A Little Slice of Luxury in L’Oise
Majestic wintry countryside, amazing food and a man who opens champagne with a sword. What’s not to love about a drive through the countryside north of Paris? When it gets chilly, take a glamorous trip to Chantilly…
Château de Chantilly
Image Credit: Panoramas
Lucy Sweet is a writer and journalist from Hull (2017 City of….oh, you’ve already heard that one?) who now lives in Glasgow. She has contributed to Glamour, The Guardian and Sabotage Times and can cut the top off a bottle of wine with a sword.
January 15, 2014
Driving through the L’Oise region – 35km north of Paris – isn’t something I ever thought I’d do. For a start I didn’t know my L’Oise from my elbow. Like most people I only had a vague notion of Paris Beauvais-Tille airport, a Ryanair branded hub in the middle of some pretty uninspiring countryside. Strangely, though, this trip turned out to be more memorable than a dozen chic boutiques and a tipsy thumbs up photo next to the Arc de Triomphe. In fact, this neck of the woods almost made the city seem drab by comparison.
When we landed at Beauvais-Tille, shaken from a bumpy flight and resenting the fact that we couldn’t dash straight to the Champs Elysees, my heart sank. Airports are rarely the stuff of dreams, but this one was dull as Hull. I remember thinking dark thoughts when I saw the flat landscape and the golden arches of Beauvais McDonalds. But what I didn’t realise is that it’s actually less than an hour away from the most stunning countryside and fabulous chateaux France has to offer.
We drove 40 minutes east to Senlis, past Le Foret de Hez-Froidmont on our left, into a spellbinding, winter fairytale. There were glittering forests, Norman churches, deer, castles, exclusive golf courses and horseback riding as far as the eye could see. L’Oise it turned out, was where all the Dukes and the Kings built their luxury piles, deep in the forest to avoid attack. They weren’t shy about flashing the cash, either. So every so often a turreted chateau the size of Versailles popped up from behind the trees, to remind me that I was but a mere commoner, living in a flat across the road from a bookies.
Senlis itself is so French and medieval that Joan of Arc could wander down the streets with her breast bared, and nobody would have batted an eyelid. Actually, Senlis once boasted a top quality medieval heroine – the fabulously named Jeanne Hachette (Jean The Hatchet) who defended the town with a meat cleaver in 1472. Jeanne was a game gal by all accounts, and as I wandered through the cobbled streets, I understood her need to protect Senlis with a sharp instrument. It’s completely, thoroughly charming, dominated by its 12th Century gothic cathedral, Notre Dame, which took the villagers centuries to complete. In Senlis, you can’t build anything remotely modern, thanks to a preservation order, so everything, even the boulangerie, is heaving with gothic beauty. Actually, to be honest, I was more into the contents of the boulangeries than the architecture. There were several pastries in that town that I would have been happy to defend to the death with a meat cleaver.
Every so often a turreted chateau the size of Versailles popped up from behind the trees, to remind me that I was but a mere commoner, living in a flat across the road from a bookies.
Because that’s the other wonderful thing about this criminally neglected region of France. It’s a gourmet’s paradise. Paris might give you the astronomically expensive, head turning restaurants, but L’Oise has the real meat. And the cheese. And the foot long sausages. It’s also swimming in pate – if you wanted to grout your bathroom with foie gras, Senlis is the place to buy supplies. The weekly street market in the Rue du Petit Chaalis is stuffed with the fruits of the terroir, and staffed by genuinely lovely local people – no sniffy gourmands in sight. In Senlis, they call a saucisson a saucisson, and are proud of it. I bought some cheese from a guy who was the very embodiment of rustic, jolly Medieval customer service: Parisian rudeness seemed very far away.
Opening Champagne in L’Oise is unlike anywhere in the world.
Image credit: Comedy Nose
You call that a knife?!
After all this delicious food, we needed lunch. And it seemed that in L’Oise, if in doubt, eat. A 10 minute drive north west took us to Apremont, near Chantilly, where there are more exclusive golf clubs. The restaurant we went to was rather worryingly called La Grange Aux Loups (The Lair of the Wolves) but the patron, M. Jalloux, seemed nice and cheery enough. This was an old school French bistro – dark wood, no frills, and roaring fire – the kind of place where buttery tarte tatin was served in little copper pans. M. Jalloux was a genial host, so I started to relax. After all, we were staring down the barrel of five course meal – every journalist’s dream. And when Monsieur Jalloux said ‘I need a volunteer to open the champagne,’ I stepped up, thinking I was being helpful. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
And that was when he got out his sword.
