de fort, played with slightly flattened discs, closer to British bowling than French pétanque.

As with anywhere in France, there are plenty of local food specialities to take home. Goats were supposedly brought to the region with the Saracen invasions of the Dark Ages. The Touraine is at the heart of France's great goats' cheeses, with the Loire river marking the northern frontier that broadly divides cows-milk cheeses from goat fromages. Among AOC varieties, look out for the cindered log form of Ste-Maure-de-Touraine (a village with an attractive covered market), the moist, white, ash-covered circular Selles-sur-Cher and the pyramids of Valençay.

The Sologne is the realm of game pâtés and rilettes, while jars of confit de vin (wine jelly) from Chinon go very well with cold meats. Sweet treats include the macaroons of Commery, the holy tear-shaped Saintes Larmes of Vendôme, praslines of Montargis, pavé du roi of Blois, quince jelly cotignac from Orléans and flaky Pithiviers tarts, as well as delicious buttery rum and raisin Solognote cookies.

Finally, many of the Loire châteaux have excellent gift shops, often with unusual medieval card games, châteaux jigsaws and maquettes, and cardboard princess dolls among the souvenirs.

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