We awoke to the sound of the bells of the Chartres Cathedral. How’s that for a lovely memory?
Our charming French hostess brought breakfast to our room and it revealed that she is not only a talented decorator, but also a great cook. We had poppy seed madeleines with lemon curd, caramel custard, yogurt with nuts and cranberries, apricot and apple compote with pepper, and some assorted breads with homemade jams. (We didn’t eat lunch today.)
We headed north to Giverny. Yes, it’s a touristy village, but one look at Monet’s willows and water lilies and you get weak in the knees. It was really is as pretty as a picture. http://giverny.org/
There was much more blooming in the garden behind his house than we expected. We determined that being a gardener in Monet’s garden would be a top-notched resume item.
Our B&B is on Rue Claude Monet and this evening we walked down the street into “town” and had our last galettes and cider of the trip.
We sat outside on the restaurant patio overlooking the Seine valley and reflected on this experience. We fell in love with Normandy, were delighted by Dinan, fascinated with Loire, stunned by Chartres, and captivated by Monet’s garden. There were no regrets, no we-should-haves, and no “if-only” moments. We head home tomorrow with more memories than we can ever count.
Thanks for traveling with us and please excuse us if we stare into the distance every now and then as French Frolic thoughts reemerge.
After an early breakfast that included some coulommiers cheese (pronounced yum yum), our hosts took us to see one more surprise at their home. They have caves that were used to dig out the rock to built the home back when the lord and lady of the manor were setting up their country home. It was quite the labyrinth. We were impressed by the height and width of each of the rooms as well as the complexity of the system of caves. It was used for living in, keeping the livestock in during severe winters, making and storing wine, hiding in during wars, and mining the stone for the buildings directly above.
Another sad farewell and we were on the road again. We drove to Fontevraud Abbey to visit a site Jim had especially been looking forward to seeing. http://www.fontevraud.fr/
We saw the tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and Richard the Lionheart (Eleanor and Henry’s son). Eleanor commissioned her tomb while she was alive and making decisions, and she selected wisely. It is a beautiful carving of her lying down and reading the Bible. They have it lit in such a way that the pages seem to be glowing. We weren’t able to stay as long as we might have hoped because we had a sizable drive ahead.
We drove to Tours and then north to Chartres. The cathedral was visible from miles away and did not disappoint up close either.
We had studied a book about the stained glass windows (most of them are original, as Chartres has not suffered destruction during either of the World Wars), but seeing them in person was thrilling. The pieces of glass are very small compared to more modern stained glass. The details of the faces and clothing made you appreciate the time, labor, and talent that went into them.
Chartres is a beautiful city and we enjoyed walking around the streets once the “tourists” had left town and headed back to Paris or wherever. They have many pedestrian-only streets and the locals come out in the evening to stroll.
Our home for the night is the former bishop’s residence. http://www.maisonailleurs.com/ The ceiling in our room is about twenty feet tall and the spiral staircase in the center of the building is a stunner. We were thinking this evening that on this trip we have stayed at the site of a former fort, a former barn, a former home of an explorer, a former manor house for a lord, and now a former home for bishops. We’re big fans of recycling!
On a bit of a whim and an Internet rumor, we went over to the cathedral at about 9:30 on the chance they were doing the illumination of the cathedral tonight. We had read that it ended at the end of September. To our amazing good fortune, it was extended for two weeks. Our mouths just hung open as we watched the show. The sides of the cathedral (and about twenty other buildings) are washed with laser lights and other projections. We can’t begin to describe it so here is a link to part of the show. This may be one of the most stunning things we have ever seen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSoVLlF1-5c
Another day in the center of France and all is well.
As we sat at breakfast this morning enjoying our yogurt with homemade rhubarb sauce and savoring the homemade peach preserves, we did indeed stop to be grateful for this terrific adventure. We feel very blessed.
