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.
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.
I was lucky enough recently to spend a few days in New Jersey, before the hurricane hit. The trees were magnificent in their autumn colours. I had forgotten how heartbreakingly beautiful an East Coast autumn can be, all flame red trees and bright blue skies.The town I stayed in (home to a lifetime friend and writer who blogs wonderfully at New Jersey Seoul) was dressed for the season, all orange pumpkins against white clapboard, as New England as you can get.
I then spent two days in the trendiest part of Brooklyn which was, in its own way, dressed for Halloween.
This delighted me, because I would spend the following week, including Halloween, in Normandy. What kind of Halloween could you expect in a rural village that’s about as far away as you can get from a Starbucks in the developed world?
In fact: a very normal Halloween. The houses were dressed for Halloween. There were even pumpkins. I should have known. Which country, after all, did Cinderella come from.
There were few differences. First, it’s for the little children. There’s none of the adult-dressing-up stuff, and none of the wild tricking you get with teenagers in the US. (Although just after I left New Jersey it wasn’t the teenagers, it was Hurricane Sandy that played the worst possible trick, was the Grinch that stole Halloween for a million candy-laden, powerless towns across the midlantic states).
Second, it’s a village-managed event, coordinated and strictly regulated. It happens on a day that’s convenient for the village (it may not even be 31 October!). The children are invited to gather at the Mairie (town hall). They will then progress around the village to collect their candy, politely thanking the householders and closely monitored by a legion of parents who afterwards gather for a reconstituting glass of wine in the village hall.
I was sneaky, I confess. I had brought back from the US a bag of American candy: Taffy and Nerds and Sweet Tarts. What’s this? cried the children, seemingly disgusted. But the basket was nearly emptied, and my children told me that it was the American candy (below right), not the beautiful French candy (below left) that went first as the children gorged themselves afterwards.
Some things remain the same, wherever they happen.
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 will be my last post about the Olympics, I promise. I’m sticking to my rule that I will only post if it has something to do with France. So I won’t tell you about the excellent Italian fencing final we got to see. Or what an thrill it is to be in London this week.
What I will tell you is that today we were lucky enough to score tickets to see France play Russia at women’s basketball. The French team are unbeaten so far in the tournament, and we expected a good match.
Everything about going to the Olympics is exciting. We arrived from West Ham station and walked along an elevated pathway that gradually reveals the panorama of stadiums in the park. There were jugglers and stilt-walkers and high-fiving volunteers. A carnival atmosphere, still celebrating Team GB’s record 6 gold medals won the previous day.
How different it looked from last time we saw it, just three months ago. One of the great surprises of the Olympic Park is just how attractive it is. Banks of wildflowers shimmered everywhere in the early morning light. Redolent of the golden colour you see sometimes in Normandy.
I’ve already written about seeing the Olympic road race and would have loved to attend a cycling event the velodrome. Second best was seeing the magnificent stadium from the outside.
Now onto the basketball.
Given the number of French nationals who live in London (between 300 and 400,000 according to the French embassy), French support felt muted, especially compared to the vigorous flag-waving by Poland supporters at the GB-Poland volleyball match we had attended the day before. However as French points rose, the tricolore started to appear around the stands.
The French women played a smart and controlled game. They deserved to win, and we’ll be watching as they go into the quarterfinals later this week.