Normandy Summer Sea Festival, Veules-les-Roses

This week Paris has been drenched with April Showers in May.  Just to be confusing, in France it’s supposed to be March showers. Good for the shrubs perhaps but even greater for the travel companies, as we’ve been instead turning our thoughts to the summer holidays.

I realised that I’d forgotten to share the rest of a Normandy short break we made last summer. Remember the visit to the watercress beds in Veules-les-Roses?  It’s not surprising that this Normandy village, with the smallest river in Europe, was voted as 6th most preferred village in France by the French in 2013. The locals also host a Watercress Festival on 20 April.  It’s a date to note for 2015 but it’s not too late to mark this fun festival in your diaries for this summer.

Normandy tractors decorated for the festival

La Fête de la mer, or Festival of the Sea, takes place on 15 August. It’s a popular date as the 15 August is always a national holiday in France (and this year it falls on a Friday, making a ‘pont’ bridge for the long weekend). For those of you who prefer to take off earlier, then on 14-15 June there’s the Rose Festival for budding weekenders and on  5-7 July 2014, Veules-les-Roses will run the Linen festival for the very first time.

veules-les-roses sea carnival boats in the Normandy village

The sea festival kicks off with a religious ceremony at the Church of Saint-Martin in the village centre. Then, driven by decorated tractors and jeeps, boats carrying light-hearted, proud youngsters clad in nautical stripes and sailor’s berets form a procession through the main street.

carnival of boats in Normandy

We follow them to the beach, so popular with Russian artists at the end of the 19th Century, inspired by the likes of Monet and Eugène Boudin.

It’s a procession with a difference.  Yes, the boats are going to sea with the Mayor and a couple of priests.

mayor and priests walking on the beach, Normandy

They give their benediction to protect the boats and throw a wreath in memory of all sailors lost at sea.

blessing of the boats and benediction in Normandy, festival of the sea, Veules-les-Roses

Time for some reflection.

bonnet de marin or sailor's beret at the sea festival in Normandy

At the end of the procession, the town hall laid on a splash of Normandy cider, before most visitors headed off for their oyster picnics on the beach or grabbed a table at the numerous seafront restaurants for a plate of local fish and seafood with a view of the cliffs. We already had a super gastronomic meal at Les Galets the night before; this time we found a more light-hearted table at Le Petit Veulais crêperie.  Luckily we booked a few hours beforehand!

normandy oysters

Eye-aye, Captain.  I see their prizewinning oysters (gold medal winners 2013 and 2014 at the Concours Général Agricole) on the horizon, plus watercress beds, rosebeds, oyster beds, seabeds. For sleeping beds, we loved staying a few years before at l’Hôtel Douce France when Julie was just a baby.  This time we stayed in the neighbouring market town of St Valery-en-Caux and thoroughly recommend the Hotel du Casino which is great value.

A great dose of fresh sea air is guaranteed: overlooking the harbour with excited seagulls and tinkering boats for extra ambience, all included.

 

 

A New Year Kir Royal from Normandy

Happy, bubbly New Year to you! It’s good to be back.

Do you have resolutions for 2014? I don’t, but this morning I realised the need to resolve the online photo chaos before I move up to the new attic office when it’s ready.  Making a start – trying to cut out the distracting but fun cacophony of sawing, whistling and drilling interspersed with some singing hilarity of French-Romanian renditions of Amazing Grace upstairs- I discovered a number of photos I’d completely forgotten about, taken on a long weekend in Normandy last August.

As the sawdust flies around my nest, this is a welcome impression of fresh air on a desktop – although I can imagine with the ferocious winds this week that it’s not quite the same serene scene along the French coasts!

This shot reminds me of a typical Normandy beach scene by Eugène Boudin, where the sky dominates the canvas. Eugène Boudin was one of the first French landscape painters to paint outdoors – Claude Monet was his biggest fan. I picked that up at the Boudin exhibition in Paris last May at the Jacquemart André museum, before devouring a magnificent fraisier in the museum café, which inspired my strawberry and pistachio tart. But I digress.

Taken from his hidden grotto, this was Victor Hugo’s last view of the sea in 1884, according to a tourist information sign nearby.

This grotto was made towards the end of his life, as he often visited his friend, Paul Meurice, to work and contemplate the sea at his house, just metres away in Veules-les-Roses. I bet they supped plenty of watercress soup together, as this is also where the watercress beds are plentiful at the source of France’s smallest river.

Normandy beach huts

Mid-morning, the row of beach huts in Veules-les-Roses nestled into the cliff’s terrace like a drowsy audience before the sea show. By midday, the ambience flipped to bubbling.

