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Enchantement In The Mist At The Château De Montreuil

On the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the northeast coast of France not far from the Belgian border, sunlight casts a particular translucent glow after the rain, a phenomenon that accounts for the area being called “the Opal Coast.” We had hopes of seeing the famed opaline light on a rainy September afternoon when we arrived in Montreuil-sur-Mer, a small city surrounded by medieval stone ramparts. Unfortunately the clouds hung low for the duration of our stay. All was not lost, however, for at the Château de Montreuil, light rain and persistent mist only served to enhance the enchantment.

The property -- a three-story cream-colored building with turquoise shutters, a dining terrace, manicured lawns, neat hedges, and an overflowing English garden traversed by narrow brick pathways -- is enclosed by an old stone wall. Like a pair of sentries, two ancient peony bushes stand at the garden gate. They were long past their glory by September; yet in size and foliage, they hinted at the magnificence of their blossoms in June. A second building at the far end of the property, now a museum of decorative arts, was originally a residence belonging to a branch of the English Rothschilds. They added the Château to the property in 1930.

During the Second World War, when the area was occupied by the Germans, it became their army headquarters. Afterwards when the family had returned, they converted the building to a public place which ultimately became one of the first Relais & Châteaux. The present proprietors, Christian and Lindsay Germain, took over in the early 1980s.

Coming out of the rain into the darkly paneled 17-room inn, we felt we had stepped into Dicken’s “Old Curiosity Shop.” Cupboards, sideboards, and stands lined the hallways and public areas, their shelves filled with figurines, framed daguerreotypes, vases, flower pots,  clocks, ceramics, candlesticks, and crockery  Our third floor room beneath the eaves was decorated in lively, warm colors, with a downy four poster bed, plump arm chairs, an antique secretary and dresser. Satin draperies of vivid scarlet hung over the headboard brushing against matching bolsters. We were tempted not to venture out.

But the lure of the restaurant down on the main floor prevailed. There we entered a strikingly different world: two high-ceilinged, spacious and brightly lit dining rooms and an enclosed porch that overlooked the garden we had walked through earlier in the day. Wallpaper was a delicate pattern of yellow, pale green, and gray that was repeated in slip-covered chairs surrounding tables covered with cloths of pure white damask. Yellow roses abounded in small vases on every table, in urns on serving tables and carts, in a grand display on the mantle of a beautiful fireplace that is the highlight of the larger dining room.

To dine at the Château de Montreuil is to get an insight into the depth and range of France’s culinary culture. In terms of international gastronomic recognition, the Opal Coast does not compare to Paris or regions like Burgundy, Provence, or the Cote d’Azur. Yet the dinner prepared by Christian Germain and his staff of 15 – when it comes to product, preparation, execution, and presentation -- was equal to the best we have ever had. This place, one of three Michelin-rated restaurants in the Pas de Calais, compares with the great ones.

There are only fourteen tables that accommodate 50 people at a single seating. For us, dinner began on the porch where maitre d’ Jean Paul Anthierens, known as J.P.,  brought us glasses of champagne and a tray of amuse bouches: a miniature portion of mussel cream soup with saffron, a cherry tomato stuffed with quail, and a tiny fishcake in a chive butter sauce.

As we sipped and sampled, he translated the unfamiliar terms on the menu and explained the predominance of local and seasonal products. They go to the markets and actually see the products they will use, he told us. They inspect the daily catches at nearby port Boulogne-sur-Mer and get beef and poultry from local purveyors. They even engage the services of a local fromagerie (cheese maker), Philippe Olivier, who has brought an old cheese: Vieux Boulogne back to life. Northern France is rich in cattle, in fish like sea bass, sole, lobster, crab. There are many excellent farmers dedicated to producing quality vegetables, he added. What is not available locally, they import from other parts of France like strawberries and asparagus from the south in spring, or white asparagus from the Loire Valley.

Maitre d’ Jean Paul Anthierens (J.P.) - click to enlarge
Maitre d’ Jean Paul Anthierens (J.P.)

Sommelier John Luc Ama - click to enlarge
Sommelier John Luc Ama

J.P. was originally from Paris. He had worked at the Château back in 1984 when the current management was still new. Then he left, gained some experience in different regions, but ultimately returned. “It was interesting to see other places,” he said, “but now I feel like I’ve come home. I try to make the guests feel like they are at home too,” he added.

