A week in the life…


This morning I was expecting to be up and early for a new experience- giving a bike tour of the city of Rouen. On Saturday afternoon I perfected the route, out on my own in glorious sunshine, wheeling my way along the river quay, past the many boats moored there, before climbing slowly up to the prefecture and passing the church of Joan of Arc nearby.enjoying the flower sellers in the street,and the Gros Horloge,and taking a pit stop in the cool of the abbey of St Ouen, an often missed, but gem of a monument, which easily competes with the cathedral for it’s light and perfect symmetry.But at 6 this morning a great crack of thunder and the rain came pouring down. I was prepared for the eventual soaking but by 9 the clients had cancelled and I now find myself with a free day!

I was thinking what an lovely week this has been for variety, which is perhaps what makes this job as good as it is.

When I’m not in Rouen, my “office” can be found generally with a wonderful view!

On Thursday this was my office at “Giverny”, the famous home and garden of Claude Monet.Then on Friday I met a boat at Les Andelys to walk up to Château Gaillard, Richard the Lionheart’s fortress at the top of the cliff. It was tough sitting waiting for the boat to come in!Later that afternoon we took a closer inspection of a tributary of the river.

and I have Jay and Betty to thank for immortalizing it for posterity!

On Saturday I was up again at the crack of dawn to head of to the Château of La Roche Guyon, a castle that spans the centuries from its early dwelling in the year 260 with troglodyte caves dug deep into the cliffs to its 18th century extensions. We just had enough time to climb to the 12 century donjon (keep) some 350 steps above the river and to take in the view.Even if I did have considerable difficulty getting some of the clients to come down again!

On Sunday another walking tour of Rouen before heading out yesterday to the Château Vascoeuil for an evening of cocktails and music in this historic building and art centre, home to over sixty sculptures in its gardens, including several of Dali.Tomorrow I shall head off to see my favorite dogs, Bêtise and Huge, two border collies who mind the ecological lawn mowers, the flock of 100 sheep at the award-winning cider farm, Duclos Fougeray.It’s all go! But never let it be said that I don’t like heading to the office because I really don’t mind the view!

Which view would you chose to have from your office?

Memories of the summer and Le Jardin d’Angelique


I’m sorry if there’s been rather a long silence on the blog, we’re just getting back on our feet after a house-fire. I really can’t believe I am writing those words as now the event simply seems astonishing and quite unbelievable, and every so often I think I imagined it – until I go into the kitchen that is, and see the large space where the dishwasher used to be.

We were very lucky, and all the more conscious now of how important fire alarms and extinguishers are, as they made an exceptional difference to the eventual outcome. We all got out of the house unscathed, my husband was bravery itself mastering the flames by the time the firemen came, and we still have not only a house, but a kitchen that is once again operational. But if you don’t have fire extinguishers, go and get some now – yes, really, now! I’ll wait till you get back!

As you can imagine, the manufacturer of the dish-washer will be getting a stern letter asking why our dishwasher would choose to spontaneously combust at five o’clock in the morning.

But I want to transport you back in time to the endless days of summer, when the sky is blue with the occasional cloud scudding across it. And I want to dedicate this post to my sister, who finally lost her brave battle with cancer just when the early summer flowers were coming into bloom. My sister adored gardens, and was my choice person to join me to visit ones of renown, to discuss garden design, planning and our favorite scented flowers. We’d planned that she would come and recuperate in the hammock under our cherry tree, giving instructions on what next to prune or plant, interspersed with essential cups of tea and cake. “Everything can be resolved with a cup of tea and cake” she said, though in the case of my garden we would probably need an awful lot of it.

Sometimes you need a visit to a beautiful garden to restore inspiration and energy and we’d had the plan that we’d visit several french gardens during her convalescence. The Jardin d’Angelique is one such place we intended to go.

I was surprised to find that the Jardins d’Angelique weren’t the opulent gardens of a vast chateau, but the rather more lowly “maison de maître”, or master’s house. The grounds were divided up into three unequal parts, a large lawn in front of the house edged with flower borders and a long high hedge, through which I found a long and intriguing organically laid out woodland garden, and finally, behind the house, a manicured formal garden.

The archway in the hedge beckoned me to explore the woodland garden first, and after only a few moments I found myself in a shady clearing with a convenient bench, and mossy stone sculptures peering out from under glorious rose bushes and unusual hydrangeas. A few sinuous paths later, a sunny clearing, also with its bench, and the plants meticulously identified with little wooden labels. As I walked on, it was clear that this garden was one for reflection and peaceful isolation away from the hustle and bustle of the house itself.

Here and there a pond, or stream: a bee”hive” or an Arbour: and finally, around another corner, an elderly lady with silvery hair, sécateurs in hand pruning à rather lovely ancient white rambling rose. She turned out to be the owner of the gardens, and I asked her if she had a grand plan when she first started creating the garden.

