Brocante Finds and Wisteria.


A perfect day off involves a morning wandering through an old french market followed by a lazy lunch and afternoon in the garden. The month of May is perfect for indulging because there are so many state holidays that the french people have become experts at avoiding going to work where at all possible. This week the national holiday, which unlike in the UK where it always falls on a Monday, relies on its date, and has fallen not only on Tuesday, Victoire (victory day) the 8th of May, but also on Thursday, the 10th of May which is Ascension.

The idea of having a weekend and then returning to work for Monday only to have a national holiday on Tuesday is so ridiculous to any Frenchman, that a nationally recognized “pont”, or “bridge” is put into action. Monday becomes a bridge from Sunday to Tuesday and effectively no one works that day either. Since Thursday is also a national holiday, Friday becomes a bridge to the following weekend and no one works that day either. But of course we can’t stop there, because Wednesday also becomes a bridge from Tuesday to Thursday. Pretty impossible to work that day too, and before you know it there’s a 9 day holiday in the middle of May!

As the month of May comes round, everyone visibly relaxes. The first of May, the fête de travail, is also a national holiday as is the 20th and 21st of May for Pentecost. A fabulous month for everyone, made better still under sunny blue skies.

A few months ago at the far end of our local Sunday market we came across a stall holder packing up for his long anticipated lunch, and jumbled in amongst the bric à brac of his antique stall was an old tap, a decorative brass collar and the old over arch of a grand wrought iron gate. Perhaps the over arch was from an old Château, or an old manoir. We shall never know, but for a scant amount of money we heaved it onto our shoulders and carted it with the old tap and collar off to the car. They sat in a rather forlorn state over winter and this spring the tap was attached to the old brass decorative collar and mounted onto a piece of shaped stone against the conservatory wall. The old over arch was scraped clean and repainted and then modified in width to sit over our rather more diminutive gate.Two summers ago we had bought a small wisteria plant to grow up the side of the house where ivy used to grow. Last summer we knew that if we didn’t find a framework for it to grow over quickly, it would become very difficult to manage. While the stems of the Wisteria were still in hibernation we pushed them through the gate overarch and waited to see how it would look.It’s been wonderful coming in and out of the garden this month and breathing in the scent as we pass. Having an outside garden tap at last has made short work of the watering! Next year we may have to cut back yet more of the ivy as the wisteria vigorously winds it’s way the length of the garden railings. I can only anticipate how heavenly the scent will be next year, and hope there will be even more days off and “ponts” to look forward in which to enjoy it!Have a wonderful “end of week”!

La Fête de Ventre – The Celebration of the Stomach!


“Finished already”, said my favourite cheese-monger this morning handing me a bag with a large wedge of oozing brie, for which he shook his head at any idea of payment. It was just 11, and I had already passed his market stall earlier in the morning with twenty americans in tow. He’s such a nice man that when he sees me approaching, he always lays out on the counter top the four “appelation controlé” normandy cheeses for me to talk about to whoever I may have with me. I grinned at him saying how hard it was for me to get up to meet today’s group having been enjoying myself at a dinner with friends the night before.

Even more unusually, there was no queue at the fruit and vegetable stall either, so after a shake of the hand and a cheery chat with the owners, I walked away with another bag on my arm and passed into the side road where all the real action was. Today is the annual “Celebration of the stomach”, and as always hundreds of local producers arrive in the town at the crack of dawn on saturday for the two day long festival. Not only was there every imaginable food and locally produced alcohol available, but an excellent 5 man band were wandering around filling the air with fabulous and cheerful music.

I already had a couple of spit-roasted chickens under my arm, and so what I really needed next was some freshly baked bread. There is no presarvative in french bread, and so it has to be bought fresh every day. Today there were at least three boulangers baking bread on the street in portable bread ovens and the smell was heavenly.

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But you can’t buy bread without thinking of cheese, and the local normandy cheese called Neufchatel, traditionally in the form of a heart, was not far away!

