This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
Outside it’s raining hard, and all we can see of northern France are autoroute reflectors glowing green under the glare of our headlights as we speed towards Le Mans. We’re tired, crotchety, cursing this country’s passion for rail strikes, and fantasising wildly about the bread, cheese and carafe of wine we’ve been promised on arrival. I’m confident it won’t consist of a plastic-wrapped slice of supermarket cheddar. ‘Do you think there’ll be Pont L’Eveque?’ I ask Mr Smith. ‘And gooey Camembert?’ he counters. ‘And something radioactively whiffy, with proper French bread to squash it on...’
By the time we reach the village of Saint-Paterne in the Perche region, we’re almost delirious with hunger. We pass the church and peer into inky blackness through sprays of water to make out the bulk of a small turreted cha?teau dating back to the 15th century, and take a sharp right turn into its rewardingly crunchy gravel driveway.
It’s 10.30pm and we haven’t so much as packed up the SatNav when the front door swings open and proprietor Ségolène de Valbray appears to greet us. She shows us into a series of communal salons furnished with parquet floors, faded rugs and antiques, promising us not just cheese, but a tray in our room with a plate of something warm. ‘We haven’t really put away dinner yet,’ she says.
This is the beauty of Château de Saint Paterne. There are 10 rooms and suites, each spacious and with its own distinctive character. Yet, though guests’ privacy is never compromised, this maison d’hôte retains the sense of being a grand family home (which it is: the de Valbrays have lived here for centuries) to which you’re invited for a long weekend of sumptuous meals and good hosting.
A reassuring smell of wood smoke emanates from the open fire in the drawing-room grate, and we’re tempted to curl up in a salon – perhaps the one with velvety, wine-coloured walls, comfortable armchairs and bold display of tall church candles. But Ségolène is already throwing open a back door and marching us outside, over more gravel, past a wet lawn, towards a high-ceilinged garden building whose high windows are illuminated by the warm light glowing inside.
This is the Orangerie, an airy space that must be suffused with sunshine in summer yet is still, at the less sympathetic end of October, surprisingly cosy. It feels like an extension of the outdoors: a painted garden picture hangs like wallpaper along one entire, long wall; the enormous bed is built out of great big hunks and chunks of naked wood; and the semi-open-plan bathroom is painted a sprightly lime green. Even the chandelier seems to be made of branches. My ragged senses are still being soothed by decadent details – a pair of champagne flutes beside the bath, the oversized sink piled with L’Occitane toiletries, terracotta tiles with underfloor heating – when there’s a knock at the door.
The tray – no, two trays – arrive, crammed with dishes. This is a four-course feast, not a supper. We feel regally pampered. Spiced mussel soup might not have been my first choice so late (it’s now 11pm) but it’s so good I finish it. Next comes a meltingly tender lamb tagine studded with medjool dates, made by the Moroccan housekeeper. I’m too tired to tackle the plump, glistening strawberry tart, or make a hole in the cheese, which comes on a plate of dressed lettuce leaves – and I start to wonder how much this might all be costing. (€30 each, it turns out, which is extraordinary considering the quality.) No fan of clever-clever foams wrung out of a daringly unappetising set of ingredients, or over-worked edible sculptures on ridiculously shaped plates, I’m relieved to find the food at Château de Saint Paterne is pitched at the level of home cooking, if you could actually cook that well.
As we discover the following night, the way dinner usually goes is that guests gather for a convivial fireside aperitif at 8pm (in my case, an unholily strong G&T). Then, at about 8.30pm, everyone moves on to the dining room to eat a set menu by candelight at their own tables. In the kitchen in his pinny most evenings is Charles-Henry de Valbray himself. Where did he learn such skills, I ask, sighing over a beautifully light asparagus mousseline, and magret de canard cooked with honey and crispy little potatoes. Charles-Henry shrugs. ‘Just at home, in the family kitchen.’
The wine list is short, just a handful of reds and whites. Like the British aristocracy, it takes refuge in well-bred clarets. It’d be nice to see a few more exciting bottles, though what’s here is good. I love that it’s sold by the bottle, but when we ask for a glass of Pouilly-Fumé each, Ségolène says that’s fine – she will drink the rest herself.
Much of our time is spent dreaming of whiling away a few days here in warmer weather; the outdoor pool is open until the end of September, and we’d have the run of the 25-acre grounds. The lawn is dotted with chairs and tables begging for you to sit with a book, sipping a local drop. As for its Smith credentials, there’s a fairy-tale quality, and it’s romantic, too. King Henry IV apparently stole away here for trysts with his lovers. More prosaically, the motoring museum at nearby Le Mans is said to be excellent. I am drawn to the glittering Loire, about an hour and a half’s drive away, where there are wine producers galore, so you can drop in for a tasting without making an appointment.
Our greatest temptation? To keep coming back, staying in a different room each time: we love Chambre Henri IV, whose antique wardrobe is carved with faces that Charles-Henry admits terrified him as a child; and Chambre du Parc with its attic bathroom. A secret door in a room downstairs opens onto a stone spiral staircase that takes you to another suite, the more modern Mystères. Consider them all earmarked.