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?
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.
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.
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