“Dinner that night was the freshest of oysters followed by thick fennel soup and Moroccan stew, eaten around the fireplace in the living room with excellent red wine hand chosen by Xavier.
Up early the next day, we set out in the chilly fresh country air to the local food market…”
I met Mary Pochez through a friend of mine about 6 years ago at an art opening and we had a nice chat. Mary is an ex-pat married to a Frenchman and has lived in France for over 30 years. We kept in touch by email over the years, as she reads my blog, but physically have not seen each other since our first meeting. I remember she told me she lived in a chateau in the Loire and I was always curious what it was like.
Mary contacted me in mid-October last year and said she was looking to start cooking classes at the chateau. She wanted to know if I wanted to come to the chateau for a day or two to be the guinea pig for her classes. I told I would be very pleased to come and visit and she said I could bring a few friends if I wanted. I made arrangements to come the first week of December and invited Carol from Paris Breakfasts and a travel journalist friend of mine from Australia currently living in Paris.
We took the train to Le Mans and then a bus to La Fleche, a small town near the chateau. We arrived about 1PM and Mary showed us the quaint medieval town, which had an important historical significance to it: King Henri IV founded a Jesuit college and later on cadet school. In 1808 Napoleon built a military academy.
We drove through the scenic countryside where the leaves were still turning on the trees. We made a left off the highway to a dirt road, where Mary announced this was the entrance to the chateau. We drove and drove through the woods and Mary pointed out features of the 1200-acre property including the pristine lake and the working farm. Finally we arrived at the chateau, a aged Grand Dame with white weather vaned shutters, moss eaten stone steps, a beige yellow stone facade, and a stone fountain with a water sprout shooting up the height of the chateau. On the right side of the chateau was a small chapel and on the left in the distance was an orangerie. This was the real deal.
Mary’s husband Xavier, who I had not met before, greeted us warmly. He and Mary took us on a tour of the expansive house with endless rooms, hallways, and passages. Xavier told us Chateau de la Barbee was built in 1790 by architect Louis-Adrien Lusson and has been in his family since then. The property is ISMH (inventaire supplementaire des monuments historiques) or official historic French register because of its authenticity and rarity, having been built during the revolution. I was shown to my room on the second floor overlooking the back of the house with a lovely view. It looked like the set for a Ralph Lauren home furnishings waiting to happen with two wooden framed beds with white linens, plank floors, and an elegant old-fashioned white tub with fancy claws.
We had tea in the cozy den and got to know Mary and Xavier. Mary was a California surfer girl from a big family and became an international top model in her 20s. She told us about her globe trotting adventures all over Europe and hanging out with Janice Dickinson. She was introduced to Xavier at a dinner party and he courted her for many years until he won her over and she finally agreed to marry him. They have been happily together for 30 years and have two college age children. They lived in Paris full time and went to the chateau on weekends and holiday until they moved there permanently in 2009.
It was sunny day and I went outside to watch the magnificent crimson sun set against the black trees with a low fog rolling in.
Dinner that night was the freshest of oysters followed by thick fennel soup and Moroccan stew, eaten around the fireplace in the living room with excellent red wine hand chosen by Xavier.
Up early the next day, we set out in the chilly fresh country air to the local food market. Carol was as happy as a clam and we enjoyed perusing the local products and especially the low prices. We returned to the house and rolled up our sleeves to roll out the pastry for the pear almond tart. We then made an unusual dish I never had before that was so easy to make. Mary asked us to take some raw pieces of raw foie gras and wrap it in cabbage leaves she steamed. She then baked them.
At about 1PM we sat down for the lunch on the elegant dining room table laid with some of the original china, flatware, and crystal glasses from the early 1800s. The cabbage wrapped foie gras was beyond amazing and the main course was tender wild boar in a cranberry and mushroom sauce. The pear almond tart was so good it called for seconds. Xavier again picked the perfect red wine, a divine Chinon.
After lunch we walked around the grounds and Xavier showed us the inside of the chapel, telling us the romantic story of how they got married in it. We also got a tour of the orangerie and they told us of their grand plans to make it into an event space for weddings and affairs in the summer. We took some fun photos playing in the leaves and a sweet one of Mary and Xavier.
We headed back to the train station about 4PM, sad to leave the idyllic paradise. Mary gave each of us a sweet parting gift, a jar of her homemade jam.