Often when travelling the reality doesn’t match the fantasy. But, driving back from the south of France last summer we stumbled across the quintessential French pitstop.
The long journey north, to the ferry at Caens, would have been tedious if we’d done it in one go. Instead our little contingent decided to stay overnight somewhere around Poitiers. In our heads we imagined a little auberge with gingham tablecloths, a simple local menu and flaky, patisserie-fresh croissants for breakfast, but half expected to end up in an Ibis hotel alongside a motorway. Instead we took what looked on the map to be a shortcut between Limoges and Tours and ended up in the pretty stone village of Lussac-les-Chateaux.
Right on the road here was the hotel Les Orangeries. If the local tourist board had designed it they couldn’t have done a better job. Set in a honey-stone building with green-painted shutters, our bedroom came with huge windows and a well-trodden wooden floor (book a room overlooking the garden if you want absolute peace). At the back of the building was a glorious terrace opening out onto a large garden complete with chic swimming pool and orange trees (though the name is actually a nod to the owner’s grandfather whose Algerian orange groves once supplied some of France’s finest groceries).
Most memorable of all, however, was dinner. Instead of grabbing a chilled service station sandwich, we found ourselves eating out on that candlelit terrace, on a table laid with starched white linen and polished glassware, surrounded by tables of multi-generation French families enjoying the buzz of a balmy summer’s evening and generous amounts of local chenin blanc.
Recently named International Sustainable Hotel Restaurant of the Year by the SRA Les Orangeries tries to source the majority of its produce from within a 30km radius – much of it from two large gardens in the village – and uses them with great care. Our mains of duck breast with a chickpea and pistachio mousseline sauce and John Dory with crushed new potatoes, pak choi and buttered asparagus sauce were highlights of a week’s eating across the Channel. And all the more delicious thanks to the fantastic setting.
If we detected a subtle ripple of unexpected flavours in the cooking, it was because the hotel’s chef, David Royer, has recently been experimenting with flower waters. With the help of Nicole Seiler at the sweetly named Les Jardins Possibles in nearby Persac, who grows edible flowers and herbs for culinary use, he has recently been adding flower waters, a by-product of distilled oils, to his recipes.
‘It adds a subtle twist,’ explained the hotel’s owner, Olivia Gautier, taking us on a tour of Nicole’s garden. ‘You can add different colours and flavours just by using the herbs and flowers in their standard form but the waters are something different. We put the sage water in apple compote, the rose geranium in marshmallows, panna cotta and cakes, the lavender with yoghurt, the basil with tomato or chocolate dishes. They’re much less concentrated than essential oils and easier to use in the kitchen because you can’t overdo it.’
We were soon biting into buttery madeleines and freshly picked plums dotted with sage water, rosemary water and citrusy sorrel water; trying them on something edible rather than ‘naked’ is a great experiment in flavor combining we discovered. ‘As soon as you start getting that mix of flavours and tastes it becomes much more interesting than trying them on their own,’ added Olivia. It also made dinner at Les Orangeries restaurant more interesting that evening, as we tried to detect hints of Nicole’s herbs and flowers in the cooking.
Les Orangeries is just under four hours’ drive from Caen, for ferry crossings to Portsmouth (brittany-ferries.co.uk). Double rooms cost from €88, room only. lesorangeries.fr
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