When the plan was conceived for a 3-day visit to the Loire Valley, I thought the trip would be relatively low-key. It was the first time in years that Nancy McGee’d been away from her business, Absolutely Southern France. Now I know there’s nothing “low-key” about traveling with Nancy, destination planner extraordinaire.
Nancy had smartly planned our lunch stop in Clermont-Ferrand for the long drive from the south of France to our Loire Valley “base” in Amboise.
“I met the merchant during a tour I was offered,” Nancy wrote to me before our trip. “He is one of only 10 cheese merchants in France who ripens his cheeses,” she continued. And yes …” We could get him to prepare a small sampling platter for our dinner on arrival.”
As you learned from the first post in the series, “Hanging out in the Loire Valley,” Clermont-Ferrand, the cheese shop, the boulangerie, and the whole experience was something to remember as much as visiting chateaus and wineries.
That wasn’t all Nancy had up her sleeve. She conjured up a private chef.
“A private chef!” I exclaimed to myself when I read the first lines of Nancy’s email. “That’ll cost a fortune!” I sighed. Then I read the next part of Nancy’s note:
“I spoke to the Chef today. Here is what he has to offer on Sunday evening. He arrives at 7 with everything and leaves at 9. He sets the table, cooks (some things he makes in advance), and does the washing up. He cooks with local produce and uses organic when he can.”
When she added that the menu would feature regional foods, complete with Chef’s choice of local wines — and cost no more than a meal at a moderately upscale restaurant — I was “in.”
But first … Château Villandry
The date set for our private Chef to prepare dinner at our “chalet” was Sunday evening. That meant we had all day to visit one of the extraordinary châteaux we heard, Château Villandry. Believe me, it didn’t disappoint.
Château Villandry was built in the sixteenth century by Jean Le Breton, France’s Controller-General for War under King Francis I. The structure was erected on the site of a feudal castle from which Breton salvaged only the keep (fortified tower) because of its historical significance — the location of the peace treaty signing, “La Paix de Colombiers” (The Peace of Colombiers), between Henry II of England (Henry Plantagenet) and King Philip Augustus of France.
Château Villandry was confiscated during the French Revolution and acquired by Emperor Napoleon to house his brother, Jérôme Bonaparte. In 1906, the château was purchased by Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor and medical researcher, who was married to Ann Coleman, an American heiress. The Carvallos piled massive amounts of money and effort into creating a home and showplace, including resurrecting and installing a magnificent tri-level garden. Enrique Carvallo, the doctor’s great-grandson, and his family live on the château grounds today.
From any angle, the château and gardens are both man’s and nature’s works of art.
The day we visited Château Villandry, the sky was overcast and grey. Despite the weather, the garden was colorful and cheerful — flush with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. I could only imagine how the same place might look in the summertime with various plants and flowers.
While I admire gardens, it was the interior of the château that, to me, was breathtaking. Especially the dining room.
If you wonder how dinner is served in a château, this setting perfectly shows it off.
Family portraits and live flower arrangements throughout the château created a warm and friendly ambiance.
Long halls filled with an impressive art collection belonging to the Carvallo family and intricately designed ceilings were reminders that Château Villandry is a grand château worthy of its World Heritage Site designation.
Back to chalet “chez moi.”
After a long day visiting the château and gardens at Villandry, we were more than ready for our special treat — dinner with Chef Arnaud.
Oeufs Meurette au Chinon (poached eggs in onion and red wine sauce)
Joues de Porc Confites, Purée de Vitelottes (candied pork cheek and purple potatoes)
Toast de Fromage de Chèvre (goat cheese on toast)
Tarte à la tatin (apple pie with creme)
For any who thinks eggs poached in wine are weird, just try it. If you cringe at the thought of pork “cheeks,” this Southern Girl has never tasted anything quite like it. The pork was slowly cooked until the meat was deep pink. It was so tender it melted like butter in my mouth, yet there was an outside crust that was crispy and savory.
Along with the meal fixings, Chef Arnaud brought more regional delicacies from his own kitchen that we could buy — pâte, rillettes de porc, and confitures. And believe we did.
Brad even got in on the evening fun!