We’re getting excited about the forthcoming French film of Posy Simmonds’ comic novel, Gemma Bovery. Set in Normandy, it’s a modern retelling of the classic French novel Madame Bovary – with a heavy dose of English irony thrown in. The book is great on the English and the English in Normandy, on our relationship with the food, the countryside and the French. The film is released on September 10th in France, and stars Gemma Aterton. Here’s the trailer.
On Easter Monday we visited one of my favourite close-by places, an undiscovered gem of a museum: the bread oven, a cottage in La-Haye-de-Routot in the middle of the Forêt de Brotonne that maintains a traditional bread oven. Most weekends they bake and sell hundreds of their sweet-smelling loaves all afternoon. On this day, as well as the loaves, there was chocolate-filled brioche, an Easter treat.
This year we did it the Norman way. The local oysters came from the supermarket, of all places–but only after a protracted discussion with the fishmonger about just how fresh the oysters were, and how to store them, and what size is best (2 is larger and better than 3). Oyster knives were secured, space was made in the fridge, and the last evening of the year was celebrated with oysters, champagne, foie gras and prune-stuffed pork loin (based on a Jane Websterrecipe).
I’d wanted to do it this way for a long time–you see the oyster boxes piled high at market in December–but didn’t know how or have the confidence to do it alone. We had keen company: she had holidayed in Brittany as a teen, and remembered the men wearing oven gloves as they swore at the boxes of recalcitrant oysters. He claimed to have shucked oysters “once or twice”–know that an Englishman always understates his skill. The oysters were prepared, kept cool over ice and served with lemon, vinaigrette and scallions. Perfect.
I went a bit Martha Stewart on the New Years Eve table using bits of ivy, mistletoe and rosemary from the garden. The silvery tablecloth is from Zara Home, and extra sparkle was provided by our guests in the form of a hostess gift (as if the shucking weren’t enough), these gorgeous festive napkin rings from The White Company.
The next morning the Seine at the end of the garden was as perfect as it can be. It had gone all Monet, reflecting the trees and clouds so that even the most unpainterly among us couldn’t miss the mirror effect.
In 2013 two of the major events in Upper Normandy will focus on the Seine. The Impressionist Festival from April to September will put on six exhibitions and many activities on the theme of water in Impressionist paintings. The Rouen Armada in June will host tall ships along the Seine from Le Havre to Rouen. No better way, then, to start the year than on the banks of this great, beautiful river.
One of the joys of spending time in Normandy is visiting the area’s bountiful food markets. Our local market, held on a Friday, never disappoints: but in those weeks when we’re traveling or otherwise occupied on a Friday, a close second best is exploring the other markets of Upper Normandy and Calvados. This month we made our way to Pont-l’Évêque, where the weekly market is held on a Monday. It’s home to the eponymous cheese, and to a lovely church which survived wartime bombing.
The point of local markets is they change every time. You go for the seasonal produce and for the individual sellers. It’s the opposite of supermarkets, where it’s downright inconvenient when the aisles are changed around adding a precious few minutes to your already too-long shopping time.
In the first week of November, there were chestnuts, quinces, and the alien-fabulous chou romanesco. I’ve never cooked any of these, although the guests at our cottage the week before had collected chestnuts in the forest and roasted them over the open hearth. I’ll have to try that, and here’s how.
And the chrysanthemums were flying: you could see them lining the village streets, and all around around the cemeteries where families were marking November 1st, a day of remembrance. We left some by the cottage gateposts: I wonder how far into the winter they’ll last.
The significance of November 1st may be all but forgotten, little more than a hangover after the revelry of Halloween, in many places. But in France–where Halloween is observed as a holiday only for children—it’s Le Toussaint, All Saints Day on November 1st, that is widely marked. As one blogger explains, it’s a holiday when everyone goes home to be with their family and remember their loved ones who have died.
So it felt just right to mark 1st November this year with a family meal. We were joined by friends we’d not seen much in recent years, since they moved away from our London neighbourhood back to Paris with their four children. To mark the occasion I made Susan Loomis’s hearty lamb stew from her memoir-cookbook about moving to Normandy, On Rue Tatin: The Simple Pleasures of Life in a Small French Town, followed by David Lebovitz’s ever reliable Chocolate Mousse I from The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious–And Perplexing–City.
Something dreadful happened in the village this year. I’m not ready to write about it yet, may never be. It gave some peace and much-needed pleasure to prepare and then eat together at the cheerful looking table; to take a postpandrial walk in the woods together; to share with friends the downs and ups of busy lives in our different cities. It was indeed a day to remember, as well as to celebrate the lives we have.
The mushrooms are late in Normandy this year. So late that our village cancelled its usual foraging expedition in October and couldn’t find a date to reschedule on account of the Beaujolais Nouveau tasting event in November – which can’t possibly be delayed.
And so, in the last week of October, we encountered more mushrooms than usual along the forest paths around the cottage. I took these pictures in the hope that someone can tell me if any are edible. I reckon they aren’t: I reckon all the good ones have been plucked.
I did cook with mushrooms, beautiful chanterelles from the market which were practically free and so flavourful. Milk-fed veal with giroles (replacing the giroles with chanterelles), pan-fried escalopes with cider and oodles of dollopy Norman cream, from Jane Webster’s luscious memoir-cookbook, At My French Table: Food, Family and Joie De Vivre in a Corner of Normandy. So easy and last minute, and all from market ingredients.
