le moulin bregeon in loire valley

A Charming Loire Valley Hotel Comes to Life

FRANCE

An 18th-century wheat mill turned Loire Valley hotel

In the French countryside near the historic town of Saumur, is a charming Loire Valley hotel that epitomizes everything I adore about France. Le Moulin Brégeon celebrates history and embraces patina: the sheets are antique linen and the silver and candlesticks are aged with a perfect French lustre. It was brought to life by proprietors who preserved its origins as a water mill –  it’s gears and grinding stones remain, a part of its unique architecture and history. 

And like France, Le Moulin manages to be both indulgent and restrained. The decor and the food are embellished only to the extent necessary. As are the perfect carrots – the best I’ve ever tasted. But before I say more about carrots, let me finish introducing Le Moulin, where I stayed several years ago on a magical French holiday, but have never forgotten.

abandoned wheat mill turned french country inn
Le Moulin Bregeon is the epitome of French charm

An Abandoned Mill Returns to Life as a Loire Valley Hotel

Le Moulin “the mill” dates to the 18th century when the wheat grown by local farmers was brought here to be ground into flour, powered by a water wheel and the river which runs beneath it. Recent renovations of other parts of the property suggest its heritage dates to the 14th century when there was a monastery here. 

In the 1970’s, when industrialized wheat production replaced stone-ground flours, the mill was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Jonathan Robinson, an American artist who had settled in France, and Pascal Mérillou, a chef from Bordeaux, had met in Paris and were searching together for the perfect property to transform in the perfect hotel in the Loire Valley. When they found Le Moulin, they saw an opportunity to create something beautiful with the abandoned buildings and pastoral estate. 

charming loire valley boutique hotel
French artisans restored the stone and woodwork of the abandoned 18th century building

The goal was to restore the mill building to what it once was, and local artisans were hired for the woodwork and stonework. After a year of intense construction Bernard Lévénez joined the team as the property manager and Le Moulin opened to guests in 1999. Jonathan, Pascal and Bernard, along with an assortment of chickens, geese and goats, and a resident Labrador retriever, have welcomed guests ever since. 

The two-story inn has five rooms, and one cottage set on the river. Up a narrow staircase to the second floor is La Chambre de Fleur Blanche, the White Flower Room, where we stayed.  This was where the mill’s grinding stones were located and a part of the mechanism remains, set in the beamed ceiling.  

white flower room at le moulin bregeon
The sitting area of "The White Flower Room" at Le Moulin Bregeon

La Chambre de Fleur Blanche

It is the most perfectly lovely room I have ever stayed in. The sheets on the bed are antique French linen and there is a pretty sitting area with French armchairs. The bathroom is stunning, with a beautiful tiled floor and an antique wood and marble vanity, and round windows which look out on the gardens below.  We were told that Barbara Streisand stayed in this room. (Since I can not sing, I finally have something in common with her.) 

My husband Sean and I, had come directly to the Loire Valley from North America, so it was a long travel day. Despite the jet lag, we slept soundly through the first night, lulled by the sounds of the river flowing beneath the inn.

charming bathroom at le moulin bregeon
The antique vanity in the gorgeous ensuite bath of the Chambre de Fleur Blanche

The gardens are lovely as well, ideal for dining outdoors in warm weather. And with the animals trotting about it has a definite pastoral charm. 

And of course, this is France, so as lovely as the rooms and garden were, we were here to eat and also, to cook. Before we could begin cooking, Bernard and Pascal had “une petite adventure” planned. Poulet au vin du Jura (chicken in mushroom and wine sauce) was on the menu for dinner, we needed to find some mushrooms. Yes, they would be fresh at the town market, but not as fresh as another place they knew. We drove a few kilometers through lush forest of pine, ash and oak.

A path through the forest in Loire Valley France

In Search of Le Cepe, France's Delicious Wild Mushroom

We parked at the side of a country road in a pretty forest, once the hunting grounds of French royals and nobles. Over 300 chateau remain in the Loire Valley,  and it is possible to visit over 100 of them. I’ve written about it in this travel guide: The Loire Valley and its Chateaux.) 

