I looked down, remembering again to try and take in the details. The pastoral print of our tablecloth showed a scene of peasant farmers in repose and gave the simple plastic furniture an air of rural whimsy, as if you might enter into that drawing and spend the better part of an afternoon trying to reach its cottage in the distance. And in a way, I suppose that’s exactly what I was doing.
I spotted my order as it moved toward us from the kitchen in pendular motions, the tray beneath it swinging from one table to the next. Like a belle marquise making her grand entrance at an event of high society, my dish didn’t travel in a straight line but seemed to pause for a brief exchange of social graces with all in its path – stopping here to pick up a paid check, there to drop off a wedge of gingerbread or cup of strong coffee. I waited impatiently until the plate made its final sweeping descent to our table:
Whatever it lacked in fancy presentation it made up for in confident simplicity. The best stuff, after all, needs no frills and would only be diminished by the flashiness on which lesser delicacies rely. I had in front of me exactly what the menu had promised: strawberries and homemade whipped cream.
Had it been just another summery dessert I would’ve wasted no time digging in. Had it been a random menu item I would have, in my usual fashion, spooned my way to the end before I’d managed to taste it. But to do so this time would be to miss a deeper appreciation than any temporary tingle of taste buds could offer. It would’ve also contradicted my very deliberate culinary mission for the day.
Three years had passed since I’d last seen the chateau grounds. I absorbed the majesty of it as we approached via the large southern roundabout, the car sweeping counterclockwise along the cobblestoned circle like an hour hand flicked backward against its mechanism.
The warm summer air had carried with it more visitors than we’d encountered last time, and while my intention was to lessen their diminutive impact on my own experience by imagining them as white-wigged 17th century courtisans under silk parasols, the intense heat of a long wait outside the admissions pavilion melted away my capacity for the fantasy.
Fortunately for us, and for everyone else, French chateau designers seem to have had one structural credo in mind above all others—keep it spacious—which left enough elbow room to occasionally snag an unobstructed view for those whose patience was still intact after the ticket wait.
With the strawberries in question still a good two hours into the future, our eyes feasted first on the building’s varied interiors: from the rich, savory hues of the library…
…to the saccharine sweetness of the grand hall…
…to the guilty decadence of hundreds of high-caliber paintings squeezed to within mere inches of each other.
In terms of pre-19th century paintings this collection is considered one of the finest in France, second only to the Louvre. It represents the acquisitions of the illustrious Condé family, a series of princes related to France’s royal Bourbon bloodline. They inherited the chateau in 1643 after its previous owner had opposed the king and one day found himself, not surprisingly, separated from his own head.
The patriarch of the Condé family, known as Le Grand Condé, did with his new home what every land-owning noble was doing at the time – he took to decorating, and he took to it hard. The nation’s new young sovereign, the formidable Louis XIV, was growing up fast and along with him an empire that would soon take over most of Europe and beyond. Anyone with family ties to that kind of power needed to show it off with, among other things, an awfully pretty backyard. For this reason Le Grand Condé called in André Le Nôtre of Versailles fame, to give the chateau an environment fit for king.
And the king would visit in 1671, which incidentally walks us further toward my strawberries and whipped cream. Because that extravagant three-day festival that welcomed Louis XIV and his royal court to the chateau, with all the eating and dancing and fornicating, would set in motion a long-lasting tradition of grandes fêtes on the premises. This tradition of luxurious outdoor shindigs at Chantilly would continue for two more generations before the Revolution arrived to shut it down.
It was during one of these latter royal parties in the late 1700s, by then hosted by Le Grand Condé’s grandson, that the garden festivities were relocated to the nearby Hamlet. The Hamlet is a sort of simulated Disney-style country village, a fantasy land where the grandson and his entourage could experience the kitsch of “slumming it” without the downsides of dirtying their stockings or mixing with actual country folk. Cottages were stylized for maximum charm and cliché, of course.
It’s here where the story of the chateau and the significance of my outdoor snack will converge, for it was in this Hamlet those 200+ years ago that a new culinary discovery graced the aristocratic dessert table for the first time: a simple blend of chilled heavy cream, icing sugar and vanilla whipped by hand until stiff.
