Le Potager de Sophie and La Source Gaalor

WP_20131204_004[1]Over a year ago I was bemused by the way the local French authorities allowed thousands of litres of apparently fresh water to run unheeded the length of our street with no semblence of urgency to stem the flow. The construction company building a huge new apartment building on the opposite side of the road even went as far as to construct for us a tarmac  ‘bridge’ in order to access our courtyard. Since then, in a slow threatening way, the buildings around and about, most noteworthily, the Hotel Dieppe, began to suffer severe structural subsidence, and still the French attitude was to ‘prop’ rather than to repair. It was all quite disconcerting!

Then, during a bout of research on the fountains of Rouen, I started to piece together the real story. My neighbourhood, now in the thick of the urban fabric of the city centre was once pasture land just outside the medieval city walls. Towering above it was the Chateau Bouvreuil built in 1204, of which only the Donjon (sometimes erroniously named Tour Jeanne d’Arc), one of the original seven towers now remains. The boulevard which separates us from the Donjon was once the site of the ramparts to the city walls, which themselves played host to ‘echoppes’, small roofed stalls selling artisan and market produce from the pasturelands just beyond the gates. And bubbling up from deep below ground in this fertile landscape beyond the walls, a stream, the Source Gaalor.

The Source Gaalor was hugely important for the city, and was one of several streams to provide clean drinking water for the city within the walls whilst irregating the kitchen gardens and potagers and farms which fed the city outside. One of the most important fountains fed by it, still present, but no longer running, is that of the Gros Horloge, the Western gate of the city until the end of the 12th century. In 1525 Jaques Le Lieur, Grand-Maitre des Eaux et Forêts (grand master of water and forests) charted Rouen in a spectacular ‘Livre des Fontaines’, a book of watercolour paintings showing cross-sections through the city detailing the location of sources and fountains, which still exists to this day in the museum archives. The ‘Livre des Fontaines’ is a work of art.

livre de fontaines When I began to investigate more thoroughly, along with other ancient maps of my neighbourhood I couldn’t help noticing that the source Gaalor seemed to burst through the ground in line with my very own gateway! It dawned on me why the city council had not rushed to stem the flow of our 2012 giant water leak. The construction workers at the building site across the road had clearly pierced the underground culvert that carries the 21st century Gaalor’s unstemmable waters down through the city to the Seine. Despite this life source, destruction was hapening. The source of water, and the demolition of the existing buildings to make way for the new apartement block had acted together to wash away and destabilise the foundations of many of the surrounding buildings. Pavements now tilt at an alarming 45°, and a local empty shop closed during the height of the recession remained gloomily closed, despite rumours that someone had bought it. Gossip had been running boundless since early last summer that we would once again have a vegetable shop in the quarter.

Then suddenly in September, the blacked out windows were scrubbed clean, the lights switched on, and the shop front decorated. Instead of the tatty, down at heel fruitshop of yester-year, a real phoenix from the  ashes. Its presence somehow all the more appropriate thanks to the history of the area. We have a new ‘Primeur’ in Quartier Gare, and its fruits and vegetables are luscious, its cheeses ripe and oozing, its wines and coffees sophisticated. And just as we can credit Jaques Le Lieur’s watercolour paintings as a real work of art, the new owners have created their own delicious ‘still life’. The ‘Potager de Sophie’ where a real potager once would have been far back down the time-line.







So shopping for vegetables has become something of a visual delight, and I wish Sophie all the best for the new year, hoping that the gossipy queues of her predecessor are quick to rediscover our new primeur, and to regroup while she weighs up Normandy apples for a Tarte Tatin, or a crotte de Chevre for a crusty piece of bread!

And to all my eighteen thousand readers of 2013, WordPress tells me that you would have filled 7 ‘sold-out’ performances at Sidney Opera House if you had all got together.

Thank you for reading and a
happy new year to you all!

The Great French House Hunt – where to live?

Our house in the UK is up for sale. It may be some time before a deal is done, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy spending some moments identifying what I’m looking for.

We’ve lived in town, countryside and in the suburbs. each has it’s own positives and negatives, and this great french house hunt is the opportunity to put together a wish-list for the perfect home.

The city is wonderful for it’s activity, it’s buzz and vitality. I love that everything is on the door step – theatre, museums, galleries, shops, school. It takes no effort to move around. The quartier we live in has the main-line station to Paris, the metro system to cross the city and numerous buses to take me to the nearby brocantes, the atelier de patisserie and the swimming pool.

The car can stay parked up in the courtyard and I can walk when the weather is fine, or relax in a cafe and watch the world go by.

Every sunday I amble down to our local market:

but when the last morsel of goats cheese  has been eaten,

and all that remains of the baguette are a few last crumbs,

and the bottle of wine is empty,

I start to hanker for the greenery of the countryside, for a few hours to potter in the garden, the trickling of a little stream tumbling over its rocky bed, the clear blue skies of the summer, and the autumn mists. And then I think how much the countryside has to offer!

Call me a romantic if you will, but the prospect of opening my shutters in the morning and waking up to a view of lavender, vines, or mountains fills me with enthusiasm. Perhaps I could wake up to all three!

Recently I read the blog of Victoria Corby and sighed wistfully at her tale of joining the locals to do the vendange (grave harvesting). Back breaking work though it is, the quality of local tradition and community spirit shines through her experience

But perhaps it’s just the idea of the vendange lunch that appeals, with a bottle or two of last years wine to finish the day.

My sister in law was telling me about her last few weeks bottling fruits and making chutneys, and I wistfully thought about how much i’d like a potager.

and when the jobs were done there would be time to go cycling

and lounge in the garden

looking at the beautifully tended potager that I worked on earlier in the day!

I like the idea of the fète midsummer just to finish things off!

This jury’s out where the children are concerned:

It was inevitable really!

Perhaps we can find a wonderful house in the city with a garden attached, or maybe we keep the apartment and buy a small country cottage for the weekends and holidays….

only time will tell!

A Dream Potager

I last visited the potager at the Chateau de Miromesnil in April. The skeletal architectural shapes of early spring had not prepared me for the  colourful delight of summer. The flowers were abundant and we had the pleasure of visiting them alone and uninterupted.



After a summer in a city apartment, the freedom of wandering unhindered in such a beautiful space was delicious.


Closed by its 17th century brick and stone walls, the gardens received the ‘Grand Prix from the ‘Société Nationale de Horticulture de France’ in 2011.


The mix of colours and varieties of fruit, flowers and vegetables in the same beds was beautifully done and invigorating –




I love the old brick and faded blue shutters with the rambling cottage garden flowers. This mix of brick and stone is so typical of Normandy. It was a delight to visit and difficult to leave! If only i’d had a blanket and a good book I would have installed myself in a quiet corner savoring the heavenly scent of roses and stayed until I was turfed out at the close of day!

Sadly, there were children to feed…!

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!