We left bright and early to go to the Anjou region just west of where we are staying. (We looked for pears all day, and other than the one on our salad at lunch, we never spotted one.) The highlight of our day was our first stop at the Chateau De Fesles vineyard that is know for its “noble rot” wines.
We were lucky enough to be able to walk amongst the vines with the winemaker himself. He explained the noble rot and how they tell it from rotten rot.
It was very exciting to learn about the making of the sweet wines for which they are famous. We pre-packed this morning and determined that we can carry home one, and only one, more bottle of liquid. That’s a shame because his rose wines were the best we’ve ever had. We are bringing home a bottle of Bonnezeaux (rhymes with Gonzo) to share on New Year’s Day. We have a photo of the winemaker signing our bottle.
We stopped for lunch at a little spot that used to be a railroad station in the middle of the country. The food has improved dramatically since it was a station we assume.
We started with a salad with pears and a large triangle of toasted walnut bread onto which was melted a piece of blue cheese. Yes. It was incredible.
Cindy had fish over a cheesy risotto and Jim had veal with thinly-sliced zucchini. Not a bad Wednesday lunch.
We toured the area a little before visiting a vineyard with a very friendly dog and a view that went on for days.
We drove around some more and stopped for a little hike up a slate hill before heading to the vineyard of two of the host’s friends.
They live in a chateau that was once captured by Foulques Nerra, aka The Black Falcon, aka the ruthless count of Anjou who lived from 970 until 1040. It was a very interesting chateau and in an idyllic setting by a lake with a mill. You could put yourself back in time and imagine life long ago. There were four falcons flying over one of the chateau’s towers as we headed back “home” and we took it as a sign of The Black Falcon watching over the place.
We had dinner in Le Puy Notre-Dame again this evening overlooking the church. What a perfect evening.
We have our driving directions for getting to Chartres tomorrow and our bottles tucked away for traveling. We’ll be sad to leave this beautiful part of France.
Following a delightful breakfast, we met in the the pigeon roost to make plans for the day.
We toured around the Saumur area today and we wouldn’t begin to be able to follow our tracks on a map. Our host took us on back roads that were behind the back roads.
The first winery was the smallest of the big wineries in the area. http://www.langlois-chateau.fr/ The guide “taught” us about the winery in a building that used to be a one-room school for boys. She did a fine job and Jim was the star pupil who knew all the answers. We saw the wine being gently pressed in a large cylinder with an inflatable bladder that pressed the grapes from the center of the cylinder toward the outside that had perforations through which the juice seeped. All of their grapes are picked by hand so the stems are still on them. Once the juice is pressed out, the bladder is deflated and the skins and stems are dumped out of the cylinder. We toured the caves that were originally carved to quarry the stones to build the houses in the surrounding town—now being used for wine production.
We had a picnic lunch under the portico of a small 13th century church overlooking the Loire River, vineyards, and several small towns. It was very picturesque.
In the afternoon we went to two very small family-run wineries.
Given that there are really only two types of grapes grown here, chenin blanc and cabernet franc, it is amazing the variety of tastes that are created.
We also visited a chateau with a pigeon house that makes the one at our place seem like a shack. It had a ladder system that rotated to gather the eggs and the pigeons from the thousands of pigeon holes. The chateau wasn’t shabby either and we were told that it has the deepest dry moat in Europe. http://www.chateaudebreze.com/castle-france-loire-saumur.html
For dinner this evening we went to nearby Le Puy-Notre-Dame. Wine was first produced in the town and surrounding area in the 6th century. Our hosts suggested a little restaurant across from the church, and gosh it was good. http://www.lepuyavins.com/en/
We each had cauliflower soup that was almost cloud-like.
We had cod and pork, both of which were super. That was followed by a roasted banana and chocolate pastry and chocolate mousse with coffee cream. This dinner was outstanding. We drank water with dinner—we’re done with wine until tomorrow.
