My Husband Drives a Lemon on Holiday


One of the problems when you live in a popular tourist destination is justifying leaving it to go on holiday. When thousands of visitors come annually to Normandy, the land of fresh cream and butter, of potent cider and endless coastline and lush greenery, it seems a bit strange to pay good money to go somewhere else. That was my dilemma when my annual holiday date approached, and firstly I spent a good week visiting several wonderful Normandy gardens, which will be featured in my upcoming posts until finally I decided that an entirely different scenery would be uplifting and inspiring. The only question was where to go!

25 years ago we drove as far as Cognac in the Charente region of France in a blue 2CV and I wanted to explore this region again with its fabled 2,400 hours of annual sunshine. I remember back then in my rather more youthful days that I had put my toes in the ocean and it was actually warm, quite a contrast to the chilly waters of my native England. So would the region live up to my expectations and inspire me too?

Our little corner of Charente for the week was neatly placed between the wonderful creeks of the river Seudre, and the sandy beaches of the Cote Sauvage. (Wild coast).

The creeks at low tide were wonderful for all their gloopy muddiness, the wildness of the marshes, known as the Marais, the colourful oystersheds and wooden jetties radiating with the beating sun.

This is oyster territory and we made a mental note to return to sample some in the evening.

We were sure the abandoned boats and closed up sheds would be back in use once the tide came in, but for now we enjoyed the landscape and the evident bird life in the marshes, out of reach of land bound humans!We decided to head where we knew there would be water, the sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast were calling, and were entranced by the different landscapes a mere 15km apart.

Beautiful forest obscured our approach…..before we climbed to the crest of the dune..and suddenly the the sea sprung into view, and what a beach, pristine sand, huge crashing waves and clear blue water.And it was oh so difficult to leave!But in the end the little creekside restaurants were calling, and we just had to try the oysters and Eclade de Moules which we had spotted earlier in the day.Installing ourselves at a table on a wooden jetty over the creek we watched the chef painstakingly stand the raw mussels on a wooden tray.Covering the mussels with a huge pile of pine needles from the abundant coastal pine forests, he struck a match while we tucked into our prawns and oysters.Then sizzlingly hot, the freshly cooked mussels arrived at our table tasting of woodsmoke and the sea.And finally replete, with the growing darkness all around us, we headed home, but not without a backwards glance, and thoughts that we could do it all over again tomorrow!

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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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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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.

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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

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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.

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Boating Season


Ther’s something really lovely about being up before the crowds on a sunday morning, and if I don’t go to the sunday market, the next best place to be is on the quayside watching the boats coming up the river. My kids cannot be roused before midday, so today I left them all in bed and headed out to meet one of the boats moored up at Rouen and welcome a group of 30 American visitors for a morning tour of the city.

My boat wasn’t there but plenty of others were, and no sooner had one set sail than another came to take its place.

WP_20150412_004I took a few moments to enjoy the spring sunshine and what promised to be another lovely sunny day. WP_20150412_002

And then my boat came in, moored and craned in place the gang-plank and we were good to go.WP_20150412_007WP_20150412_008

By the time they had moored up along-side the other 5 boats, there wasn’t much of a view of the river!WP_20150412_010

But Ile Lacroix, Rouen’s mid-river island was just visible under the bridge bathed in an early spring morning mist.

The American visitors had walked the gang-plank not knowing what lay in store for them but since the weather was beautiful, and the buildings magnificent, I think they had a nice suprise. Many are the days that the drizzle sets in and we find ourselves bedraggled with umbrellas blown inside out and trousers soaked up to the knees. But it’s the new season, the days are warming up and the cafés are spiling once more out onto the streets.

For me, it’s the opportunity to speak english again, and it makes me laugh when I struggle to find the words after a winter of unuse. By the autumn I will be fluent in my own language again, but for now i’m still tempted to use all those words in french which perfectly describe a object, an emotion or an action, where in english only a whole sentence will do!

All too soon the tour of the city is over and I describe to our visiors how to find their boat again, or give directions to interesting places so that they can stay on shore a while longer.

And for me it’s time to buy a baguette or two and a box of eclairs before returning home where my children are just getting out of bed!WP_20150323_011

The Historial of Joan of Arc, a New Museum in Rouen.


WP_20150323_012One of the great advantages of being a registered guide in Rouen is getting access to all the new exhibitions and museums at the “Avant Première”. Today I had the amazing opportunity to be one of the first through the doors of the “Historial de Jeanne d’Arc”, the new museum dedicated to the story of Joan of Arc, in Rouen.

Several years ago a small private wax-works museum was to be found in the Vieux Marché in Rouen, next to the site where Joan of Arc was burnt to death at the stake. It closed when the owner went into retirement. Today the doors opened on one of what I have to classify as one of France’s best museums, The “Historial de Jeanne d’Arc”.

Joan of Arc was imprisoned in Rouen after her capture and ransom from the battlefield at Compiègne, north-east of Paris. The English, having occupied of Rouen for some twelve years by 1431, during the Hundred Years War, imprisoned her in a tower of the Chateau Bouvreuil until her trial and eventual conviction for heresy and relapse. The new museum is located in the very building where the original trial, and later retrial were held, part of the Archbishop’s Palace, or Archevequé as it is known.

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WP_20150323_008The building has undergone extensive and painstaking renovation. The result is magnificent. The building alone, with its stone crypts, tommette tiled floors, and two towers is worth a visit. As we all agreed, just bringing visitors to the top of the Tour de Guet was worth every penny for the view alone. The views, never before seen by the average Rouennaise nor visitor, of the one rose window which survived the explosions of the 1944 bombing raids on the cathedral without being masked by the north transept gable were excellent; as was the high-level view of the Eglise St Maclou, a perfect example of the Gothic Flamboyant in the mediaval quarter.

If only to overwhelm the visitor, we gained access to the stunning chapel,

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and grand staitcase of the Archevequé as we made our way to the end of the visit.

But what of the museum exhibit itself? Systematic and clearly explained, the story of Joan of Arc evolves through a series of “automated rooms”. Small groups of 20 pass through one room at a time in which a part of the story is told through film displays and “son et lumière” (sound and light shows). The entire visit is a technical masterpiece of the same genre as the “son et lumière” on the Cathedral facade every summer.. Jeanne d'Arc son et lumièreJoan of Arc’s trial was the first of its time to be written down and archived. Each character is named and identified, with modern day actors filmed and using the transcript from 1431.

The final two rooms are free access with interactive displays and an interactive “push-button” selection of questions posed to historical experts whose filmed responses dispell the myths that have grown up over the passing centuries.

Here it is possible to see copies of the original manuscripts of the trial and letters written by Joan to the Dauphin, and later King Charles VII and other trivia such as models of the city in medieval times.WP_20150323_001

When you come to Rouen, do not miss this great museum. Suitable for adults and children alike, leave at least two hours for the visit and then stride out into the medieval quarter where you can find cafés, antiques, and plenty of lovely boutiques.

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And if you are too exhausted to take another step, there’s always the lovely old workshop of Ferdinand Marou, metalworker from the Impressionists era who’s ‘atelier’ is now the most gorgeous coffee-shop.See you there!