It all began with falling in love. Love, as novelists often have it, normally leads to heartbreak, despair, and general baying at the moon. In my case, love led to castles and cuisine. La belle Lulu, the (then) future Madame Sadler, was from the Loire Valley, from the Touraine, the garden of France.
Wooing Lulu involved a culinary apprenticeship.
I stayed in her parents' lovely little house with heart-shaped shutters and a wisteria arbour on the fringe of Tours, 240km south-west of Paris. Lulu's sisters (three of them) put the Pommy suitor to the test. For breakfast they fed me local delicacies, starting with an andouillette grillée. A morning encounter with a French chitterling sausage can be unnerving to the uninitiated. The sausage exudes a perfume reminiscent of the nether regions of a rugby scrum 10 minutes from the end of the match.
This was the beginning of a morning ritual.
I subsequently had to run the gauntlet of ears, cheeks, snouts, tails, trotters, sliced udders (delicious tossed in butter with garlic and parsley) and the pièce de résistance, the so-called frivolités, an exquisite pair of grilled testicles. I ate the lot and was welcomed into the bosom of the family.
To visitors to the Touraine, I warmly recommend you follow my example: (a) fall in love; (b) eat everything she gives you; (c) pop outside to find out where you are. If this is impractical, then follow this itinerary.
We start at the market in my exquisite home town, Loches, which is 40km south-east of Tours; the market is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning. I buy thyme-infused ewe's cheese from the man I've called Monsieur Brebis for the past three years; guinea fowl from Luc Séguy (I once pretended to be a ventriloquist with one of his birds and waxed lyrical on camera as to the delights of the area - the first ad made ever by a dead chicken); oysters from Philippe; milk-fed veal from Monsieur Guillon; pâté de tête and ham on the bone from the charcuterie lorry of M and Mme Deschamps from Chedigny; bread - maybe the world's ultimate loaf - from Jean-Paul and Patricia in the tiny village of Vou (they recently seperated but still share the same oven); a few bottles from Jean-Christophe at Les Flaveurs de la Terre. The mayor, Monsieur Descamps, pops in for a bonjour and a petit blanc.
From M Berruer, I can't resist a pot of rillettes and an andouillette à la ficelle. In the world of chitterlings, there are two ways of treating your intestines: either you chop them up and push them in (au poussoir) or you leave them whole and pull them through (à la ficelle). The latter remain aristocratic when sliced; the former have a tendency to go to pieces. Less a sausage, more a way of life.
Off to nearby Ligueil. We pop into the charcuterie of Mme Léger, who has the tastiest ears I've ever nibbled. At home I'll cook them quickly in olive oil, deglaze the pan with a little wine vinegar, and serve them on a bed of young poached leeks - mine, of course, from the garden, and quite famous locally. The ground is often extremely hard and dry, and I once - to my neighbours' surprise - pricked them out using a pneumatic drill.
We now need a drink. There are essentially three local reds - Chinon, Bourgueil, and, slightly further west, Saumur Champigny. All are made from pure cabernet franc (often called Breton locally). At their best they are full of fruit and flowers - blackcurrant and violets. At their worst - now very rare - they are weedy and taste of celeriac on a bad day. These wines are on the whole best drunk young. Put a Touraine wine away for a rainy day and you take the risk it'll end up tasting like one. Of the two principal reds, Chinon is apparently more successful abroad because no one can pronounce Bourgueil.
The whites come principally from Vouvray, a pretty village just outside Tours on the banks of the Loire, and Montlouis opposite. Both are pure chenin blanc. I first tasted Vouvray in a beautiful manor house after a concert by the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who had a festival in the Grange de Meslay, a magnificent, vast, medieval barn outside Tours. It was late on a balmy summer evening and my head was full of the music of the night; in my hand, a glass of opal Vouvray. Try the wines of Huet, Carême or Brunet in Vouvray and Jacky Blot in Montlouis.
If your palate is in the mood for adventure, go further afield, to taste the organic wines and surprising assemblages of François Plouzeau near Richelieu, or venture south to the Domaine Ampelidae of the eloquent, elegant, brilliant Fredéric Brochet, or further north to the Domaine de la Charmoise, where wine wizard Henri Marrionnet works magic with gamay and sauvignon.
We are now peckish. A table! Doubtless the classiest lunch venue in Touraine is our place, a long, low farmhouse with a vine growing along the façade. Majestically modest, I call it. Lunch, from the market, stretches long into the afternoon. Nothing is hurried. This is Slow Food country. Before a dessert of fruit from the garden (a careless jetée of framboises and blackcurrants), I insist you try a sliver of St Maure, the long fromage de chèvre with its trademark straw backbone, a characteristic more acceptable in cheese than in politicians.