When we arrived in Normandy a dozen days ago, one of the first things we saw was a T-shirt with two people standing barefoot wearing raincoats and rainhats. The label under them said “Naturists (Nudists) in Normandy.” We have been very careful not to write about the weather to avoid jinxing it. We have had marvelous weather. Everyone keeps telling us how lucky we are to have great weather. We had one heavy downpour and that happened when we were inside the restaurant in Cancale on Saturday. The rain stopped before we finished our lunch. Today we had steady rain as we drove from Dinan to our next home. For you map people, we went south through Rennes, then to Angers, and finally to Saumur.
We stopped just outside of Saumur to visit a mushroom farm and museum. http://www.musee-du-champignon.com/ We learned more about mushrooms than we thought there was to know. We are in awe of the variety of mushrooms and methods that are used to grow each type of mushroom. The mushroom caves (and the wine caves as well) are carved out of the tufa hills. The tufa is the stone used to build the beautiful chateaus in this area.
The B&B is a 17th century nobleman’s home. The nobleman owned about two thousand acres in the area. They know this because of the number of pigeon roosts in the pigeonniere. Go figure.
No streetlights here because there are no streets. Our hosts have three English Spaniels who have really enjoyed the homemade dog treats I brought for them from the prairie. By the time we finished petting the dogs, enjoying a cup of hot tea, and unpacking, the rain had stopped and allowed us some walking time. We really are completely surrounded by vineyards. Just over the hill from our place, there were folks harvesting with large machines and by hand as the sun was setting. Not a bad image.
Our hosts served a lovely dinner this evening. It began with a goat cheese soufflé that was heavenly for we lovers of goat cheese.
The main course was chicken and vegetables with a wine sauce, of course.
Then there was a cheese course with local cheeses. This area is pretty famous for goat cheese.
Dessert was an apple tart (tarte tatin) with crème fraiche. Each course was served with some wine from the region—most from within walking distance—and our host told a story about each. After dinner, we shared some of the Calvados cream from Normandy that we have with us.
We’ll be up bright and early tomorrow for wine touring!
Today was our “vacation from vacation” day. We had no big plans and no place we needed to be. We could have decided to sleep late, but if you recall our room is just across a narrow street from the basilica. The bells started ringing at 7:00. That was lovely. At 8:45 they started ringing constantly until 9:00. We were wide awake for breakfast downstairs at 9:00.
After a delightful breakfast, which included freshly squeezed orange juice, we headed for a walk to see Dinan. This is a medieval walled town that was not damaged in the war. We walked the narrow, winding street that led down to the port on the river. Half-timbered houses line the cobbled streets. Lots of photo opportunities meant getting to stop and rest our knees, as the slope was between 30 and 40 degrees.
At the bottom of the hill an open bakery was waiting that served freshly baked kouign-amann (pronouced queen ah mon), which are layers of butter pastry with caramelized sugar.
That was fuel for the walk back up the hill. We climbed up to the ramparts to walk along the wall and take in the view of the river Rance and surrounding buildings. Cities fare much better without wars.
We thought a visit to the water would be fun, so we headed out to Cap Frehel. This is beautiful countryside with fields of corn, leeks, and cabbage along with apple orchards and some dairy cows. The rocky coastline is dotted with some wide beaches, but where there are no beaches, it’s a steep drop to the water. The view from the cap was dramatic and rather intimidating.
For a bit of history that isn’t marked by 1066 or 1944, we hunted down a druid megalith. The 65 huge stones were placed in an organized fashion between 6000 BCE and 2000 BCE, but the meaning of the arrangement was lost on us. There are five east-west rows. We couldn’t read the descriptive markers, but the words in French that we could put together either made the spot a pre-Celtic cemetery, a dance hall, or something in between. It was pretty neat.
Jim found information online that helps translate some of the signage. There is a legend that the fairies who helped carry the stones used to build Mont St. Michel got tired and dropped these stones along the way. Those wacky French!
