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!

atelier des eclairs 083

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.

WP_20160321_043

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.

WP_20160321_017

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.

WP_20160321_001

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!

WP_20160321_010

 

Picnic at the Chateau


Husband à l’etranger had barely stepped of the plane, nor had a moment to sleep off the ‘decalage horaire’ (jet-lag) before I whisked him off to our lovely friends for an “Apéro Dinatoire” at their mini-chateau. This lovely evening out is a wonderful way to spend time with friends whilst trying a myriad of “amuse bouches”, or canapés acompanied by a glass or two of carefuly selected wines. The idea behind the “apéro dinatoire” is to eat gradually through the evening without ever sitting formally at the dinner table, nor eatening anything that we would generally consider a full blown meal. Nevertheless, by the end of the evening the stomach is pleasantly full and the tastebuds tantalisingly tested! The “apéro”, and the “apéro dinatoire” are very much part of the french culture and way of life, and a seemingly effortless way to entertain without the stress of a sit-down dinner, the former being an invitataion to drinks, whilst the latter, an invitation to stay the whole evening.

Limesy Chateau

should you dream of owning your own perfect mini-chateau look no further than this one!

Somewhere about half-way through the evening one of the gathered company thanked “Husband à l’etranger” for our generous invitation to “picnic at the ruin” the following day, and he acknowleged the event mindful to ask me what I had planned when we got back into the car at the end of the evening. It was only a lot later that he discovered that the ruin was not our own, but one destined to make us feel that ours was merely in need of a quick flick of a paint-brush. There are ruins, and then there are RUINS!

Sunday saw us bumping down a pot-holed and grassy track in the balmy sunshine before coming to a halt beside a gathering of scattered cars and knee-high grass. In front of us a beautiful, and down-at-heel chateau and the distinct smell of a wood-fired barbecue. In the distance laughter and shouts from children gone wild, and the distant hubub of adults from somewhere deep in the bowels of the cellars of the house.

WP_20150614_015This is France at its best. For as we penetrated the gloom of the chateau listening for the direction of voices, we stumbled out onto a long terrace where, table cloth billowing in the gentle breeze, a table for twenty lay ready and waiting it’s lunch guests, china, cutlery and silver jugs laden with garden flowers. A little bit of perfection amongst the dust and debris of the chateau itself.

Minutes later the party from the night before took to their seats, and from the embers of the woodfire, a “côte de boeuf” (side of beef) and sizzled potatoes, accompanied by a full bodied red. No sooner finished than the best of Normandy, oozing ripe cheeses were passed around the table with hunks of fresh baguette; then as always in a typical french meal, the salad with a rich nutty dressing; followed by two gorgeous patisseries, the Framboisier, fresh raspberries engulfed in rich crème patissière and light gateau, and a chocolat moelleux, a gooey molten-centred chocolate cake.

WP_20150614_004

WP_20150614_010Words cannot describe the camaraderie of the afternoon, nor the romance of the setting. A chateau commandeered during the second world war and left ravaged and pillaged over the subsequent years, only to be bought back by its rightful owners several generations later with dreams to restore it to its former glory. No running water nor electricity, and much immagination needed when it came to bathrooms! WP_20150614_028As dusk began to fall, the china, and glasses were stacked into the boots of many cars, as tired, happy, and ever so slightly dusty the friends parted company and made their way home again.WP_20150614_006

Waking up to chocolate – La Pièce Montée


Waking up on a monday morning on the first day back at school after the easter holidays is not something I usually relish, but today there was a little sweetener to help me out of bed. The INBP or Institute National de la Boulangerie Patisserie was holding a class on “chocolat” on the cruise boat “Scenic” at the Quay de Rouen and needed my help with the translation.

In the main function room of the cruise boat Frank, the chef, had set up all the equipment he needed for his “pièce montée en chocolat” or “show-piece” and was busy melting the chocolate before all the guests arrived. There was a discinctly chocolatey small in the air, and Frank gave me a sample chocolate to try – and with a welcome like that he’s clearly someone worth hanging around!

First stage on the agenda was to make Vanilla Ganache bonbons. Frank dusted the inside of the chocolate moulds with real gold. We were all agog to know how he managed to powder the inside of the moulds evenly until he explained that he mixed the gold with alcohol at a ratio of 1:9 and sprayed a coating of the mixture inside the forms. When the alcohol evaporated, the mould retained the gold dust.