‘This is the classy way to open champagne.’ Said Monsieur Jalloux, giving me the blade. ‘Doucement…doucement.’ He said, as I waved it around like a flustered musketeer. As he held out the bottle, I was instructed to gently draw the sword over the bottleneck. Then something really weird happened. The blade sliced clean through the glass like a sharp knife through green jelly, and the cork flew off with the lip of the bottle still attached. No jagged glass, no tears, no trips to l’hopital. Everyone in the restaurant cheered. The champagne flowed. I was a STAR. I had opened a bottle of champagne with a SWORD.
If you want to grout your bathroom in foie gras, Senlis is the place to buy supplies
‘You are now a member of Le Confrerie du Sabre D’Or.’ Said Monsieur Jalloux, ceremoniously. It turned out that he was the Grand Fromage of the Brotherhood of the Golden Sword – who like to extravagantly open champagne bottles for sport- and I was now a lifelong member of this bizarre sect. After having that sword in my hand, I felt the spirit of Jean Hachette coursing through me. Then I felt the true joy of a typical L’Oise repas– scallops, venison, tarte au flambé with the famous Chantilly cream– the works. By the end of it, not even a sharp knife would have shifted me off my seat.
L is for Luxury and Louis XIV
Image credit: Wikipedia
Everything in Immoderation
Eventually, though, we were rolled out of the door and driven 20 minutes south to Chantilly itself, past more verdant, frosted forest, exclusive polo clubs and hotels with manicured grounds, such as the lavish Dolce Chantilly hotel. Chantilly is a rich aristocrats playground, with its racecourse and grand hotels. And it’s really no slouch when it comes to breathtaking real estate. On the road into Chantilly itself, it’s hard to miss the absurdly opulent Chateau de Chantilly, which boasts the largest collection of French paintings outside the Louvre. This is where Louis XIV used to hang out in the 15th Century – and just to show how seriously loopy the inhabitants of L’Oise are about food, spare a thought for the maitre d’hotel who served King Louis there one night, and killed himself because he was worried the fish might be served late. (it wasn’t.)
Although the locals may have a fondness for sharp knives, if you’re looking for glamour, decadence and an indulgent taste of the good life, this region has everything.
Actually, we were all starting to feel a bit Louis XIV, straining at the belt, with gout imminent. But the royal hospitality was only just beginning. Heading along the D909 to nearby Gouvieux – past charming canopied shops and restaurants – we checked into the seriously bewitching Chateau de Montvillargene. Hiding in acres of that ubiquitous twinkling forest, its façade was covered in bright red, luxuriant ivy. The chateau – now a four star hotel – was built in 1900 by Baroness Rothschild, and was left abandoned for 10 years after her death. Now the estate has the laid back, James Bond-esque feel of a true playboy’s paradise. Oh yes, and the restaurant pulled no punches. The 7 course – yes, 7 – taster menu featured local game and Charolais beef and cheeses and so much foie gras that we could barely ascend the sweeping staircase to our boudoirs. At some point, some where between dessert and the cheese trolley, I think we all hit the gastronomic point of no return. Here, you are encouraged to live large and feast, sampling the riches of the local terroir.
The challenge awaits…
Image credit: Victor Bezrukov
I don’t think I slept well that night. The large amounts of goose liver probably played a part. But mostly I remember being too excited to sleep. I remember looking out of the pretty lattice window into the dark forest, thinking ‘I am in a chateau. I am now a member of the Brotherhood of the Golden Sword. I am completely stuffed. This is so much better than staying in a tiny B&B in Paris and eating croque monsieur from the Carrefour.’
Because although the locals may have a fondness for sharp knives, if you’re looking for glamour, decadence and an indulgent taste of the good life, this region has everything. Paris Beauvais airport is the unassuming gateway to a glorious winter wonderland, with its vast swathes of forest and magical monuments to royal largesse. And at first glance, you wouldn’t guess it was even there.
So, Paris, although it’s famous and exciting, with the Louvre and that sparkly little tower – 35km away to the North there is a serious rival for its style and grace. And as far as I’m concerned, at this time of year, I only have eyes for L’Oise.