Livre d’Or

AT HOME IN A CHATEAU

Published in the New York Times on January 10, 1982 by IRVIN M. HOROWITZ national news editor of The Times

It began with my wife’s fantasy: a vision of our three grandchildren walking down a street in France munching on baguettes, just as our own children did in the 1960’s, when our family lived in Paris for two and a half years.

It followed months of discussion: Could we arrange, and afford, expanding our usual summer family get-together into a full-scale reunion in France that would include our four children, now all working adults scattered from Cambridge, Mass., to Los Angeles, our two sons-in-law and the three grandchildren, and perhaps in addition my wife’s sister, her husband and their three children, who would come from their home in Vienna?

It took weeks of planning, investigation and scheduling but incredibly, it all worked. Our reunion, broadened still further to embrace my wife’s other sister and their mother, took form last August as a month’s sojourn in three apartments on the grounds of the Chateau de Memillon in Eure-et-Loir, the granary of France, about 75 miles south of Paris and 90 miles north of the Loire chateau country.

The setting for our gathering, which totaled 18 people (but never more than 17 at any one time), was exquisite. There have been three chateaus at Memillon: The first was built in the 10th century, and almost nothing remains; the second, of 17th-century origin, was virtually dismantled, brick by brick, after the French Revolution. The third, a l9th-century model, is now the home of our landlady, Mme. Annie Illich and some of her other paying guests.

Our complex consisted of seven apartments, the three we occupied plus four that housed a succession of British and French tenants, some of them groups of friends or families. All the apartments had been renovated within the last three years, and all had once been farm buildings attached to the 17th-century chateau. Each was faced in stone and covered with ivy, each had a front yard enclosed by a hedge and each had at least one bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. Ours had an enormous living room, built like a loggia, that was large enough to accommodate our entire group for meals and after-dinner chatter.

The furnishings were generally nondescript, a French version of New England summer cottage, but there were a few Gallic touches – our place had a large gilt mirror over the fireplace and two brass sconces with mirrored backs enclosed in beveled glass.

Each day, when my wife and I awoke, we looked through the windows of our bedroom, tucked in a loft, to a sight that will be hard to forget. Through the morning mist that customarily envelops the French countryside, we looked past a Renaissance gate and across a grassy area to a bridge across the Loir River, which wanders through the property. Then came a field with cows, and finally, at the top of a hill, the 19th-century chateau. All this -and more – was Memillon. Memillon is part of the hamlet of St. Maur-sur-le-Loir, of which Mme. Illich i s the mayor. The nearest town is Bonneval, about three miles away, a community of about 5,000 people. Aside from its 13thcentury G othic church, hardly unusual in a French town, Bonneval is best known for its regional mental hospital, a major employer in the immediate area. This may help to explain why our group, in a community tha t sees few American visitors, was treated with such tolerance and patience.

Monday is market day in Bonneval, and we planned much of our shopping for that day. The downtown streets were clustered with stands and booths that offered fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, candy, clothing (the truck that carried the clothes doubled as a dressing room), dry goods and sundries. We soon acquired our favorite vendors, among them a vegetable man who insisted on giving us a fourth , free head of lettuce because he was n ot fully satisfied with the quality of the three we had bought. The w oman at our favorite bakery turned out splendid birthday cakes for our twin granddaughters, charging less than she had es timated because the cakes weighed less than she had expected.

The size of the refrigerators in our apartments dictated frequent trips to market. Because we liked to take most of our meals together, each major market trip was preceded by a family meeting and the drawing up of a master list and subsidiaries, with this one assigned to the supermarket, that one to the grocery that sold the most American-like milk, and another to the charcuterie and bakery. Marketing was a central, and enjoyable part of our stay. (There was also an excellent, simple Bonneval restaurant, L’Auberge de la Herse, where the prix fixe for a well-prepared three-course dinner was about $6.)

And it was in Bonneval that we enjoyed two of our most pleasant, and serendipitous, social events. One was a fund-raising fete staged by the mental hospital on its spacious grounds. The atmosphere resembled a county fair, with booths offering games of chance, handicrafts and food and a band straight from Paris, to whose tunes visitors and hospital patients danced in a scene out of a Fellini film.

Better still was a fete de brocante, a provincial flea market that we enjoyed far more than we did its counterpart in Paris. The prices were more reasonable, the area was less crowded and, of prime importance to our grandchildren, there was a traveling show complete with a dancing bear, a man who swallowed fire and a goat that performed acrobatics on a ladder. The performers, animal and human, were clad in what looked like medieval hand-me-downs.

Memillon’s location midway between Paris and the Loire chateaus enabled us to take day trips in both directions. In our rented Volkswagen minibus our party of 11, or 14, or 17 (depending on the day and the particular excursion) made repeated forays into the capital and the cathedral town of Chartres or toured the chateaus – Blois, Chenonceaux, Villandry, Usse, Loches and Azay-le-Rideau among them – that stand on or near the Loire (the big one, with the  »e » at the end, not our smaller local river). Nothing was more than two and a half hours away, which meant that we returned to our apartments each night and never had to cope with the problems and costs of housing a dozen or more people in a hotel.

Roughly every other day we stayed close to home, where the pleasures included tennis at the chateau court, walks through the lovely countryside that lay all around us, swimming in the fine municipal pools in Bonneval and nearby Marboue and relaxing in our front yards. Had any of us been fishermen, we could have joined the Bonnevalians and vacationers who tried their luck each day in the Loir. Whatever the activity, the August weather was ideal.

Our landlady, Mme. Illich, was born at the chateau. The daughter of a Rouen merchant, she was trained as a diplomat, but has devoted full time to operating the chateau and its outbuildings for about five years. The final week of our stay she invited us all -we were 12 at the time – for tea at the chateau. Tea turned out to be champagne, apple tarts and coffee, served on fine china in an informal sitting room, furnished in wicker, with a row of windows that looked out onto a view that was the mirror image of the one from our apartment – the pasture, the Loir, the Manoir de Saveuse.

Mme. Illich gave us a tour of the downstairs rooms in the chateau, with its impressive antique furniture (we couldn’t decide if it was 17th- or 18th-century), a Beck grand piano, 17th-century paintings, a library whose prized possession was a first edition of the Diderot encyclopedia, said to be the world’s first, and family memorabilia. including some jewelry that had been given to her stepfather, a Yugoslav count, by King Alexander of Yugoslavia.

Our most memorable dining experience, which also occurred in that week, was at the Henri IV in Chartres, a one-star establishment whose windows look out at the cathedral. It offered estimable cuisine at a relatively reasonable price of $22 per person, including wine, and attentive service from a maitresse d’hotel who wisely suggested simple fare for the children: a vegetable soup, lightly seasoned veal, chicken and sole and pommes souffles served in a basket made ofthinly sliced potatoes.

The adults feasted on such items as veal kidneys wrapped in a slice of veal steak cooked with herbs and served with bearnaise sauce, braised duck with exotic fruits (mango and papaya, among others), raw mushrooms seasoned in hazelnut oil, lime juice and chives, crayfish bisque, chestnut ice cream with a marzipan chestnut topping, a chocolate confection known as the George Sand, and raspberry tarts.

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