Their weekend occupants had opened the shutters, brushed down the canvas chairs inside and laid out platters of local oysters on picnic tables while sipping on a Kir Normand apéritif: a cocktail drink of local Normandy brut cider mixed with crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur). In some restaurants they also add a touch of Calvados liqueur. While I tried the Kir Normand, I prefer Normandy cidre on its own, to let the flavour of the apples shine through. However, what about just the cider and Calvados?

blackberries Normandy coast

The hedgerows of wild blackberries (or brambles) that line the coastal path in Veules-les-Roses best echo my kir sentiments; my favourite is a kir à la mûre (made with blackberry liqueur), which has something warming and festive about it at this time of year, whatever extreme, crazy weather we’re having.

(Psst: most people call them blackberries, I know, but we call them brambles in Scotland – that way there’s no confusion with the other Blackberry, or hubby’s ‘ex-mistress’ – I always had this strong desire to accidentally drop his Blackberry in the swimming pool as he answered emails on holiday!)

When I first arrived in Paris – as lost as French francs were to finding my purse – I was amazed at the rows of enticing-looking cheap bottles of wine at our local Leader Price supermarket. The wines, however, were just as dry and acidic as the smile-less faces at the cash desk.

As I’d discovered the fabulous classic French kir apéritif made with Bourgogne Aligoté and crème de cassis, it was the happiest solution to disguise the rather sour-tasting white wines. Then, as I started to work, I was introduced to the cassis’ fruity cousins in Paris bars and restaurants: I could mix Aligoté or Chablis wine with framboise (raspberry), pêche (peach) or mûre (bramble).

The best ratio of crème de mûre (or cassis, pêche or framboise) to white wine in a kir is about 1:5, as it’s just enough to give a hint of fruit without overpowering the flavour of the wine.  Let’s face it: you don’t want something overly sweet for an apéritif before a meal. In Burgundy, I was surprised to be served at least double the dose by our friends from Dijon – so it’s just a matter of personal taste.

For festive occasions, the kir’s decadent big, bubbly sister is the Kir Royal made with Champagne, but traditionally and best served with a Crémant de Bourgogne, dry sparkling wine from Burgundy. When I followed Georges Lepré’s wine conferences in Le Vésinet last year, he told us that while he was chef sommelier at the Ritz until 1993, he was asked by Joan Collins for a Kir Royal with Roederer Champagne. Say no more. Don’t ruin fabulously expensive Champagne; enjoy it with a good dry brut without too much character – unless your character is stronger than the wine.


Laughter is sunshine that drives winter from the human face”

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables.

CHEERS!

to
laughter, health and sunshine in 2014!

Silence on Remembrance Sunday


 

France’s Smallest River, Watercress Beds and Soup

As piles of neatly tied bouquets of watercress were stacked high at our local market last week for my Watercress Soup, they instantly conjured up scenes of the watercress beds, or Cressonnières, in Veules-les-Roses this summer. Come join me on a wee jaunt up the watercress road in the Pays-de-Caux in Upper Normandy.

With our all-time dream African Safari cancelled this summer due to my persisting back problems, we finally consoled ourselves and ventured out of Paris with a long weekend in Veules-les-Roses, a sleepy little town on France’s Normandy coast. Julie and Lucie took it like young adults, as the promise of the Big Five game animals were comically replaced by Normandy cows and curious cats looking for fishy leftovers from the seafood restaurants dotted along the town’s seafront.

Veules-les-Roses has two main attractions: it’s home to the smallest river in France, the Veules. It’s the shortest sea-bound river at 1.194 km (about 3/4 of a mile), along which there are three restored 18th Century watermills.

Also, at the source of les Veules river, lies the watercress beds, or Cressonnières. The clear running water’s current of Veules-les-Roses has favoured the cultivation of watercress since the 14th Century. Harvesting watercress is done here by hand with a knife and ties.

The watercress of Veules is known for its fine leaves, its particularly spicy taste and makes the perfect ingredient for a light and healthy soupe de cresson. Watercress is also useful, as it’s always in season.

