An 18th-century wheat mill gets a second life as a country inn and cooking school
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 candlesticks have a perfect French luster. Gears and grinding stones remain a part of its unique architecture, celebrating its history and origins as a water mill.
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 on a magical French holiday.
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 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 and a former monastery. In the 1970’s, when industrialized wheat production replaced stone-ground flours, the mill was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
It sat quietly for decades until Jonathan Robinson, an American artist who had settled in France, and Pascal Mérillou, a chef from Bordeaux, began searching for the perfect property to transform into a Loire Valley hotel. When they found Le Moulin, they saw an opportunity in the abandoned buildings and pastoral estate.
The goal was to restore the mill to what it once was, so 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. We stayed in La Chambre de Fleur Blanche, the White Flower Room. It’s on the second floor at the top of a narrow staircase.
La Chambre de Fleur Blanche
It might be the most perfect room I have ever stayed in. The sheets are antique linen and it has a pretty sitting area with French armchairs. The bathroom is stunning, with a beautiful tiled floor and an antique wood and marble vanity. Round windows look out on the gardens below. We were told that Barbra Streisand stayed in this room not long before us. (I can’t sing, so was pleased to know I finally shared something in common with her.) A part of the mill’s gear mechanism looks perfectly in place in the wood-beamed ceiling.
My husband Sean and I had come directly to the Loire Valley after landing in Paris, so it was a long travel day. Despite a six-hour time change, we slept soundly through the first night, happily tucked between French sheets and lulled by the sounds of the river flowing beneath the inn.
In the morning we explored the pretty gardens, ideal for dining outdoors in warm weather. With the animals trotting about, Le Moulin had a definite pastoral charm.
We had also come to Le Moulin to cook, so after breakfast, Bernard and Pascal had “une petite adventure” planned. Poulet au vin du Jura (chicken in mushroom and wine sauce) was on the menu that evening, and we needed to find some mushrooms. I asked if there was a market in the quaint town we had passed through on our way here, but they had another place in mind. We piled in a small car and drove a few kilometers through lush forest of pine, ash and oak, once the hunting grounds of French royals and nobles.
In Search of Le Cepe, France's Delicious Wild Mushroom
Over 300 chateau remain in the Loire Valley and it is possible to visit over 100 of them. I’ve written about this region in: The Loire Valley and its Chateaux. We parked at the side of a country road and Bernard handed us large wicker baskets. Either we were hunting giant mushrooms or were going to be here for a while.
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, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic ocean. Bernard’s mother had owned a restaurant where he spent much of his youth and developed a love for food and hospitality. 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 was a charming and gracious host who nodded politely, when I spoke French and mixed up the verb tenses.
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 instructed us to look for them on tree trunks, in particular on pine. It was thrilling to find my first cepe and I placed it carefully at the bottom of my basket. It was lovely walking in the forest, and I kept forgetting to look for mushrooms.
Cooking Class at Le Moulin
We returned to the inn and convened in the kitchen. We helped do the prep for the chicken and wine dish which employed the staples of French cooking: butter, shallots and garlic would provide the backdrop so the foraged mushrooms could be the star of the show.
Next Bernard taught us how to make a special dessert, Tartes aux pommes Soizic, named after his godmother. There were a few tricks to making this apple tart properly. The crust must be prepared quickly so it is crispy when baked. And the apples must be arranged in a beautiful pattern, because, well, because this is France.
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 tradition as well. I make it for dessert every Thanksgiving, although if I am rushed, I haphazardly fold the crust, rather than place it precisely in a scalloped dish and the apples are not always as perfectly arranged as Bernard’s.
This seems like a good time to return to the subject of carrots, because Chef Pascal was also in the kitchen that day and I had some questions about the carrots he had prepared for our arrival dinner the previous evening. As we stood together chopping zucchini for the soup I saw my chance.
The Secret to Pascal's Perfect Carrots
Everything served at our arrival evening was divine: The Duck Confit with potatoes and green beans were sheer heaven. A simple green salad was extraordinary. And all of it was enjoyed with a local sparkling wine of Saumur and the Cabernet Franc from the nearby vineyards of Chinon. And yet, I was most astonished by the carrots which 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 his carrots so delicious, 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”.
Hmm. I needed more. But how exactly are they cooked? 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. I thanked Pascal and went upstairs to get ready for dinner. I felt privy to a special culinary secret – I had the intel to create perfect French carrots.
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 added an incredible depth of flavour – well 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.
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, 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.
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 lacked the usual signs that parishioners came and went, no fresh flowers or hymn books neatly stacked. It felt forgotten.
As our eyes adjusted to the dimly lit church we saw frescoes on its walls. They were worn in places. 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 sound of the river run under the old mill, as it always had.
We packed our bags and lingered over a final breakfast of sublime pastries. It was difficult 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 me in tears 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, they were cooked to tender and caramelized to golden. Fresh herbs were even scattered on top with a flourish that felt as French as we could manage. And they were very good, delicious even, but never the same. I think some things just belong to a place. The things that I love most about France could never be the same anywhere else. They belong to France, and 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 this Guide to the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. In addition to highlighting the French castles not to miss, the guide covers: 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.