Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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A Château of One's Own

Experience the airstocratic comforts of a French castle in six of Relais & Châteaux's elite hotels

Le Moulin de l'Abbaye is all a country inn ought to be and then some. Poised on a scenic bend of the Dronne River, its setting in the village of Brantôme is like a postcard. The sunlit restaurant by the water's edge gives sustenance in the form of spit-roasted duck and foie gras in puff pastry. Inside, the four-poster canopy beds embrace weary travellers. If there is such a thing as romance in the accelerating insanity of the 21st century, this may be it.

The innkeeper is Régis Bulot, and he should know: Bulot is International President of Relais & Châteaux, that elite fellowship of small hotels and country inns which began as a handful of hostelries on the highway from Paris to Nice in 1954. Today its Paris headquarters is a tower of prestige, representing 469 hotels and restaurants in 51 countries. The name evokes a marriage of genteel surroundings and exceptional comforts embodied in five enshrined c's: character, calm, courtesy, comfort and cuisine. If your establishment qualifies for membership in Relais & Châteaux, you are one of the best in the world. It's that simple.

The City of Light
My wife Carol and I arrive on the Orient-Express from Vienna to embark on a route of half a dozen Relais & Châteaux that will take us from Paris to the countryside south of Bordeaux. The first is the Hôtel de Vigny (9-11 rue Balzac, 75001 Paris, France; tel: 011-33-14-299-8080; fax: 011-33-14-299-8040; vigny@relaischateaux.com), the only one of its kind in the City of Light, a pocket-sized jewel at the corner of Balzac and Chateaubriand, a few minutes' walk from the Champs-Elysées.

The work of London-based interior designer Nina Campbell, it has 25 rooms and suites, all different, all lovely (although Campbell's penchant for chintz might drive real men up the wall). Who could fail to be smitten by a curving floor-to-ceiling corner window taking in a panoply of rooftops so Parisian, you expect to see Gene Kelly vaulting from one to the next. A king-size bed and marble bathroom with gold-plated fixtures all contribute to a spoiling that pleases regular Mel Gibson. Louis XIV might have liked this place, too. And the helpful staff at the front desk refute the cliché that Parisians are snooty.

It seems odd that the sole Relais & Châteaux in Paris should have no serious restaurant: the Hôtel de Vigny has a handsomely skylit room that serves a dull breakfast of cast-iron croissants and bad coffee. For dinner, guests are directed to the Restaurant Guy Savoy around the corner on Rue Troyon. It's one of a handful of Relais Gourmands -- affiliated restaurants measuring up to Relais & Châteaux standards and helmed by some of the greatest chefs in France.

The twinkling essence of Right Bank chic, Guy Savoy cures his foie gras in sel de Guérande, no less, but doesn't flinch at dolloping a humble skate wing with sevruga caviar or transforming artichoke soup to aristocracy with an infusion of black truffle.

Luxury in the Loire
We pick up our rental Renault, navigate our way through the Paris suburbs without a nervous breakdown and follow the autoroutes to the Château de Curzay (86600 Curzay-sur-Vonne, Val-de-Loire, France; tel: 011-33-54-936-1700; fax: 011-33-54-953-5769; curzay@relaischateaux.com) outside Poitiers, in the Loire region. Duellists in knee stockings and powdered wigs fail to materialize on its vast lawns -- a pity, because the château dates to 1710 and resembles a set from the great 1950s swashbuckler Scaramouche. There is a bit of history in the brochure, but we're left wondering how the owners kept their heads when Robespierre and company took the guillotine into overdrive.

The 22 rooms have seductive names such as Cléophée and Apolline and each is spacious enough for a soirée. The restaurant is a baronial room framed in chestnut panelling. With its murals of India, it evokes the French love of exotica. The maôtre d' is Didier Dupuis, a charmer who behaves as if he was born with a flute of Dom Perignon in each hand.

The food at Curzay, however, doesn't always measure up. Locally cured ham with puff pastry and sorrel cream is a promising start. Sweet-tasting giant langoustines, criss-cross white asparagus in a warm salad garnished with borage flowers, dill, sage and lemongrass, a really masterful orchestration of flavours, aromas, textures and colours.

Off with his head, though, to the chef who sent the lamb out on a plate hot enough to give us blisters. The poor lamb, a wizened relic that wouldn't raise an eyebrow in the little kingdom across the Channel, calls out for a slap with a glove, a sword and a date behind the cathedral.