The idea of digesting gold is not unknown in France. In 1531 Diane of Poitiers, mistress of Henri II of France drank, in vast quantities, gold infused beverages reputed to be the elixir of long life as a result of her obsession with eternal youth and supernatural beauty which rendered her complexion unnaturally pale. The discovery of her skeleton in 2009 showed that her bones contained an exceptionally high concentration of gold.  Perhaps if we eat enough of these chocolates we will also become outstandingly youthful and beautiful, it’s definitely worth a try!

Having powdered the moulds Frank went on to line them with a thin coating of molten chocolate. Patisserie is a science, he told us, and chocolate should be worked not at 28.7, nor at 31 but at an exact temperature of between 29 and 30°. For the novices amongst us, a matter for a thermometer, for Frank a simple matter of touching the chocolate against the back on a finger.

WP_20150511_004Frank scraped the mould with his spatula, and inversed it to allow the excess chocolate to fall back to the table and not to pool in the bottom of the mould. Today Frank had a possey of aides, one of whom rushed off with the mould to the fridge.

Meanwhile he set about making the vanilla ganache filling. Into a bowl of melted white chocolate he poured, via a sieve, a mixture of boiled milk, cream, sugar and split vanilla pod. He incorporated the two thoroughly and set them aside to cool. Ideally, he said the mould of chocolate casings should be left overnight to cool.

Frank sprinkled each casing with finely ground caramelized sugar, the recipe for which can be found at the end of this post, and then filled the casings with the Vanilla Ganache ensuring that it settled just below the level of the chocolate shell. Again he called upon one of his aides, who rushed the mould back to the fridge and we all agreed that this was better than a TV cooking show!

The INBP are renowned for their entry into national concours, or competitions, and an essential element of the concours is the “pièce montée” or “presentation showpiece”, and  Frank took the art of chocolaterie to an all new level. For sometime a pink pot had been sitting on the workbench, and as he began talking the realisation slowly dawned on us that this was no orginary pink plastic pot, but made entirely out of chocolate. None of us were rude enough to take a bite out of it to verify that he was telling the truth!WP_20150511_006

Moments later he presented a brown wooden stem which he fixed in the pot with a generous quantity of molten chocolate. Having got to know Frank a little, we divined that this could well also be made of chocolate, and he confirmed that he had made it by lining a plumbing tube from his DIY store with cooking paper and pouring in yet more molten chocolate.WP_20150511_007

Frank proceeded to pour into the pot ground cocoa beans which remarkably resembled fine grit gravel.WP_20150511_016

The little brown rings that surrounded the pot were also chocolate textured by brushing with a wire brush!

Next Frank retrieved a green fuzzy ball from a box on his work-bench, and by this point we were all shreaking out in great amusement that the ball had to be chocolate; and it was, a hollow ball rolled in cocoa-butter and afterwards with green sugar for texture. There was a call for some help, and one of the guests helped place the ball onto the chocolate stem, rapidly cooling the chocolate “glue” with a dry-ice canister.WP_20150511_012

If we weren’t astonished enough, Frank decided it needed decoaration, and made a water-lily flower out of chocolate pieces, wonderfully appropriate for the land of Monet….WP_20150511_008 WP_20150511_011….and some smaller flowers from sugar dough which he got a volunteer to help place onto the ball.

WP_20150511_019Having poured another layer of molten chocolate to seal the ganache into the refrigerated “bonbons” and chilling them again in the fridge, Frank was ready to assemble his “pièce montée”.WP_20150511_018When it was done he laid out all the Vanilla Ganache chocolates on the chocolate stands below.

WP_20150511_024

Needless to say, nobody stayed in their seats very long, and it was very lucky that Frank had made a huge quantity of Vanilla Ganaches earlier, (he said he’d been up half the night) because a pretty large number of the audience were heard counting up how many they could have and were planning their raid strategy before Frank had even laid out the first lot!  I, for one, was pretty glad to be the translator, because I was much closer to the table than the rest of the crowd which definitely gave me the advantage!

WP_20150511_021For the receipé click here.

All aboard for Patisserie Classes – A little matter of Translation!


For the macaron recipé click here and for the method click here.

Did I mention how much I love my job?

The beauty of it is its variety, and the diversity of people that I meet on a daily basis. Today was no exception. Again, leaving my teenagers fast asleep on a damp and dreary Mayday holiday, I was up with the lark to meet 20 or so visitors to Rouen from their cruise ship and head them in the direction of  the INBP, otherwise known as the Institute Nationale de Boulangerie et Patisserie. And as we all know, when you are looking for heat..

