Alas, I’ve yet to visit, but France’s Loire Valley is legendary for its physical beauty, historic cities and villages and for 300 or more Chateaux. It is also, apparently, a rich and diverse agricultural region, the abundance of which is celebrated with festivals in the various villages and towns. My friend and correspondent, Robert Bonnell, lives in the midst of the Loire Valley and recently visited the Pumpkin Festival at Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne. As Robert explains, pumpkins and squash are New World imports, and as such are relative Johnny-come-latelies in the context of traditional French cuisine. Robert reports:
“Every year during the third weekend in October, a festival called the Hortomnales takes place on the grounds of the former Priory of Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne, France. Hortomnales is a made-up French word meant to signify horticulture and autumnal. Its easier to think of it as the Pumpkin Festival, since squash of all sorts is its primary emphasis.
“Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne is in the western Loire Valley, mid-way between the towns of Saumur and Angers. The Priory, which has been under restoration for years, dates from the year 929, when the land was given to a Benedictine abbey in Angers by the Count of Anjou. (A priory is a satellite community of monks under the local control of an prior, set up to work lands which are at a distance from the abbey that owns them.)
“The festival, now in its twenty-first year, is set up like a medieval market, with musicians strolling among the stands of arts and crafts (many squash-related), baked goods made from squash and many other local products. There’s a display of 615 labeled varieties of squash and a small field where you choose among perhaps fifty varieties to buy. If you get carried away with your purchases, there are donkeys available to carry your squash, as well as your small children, back to your car.
“Squash do not constitute a large part of the French diet, aside from pumpkin soup, so with all these squash on display with their wildly varying sizes, shapes and colors, its an exotic experience. The French are also famous for detesting any form of sweetened pumpkin, but their horizons appear to be broadening.”