Luncheon with the Duchess

June 28, 2010

Sunday, June 27 – (east of La Rochefoucauld): After a lovely breakfast featuring homemade jams:

I sat down to try to mock up something that would suggest the sort of design aesthetic I was proposing: simple, modern, uncluttered, a single column of text with photographs interspersed — not unlike this blog.

At noon, we rushed off for our luncheon date. We had a most congenial time discussing the family history, the major events in the life of the chateau, and, for a short while, the website. (We didn’t reach any conclusions about the new style but it was too early for that anyway.)

I finally persuaded the Duchess to permit me to use my tripod to take a video of her narrative. It completely filled my newly-formatted 4GB memory card and, as a result, I was not able to download it to iPhoto. I hope to be able to transfer it to a DVD or get a card reader to extract it from the memory card. (These little overhead items turn out to take a lot of time!) We’ll put some of it up, if we can.

We had a lazy afternoon with a good wifi connection and caught up with the Sunday Times and email. Picnic supper inside.


Getting the project underway

June 28, 2010

Saturday, June 26 – (east of La Rochefoucauld): After our breakfast (we knew from experience that it’d be subpar, so I asked Madame to cook my last two eggs for 6 minutes; she was gone a loooong time, and, sure enough, returned with two very hard-boiled eggs), we called the Duchess to volunteer our services on the website and she was enthusiastic. So we agreed to talk further at 3pm.

We stopped in Cognac for coffee and a look around: nothing compelling. When we arrived again in La Rochefoucauld, we stopped at the tourist office to find a lodging and, as it was Saturday, had to call five places before finding a vacancy some 7km out of town. Deb was dubious, but it all worked out splendidly in the end. An old farmhouse which has just recently been remodeled for chambre d’hotes; large room with a spectacular eight-foot tall armoire:

our first “his and hers” bathroom:

Another view of the bedroom:

We had a picnic just outside the front gate of the farmstead and changed for our meeting with the Duchess. We had an animated discussion about the website and agreed that we’d give the project a try. Deb and I would devise a new structure for the website overnight and we’d meet tomorrow for lunch to discuss it.

We took some pictures of the public rooms before leaving: here’s the living room:

with it’s nineteenth century fireplace (the Duchess calls it “hideous” but I like the woodwork and the coat-of-arms):

When we got back to our room, we basically crashed.

Waking up in La Rochefoucauld

June 28, 2010

Friday, June 25 – (west of Cognac): Our breakfast was served in the Duchess’s private dining room and we had the delight of her company.

Here we are in front of a portrait of her as a young woman:

She told us some wonderful stories, for example, about how she met I.M. Pei through Jackie Kennedy (who had stayed with her for a year when she was Bouvier). We learned more about the chateau and spoke briefly about her interest in improving the website.

Before leaving in the late morning, we had a private tour of the rooms which are not normally open to the public. The Duchess pointed out a capital in the ground floor galleries in which a large monkey had a smaller one in its arms (story about the smaller monkey representing the rational faculty):

Here’s a picture of the model of the I.M. Pei project to replace the fallen tower — rather reminiscent of the pyramid at the Louvre!

We drove back to Cognac to stay one night more at the chambre d’hote where we’d left the cooler, had another picnic on the Charente (a fisherman had commandeered our spot of yesterday, so we had to move downriver a bit; still quite lovely):

We went to bed early after deciding that we’d be willing to spend a week or so redesigning the website, if the Duchess were agreeable and willing to help out with the text.

Cognac and arrival in La Rochefoucauld

June 26, 2010

Thursday, June 24 – La Rochefoucauld: We set off especially early this morning, in part because our breakfast included no fresh bread. (We learned later that we set off a little too quickly, forgetting to put the cooler in the car because it had not been in our room but in the breakfast area to take advantage of the available electrical outlet.)

We headed straight for Cognac to be the first in line to tour the Remy Martin production facility just outside of town. We were too early, so we went into town to the tourist office where we made the necessary reservation. Our English tour consisted of three people, guided by a young Belgian woman with a strong accent. We got the full program of PR hype but the explanations about how cognac is made were particularly well-done and we learned a lot. At the end of the tour, of course we sat down to the “tasting” which included RM’s XO product at the high end. I had not expected to be impressed with any perceptible difference in taste but, sure enough, it was there and it was in fact impressive. Too bad the really good stuff is so expensive! (RM doesn’t permit any photos on their property, so you’ll have to use your imagination!)

We had one of those “stupidity” crises after returning to the parking lot to change into nicer clothes for our lunch. I put the keys to the car down on a nice flat place in the trunk and then closed the trunk, locking us out! Luckily we had left the front windows a bit ajar and, with the help of the RM staff and an umbrella they provided, I was able to pry the inner door handle out to open the doors! Disaster averted, but just barely: a great lesson — the keys are either in the ignition or in my pocket but nowhere else!

We had made a reservation at a wonderful country restaurant in Bourg Charente east of Cognac where we had had a stupendous meal eight years ago. When we arrived, wondering whether the place had gone up or down in the interim, we discovered that it had gone waaaay up. It was completely remodeled in a very unattractive modern style and was clearly the destination restaurant for a very large area. Nonetheless we had a nice table on the terrace overlooking the quiet Charente river.

