Auberge CastelMerle, Dordogne
Chris Millinship wasn’t at all star-struck when James Martin came to visit him at his Dordogne B&B; not because he wasn’t a fan of the former Saturday Kitchen host or he didn’t care much for his cooking, but because he simply had never heard of him. “I didn’t know who James Martin was,” laughs Chris. “But I asked around a bit and I bought one of his books.”
Having lived in a sleepy part of Périgord in Dordogne for 38 years without British television, the rise of celebrity chefs had bypassed Chris until an assistant director of the James Martin’s French Adventure series contacted him. “They were planning to do a special Dordogne episode and they wanted a beautiful place in the area to shoot,” Chris explains. Situated at the edge of the Vézère valley, boasting panoramic riverside views and a well-known reputation as a ‘ hôtel de charme’, the Auberge Castel-Merle, which Chris runs with his French wife Anita, was an obvious choice for the programme.
Renowned for its world-famous produce, James was keen on showcasing some of the region’s spoils and on Chris’s suggestion, he visited the nearby market at Rouffignac where he bought some strawberries to use in a dessert.
“What he does is amazing,” Chris says of James’s cooking. “He invents his recipes as he goes along. I don’t think the producers know what he’s going to do from one minute to the next. He’s a bit of a magician really.”
But James was not the only one to impress with his culinary skills, as Chris had the task of cooking for the whole crew. And, even though he has over 40 years’ worth of cooking experience under his belt, he was still apprehensive when the camera started rolling. “I was nervous, of course,” he admits. “I didn’t realise that I
would be cooking and that James would then be eating it in front of the cameras. There was nowhere to hide!” he laughs. But Chris had nothing to be nervous about. His plates of duck specialities were met with compliments from the star chef. “That is fantastic,” James said, enjoying a dish of duck magret with truffle sauce.
Much like James, who worked at a Michelinstarred restaurant aged 12 at nearby St-Émilion, Chris learned how to cook during a summer working at Auberge Castel-Merle as a 16-year-old. It was here that he met and fell in love with his future wife, the daughter of the hotel’s owners.
“I got married to the boss’s daughter,” he laughs. “I met my future wife while washing up,” he smiles. The couple returned to England but it wasn’t long before they decided to settle down in Dordogne. The hotel has been in Anita’s family for five generations, and her parents were keen for it to stay in the family and for the business to continue, and so when they retired in 1984, they asked Chris and Anita to take it over. “It was a big decision,” Chris reflects. “We worked very hard, doing weddings and so on, and we completely restored the farm into a small hotel, more like a B&B, with a few more rooms,” he explains. The auberge now has
nine rooms and over the years, Chris and Anita have let go of the restaurant side of things, instead keeping it simple with a bar serving tea and snacks. However, Chris says that he “still does truffle omelettes, if people want them. I’ve made thousands of omelettes,” he admits.
Keen to keep the hotel in the family, Chris and Anita hope that their twin daughters will take over when they retire. “We’re not quite finished yet though!” Chris insists, and they are looking forward to some excitement again this summer when the Tour de France will pass through their village of Sergeac. But for now, they are still basking in their moment in the TV spotlight, as are the locals.
“The local French guys were a bit in
awe I suppose; they thought it was great fun,” Chris says of their TV appearance. “I invited our neighbours for an apéritif and to watch the programme, which they really enjoyed, and the mayor was very happy to see the village on TV.”
Having seen how much James enjoyed his stay in France, Chris has no qualms in recommending a permanent move to the chef. “James actually said to me, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a place like yours and doing 50 meals a day’. You can see that the call of France is still there; he’s got a lot of fond memories of France,” Chris says. Does Chris think that James should make the move, like he did almost 40 years ago? “I think he’s got to,” Chris says, before adding, “You’ve got to, otherwise you regret it.”
The rooms at Castel-Merle have a charming, rustic feel
Left: Chris and Anita Millinship Above: Views of the Vézère valley from Castel-Merle