Statesmen have, nonetheless, left their mark in the Loire. The valley is where, from the 16th century on, the French court would come to relax after the cut and thrust of politics, inbreeding and war. It is said that still the best French is spoken here. The list of Loire Valley castles is long and breathtaking: the fortresses of Chinon, Langeais, Amboise and Loches, which the kings quickly turned into sumptuous second homes.
In the major league are Villandry with its extraordinary geometric vegetable garden; majestic Chambord with its 282 fireplaces and a roof sporting multiple ornate chimney stacks, like a hat worn by a dowager at Ascot; Cheverny, the model for Tintin's Moulinsart; Ussé, the home of the belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty); Azay, coyly tucked away in a wood; and Chenonceau, the most romantic of them all, spanning the river like a hand poised over a keyboard.
The problem with these famous venues is that they are overrun with visitors. But you can't have it both ways. Before the Revolution you wouldn't even have been allowed past the drawbridge. Some of these castles are empty, some furnished, some state owned, some private, some rundown, some even up for sale. Fancy a castle? Just pack a cheque book.
If you can't face the crowds and you want to impress your companion, try stumbling casually on one of the smaller castles, such as Grillemont near La Chapelle Blanche - you amble down the tiny D-road and are gobsmacked as you turn the corner of the wood, or Le Châtelier with its moat and drawbridge near Paulmy, another gobsmacker, or the Priory at Le Louroux, painted by Delacroix, with its smart new restaurant, Aux Délices du Prieuré.
And if you want to imagine how life was pre-1789, pack a doublet and hose and book a room at the Château d'Artigny just outside Tours, built in the 1920s in an elegant 18th-century style by the famous perfumer François Coty. This is a palace for swanning. Swan onto the terrace, swan into the majestic dining room, swan up to your aristocratic bedroom.
The Touraine has always inspired artists. When I first met Lulu, she took me out to dinner in the southern Touraine village of Saché, Balzac's old haunt - he was born in Tours in 1799. (The house is still there, as is the restaurant we went to, L'Auberge du XII Siècle.) When we stepped outside after the meal, there on the town square was an Alexander Calder mobile - the sculptor's workshop was just up the road. Other visits followed: to François Rabelais's La Devinière near Chinon, to poet Pierre de Ronsard's Prieuré de St-Cosme near Tours.
It is now time for our pilgrimage. A pilgrimage means going somewhere you've always wanted to go, but slowly, reverently, in order to pay homage. Some do it on foot, others on their knees. For our dinner pilgrimage, we chicken out and take the car. The road to our destination winds for 30 kilometres south of our place, through unasssuming, blissful countryside.
Eventually we reach Le Petit-Pressigny, population 318. In case you are tempted to accelerate, the municipality have invented a trick. No, not speed bumps: this is a cereal-farming community and the farmers don't like the thought of driving their valuable load of ripe grain over an artificial hump. The solution? A traffic light that's always red. But as you slow down and approach it turns green. Simple. Good for farmers, perfect to calm the ardour of over-zealous pilgrims.
In front of us is our Mecca, the restaurant whose name I can never pronounce without my mouth watering: La Promenade (slurp), the home of chef Jacky Dallais. Dani, Mrs Dallais, greets us at the door. Xavier, the sommelier, a master of wine and innuendo, brings a delicious, deeply floral, sparkling Vouvray and tells a dirty joke. A tractor drives past outside. An old man passes wearing his bleu de travail, off to his potager with a hoe over his shoulder.
There are two rooms: on the left, what was chef Dallais's parents' café with its colourful tiled floor; on the right, recently added, a light, modern, airy space. The menus arrive. The amuse-bouches - clever, delicate - include a crisp, paper-thin potato skin carrying the imprint of an olive like the shroud of Turin. First course: morels stuffed with fresh foie gras, served with local asparagus, its flavour set off with a dash of orange behind the ear. This is followed by a truffle-threaded, poached breast of géline (a racy breed of chicken) with local vegetables. To conclude, a Paris-Brest. Jacky Dallais is in the process of reinventing the Paris-Brest, composing one for each season. He is to be the Vivaldi of the pâte à choux.
At the end of the meal, the man himself emerges from his cave of making. Chef Dallais is smiling, plump and wilful, his brow ontologically inquisitive. He's come a long way since the café du village of his parents. We talk about the stuff of life, politics, sex, and food we haven't eaten yet. The French do that. They eat pork and talk cod. It's a gift.
It's late. Outside, a final hug from the cook. The Touraine night air is full of the dust lingering from the grain harvest, and the honeysuckle on the warm, star-dappled limestone walls. The red light turns green and we drive slowly home. Next to me in the car, Lulu gently sings my favourite chanson by Julien Clerc. The car drives through small villages, past crumbling churches, through small woods smelling of mushrooms. A couple of boars cross the road, dazzled by the headlights. Ever since I first heard the words La Touraine, I fell in love with them. This is the place I want to be. La vie est belle.