They say it was at that moment, here in the garden, that la crème Chantilly – a.k.a. Chantilly Cream, a.k.a. “whipped cream” – was born. It blew the guests away that night and would take the upper class by storm, forever retaining the name of the chateau where it all started.
That’s what had brought me to the simple plastic table in the Hamlet of the chateau on a warm summer day. I wanted to taste real Chantilly cream, in Chantilly, in the same spot as all those royal costumed characters I see in my mind and in history books. They tasted it here for the first time, and I tasted it here for the first time, under similar July sun and the same chestnut trees. There’s something satisfying about that, as if history’s timeline was like a silk ribbon able to fold back on itself, or an hour hand to be flicked back against its mechanism.
The cream was rich, buttery, smooth, and all of the other superlatives one might expect. It was sweet and vanilla without going overboard. Compared to the commercial version I’ve grown accustomed to it was almost a different species, inviting you to consider the possibility that you’ve maybe never really known whipped cream at all. There’s a story hidden within those flavors and textures, and maybe with a bit of imagination it’s not so hard to see how the delicacy, refinement, and sumptuousness of la crème Chantilly are simply a representation of the era that bore it.
The surrounding city would become renowned for other luxury products, notably its porcelain and world-famous Chantilly lace. And in addition to all those fine paintings on the walls, the chateau contains in that lovely library a vast collection of rare books and medieval manuscripts. But given the choice of all those, I’d be tempted instead to spend my time in the quiet corners of the country garden, nursing another plate of the house dessert and enjoying whatever tales it might tell, one spoon at a time.
Wow, Corey. Between your beautiful images and your superb writing, you’ve taken your blog to a whole new level with this post. Well done, sir!
Thanks for your kind words as always Heather. Love your new post by the way, some great advice for someone planning a Paris trip!
I came to read, expecting snark and your usual entertaining banter but this was poetry! Still entertaining, of course! Nicely written :-)
Thanks Dena, what a wonderful compliment. That whipped cream itself was pretty poetic! Thanks for stopping by.
In other words, the only place I can get the really true strawberry & cream thing is at the Hamlet of the Chateau? I must find this chateau.
The town of Chantilly is about an hour north of central Paris Lee, so definitely reachable for anyone visiting the city. In fact an hour’s travel in many directions from Paris will lead you to an array of breathtaking royal architecture; it’s almost a shame that Versailles hogs so much of the chateau limelight! Thanks for your comment and take care.
Ooh la la! My mouth waters and my writer’s instinct tells me that you need to start submitting to some major publications. Maybe The Sun for a start? Great photos, as well.
That’s very kind, thanks for your comment and advice!
So beautiful! Thanks for the pictures. And now I’m craving strawberries with cream!
Thank you Unmana! I fear I may have started an international wave of cravings…my apologies :) Thanks so much for stopping by and take care.
Beautiful — the writing and the images! A very well-deserved Freshly Pressed…
Thanks for the kind words Mikalee. It’s an honor to be Freshly Pressed and be able to meet new readers like yourself. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and hope to see you again!
I wish i could write like you!
Aw, thanks! I’ll use your comment as a boost next time I’m having a bad writing day :) Thanks for reading and commenting, take care.
That was truly lovely. Your words brought me there with you and I felt just as enthralled in it all as you claim to have been. Sitting here at my desk in Salt Lake City, I must have just time jumped to another era and place. Thank you for that short, sweet, and succulent holiday.
Thanks MJ! Hearing that someone felt transported to France for a moment or two is always one of my favorite types of comments :) Coincidentally I lived in Salt Lake for a year, long before my writing days. I always found the people there to be very kind and generous. Thanks for reading and hope to see you again sometime!
Woooo-hoooooo! Félicitations, Corey! :)
Thanks Heather! I guess it was worth it, letting my house go to hell for a few days while I sat glued in front of my monitor writing about whipped cream. I should make a resolution to do so more often.
You’re going to write about whipped cream more often?! The topic sounds a bit limiting, but in your capable hands I’m sure it will be riveting. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist. :)
Um…challenge accepted :)
Your pictures are beautiful!! I love Paris, wish I could go back!
Thanks Daniella. Yes, Paris is something else. You think it won’t live up to the hype once you get here but somehow it does, then after living here for a couple of years you expect its charm to fade but it doesn’t…it’s a pretty magical part of the planet. Hope you make it back one of these days! Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and take care.
