Hrant, a close friend from undergrad, decided to drop in on them for a couple days. We planned to rendezvous at Gare Du Nord. He was making his way circuitously from Armenia back to Stanford, where he’s doing his PhD. I bused and trained in from Oxford via London. Using the bus from Oxford to London and the 4-hour Eurostar from London to Paris as extensions of my office, I’d been working since 6am and was just wrapping up while waiting for him at Starbucks. Hrant and I hadn’t seen each other in more than a year, but I keep finding that with good friends, you pick up where you left off as if no time had passed at all. A quick coffee turned into a “quick” champagne before our next train.
We caught the 6pm to Sens, a smallish city (population ~30k) in Burgundy, southeast of Paris. Our friends met us at the station in a beat-up car they said had broken down last week. They related the comedy of trying to find a French mechanic who didn’t groan “but it’s Saturday...” in response to their repair requests.
On the drive to the château in La Chapelle-sur-Oreuse, we stopped at a bakery to pick up their last pan au chocolat before closing. The back seat was a buttery-flakey mess as we pulled onto rue du château.
The 14th century château was postcard perfect. The sun was seting over its expansive green and yellow fields, illuminating a glass of white wine that rested languorously on a table outside the ivy-covered stone walls.
We ditched our bags and lounged in the unkempt garden to watch sunset. Our host brought out some watered-down pastis, a French anise apéritif. The nine of us were a mix of recent grads and PhD candidates in theoretical physics or engineering from MIT, Harvard, Oxford, or Stanford.
“Is now a good time for the champagne tasting?” one of our hosts asked. Meeting no objection, he dashed inside while another host gave Hrant and I a tour of the place.
Our first stop was the wine cellar, which was expansive and musty, but empty except for two lonely bottles of local red. Our next stop was the main reception on the ground level. Sleeping bags covered couches in front of a massive fireplace. A Ping-Pong table occupied an arched stone alcove, looking incongruous under a brass chandelier and in front of a two-story red velvet curtain leading to the front garden. Empty glass bottles covered all counter space in the butler’s kitchen, waiting to be driven to the nearest recycling center. A long dining table that could easily seat twenty plus guests also occupied the ground floor, but it looked unused. The real living space was on the upper floors.
Up half a flight on the lopsided spiral staircase, we reached what looked like a front door, but upon opening it we found a sheer one-story drop along the château’s stony outer wall –- an effective way to dispose of unwanted guests?
Further up the stairs we encountered a cozy sitting room complete with couches and high-backed velvet chairs around another fireplace. The room connected to a smaller dining area and a fairly modern kitchen. From a terrace adjoining the kitehcn, a château cat surveyed the neighbor’s chickens.
Our host ran the champagne tasting much like ones I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy at Oxford. Two of our hosts had toured the vineyards in the nearby Champagne region and returned with their favorites, so needless to say they really knew what they were talking about. Many of us preferred the slipped in sparkling bourgogne (not technically a champagne; a NV Honoré Louis Crémant de Bourgogne Brut). Ed told us that in blind “champagne” tastings, most people prefer non-“champagnes” (even non-French Proseccos, Cavas, etc.). It reminded me of how susceptible we humans are to marketing and hype; how often we go with the crowd and don’t really know what we want.
Candle wax had already dripped onto the tablecloth by the time we started dinner. After our second bowls of pasta, when I for one would ordinarily be settling into a carb-coma, someone got a Ping-Pong tournament going to German rap and Brittany Spears. Wine and conversations flowed well into the night.
The next day I woke with the sun and roamed the château with everyone still zonked. I felt like the one person awake during a Sleeping Beauty curse. I made a cup of tea and quietly enjoyed the library. People emerged at a more civilised hour and brunch cooking quickly commenced.
Individually, some people worked remotely, connecting to the library Wi-Fi, Skyping with their supervisors, etc. Those not so scholarly employed spent the afternoon reading or cooking. I thought of an advertisement that keeps appearing on my Facebook and Instagram: “Apply for a Remote Year.” The concept is that you pay a set price to travel the world with a group of young professionals who all work remotely. I guess this is how it might work and it’s not bad.
I thought of working, but tried not to. I’d planned in advance enough to be able to take these two days off and had just finished a paper on my summer field work; now was a good time to take a break. The library’s enticing collection books proved a relaxing distraction.
I kept-up a habit I’ve developed recently of taking an hour’s afternoon siesta. When I awoke, the crew was attempting the rather ridiculous endeavor of rigging a sous-vide in the tower bathtub to cook half a lamb. Sous-vide is a method of cooking meat very slowly till melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. I’d learned about the technique from this KickStarter a few years ago, but I had never seen one before, let alone tasted its output.
The sous-vide in place, the team set to frying calamari in a homemade spicy batter. Because of overfishing, I don’t eat seafood except for bivalves, cephalopods, and lionfish (you can read why on my Act Now page), and calamari thankfully falls into the cephalopod category. We enjoyed a late “lunch” in the sunshine, wearing straw hats that came with the château, eating the small batches of calamari as they emerged from the kitchen, where two guests volunteered as chefs. Each batch improved, getting crispier. We finished with a ricotta lime cake topped with grape compote that a kitchen goddess had made from scratch while I was napping. Discussion of the next meal commenced immediately afterward; we had a château conundrum. The sous-vide lamb would be acceptable to eat around 9pm, but it would be at its best, mouth-watering, falling-off the bone, at around 5am. We decided to have dinner with the first round of lamb at 9pm, followed by a breakfast of lamb so scrumptious that it was worth waking up at 7am. No one objected to this plan.
With the next day’s early start in mind, the evening quieted down earlier. In the morning, just hours before Hrant and I departed, we enjoyed an early morning farewell feast of what was indeed the most tender and delicious lamb I’ve ever eaten, paired with eggs, toast, foie gras, and just a little bit of red wine. It was the gastronomic pinnacle of our Epicurean stay and the perfect way to wrap-up our visit.
The neighbor’s excitable dog joined the party bidding us farewell. The guests remaining had seen posters advertising a circus in town that night, so planned to attend and host an impromptu after-party. I was tempted to stay, but by that time Hrant would be flying over the Atlantic and I’d be at a Royal Geographic Society (RGS) conference in London thinking of what we were missing.
The experience was not unlike ones I’ve had on boats and expeditions. You learn to savor moments with the people around you because, well, you are stuck with them. You’re not in the city, so you can’t bounce from one attraction to the next, or pick-and-choose with whom you hang out. There’s no compulsion to check your phone all the time because no one else is doing it and, frankly, why? After the RGS conference, rather than venturing into the city, I spent my time in the quiet of my Oxford apartment working more productively than usual. I wonder how I’d feel after a full “European August” off in such a lovely spot.