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The Neufchatel comes in varying degrees of ripeness, young smooth and white or older white with little slits in the surface. But then suddenly I noticed some brown hearts and couldn’t resist asking just how old these cheeses were. The stall owner declared that they were four months old and had the flavour of caramelised cheese. “Were they dry in the centre” asked another person. Not at all, rich and gooey in the centre, these are not cheeses for the faint-hearted!wp_20161016_002

Well only moments later I passed a stall where a huge pan of Tartiflette was bubbling away. Potatoes, onions and bacon cooked in white Savoy wine and fresh cream with a generous helping of Roblochon, a soft rind soft “appelation controlée” cheese also from the Savoy region. There was enough to feed an army.

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Having got all that I really needed, there was time just to wander through the stalls and savour what was available.

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fresh squashes and pumpkins, and fresh garden herbs.

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abundent fresh fish and shellfish.

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and hot, fresh crèpes with chocolate sauce.

wp_20161016_015Macaronswp_20161016_016choux puffs of every possible flavour,wp_20161016_017and mini cup-cakes.wp_20161016_013And then, if you weren’t already overwhelmed for choice, freshly made chocolate truffles!wp_20161016_010I passed a few more stalls selling handmade cured saucisson, some flavoured with goats cheese and others with camembert,wp_20161016_007and abundent coquilles St Jaques, (scallops)wp_20161016_006and more mussels than anyone could possibly eat!wp_20161016_031And while all this was going on all around, a chocolatier was quietly carving this chocolate sculpture.

Though judging by her grimace, the poor chocolate woman is clearly agonising about her waistline in the face of all this abundence.

And i’m not suprised really – are you?

Bon Apetite!

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Le Fête du Ventre and Other Activities.


My fellow guide and I had a huddled conversation this morning over how on earth we were going to get our 50 Amercan tourists through the heart of the city of Rouen this morning. Lining the streets on every side, cheek to cheek, was every conceivable stall groaning under the weight of speciality and artisan foods from the length and breadth of Normandy.  Finally colourful umbrellas held high, Joan of Arc’s story having already being recounted on a quiet corner, we snaked our way through the crowd to the Vieux Marché and the cross in the garden outside the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc.

Maybe the end of the historic tour, but for me, the start of a fun-filled lunchtime. A quick call to my younger boys back at home to describe the sweet stall I had just passed, and the boys were hastily on route to the café where I had taken refuge for a pause, before launching ourselves into the crowds to taste all that was on offer.

Having started with a creamy hot chocolate, our next stop was of course the sweet stall. But barely had we paid for two groaning bags than we spotted our favourite chocolatier on the other side of the street making chocolate truffles before our eyes.

-“on offer, for a limited time only” he called, and I knew it was true since last year, once thoroughly addicted, the truffle source dried up by about the end of December, leaving an agonising 8 month wait until this year’s Fête!

Now loaded down with two bags of sweets and a huge groaning bag of truffles, we came across the Macroon stall and walked away with chocolate, Tiramisu, Spéculoos, and Framboise flavours.

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But the fun was still to come. As we reached the corner the noise became deafening. Right there, across the street from the Oyster bar,  a jazz band was entertaining the crowds. If you look really carefully you can see the oyster shells piled high on one of the tables.

Leaving the band we headed down the street to see what else we could find!

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-wonderful fresh vegetables,

WP_20141019_008 – and at least twenty varieties of Normandy apples!

 

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– Normandie “escargots” (snails)

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and crates of delicious “champignons”.

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-Don’t forget the “Neufchatel” cheese, formed in the shape of a heart by the Normandy dairymaids to the allied soldiers in the First World War.

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The soft pretzel breads caused a stir with my boys! So much so that they forgot to clamour for a fresh crèpe or a gauffre (waffle)!

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But full on fresh bread, sweet bags in hand, with music still ringing in our ears we headed happily home!  I hope our American visitors enjoyed it as much as we did!

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End of the School Year!


