Story by Renée Suen
CAMBRIDGE, ONTARIO — Ah, France. A land with a history that’s rich in exotic spices and maritime adventurers.
Up until last month, I would have raised an eyebrow to this inflammatory statement, but any preconceived notions I had about the country’s culinary richness, and its relations to Canada, were set right during a recent stay at southern Ontario’s Langdon Hall, when the “Country House Hotel and Spa” in Cambridge hosted a celebratory weekend in honour of Relais & Châteaux’s 60th anniversary.
A recognized and highly respected brand, Relais & Châteaux is a global collection of independently owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants. Founded in 1954 by Marcel Tilloy, Relais & Châteaux started as a Route du Bonheur, linking charming hostelries from Paris to Nice along France’s picturesque Rhone Valley. The association has since grown to 50 Routes du Bonheur across 62 countries, and this October Relais & Châteaux’s North American members organized a series of collaborative dinners featuring star chefs from abroad as a tribute to the brand’s continued service and excellence amongst its 520 properties.
This was how I found myself in the great company of Olivier Roellinger, chef/proprietor of Les Maisons de Bricourt, a 14-room Relais Gourmand establishment in the small Brittany port of Cancale. Only it was over espressos in Langdon Hall’s brightly lit sun room, where we spoke about his home in Saint-Malo, and how its seafaring past plays a part in his guests’ experience in modern-day France, and in the special collaborative menus for the celebratory weekend.
French Chef Makes His Mark at Langdon Hall
Born in an 18th-century house that was built by spice merchants, Roellinger found his calling in cooking at 24 years of age (after a near-fatal assault). He made his mark in the culinary world with the ability to share the stories of his country — specifically the legends of Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel, the Celtic tradition in Brittany, and adventures of the corsairs who stored spices between travels to the East and the West in Saint-Malo — through his cooking. The fine spice blends Roellinger creates for his food seem exotic in concept, but in practice are subtle as if he was the perfumer breathing Brittany’s history into the finest of its regional product. The powders and blends are sold through his spice company, Epices-Roellinger.
As a chef who once owned and operated le Relais Gourmand, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant (in 2008 Roellinger turned those stars in when he closed the restaurant because of his personal health reasons), I asked the patient, father-like proprietor what makes a good Relais & Châteaux establishment.
Relais & Châteaux is first a table, I’m told, as 75 properties don’t have guest rooms.
But more than just good food, each property is a reflection of its owner, who is driven with a passion and personal commitment in hospitality that’s welcoming and unforgettable. This unique quality is something Roellinger labels as artisan. He elaborates that “the target for each maison is to have a cuisine style that’s completely in harmony with the owner and the identity of the country. It’s a taste of the world, because it’s made up of individual owners and is focused on the terroir. It’s about preparing and giving food to other people – you give like it’s for your mother, with the same passion, the same duty to give the best. Everyone knows that the best food is what a mother gives to her children.”
It’s also no surprise that those properties that have achieved the Relais & Chateaux designation also rank well with Michelin (most with three-star designations where the guide is available).
“It’s an expression of the [surrounding] nature,” Roellinger continues, “but also the culture. There’s a family/team that shares the same fundamental values: you have a community behind you, and you also develop that community. That is the richness that is Relais & Châteaux.”
Roellinger further clarifies that it’s not just addressing a particular cause, but more about how members of the fellowship have the innate desire to support their community, from the farmers and producers to preserving the environment.
Last November, Roellinger, who is vice president of his nation’s Relais & Châteaux’s executive committee, presented an updated manifesto at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris — 20 engagements defining the brand’s quality and commitment to exceptional standards. Eventually, Roellinger hopes to build on the community aspect. “The world is a wonderful village, but … if the politicians don’t take responsibility, maybe the chefs [not just cooks, but mothers] should take responsibility for everyone. Relais & Châteaux is already well established around the world, and we are going to start another movement.”
