I have (and suspect I will be forever) always been the sort of person who likes to know how something's made. There's an anecdote about Deborah Devonshire, the late Duchess of Devonshire and youngest Mitford sister, who received a moss tree as a present. 'I pulled it to bits to see how it was made', she said.
That's where the similarities between Debo and me end. Except when I get invited to stay in a German castle and dine with the family behind the world's leading ceramicware, of course.
Last month, I spent a couple of days as a guest of Villeroy & Boch, invited over to learn about the history behind this great company and to see first hand how their beautiful products come to life.
Along with two other bloggers - Lins from Boo & Maddie and Jen from Love Chic Living - I flew to Luxembourg, arriving at lunchtime and met by our very own V&B driver. The journey over to Villeroy & Boch HQ in Mettlach took around 45 minutes over the border into Germany, and we turned up the grand drive towards the Schloss Saareck castle at the heart of the small German town on the river Saar. The castle was all turrets and taxidermy, and home to several generations of the Boch family. Over lunch, we chatted to Luitwin Gisbert von Boch-Galhau, eighth generation of the family who was born in the castle and still works for the company. Fascinating stuff.
After lunch, we made the short journey over the river to the V&B headquarters, based in a huge and very beautiful old abbey. Here, we wandered through the museum of ceramics showing current collections as well as the company's archive - pretty extensive, as V&B began back in 1748. Did you know that Villeroy & Boch tiles decorated the floors and walls of the Titanic? Or that, historically, every pope has had their own personal V&B dining set designed specially for them? V&B makes its way onto the most prestigious tables, even moving ones like the Orient Express. And if you happen to be posh enough for your own bespoke dinner service, you can choose exactly which kind of precious metal you'd like to add as the finishing touch! (Scroll down for the picture of the teacups to see the silver/gold test plate.)
Art is a big aspect of the company's heritage. We saw a collection of oil paintings by Anna and Eugène Boch, learning how Anna was the only person to have bought a Van Gogh during the artist's lifetime. And we saw the designs of Keith Haring, Paloma Picasso and more, all commissioned by the company for their innovative and beautiful creations. Every interior we saw was beautifully decorated and breathtakingly grand.
The exhibitions of products are so creatively displayed. We particularly enjoyed learning about the new tableware ranges which were set up showhome style, which really gave a good feel for how the products could work in the home. Two ranges really stood out to me: the first, a selection of barbecue crockery, some of which could be transferred from flame to table directly; the second, a new range of pasta bowls and plates designed to sit snugly in the lap, the lip of which is shaped to prevent cutlery from falling into the bowl. Clever stuff, and it's good to see how keenly research into consumer behaviour is informing V&B's product development.
Next, we headed to the bathroom and kitchen showroom where we were introduced to a new range of coloured sinks and basins, the Artis Colour range. Now, I'm the lucky owner of a navy blue bathroom suite AND a coffee cloakroom suite (don't be too envious) so I have mixed feelings about coloured sanitaryware but the products themselves were so beautifully designed and I can really see how they'd work in a modern kitchen or bathroom.
Germany were playing Northern Ireland in the Euro 2016 tournament that evening, which gave us a couple of hours to ourselves while our hosts rightly joined the rest of Mattlech to watch the game. It was fantastic being up in our beautiful bedrooms in the castle turrets, windows open and the sound of cheering floating on the breeze. Everyone in Germany was watching, or so it seemed, and our hosts confirmed how much of a family occasion it was.
At eight o'clock, we headed down to dinner with two of team V&B - Maria von Boch-Hardenberg and Katrin May - who were gracious hosts, very interested in the world of blogging. We enjoyed a fabulous three-course meal (on beautiful Villeroy & Boch porcelainware, of course!) in the grand castle dining room, before heading up to bed.
After a huge breakfast spread the next morning, we headed to Merzig to see behind the scenes at the tableware factory. We weren't able to photograph this element of our trip as V&B is understandably protective of its techniques - frustrating, as I found some of the machinery, robots and processes incredibly beautiful. Instead, here are a couple of press shots to give you an idea.
V&B use a secret recipe of ingredients to produce two types of ceramics (one using bone, one without) and we saw the moulding, shaping, firing, quality control and decorating processes up close. The kiln operates at 1200 degrees over the course of eight hours - this part of the tour was a bit sweaty! Many of the production stages are done by machine but this is a huge operation and those that could only be done by human hand were operated by women who'd been at V&B for years, often decades. In that way, as with the ten generations of Villeroys and Bochs involved, it feels like such a family business.
Our final stop in Mettlach was the bathroom factory. Similar in many ways to the ceramicware factory we'd just seen, the main difference here was the scale. Everything was bigger - the tanks used to hold the raw materials, the moulds, the kiln and, of course, the products. I'd been fascinated to learn how a tableware company naturally expanded to include bathrooms but it's a fairly obvious progression - imagine a chamber pot, a wash basin and jug as bigger versions of a tea cup, bowl and milk jug and you've got the basics!
The kiln process shrinks everything down by a third and I found it tricky to get my head around the testing development of new products to ensure holes for taps are in the right place (this obviously isn't at all tricky for a company with so much experience). We watched a worker place the famous V&B logo onto basins and lavatory bowls. Since then, I've found myself noticing the branding while out and about and thinking back to the person who'd have been working on that station - even the loo on the train back to Bristol was V&B!
After a heavy morning of activity, our driver took us back across the border to Luxembourg where we had lunch with Anne Faber, a local food blogger who'd recently moved back from London, and Jessika Rauch, the Global PR Manager for V&B Tableware. The restaurant - Buvette, in the Rontonde - was housed in a beautiful airstream and just so happened to use the V&B barbecue range to serve a selection of amazing burgers. My veggie burger was one of the best I've ever had.
Our final stop on this whirlwind adventure was another impressive property belonging to the company, Schloss Septfontaines. This beautiful Luxembourgish chateau was a dreamy combination of ornate plasterwork, grand rococo architecture and beautiful design. There was even a giant clock on the ceiling at the top of the grand staircase! We took tea in the tranquil drawing room before a short tour. I loved the wild wallpaper in one of the corner rooms and the jungle bathroom (where you can see Lins and Jen snapping away).
Before long, it was time for us to leave, but not before a quick dash around the outlet shop nearby. I bought a beautiful salad bowl to remind me of this wonderful adventure, and then it was back to Luxembourg airport to make our evening flight back to the UK.
I'm incredibly grateful for all the wonderful opportunities that have come my way through blogging, and this trip to Luxembourg and Germany with Villeroy & Boch has to be one of the top experiences in my 11 years as a blogger.
Thanks so much to everyone we met at V&B for such a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and to their UK PR company for inviting me along.