No truer words were sung but strangely I’m not California Dreamin’ at the moment. I’m loving it right here in Normandy. While the long sunshiney days of summer are over for this year, there’s still much to be done every day and guests to be welcomed.
It seems to be chateau contents auction time – maybe its the chateaux that were sold over summer that now need their contents cleaned out, or like the one we went to this week near Bayeux that is on the market currently (see here for the details – trust me, its not for the faint-hearted and is going to need a LOT of euro, patience and love). Either way, for us its the double bonus of finding some treasures to add to La Pommetier before they get the dealers mark-ups added to them (you are often bidding against the professional dealers so generally the prices are as low as you’ll get them), and also the opportunity to peek inside some of these chateaux gems.
At a chateau near Tinchebray last weekend we managed to get this delightful petite commode with its original brass decorative bits and undamaged marble top. We found over summer that our guests staying for a few nights really like to unpack a bit and having furniture with ‘bench space’ for them to put their stuff on is really useful – so this commode is a winner. I’m going to give it a clean up with the pine soap and polish before I decide on whether it will look better as is or painted (Mike is for the ‘as is’ and I’m a big fan of painting everything in pale grey chalk paint) and also try it out in a few different spots to see where it fits best. Feel free to add your comments below!
Autumn is also a time for getting the garden ready for winter. In Australia there’s not a lot to do for this as everything grows pretty much year round so its just business as usual in the garden. For spring bulbs in Australia we don’t need to get them in the ground over winter, we need to get them into the vegetable crisper in the fridge for six weeks for their “winter” before planting them in early spring. So here over the past two weeks I’ve planted several hundred bulbs (the result of wine-fuelled online purchasing from Holland one night) and I have about a hundred to go when the dahlias are done for the year and get lifted to winter in the garden shed. Having one of these nifty bulb-hole-digger things is absolutely key to surviving bulb planting with two in tact arms rather than ground down stumps. If I was ever to lose a hand in some freak accident, I would seriously consider getting one of these things grafted on.
As much as I love the autumn leaves when our mirabelle tree sprinkles gold leaves on the lawn and the virginia creeper on the house turns vampy dark nail polish red, I don’t love the fallen leaves blow inside every time a door opens. And I don’t love that our village green waste collection ended this week before 90% of the leaves are fallen and I will once again be making regular trips with boatloads of leaves to the recycling centre.
C’est la vie – on the upside I will have Michelle Obama arms from all the raking and bagging of leaves!
Finally, and its been a while between blogging drinks, I have time and space to sit down and update you all on life here at La Pommetier.
Summer was busy. Crazy busy. Busier than we ever dreamed we’d be. So a big thank you to all our lovely guests that came, oohed, ahhed, gave us feedback and praise that has made our big leap here so worthwhile. Merci beaucoup.
We learned a lot from our guests with great advice on everything from how to get wifi through thick stone walls (you don’t, you use these natty plug things that send the intamawebby through the electrical cables – who knew?) through to mirabelle trees generally only fruit every second year (note: not this year so put away the de-stoner contraption).
We also learned that hanging out all day at home with people who are on holiday every day is waaaaay more fun than hanging out all day in an office with people who are not on holiday. Quel surprise! But our biggest learning was that even when you live and breathe holiday vibes all day, you need a holiday. So the “No vacancy” sign went up for the first week of September and we were off at TGV rocket speed to Aix-en-Provence.
We’d been to Aix a few years earlier and loved it. It’s absolutely what you want and expect Provence to be – all pale blue wooden shutters, cobbled laneways, markets and alfresco rosé-quaffing. We hired a car and headed to the classic hill-top hood of Gordes for lunch with an amazing view of the provincial landscape, we toured the old town of Aix on the tourist tram, we bought fruit at the markets and quaffed with the locals. We ate every meal outside. We loved every minute of it.
