During the spring and early summer of 2021 in Paris, I made numerous excursions about which I do not write in An American in Pandemic Paris. Chantilly, birthplace of whipped cream, was one of my favorites.
With Gabriel (the quintessential Frenchman, who I was sort of seeing at the time) at the wheel, we headed first to Senlis, thirty miles north of Paris, one rainy day in May. Founded by the Romans, who in the third century built a still-visible, seven-meter high wall to protect themselves from the unruly native Franks, it’s now a sleepy, if charming, small town of crooked lanes, occasional small-scale archaeological sites, and a veritable encyclopedia of French architecture over the course of two millenia.
The first king of France, Hugh Capet, established his capital there in the tenth century, and it remained a ‘royal’ town until the ‘July Revolution’ of 1830. A lone lilac bush with extraordinary blossoms of dark purple petals edged by a white border stood alone on the garden lawn, reminding me of how rural Swedes traditionally planted a lilac bush and an apple tree by their newly built cottages. When you cross them in the forest, you know a dwelling once stood there. These fancy royal lilacs were divinely aromatic, and I wondered if they were a relic of imperial times past. I’d seen lilacs in white and purple, but never ones embellished by a delicate decorative border. Nearby, a small, two-story building constructed with even courses of irregularly shaped stones, appeared to be one changed and repurposed over the centuries. Its ground floor featured a full story-height, pointed, Gothic arch (once a portal?) enframing a narrow rectangular window. Above, the interstices of three rounded Romanesque arches separated by svelte variegated columnettes with floriated capitals had been filled with masonry to prevent deterioration. While it would have been lovely to stop at a Senlis café for a steaming cup of coffee to take the edge off the piercing chill of that rainy day, everything, including the cathedral, was closed.
From Senlis, we drove to nearby Chantilly, a popular weekend destination for Parisians seeking fresh air and forested parks to exercise their families and pets. The chateau was closed (all museums were at that point), but after finding a plum parking spot just outside the chateau portal and beside the famous stables and race track, in a few short steps we enjoyed a stunning view of the chateau and the park before it, with its orderly, patterned formal garden designed by the Versailles garden designer, André le Nôtre. By then, the sun shone, and warmed our backs as we strolled the near section of the park. The chateau, originally built in the sixteenth century and destroyed during the French Revolution, was reconstructed in the late nineteenth century.
Afterward, we joined the throngs walking the main drag and wandering in and out of open (some illegally) shops and cafes. We decided to pause for a snack and stopped at an inviting sweets boutique selling Chantilly alongside a variety of cakes. Gabriel did as I would have were I not gluten intolerant and ordered a chocolate confection accompanied by a generous portion of the sweet stuff. I’d noticed a bowl of large, perfectly former, ripe raspberries, and asked if I might just have a handful of those topped by the frothy delight. Puzzled but accommodating, the server arranged the berries in a glass jar, two-thirds of which was filled with dense Chantilly, almost the consistency of merengue before baking.
Once in my mouth, a virtual Verdi opera unfolded: light, complex, sweet (but not too), dense, leaving a pleasant, faint oiliness in my mouth. I ate the raspberries one at a time and crowned them with a dollop before ushering the spoon into my salivating mouth. Never had I inhaled so deeply with every delicious bite, pressing the sweet foam against my palette with my tongue. It was one of those moments when one neither counts calories nor stops eating once sated. I didn’t want to leave behind a single memorable drop.
My first visit to Chantilly was in the company of Trocadéro Man. We’d left Prague one May morning in 2018, after a weekend visit to an art collector, whose estate was situated a twenty-minute drive from the city center. A large, navy Mercedes picked us up and chauffeured us to and from the event. The host had invited friends and set up several ‘stations’ around his garden: an easel on which paintings were switched out by servants every 15-20 minutes (de Chiricos, Picassos, Modiglianis), a chessboard (where Trocadéro Man spent much of the afternoon), a catered buffet, and servers circulating with trays of champagne and hors d’oeuvres. There was also an activity station for children, and a roofed pergola under which sat a group of women, who all seemed to know one another. Before we were ferried back to town, the host took us on a tour of his home and garden, which he proudly announced he’d designed himself with the help of an architect. There, we saw more paintings as well as sculptures by Arp and Rodin, all of great interest to TM, a fellow art collector, who’d hosted a Czech group visiting the Paris Art Fair earlier in the spring at his penthouse apartment.
TM had booked a rental car for our return because he’d planned to drive directly to the airfield where he’d planned to take a lesson on a new type of small aircraft (he was a passionate pilot), but just prior to takeoff from Prague, learned that the lesson had been postponed. Undaunted, TM kept the reservation, and on the plane asked me if I’d ever been to Chantilly and would I like to visit that afternoon. No and yes, I responded. As we walked to the car rental, TM called his AmEx Black Card concierge, and asked them to reserve a table at Chantilly’s best restaurant for 1 p.m. We enjoyed an exquisite lunch of spring vegetable soup and scallops for lunch in a genteel and artistocratically appointed dining room. During the short time I’d known him, I learned to eat with my left, fork-holding hand only, since TM habitually extended his left hand, palm up, signalling that he wanted to dine while holding hands, a gesture I found charming, like so much else about this dream-fulfilling gentleman.
Afterwards, we walked to the chateau, open as usual in 2018, and headed straight for the library, TM’s favorite private library in all of France, which he was eager to share. As we entered the intimate, book-lined space furnished with just a few comfortable leather chairs for privileged readers, he swung his arm around my waist, drew me close and whispered (so as not to disturb others), about his first impressionable visit there as a child, an experience that whetted his desire to build such a library (which he later did in his apartment but on a much smaller scale), and to be surrounded by books both inspiring and beautiful. Together, we marveled at the precision painting and jewel-like colors of the famous Très riches heures of the Duc de Berry, displayed in a protective glass vitrine. TM had both the desire and the means to immerse himself in beauty and pleasure and didn’t hesitate to do so, while concurrently fulfilling his social responsibilities and pursuing philanthropic activities.
I hadn’t known about the library, but was very familiar with the paintings gallery, the Musée Condé, which holds some of the most famous works of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century French art. TM certainly knew this and presented it as a kind of surprise for me, releasing my hand as we entered, so I could twirl and marvel at the masterpieces surrounding me. Paintings by Corot, Gros, Ingres, Poussin, and Raphael, were displayed as they now no longer are—stacked from waist-height to ceiling on maroon fabric-lined walls. Enroute back to Paris, we stopped at a farm stand to buy asparagus (it was in season), he for his mother and me for, well, me. I found myself happily seduced by this privileged life of spontenaity and ease, of pleasure without worry.