A Night at Château de Montigny
Text & photos by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
Château de Montigny-sur-Aube sits like a dream within ancient stone walls. A turret soars regally above the roofline. Swans glide by on a moat surrounding the Château. When we first arrive, we wonder if we haven’t inadvertently slipped into a time warp and been transported to the 1700’s.
A petite, smiling woman appears before us, Madame Marie-France Ménage-Small, owner of Château de Montigny-sur-Aube. She laughs delightedly at our amazed faces. “No, no,” she reassures us. “You are still very much in the 21st century. Come in and see the rest of the house.”
We follow Madame Ménage-Small through the entryway, and several small sitting rooms. Each is more beautiful than the next. All are magnificently appointed, filled with antiques, sumptuous draperies, gorgeously arranged flowers and one-of-a-kind ornaments.
In the main salon, we find ourselves seated before a fireplace. A chandelier glitters overhead. Thick carpets warm our feet. Madame Ménage-Small offers refined canapés: Foie gras on toast, savory tarts, salmon & cucumber. As an extra treat she also serves wines with her Château label: Crémant de Bourgogne, a Brut and a Rosé. Divine!
“Would you like to know a few facts about my little castle?” she asks. “It is a small château,” she hastens to add. “I wouldn’t want the upkeep of anything larger.”
We can’t imagine contradicting her, so murmur in agreement, content to be under the spell of Montigny, Madame and the Crémant.
Madame Ménage-Small continues: “The original castle dates back to the 12th century. But we know very little from that period. In the 14th century, the d’Amoncourt family owned the estate. By the 16th century, Jean d’Amoncourt had became the Bishop of Poitiers. His diocese was enormous, with 850 parishes in this region. Bishop Jean d’Amoncourt decided to modernize Montigny-sur-Aube. His architect was Jean Bullant, who was also one of the designers of the Louvre.”
“Unfortunately, during the French Revolution, the Château suffered heavy damage. A fire devastated three-quarters of the property and for many years the castle was abandoned. Finally, in 1902, André Martin, a silk merchant from Lyon began to restore the property. And this is the Château of Montigny-sur-Aube that we see today – a masterpiece of neo-Renaissance style,” Madame gestures with an eloquent sweep of her hand. “Now,” she changes tone briskly, “I’ve given you enough history. Let’s go enjoy dinner.”
And we do! In yet another magnificently designed room, we dine on salad greens and trumpet mushrooms, followed by Beef Bourguignon with a vegetable soufflé and sautéed carrots – the sweetest, most delicious carrots imaginable. Dessert is a griotte (small French cherries) cobbler with an almond cookie crust.
“Everything but the beef is from the estate,” Madame Ménage-Small explains. “Tomorrow, I’ll show you the gardens. There are over 200 fruit trees on the estate, bees, chickens…all kinds of things.”
With after-dinner drinks, Madame shares another intriguing story. “You know my husband is American, so I’m quite proud of the fact that an American president stayed here at Montigny.” She pauses as we try to guess who it might have been. Finally we give up. Madame smiles, “It was Harry Truman,” she exclaims triumphantly. “Back during World War I, Harry Truman was enrolled in the artillery school of Montigny-sur-Aube, and he spent several months at the château. So just imagine that you’re sleeping in the same house where your 33rd President slept.”
And so we go to bed…dreaming of Harry Truman, Jean d’Amoncourt, Louis XIV and the Montigny carrots, griottes and Crémant…
In the morning we find a breakfast fit for royalty, of course: cheeses, yogurts, fruit and eggs prepared any way we’d like. Baskets of fresh bread and perfect croissants – light, flaky, buttery bits of heaven. And, best of all preserves made from fruit grown on the estate – rhubarb, peach and white nectarine. A special treat is honey from bees raised at Montigny.
We could have spent the entire morning just sampling all the wonderful breakfast items, however, Madame Ménage-Small has a different plan. She appears in the breakfast room, elegantly attired in a thick cashmere wrap and leather pants. She’s also wearing galoshes – which would appear odd on anyone else – but she carries it off with aplomb.
“Bonjour,” she greets us cheerfully. “Ready to tour the garden this morning? I’m ready,” she continues, pointing to her galoshes.
We troop after her into a veritable wonderland. Château de Montigny-sur-Aube consists of 4 hectares or almost 10 acres. And after many years of love and hard work, Madame and her gardeners have planted over 200 fruit trees. In addition to the orchard, a combination of individual gardens are dedicated to various vegetables and fruits (blackcurrant, raspberry, gooseberry and cordon fruit trees). A bee garden provides essential pollination for the orchard. A restored greenhouse and orangerie are filled with more fruit trees, herbs and vegetables.
Madame Ménage-Small has generously opened a large portion of her property to the public. Children come from the local school to plant gardens, families stroll through in the evening. The entire community benefits from the project.
Madame leads us to a fountain in the middle of the gardens. “This was stolen during the Revolution,” she explains. “But a local resident returned it to me a few years ago. It had been in his family’s backyard, but he knew it belonged here. I was touched that he would care enough to return the fountain after all these years.”
From the gardens, we walk back across to the Château, pausing by the moat. “This was another enormous project,” says Madame. “The moat had been completely filled in by one of the previous owners. We dug up 635,000 cubit feet of dirt, then rebuilt over 200 meters (656 feet) of five-meter (16 feet) high walls. Finally, we drilled to resupply the moat with water. As I said, it was a huge undertaking!”
We continue our tour, stopping at the picturesque chapel adjacent to the Château. During the French Revolution, the structure was almost completely destroyed. Restoration again required tremendous dedication and determination – words frequently used to describe Madame Ménage-Small herself. Seven craftsmen spent an entire summer restoring the façade of the chapel. The interior vaulted ceiling, now also completed, is remarkable for its profusion of cartouches with rosettes. Human, animal and plant figures appear in exceptional detail. Three exquisite rose windows flood the chapel with light.
“The crucifix is something of a miracle too,” smiles Madame. “One of our residents just happened to see it at an auction. He recognized the crucifix from our chapel, bought it and donated it for the restoration. Amazing isn’t it?”
We’ve been amazed for the past 12 hours. We’ve run out of superlatives and can only thank Madame repeatedly for the stay. Ever the gracious hostess, she invites us to linger for as long as we’d like. “Enjoy the gardens. I have several meetings, so I’ll say good-bye to you here.” She kisses us on both cheeks and whisks away, off to meet architects and historians as she continues her mission.
We accept her offer and sit a bit, listening to the chatter of small children in the gardens, chimes sounding out the hour in a nearby church. We know the 21st century is just over the wall and we must re-enter. But for now we savor our escape, fantasize for a few minutes longer…and marvel at the woman who made her dream a reality for so many to share.
And, you can drink in the Château de Montigny-sur-Aube magic. Madame Ménage-Small’s Crémant de Bourgogne Brut & Rosé can be purchased through Michel Thibault Wine.