“Oh no!” She exclaimed, and went in to tell me that the woodland garden had grown organically, stage by stage as she had sought to distract herself after the tragic death of her young daughter Angelique. Each time she created a new area she placed a bench to sit on, or an arbor to sit under out of the hot sun while she rested from her travails and took comfort in her flowers and reflected on the impact of losing her daughter.

We went on to chat about natural remedies for common garden pests and diseases, before she took up her secateurs once more, and I went on my way to discover the formal garden and it’s topiary.

I love formal gardens, and box hedging restraining willful, abundant and blousy blooms. The pond, with its lions as guardians was a lovely focal point.

I spent some very happy moments enjoying the contrasts between ordered and racy plants.

But there was something that drew me across the garden, that no other part was capable of.

There in the garden was a tree, not like those in the woodland garden clothed in foliage, but completely bare of leaves. The tree was completely dead, just it’s silvery bark reaching up into the beautiful blue sky. And where the leaves should have been were oblong wooden paddles, hanging, tied by wire to its branches.

Spinning.

First one way, and then the other. Endlessly turning in the light breeze.

And on each paddle, in both french and english, a word.

Nature – Nature

Espoir – Hope

Famille – Family

Paix – Peace

Rêve – Dream

Amour – Love,

Yes, especially love.

I sat under the tree for some while just watching them spin, reflecting, and then headed for home.

And later I discovered that quite by chance my camera had taken its photo of the tree under “burst” mode, and so when I looked again at the picture, for a few brief seconds the paddles were spinning – and continue to do so today.

Amongst all those photos of the garden captured in stills, the tree seems now to be the most living of them all.

Giverny- on the bucket list.


I met an 82 year old woman yesterday who has travelled to France from Australia to visit Giverny, the home of Claude Monet.

“I studied fine art as a student” she explained to me, ” and that’s when I fell in love with Monet’s paintings.” When she graduated, she married and settled in England and her greatest wish was to visit Monet’s famous gardens. Her husband didn’t support her love of art, declaring. .

“Why would you travel to another country just to visit a garden?

Now at the age of 82, divorced, with difficulty walking after an accident, and despite living in Australia, this lovely lady had thrown caution to the wind and flown across the world to make her dream come true.

“I knew if I didn’t do it this year, I never would” she said, and I am happy in the knowledge that today she will have a fabulous day.

We might have arrived at 8 in the morning, but Monet got his first view of his future home at Giverny in the early afternoon. He’d left his rented house in Poissy, the creditors at his heels, declaring he would not return until he found a new house for the family to live in.

Imagine passing in front of this great house, and spying from the road an orchard in full spring blossom where the flowers are today, while the pretty nasturtium lined central allée was originally a dark and brooding yew lined pathway. Monet detested the way the trees blocked the light while Alice, his wife, felt that it was a crime to fell a tree. Persuading her to let him remove the lower branches, Monet subsequently lopped the tops much to Alice’s indignation. The denuded trunks soon became the supports for his climbing roses, until rotting away they were replaced by the metal arches we see today.

As the seasons change, so does the garden. Irises and peonies are replaced by poppies and roses, and later by phlox, cosmos and dahlias.

The abundance of flowers is overwhelming, even on rainy days one thinks the sun is shining, such is the colour and cheerfulness of the surroundings.Monet had ten gardeners once he had fully developed the gardens; today there are only 6, and an army of volunteers who classify the deadheading of the flowers “a gros boulot” , a big job! Pissarro’s wife once commented favorably on one of Monet’s irises and Monet subsequently dispatched a cutting of them to her on the next train!

At the age of 50, 7 years after moving into the house, Monet started to create the water garden. Today there is only one gardener allocated to tend to it, and much of it is done by boat. Most of his activity is tending to the water lilies which are a great delicacy for the Muskrat.He has to ensure that the lilies grow in nice circular rafts, just as Monet liked them.

After Monet’s death the garden fell into disrepair and had to be largely recreated. Alice had insisted that he write to her everyday when he was away painting. From his letters, his gardening instructions gave the restoration team a good idea of the type and position of the original flowers, and other little notebooks and seed order books held the rest of the clues.

Today the garden is a masterpiece. A living work of art, just as Monet wanted; his largest canvass.

“Gardening was something I learnt from my youth when I was unhappy, I perhaps owe becoming a painter to flowers” said Monet.

Not surprising then that the lovely 82 year old I met yesterday was so keen to go and visit it.

I truly hope it is everything she hoped it would be – and more!

Bon Apetite -Choux buns and Chouquettes


For the recipé click here:

For a few moments this morning I thought I was going to have to deal with a double booking. Not the kind where you find you are booked for two different tours in two entirely different places at the same time, but one you turn up to your destination and find that another group is already there.