If you want to experience two very different parts of France, you can do no better than the lush green pastures of Normandy and the sun-soaked rocky beauty of Provence. Both of them just a short hop from Paris (2 hours to Bayeux and 3 hours to Aix). Book your trains, car-hire and accommodation early and everything else you can just soak up when you get there. Perfect!
Le Haras du Pin – the French National Horse Stud – is oh so French and oh so beautiful. Its rolling hillsides, its chateau, its symmetrical red brick stable blocks with their brass bolted stalls and even more beautiful inhabitants. Founded in 1715 by order of Louis XIV, the Sun King sent his designers to work on the Haras and it lives up to its moniker as “the equestrian Versailles”.
Amazingly, 300 years later the stud retains its 1000 hectares of rolling pastures and woodlands in the Normandy countryside. There are four villages located within its grounds. I can’t help but think that in most other countries the land would have been sold off and developed and the stud would have been moved somewhere smaller and less valuable. A quick google search tells me that few other countries even have a national stud.
The stud is open to the public for tours every day during summer. On Thursday afternoons there is a hugely popular display of the horses and their abilities. But it was the Friday afternoon adventure I was keen on. 2015 is the first year the stud is offering tours of the paddocks where you can see the stallions hanging out in the fields. Its a lovely half hour walk about the property with some stunning views and lots of information about the running of the national stud. A quick cool off in the shop for ten minutes and then you’re off on a tour of the stables to see more equine beauties, the saddlery and carriages. For horsey types its heaven, for everyone else its a glimpse into the past that is treasured today.
Le Haras National du Pin is located on the RD925 at Le Pin (GPS coordinates: longitude 0.14 / latitude 48.74). The nearest large town is Argentin.
The entrance fee for “Le Pin” Thursdays (the stallion parade and demonstration) is €6,50 and is on every Thursday from early June through to late September.
Guided tours in English are available and best to check the website for times and dates.
Again this year people came from all over the world to our little village to commemorate D-Day. They came to see for themselves where the mammoth effort that was Operation Overlord took place and changed the course of World War 2. They came to see where heroic acts of bravery took place and maybe, if they’re lucky, meet one of those hero’s and get a photo and share a beer.
Many come dressed in full WW2 ensembles, driving meticulously restored jeeps/trucks/amphibious vehicles and waving for photos. The village really comes to life with the veterans, the crowds, the music and the collective amazement of what happened here 71 years ago.
We had a full and happy house all weekend with guests from the UK, Netherlands and Slovakia. They visited all the sites from Point du Hoc to Pegasus Bridge and every evening enjoyed the entertainment in the village before sauntering home. This meant that we too could wander around to soak it all in every evening.
As we sat on the sea wall enjoying our after dinner ice cream, listening to the band and watching the passing parade of WW2 enthusiasts, next to us a Dutch lady, her daughter and grand-daughter (probably aged around 10) were quietly staring out at the Mulberry Harbour. The lady shed a few tears, her daughter gave her a hug, and her grand-daughter hugged them both. In amongst all the joy and commemorations, there are those who have come to remember those who didn’t make it. A father lost too soon, a grand father and great grand father never known. Lives and families changed forever.
Our friend’s from Melbourne, Vince and Rach, are coming to stay with us in a few weeks (and I am unbelievably excited about this). Seeing the photos of the commemorations here in Arromanches on our La Pommetier Facebook Page yesterday, Vince messaged me musing about what Rach’s dad would have taken of all this. Rach’s dad was a veteran of Pegasus Bridge. I messaged back that he would be treated like a rock star here as all the veterans are. Kids would have their photo taken with him, younger vets would salute him, and crowds would part to let him through while shaking hands. They would do this for him and all of those others he represents who didn’t make it back here.
And people will keep doing this every year for those who don’t make it back here.
Every morning here at La Pommetier we like to end breakfast with a little something sweet we’ve baked up. Some days its lemon madeleines, some days its mini banana breads (with cream cheese frosting, otherwise they’d be too healthy), some days its random berry muffins. The exception is when Mr Boulanger (our village baker) has outdone himself and got the chouquettes ready early in the morning (delicious chou pastry puffs with sugar rocks on them – like eating a sugary pastry cloud).
