day 4 :
thursday, 30 april
We enjoyed another filling breakfast at La Villa Coté Cour, then suffered some confusion when checking out: when paying our remaining balance, their machine couldn't read any of our credit cards, which is sadly not uncommon with French card readers and foreign credit cards. We pulled an emergency stop to an ATM, then were on our way out of town with a quick stop-off at Maison Barnabé, the pâtisserie we had walked by last night. Parking was rather exciting, because the only available spot near the bakery was parallel to the river, with no guard rails before the cobblestone street sharply ended with the river below. With a couple of feet to spare next to the driver's-side door, we hopped out and filled a bag with croissant, pain au chocolat, a large salted butter caramel macaron, an apple and rhubarb crumble, and a kouign amann (a multilayer butter cake that's a specialty of Brittany), some for now and some for the road. You know, second breakfast and all that.
Now that we were sufficiently hopped up on sweets, we returned to Cancale to visit... the sweet shop we'd missed yesterday. But this wasn't just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, tasty French confectionary; no, this was Grain de Vanille, a superlative sweets shop owned by Michelin 3-star chef Olivier Roellinger, known for its caramels and ice creams. We strode in, fully expecting to walk out triumphantly with an armful of salted butter caramels to share with friends back home. But just a single bag of perhaps a dozen caramels sat lonely on the shelf. We snatched it up before any other customers noticed it, and asked the cashier if they had more. Unfortunately, this meager bag was it. We were there for more than caramels, however. A co-worker, Simon, had recommended we also try the caramel ice cream. Sure, it was 10AM, and most people were ordering their morning coffee, but this would be our last chance! This was the third, and in Dawn's opinion, best breakfast of the morning. The ice cream had that ideal combination of slightly-burnt caramel flavor, sweet, with a touch of saltiness.
We longingly eyed the pastry case, regretting we'd bought so many pastries earlier, admired the dozen-or-so different types of vanilla beans around the store, then headed a block up the road to the sister spice shop, Les Entrepôts Epices-Roellinger. They have some unusual spices, like peppercorns from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Madagascar. We're accustomed to using Indian Tellicherry peppercorns, and hadn't seen many of the varieties they carry. After poking through all of the shelves, we left with some colorful kitchen towels, several kinds of mustard, and some of the Madagascar peppercorns.
We finally bid adieu to Cancale and Brittany, and embarked on a long drive to the town of Bellême in lower Normandy. Bellême is in a region called Le Perche, known for its beautiful Percheron horses. Tell any Frenchman you're going to Le Perche, and invariably they'll tell you they've never heard of it. We had read about the region in a New York Times travel article, which mentioned this was an unknown area to many. As a result, not only did we feel like tourists who had the whole region to ourselves, but also privileged to see perfectly preserved centuries-old towns with shops and outdoor markets that appeared to have been operating the same way forever.
During this long drive, we saw signs along the roadside advertising a hippodrome. In fact, we had seen hippodrome signs the other day when driving to Dinan. What in the world is a hippodrome, we wondered? Eric immediately pictured the Thunderdome from the Mad Max movies, complete with post-apocalyptic survivors chanting: "Two hippos enter, one hippo leaves!" But it turns out it's nowhere near that cool. A hippodrome is just a racetrack.
We arrived at Château de la Grand Maison mid-afternoon, and were immediately taken with the grandeur and beauty of the property. Our genial, retirement-age hosts greeted us, and we realized that we were really in "the country" now; they spoke not a word of English. Show time! We exercised more of our French vocabulary and listening skills over the next few days than we had in decades, but it all turned out well. Monsieur and Madame (as we simply called them) were exceedingly patient with us, spoke slowly, happily repeated things when we asked, and all the while were excited to share their corner of the world with us. Monsieur kindly made dinner reservations for us for the next three nights, drew maps for us (or referred us to our "zhay-pay-ess"), and suggested nearby towns and sights to visit. They were truly among the most helpful hosts we've ever met.
Monsieur gave us a tour of the château (built in 1660!), which even includes a century-old elevator designed by Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel). We then settled into plush armchairs in the drawing room, and hopped on the château's WiFi (pronounced "wee fee") network to look up some details on Chartres for our trip there tomorrow. We always find it amusing to experience the juxtaposition of centuries-old history with modern technology like wireless Internet. But hey, gotta have your email, right?
Restaurant "La Croix d'Or" in the nearby town of Le Pin-la-Garenne, recommended by Monsieur, was our dinner destination this evening. This meal was perhaps the best value of our entire two week vacation – we both opted for the 19€ four-course fixed price menu, which included a breaded white asparagus appetizer, bass with quinoa and vegetables, a cheese course that featured numerous local cheeses, and baked crêpes filled with orange cream. Each dish was very good, and an absolute steal for the $24 USD it cost each of us. (We're always amazed how these tiny towns in France can support such excellent-quality restaurants that charge so little.) Before we went to dinner, Monsieur had recommended that that Eric order the house cocktail, and he was right on the mark: the slightly sweet aperitif was a mix of blackberry liquor, Pommeau Normandy (apple brandy), and Crémant de Loire (sparkling white wine). Eric wants to recreate it here in Seattle and call it our house cocktail! The staff was very friendly at the restaurant, particularly our server who quickly realized we weren't fluent in French (there's no mistaking that!) and took the time to speak slowly with us to make sure we understood everything. She also asked Dawn at the end of the meal if she was pregnant (well, we're pretty sure we heard the word bébé while she was pointing at her stomach), presumably because Dawn didn't drink a cocktail or wine with dinner. When Dawn admitted she was, our server smiled and was animatedly happy. What a great experience!
Upon returning to the château, our hosts checked in with us to make sure we enjoyed dinner and that our palatial room overlooking the front courtyard was acceptable. (Oh, and they had tidied our room, left us some bottles of water, and a little box of chocolates from the local chocolatier in Bellême.) "Well, we normally stay in much grander, fancier places, but, <sigh>, yes, I suppose this will have to do for tonight." All right, fine, it was downright extraordinary.