This morning I led an eager group of Australians to the Atelier de Sylvie, a cookery school where they were programmed to create a profusion of profiteroles. But when we arrived, we found an equally sized group already crammed into the little cooking class. For a couple of seconds I wondered how I was going to deal with it, until the head of the first group heaved a camera onto his shoulder and with a wink and a grin called:

“Action”.

It turned out that our cooking class was going to be televised and I was dammed glad that I had thought to wash my hair this morning. Five minutes later I was miked-up and ready to translate the charming Sylvie, the owner and chef of the atelier.

WP_20160717_002The morning turned into a riotous affair, doing what the french do best, (and australian TV presenters do worst apparently), cooking and tasting delicious patisserie. In fact the presenter’s choux buns were so bad that we had to take them out of the oven twice in order for the  camera to effectively film the astonished expressions on the assembled cooks, and the grimace on the face of Sylvie!

“Il est le plus mauvais client que j’avais jamais eu dans cet atelier” she exclaimed, and the camera trained back to me to capture the translation. Struggling to contain my laughter I explained that perhaps that was better left untranslated, but no-one was having any of it:

“He’s the worst client that i’ve ever had in my atelier” I explained, and once the the camera man had finished snorting, he demanded we re-run the whole sequence. The presenter bravely bore the ridicule!

As the morning drew to a close we left the atelier, each holding a box laden with choux buns and chouquettes. (some more professionally looking than others!), calling

“Bon Apetite”, to the cameras as we went!

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For the recipé click here, and for the method, click here!

An Afternoon à la Campagne.


For weeks I have been searching for “Gelée au Pomme” (apple jelly) in my local shops. And although I know that I really should try to make my own, there is something far more satisfying about making apple jelly, which is delicious eaten all by itself, but also for infusing into sauces and casseroles, when the apples come off a little wizened tree in an old apple orchard, rather than the counter of a supermarket. Sadly I don’t have an apple tree in my own garden, much as want one so it was  a real pleasure to come home today with a jar of some after a particularly pleasant long afternoon in the countryside.

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The spring sunshine was blazing through my windows when I woke this morning and it promised to be a great day for a visit to Neufchatel country, in the heart of the Pays de Bray. Today I was researching  a new tour destination thanks to the organisation of one of the Seine cruise boats, une visite rurale; and a little farm deep in the Normandy countryside was todays destination. The farm is small by modern standards and dedicates its land to apple orchards and sheep. You might think that there is little to connect the two, but the owners are heavily committed to sustainable, anti-pollution and chemical free farming. The sheep are the lawn-mowers and the sheep-dogs are the drivers.

Pulling into the pretty farm, it is not hard to see why it was the setting for the filming of “Une Vie”(a life), an adaption one of Maupassant’s novels.

tournage BrayThe cluster of buildings, so typical of the rural Normandy countryside are built with timber frame, twisted with age, and the daub, local clay dug from the local area, with little hairline cracks that formed as it shrunk and dried in situ.

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WP_20160321_014WP_20160321_013The owners demonstrated the amazing capabilities of their sheep-dogs, who believe it or not are bilingual. When two dogs herd the sheep at the same time, the first is communicated to in french whilst the second responds to english in order that their commands are not  confused. Today mother dog acted swiftly to “gauche, gauche, gauche, avance, se couche, à pied “(left left left, advance, lie down, heel), while daughter dog watched on with obvious envy, having firmly been told this time to “sit”.

The dogs manoevered the sheep easily despite the presence of their lambs, born only a week and a half previously.WP_20160321_007

Later we wandered through the orchards which were not yet in leaf. I’ll enjoy revisiting in a couple of weeks when I hope they will be fully in blossom and later in the year when heavy with fruit and fully in leaf. Two rows at a time of different varieties of apples to allow for the blending of juices, sweet, sweet/sour, sour and bitter for their cider and Calvados production.

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Deep down in the orchard were bee-hives for the pollination of the fruit.

Since there was a chill to the late afternoon air, we were glad to head to the area of production; to see the cider press, the vats, and the still.

Even more keenly we breathed in the heavenly “angel’s share” in the cave.WP_20160321_027

But if we were worried about not absorbing enough of the spirit of the place, the afternoon finished in a subliminal paradise of perfectly ripe cheese, sparklingly delicious cider, velvety pommeau, and heady Calvados with its deep oak barrelled flavour, followed by the sweetest of little “tartes aux pommes” – all “fait maison” (home-made)  by this exceptional husband/wife team.WP_20160321_032

I confess that it was more than impossible not to invest in several bottles to take home, and I left delighted by the prospect that I would soon be returning.

Imagine my suprise when I discovered two extra bottles as a gift from the owners sitting side by side with my purchases, and a pot of “Gelée de Pomme”  when I returned home.

A truly memorable day!

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