Less than an hour away from Paris – 30 minutes on the train and a short walk – is the Chantilly castle with its enormous, pristine grounds. Designed by Le Nôtre, the landscape architect for Versailles, the place feels virtually empty in comparison. Perfect setting for a picnic. Or two picnics, for the truly serious outing/eating.
We had several cheeses, three kinds of bread, including my favourite nuage tressé (plaited sourdough with crème fraîche), salami, Tyrrells crisps, peaches, hummus with preserved lemon, aubergine dip, and roasted aubergines. Cubed and baked with olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano and whole coriander seeds, packed in more oil, they were silky and delicious piled onto baguettes with extra aubergine dip.
It was gloriously hot as we followed the shade around the ‘jardin anglais’ (the English section of the garden is supposed to be more wild, sauvage, than the manicured geometry of the French half). We said hi to the sheep and donkeys then cooled off in the château, admiring the gilt trimmings and the crooked nose of the prince that lived there, the duc d’Orléans. (The main castle is actually a reconstruction of the original destroyed in the French Revolution.)
Between us we polished off a dish of real chantilly cream – as I learned at pastry school, whipped cream sweetened with 10% sugar and flavoured naturally. And then, when tired of culture, we picnicked again in the hameau (not a hammock, sadly, but the hamlet that was the inspiration for Marie-Antoinette’s ‘little farm’), eating the leftover chocolate choux puffs and wondering lazily if the enclos de kangourous at the end of the park had real kangaroos in it, or if it was a euphemism. We took naps instead, under the loosely waving branches.
To get to the castle: catch a train to Chantilly-Gouvieux from the Gare du Nord, then follow the signs to the Château, past the Hippodrome. About a 20 minute walk. You can buy tickets just for the grounds, or for the castle as well. (Includes Horse Museum, which we did not visit.) Highly recommended as a peaceful alternative to Versailles, as is Vaux-Le-Vicomte, at Melun on the RER D; or Chamarande on the RER C: less grand, but with beautiful grounds.