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March 30, 2010

Staying in a Grand Loire Valley Château

Loire Valley—The day I first visited the Château de Brissac—among the great castles of the Loire, 75 miles east of Nantes—it appeared to me very grand, very tall, proudly etched against the winter sky. To my satisfaction, it went against all the boring rules that seem to govern the building of French palaces. There was no geometrically precise parc à la française. Instead, the surrounding greensward was laid out in the informal English style. The architecture was neither monotonous nor symmetrical: Between the two plump towers of a medieval fortress lolled the most elegant, delicately ornamented Renaissance palace imaginable. Being squeezed into a narrow space, the château was forced to grow upward, not outward; at 165 feet, it is the tallest castle in France.

Entering the stone-flagged hall, I was immediately enchanted. The richness of the painted ceilings, the virtuosity of the stone vaulting, the sumptuous ornamental gates, the generous scale of the many rooms and galleries, the profusion of tall windows—all these told of the French aristocracy’s lavishness.

And they hinted at tantalizing secrets.

The château’s governess led me through the imposing grande galerie, which was flooded with winter sunshine. At the far end the moldering dummy of a knight gazed glassily at the park below. Like him, I let my eyes linger on the swollen river, the tall, straight trees, and the pasture reaching away to a dark band of woodland on the horizon. To the right, a door opened into a bedroom once occupied by Louis XIII. The red tapestry on the walls, the somber outsize furniture, the four-poster bed, and the half darkness of the shuttered room combined to make the atmosphere unbearably close.

“This room is definitely haunted,” I muttered.

The governess nodded. She told me that in this room the present duke’s father, now dead, once saw a woman with a blade gruesomely lodged in her left breast. The late duke was not easily rattled; on the contrary, he found himself moved by the distress of this sorrowful phantom, who was also very beautiful.

“She has the reputation of only appearing to men,” said the governess. “Women don’t seem to interest her. She is Brissac’s Green Lady.”

“Why green?” I queried.

“The duke said she wore a green dress.”

Many people report having seen this ghost. But it was an Irish couple staying at Brissac who had the singular experience of hearing her. One evening the husband was in his dressing room; in the adjoining bedroom his wife was brushing her long hair. He heard the gentle clatter of silver brushes being laid on the vanity and the silky, rhythmic whisper as they were pulled through a woman’s tresses. The noises continued, on and on, until at last the husband lost patience.

“Do you mean to spend all night doing your hair?” he said.

“I am doing nothing of the sort,” she replied.

He burst in and there was his wife, quietly reading in bed.

As I pondered this sinister little vignette, I suddenly sensed a presence at my shoulder. I had the feeling that the ghost—if that’s what it was—was eager to make contact with me.

But why me?

The story begins in 1462 with the arranged marriage of Jacques de Brézé to Charlotte de Valois, King Louis XI’s half sister. (She was the illegitimate daughter of Louis’s father, Charles VII, and his mistress Agnès Sorel.) Jacques’s father, Pierre de Brézé, the lord of Brissac, needed to ingratiate himself with the new king, so for him this was a politically expedient match.

The trouble was that Jacques de Brézé, Comte de Maulévrier, was interested in hunting and tournaments to the exclusion of all else. Charlotte, accustomed to the sophisticated ways of the royal court, now found herself cooped up for months on end in a dreary fortress surrounded by vast forests, through which her husband galloped all day in muddy pursuit of deer and wild boar.

What was bound to happen, happened. On Saturday, May 31, 1477, Jacques returned from the hunt to his lodge, exhausted as usual. He dined with his wife, then invited her to join him in the bedroom. She lingered behind with the excuse that she wished to wash her hair. So Jacques went up to bed alone.

In the middle of the night, a servant named Peter the Apothecary awoke Jacques with the news that his wife—“prey to reckless lust”—was writhing in the arms of the huntsman, Pierre de Lavergne, in the bedroom above. Jacques leaped out of bed, seized his sword, and raced upstairs. He fell upon Pierre, stabbing him again and again. Then, still enraged and soaked with blood, he hunted Charlotte down and found her cowering under a quilt on the children’s bed. He dragged her to the floor and ran his blade straight through her left breast, killing her instantly.

Charlotte was given a funeral befitting her rank; her lover’s body was buried ignominiously somewhere on the farm. Jacques chose to wear green instead of black as a sign of mourning—an odd choice, since his slaughtered wife had loved green (it set off her glorious red hair).

It was at this point that the Green Lady began her career as a ghost.

When news of the drama reached Louis XI, he reacted with utmost cruelty. Jacques was jailed in the Conciergerie in Paris, then bricked into a windowless dungeon. The king demanded a fine so huge that the prisoner, unable to pay it, was forced to hand over his estate. The king promptly returned the château to Jacques’ son Louis, who in turn sold it to ancestors of the present owners.

Louis de Brézé went on to marry Diane de Poitiers, with whom he had two daughters. I am descended from one of them—and thus from the murdered Charlotte de Valois herself. It may have been for this reason that she wanted me to be aware of her presence on that winter’s morning at Brissac.

Several years have passed since I had this curious experience. The château, which is open to tourists, still stands on the hill in all its originality, elegance, and splendor. As for the ghost, she remains as well.

Château de Brissac has four rooms available for overnight stays, all at $560. For more information, go to chateau-brissac.fr.

Recipe: Camille’s Soup

Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence—In 2005 I spent a year training with some of the finest chefs in France, making complicated dishes for Joël Robuchon and Jacques Cagna. However, it wasn’t until I headed to Provence for a break that I learned my most valuable culinary lesson—from a 13-year-old girl.

An hour north of Avignon lies the town of Vaison-la-Romaine, where the Journées Gourmandes food festival is held every October (this year it runs from October 29 through November 1). The highlight is the Festival des Soupes, during which home cooks from 14 local villages compete with their finest consommés and potages. That year I was particularly keen to try an elaborate and authentic soupe aux favouilles, made with small green crabs. But the winning soup—as announced by the Grande Louchière (Great Ladler) herself—was made by a slip of a girl named Camille.

It was neither elaborate nor authentic, and it boasted the kind of ingredients—processed cheese, stock concentrate—that would induce a histrionic fit in any starred chef. But simply, it tasted great: creamy, fresh, and plenty peppery.

Paris had taught me how to whittle mushrooms into flowers and dice carrots with military-like precision, but Camille had the one crucial quality found in only the greatest chefs: humility. She knew, instinctively, that how good something tastes is all that really matters. —Michael Booth

Soupe à la Courgette

6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3/4 lb slab bacon, rind discarded, sliced 1/4-inch thick and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 lbs medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
  • 1/3 cup veal or beef demi-glace
  • 6 cups water
  • 12 3/4-oz wedges laughing cow cheese
  • 2 tbsp crème fraîche
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Preparation

    In a large pot, warm the olive oil over moderately high heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring often, until fat starts to render, about 3 minutes. Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the zucchini and the demi-glace. Pour in just enough water to cover the zucchini and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to moderately low and cook, stirring often, until the zucchini is tender, about 20 minutes. Add the cheese, crème fraîche, and butter and stir until the cheese is melted. Season with salt and pepper and serve in warmed bowls.