We remain in the region for the Domaine des Hauts de Loire (Route de Herbault, 41150 Onzain, Val-de-Loire, France; tel: 011-33-25-420-7257; fax: 011-33-25-420-7732; hauts-loire@relaischateaux.com), another sumptuous country estate, this one surrounded by endless forests, singing birds and manicured lawns. A walking trail leads to a private lake where black swans throw away their considerable dignity for a fistful of croissant crumbs. For an overview of the property, hot-air balloon and helicopter flights can be arranged at the front desk.

Rooms and suites come with generous entrance halls, skylit bathrooms with soaker tubs and dangerously comfortable day beds in which you may curl up like a snail and doze away a lazy afternoon. The c of calm properly delivered, we do just that.

But there is still the c of cuisine. At dinner, champagne is taken and the menu perused in an opulent sitting room. Along with menus come charming little amuse-gueules of three varieties of ham intertwined with foie gras mousse and sensationally infused with truffle.

The restaurant is a handsome room in off-yellows and its guests burble with pleasure, a good sign. The starter is sautéed baby eels, the legendary delicacy topped with buttered breadcrumbs and plated as a salad with bitter greens and edible nasturtiums. Foie gras, that cocaine of cuisine -- at least for my wife, a shameless addict -- arrives as a velvety terrine with girolle mushrooms in aspic. The main is lamb, but this time pink and juicy, stuffed with a forcemeat and sauced in basil. You can cut this baby with a fork. A walk under the starry, starry sky caps off a dreamy, dreamy night.

 

Perfect Périgord
Now, to the aforementioned Moulin de l'Abbaye (1, route de Bourdeilles, 24310 Brantôme-en-Périgord, Grand Sud-Ouest, France; tel: 011-33-55-305-8022; fax: 011-33-55-305-7527; moulin@relaischateaux.com). It brings us back to our beloved Dordogne, the northern realm Jules Verne called "Green Périgord," set in the Golden Triangle of 1001 châteaux. In the centre of Brantôme, with its best rooms overlooking the river and the old bow bridge, the inn was first a mill in which monks pressed walnut oil -- a signature flavour of the region -- and then the house in which the 16th-century abbot and novelist Pierre de Bourdeilles lived.

The 21st century religious experience has more to do with chef Pascal Kirsch's masterful kitchen. Claude Monet Giverny-style charger plates and yellow vases containing white and yellow roses appoint each table. Servers dispense menus rife with invention and tough choices: will that be roast veal with foie gras sausage or saddle of lamb drizzled with coriander oil?

A must is the medieval preparation of foie gras, in which the duck liver is baked under a pastry cap in a jus, its texture that of spun silk, with asparagus, leeks, potatoes and carrots assuming its underpinnings, every bite blowing me clear out of my socks. If this is the Middle Ages, book me a seat on the time machine.

A skewer of smoked eel and scallops rightly turns the head. Tempura of sandre, a whitefish translating as pike-perch, speaks for the deep fryer's art. Sea bream stuffed with shrimp and sauced in green peas -- each pea fastidiously skinned, imagine -- turns out to be far better than it sounds. The spit-roasted duck is magret, the breast juicily accompanied with a dice of leeks, onions and tomatoes wrapped in vine leaf. I could rave on forever, but I'll pause for dessert -- blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and brandied cherries in a sabayon with ice cream. A digestif, monsieur? The sideboard boasts vintage Armagnacs dating back to 1946.

Meet me in Médoc
Our next Relais takes us to the Médoc area of Bordeaux and Château Cordeillan-Bages (Route des Châteaux, 33250 Pauillac, Grand Sud-Ouest, France; tel: 011-33-55-659-2424; fax: 011-33-55-659-0189; cordeillan@relaischateaux.com). This is in Pauillac, where the Garonne runs as wide and brown as the Mississippi and we are among the vineyards of Latour, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild -- magnificent wine country much travelled by Tokyo buyers lugging suitcases of yen.

A first-class hotel is needed and the restored 17th-century château fills the bill with 25 extremely comfortable bedrooms, vineyard views, plushly furnished public rooms and another dazzling restaurant. Although the château doesn't actually make the wine -- that happens next door at Château Lynch-Bages -- it operates a wine school that customizes five-day programs for wine lovers in groups no larger than four. One-quarter of its students are Canadians.

The dining room is a Michelin two-star establishment under the helmsmanship of 38-year-old Thierry Marx, who makes Marxists of us all. An amuse-gueule of foie gras pressed with smoked ham and zapped with aged balsamic vinegar dances across the stations of the palate. My wife won't let the foie gras escape so easily: her appetizer is an alp of the sublime liver pan-fried for about two seconds, set atop sautéed peaches and garnished with swirls of reduced port and duck fat. While she swoons, I tuck into five giant langoustines grilled in a crust of pistachios, the flesh dissolving on the tongue in a haze of nuts, herbs and surprise, lemongrass.