We took some time this evening to just stroll around Dinan with no particular targets. This is a delightfully petite city. None of the streets follow a straight line, so there are surprises at every turn. We decided to stop at a little restaurant with a sheltered garden eating area. We listened to international music, sipping cider, watching the night fall over the stone buildings with their slate rooftops. This has been yet another wonderful day in France. Yes, talk of the next trip has already begun.
It was a tearful farewell to Wilde Kitchen and to Normandy. Sinead said over breakfast that the Bretons are much friendlier than the Normans. We just don’t know how that could be possible. As we drove south along the coast we recounted all of our favorite adventures in Normandy and didn’t even finish before we got to the scenic overlook of Mont St. Michel.
Mont St. Michel is huge and we got a glimpse of it several times today in the distance. We decided that a glimpse was plenty since we’d heard from several people that a visit isn’t tons of fun. We headed on toward Cancale.
Last winter a very twisty route that started with a link to the finest spice shops in the world led us to making a reservation at Chateau Richeux La Table Le Coquillage http://www.maisons-de-bricourt.com/?page=chateauricheux&souspage=restaurant run by Olivier Roellinger. He is a 3-star Michelin chef who gave up his stars several years ago when his knees were giving him too much trouble. He decided to focus on his love of spices, sustainable farming and fishing, and refurbishing a 1930s mansion that overlooks the Bay of Mont St. Michel. We made the restaurant reservation in January and hoped it would be worth it.
We toured the gardens before going inside and would have been happy if that had been the end of it all. The gardens were a chef’s dream.
Upon entering the mansion we were directed to the outdoor patio area that overlooks the bay. We sat down in a cozy nook on wooden lawn chairs by a little table. Before you can say, “Pinch me. This is amazing!” we were sipping on a guava and champagne drink and a cider drink with homemade ginger syrup and lime. Holy cow were they good. A little amuse bouche arrived consisting of the smoothest, most silky gazpacho in tiny cups, mackerel with Celtic mustard on toothpicks, and a fig-and-something bite on a little spoon. We were off to a great start. They took our orders while we sat outside and overlooked the bay with Mont St. Michel in the distance.
Our table was situated in the center of a huge bay window overlooking the garden and the bay. I guess when you reserve that far ahead you get the best table. Our first courses arrived. Cindy had a bowl of shrimps all sitting upright with their little faces all looking in the same direction. Now we’ve had peel-your-own shrimp many times, but never any that were this delicious. They had a delicate ginger and almost floral herb on them. Whatever it was, it made them each a little gift from the gods.
Jim had fresh, raw scallops that were thinly sliced with a mustard sauce and roasted beet vinaigrette on them. No problems here yet.
Cindy’s main course was John Dory with a sauce containing fourteen spices, a mango and apple puree, spinach, and squash.
Jim, who tasted it, declared it was one of the best dishes he had ever eaten ever, ever. Jim’s dish was golden sole with three types of mashed potatoes and candied lemon. Are you salivating yet?
When those plates were licked, the cheese trolley arrived. They served about ten cheeses—four Norman and six Briton. Each cheese was served with a different accompaniment. The Pont L’Eveque was served with tomato chutney, and the Breque with an apple jelly, etc. As you would expect, we tried them all.
After the cheese trolley had moved along, the dessert trolley rolled up. Let me just say that I would want to be the person who pulls up with the all-you-care-to-try dessert trolley. Who wouldn’t greet you with appreciation and adoration? Here goes the list: pistachio cream puffs, pastry with vanilla butter cream, lemon tarts, coffee and pear milkshake, chocolate-covered fig and chocolate cookies, citrus and saffron sorbet, cream puffs with ice cream and hot chocolate sauce, and a chocolate and salted caramel tart. There might have been more, but the sugar receptors in our brains short-circuited at this point. Every single item was the best of its type.
We managed to fit back into the car and drove the short way to Cancale to visit the hallowed ground of Roellinger’s spice shop http://www.epices-roellinger.com/. We have no words to describe the smells when one walks in to the shop. The aromas are exotic and heady. They set your brain dancing. We loaded up on some of his treasures and inhaled deeply before stepping back onto the street.