It was a lovely menu:

The amuse bouche was a wonderful melon gazpacho:

followed by the coquillage in a cold sauce:

and the smoked merlan:

The plats principals were a pink trout:

and the most marvelous pork chop I’d tasted in decades:

When it came time for the cheese, the trolley was over-the-top:

I merely asked for “une belle selection de chevres” and got this:

Eight years ago when we were in Charente, we wanted to stay at the Chateau de La Rochefoucauld:

but when we called, madame (the Duchess) was not in and we couldn’t make the connection. So we were particularly thrilled when we reached her this time and were able to stay. (“Do you know my home?” she asked when we inquired about staying.) It’s a fairly impressive place:

And our room was very much what you’d expect:

Immediately on arriving, we joined a French group which had arranged for a tour of the chateau given by the Duchess. She pointed out all the remarkable aspects of the chateau including four libraries with 20,000 volumes. Of the 84 family portraits she merely said, “They were born, they died, and that covers the portraits.” We were invited to have an aperitif (pineau, of course) and got a quick introduction to the Duchess’s forceful and lively personality. She explained some of the efforts she’s been making to promote the chateau, including having persuaded I.M. Pei to design a new donjon tower to replace the one which collapsed in 1960. This latest addition to the chateau awaits the patronage which will provide the funds to build it.

It occurred to me that we might be able to help by improving the website of the chateau which was done some five years ago by a Parisian web shop in a style very common and, to my mind, very mistaken. ( I decided not to say anything until I’d had a chance to review the site in detail and talk to Deb about her enthusiasm for the project.

After dinner in town (at the foot of the chateau), we returned to “our chateau” in the fading light:

Wait until you hear about tomorrow!

Picnic by the river

June 26, 2010

Wednesday, June 23 – (west of Cognac): We were catching up on posts this morning in the main room (the only place the wifi reached) when our host announced that he had to leave for an appointment, and therefore we did too. (Not online again for days!)

We hopped in the car and headed towards Cognac. We stopped at a hypermarket outside of Saintes to replenish the cooler and buy a picnic lunch (nice pate de campagne). We found a delightful spot by the river Charentes about 17 kilometers west of Cognac:

View in the other direction:

Here’s the main course:

We had bought a bottle of Pineau (in George’s honor) and enjoyed it as an after-lunch treat.

After lunch, it was about 4pm and not long after we got underway again we saw a sign for a pineau producer who, in addition to his direct sales, offered chambres d’hote. So we stopped to find a very pleasant room set way back from the highway:

We rested and read for a while before having dinner at a place down the road which our host had recommended. It was inconsequential except for the foie gras which looked like this on the menu:

and like this on the plate:

Amazing value! But then we’re getting close to duck country.

Bye Brittany, Hello Charente (almost)

June 26, 2010

Tuesday, June 22 – (northwest of Niort): We dallied by the pool this morning to get the posts off that had been delayed. Then we packed up and went into Noirmoutier where we found the weekly market and bought two mariner’s shirts (pic to come).

At lunchtime, we found a wonderful restaurant, Le Petit Bouchot, which is the model for the sort of provincial restaurant with ambitions of just the right scale that we search so hard for. It had a fine lunch formule:

and we enjoyed the sardine pate so much that we used the iPad on the spot to look up a few recipes (canned sardines, butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper):

The entrees were shrimp samosas:

and oysters:

The plats were dorade:

and lieu:

with the very welcome mousse au chocolate for dessert:

Here’s the damage:

We left Noirmoutier with full stomachs at 2:30p with quite a bit of driving to do and no real idea of which way to go beyond “in the direction of Cognac.” We raced to get to the Niort tourist office before they closed — and just made it, because they had moved to a new location. We looked over the chambre d’hote listings and selected this one:

which was located way out in the countryside. They offered a table d’hote, something that we’d not yet tried, so, although we were still not hungry from our large lunch, we agreed to join them. It was a wonderfully happy decision. All eight guests sat around a large table in the courtyard of the farmhouse:

and shared the home-made aperitifs:

Then a terrific chevre chaud salad with potatoes, walnuts and lardons:

The main dish was a pork loin roast with peas:

And then a spectacular cheese tray (you can see that we’re in chevre country!):

And a fruit salad for dessert:

Lazy Monday by the pool

June 23, 2010

Monday, June 21 – Noirmoutier: It was pretty much a no-brainer whether we would stay on here. But the room was available for only one more night so we determined to make the best of it. We had a large bag of dirty laundry (it had been 15 days!) so we headed off to the town laundromat — not as impressive as the last one but the machines worked just fine.

We looked around town a bit (nothing had been open yesterday) and found an impressive fishmonger with beautiful turbot:

We had a pick-up lunch of left-overs:

We sunned ourselves by the pool (nobody took any pictures of this). And at the end of the day went to the beach where a local singing group was giving an impromptu concert. We settled in at the local restaurant for the local mussels in an odd curry-tinged sauce:

And, even if they were compromised by being out-of-season, some oysters:

The desserts were memorable: a fruit soup that we’ll try to duplicate:

and, for me, the long-sought ile flotante: