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.