Staying true to these mandates, the dinner Roellinger created with Langdon Hall’s new executive chef, Jason Bangerter, played off the historical relationship between Brittany and Canada, including the fact Jacques Cartier, who claimed Canada for France, was born in Saint-Malo. Bangerter, who honed his skills in Europe, told us that working at Langdon Hall has been a privilege.
“I think I’ve been really fortunate to find a position here at Langdon Hall and throughout my career I’ve worked in all major cities,” Bangerter says. “I’ve been in Paris, Berlin, London and Toronto. When you’re in those major cities you’re always thinking about the foraged stuff that you can get, connecting with great farmers and you’re always trying to do this from the city and it can be challenging. I think it has come a long way, but it’s always in the back of your mind to use those special ingredients, seasonal ingredients.”
Bangerter says he has been fortunate to work in Europe, including St. Moritz, which is in the Swiss-Italian Alps, and Olten, which is in the middle of Switzerland. He says he has found many similarities between those properties and Langdon Hall, which ranked 27th in the 2015 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide.
“I’ve been out in places that were very similar to Langdon Hall and I fell in love with those places and it really helped me, I think, become passionate about wild produce and connecting with farmers,” Bangerter says. “Coming to Langdon Hall has kind of brought it full circle and it’s something that I’m really passionate about. But it’s been magnified by a thousand coming here because with this old Carolinian forest and the things that are growing here and everything that has to do with the property here, it’s magical. Everything is coming out of the ground. Seriously, the only thing I haven’t found here is Leprechauns.”
At the market reception, guests were treated to fresh-shucked oysters from the east and west coasts. The bivalves were topped with aromatic liquid and dry spice mixes. The seemingly odd combination is anything but, and I have gained a new-found appreciation for Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel’s history and bivalve-rich Cancale.
This was also the reason why the weekend’s menu was void of cheese: there is no culture of cheese in Brittany!
There is, however, fishing. Lots of it. Gala dinner guests experienced cooking that was terroir-driven and history-inspired from a “mysterious” seafood bouillon from the Gulf of Tonkin that used root vegetables from Langdon Hall’s garden, to the coca-spiced Canadian spiny lobster, a tribute to French sailor Daniel de La Touche, Sieur de la Ravardière, who founded Fort St. Louis in Brazil in 1612, aka equinoctial France.
If only all history lessons were as whimsical and delicious!
– With files from Rod Charles
Langdon Hall Celebrates Relais & Châteaux’s 60th Anniversary
The grand events also acknowledged Langdon Hall’s own momentous 25th anniversary. The luxury property is arguably Canada’s finest country hotel, and can boast of accolades ranging from Condé Nast Traveller and CAA, including a five-diamond status for its restaurant. Owners Bill Bennett and Mary Beaton had a dream to be a part of the highly respected Relais & Châteaux brand when they first purchased Eugene Langdon Wilks’ former summer home and its associated 75 acres of rare reserve in the Waterloo Region, about an hour’s drive southwest of Toronto. The hotel opened after a two-year renovation that added a spa and cloister wing to the historic property. In 1991, just two years after Langdon Hall re-opened, their aspirations were realized (Bennett is now a board member for Relais & Chateaux North America and Canada).
Besides welcoming a Bangerter as executive chef, the restaurant also underwent recent renovations, including a kitchen and dining-room extensions. But that’s not all. Jessica Pearce, the estate’s marketing and public relations manager, revealed that a huge expansion is in the works that will include a new spa with 20 treatment rooms, larger event spaces, and eight more guest rooms (for a property total of 60).
MORE ABOUT LANGDON HALL
Address: 1 Langdon Drive, Cambridge, ON
Telephone: 519-740-2100 or 1-800-268-1898 (toll free).
Price range: $34-$49 for main courses.
You must order: White-tailed Ontario Deer with Chestnuts, Smoked Venison Bacon, Anjou Pear and more ($49).