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In fine company at the Château de Nieuil

In fine company at the Château de Nieuil

The ancient Château de Nieuil, with its modern restaurant - La Grange aux Oies - boasts a pleasing mix of the historical with the contemporary...

 Set discreetly in its woody parkland, the quiet sophistication of the Château de Nieuil graces the gently undulating countryside between Angoulême and Limoges. It is hardly surprising that this was one of King François I's favourite spots for hunting. Charmed, he rebuilt the 14th century castle in its 900-hectare estate to accommodate the needs of his hunting parties.

The château we see today has one isolated tower left from the original castle, a 16th century façade overlooking the formal garden and a rear façade restored in the 19th century. A water-filled moat with wooded banks surrounds the formal garden, while the simplicity of the circular lawn between the former stables and the rear façade draws the eye to the castle's Renaissance features. Luxuriant magnolia trees edge the sides of the lawn, and discreet sculptures add an intriguing element to the peaceful layout of the 200-hectare grounds.

Following François I's reign, the château passed from one family to another before, in 1933, passing to the Bodinaud family. It was the grandparents or the current owner, Jean-Michel Bodinaud, who transformed the family castle into a hotel in 1937. This in itself was an historic event, as it was the first such transformation of its kind in France.

Steeped in history, the  Château de Nieuil - selected as a 'Relais du Silence' hotel - is a sought after location tor those wanting a tranquil break in grounds that include lakes for fishing and a bird sanctuary, as well as a swimming pool and tennis facilities. Jean-Michel's wife, Luce, runs a gallery in the castle, where she exhibits local artists, antiques and an astounding collection of ancient advertising posters. For the locals, though, much of the attraction is due to the superb restaurant La Grange aux Oies, which is housed in the former castle stables and has been selected as one of the 'Tables Gourmandes du Poitou-Charentes'.

Jean-Michel Bodinaud was born in the Château and has spent his whole life working in his family home. Passionate about its history, and full of anecdotes about the castle from his childhood, Jean-Michel has left his own mark on the  Château. And Luce, who joined the family in 1967, has redecorated the interim "The castle isn't a museum," says Luce.

As a family home, many generations of people have lived here, so it has changed over time. It is this concept that led me to decorate each bedroom in the style of a certain era." Indeed, the bedroom furniture and decoration ranges from Louis XIV and XVI. to the Art Nouveau style of 1900 and through to the Art Deco style of the 1930s. Entry into the  Château is a spellbinding moment. The high, vaulted ceiling and mosaic marble floor give an immediate ambience of ancient castle. accentuated by the magnificent sculpted stone staircase leading up to the first of three floors. Stained glass windows feature in both the entrance hall and dining room, lending colour and warmth, while huge gilded mirrors and light-coloured wooden panelling keep the dining room from feeling too sombre. Other features of this room, where guests take their breakfast, include Louis XIII chairs and an imposing stone fireplace sculpted with a likeness of the knight Bayard and his famous ·sans peur et sans reproche' (without fear and beyond reproach) motto.

Each of the eleven bedrooms and three suites is named after a bird and has superb views over the parkland. Those on the second floor are characterised by the charm of sloping ceilings, and access is via a spiral stone staircase that twists up the inside of one of the rowers. "I used to run up and down this staircase while training for my cross-country running events when I was a teenager.'' says Jean-Michel, explaining that it spans all three floors. The ancient round tower remaining from the 14th century holds a suite that is completely independent and is ideally suited for those who need complete silence. Formerly used as the chapel, the tower's surrounding moat, its ornate doorway and the ivy creeping up towards its turret make it a romantic spot. On a more practical note, it has its own access to one side of the  Château. Each of the three floors is a single, circular room with a polished elm staircase leading to the next floor. Exposed beams, arched windows and a view across the formal garden add to its charm.

While the  Château leaves its mark of history and ancient times on the visitor, the restaurant, La Grange aux Oies (the goose barn) is a stunning contrast. Unassuming from the outside, with its stone walls and decking terrace, its interior is contemporary, light and airy. "The marriage of ancient hotel and modern restaurant is one of the elements that clients enjoy." says Jean Michel.

Although the restaurant provides meals for the hotel guests, it is an independent business run by managers Pascal, Patrice and Sylvie. Charente-born Pascal, the chef - and somewhat of a celebrity - Patrice, the maître d' and wine waiter, have been working together for eighteen years on this same site. Before La Grange aux Oies was created, they worked for Luce Bodinaud in the  Château restaurant. For ten years they spent their summers at the  Château and the winter season working with top chefs in high-class restaurants all over Europe, including a stint at 'Inn the Park' in London. By 2003 they'd decided they wanted to stay in Nieuil, and came to the present arrangement with Jean-Michel and Luce Bodinaud.

"Pascal and Patrice are like my sons," says Luce. The mutual respect and close relationship between these four people is almost tangible, and is part of what gives the restaurant such a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere.

The design is open plan, with a separate room for groups. Touches of the original use of the building as a stable can be seen in the decorative restored mangers, the whitewashed stone walls, cartwheel windows and beamed ceiling. This is mixed with modern decoration, including a concrete floor painted in black, grey and lime-green brushstrokes that match the lime painted wall behind the bar. A plush seating area of deep red chairs adds warmth, and splashes of colour from a Foscarini lamp and the blazing open fire give a vibrant ambience.

Luce has cleverly chosen transparent Starck chairs to add to the feeling of spaciousness. and the delightfully original Ingo Maurer ceiling lights are made from pages from the visitor's book, including the comments!

One of the most appealing aspects of the restaurant is the culinary skill of Pascal and his team, evident in the quality and individuality of his menu. You'll find no frozen food here! He deliberately has a limited menu that allows him to offer seasonal products. of which many vegetables come from the grounds of the  Château. This menu is changed every month, and the resulting meals are traditional yet modern and light, presented as perfect sculptures of mouth-watering delight.

A true attraction is the vegetarian menu, something that is still somewhat rare in France. Dishes such as 'Risotto de blé tendre aux châtaignes, rutabaga au pain d'épices' and 'Gratinée de pomme de terre au chèvre frais, épinards au sésame' are just as tempting to non-vegetarians. "My aim for 2009 is to have an organic menu," Pascal adds, though he hasn't yet sourced all his ingredients. "I want to use this menu to give an environmental message."

On the beverage side, Patrice's goals match those of Pascal's. "I like to offer regional wines to our clients, especially when they are not from the area and have not had the chance to taste them." he says. Of course, he has a cellar full of the best wines from throughout France, though he remains loyal to his country and has no imported wine. A 'Maître Sommelier', the highest distinction for a wine waiter, he also belongs to the 'Association de Ia Sommellerie de Poitou-Charentes', and regularly visits regional vineyards with his colleagues. In addition to wine, his cellar holds more than fifty different cognacs and he regularly organises tasting sessions. Between them, the Bodinauds and their extended family of Patrice and Pascal provide a warm welcome that makes a visit to the Château de Nieuil and the Grange aux Oies a rewarding, relaxing experience.

First published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine in 2009 - © All rights reserved

WORDS: Gail Brennan


Le Château de Nieuil hotel ****

Luce and Jean-Michel Bodineaud, 16270 Nieuil. +33 (0)545 71 36 38,

Restaurant La Grange aux Oies

Pascal Pressac, Patrice Devaine and Sylvie Puydenus, Château de Nieuil, 16270 Nieuil +33 (0)5 45 71 81 24