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If you were thinking that it’s been a long time since my last post, you’d be right! The school year since March took on a kind of frenetic energy, and, for that matter looks to continue for  few more days yet!

Today, the primary school kids that usually hurtle out of the school gates were in an excitable state but keen to linger for their last moments of junior school. I became camera woman taking the inevitable last moment snapshots. It’s moments like this that remind you that you are inescapably in France. The school, a typically “Madeline style” old brick and silex house, with large front courtyard playground and tall metal gates was overflowing with children this afternoon all saying their fond farewells to their “maitresses”. For primary school teachers to kiss their pupils is common, and today the children queued in long lines to wait to have their hands shaked and their cheeks kissed before making their way out onto the street, mindful that next year they would be in Collège. Anywhere else such displays of affection between staff and pupils would be abuse litigation possibilities!

Collègians and Lycéens finished school two weeks ago, after a flurry of exams. Unlike the UK, results for state exams are published only a month after being taken. The adolescents can relax into their holidays without anxiety hanging around them for the summer. Tonight I watch my older two prepare for the huge open air concert on the Rouen Quayside. The campbeds are already laid out for visiting friends making use of our city centre location! Following the success of last year when Mika played to a 60,000 strong audience, The city of Rouen has hosted another set of free concerts, tonight Martin Garrix takes over from the support bands at 11.30. It will be a late and noisy night!

The city will be buzzing through till July the 14th with masses of tourists joining the local population to watch the fireworks at the end of the French national holiday commonly known as Bastile Day. From that moment onwards, the local population winds down in preparation for the real French national holiday- the month of August!

Another school year is over. The school reports are in, and I’m a proud parent. Two of my children have averages of 19/20 in French. I have to record the fact because I am often asked if it is possible, and it’s a great moment when you realise that it is.  I stuck my neck out this year and registered at university to study French, mindful of the ever growing gap between my children’s expertise and my faltering one. To date, it’s the best thing that i’ve done in France. I am over the moon to say that I passed the B2 diploma. At some moments there were doubts, without question there were frustrations and it certainly wasn’t a breeze, but speaking and writing  the language with confidence creates opportunities, and opens up friendships and job possibilities. I am poised for the next diploma, the DALF C1, and all the amusement that it will hold for my children as I study along-side them next year!

But until that moment I can say only one thing:

Bienvenue à l’été!

 

 

La Fête de la Ventre à Rouen – Revisited!


This morning, as I headed down into the historic centre of Rouen to meet a group of 30 American tourists, I was assailed by the heady smell of bacon! I don’t usually associate a Sunday breakfast in France with bacon, but rather with the smell of warm brioche which I had hastily eaten this morning before setting out, so I quickened my step to find out where the delicious smell was coming from. I should have guessed, only one street further on, the pavements were crammed with colourful stalls, and a huge display of ‘everything edible’ from all over Normandy. Today the city celebrates La Fête de la Ventre’, literally translated as the ‘Festival of the Stomach’ and what a festival it was!

It was somewhat difficult to head my group of tourists in the opposite direction to visit the sombre and macabre gloom of the Black Death Cemetery, the Aitre St Maclou, while all the gaiety, aroma and colour of the market was only a few streets away. The group were disappointed that the Cathedral and Eglise Jeanne d’Arc were both closed for the Dioscesan Assembly, the huge ecclesiatical gathering had regrouped at the Zenith, several kilometers from the city centre. It was certainly ironic that in the face of all this gluttony and merimaking, the church had chosen to escape temptation with a Diocesan ‘Day of Prayer’ far from the city and its habitual place of worship!

Having successfully led my Americans through the burgeoning crowds building up around the Vieux Marché, and delivered them to the site of the burning of Joan of Arc, where we attempted to view the 15th century stained glass from the outside the locked and gated church, I let them loose into the face of temptation, with the instruction to return to their coach by one. How many made it back in time is one question, whether I arrived home in time for lunch is another!

I sent the following text to my daughter..

“I may be some time..!”