Her main course is pigeon, a bird larger than a quail and smaller than a chicken, roasted just a little and served rare, drizzled with cassis and served with farro risotto sprinkled with sharp pecorino cheese. I go for lamb three ways: breast stuffed with a forcemeat of lamb liver and a hefty slice of leg on the side. Finally, the chef's signature dessert floors me: aubergine -- yes, eggplant -- sliced and dried to wafer consistency and served with anisette cream, basil sorbet and a sprig of fresh basil. I may have been born minus a sweet tooth, but this is a dessert to pack for the afterlife.

A Château in Bordeaux
Our last Relais takes us two hours south of Bordeaux to the spa town of Eugénie-les-Bains and Les Prés d'Eugénie (40320 Eugénie-Les-Bains, Grand Sud-Ouest, France; tel: 011-33-55-805-0607; fax: 011-33-55-851-1010; guerard@relaischateaux.com), the marriage of sybaritic spa and Michelin three-star restaurant operated by Michel and Christine Guérard. It covers 16 hectares, a theme park dedicated to pleasure and graced with lawns and palms, jaunty nymphs, a Moorish fountain and several kinds of accommodation.

The area has been a spa since Roman times and was popularized in the last century by the Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie. The Guérard spa is flagship for the 21-location Chaîne Thermal du Soleil, Christine Guérard's family business. Michel Guérard married into the spa world in 1974, then created cuisine minceur -- lean cuisine -- to put some fun in it, using himself, plump at the time, as his own first customer.

Christine Guérard's ethereal sense of beauty shows at every turn in the reconstructed farmhouse, La Ferme Thermale d'Eugénie. La Ferme is regarded as the loveliest spa in all France, a light and airy setting for a series of treatments lasting 10 minutes apiece and broken by rests on sleigh beds in a "quiet" room.

The therapies are unconventional by North American standards: One has my wife and I bobbing up and down in a mix of white clay and thermal mud. Another is a needle-point assault from oscillating overhead water-jets -- a contraption worthy of Dr. Frankenstein -- that leaves me yelping as it rakes below the belt. Muscular pain, back problems, obesity, stress and insomnia: out they go like exorcized demons.

The main building, dating to 1862 and used as a Nazi headquarters during WWII, houses the restaurant, where a brigade of 25 chefs toils in two separate kitchens.

Also on the property is a two-star hotel, La Maison Rose, dedicated to a weight-shedding cuisine minceur regimen. Le Couvent des Herbes is a beautiful accommodation forged in a former convent school. Les Logis de la Ferme is faux rustic; our room features a canopy bed, bathroom with marble soaker tub and sitting room with chairs and table for a considerable in-room breakfast.

Guérard's Ferme Aux Grives is a "country" restaurant in which a whole suckling pig blushes golden-brown on a spit in the massive stone fireplace. Lunch comprises the likes of feathery feuilletée tart of home-smoked salmon with horseradish cream and crispy lardons, country pâté of ham intermarried with foie gras, and that fantastical suckling pig, skin crackling and succulent, the gastronomic lily gilded with savoury homemade pork sausage, mushrooms and no skimping on cream and butter. What's this about lean cuisine?

When we get around to lean cuisine, it's three courses and a glass of red wine from Guérard's own vineyards all for a measly 730 calories. This is no gastronomic hair shirt: a salad of fresh cod with garlicky aioli and a cunning crisp of baked tomato skin, grilled guinea fowl atop vegetable risotto with wild rice from the Camargue and dessert of strawberries, raspberries and red currants with verbena ice cream.

Our final dinner unfolds in Michel Guérard's classical restaurant. A sommelier in a leather apron does the wines: The Château Pétrus 1982 at roughly $4,000 is a tad out of our price range. Forget about the 1875 Château Latour, whose price is clear off the list. Nonetheless, dinner propels our pleasure quotients through the roof.

My wife has lobster salad, the meat swimming in truffled fennel vichyssoise. This time I order the foie gras, a layering of duck liver, black truffle and fresh vegetables under a puff pastry cap and sauced in a brown butter, cream and truffle emulsion, oo-la-la. I move on to breast of guinea fowl stuffed with goat cheese and deeply smoked in the kitchen's fireplace. But my wife one-ups me with a main of grilled foie gras, the unctuous, heady essence of gastronomie. Such euphoria, such pleasuring, such Frenchness, this cornucopia of c's. We weave to our room and pack with a perverse sense of mission -- for tomorrow we go into the countryside in search of a diet.

 

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