Thursday, 23rd December 2004 – Etoges, France
Were it not just two days before Christmas, I’d be quite happy to be snowed in here…
There’s this weird sixth sense Lynne and I seem to possess when it comes to picking hotels and restaurants, and it still works, even after a couple of decades. I’ve clearly struck gold with this one… more of that later though. The drive yesterday from the Riviera took nine hours, including two fifteen minute stops, the first one to get a hideously strong expresso coffee, packed with sugar, and the second for fuel and a bar of chocolate. Otherwise I was in my over-packed car from 9 yesterday morning till 6, managing around 600 miles in that time. I can see out of the back window – I made sure I could – but only just! Anyway, the roads were mostly quiet, and the weather was glorious, although someone seemed to have put France in the deep freeze; it never staggered much above freezing all day. However, mid-afternoon, round about Dijon, I ran slap into the snowstorm they’d been promising, and the final two and a half hours of the trip were no fun at all.
It could have been worse, I guess. The French were at least prepared – the weather was forecast for the Champagne region, and the local councils had sent out the salting lorries. This meant that the snow melted on contact with the road, and while the trailing wake from some lorries was highly unpleasant, at least everyone was able to keep going. If this had happened in Britain, chaos would probably have been the result – I’m remembering flying into Bristol last February and the plane being severely delayed, because they hadn’t gritted the runway. They’d sent the guys who drove the gritters home, because of bad weather!
Anyway, after what felt like a very long drive from the motorway, I finally reached Etoges, and located the hotel, the very lovely Chateau d’Etoges. It started to look good from the moment I found the large, wrought iron gates, and drove up the driveway, across the moat and into the courtyard.
This place is simply splendid, and if we get daylight later this morning I shall take a few photos. The massive staircase to the bedrooms made me feel I should be wearing something long and sweeping, not a pair of scruffy jeans, so I was glad I’d packed something civilized to wear at dinner – black jeans, white linen top and long black velvet coat if anyone cares – and my bedroom is next to one of the towers, overlooking the moat. It has an oriental theme, with lots of Thai artworks, a beautiful red and black chest that looks Chinese, and a massive fourposter bed (I swear you could get at least four people in it). The bathroom is enormous too, with lots of Roger & Gallet soaps and lotions and things. And the bathtub is deep, though rather narrow.
And dinner last night? Simply wonderful. The lounge has a great deal of panelling, a huge fireplace with logs burning away, a Christmas tree that fills a corner of the room, and great big soft sofas. I sat and allowed them to persuade ne to drink a glass of Champagne as an aperitif while I studied the menu, and then in to dinner. I think I may have to kidnap the chef. The starter was superb – grilled scallops threaded onto a piece of lemon grass in lieu of a skewer, pumpkin cut into tiny pieces and gently poached, and an orange sauce. However, the main course caused me to want to sit and make little whimpering noises of pleasure, it was so wonderful. Described as shoulder of wild boar, it had been casseroled with some onions and I would say some red wine, until it was tender and had fallen into individual fibres of meat, and wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but puts this meal right up there on the list of some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten, right behind lunch at le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons, and a number of dinners at Rhodes in the Square (sadly now defunct). Damn, but it was good. Served with a celeriac puree, carrot puree and – I think – courgette puree.
Their cheese board was wonderful (and I was amused by the translation to English of “refined cheeses”), and the dessert was another suprise, a pineapple and coconut crumble that made me rethink my apparent dislike of coconut. It was so tasty it was hard to believe. The also added a rum and banana panacotta, which was rich, creamy and probably the best panacotta I’ve ever had. Add a bottle of Madiran (from the South West of France and wine that’s largely underrated – and rarely found outside its home area) and I was more than happy last night. Actually, having forgotten just how strong Madiran can be, that’s not surprising – 14.5% is very strong for wine… Ah well. I staggered back up the baronial staircase round about 10 o’clock last night, and was asleep about 15 minutes later.
This morning the snow seems to have gone, and I have about four hours driving left to do, so I’m having a late breakfast, after another soak in the bath. I’ll set off once it’s properly daylight and any ice that’s formed overnight has hopefully melted. I plan on stopping at a Belgian supermarket in search of smoked eel, and also possibly buying a couple of bottles of Champagne here, and that’s really the plan for today.