We have now settled into our new home in Dinan (pronounced Dee NON). We are staying at La Maison Pavie http://www.lamaisonpavie.com/ in the historic center of town next to the Basilica.
Our room is huge and looks out on the square in front of the Basilica on one side and a peaceful garden in the back.
We went for a brief walk around the area before a light salad dinner. The “Briton” salad was very similar to the “Normand” salad, but I wouldn’t want to bring that up.
The streets of the central area of Dinan are cobbled, as are the sidewalks. One has to pay attention. So far, so good.
Today felt very French. We headed to the local market this morning with our cooking instructor and the dog to pick up a few items we needed for cooking class. We stopped at Sinead’s favorite vegetable farmer who still plows his field using a donkey. We bought some lovely yellow and green mini-eggplants, a zucchini, shallots, and tomatoes.
We then went to the fishmonger for mussels, fish fillets, and shrimp.
Of course we had to stop by the cheese guy for some aged goat cheese and a slice of his cheesecake. Home to cook.
Today’s menu seemed rather ambitious, but we dove in. When the dust finally settled a couple of hours later we had the most amazing lunch. The first course was a Parmesan shortbread under a vegetable medley and tomato chutney topped with aged goat cheese.
The main course was a seafood stew with Jim-made fish stock, curry, cider, vegetables, and three types of seafood poured over a harissa crostini.
For dessert—get ready for this one—we had a coffee and walnut meringue roulette with whipped cream and mascarpone. We felt very proud of ourselves.
While this week has certainly been a cooking experience, it has been more about looking at the relationship between food and culture. The people, stories, and laughing have helped make the food a more minor part of the enjoyment—which is saying a lot because the food has been off the charts.
For any of you who were concerned, the teurgoule bowl has been located. Sinead went into the store that we four Yanks visited on Wednesday, and she was sold several of them. Perhaps they just didn’t want them to be sold to outsiders. One bowl is going to find a welcome home on the prairie.
Our dinner tonight may become the source of legends. We went to the home and part-time restaurant of the man with the bread oven we met on Wednesday http://www.auberge-bunehou.com/. On the first Friday of each month, he hosts a pig roast. We arrived at 8:00 (dinner is eaten late in France), and noshed on some starters, including chicken/pork/rabbit terrine (delicious!), savory bread with sausage, blood pudding (can’t get enough of it!), and aperitifs.
Then we moved upstairs (with 40 or so other guests) for the feasting. But first, Francois asked for four strong, intelligent, good-looking men to help him carry the roasted (whole) pig from the oven to the tables. Jim was drafted and served as a litter bearer.
We made friends—despite language obstacles—with two other couples at our table. They were neighbors of the inn, and, as Francois’s favored guests, they were awarded the head of the pig. So we got to sample some of the tastiest (read: grossest) parts of the pig to start the main meal.
After that, more pork arrived, along with roasted veggies, more pork, followed by a little more pork. Although stuffed, we were offered a cheese course, and then for dessert, France’s finest teurgoule appeared, and was promptly devoured. Tears of joy were shed.
If the evening had ended there, it would have been a highlight, but we were then escorted downstairs where a jazz band was playing in the style of Django Reinhardt. Wow. It is some of the happiest music ever written.
We stayed until the end, then drove home to our inn. It will be so hard to leave tomorrow, though we know that more adventures await us.
Whew! For those of you with maps, this will be a fun report since we were on our own today to tour more of the peninsula. We headed into Les Pieux and then south to Carteret.
We drove out to the cape where we could walk along the wall by the lighthouse and see Jersey and Guernesey (the Channel Islands) in the distance. The rising and falling tides here are legendary and it was out when we were there. The beach was easily three to four hundred yards wide, but you could see where the high tide would be. The boats in the harbors were leaning over and on muddy ground waiting for the return of the tide.
