I met Mary Pochez through a friend at an art opening about 12 years ago, and although we had a brief conversation, I knew I liked her. We kept in touch by email occasionally through the blog I write, but we never saw each other again physically until 2013. Mary is an American expat who’s lived in France for over 30 years and owns an 18th-century chateau in the Loire, which I always wanted to visit.
My wish came true when Mary emailed me to announce that she was starting to give cooking classes at the chateau. She invited me to come overnight to experience her first class and also to give her feedback. In the beginning of December 2013, I took the train to Le Mans and then a bus to La Fleche, the closest town to the chateau. Mary showed me around the medieval village and shared the history of how King Henri IV started a Jesuit college and then a cadet school there. In 1808 Napoleon had a military academy constructed.
After the visit to La Fleche, we headed to the chateau, driving through the 1,200-acre property, which has forests of tall trees and a pristine lake. We arrived at the chateau, an impressive building with moss-eaten steps, white weather-beaten shutters, a stone facade, and a fountain with a water sprout shooting up the height of the chateau. On the side of the chateau were a private chapel, an orangerie, and servant and workers’ buildings.
I met Mary’s husband Xavier, who was warm and welcoming, and he and Mary gave me a tour of the expansive chateau with its procession of endless rooms, long hallways, backstairs, and hidden passageways. Xavier explained Chateau de la Barbee has been in his family since it was originally built in 1790 by architect Louis-Adrien Lusson. The chateau is listed on the official historic French register because of its age and authenticity — and also having been built during the revolution.
My room on the second floor had a lovely countryside view. The decor of the room was cool, shabby chic: two beds with wood headboards and white linens, wood plank floors, and an old-fashioned white bathtub with decorative claws.
Later that afternoon, after I settled into my room, we had tea in the cozy library. Mary shared with me her eye-opening past, about how she was a California surfer girl from a big family and was “discovered” by a model agent, becoming an international model in her 20s. Globetrotting all over Europe and hanging out with supermodels like Janice Dickinson, she was introduced to Xavier at a dinner party in Paris. It took him a long time to win her over, and they have now been married for 35 years with two grown children. They lived in Paris until 2009 and then moved to the chateau permanently.
After Mary got married, she learned the ins and outs of French cooking and entertaining from her mother-in-law and her many French girlfriends and soon began having guests all the time at her spacious apartment in Paris. She loved the challenge of cooking for large groups, and her children would often invite a group of their friends over for dinner at the last minute. After moving to the chateau, she didn’t cook or entertain as much as her children were at university and most of her friends still lived in Paris. Having a desire to pass on her French cooking and entertaining skills and expertise, she came up with the idea of starting her classes.
Early the next day, we visited the local food market, where we shopped for some of the ingredients for the lunch we were going to prepare later that morning. We tasted the freshest oysters, rolling the salted water on our tongues. We also bought locally made foie gras and some produce, including pears, a massive cabbage, and salad greens.
We returned to the kitchen, put on our aprons, and rolled up our sleeves. The first task was to roll out the pastry for a pear almond tart. Next was preparing a simple but unique dish of foie gras wrapped in cabbage leaf. While Mary boiled the cabbage leaves to soften them, I cut up the raw foie gras into pieces, stuffed them inside the cabbage leaves, and baked them.
After cooking for about two and a half hours, we sat down for lunch. Mary had set the table with some of the family heirlooms including the original china, flatware, and crystal glasses from the early 1800s. The cabbage-wrapped foie gras was fantastic, and I have since impressed my own dinner guests with it. Since it was winter, the main course was tender slices of wild boar served with a cranberry and mushroom sauce. The pear almond tart was a divine finish, and I had a second slice. Xavier served a hearty Chinon red wine, a perfect accompaniment to the boar.
After lunch, I had about an hour left before my train departed, so Xavier took me on a tour of the grounds and also showed me the inside of the chapel, where he and Mary got married. Mary stuffed a lovely parting gift, a jar of her homemade jam, in my bag as I was leaving.
Fast forward to 2020: Mary has hosted dozens of classes at Chateau de la Barbee and is doing so well, she renovated the spacious original chateau kitchen in the cellar so she could accommodate more guests.
There are three programs available at La Vie du Chateau/Chateau de la Barbee.
The first is a one-day program during which you visit a market to shop for ingredients, then go back to the chateau to prepare lunch and dinner. She offers the possibility to spend the night if desired. There’s a minimum of four people for this class. Cost: 300 euros per person
The second program consists of four days of cooking, a visit to the open market, and excursions to discover local sites, plus spending three nights at the chateau. Cost: 1,800 euros per person
The third program consists of five days of cooking, open market and other local visits, and lunch by the Loir riverside. Cost: 2,400 euros per person
The overnight programs include the following
- All food and drinks (wine, champagne, cognac, et cetera)
- All entrance tickets and transportation for excursions
- Accommodations in the family’s chateau
- Cooking tuition
- A recipe booklet
- A complimentary Chateau de La Barbee apron
Sample menus are listed on the website.
Mary loves to share her passion for cooking and preparing beautiful meals but says that what she loves the most is that the people arrive as cooking guests and often leave as good friends!
Mary is also happy to host private groups at La Vie du Chateau/Chateau de la Barbee.
Le Mans is an hour and 15-minute train ride from Montparnasse station in Paris, then you’ll take a connecting bus from Le Mans station to La Fleche, where someone from Chateau de la Barbee will pick you up. Inspired? You’ll also want to consider