The kitchens at the tiny château of Villesavin were simply an entrée, a mise en appétit, a taste of things to come. But let me titillate your curiosity for just a moment longer before leading you, hand in hand, to the main course. Patience. After the majestic, imposing Chambord, royal hunting lodge extraordinaire of François I with its da Vinci (or so they say) splendid double-helix staircase, after beautiful Blois, we decided to visit the Château de Villesavin, the gem of a lodging built for Jean le Breton, Finance Secretary of the King, who was asked to oversee the construction of Chambord.
Known as "la Cabane de Chantier de Chambord" - roughly "the Workman’s Hut of Chambord" (and what a hut!)- the Château de Villesavin was constructed in the XVI Century and much of it remains intact today. Stepping into the kitchen and one steps back into the days of yore: the rotisserie, the main kitchen and grill room, in all of its glory, still sports the original spit for roasting meat as well as many of the utensils used to cook for masters and workmen. This particular kitchen, although rather small for a chateau kitchen, was revolutionary for its time, remarkable for a few inventions that were precursors to what was to come. The main kitchen/grill room sports a stone floor that slopes gently down to a drain allowing the floor to be washed “à grande eau” – buckets of water sluiced across the stone and quickly brushed towards the hole in the corner to drain off. The kitchen also claims the first swinging kitchen door: a huge wooden door that, with simply a nudge of the foot or the elbow, would either lock in an open position - allowing the servants free access to and from the kitchen even if loaded down with platters of food - or to swing closed, keeping the heat inside the kitchen and protecting the royal guests from gusts of noise and odors (or heat) from the kitchen.
Next to the rotisserie is a second room in which a large dining table reigns, almost hiding the lovely pastry oven nestled in a corner. The guide points out that this small oven was kept exclusively for pastries as the large bread oven – in which château cooks as well as the locals baked their bread, was in the courtyard outside, most likely attached to a larger bakery. She then indicates a hole in the wall directly beneath the pastry oven and asks us what we think the hole was for. A few random guesses and many blank faces before she lets on that it was for the dog! A special niche was located under each of the two ovens on the property to allow for a warm, cozy place for the dogs all winter long.
On the site of Villesavin – and in clean, cool paradox to the wonders of the kitchen - is a small museum dedicated to marriage and worthy of the best of horror flicks. Enveloped in a smell of mold and damp, the few rooms holding a collection of over 1500 objects and costumes were enough to cause even the most stouthearted among us to waver and feel faint. Store mannequins were dressed in original, authentic wedding gowns and grooms’ tuxedos dating from 1835 to 1950 yet the clothing hung and bagged on their plastic bodies giving an aura of some skinny Mrs. Haversham, left at the alter years ago to wither and waste away alone. Wigs were drooping or perched at odd angles and hands were twisted backwards or even on the wrong arm. Odd little men were paired with tall, thin stalks of women and the scenes of marriage and preparation for weddings left us uncomfortable, indeed. By the end we expected Freddie or a crazed, half-naked cheerleader to lunge at us from around a corner with a bloody butcher’s knife. As husband pointed out, these weddings were reminiscent of the wedding in Beetlejuice…
Well… let’s catch our breath and move onto the true treasures of the Château deValençay. Are we ready?
George Sand wrote of Valençay “This place is one of the most beautiful places on earth and no king possesses a more picturesque park”. But what attracted us to visit the château owned and lived in by diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, acquired by Napoléon’s Foreign Minister in 1803 and where he housed the exiled Spanish royal family for many years, was not the beautiful park, still well kept and elegant today, but rather the knowledge that Talleyrand’s “chef de bouche” was none other than the famed Marie-Antoine (Antonin) Carême, considered by many the greatest chef of all times – and quite possibly the first celebrity chef. And his kitchens, pantry and wine cellar are open to visit.
Talleyrand held sumptuous banquets and receptions as well as offering up to three official dinners a week for diplomatic parties from 12 to 36 at the encouragement and expressed desire of Napoléon. Talleyrand, every bit a gourmand and a gourmet, spent hours in the kitchen with his chef planning the menus. He offered Carême a kitchen garden and running water, a special pastry oven and a dumbwaiter, allowing dishes to be sent hot to the diningroom, one course at a time, à la russe, a new and revolutionary style of service introduced to France in Talleyrand’s home thanks to the Russian delegation. Prior to this time, all dishes were placed on the table at once, allowing, at the best, for the guests to eat their food tepid if not cold. Serving food à la russe allowed diners, for the very first time, to enjoy their food hot from the beginning to the end of the meal. A battery of beautiful copper pots are scatter on the stovetops and hanging from the walls next to an impressive array of sieves and chinois. Pastry and bread ovens, terra cotta terrines and mixing bowls, molds for tiny sweetmeats, I wonder of all of these items were actually used by the great Carême. We scooted down the dark, dusty corridor, past the impressive dumb waiter and into the comparatively small wine cellar (was this the only one?). The wine cellar, dirt floor, dusty bottles, still contains bottles of wine still good – or very good – for the drinking.
The château itself is gorgeous and, accompanied by an audio guide, we found the history fascinating, filled with gorgeous furniture and titillating stories of exile, love affairs and suspected illegitimate children.
After a luxurious night spent at Château de Pray, a stunning hotel outside of the city of Amboise (and sorry we were that the restaurant was closed Monday night), off we went to our last visit of this short trip: the gardens at the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire. It was the International Festival of Gardens and as it was a beautiful day, we decided to forego a visit to the chateau and spend the day outside. As part of the festival, 30 landscape designers from around the world are selected to create a tiny garden each on the grounds and we were determined to see every one.
And there’s no place like home. Three days on the road and we miss our sons, our dog, our own bed and a place to put up our feet.
Chambord and Blois
Chenenceau and Villandry
Azay-le-Rideau and Langeais
Take a bigger bite ...