Wow – this is a great post! The photos are beautiful – I especially love the library photos. And the post itself was wonderfully written – like we were all really there. No wonder you were Freshly Pressed – great job!!!
Thanks a lot Simply Om, glad you enjoyed it! If I can manage to bring a few people along to share in the adventure then I’m a happy writer. The chateau library is stunning, and hands-down one of my favorite libraries in all of France. Whenever I’m in a space like that I find myself yearning for just a few minutes of having it all to myself, like maybe they could let me enter after hours and just pretend it was mine for 15 minutes, with free reign to sit on and touch whatever I wanted. I get that feeling a lot in Paris actually, which is why I’ll likely never tire of it. Thanks for your kind words and so glad you subscribed! Take care.
Great post! It’s so well written, and with beautiful photos, It was heartbreaking to read this post, and not go to the airport right away. I want to be in Paris NOW. Thanks :-)
Thanks ellengry! Please don’t go to the airport right away — can you imagine those last-minute ticket prices? :)
Happy to hear you enjoyed it, even if it is a bit bitter-sweet that you can’t come join us right away. Until you can, I’ll be happy to keep you posted with my blog adventures. Thanks for commenting, and hope you stop by again sometime! Take care.
Thanks! Your post was a delight to read. When I last wrote about Paris, I was concentrating on what NOT to do when in Paris, so I needed the reminder :-)
Excellent photos, and what a way to describe the events that manifested their presence.
Thanks JWB. One of the striking things about Paris and its surroundings is how much history can be traced back to it. From Caesar’s Romans, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, the Belle Epoque, even Nazi Germany — they all touched Paris at some point, and the clues are there for those who want to find them. Exciting stuff! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Many do not know that the word “Salon” began its popularity in Paris; a salon was a location where; doctors, philosophers, lawyers, etc. would hold conversations. What do you see today, salons filled with people holding conversations. Of course, for the most part, the conversations are a bit less formal. Lol…
Beautiful place. I love the library. It is a magical place for people that love books like me.
Yes, the library was stunning. Having a large book collection was such a status symbol back then, and you can see the care that went into showing it off as much possible. Something about those rows of beautiful intricately-decorated spines lined up against each other, it’s like looking at a great painting. Thanks for your comment!
You never cease to amaze me my dear cousin! Love and miss you!
Thanks Belinda! Happy to share a bit of France with you. Please give your family my best!
Truly Gorgeous! Everything about this post is making me hungry, for both your delicious dessert, as well as the culture. I love the feeling of bringing back history in your own personal way, and experiencing it privately, feeling connected to the people who came before you. You write it all so beautifully! Thanks for writing such a great post!
Thanks Hailey! You bring up a good point about experiencing history in a unique, personal way. That’s the kind of history that gets me going; boring textbook history is kind of a drag and I was never a fan. I always find dates and hard-to-pronounce names much more palatable if they’re connected to our 21st century lives in a direct way.
Feeling that connection to the people who have come before is a strong sensation for me in Paris. I know it’s not the same for everyone, but I felt it right away and it was enough to make me start writing when I got here.
I’m enjoying your blog at the moment as well, so thanks for stopping by. Happy writing to you and take care!
Beguiling as always, and FP’d too! Congratulations! I am feeling dazzled and delighted by this sumptuous tour of Chantilly – if a little queasy from all that sweet cream. ;)
Thank you dear Beastie! You get the award for Most Unique Adjective, with “beguiling”. Love it! I’m injecting it into my vocabulary starting today. Thanks for stopping by; it’s a reminder that I really need to pop over to your blog and see what’s shakin’ at your castle these days. I’d tell you that Heather is on her way to Paris soon, but of course you know that :)
Btw, when are you going to join us in the City of Light? Take care Beastie.
Excellent. You took something very ordinary, strawberries and cream, and told a story that kept me reading until the end. Great writing. And you seem to have a great life; I’m envious.
Thank you Trish. Getting a reader all the way to the end is a formidable task in this day and age, so I take that as a big compliment!
Yes it is a pretty great life. Not without its difficulties though. Adjusting to a new (non English-speaking) country presents an awful lot of challenges, especially for a shy & (overly)sensitive guy like myself. Some of this I talk about under my “French” category at the top of the page.