Bernard handed us large wicker baskets for our own hunt. Very large baskets: Either we were hunting giant mushrooms or were going to be here for a while.

hunting for forest mushrooms in france
Mushrooms love to grow in the trees and forest floor in the Loire Valley

We enjoyed walking in the dappled light of the forest and had a chance to chat with Bernard. He is from Brittany, the furthest west of the 13 regions of France, with the Atlantic ocean on three sides. Bernard’s mother had a restaurant where he spent much of his youth, and his love of food and hospitality are apparent. 

Several of the specialties at Le Moulin are Bernard’s family recipes and he also makes all of the delicious jams with local organic fruit. He is a charming and gracious host who nods politely, when I speak French and mix up the verb tenses.

mushroom hunting in autumn, Loire Valley France
Bernard and I find Le Cepe, the wild mushroom we need for our dinner

I saw some beautiful mushrooms in the forest, but we were after a particular mushroom, Le Cepe, which is similar in shape and size to a porcini and one of the tastiest wild mushrooms, according to our hosts. 

It was early October, an ideal time to find them. Bernard told us they grow on tree trunks, in particular on pine trees. They can grow to be very large and once I knew what I was looking for, I began finding them.  I placed a huge one carefully in my basket and wondered how many we needed. It was so lovely walking in the forest, the mushrooms were a bonus. 

making a french apple tart
Preparing the tartes aux pommes Soizic, named after Bernard's godmother

Cooking Class at Le Moulin

We returned to the inn and convened in the kitchen.  The chicken and wine dish actually had only a few ingredients. The staples of French cooking: butter, shallots and garlic, would provide the backdrop and our foraged mushrooms would be the star of the show. 

Bernard also wanted to teach us how to make a special dessert, Tartes aux pommes Soizic, named after his godmother.  There were a few tricks to making this properly. He showed us how to prepare the crust quickly so it is crispy when baked. And of course, how to arrange the apples so that it looks beautiful; this is France after all.

What we didn’t know that day in the kitchen, and I must make a point to tell Bernard  (we are in touch on social media) is that the Tartes aux Pommes Soizic was to become a part of our family story as well. I make it for dessert every Thanksgiving, although I haphazardly fold the crust, rather than place it in a scalloped dish. We always reminisce about our cooking class, a highlight of the trip.

cooking class at le moulin bregeon in the loire valley
Slicing zucchini to chef Pascal's exacting standards at Le Mouline Bregeon

I have also taken it to other dinners and other thanksgivings and shared the story. People love it and I much prefer its shortbread-style crust to Canadian and American-style apple pie. 

This seems like a good time to return to the subject of carrots, and Chef Pascal who also joined us in the kitchen that day, to show us how to prepare one of his favourite soups: Zucchini with Curry. As we cooked together, I took the chance to ask Pascal about the carrots he had prepared for us the previous night.

The Secret to Pascal's perfect carrots

First let me say that everything at Le Moulin was delicious: The Duck Confit with potatoes and green beans we were served the first night was heaven. A simple green salad was extraordinary, I think it’s the unique flavour of the walnut oil.  And the cheese and the wine – we tried too many amazing cheeses to recount and loved every wine, especially the Cabernet Franc from the nearby vineyards of Chinon, and the local sparkling wine of Saumur. 

 

perfect french carrots at le moulin bregeon

And yet, I was most astonished by the carrots – they were so delicious, it entirely changed my view of carrots.

They were cooked to perfect tenderness with a sprinkle of fresh herbs atop, and had a taste so robust and well, carroty, it was as if these were the world’s first carrots – the perfect specimen.  

Pascal is also the gardener at Le Moulin, so all the vegetables are incredibly fresh. But I had had fresh carrots before. What made these so delicious? How are they prepared, I asked? He smiled and made a quick outward gesture with his hands: “simple.” The French “simple,” is pronounced differently (rhymes with “psalm”) and I understood that he meant prepared with simplicity.  “Au beurre et à l’ail,” he added, with butter and garlic. He made the hand gesture once more to emphasize the point – “simple”.

french chef pascal mérillou
Chef Pascal Mérillou at Le Moulin Brégeon in the Loire Valley, France

Ok. But how exactly are they cooked? I needed more. They were simmered in water and butter until the water evaporated, he said, leaving them to caramelize in the remaining butter.

