A Midsummer Night’s Cream

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 gladly spend the better part of an afternoon simply 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 left the kitchen and watched it move toward us slowly, in pendular motions, as the tray beneath it swung 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. And I, playing the familiar part of the bourgeois newcomer hoping for my own brush with greatness, waited impatiently until at last the plate made its final sweeping descent to our table.

Whatever its appearance may have lacked in flashy presentation it made up for in confident simplicity. The best stuff, after all, needs no frills and would only be diminished by the deceptive primp and preen of which lesser contenders often rely. I had in front of me exactly what the menu had promised, no more and no less.

Had it been just another summery dessert I would’ve wasted little time digging in. Had it been a haphazard pick off the menu I would have, in my usual fashion, spooned my way almost to the end before I’d managed to taste it. But to do so this time would have been to miss out on a deeper appreciation than any temporary tingle of taste buds could offer. It would’ve also contradicted the deliberate plan I’d made for this part of the day, a simple plan but one that had been several days in the making and for which my choice from the menu could have been one thing and one thing only–strawberries and whipped cream.

*               *               *

Three years had passed since I last saw the chateau grounds. I absorbed the majesty of it for a second time as we approached the parking lot via the estate’s large southern roundabout, the car sweeping counterclockwise along the cobblestoned circle like an hour hand flicked backward against its mechanism. Clearly 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 fact, in the category of pre-19th century paintings this collection is considered one of the finest in France, second only to the Louvre. It represents the accumulated 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 (pictured right), did with his new home what every other land-owning noble was doing in the mid 1600s—he took to decorating, and he took to it hard. After all, 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, awfully pretty grass in the backyard. For this reason le Grand Condé called in André Le Nôtre, of Versailles fame, to give to the chateau grounds a strolling environment fit for king, should the king ever manage to visit.

And visit he did, in 1671, which incidentally walks us further along the manicured footpath toward my strawberries and whipped cream. Because the extravagant three-day festival that welcomed King Louis XIV and his royal court to the chateau, with all its eating and dancing and fornicating, full of those 17th century courtesans I had imagined the tourists to be earlier, would set in motion a long-lasting tradition of grandes fêtes on the premises. It was a hearty tradition that would enjoy two more generations of revelry 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—a simulated Disney-style country village, a sort of fabricated fantasy where he 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 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. La crème Chantilly–a.k.a. Chantilly cream, a.k.a. whipped cream–had been invented (or at least officially recognized). It would quickly take the upper class by storm and forever retain the name of the place where it all started, the Château de Chantilly.

That’s what had brought me to the simple plastic table in the outdoor café of the Hamlet of the chateau on a warm summer day. And clearly it wasn’t the strawberries I was after.  I wanted to taste real Chantilly cream, in Chantilly, in the same exact 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 the same July sun and the same chestnut trees. There’s something satisfyingly synchronistic 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 version we’ve grown accustomed to it was almost of 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 somewhere in 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 its world-famous lace (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 that, 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.

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About A French Frye in Paris

An American living in Paris, savoring the city one secret at a time. View all posts by A French Frye in Paris

60 responses to “A Midsummer Night’s Cream

  • hmunro

    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!

  • Dena

    I came to read, expecting snark and your usual entertaining banter but this was poetry! Still entertaining, of course! Nicely written :-)

  • Lee I

    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.

    • Corey Frye

      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.

  • cyberscribbles

    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.

  • Unmana

    So beautiful! Thanks for the pictures. And now I’m craving strawberries with cream!

  • Mikalee Byerman

    Beautiful — the writing and the images! A very well-deserved Freshly Pressed…

    :)

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • runservecook

    I wish i could write like you!

  • MJ Conner

    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.

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • hmunro

    Woooo-hoooooo! Félicitations, Corey! :)

  • Daniella

    Your pictures are beautiful!! I love Paris, wish I could go back!

    • Corey Frye

      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.

  • Simply Om

    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!!!

    • Corey Frye

      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.

  • ellengry

    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 :-)

  • JWB

    Excellent photos, and what a way to describe the events that manifested their presence.

    • Corey Frye

      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.

      • JWB

        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…

  • nazarioartpainting

    Beautiful place. I love the library. It is a magical place for people that love books like me.

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • Belinda Frye Hamblen

    You never cease to amaze me my dear cousin! Love and miss you!

  • haileyjw

    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!

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • Dancing Beastie

    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. ;)

    • Corey Frye

      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.

  • trishworth

    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.

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • aparnauteur

    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!

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • cutecuteysao

    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!!

  • dovergirl

    Phenomenal post!
    Who wouldn’t want to eat whipped cream in those gardens? Luckily the photos are calorie free!

    reversecommuter.com

    • Corey Frye

      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.

  • caramelolimon

    I so love your post. You managed to meld a history lesson with such a beautiful culinary experience. Great writing!

    http://www.caramelolimon.wordpress.com

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • innamazing

    Beautiful. So culturally rich. Congratulations.

    http://innamazing.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/russian-red/ swing by (please?)

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • Steel Bar Fitness

    Very well written. Extraordinary imagery and wonderful coloring. Great Job!

  • twoblackdoggies

    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 :-)

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • theinfinitejourneyblog

    Beautiful photos!! Very well written :)

  • dmarshall58

    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.

    • Corey Frye

      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!

  • Kelly Woods

    I have a new found love! Your words are enticing and draw me to a place I can only dream of visiting someday.

    • A French Frye in Paris

      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!

  • maria

    Oh, stunging photos of Versailles and Loire

  • graciamc

    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. ;-)

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