In general I guess this blog is my way of focusing on the bright side of things, and luckily in Paris there’s an awful lot of bright sides to see, if you look for them. (Notice I resisted using a pun there with “bright side” and the nickname “City of Light”. Can you imagine the self-restraint required?)
Thanks for reading & commenting, hope to hear from you again!
Très bien! Beautiful narration! Although I have never been to France, I think your writing just fits in with the french flavor—stylish and sophisticated!
Congrats on being freshly pressed!
Thank you aparnauteur, those are some pretty generous adjectives but I accept them avec plaisir. :) I appreciate you stopping by, and hope my blog will allow you to visit France from time to time. Take care!
Reblogged this on chryzalynmaeysao and commented:
i will save so much money so that i can visit Paris.. it is a childhood, teenage and an adult dream for me to visit your country.. and i really know in time that i can go there.. this blog inspires me to make that dream a reality~~ nice!!
Thanks so much for the reblog, I’m honored! I’m sure you’ll get to Paris one day and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. Best of luck and take care!
Who wouldn’t want to eat whipped cream in those gardens? Luckily the photos are calorie free!
Thank you dovergirl. Yes, the calories…an ever-looming danger for a guy with a relationship to food that would best be described as…well, American. :)
Personally, after 2+ years as a “local”, I still find it hard to pace myself through a long French meal so I’m not completely stuffed before the cheese and dessert courses are served. They have so many yummy things on the dinner table yet somehow they eat it in moderation. Mysterious.
Thanks stopping by, and take care.
I so love your post. You managed to meld a history lesson with such a beautiful culinary experience. Great writing!
Thanks for the kind words. Finding those connections and bringing them to life can be challenging and fun. I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. Best of luck with your own writing and take care!
Beautiful. So culturally rich. Congratulations.
http://innamazing.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/russian-red/ swing by (please?)
Thank you innamazing. Fortunately in the “culturally rich” department I’m never short of subject matter around here! Turning it into a readable article is another thing entirely however, as you may know :) I’m happy to have had this one recognized and read by so many folks around the world. Thanks for stopping by, and best of luck with your own writing!
Very well written. Extraordinary imagery and wonderful coloring. Great Job!
Wonderfully written post and the image of strawberries and cream made my mouth water. My husband has never really wanted to explore France beyond the historic centre of Paris, your post may convince him otherwise :-)
Glad you enjoyed it! Central Paris is surely enough to sustain a traveler all by itself, but branching out can really be worth it. Sure the transportation takes a bit of extra arranging, but there are some really special experiences to be had. Off the top of my head I’d recommend: this chateau of course, the one at Vaux le Vicomte (my favorite), and the one in Fontainebleau. Also worth a day trip are the medieval city of Provins and, if you’re an art or flower fan, Giverny where Monet lived and painted his Water Lilly series.
My link-up tool isn’t working well today, but you can use the search bar on the right to see each of my respective posts on these places. Thanks for reading/commenting, and hope you stop by again!
Beautiful photos!! Very well written :)
I’m glad I made the return visit–your prose really is poetic, and your writing evokes the place as well as the photographs do.
Thanks David; having seen your poetry on your blog, I’ll take that as a big compliment! It’s true I love seeking out a great photograph to share with others, but I have to admit that after describing a place with words, adding an accompanying photo can be so literal and definitive that I sometimes hesitate to put them in. “Isn’t that a bit too easy?” says the little writer voice in the back of my head. :)
On the other hand, photos can add a lot of interest and create a difference experience, so it’s usual a balancing act for me.
Thanks a lot for reading and for your thoughtful comments!
I have a new found love! Your words are enticing and draw me to a place I can only dream of visiting someday.
Thanks a lot Kelly, glad you enjoyed it! I had known Chantilly was a great place to visit for sightseeing, but before this day I never knew it could be so tasty as well. One of the best things about France is its ties to our own history and how often you can sample a bit of the past by simply showing up and keeping your eyes (and mouth) open. :)
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I really appreciate it!
Oh, stunging photos of Versailles and Loire
I can’t believe we missed the whipped cream when we visited Chantilly. Now I must go back!! I look forward to following your blog to see what else we’ve missed. ;-)