A beauty spot

A beauty spot

Less than an hour from Paris, Chantilly makes an ideal day trip and a romantic weekend break

Chantilly Palace
Apart from the castle, Chantilly’s claim to fame is a deliciously airy concoction — Crème Chantilly or Chantilly cream.

We’ll always have Paris,” Rick says to Ilsa, one of the many quotable quotes from the movie Casablanca. Yes, Paris will always be there, like an old lover you return to often. But if you’re looking for a little something on the side, consider Chantilly. Just 50 km north of Paris, Chantilly is an elegant old town, full of sandstone-coloured townhouses, and surrounded by gardens and parkland. This ‘town of art and history’ has enough to keep you occupied for a day or a weekend, and makes for a genteel break from the busyness of Paris. Here’s what to see and do in Chantilly...

Castle calling

If Paris has Versailles, Chantilly has Château de Chantilly. Set amidst landscaped gardens on the shores of an artificial lake, the castle is a storybook vision — sprawling pale-yellow sandstone mansion with a slate-grey roof, turrets, and spires. The castle consists of two adjoining buildings — the Petit Château is the original (albeit restored) 16th-century part, and the Grande Château or Château Neuf, built in the 19th century on the site of the original castle that was destroyed during the French Revolution.

The Petit Château houses the Princes’ Suites, which give you a glimpse into the living accommodation of French royalty circa 18th and 19th centuries. The highlight here is the Cabinet des Livres that contains hundreds of manuscripts and books including a Gutenberg Bible. Another must-see is the vestibule leading up to the chapel, which is lined with original 16th-century stained-glass windows depicting the story of Cupid and Psyche.

The last owner of the castle was Henri d’Orleans, the Duke of Aumale, and son of the last King of France, Louis-Philippe. It was he who rebuilt the Grande Château in the Renaissance style that we see today. The Duke was an art lover and amassed quite a rich and varied collection of paintings and sculptures, all of which are showcased in what is now the Musée Condé. The museum is said to have the second-largest collection of antique paintings after the Louvre, and includes gems by Raphael, Poussin, Botticelli, Titian, Van Dyck and more. In keeping with the Duke’s wishes, the layout of the paintings has been kept unchanged since the 19th century, giving a unique perspective on the typical museography of that time, so different from modern museum curation.

Equestrian capers

The castle’s Grandes Écuries or Great Stables are quite spectacular, so much so that people often confuse the stables for the castle itself! The stables were built between 1719 and 1740 to house the royal horses and hounds. The then-owner Louis-Henri de Bourbon, the seventh Prince of Condé (and godfather to the Duke of Aumale), believed that he would be reincarnated as a horse. Hence, he had the stables built in an appropriately grand style. Today, the stables contain the Musée Vivant du Cheval (Living Museum of the Horse) which displays equestrian artworks, riding equipment, rocking horses, and other objets d’art. The stables put up spectacular equestrian shows that combine horse riding, acrobatics, and humour. Don’t miss the 30-minute demonstration where you can watch the dressage (horses being trained for these performances).

Crème de la crème

Apart from the castle, Chantilly’s claim to fame is a deliciously airy concoction — Crème Chantilly or Chantilly cream. A favourite with patissiers and dessert aficionados, it is simply cream and sugar whipped together until it thickens to form waves. There are various stories about the origin of Chantilly cream, all of which involve royal banquets. Whipped cream had been around in the French and Italian courts for a while, but the inspired addition of sugar took place in Chantilly at the Château de Chantilly where the Prince of Condé hosted frequent banquets.

I got a first-hand demonstration of Chantilly cream being made in the La Capitainerie restaurant at Château de Chantilly. The restaurant is located in the former kitchen of the castle, and is an atmospheric venue for a light meal.

The dessert course is preceded by the whipped cream demonstration. A robust Frenchwoman, attired in a spotless white apron and (somewhat incongruously) a black-and-white beret, made an appearance with a large stainless steel container, an ice bath, cream, and sugar. She mixed the cream and sugar in the container and placed it in the ice bath. She then proceeded to whip it rapidly with a balloon whisk, expertly turning the container around to make sure the cream is whipped evenly. There was definitely a lot of elbow grease involved in the process. An important test of correctly whipped Chantilly cream is to turn the container upside down over your head; if you have beaten the cream properly, it should hold shape and not come pouring down on you!

There’s also the risk of over-beating the cream into butter. No such danger in the expert hands of our lady in the kitchen; her perfectly whipped Chantilly cream soon accompanied my dessert of chocolate mousse — a match made in heaven.