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The band’s great rythm added to the convivial atmosphere,

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A make-shift oyster bar was at the centre of the festivities – but between you and me, the real feast was all around us, and there were plenty of ‘goûters’ (tasters) to try at every stall for free!

WP_20131020_005Who can reist the freshest fish?

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WP_20131020_036WP_20131020_037or handgrown cress from the bank of the smallest river in France, at Veules les Roses,

WP_20131020_048Not just cress, but cress soup and tapenade of cress with garlic!

WP_20131020_045Seasonal pupkins and squashes, with the stall owner sautéing the produce in butter..

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WP_20131020_076Fresh Neufchatel cheese made in the form of a heart by the Normandy dairymaids to thank the allied soldiers for their liberation!

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WP_20131020_061Savory cakes with feta, olives or leek and salmon..

WP_20131020_059The dreaded Andoillette, both raw..

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It smelled and looked better than it tastes!

WP_20131020_042Who can resist little “goûters” of Chorizo..

WP_20131020_035and dried sausage,

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WP_20131020_033Everywhere I looked, local specialities were being cooked.

WP_20131020_022The stall owners were jovial and good-humoured and I couldn’t resist some artisan produced fresh bread!

And at the next stall small boules of bread were infused with scented pressed olive oils

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WP_20131020_019and the huge cheeses and the Feuillettes de Chevre (goats cheese puff pastries) were heavenly!

WP_20131020_026But then I came across the display of cakes, Amandines avec Framboises, (almond frangipan cakes with crushed raspberries) and my thoughts turned to sweeter things!

WP_20131020_051a huge vat of molten chocolate,

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Need I say that the purchase of  a bag was essential!

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But if chocolate doesn’t do it for you, then there were freshly made Macroons of every flavour,

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It was with huge regret that I finally tore myself away from the fête and headed home..

But the sounds and smells followed me half the way,

and the Truffles? All the way of course!

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The Fête de Ventre? A perfect way to spend a Sunday on a warm October day!

C’est Chaud à Rouen – Hotting up for the Armada


The cherry-pickers were out on Monday putting up ‘Armada’ bunting across the main street through Rouen, rue Jean d’Arc. There is a charged atmosphere about the city, expectant, and ready. The first Armada tall ships will hopefully arrive in Rouen next Wednesday evening, passing below the Pont Flaubert, the tallest lifting bridge in the world, which will be raised for the occasion.

But for today I was meeting another boat, and was there on the quayside just as The Viking moored after its gradual journey down the Seine from Paris. Should I have been worried? The last time Vikings were seen on the Seine, the city suffered from total destruction, pillaging, and Normandy was handed over to them. Thankfully for me, this Viking ship contained 120 American tourists who were keener on admiring our treasures, than plundering them. This is after all 2013 and not 841.

I am envious of the Americans, for when they continue their journey towards Le Havre, they will have the pleasure of watching the Armada ships sailing up the Seine from an excellent vantage point, the Seine itself. But for us, we have a week of ceremony, free access to the ships, fireworks and a ‘maritime Sunday mass’ ahead of us.

Tourists and visitors are arriving in their masses to watch the spectacle, the hotels are bursting at their seams, and everywhere you chose to look  there are people carrying poles atopped with a shiny red disc denoting ‘group 2A, 2B, or 2C’. I should know, today I was one of them guiding the many tourists around the great monuments of Rouen, trying not to lose Americans in the general hubub and swirling crowds, and trying to keep count of 30 heads whilst at the same time telling them how the leaders of the Harelle riot lost theirs in 1382, and how we lost Jean of Arc for ever.

My diary is crammed with tour dates, many of the guides are running at three a day,  but for some of us, we have to somehow fit in the picking up and dropping off of our children who are incorporated into choirs for both the rehearsals and the the sunday maritime mass, and find the time to provide them with brightly coloured teeshirts (with no buttons or logo) for their performance in front of the cameras. as the 640 strong choir will be televised.

