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.
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.
In Part 3 of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy has Dolly decamp to her country house to save money. It’s an expedient move: the fishmonger, the woodmaker and the shoemonger are chasing for unpaid debts. Her daughter has been very ill. Her husband has been sleeping with the nanny of their six children. She goes away with her children, believing that the country will offer “salvation from all city troubles, that life there, though not elegant…[is] cheap and comfortable.” (I am quoting here from the award-winning translationby crack husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)
Country houses were no joke in those days. Here is Tolstoy’s own country house, the 32-room Yasnaya Polyana. This is a writer who knew the toll of seasons of hard weather on a country estate, and the real burden that supporting two residences can put on its owners.
The country does not live up to Dolly’s expectations. Her husband has been looking after the house. “Stepan Arkadyich, who, like all guilty husbands, was very solicitous of his wife’s comfort, looked the house over himself and gave orders about everything he thought necessary. To his mind, there was a need to re-upholster all the furniture with cretonne, to hang curtains, to clean up the garden, make a little bridge by the pond and plant flowers; but he forgot many other necessary things, the lack of which later tomented Darya Alexandrovna.”
What she finds is leaks, no cook, not enough cows for milk and butter, only roosters, and no one to wash the floors as everyone is working in the potato fields. The wardrobes open and close at the wrong times. There are no ironing boards.
Just when everything is looking bleak, a housekeeper appears and masterfully shapes up the house. “The roof was repaired, a cook was found, chickens were bought, the cows began to produce milk, the garden was fenced with pickets, the carpenter made a washboard, the wardrobes were furnished with hooks and no longer opened at will, an ironing board, wrapped in military flannel, lay between a chair arm and a chest of drawers, and the maids’ quarters began to smell of hot irons.”
With fast food, pressed clothes, and working cupboards, Dolly starts to feel at home in the country. The genius of Tolstoy is in these details. It’s not Anna Karenina who compels you through the book: although she gets top billing, she’s a cool and fairly flat character, what James Meek calls a mysterious absence at the heart of Anna Karenina. No, it’s the human truth in the detail, how the husband behaves when he’s guilty, and how the wife regains some order in her world by making the cupboards open and close at the right times, that drives the novel right through the centuries onto our shelves and screens today.
But back to our subject of country houses. For me, Dolly makes a mistake in thinking that the country should replicate the city. You see it happening all the time in magazines and property sections: glossy pictures of the second or even third home that’s immaculate, designer-perfect. Just the thought of all that work, to keep not just one but two or three homes looking decent, makes me feel exhausted. And I’m sure the husbands aren’t doing the upholstery.
A city house is on display. Windows are bay-shaped, made to be looked into. Curtains need to hang well, the carpets should be clean. Your clothes can’t be disheveled as you make your way blinking into the morning. The country is different: it’s the place where you go to not be on display. That’s the point of it. No corner shop, no delivery service, no wifi. Nothing for the children to do but scrabble around in the mud and make up adventure games. And for the adults it’s long walks in wellies, a bit of Tolstoy, and gallons of excellent cheap wine. Two changes of clothes is more than enough, you hardly get around to hanging them in the wardrobes which may or may not close. As Judith Warner writes in her perfect column about another chaumiere in Normandy: “Everything’s fine the way it is.”
Here are five books about Normandy I’ve read and loved. Some are reference books which were helpful to us as we initially explored the region. Others are fiction and memoir. These too have served as reference of course: what, after all, is fiction if not a guide to the possible ways of being?
When we started thinking about buying a house in France, I read everything I could get my hands on: the chic lit novels, the earnest guides to property purchases, A Year in Provence. This last didn’t help much. We are a two-career family, without Mayle’s luxury of time, nor his means.
A couple of caveats. There are significant gaps in this list. First and most glaringly there are not enough books in French. There is also a lack of historical writing, both recent and ancient. I am working to fill these gaps. Please let me know your favourite books about Normandy and France. I’d like to read them, and maybe add them in over time. Finally, there is no particular order to this list.
Madame Bovarytakes place in and around Rouen where Gustave Flaubert was born and raised. Charles and Emma Bovary’s first home is in Tôtes, and they later move to Yonville which is based on Ry. Emma famously meets her lover in Rouen Cathedral I have an edition of Madame Bovary designed by Manolo Blahnik, and it has always seemed a perfect partnership between the cobbler to the Sex in the City girls and Emma, the original desperate housewife.
We have poured over this gorgeous coffee table picture bookby photographer Hugh Palmer, considering the merits of one village over another. Palmer beautifully captures the diversity of Normandy, from the cliffs of Étretat to the lush Pays de Caux farmland dotted with grazing cattle and cider orchards.
There is nothing that comes close to the Michelin Green Guide for its authority and knowledge of the region. You know that if the men at Michelin give an attraction three stars, it will be worth the trip. The alphabetical organization by place name, rather than by region, can be annoying. Normandy is large, and it would be convenient to see what’s near you now. But maybe it’s just reflective of life in France: deal with the weird structure to get to the good stuff.
My mother cooked from Julia Child when I was growing up: not for the children, but when there were dinner parties. Oh the dinner parties. Silver and crystal and cigars and port. Fricadelles de Veau a la Creme. La Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin. I’ve never hosted such a dinner party and it makes me wonder: have I grown up? In My Life in France Julia Child tells how she arrived as a diplomatic wife in her late thirties. The boat docked in Le Havre, and she motored with her husband to Rouen, where she tasted sole meuniere and fine wine and described it as “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me.”
Tell me that Posy Simmond’s graphic novel Gemma Bovery isn’t a great book at your own risk. Great about the English and the English in France, how we talk to each other, how we dress, and how (we imagine) the French observe us. Haircuts, handbags, home decor: Simmonds doesn’t miss a beat in this sharp comic parody of Flaubert’s novel.
I want to give a shout out to three writers whose words about Normandy and France today have resonated with me. It’s not about Normandy specifically, but New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s essays in Paris to the Moon opened my eyes to the pleasures of living with children in France, indeed the pleasures of living with children at all. Humourist David Sedaris dissects the reality of life as a gay American writer in rural Normandy (take that, Emma Bovary!) in Me Talk Pretty One Day. And Judith Warner, who I find perpetually wise, has written beautifully in the New York Times about rural Normandy as antidote to our wired lives.
…in the early evening there is a misty kind of light – a particularly French, grayish, bluish, blackish kind of light – that fills you with a joy so profound that it’s painful. It reminds me of why I live most of my life running around in a snit and obsessing about noisome details, petty insults and minutiae: because to experience happiness – of the most powerful and soul-intimate kind – is also to know that some day it all will end.
–Judith Warner, We’ll Always Have Normandy