We then went to Lessay to see the abbey that was built in the 11th century. Well, let’s say that we went to the spot where the 11th century abbey was until the Germans put fifteen mines and three bombs inside of it and blew it apart. It has been rebuilt, but the theme of churches and how they fared during WWII carried on throughout the day. http://www.normanconnections.com/en/norman-sites/important-norman-buildings/abbey-of-lessay/
Our next stop was Coutances and its huge 13th century cathedral. Large photographs of the aftermath of the war were visible here as they have been in many of the places we have visited on this trip. Unlike Lessay, the cathedral in Coutances was not destroyed during the war, but there wasn’t much left standing around it. Coutances is a lovely, vibrant city.
On a whim, we decided to head east to St. Lo. We were both familiar with St. Lo from movies and books about the war, but neither of us expected what we saw. It was an ancient walled city with ramparts, and much larger than either of us expected it to be. The cathedral was heavily damaged during the war, but rather than reconstruct it in its previous style, the damaged portions of the building were left as is and a new, cold, modern building was erected to fill in the damaged sections—you now see a hybrid building, partly old and partly new, but with the unmistakable damage of war. It was quite sobering. Jim’s Uncle Mark wrote that he “fired many missions for the infantry around St. Lo being stubbornly defended by the Germans, including a parachute division.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROQmFOX5lkg
We weren’t out of whims, so we decided next to go to Valognes, which was once considered to be “the Versailles of Normandy.” More pictures of destruction and more signs of an almost completely rebuilt city. They handled their cathedral rebuild differently. It is a very modern building with bits and pieces of the old cathedral mortared into certain parts of the walls. There must not have been much left to salvage.
We tried to buy glaceed fruit—a local specialty—from the nuns of Valognes’s abbey, but they were on vacation for a week. Hey, everybody needs a break at some point.
The day ended with a walk on the beach near Les Pieux (the beaches here are simply vast) and then a dinner of gallettes.
Tomorrow is our final cooking day followed by dinner at the auberge of the baker who cooked our dinner on Wednesday.
There are three words that sum up today. BEST. BIRTHDAY. EVER. There is no question and other birthdays need not apply.
We started cooking right after breakfast this morning to prepare for tonight’s dinner. We made a marbled savory bread with three kinds of olives, a caramelized leek tart, a pork roast with Camembert and apples over roasted vegetables, and teurgoule. Our instructor, Sinead, is just a stitch. She’s Irish, her husband is Belgian, and their two teenage daughters, who were born in France, speak French and English with an Irish accent. She has the best stories you could ever hope to hear. We laugh so hard that it is hard to not mess up whatever we’re cooking.
We broke for lunch and our host suggested a little lunch spot http://www.leptitbourg.com/ in the nearest town of any size, Les Pieux. The special today was a cheese and endive tart, roast pork over pasta with cheese, and a praline millefeuille (one with a candle). I’m not doing any of these items justice because describing them might make you starting licking your computer screens.
After lunch we went to use the wood-burning bread oven of a friend of our teacher. His place is about fifteen minutes away down narrow roads with lots of turns. The oven is large enough to hold three whole pigs. He showed us how it works and put in our roast from this morning, the teurgoule, and we each formed a loaf of bread and placed it in the oven using his long paddle.
He baked everything, brought it up to “our place,” and joined us for dinner. On Friday evening he is having an event at his place with jazz music, a whole roasted pig, and a bunch of French people. Jim and I were invited to attend. That should be fun, but I hope we get easier driving directions or we may never make it home.
One of the unique experiences at dinner tonight was blood pudding. Cindy had two helpings and Jim had even more. While we tried it to be polite, we have to admit it was tasty if you just don’t think about it.
Then we went shopping and tried to find the big bowls used to make teurgoule so that we could bring one home, but our inquiries resulted in shrugged shoulders—our limited French met its match in small-town France. Oh well, we shall live to bake another day. Tomorrow we are off to the western coast of the Cotentin Peninsula.