Wednesday 4 June 2008

Chateau de Villiers, near Essay, Normandy

A small, but perfectly-formed, moated country house dating from the sixteenth century, Chateau de Villiers sits in splendid isolation in a large plot of land overlooking rolling fields. The steeply sloping roof, the shuttered windows, the miniature bridge across the moat and the venerable outbuildings make this chateau, owned by a young and friendly family, a charming place to stay. Inside, the guest and the family rooms still have their original fireplaces, high ceilings and other period features, plus the appropriate furnishings. Two adjoining large rooms at the front, for example, are kitted out in all the flowery and finery of the Haute Epoque style. The emphasis on authenticity and homeliness means the guest rooms (about 100 euros per room per night for bed and breakfast) lack many of the conveniences found in most hotels, such as televisions, phones, kettles, power showers and even external locks. The gardens, complete with hen house, vegetable plot and paddock, also have an old-world feel, and it is surprising to find one of the barns contains a flashy spa. Breakfast is served in an atmospheric dining room with a huge antique radiator, a yellowing bust of a bearded aristocrat on the mantle piece and a vintage gun hanging on one wall. You take your place at one of the handful of round tables set with fine table cloths, posh cutlery and smart napkins. Breakfast consists of orange juice, coffee with warm milk, fresh bread and butter, moist banana cake or madeleines.

Juicy, slow-cooked joue de boeuf
You can also have dinner (35 euros for adults) in the same room. It begins with an appetiser, such as cherry tomatoes with goat's cheese washed down with some kind of fizzy pear wine. The starters, such as tatin d'andouille de Guemene with sauce au cidre or petit delice au crabe et sa puree de poireau, are hit and miss. But the mains tend to be better. The juicy, slow-cooked joue de boeuf comes with a delicious butter nut squash puree and mash potato, while the escalaope de volaille a la normande wallows in a delicious creamy sauce. But the accompanying carrots and broccoli can be a tad overcooked. The cheese board contains Camembert and two other soft, salty local cheeses, not always completely ripe, but a great match with the heavily seasoned and dressed green salad. Deserts include an exquisite apple tart or a playful pancake sack containing fruit and natural yogurt. There is also a short wine list starting at about 12 euros a bottle. The smooth Bordeaux from St. Emilion, at 14 euros for a half bottle, makes a good accompaniment to the rich food. Children can have a smaller, but still imaginative, dinner for 15 euros per head. Although there isn't a great deal to see in this part of Normandy, the Chateau de Villiers is a seductive and enjoyable place to stay. 8/10