After placing our order, we moved to a table opposite the fireplace in the first dining room which was already filling up. There we had such dishes as barigoule de légumes saisonniers -- a vegetable stew of artichoke hearts (made with the small artichokes currently in season) grazed with summer truffles and juniper berries and accompanied by slices of smoked Serrano ham from Spain; foie gras in a sauce of sauterne wine; and crabe de nos côtes (local crab meat)-filled ravioli. Every so often Christian Germain will surprise, J.P. had told us. We were surprised when a serving of six gros gris (local snails) arrived. Only two were in their shell as expected, another two were combined with porridge in a little bowl, yet another two had found their way into a glass of creamy flan.

One of our entrees was pintade de Licques (guinea fowl named for the village it comes from near Calais). Stuffed with foie gras, breaded, and deep fried, it was served in a sauce of shallots, chili, butter, vinegar, and white wine. Another was contrefilet de Salers, (sirloin from a local purveyor) which came with poivre de penja – a pepper sauce made with a pepper from Cameroon that is pungent and very flavorful, unlike anything we’d ever tasted. “If you take the time,” J.P. said, “you will appreciate it.” Accompanying the steak were rattes du Touquet, potatoes grown locally in sandy soil, stuffed with shallots.

Desserts were a continuation of the exceptional:  Maras des Bois, a kind of strawberry, with poached rhubarb, and a compote of tomatoes and vanilla and basil ice cream. Also rhubarb soufflé with carrots and ginger. And milk chocolate with raspberries and sweet peppers. We’d had the combination of fruit and vegetables before, but these were truly extraordinary.

“The chef is very creative,” J.P said. “You won’t find this menu anywhere else. You don’t create a dish every day; you build on what you have already done, always adding something new.”

The wine component reaches the bar set by the chef and his staff. The Château has 13,000 bottles, mostly French -- as one would expect -- and their listing makes for a weighty wine tome. We stopped at Petrus (a favorite of the late President Kennedy and his family, we were once told) -- a cool 1,960 Euros (approximately $2,300).

“I don’t choose the price. I choose the wine,” the sommelier John Luc Ama told us and pointed out more realistic choices like the red Medoc (Greysac 2001) he wisely suggested for us.

At the completion of this outstanding dining experience, we had coffee with the personable Christian Germain in the rustic bar lounge. Beside a glowing fire, relaxed, and seemingly still energetic after a night’s work, he laughed when we asked how he was feeling.

Chef and innkeeper Christian Germain

“Being in the kitchen is lovely,” he said. “You can see, you can taste, you can smell. You can express yourself. Sometimes I come out and take the orders and then go back in the kitchen. That is great because you have the contact. Then at the end, you can go out and say ‘Well, did it work out? Did you enjoy what I suggested?’

“Just to go out and say ‘Is everything all right?’ doesn’t seem to have much meaning. I like to greet people when they are leaving the dining room or the next morning. What matters in life is communication.”

We were curious how to learn how he came to this place. “I am from right near the Belgian border,” he told us. “Although my ambition was to be a vet in a racing stable, my first job was working for my father in his butcher shop. By the age of 16, I could do anything with meat and realized my future would be in food preparation. But I did not want to be a chef; I wanted to run a restaurant, to welcome people.

“For a time I was a chef in a restaurant in Kent,” he continued. “That was where I met my wife. Together we opened a place in London. One day, we were traveling in the north of France and stopped off in Montreuil. It is a very historic place. Victor Hugo stayed here on his way from Belgium to Paris; later he set the start of “Les Miserables” in Montreuil.

“We found this place. It had been a Relais & Châteaux since 1954, but by this time, it was getting seedy. We knew we’d have to renovate. The day we opened in March 1982, the Michelin guide came out. We had lost our star. That meant we were in danger of losing our Relais & Châteaux designation, but they gave us a year’s probation.”

Within a year, the Château de Montreuil had met Relais & Châteaux standards once again. A few years later, the Michelin star was restored. “For me Relais & Châteaux comes first, before a Michelin star,” Germain said. “I know if a restaurant is in a Relais & Châteaux, it must be on the level of at least one Michelin star.”

This place certainly is. And the Opal Coast is certainly worth a detour off the well-driven routes of France. “At the moment Normandy gets the attention,” Germain told us.  “This is a wild part of France; it is largely unknown. Yet now with the tunnel and motorways, it is only two hours from London or Brussels or Paris. Our beaches are the best in Europe. You can walk along the sand for miles, from one town to another, pass the fisherman with their boats coming in, their nets filled with the daily catch. Even when it’s crowded, there’s space. It is so beautiful a place.

“We get a lot of English and Belgian people,” he added. “Americans should come here too.”

They should.

Château de Montreuil - Relais et Châteaux
Restaurant Gastronomique et Hôtel de Charme
62170 Montreuil sur Mer, France

Phone: 33+ 321 81 53 04 

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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