Sunny days and stormy evenings in Normandy

Two massive cracks of thunder and suddenly the rain has started pelting down. I’m lucky to have just got in in time from gathering flowers for the vase on the table in the hall.

This time of year is particularly lovely in France and my peonies have chosen to flower plant by plant, one after another, the length of the month of May. And now the Lupins and the fragrant roses are also putting on a blousy show, but their scent is nevertheless having a hard time outdoing the Mock Orange.Beds that we’re uncultivated last year and were planted with flowers bought from a flower stall near my sister’s hospice at the time of each of my frequent visits are now growing strongly and producing their first blooms. I particularly love the white peony which has given four beautiful flowers in its first year.I have taken refuge in the conservatory which is a hive of activity, though not of the floral kind just yet. Husband ‘a la Maison’ is busy restoring all our windows and the conservatory is the ideal location to work from. One day soon we want to restore the conservatory itself, but it’s a large and daunting job.You can see the pane of glass carefully set aside and the frame being scraped back to its original wood. The deep reveals of our windows mean that the windows have been protected from the worst of the elements for over a hundred years and there’s not a trace of rot. So far the balcony french windows are all completed and this is this year’s second set of ordinary windows. Only two more sets to go after this and all the windows will have been restored and repainted.

I’m taking refuge from the rain and thanking it for doing the evening watering for us. The thunder is a constant rumble with frequent flashes of lightening. It must be nearly overhead. When it stops I will have to go out again and shake the Peonies heads as the rain has filled the blooms since I came inside and they’re drooping so low with the weight of the water that their heads are nearly touching the ground.But on dry days our new outdoor tap is doing a great job keeping everything watered.If it wasn’t raining I would be lounging in a hammock enjoying the garden, but the conservatory is the next best place and at least when the storm passes over we may have a cooler, less sticky night.Have a great week!

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!

Egg Hunt at Miromesnil and a Souris of Lamb.

What to do with a couple of adolescents on a  damp Easter sunday afternoon? Offer plentiful chocolate  with a ‘catch’ of course.

I had been promising myself a trip out to the Chateau de Miromesnil, near Dieppe since I first came to France. Its potager is legendary; and what better opportunity than an Easter egg hunt to make the visit accessible  and appealing to adults and adolescents alike!

It was disappointing  to wake up to a Normand mist this morning after a week of glorious sunshine.  It was the kind of mist that seeps into every corner and dampens every last bit of undergrowth, plant and flower, and yet sparkles on spiders webs without a drop of rain actually falling.

The Chateau of Miromesnil, near Tourville sur Arques is famous as the birthplace of Guy de Maupassant in 1850. I have just put down ‘Pierre et Jean’, his novel written in 1887, wonderful for his depiction of the values and hardships of society, and his colourful descriptions of  the towns and villages of Normandy in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The chateau was built in 1600 in the style of Louis XIII. The generosity of Armand Thomas Hue de Miromesnil, its owner during the 18th century, to the local population allowed the chateau to pass unscathed through the Revolution.

Plan in hand we headed off to decipher the first clue.

Enticed by the knowledge that 2kg of  cacao were used to create the prize draw chocolate egg, the adolescents of the party engaged internet access on their mobiles to determine the exact distance from the chapel to the chateau. ….400m.

The goats were protecting the pink eggs hidden in the undergrowth….and the next clue was hidden behind the woodpile.

The identity of the ‘recolte des tetes blanches en été’ (gathering of white heads in summer) gave us a few problems…. we narrowed it down to mushrooms. Another family asked us for the french translation for dandilion. (Aren’t dandilions yellow?) There was some foot shifting, no-one was quite sure whether to discuss the clues.  The prize egg was, after all, pretty enticing. We were inclined to give them the translation rather than share the mushroom theory.

Google translate and Wikipedia came in very handy in determining the vegetable under the plant genus ‘Alliacé’ ….. onion. We noticed another competitor reach for his mobile.

Over to the younger members of the family to count the  54 shutters on the rear face of the chateau which the butler had had to close daily. Though by the looks of the concentrated expressions, the adolescents were keen to check the numbers.

