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.

Chatou Brocante and Antiques


We’ve been doing a bit of work on the house again, and this time the shower-room is taking shape. There just the physical water connection, a shower screen and a mirror left to do, and when it comes to mirrors, there’s nothing better than trying to pick up an antique one, especially when the antiques faire at Chatou is on.

We’d never been to this particular fair before and so didn’t know what to expect. The brocante is laid out on a small island in the middle of the river Seine, just outside of Paris. It was mid-week so not too many people were there, but it was huge and fabulous, and there were plenty of makeshift restaurants to choose from in the middle of the day.img_1325-2

What I liked best was the artistry of some of the stands, and there was plenty that I would have loved to buy, though the mirror remained elusive!img_1310img_1311img_1326

There were so many amazing urns and cloches, but our bartering didn’t manage to get us any bargains!img_1327I so nearly went for the pineapple, but “husband chez nous” didn’t look away for long enough.. it was after all “mission mirror”!img_1316I loved this one, a grey and gilt trumeau mirror….the price was to die for too!

And after all, why have one when you can have three!img_1318-1img_1322img_1330

So many lovely things that it was hard to head home.img_1309img_1319

But since the great mirror hunt continues, there’s still the excuse to come back for more. The basin is very lonely all by itself.

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!

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!

French Shutters.


One of the things I love most about my house are it’s shutters. We use our shutters often, to keep out the heat of the summer’s day, to trap the cool in the house and let a gentle flow of air pass through the louvres , or to batten down the hatches against the noisy winter storms.

Last summer we started on the onerous task of painting the windows of our house. The windows are a century old, the paint is almost non-existant, peeling from decades of strong sunlight. But the windows are in deep reveals protecting them from the vagiaries of the weather and the wood is in good condition. The windows that we finished last summer looked wonderful in their new coat of paint, but sadly the shutters were left lacking.

Last summer we also attempted to renovate a pair of shutters, but we knew almost immediately that we would never manage the deep louvred openings and so started looking for someone who had the equipment necessary to do a good job.

One of the things that makes France such a wonderful place to live is the presence of small enterprises which are capable of undertaking craftmens jobs with skill in abundance. We found a four man team who could sandblast and hot-seal spray paint the shutters, and with whom the whole business was undertaken with jovial good humour, a fair amount of negotiating on price, and an analysis of what team we would support if France, Scotland and England were up against each other in a rugby final.

Yesterday we collected our first two pairs of shutters. “Husband à la maison”, in a moment of extreme enlightenment and wisdom, had recommended we only sent two pairs of our twelve pairs of shutters to be renovated at a time. Each pair of shutters has at least two panels and up to six. When our two pairs of shutters were returned, we lay them on the grass and set to, with much scratching of heads and a tape measure to try to pair them up again.With each matched shutter the process became more and more simple as the possible matching options reduced. Hanging them up again was another question entirely.


It’s a lesson in motivation, for no sooner are the painted shutters rehung, than the unpainted windows behind them need to be renovated. 

In France, if you leave your house unoccupied for more than two weeks you are obliged to close up the shutters or risk violating your house insurance. In reality most people close their shutters even if they are only absent for a weekend.

For us it’s a race to the finish or we may have to stay at home all summer until we’ve completed them.

But that’s another story!

Les Passeurs de Lumière – Rouen Salon de Tourisme


This week Rouen represents France for the International Convention of Tourism after hotly contesting and defeating all other cities in France to welcome thousands of Tour Operators from around the world and give them a taste of France. France is the greatest tourist destination in the world and it wasn’t surprising to see the city packed with people.The weather was glorious with crystal clear blue skies and the sun beating down on Rouen’s medieval streets; a far cry from the grey gloom of recent weeks. After a charged agenda of visits yesterday, for tour operators from as far afield as China, Russia,  Australia  and the US,  the day culminated in the Passeurs de Lumière and the Convention’s “Welcome” reception.It was only at 10 in the morning that I received a call asking me to be live interpreter for Hervé Morin, President of Normandy, and ex minister of defense under Sarkozy. Forty minutes before I was due to take the podium I received the printed French discourse , and in need of speed roped in my bilingual daughter to translate while I simultaneously rewrote it out in English. Armed with my translation at the venue, the beautiful abbey St Ouen, Herve decided to ad-lib and throw out his planned speech. Thankfully  we were two interpreters, and the speech went off without a hitch.Gradually the huge abbey emptied of people.The confederation were led through the darkening streets by six wonderful ethereal white lantern horses which stopped in front of St Maclou and the cathedral of Notre Dame,also coming up close and personal in rue St Romain.

Drummers lined the streets to the Vieux Marché where the many restaurants had all created an identical menu, and the 1000 strong Convention dined around the square, with tables spilling out onto the cobbles under beautiful colored lanterns. IMG_0609[1]

IMG_0605[1]A very French feast for all the senses!

