Friday, 22 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 3: Chateaubriant to Beaupreau

Breakfast at Chateaubriant was a mixed affair - some home-made yoghurt, a local cake with additional rum as a preservative, slices of brioche and some croissants. Cheese was limited to small plastic tubs of St Morentz (I think?) and no ham. It felt as though something was missing and generally we thought it not as good as the buffet from yesterday. Still, we eat as much as possible - difficult to say what we would we would find on the road later.

We set off at around 9.00am through the town, quiet and somnambulent, free from the cloned monopolies of chain stores and charity shops that we are familiar with in the UK. Being a Saturday there are no shops open though, so we fail to pick up any water or supplies for the day ahead. Immediately we were climbing, laboriously up a long hill, the first of many that lay ahead. The sun was blissfully blazing in a clear blue sky and would remain so all day. More corn crops to look at and also some fields of sunflowers that are clearly past their vibrant yellow best. There are hedges of hawthorn and blackberry with great oak trees that throw balloons of long shadows across our path.

Later we pass through the small town of Varades and spot a cafe/restaurant that is open. We take up a table outside sitting in the sun, which is far too hot for any lengthy dwelling and results in us scrabbling amongst our panniers for suncream and hats. We order a bottle of local cidre to quench our thirst, this is the stuff, common in France, that comes in a champagne style bottle and is around 2.5% - ideal for a sunny lunchtime stop. We enjoy another cheese salad lunch and order a second bottle of cidre - we were sitting there for almost two hours and it seemed perfect.

Bridge over the River Loire
Back on the bikes and the next two hours were all up, down, up, down - physically tiring and depleting energy, today's route felt like 100 miles but was only around 50 - the heat combined with the weight of our bikes and luggage leaving us somewhat perplexed with the effort required. Body and mind are in some kind of shock, almost in awe, limbs are lifeless, food and sleep are on our minds. We are in the Loire region now and we crossed the river for the first time. Finally we arrived in the town of Beaupreau but our accommodation for this evening was a further five miles or so on the otherside. Some more vertiginous challenges were made on our tired legs as we slowly climbed up to the Chateau de la Moriniere - at last, our overnight stop.

Built in the mid 19th century, the chateau is small, at least for a chateau - but it's all there, very French and fairytale in style. The owners a chef/businessman and his wife live here, this is their home. They have businesses scattered across France but they rent out rooms and provide gastronomy evenings for their guests here that helps with the upkeep of the building and grounds.

The Chateau
We park at the front entrance, no sign of anyone. There's a bench overlooking the valley beyond to a distant church spire - we sit there, in the shadow cast from the Chateau, in silence, heads bowed, glad of the rest. Then Madam comes out to greet us, she looks like the figurehead of a mighty galleon, cleavage pushing up from a tight dress. She has better English than we have French and explains that our accommodation is in one of the annexes in the grounds. We walk with the stiff limbs of a put-out cat to find our beds for the night. The room is large with an excellent bathroom/wetroom - after a fierce shower we are ready for some food.

The evening that followed developed into one of the most memorable of the trip. It was theatrical, cinematic, operatic, and all the other platitudes... It was as if we had been handed a script and were part of a play - we were walking onto a stage and taking part in some sort of drama - a set piece focussed on food and drink. Act 1 was sitting around a large table under an iron gazebo festooned with green ivy and climbing roses, the Chateau in front of us, the valley and distant views behind - it was difficult to approach this table without a frission of indulgent anxiety - here we were, two blokes on bikes, dressed in dishevelled shorts and shirts, sitting in the garden of a chateau with all its rusticity carefully and knowingly preserved, but folded in with a sense of genteel sophistication, all aesthetically framed through bottles of champagne, home made crudities, preserved tomatoes, petit crackers, garlic bread and various other offerings.

Our hosts, along with some of the other guests, did their level best to include us in their small-talk. Whilst the conversation inevitably meandered in French, a gentleman next to Gary acted as translator. There was also a young couple, she a film maker making a documentary about the Chateau and its owners, and her boyfriend, both spoke excellent English and made sure we weren't left out of the conversation.

Act 2: We were taken into the Chateau and through to the conservatory where we would all sit around a single candlelit table, we would all eat the same menu and drink the same wine - no choices tonight!

Dinner at The Chateau
There was an excellent local Vin Blanc to accompany a peerless butternut squash soup with truffle oil and crispy ham - a bowl of silky sensual summer brilliance, the ham lurking in the hidden depths whilst the truffle oil added a tongue-tingling earthiness. The main course was chicken, possibly from their own flock which we had seen scratching around the grounds, simply roasted with herbs and served with new potatoes. And to finish a dessert of apple tarte tatin. A constant flow of interesting local wines accompanied the food throughout.

Around the table were all the players from central casting. Us with a smattering of French trying to keep up with the conversation. The French businessman with his sweater neatly splayed over his shoulders, the stocky french hooker who apparantly worked as an arms dealer, the film maker and her boyfriend and another couple who, we were informed, were mysteriously leaving before dawn. You could look round the table from face to face and judge exactly which script each was reading; who though they were in a Felini film, a Dumas novel, an olive-oil commercial or an episode of 'I'm a cyclist get me out of here'

In the kitchen
Our host and patron was kind enough to let me visit his kitchen - a totally professional set up with restaurant standard stove - although he did tell me he likes Aga's. He bought out a bottle of fine Claret - his friend owns the vineyard - it was silky smooth, rich and warming. We asked if he'd fetch another bottle and we'd pay for it - he said he would but wouldn't hear of us paying.

Breakfast at The Chateau

Next morning we wandered down to breakfast - possibly the best breakfast room and spread of the whole trip - endless baskets of croissants and bread, ham of various types, cheese, fruit, juice, honey, jams & preserves, antique plates and cutlery - it was all there along with coffee of a strength to make your eyes pop. All served up in a room straight from a film-set.

We had no doubt - this had been a special place to visit - Ok everyone, cut, that's a wrap...


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