A hunting lodge to dine for
Château de Massillan sits pretty in 24 acres of vigorous vineyard in Côtes du Rhône's small village of Uchaux, between Avignon and Montelimar.
Less than a 90-minute drive from Marseille, this journey is a breeze. The drive, once you leave the A7, and for much of this smooth motorway, is special; with views of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire and farther up the Montagne du Lubéron and Mont Ventoux, to regular visions of the petit Provencal villages, built originally by the Ligures on rocky outcrops or hills, which never cease to stir the heart. This is a beautiful part of the world and its pleasures, in gastronomic and geological abundance, deposit rich rewards in our oft depleted 'feel good' reserves. Suffice to say, this château is situated near to some of the finest vineyards on the globe (Châteauneuf-du-Pape), a passion that runs deep with Mr Why.
A stylish tribute
Diane de Poitiers was mistress to Henry 11 for several reasons; she was beautiful, smart, beguiling and by all accounts a true aesthete. As mistress/consort she enjoyed many privileges until the King's critical impaling at a jousting tournament in 1559. Her sense of home, hospitality and family appear to have been her overwhelming passions and, as a result, she lived in places of exceptional beauty. Château de Massillan was built as her hunting lodge in 1550 - its arresting appearance is testament to her extraordinary appreciation of the magnificent.
On arrival, the impact of this uncomplicated solid build is breathtaking. It's a twin-turreted fairytale vision built during the apex of the French Renaissance, though with a feel of the medieval, and is fronted by a wide circle of fragrant billowing lavender. Intriguingly, the castellated exterior: masculine, majestic and strapping, sets an intriguing contrast to the graceful intramural spaces that dazzle behind its protective entrance.
Without subduing the indomitable spirit entrenched from its 16th Century origins, Birgit Israel, owner and internationally acclaimed interior designer, has created a place of luxury, with a classic peppering of haute Provence, in a mesmerically eclectic and uplifting style. Mirrors - gilt, rococo and minimalist, are hung above or balanced upon, the age-defying flagstone floors. Elegant period pieces sit comfortably alongside contemporary with a 'signature' hint of last century vintage, while covetable crystal chandeliers hang luxuriantly overhead. The lighting at night is wondrously romantic, whether you dine within the effervescent Orangerie or outside in the ambient courtyard. There is perhaps a meeting of the minds somewhere between the beguiling Birgit and the formidable Diane.
The immediate, profusely lush, grounds are fantastically shaded by some of the most enormous plane trees I have ever seen. Their glorious mottled girths and soaring branches allow for dappled light to sprinkle the lawns and raked sand-pathway that circumvents the estate and lake. Mr Why and I strolled across the dewy lawn for a swing on the lake's rustic bench as the sun was dropping and the cicadas were increasing the volume from their acoustic chambers. With our flutes of vintage bubbles in hand, we counted seven weeping willows, draping languidly into the diamond-flecked water. Several long-lived coy carp surfaced to pout their exaggerated lips, while upside-down 'boatmen' scurried to safety. This place is charming - it's not too precious, nor too immaculate, thereby allowing a sense of tranquility to prevail over prescribed conformity. Make yourself at home here: chillax!
This feeling of 'la belle vie' spills over into all aspects of your stay at Massillan. The staff are welcoming, natural and feel like a cohesive team. The inner courtyard, graced with cyprus, lemon, lavender and flora exotica, has been skillfully 'zen-ed' with a (swimming-pool) large limestone-clad water feature, the sounds of which permeate both the outdoor and indoor ethereality. There is also a long swimming pool, with sunbeds and service, tucked behind pruned hedges, providing a sense of privacy and intimacy to the gourmet bather.
Our suite, number 15, (with those beloved French windows) leads out onto a terrace, bedecked with sun-loungers, parasol and a full aspect of the inviting courtyard. Each room seems to be individually crafted with a unique blend of antique and modern furniture - but still the overall effect is one of being in a magical château in Provence. With foundations dating back to the 16th century, acoustics can be a tricky one to master, therefore, if you wish to be isolated, please discuss this option prior to arrival.
Our beamed ceiling soared above us with one of those glorious chandeliers overhead. Our glass topped table in front of our lavender-blue sofa was set pretty with a bottle of Massillan's own Côte-du-Rhône, fantastic 'fruit frais', and an entire, perfectly formed, deeply decadent tarte au chocolat; encased in butterfly-wing-thin filo pastry. The diet, as always in this unrivalled land of haute cuisine, flew straight out of those fine French doors and into a past life. The bathroom is a languorous lament to limestone with outsized sinks, a freestanding bath and a large shower. Trés, trés, romantique.
Andreas is the chef, also a sort of chef patron. He is talented, creative, organic, and humorous. Dining at La Massillan is a meal within an event. The sense of occasion is enhanced by the moody lighting at night along with the combination of heady Provencal aromas; lavender, rosemary, thyme and place - the gastro-grabbing wafts from the theatrical kitchen. Though it was serenade-worthy, thank goodness Mr Why refrained.
Andreas is, as many of us now favour, a seasonal and in many cases 'local' cook. He and his sous chef not only visit the markets daily but are also fortunate enough to pluck emerging vegetables at source from the Château's walled herb and vegetable garden. This includes potatoes, so I'm not sure if it was a result of homegrown or culinary skill that made the light Vichyssoise so outstanding. The medley of sweet young vegetables accompanied most of the courses in a variety of formats. The 'chips' were piquant slices of tomato; salads were a triumph of lightly grilled root vegetables with crisp edges, combined with frisky fresh herbs, chervil, rocket and frilly lettuce - all plucked a few yards from the plate. We drank an exceptional Pouilly Fuissé from the small but perfectly formed list. It was an 'Hors d'Age 2002' from Ferret - the best cuvee and the best vintage you will find anywhere.
Our turbot was charged with the garden's herbes-de-Provence and was not a second overcooked; the Charolais beef, with a glass of excellent St Joseph rouge each, was treated to a coating of coffee enhanced spices, on a bed of braised red onions, in a light Massillan inspired reduction. The 'crème glace au pistache' was as good as you can imagine and the fresh mint tea was sipped with some altogether naughty dusted chocolates.
Sadly we only had one night at Château de Massillan on this fine French forage through dreamy Provence. I would recommend two, perhaps three, even four... The bikes lined up against the old stonewall of the Château's pine forest could, no doubt, all tell a memorable Summer's tale.