Eight centuries of history means the food and drink at Chateau de Mercues has a lot to live up to. We send Ben Thorpe over to find it’s matured to perfection.
When I posted a picture of my destination for this trip, someone immediately commented: “That’s the most Chateau-y Chateau I’ve ever seen.” That might have been an unsubtle way of emphasising a point, but it was certainly effective and one that I’ve struggled to make more succinct.
Chateau de Mercues is a destination hotel near the town of Cahors which packs a bistro, a Michelin-starred restaurant and a winery into its picturesque building and grounds, along with a selection of appropriately luxurious bedrooms. It was originally built for the Bishops of Cahors in the 13th century, acting as their residence until 1905. After that, it waited until being purchased by Georges Vigouroux in 1983 to be restored to its proper glory.
My experience of this destination began with a refreshing peach-based drink at a reception that set the tone appropriately for my visit and was a decent pick-me-up after a couple of hours on the road from Toulouse-Blagnac airport.
While my luggage was spirited up to my room for later reunification, I took the time to step back outside and properly appreciate this spectacular building. It’s located slap bang on top of a rocky outcrop to give dramatic views of the local countryside and River Lot which flows nearby.
The limited space available precludes the inclusion of a full-blown spa offering, which is something of a shame, but this is really a destination all about the gastronomy and luxury, appropriately reflected by that starred restaurant.
Before getting down to the serious business of eating, I made a point of checking out my accommodation. My room was palatial enough to live up to the exterior of the building. Some grand-looking destination hotels I’ve visited seem to lead you through the appealing bit into a more modern annexe that ruins the sense of luxury, but there’s not a bit of that here.
The whole building and all the rooms showed uniformity of quality and indulgence in a traditional style without any jarring modernity, save for the addition of fancy TVs disguised as mirrors in some rooms. It was a tad surprising to notice that some of the rooms didn’t feature showers in a building as otherwise well-considered, while temperature control lacked a little delicacy, seemingly relying on the occupant to temper the heat with the air conditioning unit. Small grumbles on something otherwise so extravagant.
A destination such as this really needs the food offering to stand up to the temptation of the surroundings, and Chateau de Mercues has a couple of strings to its bow in this respect: a bistro offering adjoining a headlining restaurant, which also offers the opportunity to enjoy a Chef’s table experience.
Afternoon tea is also on offer featuring a selection of predictably delicate and refined sweet treats. I was taken with a meringue swan that enjoyed a sense of regionality from its use of the region’s Malbec grape for both its jelly and mousse elements.
Dining in the bistro was a treat; I particularly enjoyed a dish of black pig which used chestnuts to bring excitement to its mash potato accompaniment. The cheese course featured local Rocamadour that left a pleasantly pungent impression.
The Chef’s Table experience takes things up another level relative to the bistro. While the Michelin starred Le Duèze restaurant shares a space with the bistro, the Chef’s Table whisks you past the other diners’ jealous glances to an exclusive table right by the pass, with a full view of the kitchen and chefs at work.
Chef Julien Poiset hits all the notes of seasonality and regional produce that you’d expect from his reputation across 10 courses matched with wines from the resident expert sommelier. Our meal included snails, garlic, oysters and plenty of foie gras – something that this region certainly isn’t squeamish about.
Stand out dishes included a perfectly balanced beef tartare wrapped in a caper leaf, potato stuffed with oysters, smoked eel and roasted scallop. Artichoke featured heavily and was treated well while the dessert featured an impressively priapic soufflé. With the region being well known for truffles, it was unsurprising to see them crop up in a few courses too, though the divisive truffle omelette that the locality is known for didn’t make an appearance.
Both Chateau de Mercues and its partner, Chateau de Haute-Serre, offer a range of stunning wines to enjoy with the food in their respective restaurants. The Malbec, unsurprisingly, is the headlining grape, but with a broader range than that might imply. In particular, the sparkling Bellefleur de Haute-Serre was a striking and indulgent way to tease one’s way into a meal.
Haute-Serre is also a worthy destination in its own right, featuring a restaurant recognised with a Bib Gourmand by Michelin for memorable food at an accessible price, and the option to taste that range of wines before buying. Your bank account risks taking a sizeable hit, however.
As a base in the region, Chateau de Mercues offers access to Cahors and its 14th Century bridge, along with proximity to the stunning Saint-Cirq-Lapopie which perches majestically on a hilltop, overlooking the river Lot.
Chateau de Mercues did the job one would expect, removing the burden of everyday life and allowing it to be replaced with rich food, good wine and an appropriate sense of detachment.
I’ve visited many hotels and restaurants that forget that the important part of the hospitality trade is being hospitable, but no fear of that here. I’d always be happy to return and escape into this spectacular world of French gastronomy.