Yesterday I whipped up a new goodie and put a snap of them onto the La Pommetier Facebook page. The crowd went wild and there were requests for the recipe (well, four people). Now technically these are called cinnamon muffins… but really they are a donut flavour muffin so I call them doffins. They are just like making muffins – easy von peasey – but then you add the donut magic at the end. Voila – the doffin! So here goes for the recipe.*
Stuff you need:
Mini muffin tray (12 or 24 but this recipe is for the 12 as otherwise I’d be eating the dozen leftovers)
1/2 cup self raising flour (or here in France that’s 1/2 cup of flour and one teaspoon of baking powder)
1/4 cup of milk
1/4 cup of caster sugar for the muffins
1/4 cup of caster sugar for the donut magic part at the end
1/4 cup of melted butter (you will use half of this for the muffins and half of this for the donut magic)
Splash of vanilla essence
Stuff to do:
Grease your mini muffin tray and get the oven cranked up to 180 degrees (mine is fan forced because I live in the 21st century).
Pop your butter into the microwave for about 40 seconds to get it melted.
In a mixing bowl get your muffin ingredients all playing nicely together: the flour, your first 1/4 cup of caster sugar, the milk, half the melted butter, the splash of vanilla essence (between half to one teaspoon full for anyone suffering anxiety at the lack of an exact measures here), and enough cinnamon powder so that you can see the specks (again, probably half to one teaspoon for the nervous nellies).
Spoon the muffin mix into the tray so each is about half full and pop them into the oven. I use a higher oven shelf as these kids cook quickly. Keep an eye on them from about 10 minutes onwards and they’ll be ready when they a) look like mini muffins and b) are just firm to the touch. They’ll definitely be done by about 15 minutes (or there’s a real problem).
Once out of the oven, leave them in the tray for a minute while you give the remaining melted butter a quick 20 second zap in the microwave just to ensure its still melted. Put the second 1/4 cup of caster sugar and again a teaspoon or so of cinnamon into a bowl and mix well so that it resembles donut coating. As you get each muffin out of the tray, use a pastry brush (I have one of those rubbery silicon-y ones) to cover the top of the muffin with melted butter and then dip it into the sugar and cinnamon ‘donut magic’ mix.
Eat them as quickly as you can while they are still warm. Mmmm …. doffins.
* Disclamer: I am not a chef, cook or any kind of foodie professional. Just an over-enthusiastic amateur with a captive audience for breakfast at our B&B.
Sunday was Mother’s Day. The sun was out – hallelujah – and a champagne lunch followed by a garden visit was on the agenda. As fab as the sole meuniere at La Pecherie in Courseulles was, it was our little jaunt through the countryside to the most amazingly garden tucked away down a small country lane. Its beautiful just getting there driving through small stone villages and down meandering country roads with the wheat waving in the breeze and the canola so yellow you just smile back at it.
You would never know Chateau du Brecy was there… unless of course you’re one of the bazillion garden lovers who’s seen Monty Don’s French Gardens. Even having been featured on the BBC, on a sunny sunday afternoon we were among only a handful of people there to stroll the terraces. Driving up to the chateau you’re impressed. Not because its grandiose or set in a giant parkland. Its more that you stumble on this secret chateau with its tree lined vista and bright blue painted gates big enough for … something really big to get through. Even the knocker is huge (no pun intended).
After crossing the courtyard and through a short passage out to the terrace, you are in a small herb garden at the corner of the main garden. From here the garden is a series of terraces up the hill and across, criss-crossed with topiary, hedges and borders all perfectly clipped. There’s no ‘keep off’ ropes to the terrace lawns and you feel that you’re in a private garden kept for pleasure. I really appreciate that they’ve kept the public signage to a minimum – less distracting and it makes the garden so much more private and personal.