 

The bunches of watercress that are formed during harvesting are called chignons, when the roots of the stalks come outside the bunch. Luckily these days, harvesting is done wearing rubber boots, rather than sodden feet steeped in 10cm of cold (about 10°C) water wearing clogs with heavy metal leggings!

watercress beds for soup

As Autumn now blows around Paris, comforting spoonfuls of healthy watercress soup help to prepare us for any sniffles or scratchy throats that niggle and nudge as November closes in on us, as it contains iron, calcium and Vitamins A and C.

watercress soup or French soupe de cresson

French Watercress Soup

Watercress Soup (Soupe au Cresson)

A large bunch of watercress
20g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped finely
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
500ml water
250ml chicken (or vegetable) stock
Salt, pepper
2-3 tbsp cream (optional)

method for watercress soup

1.  Wash the watercress, drain and set aside.

2.  Heat the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the onion until cooked but not browned. Add the watercress with the stalks, roughly chopped potatoes and cover with the water and stock. Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook gently for 30 minutes.

3. Blitz the soup with a hand blender or in a food processor until smooth. If you prefer your soup less thick, then you could sieve at this point, although I personally love it with the fibre addition of the stalks.

If serving as an elegant starter dish, swirl in a dash of cream and why not surprise your guests with a mini MadMac herb macaron? The recipe is on page 97 of the book.

More on Veules-les-Roses coming up soon. Join in a festival with a difference…

Giverny and Inspiration from Monet’s Gardens

Why is it when you live so close to something truly amazing and touristy, you avoid it? Antoine and I lived in rue Bosquet for 5 years, just a few minutes walk from the Eiffel Tower and yet we went up only after we moved out of Paris. Then last weekend – after 19 years of living here – we finally drove 45 minutes up the A13 to a summery Giverny, Claude Monet’s haven near the river Seine in Normandy.

The secret is to leave early and get there for opening time at 9.30am so that there’s not much of a bouchon (traffic jam) on Monet’s Japanese bridge. Last year there were 611,000 visitors so believe me, this is important. The house and gardens have been open to the public since 1980. It needed 10 years of renovation (with major donations from the USA) after the house and garden’s neglect after the Second World War.

Such a wet summer to date has been good for the lush greens of the gardens.  Most of the flowers are seen in the Clos Normand, in front of the house. What a lovely idea to have an avenue of nasturtiums up to the front door. Imagine how many summer salads you could decorate with these (and eat)?

summer flowers in Monet garden of Giverny France

Just a few snapshots of the hundreds of flowers and plants on show. Claude Monet set to planting and sowing seeds as soon as he arrived in 1883 and his house is filled with volume upon volume of plant encyclopaedias and Japanese prints. Giverny’s talented gardeners continue to succeed in showing different varieties all through the year, as the seasons change.

summer gardens Monet Giverny France

You can see why the master of the Impressionists lived in this idyllic spot for nearly 46 years (1883-1926.)  Seeing the water garden live for the first time, it was just as he had portrayed them in his works of art. Do you recognise them?

Sur le pont… de Monet

Unlike Japanese bridges painted in red, Monet painted his bridge in bright green. Everyone around the garden’s visitor route was transfixed on the lily pads and nymphéas, made so famous by his paintings of them started in 1897. My girls loved watching an cute ugly duckling hobbling from lily pad to the next.

There wasn’t much to visit in the house, to be honest, and there is a lack of information as to what you’re seeing. Unfortunately photos were prohibited inside. His living room was impressive and although it’s filled with replicas, it’s still incredible to think he would lie on his chaise longue, puffing on his pipe while looking up at his masterpieces. Photos of Monet are around the house. Do you love looking at old photographs?

Claude Monet house Giverny

Standing outside Monet’s kitchen window: somehow with lace curtains around the house or that check and shutters you can tell we’re in France. Just up the road, the Hotel Baudy welcomed guests – particularly many American painters who came to Giverny for inspiration and to meet Monet.

Hotel Baudy Giverny France

To see Monet’s lilypond paintings, visit L’Orangerie Museum, the Louvre and the Orsay Museum in Paris. For more of his paintings – including the original painting, Impression Sunrise, which gave Impressionism its name – visit the Marmottan Museum in the 16th Arrondissement. They even have his pipe, if you’re particularly sentimental like myself.

lily pond at Giverny Monet Gardens France

After our meander up to the church to pay our respects to the great artist as well as locals who didn’t make their return to the village after the World Wars, it was time for a picnic. A short drive further up the Seine, we found the perfect spot underneath a weeping willow tree with our toes dangling into the river. The ideal, idyllic summer spot in the shade, imagining Monet capturing the scene on his floating studio.

Monet hat at Giverny

The Giverny look this summer

He’s still making an impression on us in different ways: we can’t all sport white beards but the look in Giverny is this straw hat; we’re also spending a few days in New York City at the moment and this lily pond is following us around Manhattan through his water lily paintings! More on that later.

What impression do you have from Monet’s garden?