A French Dinner and a Twice Baked Goats Cheese Soufflé.


When I was very young I had a terrible aversion to learning to ride a bicycle. In fact, once I finally mastered it I had reached the grand old age of eight. The problem was that I was terrified of falling off and scraping my knees on our gravel drive, and it was only, one day in deepest winter, when the thinnest smattering of snow scarcely hid the worst of the sharp gravel edges that I finally got my bike out of the garage, clearly believing that the couple of millimètres of snow would cushion me from a nasty fall.

Last week we headed off to the Alps to ski. Now, as ever, I take my time about things and had never tried skiing until I was 46. While my husband and children scream down the slopes at speed, my kind of skiing is rather more gentle, but I love it all the same.

Just before we left I joked to my friends that if I arrived back home with all my arms and legs intact that I would invite them all to dinner to celebrate. Our first day on the mountain was one of exceptional beauty with vivid blue skies and crystal clear air,  the type you can only find up a mountain, and coupled with a temperature ranging between 16 and 18 degrees. What I didn’t expect to happen was to be struck by terror in front of the first slope with an irrational fear of crashing headlong of the edge of the piste, especially when the slope in question was before getting to the first télésiège. The clarity of the view brought into focus the pitch of the slopes and momentarily I was paralyzed by them. Ultimately I fell back on skiing down an alternative slope and then removing my skis in order to reclimb the incline to have another go. By the end of the day I was exhausted though happier about my slaloming skills and determined to take myself to task the next day.The mountains of course have a mind of their own, and the next day dawned with even the lowest pistes shrouded in dense mist. It was however my eureka moment. No sooner on the slopes than I réalised that, much like with the smattering of snow when learning to ride my bike, I could no longer see the source of my fear. In fact the piste running down to the télésiège seemed to blanketed and softened, and definitely shallowed by the mist. So much so that I threw myself off the brow of the slope with abandon, up the télésiège moments later and never looked back. By the end of the week I had mastered all sorts of slopes that I hadn’t tried before and more importantly, I arrived home all my arms and legs intact. Dinner  with friends was the logical conclusion.I decided, as you do when flying the crest of the wave , to set myself yet another challenge. This time to cook something out of my comfort zone. After a week in the Swiss Alps thoughts naturally turned to melted cheese and mountain goats and I decided to tackle the dreaded cheese soufflé.

I found a wonderful recipe for Twice Baked Goats Cheese Soufflé. And what particularly attracted me to it was that by doing the first bake in advance you would actually know if it souffled effectively before doing the second bake when the hungry guests were eagerly gathered round the table.

I am pleased to say that making a souffle really isn’t as difficult as people make out, although I attribute a certain amount of my success to Arnaud, the excellent pâtisserie chef that I worked with all last season who gave me a good training on the various principles behind beating eggs, egg age and temperature when it comes to giving things “lift”.

For the recipe click here!

The recipe is simple enough. If you can make a decent smooth white sauce, crumble goats cheese and gently fold in soft whipped egg white then you shouldn’t have any problem making a cheese soufflé.

First simmer milk with bay, fresh nutmeg, onions and peppercorns.Next select a strong tasting goats cheese. I added some mature cheddar and some grated Parmesan for good measure.Have old eggs at room temperature.Weigh out all ingredients in advance, lots of fresh chives are perfect for this recipe.Simmer the milk and then strain out all the bay, onion and peppercorns before  adding to a roux of butter and flour. Simmer stirring all the time until a thick creamy sauce is produced.Let cool slightly before adding the chives and beat in the egg yolks on at a time.Then add the cheese and stir thoroughly. The warmth of the sauce will begin to melt the cheese. As the cheese mixture cools, whip the eggs to soft fairly firm peaks. If the egg white are whisked into too hard peaks they impede the raising process. Fold very gently a spoonful of the egg whites into the cheese mixture, and then fold in the rest making sure to not lose the air.Place into ramekins which have been buttered with an upwards motion and ensure there are no dribbles. Both glass and ceramic ramekins work equally well. I used a mixture. Place in the oven at 180 degrees for 15 minutes. Both fan ovens and standard ovens work equally well.And watch them rise!And start to fall – they only hold their shape for a minute or so out of the oven!I hope you remembered to lay the table!

Once the soufflés are cooked you can eat them after the first bake, a light and fluffy goats cheese fork full of heaven. Or you can let them cool, and gently turn them upside down out of their pots onto a sheet of baking paper covering a metal tray. These can be kept covered in the fridge a day in advance of when you want to serve them.

15 minutes before the guests come to the table, bake for a second time for 15 minutes at 180 degrees, or until nicely risen  and golden, with a slightly crispy shell.

Delicious served with a crown of tender lettuce leaves, a few slices of fresh fig, parmesan shavings and a salad dressing of fig vinaigrette.

Enjoy!

For the recipe click here!