I remember writing an article about the Chambord Rendezvous competition a few months ago, and thinking at the time that the prize looked great.
Needless to say I was very chuffed when an invitation to join the winning chefs and bartenders on their VIP prize trip to Paris and the Loire Valley pinged into my inbox.
Fast forward five days, and the Eurostar swooshes elegantly into Paris’ Gare du Norde station, delivering our group into an almost unbelievably hot and sunny October day, just in time for lunch.
And lunch is one of the reasons I was so happy to be invited on the Rendezvous trip – because the competition is as much for chefs as it is bartenders, there were some great restaurants on the itinerary – something often missed out on bartender-only jaunts when ‘eating’s cheating’ and lunch invariably consists of a hungover Bloody Mary.
Buddha Bar didn’t disappoint – it was suitably dark and opulent inside, with a huge golden Buddha looking benevolently down as we grazed on frog’s legs and Chambord-laced Champagne. However there was no time to lounge about because a fleet of open-top 2CVs was waiting to take us on a whirlwind tour of the city’s landmarks.
Zipping through Paris’ mental traffic in such tiny little cars, on such a beautiful day, is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done on a brand trip. It was a bold move by Chambord to book open-top cars in October but the gamble paid off handsomely and we got to see all of Paris’ landmarks against a bright blue sky.
After attending to sunburned noses and changing into our glad rags, it was time to jump on a boat at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and cruise the Seine. This was suitably beautiful and as we passed under bridges and watched Parisians while away the balmy evening by the side of the river, I decided it might well be time to open BarLifeUK’s Paris office.
After dinner Harry’s New York Bar was the obvious choice for cocktails. It is a beautiful bar, quite narrow but long and with a glass case full of old, exotic and rare spirits on the back wall that had the trip’s bartenders studying bottles in full geek mode.
I have to say the drinks weren’t brilliant (I’m pretty sure my Martini was just a glass of tepid gin avec olive on a stick), and the service was a bit… French (one bartender snorted with impatience when asked to use a brand of rye that was slightly out of arm’s reach), and yet the place is still brilliant. It oozes character and has one of the coolest neon signs I’ve ever seen. I have no doubt the ghosts of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald often materialise for a Manhattan or two when the cleaners have locked up for the night.
The next morning we bade Paris adieu and drove to the Loire Valley, which is, as you might expect, very beautiful. After lunch at the hotel, the group toured the Chateau Cheverny and tasted an unfeasible number of wines before travelling to L’Orangerie du Chateau for dinner.
This was hands down the best meal I have ever eaten: classic French food, the best quality of ingredients and top-notch wine, it was one of those meals so good it makes you feel high – the cheeses alone were fine enough to bring a tear to your eye.
At this point, the sensible retired to the hotel to digest the feast. The not-so-sensible (bartenders, PR, Chambord and I) bar-hopped, mini-bar bashed and generally cultivated suitably heavy hangovers for the next day’s distillery tour. Well, that’s tradition, isn’t it?
The Chambord distillery sits within the leafy grounds of a grand chateau, and it smells lovely. Fresh raspberries and blackberries infuse neutral cane spirit for 6 weeks here, during a double infusion process before being pressed to capture their sugars and juice.
This berry infusion is then filtered and blended with Cognac, vanilla and a number of other herbs, when the master blender gets involved to ensure the liquid is consistent with Chambord’s flavour profile before bottling, which is also done on site – we got a glimpse of the mythical Chambord Vodka flying down the line, but no-one had the balls to pinch a miniature so BarLifeUK cannot tell you how it tastes.
We now had one last stop before heading back to Paris and the Eurostar – the Chateau Chambord. This is an eye-wateringly huge renaissance chateau, second only in size to the Palace at Versailles, and if one of the little plaques was to be believed, covering an area as large as metropolitan Paris.
It is a staggering building full of huge fireplaces, cold stone walls and beds you absolutely aren’t allowed to have a quick lay down on, no matter how hungover you might be. You could spend days exploring the Chateau Chambord, but alas it was soon time to head back Paris and our train home.
I was left with the impression that Paris is a very beautiful city, and that the Chambord Rendezvous is a great competition, not least because bringing chefs together with bartenders makes for an interesting trip.
If you are thinking about entering the Rendezvous comp next year, I’d say don’t hesitate, get involved – it’s worth a crack for the 2CVs alone, but if you have any appreciation at all for good food and wine, it really is the comp you’ll want to win in 2012.