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.
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.
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 is a month for visiting gardens. After showers in April and May, Normandy in June is in greenish bloom. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the most famous garden in Normandy. Shortly after, I visited another, less famous but equally wonderful garden–let’s call it the most famous English garden in Normandy.
The house and garden Les Bois Des Moutiers were created from 1898 onwards by the Mallet family, who hired the then young English Arts & Crafts era architect Edwin Lutyens and the wonderfully named and widely influential garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.
Gertrude Jekyll is famous for creating gardens that feel like series of outside rooms. Each one has its own scheme of colour, scent, and seating.
You can hike around the extensive land behind the property, and there are wonderful views. The house can be visited by private appointment only. And should you love it enough, ask about buying it as the family are seeking to sell to the right, suitably considerate, buyer. Price on application only.
The property is situated in the charming Varengeville-sur-Mer, which is south of Dieppe on the Normandy coast and just over an hour, cross-country, from Les Iris. Hike up the road outside the property to the church at the top for a spectacular view of the sea.
Giverny–where Claude Monet lived and painted for 43 years–is certainly the most famous garden in Normandy, perhaps in all of Europe or even the world. It was here that he created the water garden with its iconic Japanese bridge that he painted over and over and which hangs, in reproduction, on a million institutional walls.
A visit to Giverny, however, doesn’t start with the lily pond, but with the rather fabulous–and previously unknown to me–Clos Normand, his magnificent wildflower garden.
The garden, which fronts his house, is laid out in corridors of colour: one purple, one yellow, one pink. Flowers and rose arches rise on either side. Even though it’s crowded – on a midweek afternoon during school season we waited 20 minutes for our tickets – you can lose yourself wandering through the fragrant lanes.
We visited in early June, and the flower garden was bursting with colour, all poppies and peonies and hollyhocks and irises.
All those poppies recall the Monet print that hung in my childhood nursery, the one of a girl and her mother walking through a poppy field, the girl wearing a boater not unlike my school uniform hat, and the mother wearing a scarf and carrying a parasol.
The gardeners were busy at work, tending to all that wildness.
If the flower garden offered more than I expected, then the water garden was slightly underwhelming. The two gardens are intersected by a busy road, and there is noise from the traffic on the road. And to be fair the day was grey, the light flat. The pond is really very small, and not as lovely as it is painted in oil and hanging on the walls of the world’s great museums. It reminded me of visiting the most famous gardens in Japan. Like this one they were perfect on a small scale, and elbow to elbow as crowds of tourists sought just the right picture for their holiday blog.
Monet’s house is worth a look. It has been renovated recently, and rooms on both floors are open for viewing. The bedroom overlooks the gardens. The painter’s bed is curiously small for two people, and the ensuite bathroom is luxurious. What is known as the yellow kitchen is in fact a dining room with a large table, with a smart blue kitchen beyond it. It seems that the Monet family enjoyed their entertaining–and who wouldn’t, in such a spot?
The children brought along The Magical Garden of Claude Monet, which takes a child and a dog on a tour of house and gardens. They enjoyed discovering the places shown in the book – especially Monet’s boat.
There are a number of official and unofficial websites dedicated to Giverny, of which we found the best for visitor information to be the Claude Monet Foundation website.
We are lucky enough to live near three of Normandy’s important abbeys: the great ruins at Jumièges, and the Benedictine abbeys at St-Wandrille and Notre-Dame in Le Bec-Hellouin. This last is famous not only for its abbey and monastic community but for its situation in one of the most beautiful villages of France.
We set out to visit Le Bec-Hellouin on the kind of drizzly grey April day that tries to make everything look depressed but just can’t seem to manage to wipe away the green blossominess of a Normandy April.
As is so often the case in Normandy, the history of Bec starts out in France then gets knotted up with England. The abbey was founded in 1034 by a Norman knight, and quickly became an important intellectual centre for the Catholic church. A number of the monks from Bec went on to become Archbishops of Canterbury.
After the Norman Conquest, the abbey was enriched with properties in England. The then village of Tooting Bec belonged, at one point, to the abbey, and was named after it. If you stand in the global-suburban-London bustle outside the Tooting Bec tube station today it’s hard to imagine any kind of connection to this quiet valley in northern France.