One of the few gardens left from the 17th century, the current owners have restored the gardens which have a distinct Italianate style while still feeling French. There’s the ornate stone statues, the terraces and precision cut topiaries that are so Italian, but then there’s the French-ness of the soft peonies, shady espaliered hornbeam paths and potager garden.
While were were just in time this visit for the peonies, we were a bit early for the rose garden which extends around the Chateau’s chapel. It was in full bloom last visit and the scent was like walking into the Dipytique store in Paris. Mmmm followed by aaaaaaah and a contented sigh.
It’s not a huge garden but its perfectly formed. Like many in Normandy – Jardin de Angelique, Jardin d’Agapanth, Bois des Moutiers – its a garden that is personal and fitting to the house it surrounds. They are the gardens that inspire me onwards with my amateur adventure in gardening. Tomorrow with my intrepid fellow garden visiting mum, we’re packing up the car and heading to the UK for a week of garden visits, lectures, flower classes and the grand finale at Chelsea Flower Show. Highgrove, Hidcote and Raymond Blanc’s Aux Quatre Saisons are all on the agenda. I shall return (with a boot load of plants and planting paraphernalia!)
OK, so you’ve already been to the Louvre, the l’Orangerie and the Musee d’Orsay. What’s next for you culture vultures?
The Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris museum terms is small, but oh so perfectly formed. But that’s not the way to think of this place. Instead, think of the grandest house you can. Picture it to be perfectly symmetrical, several stories high, and built from carved stones with a sweeping gravel driveway. Then think of its grand salons and staircases, huge picture windows, walls filled with priceless artworks (Van Dyks, Donatellos, Boticellis…), and the best furniture and furnishings money can buy. Then put this house on one of the grandest boulevards in Paris – the Boulevard Haussmann – and voila, you have the Jacquemart-Andre.
The house is the creation of banking heir Edouard Andre and his painter wife Nelie Jacquemart. Without children, they dedicated their life together to growing their collection while being careful never to push up auction prices against the French museums bidding to build the public collections. They left the house and its collection to the Institute de France to become a museum in itself.
Somehow it seems to be off the main tourist trail… but the Parisians seem pretty happy about this. Lunch in the salon was overwhelmingly locals who had popped in (no museum ticket needed) for the fabulous food. We knew to get there early – by noon – and a brief moment I got distracted from my amazingly light tomato and mozzarella quiche every table was taken. The dessert cabinet here could well be the epicentre of all calories in the world, but everything we tried was dee-lish-ush. And you won’t find nicer or more efficient staff in Paris.
158 Boulevard Haussmann
Open: 10am to 6pm (cafe open from 11.45am)
We visited as a day trip to Paris from La Pommetier as the train to/from Paris Saint Lazare takes two hours (and six minutes to be precise) and the musee is a zippy 10 min flat walk along Boulevard Haussmann from the station. I’d combine this with a few hours retail therapy in the Grand Magasins (Printemps and Galeries Lafayette) which are both within 5 mins walk of Saint Lazare station or if I was being super-culture-vulture after lunch at the Jacquemart-Andre I’d head on over to the Musee Nissim de Camodo which is another amazing collection set within its original house (plus you get to see the kitchens).
We’ve been busy. Really busy. So having farewelled guests from the Ukraine to Spain this morning, we decided on a little chateau and garden adventure for our Sunday afternoon.
Less than an hour away and very close to the lovely town of Saint Pierre sur Dives is the stunning Chateau de Vendeuvres. Built in 1741 the chateau is classed as a Historic Monument for its interiors and exteriors and still remains the home of the Count and Countess de Vendeuvre. It survived the revolution untouched and as much furniture and decoration as possible was removed in three days before the chateau was taken over as a barracks during WWII. The family have done an amazing job to restore the place and big kudos to them for opening it to the public to visit.
On a sunny afternoon, we opted to tour the kitchens, “niches” which is French for very fancy schmancy dog and cat beds, and the gardens. What we did see was clearly built for fun and amusement and hundreds of years later its still fun to visit. Bonus points for going in April as the chateau and gardens are open every afternoon for the tulip display.
