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.
I’ve spent the last two days sampling the shopping experiences in Upper Normandy: the well-heeled, global brand-packed district behind Rouen’s cathedral; the adorable rows of independent shops that line the narrow medieval streets of Pont-Audemer; and a weekly market where farmers from all around set out their stalls.
The thing that’s struck me is how beautifully everything is presented. From the windows of Hermes to the humblest confectionary, each shopkeeper has taken time to make his or her little piece of window the most seasonal and eye-catching it can be. Even the opticians had a full-on Easter menagerie on show. And this display of colour and shape and texture makes it fun to shop in France, a sensual pleasure.
I am trying to remember if the shops were ever so lovely on the UK high street or in the American mall. When did it become purely functional? Maybe that’s why we shop online so much: it’s no fun in person any more.
This seems to me the wrong formula. Why shouldn’t shopping, whether online or on the high street, be a pleasure? Why don’t we demand that our shopkeepers, whether digital or not, curate their stalls with care and stimulate a little bit of desire before we get down to the grubby business of parting with our money?
It was in the Isère last year that I found a table solution for our troublesome kitchen-diner space in London. Visiting a friend in her chic chalet in the French alps, I saw a table that was just perfect: long and narrow, made from lustrous French boards, with a modern touch in the smoky iron legs. I asked where she had found it–an antiques shop in Grenoble, perhaps, or an estate sale in the French countryside?
Not at all. It came, in fact, from The French House, which is in York and in Fulham not five minutes from our London home. They go all over France and collect wonderful furniture and decorative objects. They also make furniture using reclaimed wood. They had made my friend’s table, and they would make ours.
The also had these mid-century French card chairs which they polished up and reupholstered for the table ends. It felt wrong to buy French furniture from a London shop when we spend so much time in Normandy. At the shop they weren’t surprised at all. They said many people buy furniture for French homes in London. There isn’t enough time to get around and sift through the brocantes yourself.
I have yet to explore the brocantes in Normandy – something to look forwards to. Here’s a site that lists all the brocantes and flea markets and antiques fairs in Upper Normandy. And if you can’t get there in person, Sharon Santoni, who runs group trips to French flea markets, has a delightful online shop, My French Country Brocante.
Another quite fabulous option, if you can find it, is Home Art & Matiere just down the road from Les Iris in Villequier. Occupying the old pilot’s house, right on the Seine, H.A.M. is a wonderbox of treasures, each room painstakingly curated and filled with carefully chosen artifacts. The kind of place you go to find what you didn’t know you wanted.
Of course there’s a catch: it’s only open on Sundays from 3 – 6 pm. Our recommendation: take lunch in nearby Caudebec-en-Caux, and tour the Victor Hugo Museum. From the museum go left along the river to the old pilot’s house, and then browse to your heart’s content as the sun goes down.
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.
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.
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Saveurs (flavour), Quality and Nature are the three marks that the restaurant’s chef, Alexandre Bourdas, seeks in his cooking. He is successful. On his website he speaks of being influenced by his mother’s home in Aveyron and his own cooking experience in Japan. Surprising combinations, the melding of what might be considered opposites, mark the experience of a meal at SaQuaNa. This is not comfort food, nor usual French cooking, but it is creative cooking in which interesting flavors are combined carefully, yet hold their own identity.
My husband and I began with a “pascade Aveyronnaise,” a baked crepe with the crunch of crispy sugar as one bit into it. That first taste was immediately followed by the savory taste of fresh chives and the overall flavor of truffle. What a fabulous start! Next was steamed pollack with Gomasio (a salt and sesame seed preparation), turnips, radish, mustards, grilled sardines and frothed olive oil. Sea-bream with Colonnata bacon with fresh almonds, pointed head cabbage, meadow mushrooms and parsley flowers was the following course. Then came veal and button mushrooms which had an emulsion of preserved lemon, swisschard and chervil.
A cake, which was more like a cookie, followed: salted caramel and chocolate, fromage blanc and pineapple sorbet, cream and hazelnut oil. Then a second dessert was served: “cappuccino” of iced coffee, ganache, a cocoa tile, mousse with cocoa butter, toffee, and a choux bun with caramel and whipped cream. Add to the above the little bits and pieces delivered to the table in most two star Michelin restaurants, not ordered, but delightful offerings to further enhance the experience, and you will have a sense of the seriousness and the playfulness of this chef and his kitchen. Portions are individual and small. That is unless you are including some of the most delicious bread known to man or the large bowl of fresh salad. Both are communal and are to be shared by the table.
The staff is excellent. Despite all of that food, they do not rush one. The pace is practiced and perfect and polished. The staff seems warm and welcoming and happy to answer any question put to them.
The restaurant sits on a square, not far from the beautiful harbor, in this stunning port city which is full of 17th century buildings plus a fascinating church. Sa.Qua.Na’s building looks like an old store front, except that there are sun shades resting at various levels. They look not like a mistake but a plan. The inside seems simple, pure, and like the food, full of surprises when you examine its interior closely. The light colored wooden tables look Scandinavian.
There are nods to Asia in the decoration. What is noticed is that the vertical strip lighting serves as a part of the decoration. The colors are mysterious . The tables have been carefully designed so that the marvelous cheese tray can hang off of the end of each table. Essential elements decorate. It feels natural. You notice the quality and thought put into the design. SaQuaNa.
We love feedback at Les Iris. We are always grateful when guests take the time to tell us what they liked, and what we could do better.
Best is when they share their holiday stories and pictures. One guest who stayed at Les Iris with his family recently shared these evocative and mysterious pictures of his time at Les Iris and in Normandy.