June 2009: the countryside
somewhere between Triel-sur Seine and Chantilly
somewhere between Triel-sur Seine and Chantilly
I had been to Chantilly once before in November 2005 when I accompanied a colleague of mine on a scouting trip in order to find a location for a conference. My colleague has a soft spot for ‘grandeur’ and she thought that the Château of Chantilly, the nearby Royaumont Abbey and Mont Royal Hotel would be the perfect décor for this high class event. It was on this occasion that I visited the Château of Chantilly and the ‘authentic’ kitchen of the famous 17th century chef Vatel, which can be found in one of the castle’s outbuildings.
As the seminar and conference would take several days, we were looking for different locations where the participants could have their meals. The hotel was one of them and the Vatel kitchen another. However, the gala dinner on the last evening was to take place in the historic settings of the 'Abbaye de Royaumont'. During our scouting trip we were to check out the abbey’s infrastructure and pre-taste the dinner the caterer had suggested. As I have the reputation of being a fine gourmet – at least that is what my colleagues think – my presence was required to evaluate the gastronomic quality of the meal. So you see, this scouting trip had nothing to do with my actual skills as a copywriter and translator.
The trip took two days and we stayed in a hotel in the centre of Chantilly. As the abbey is located in the nearby Forest of Chantilly, we had made a little reconnaissance trip in the afternoon in order not to get lost in the dark later that evening. My colleague has the nasty habit of driving like a stuntwoman. Even at the wheel she never stops talking and waving her hands about, stabilizing the wheel with her knee. Or she’s rummaging through the handbag on her lap, looking for her reading glasses. Which of course she doesn’t need when driving! During our afternoon reconnaissance trip she managed to ignore a red light as she was too busy explaining the splendour of the Chantilly castle in the distance.
You can imagine that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to our little nocturne outing! Moreover, it was a dark and stormy night when we set out for our sample dinner at the abbey. We got lost, of course … and drove around in the pitch dark night for twenty minutes before finding the narrow one-lane road that led into the Forest. The wind was howling through the trees, destabilizing the car every now and then. When we finally arrived at the abbey, we found it brightly lit. Judging by the large number of cars that were parked by the entrance other companies also used the abbey for their events.
We were shown into a small austere room – formerly used as a monk’s cell, we supposed – where one single table was laid for two. A young waiter silently and solemnly brought in the first course and two bottles of wine, a white and a red one. The starter was a ‘Salade de gésiers de canard’ (a green salad with duck’s necks, stomachs and other unidentifiable bits of the duck’s digestive system). There was also a small slice of foie gras, which was about the only edible bit. Next came a piece of beef with a bundle of green beans wrapped in some fried bacon, one baby carrot and a generous helping of mashed sweet potatoes. The meat, which almost required a hacksaw to cut, came with a red wine sauce, which was fine. So was the potato mash. I can’t remember what the dessert was, as by the time it was served, we were too distracted by the howling wind and the rattling windows to really concentrate on our meal.
To make a long story short, this dinner wasn’t fit for a group of important clients. My colleague, who’s always very outspoken, was even more so after the wine she had had. She summoned the chef and gave him a piece of her mind. But the ultimate humiliation had yet to come. She rummaged through her famous handbag again and pulled out the recipe of a starter based on prawns and oranges. “Here, this is what I want you to make for our gala dinner. You just try it out, and I’ll come back next week to taste it”, she said. I felt really embarrassed and sorry for the chef who was too flabbergasted to react.
When we left the abbey the receptionist told us to drive carefully. “When a storm is blowing, frightened deer and wild boar tend to cross the road. Make sure to drive slowly and limit your speed to 30 km per hour.” she said. An advice my colleague respected for the first 50 metres …
Well, we got back to hotel without any further incidents and went straight to bed. The whole experience had been very stressing and I didn’t sleep a wink. The next morning we had one last rendezvous with the caretaker of the Château to make the final arrangements for the dinner in the Vatel kitchen. By one o’clock we were back at the Belgian border where my friend was waiting for me. It was only when I was safely sitting in his car, driving in the direction of Brussels with him at the wheel that I could finally relax!