One place I shall certainly be, with my boys,  will be on one of the many bridges spanning the Seine watching the fireworks display at 11.30 on Friday night, which are rumoured to be outstanding. Having missed the great British Guy Fawkes night for the past two years, and inexplicably been out of France for every 14th July, this is an event we cannot miss.

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So if you are at a loose end next week, Rouen is where you need to be, and if you see a numbered ‘lolly stick’ waggling above the heads of the crowds, you never know, it could just be me!

A fortnight from now we may just catch a breath for a brief moment, before the ‘City of Impressionists’ festival begins…

But that’s another story!

All photos thanks to google

The Kermesse, The French School Fête.


Today was the day of the Kermesse, otherwise known as the school fête. A day filled with bonhomie, bonbons and “ah bon?” (what really?)

The day started early, and at approximately ten this morning – my ‘otherwise-asleep’ adolescent was clamouring for his croissants in order to meet up with his friends in the school ‘cour’ (playground). They had a basketball stand to manage!

The school has devised a pretty neat system for paying for activities and refreshments, a large ‘welcome’ tent manned by parents selling booklets of ten tickets for ten euros, and thereafter a money-free day for children and parents alike. A second row of parents selling ‘ticket repas’with a choice of two possible menus, budget and gastronomique!

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Today as I headed into the crowd to find my children with their meal tickets, It did occur to me that I might be being a little over ambitious – After being confronted by the following stalls, it was pretty self-evident that by lunchtime they wouldn’t be hungry!

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Une toute petite (?) boule de Barbe à Papa!

A little ball of Candy floss – otherwise know as Grandpa’s beard!

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No really, there aren’t enough to chose from….

Mais oui, Madame, ily a un autre rang. But yes, Madame, there’s another row!

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Ah bon?  Really?

Bon Bon!

Did I mention how French parents are natural crèpe makers! No shortage of parent helpers for this stall! No lemon and sugar for the French, but a huge bowl of molten chocolate to spread over…liberally!

Under the trees thirty long tables are set out to await the parents, Maman qui ne mange pas entre les repas – French maman who doesn’t eat between meals – et papa qui a grand faim – And French papa who is a gastronome! And me, well because the menu gastronomique  has been cooked by a French chef and it’s good.

A midi, the parents discard their children and seat in huge gregarious groups n’importe ou (no-one minds where), the length of the tables, pulling in extra chairs for stragglers, serving friends, husband, wife, mamie (granny)or papie (grandpa) glasses of wine or sparkling water in gobelets (plastic cups – it sounds better in French doesn’t it!) whilst tucking into the menu budget, or gastronomique.

Frites merguez for the impoverished, (chips and spicy sausages)

Melon, dressed salad, Paella (chicken, mussels, merguez) and of course frites for the discerning!

Finally, a good hour and a half later, the parents rise, replete with bonhomie, a year’s worth of conversation and a contented stomach to search out their wandering children. Let the afternoon begin!

Monsieur ‘La chasse’ is once more on the scene. The hunt, an essential part of the French lifestyle is introduced early, and a necessary feature of the school fête, even though one wonders about the presence of authentic air rifles and lead pellets passing any sort of ‘health and safety’ guidelines.

I had already noted the stripey ‘Police – Do Not Cross This Line’ tape surrounding the sweet stand – curiously absent here!

Monsieur La Chasse turns away to help a six year old handle the rifle, leaving my nine year old wielding his!

Ah Bon?

The day is not complete before all the classes of primary have  entertained their parents under the ‘Grand Preaux’

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The space men sing us a little ditty. The performances last all afternoon and parents come and go to watch their ‘petite pousse‘ (little ‘growing thing) do his bit!

Enfin, the tombola; first prize, dinner and a night for two at the 5 star Renaissance Hotel Bourgtheroulde in Rouen (complete with spa and underground swimming-pool). It is of no great suprise that I don’t win!

A last throw of the basket ball…

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and we head home happy, our pockets full of silly 1€ plastic toys that will probably only just survive till the morning!

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Salut!