Lovely market pictures and a meditation on the pivotal role that grandmothers play in French food culture.
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?
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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.
I’m delighted to welcome a guest blogger to chaumierelesiris today. You may remember that we have been sampling the Michelin restaurants of Upper Normandy. We recently shared a meal with my parents at Gill in Rouen, and I asked my mother–a veteran of many of France’s top restaurants–to review the evening.
Gill is the flagship restaurant of chef Giles Tournadre, the most famous of Normandy’s many famous chefs. Tournadre has held two Michelin stars here since 1990. In recent years has has added to his empire a less formal annexe and a bistro in Rouen, as well as a restaurant in Japan. Has he over-extended the brand, or is the quality still there two decades on? Let’s find out.
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Those who use the Michelin red guide have an expectation that the food, service and environment of the hotel or restaurant will be as determined by its star rating and location. Extremely rarely have my husband and I been disappointed over the forty five years we have used the guides.
Gill, in the lovely city of Rouen, Normandy, is no exception. The food was delicious. My duck was sweet and so fresh, prepared in three ways, and the dessert, Millefeuille a La Minute, was a delicious contrast of textures. Others enjoyed the day’s starter, traditional escargots with garlic sauce, as well as sea bass pan-fried in cider, served with potato and onion marmalade and creamy Calvados foam, and a meringue cake desert filled with red fruit and basil sorbet.
Each course was beautifully presented, with “decoration” that enhanced the flavors of the preparation. Often the delicate placing of a small herb looked as if tweezers had been employed. There is a challenge to a home cook!
Gill has a lovely setting across the street from the Seine. Its building, however, is not particularly attractive. The interior is simply decorated with a monotone scheme, only occasionally interrupted by a small punch of strong color. Floral decoration is limited. The chairs are very comfortable.
The service is excellent. The chef went out of his way to prepare for me a simple seared foie gras rather than insisting that I try the foie gras dish that was on his menu. Whether trying to find a reservation which in our case was under a different name from the one we gave to the hostess, to advising about the menu, to crumbing the table, the staff managed everything perfectly.
There is no valet parking. The Friday night we dined, an opera was in production just down the road, and we struggled to find a spot to park the car in central Rouen (an underground municipal car park was the answer). That aside, Gill is a two starred Michelin restaurant and that says a lot. We look forward to our next meal there.
It’s strawberry-and-champagne season in England, with Ascot this week and Wimbledon next. It seems the right moment to share these sumptuous strawberries.
These pictures were taken in early June in our local Norman food market. I love the range and shapes of the herbs on offer. Absinthe! And the beautiful curly handwriting.
So much white asparagus everywhere in June, and then it will disappear. For me the flavour runs too mild. I wonder if I’m not cooking it correctly. Please send advice!
Our local food market is in Pont-Audemer, which was once a great producer of leather goods, and the centre is cross-cut with these marvelous little canals which provided water to the tanning trade.
Le Havre probably isn’t top of your list of things to do in Normandy. It certainly wasn’t top of mine–even though it’s on the Unesco World Heritage list. For me, Le Havre has always been a ferry port on the way to somewhere nicer, famous for having been bombed to bits by both sides during World War II.
But my ever adventurous husband kept encouraging me to go. He wanted to know where all the boats that pass by the end of our garden were coming from; and he was interested in seeing the largest container port, and second busiest overall port, in France. So we left behind the bucolic blossomy Easter week countryside and drove off in search of urban grit.
We arrived in a shower of rain, found parking, and ran into the nearest shelter, a large concrete doorway. I stumbled in, looked up, and then had one of those blinking-into-the-gloom moments that you get in the great medieval cathedrals like Notre Dame, Salisbury or Reims. Except here I was in a dramatic modernist space, the Eglise Saint-Joseph du Havre, made entirely from reinforced concrete. Built in the 1950s, the cathedral was designed by Auguste Perret, the architect who led the reconstruction of Le Havre after the war. It’s quite hard to describe the effect of stepping into this cathedral, and pictures don’t do it justice. The concrete is hard and cold and ugly, and yet the overall effect is uplifting and awe-inspiring. If you do one thing in Le Havre, go there.
The rain stopped, the sun came out (every day in Normandy contains about 7 days of weather in other places) and we headed towards the port, stopping along the way at the covered market for sandwiches and where we admired the traditional Easter bells and other chocolate on display.
Dotted around the port are some interesting sculptures, and this unusual Oscar Neimeyer designed volcano, which houses a cultural centre.
Then on to the Musée Malraux, known as MuMa, and its excellent collection of impressionist art in another modernist space that’s more attractive inside than out.
There are works by Boudin, Monet, Dufy, and many of the impressionists; I particularly liked the several portraits by Renoir, as well as the way the museum windows let the changing Normandy light right inside.
Along the seafront from the museum, boats were being taken out of dry dock by men with a small crane. We walked out along the long pier. Retired couples out for a stroll greeted us warmly, and a class of small student sailboats bobbed about at the end of the pier. Looking back was a rather lovely view of the port, smart new apartments, and the Perret cathedral tower.
Do look out for the seafront shop, La Belle-Iloise, which has walls and walls of these brightly coloured tins of sardines. What wonderful gifts.
Le Havre seems to me something like a beautiful easter egg hidden in an old bag, full of delightful surprises that it’s worth taking the time to savour.