The abbey suffered after the Revolution, and only the medieval belltower remains. After the Revolution the abbey was used as a cavalry barracks, and elegant buildings were added in the eighteenth century. In 1948 the abbey was reinstated, and today it hosts an active Benedictine community.
The monks sing vespers most Sunday evenings in the simple chapel. There is an excellent bookshop with Benedictine products including ceramics manufactured by the monks in residence. It’s peaceful yet quietly active place, busy with visitors taking walks through the parkland, groups on spiritual retreat, and the monks in white-hooded robes going about their daily life.
For the best views of the abbey, it’s worth turning left out of the gates and across a little bridge towards the old railway station. Look back to the abbey accross the fields. At the old railway station there’s a cycle path running along the former railway line towards Evreux which seems a wonderful way to visit this countryside.
One afternoon last year we bought the Michelin Red Guide. We had finally settled in a corner of Normandy and were starting to explore the neighbourhood. As this is Normandy, to know the food is, in no small sense, to know the place.
Still, we wondered about our reasons for getting this particular guide. We’re in the wander-and-discover school of restaurant-finding, with little patience for deciphering the strange codes of the Michelin men. We’re not alone on this. Once the standard by which western restaurants were judged, the Michelin guide appears to have lost some of its resonance. In our casual culture, where food preparation is entertainment and originality counts, all those painstaking courses, tiresome and pricey wine lists, the gaunt-faced anonymous testers, feel a bit pointless. It’s Zagat, without pretentions to anything beyond the here and now, written by you and me and owned by Google, that seems the flavour of our age.
Fair enough, if you’re in Kyoto or Texas or anywhere that has a home-grown food culture. But if you’re in France, why not reconsider? After all, it’s the birthplace of the food culture that Michelin ratings were invented to measure. What good is the Michelin guide if you can’t use it in France?
And so we let the Michelin men tell us where to go. There are four starred restaurants within a 40-minute drive. Best known is Gilles Tournadre’s two-star Gill in Rouen. Also with two stars is Alexandre Bourdas’s fish restaurant Sa. Qua. Na. in Honfleur. Closer to home are business-smart Jean-Luc Tartarin in Le Havre, and Eric Boilay’s Auberge Du Vieux Logis in Conteville, each with one star.
We started with Conteville because it’s the closest, a 20 minute drive from the cottage. A last-minute booking was easy to make on a Wednesday in mid April. The drive through Marais Vernier was bucolic, the trees lacy with apple blossom and calves the size of large dogs trotting around the fields. Conteville is an attractive village close to Honfleur with a church and a few shops. The restaurant is the biggest show in town.
It’s an utterly traditional restaurant, half-timbered outside and all wooden beams, red curtains and upholstered chairs inside. The preparations were traditionally Norman too, apart from one sashimi amuse-bouche. Our waiter was proud to inform us that all the food we would eat was locally sourced. Only one cheese on the generous tray wasn’t local, and this fact was vigorously pointed out.
There were three set menus which seemed reasonably priced, and we both chose the middle priced option, four courses for just under 60 Euros per head. We started with Coquilles St Jacques scallops and and elaborate and generous plate of foie gras, followed by veal and lamb. Between the two came a potent, brandy-laced Punch Normand, and after, a surprising Pont-l’Évêque cheese with a pepper caramel sauce. Normally Pont-l’Évêque has me thinking of laundry hampers, but the caramel offset and transformed the taste and for the first time I appreciated this most local of cheeses. Desert was a moist and deeply delightful tarte tatin crumble.
There were few diners that evening, and the empty tables and formal-rustic setting could have made for overly attentive service, but it didn’t; the service was perfect and just as attentive as it needed to be. The wine list felt expensive, and brought the overall price higher than we would have liked.
I’m happy to have l’Auberge du Vieux Logis as my Michelin-starred local. It’s a restaurant that’s excellent at what it does, cooking Norman ingredients as they’ve been cooked for centuries, with flair and care and a touch of surprise here and there. (You can see chef Eric Boilay at work here.) The food was rich, and there was too much of it, and that’s a fact I’m going to have to live with if we continue down this Michelin route. I’d like to go to Conteville again: I’m thinking a late lunch after a hearty cycle up from Point-Audemer first.