Could it really be that simple and taste that incredible? I scribbled some notes and tucked them in with the other recipes. 

That night, Bernard and Pascal joined us for dinner. (Jonathan was not at Le Moulin when we visited.) The Poulet au vin du Jura was exceptional, the mushrooms were worth the forest forage. It was special to enjoy Pascal’s zucchini soup and Bernard’s apple tart, having had a part in preparing them. 

We drank more wine, ate more cheese and enjoyed another perfect evening in the candlelit dining room. 

Dinner by candlelight at Le Moulin Bregeon, a charming Loire Valley hotel
Dinner by candlelight at Le Moulin Bregeon, a charming Loire Valley hotel

When we weren’t eating, or relaxing in the garden with the geese, we were out exploring. The town of Saumur is famous for its sparkling wines which are fermented in the nearby limestone caves.

At the city center, up on a hill overlooking the Loire River, is the Château de Saumur, one of the oldest of the Loire chateaux. Further afield, but within an hour’s drive are some of the Loire’s finest renaissance estates including: Château de Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, Château de Brissac and Château de Brézé. (I’ve written a separate guide to the Loire Valley). 

Le Moulin also has bicycles and Sean and I had a lovely cycling adventure through the countryside. We stopped in the local town of Linieres Bouton where we visited the Château de Boissimon, a 16th-century chateau which is also a hotel. 

cycling in linieres bouton france
Cycling to the Chateau Boissimon, in Linieres Bouton

Le Moulin also has bicycles and Sean and I had a lovely cycling adventure through the countryside. We stopped in the local town of Linieres Bouton where we visited the Château de Boissimon, a 16th-century chateau which is also a hotel. 

We continued through the village to a small church,  Églises Saint-Martin-de-Vertou, a designated historic monument built in the 12th century.  There was no one around but the doors were unlocked so we went inside. It was quiet and cool; it felt forgotten. It lacked the usual clues that parishioners came and went, no fresh flowers or hymn books neatly stacked. 

Eglises-St-Martin-de-Vertou in Linieres Bouton, France
Eglises-St-Martin-de-Vertou in Linieres Bouton, France

It had startling frescoes on its walls which we admired. They were worn in places, the plaster showing through.  We later learned that for centuries, this small church hid a beautiful secret. Underneath a layer of lime that covered the plaster walls three frescoes waited to be discovered for almost 500 years. The oldest, “Christ in Glory”, dating to the 13th century. In 1853 the parish priest discovered the works as he cleaned the walls. And in 1966 they were fully revealed and restored. 

After a day of cycling and a memorable lunch at a French truck stop, complete with terrine and camembert, we returned to relax in the garden with the geese.  It was our last night, so we were excused from any forest foraging or cooking. We drank sparkling wine from Saumur and listened to the river run under the old mill, long before this became a perfectly charming Loire Valley hotel.

french geese in the loire valley france

It was very hard to leave Le Moulin and I was thankful we were on our way to Paris for a few days, otherwise it probably would have been an embarrassing scene with tears, and me pleading to be hired on to carry Bernard’s mushroom foraging basket and peel Pascal’s carrots.

Once home, some great attempts were made to replicate Pascal’s carrots. A tuft of green fronds were left at the top just as he had, and they were cooked to tender and caramelized to golden. Fresh herbs were even scattered on top with a flourish that felt sort of French. And they were very good, delicious even, but never the same. I think some things just belong to a place. Most of the things that I love about France would never be the same anywhere else. They belong to France; I think that’s as it should be. 

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More Stories of France

If you are planning your own special trip to France’s Loire Valley, you might enjoy my Guide to the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. In addition to highlighting the French castles not to miss, the guide includes: when to go, where to stay and towns to explore. 

Read about my quest for the perfect Paris vantage point in In Search of The Best View of the Eiffel Tower.

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