Within the gardens they have several mazes, a labyrinth (and trust us, it is an labyrinth, but a really lovely one to wander in), a shell grotto, a pyramid that was also the ice house (they’d collect it off the lakes in winter and store it in here to use), a lime walk, dovecote for 1400 pigeons, and the fabulous “surprise” garden. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, you’ll have to go see it for yourself. You will be extra surprised if like us, you follow the lettering on the guide which is labelled backwards (spoiler: we got soaked!)
The garden is watered by the Dives river which is channeled around the garden to form islands, streams and even a shrimp pond. We had a short ‘vision’ of floating around it on rafts (pretty much all of my childhood holidays were to theme parks), but this is a garden of old school fun and folly and if you did that you’d miss most of it.
It’s a garden that is well cared for and loved. There are topiaries everywhere which left me wondering how many gardeners it takes to maintain this place. The minimum would be six I’d think – including two Edward Scissorhands.
The stuff: www.vendeuvre.com
Open 1 May to 30 September everyday from 11am to 6pm. In April every afternoon from 2-6pm for the Tulip Festival and in October on Sunday afternoons from 2-6pm.
For a day out: combine an afternoon at Chateau Vendeuvre with a morning at Camembert and lunch at Beauvron-en-Auge for a total Normandy countryside adventure.
I can’t resist a plant fair. Mike can’t resist a plant fair that has a salon de the and the possibility of cake. So off to the ‘Franco-Brittanique Journee des Plantes’ we went this morning. A few kilometres from Saint Mere Eglise and over an hour from home, it was a bit of an expedition through the Normandy country side. But hey, its spring and the sun is shining and there is the promise of cake.
Included in your small entry fee is access to the chateau’s public areas which are not all fully renovated, but have hundreds of years of ingrained character and detail. Ornate painted doorways, arched windows, tiled floors and huge fireplaces are in every room. The chateau wears her age well and clearly has some stories to tell with some of her features having been chiselled away – possibly during the French revolution or WW2.
The garden is a maternity ward from the swallows in the top rafters of the longere, to the red robins who have nested in a hole in the garden wall, and of course our ‘Mother of the Year 2014’ Mrs Collared Dove is nesting away in the mirabelle tree which they have protected all through winter having raised three babies there last year.
In the potager the herbs are all bursting back to life, our tomato plant is struggling to find his feet but the strawberries are flowering and hopefully will be on our guests breakfasts with some yoghurt and home made (sultana-free) granola in a month or two. Next for the potager is the lettuce and some beans and/or snow peas.
On the flower front the hydrangeas are getting into leaf, the shasta daisies are growing up well, and the lavender (which I thought I may have stunted for life with a bit of late zealous clipping last year) is coming back to life. The lambs ears that were planted as kinda pathetic looking seedlings last year are looking really healthy and happy now and even starting to form the mid-level border I hoped for between the lavender at the back and the seaside daisies at the front. Likewise the box balls/cones/hedges planted last year are all getting their spring on.
Not everything has gone to plan though. A too vigorous and too late in the season chopping back of an overgrown and matted clematis has sent it to the heavens. Bulbs that were excitedly purchased at Courson Plant Fair last autumn as the pretty fluffy pink ‘Angelique’ have come up bright yellow with red stripes (not happy). A cavalier that took to peeing on my box balls has killed off one side of several of them. I have decided to ‘make lemonade’ and put them up against each other to start a little cloud-like box shape. Clearly I have been spending too long on Pinterest looking at others box gardens (although I am sure that few of the other cloud shaped topiaries are due to being pee’d on one side).
I have been a little obsessed lately with the beautiful gardens of Arne Maynard and his amazing ability to make gardens both structured yet soft and completely at home around the homes they are planted at. It is on my wish list to get to one of his workshops or garden courses held at his beautiful Allt-y-Bela next year. In the meantime I will be hunting him down at Chelsea this year. Arne – you can run but you can’t hide – consider this post fair warning if by some miracle you ever read this!