The spring garden was in full bloom.

and I caught my first glimpse of the potager…

and admired the view back to the park where we’d collected the moss, bark and feather.

We changed our mind about the mushrooms and decided on garlic, before impressing on the staff that we live just down the road and that collection of said egg would not be a problem…..

‘Were we really there two hours’, said the adolescents ‘ we thought it was only one!’

The beauty of a good day out is to arrive home damp but rosy cheeked to find dinner ready and waiting. What better than slow roast ‘Souris d’Agneau’, with tomato and avocado salsa, couscous and mint yoghurt, and a generous glass of wine.

As for pudding, we’re waiting for the phone to ring…

Happy Easter!

Au Nom de la Rose – Atelier d’art floral à Rouen.

Version Français – click ici

It was indecent, the number of bags I was carrying. People were staring – women particularly, and should I ever win a million, I should like to carry this many flowers home with me every day. But then if I was so abundantly overwhelmed with roses every day maybe it wouldn’t be so delicious, so perfumed or so heavenly. Don’t let my husband read this lest he get the wrong idea – an abundance of roses everyday is the direct route to my heart – but this isn’t carte blanche for investing in a rose farm in equatorial Africa – at least not yet!

We spotted the notice tucked between the glorious display of roses.

…cours d’art floral!

This is absolutely my favorite flower shop and usually as I pass I take a peek at this little round table. If I am lucky, they have bouquets of  ‘Roses du Jardin’,usually about five blooms that they consider past their prime, charmingly arranged, but which often last longer than a week.

But today there was no skulking about the edges, wishing and hoping; I entered ‘Au nom de la Rose’ with the assurance of a habitual customer. I was going to participate in the Atelier d’Art Floral…absolument gratuit!

The first shop ‘Au Nom de la Rose’ was opened in Paris in the 6ième arrondissement in 1991, the store being supplied by its own rose bushes in Provence. Now there are are about 80 boutiques worldwide and their roses are grown in Provence and Brittany, and on the equator. The roses from France are notable for their smaller blooms, whilst those from the equatorial regions, profiting from increased sunshine and humidity are substantially larger. The amazing scent of the blousy tea-roses assailed us the minute we stepped across the threshold; and the quantity and variety of blooms were stunning.

The equatorial blooms are now sourced from African run rose farms.

First we select our choice of blooms from large buckets. We then watch as the stems are cleaned and de-thorned.

Once done we are shown how to start laying the roses and feuillage (greenery) stem by stem in a rotating spiral.

The boys have finished before the girls!

The youngest seems to have found a natural talent..

“‘Ee’ is better” says the proprieteur proprietorially, reverting to a foreign language to disguise his comment. Unfortunately he chooses English.

“I heard that” squeaks the older one indignantly.

After a bit of raffia know-how for the boys,

We are shown our next arrangement.

We are instructed not to force submerge the ‘mousse’, shown how to cut and place the stems and head off to select a pot.

It’s time for the girls raffia training!

But the afternoon doesn’t end until we try some other rose products, Rose perfumed tea, Syrop de Rose, and Gelée de Rose. The Rose Tea is subtly fragrant, whilst the Rose Syrop (cordial) which is recommended diluted with water or added to Kir(now there’s a thought) and the Rose Gelée on brioche remind one of Arabian Nights and Turkish Delight.

It’s time to pack up, and we discover what happens to all those petals we discarded earlier..

as we liberally sprinkle them over our bags..

These aren’t any old shopping bags, they’re rose filled, rose scented, rose adorned shopping bags!

We splashed out a little so that we could have a rose perfumed apartment every day of the year…

even on our impecunious days!

I wonder if one could have too many bags of flowers?

My mantle-piece doesn’t seem to think so…

and nor do I!

Off Piste in Rouen

One of the most pleasant things about France is that, unlike most of Britain, things only get christmassy when christmas is just round the corner. It means that Autumn can be celebrated for its beautiful colours before the sparkly lights and street vendors come out to roast their chestnuts. Somehow, when all these things happen too early the excitement of christmas looses its edge before the day actually arrives.