I’d like to try it with mushrooms I’ve picked myself. In France you can take your found mushrooms to the pharmacy, and the pharmacist tells you if they’re alright to eat. At first I didn’t believe this. But everyone – people I hardly knew, who couldn’t possibly be pulling my leg – insisted it was true.
Just as I was building up the confidence to do it, I had lunch with my pharmacist friend and her family on Toussaint. She explained to me that on the pharmacist course of study you can choose one of several tracks – hospital, industrial and so on. On the track she chose, she didn’t have to take the mushroom course. Later, she had a job in a pharmacy near Paris. People would bring in their mushrooms. She hated when that happened, because she couldn’t help them. She didn’t guess – but what if she had?
I don’t think I’ll be picking mushrooms this year. Not yet.
Autumn is all about apples in Normandy and, by association, cider. Normandy is the only region in France that doesn’t produce wine, but it makes up for it with an amazing array of cider and its more potent cousin, calvados.
We’ve tried much cider and calvados in Normandy. Everyone with a couple of apple trees seems to have a go at brewing. When we were house hunting in the region, no visit was complete without the owner offering a sample of their very own tipple, and we’ve seen more than a few dinner parties off with a bang by introducing their DIY calvados.
The nearest cider maker to Les Iris, signposted on the main road to Sainte-Opportune-La-Mare, is excellent. Like champagne, his cider comes in doux, brut and semi-brut.
He also maintains a vigorous vegetable garden, and sometimes sells extra produce alongside the cider. He takes the children into the garden, lets them choose their vegetables, and pulls the selected plants out of the ground, shaking off the rich dark earth. It’s the freshest lettuce and rhubarb in the world.
In our garden there’s only one very old and gnarled apple tree standing guard by the gate. One of these days it will go: until then, it insists on producing an abundance of large green-red apples that turn brown within seconds of being cut open. Still, we’re delighted to have a token apple tree, and one of these days we might plant another, of the cooking apple variety.
This week was the feast day of St Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners, in France and Ireland. As well as being the patron saint of gardeners, St Fiacre is the patron saint of our village in Normandy. Each year to mark the day, a special mass is held in the the ancient village chapel, and the residents gather for a meal together on the banks of the Seine. It’s a peaceful, slow-moving day before the bustle of the return to cities and schools and jobs in September. Here is the post I wrote about the day last year:
Our Daily Bread
Bread is given three definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
- a usually baked and leavened food made of a mixture whose basic constituent is flour or meal
- livelihood <earns his bread as a laborer>
- food, sustenance <our daily bread>
It is in search of bread under its first definition, a baked food made from flour, that we go as soon as we set foot on French soil. A truism, still true: bread never tastes quite like it does in France. For baguettes and croissants, an early morning run up the hill to our local artisanal bakery, Le Fournil de la Roselière in Sainte Opportune La Mare, does the trick. Although it stands alone in a quiet village, I’ve never seen it empty. Cars and trucks are constantly pulling in and owners whisking out with their daily bread in hand.
The bread oven cottage is small and dark, and the bread oven is enormous, filling half of the cottage. It’s the kind of oven Grimm’s witch might have tried to push Hansel and Gretel into. Our children are sceptical, and they keep their distance. The boulanger is large and muscular and has a booming kind of voice. He starts us from the beginning, showing how he heats the oven and removes the coal and ash. It’s hard and hot work, requiring patience.
While he works Monsieur le Boulanger keeps up a comic patter with the audience, telling jokes about the clueless Parisians who take his bread-making courses. He only bakes in the traditional way, he tells us. Baking and keeping alive the art of traditional bread making is quite literally his livelihood.
He shows us how he shapes and decorates the bread, using a special tool for the detail. A pinch here, a prod there, a few seconds of extra work and people will pay three times more for a loaf, he chuckles.
While the bread is baking we go for a walk and return to the smell the baking bread. Now the children are keen, gathering close to the boulanger. Each has a go at helping to remove the bread. The paddle is carefully inserted under a few loaves and then the bread is pulled out with a fast, powerful tug.
Afterwards the fresh bread is sold. We leave with the warm loaves nestled in their white bags, ready for the evening meal.
With most meals in France we eat bread, freshly made and often hot: daily sustenance. One Saturday evening there is a mass in the village chapel, to honour the feast day of the village’s patron saint, St Fiacre. He probably started off as Fiachra, an Irishman, who travelled to France and built a hospice for travelers. Legend has it that St Fiacre furrowed a great garden with his staff. He is the patron saint of gardeners and taxi drivers. This seems fitting for our village with its beautiful cottage gardens, and I like the anomalous conflagration of rural and urban. It’s the story of our lives.
We arrive at the chapel just as mass is starting and are invited to sit in the only free seats, uncomfortable and ancient wooden pews at the front. Next to us is an unexplained heap of warm brioches. Brioche is made in a similar way to bread, but is enriched with egg and butter. It was often used as blessed bread in French churches, and was sold at market in the butter centres of northern France.
The mass is long and the chapel is full. We are hungry and the brioches smell so good. Finally as mass is ending, the priest and the mayor come forwards. The priest blesses the special St Fiacre brioches, sprinkling them with holy water: bread of life. The mayor invites the congregation for a glass of sparkling wine in the mairie, and the brioches are distributed. In the morning for breakfast, is the glistening golden brioche all the more delicious for having been blessed?