..head for the kitchen!

Today I stood alongside Sebastien in the demonstration kitchen, leaving  the 20 strong group to settle in the auditorium for a cooking demonstration of a Tart à la Mousse de Noix de Coco avec Garniture de Framboise et ses Macarons. Coconut Mousse Tart with Raspberry Sauce and Raspberry Macarons.WP_20150501_009The INBP was created in 1974 and has 8000 students passing through its doors each year. The training courses cover Boulangerie, Viennoiserie, Patisserie, Chocolaterie, Glacage (finishes) and Confisierie (sweet-making). There are students who decide to change careers and join the INBP for accelerated training courses, and others that take the traditional ones, and of course the all too necessary competitions for Maitre patissier, boulanger or confissier; Le Coup de France and the Olympiad.

Sebastien is French, and a self-confessed “nul” (dunce) in the english language! Personally, the opportunity to work along-side one of the “greats” of the patisserie profession translating his lesson from french to english for the participants is a win win situation. I get to learn the skills, and get paid for it – and what’s more have some left-overs to take home with me!WP_20150501_006With twenty in the class it isn’t possible to let each member of the group create from first basics. Sebastien did the lionshare but with plenty of opportunity for the group to get a bit of “hands-on” during the process. Look at Sebastien’s hands working with lightening speed!

WP_20150501_001We started with the creation of macarons, the method for which is here and the recipe here. As the macarons were cooking in the oven, Sebastien showed us how to make the perfect pastry case. I couldn’t believe my luck. For years my pastry cases have always been my great failing. Not because I can’t make pastry, but because the cases are never perfect. I always have bubbles of air trapped between the base and the tin, and the colour is never even. We have a boulangerie close to home where the pastry cases are always a vision of perfection, perfectly square, perfectly smooth and an even golden brown. I have always wanted to know how they manage it and today I was in pastry heaven.

Sebastien started with a thin pastry round mould, and not a conventional tin. Secondly he used a wire baking tray as opposed to a flat sheet metal baking tray, and finally he lined the wire tray with a perforated silicone sheet. And this my friends is the secret. Any air that would otherwise form between the pastry and the tin simply dissipates through the air airholes in the underside of the silicone and wire tray.

The next essential role in pastry making is not to overwork the dough. For those with warm hands it is essential to understand that the warmer the dough becomes, the more the oil in the butter used in the dough liquifies and creates a fatty pastry. Finally, the best pastry is created from well chilled and rested dough. Leaving the dough in the fridge for at least an hour, and up to a day makes for a crisp and perfectly delicious pastry.

Having formed the pastry in front of our eyes, Sebastien reached into the fridge, and pulled out a ball that he had “made earlier”. We ribbed him that he had popped into Carrefour supermarket on his way over, and he winked and assured us that he had got up at 4am to prepare it for us. We noted sagely the rings round his eyes!

WP_20150501_005We made a mousse from pureed cream of coconut, whipped cream and gelatine which we poured in its semi-liquid form into a silicone mould and placed in the freezer to set. It was interesting to reflect on the fact that each country has cream that differs wildly from another. French cream is very liquid with reduced levels of fat. It is often difficult for the english in France to find cream that resembles that of their home country. But the fat content for a french patisserie recipe relies on a 30-35% volume of “matière grasse” or butter fat. In other words, France is virtuous for its “healthy” cream!

Our macarons were ready after 12 minutes in the oven at 150° and came cleanly off the baking sheet, as did our pastry cases. Needless to say, Sebastien perfected his already perfect cases of pastry, by scraping off the raggy edges at the base,

“Je suis “perfectionist”” he said whilst we were hard pressed to see any faults through a magnifying glass!

Using a piping bag Sebastien spiralled the raspberry sauce into the base of the pastry case, and placed on the top the now solidified mousse of coconut, which since frozen was easy to manipulate. It would thaw in the pastry case.

The group got together to form the completed raspberry macarons with the raspberry sauce and arrange them along-side fresh raspberries for the decoration. Sebastien looked at the baking sheet in front of him, and not without some irony gave a little word of caution:

” Mesdames, Messieurs, Faites attention que les coques soient tous le même taille!” –  Ladies, Gentlemen, watch that the macaron shells are all the same size!WP_20150501_011

WP_20150501_016

WP_20150501_007But it goes without saying that the best part of all was when we cut the tart into slices for our own “degustation” (tasting) before reluctantly heading back to the ship.

WP_20150501_008