The difference I suppose is that whilst the British manufacturers are on the ‘hard-sell’ for all those totally unnecessary “must haves”‘, the French are more interested in true excellence; the smoothest fois gras; the perfectly chosen wine; the oozing cheese; the freshest of fish and the elegance of christmas. Maybe because France is fairly new to me I am seeing it with the same eyes that children see their first few Christmases.

Christmas decorations  appeared in Rouen at the begining of December with a classic simplicity which makes one appreciate that many are doing their bit to rein in the austentatious displays which jar with the reality of the recession. Simplicity in itself can still be beautiful!

Our school has a wonderful tradition of ordering in christmas trees and donating at the same time to charity. There is something wonderfully festive about families gathering to collect their trees together from where they are stacked in the school garden and carrying them home under their arm or with the aid of their children.

This year my children demanded that we updated our decorations a little from the unbreakable ones we had when they were very little, and so it was that over the last couple of days I have, under the guise of hunting out decorations, wandered off my usual shopping route in search of something classic, beautiful and unusual. As I did so I made many exciting discoveries and it struck me that this too is one of the fundamental differences between England and France. How many more specialist shops, how many more shopkeepers and customers are keeping alive traditional regional products and traditional manufacturing methods;  the pride of a nation which not only fiercely protects its own small industries but also maintains its demand for their products, celebrates them and stubbornly defends them against foriegn rivals. As one moves from department to department, from region to region, there is always at least one product associated with it, and usually many more. But I digress a little as today I have been savoring the variety of little specialist shops tucked away in tiny side streets of Rouen and the generosity of spirit of those who run them in recommending and directing me to their neighbours, colleagues or competitors in my search for the few odd bits and bobs that were on my shopping list.

The main item on my list was a collection of old pendalogues, the glass ‘drops’ from a crystal chandelier which I wanted to hang from my christmas tree. My initial thought was a glass and linen shop on Rue Beauvoisine. I was disappointed to find it locked up but spotted a little notice in the window requesting that enquiries were made next door at an antique bookstore. What a delight was in store for me. Piles and piles of ancient books towering up to the lofty ceiling, beautiful antique covers jostling alongside modern-day classics.

I asked to visit the neighbouring glass shop, to discover that this was the husband of the owner. He was only too happy to open up and we discussed the correct terminology for the glass drops, and I realised that although his wife did not have what I was looking for, her antique linen tablecloths and crystal glassware were to die for and would be beautiful on a christmas dining table.

I spent a good ten minutes back in the bookshop discussing how reading french books was an essential part of my language learning. In his turn he recommended the colourful  and classic language of Maupassant as essential reading matter for a varied vocabulary and correct sentence construction. I was happy that I could confirm that I had already read several. For all the apparent disorder he knew exactly which stack of books held the desired recommendations, and pulled out a few english ones too. I left clutching three under my arm.

He then recommended the rue Eau de Robec area for my continued search for pendalogues.

Having passed several very beautiful antiques shops – too daunting to enter – I finally spotted  one, a little more approachable than the rest and enquired if he had any broken or damaged pendalogues that I could buy. Not thinking me ridiculous at all in my request he directed me to a beautiful chandelier shop only moments from his.

I was charmed therefore to find that the owner of the Chandelier shop not only had pendalogues for sale but also a large variety. We selected a few all the time enjoying pleasant banter with him and his wife and he asked me to pop back later, by which time he would have embellished each pendalogue with either glass flowers or stars and created wire hooks for each for me to thread ribbon ‘hangers’ through.

Whilst waiting I passed through a narrow pedestrian allée to discover another fabric shop with a basket of remnants and its owner busy on a sewing machine creating curtains for a client. Her selection of linens was delightful and this one was too ‘french’ for me to pass by!

Next I passed this wonderful flower shop

and this violin craftsman

The Quartier des Antiquities in Rouen is an architectural delight with its pretty streets, leaning colombage buildings and pedestrian allées, as well as providing a visual feast amongst its shop windows:

I came home very pleased with my purchases and charmed by the people I’d met on my travels!

and spent the evening adorning my tree!