A Year in Normandy

Spring – a Time to Rejuvenate By Christine Descoueyte

 Life sometimes runs short of its essentials: time and trust, the promise of freedom and simple living. This explains why our home is so important. It is the one place where you can count on trusting your family and friends, taking time to share your enjoyment with each other or simply taking in the scenery. In this sanctuary of warmth and security, you can begin to imagine what represents for you a good life. Good health you soon realise is the first essential ingredient.

Living around green spaces can help maintain good health. While many can feel it instinctively, Scottish researchers have proven that green spaces ― parks, forests and ovals with green vegetation ― create a positive impact on well-being. The benefit of being outdoors and the associated physical exercise can lower the risk of disease of the arteries as well other cardio-vascular illnesses, by alleviating stress and boosting your mental outlook. Today, in France and across Europe, the expansion of green spaces has become a principal concern on the medical agenda as well as an item in ecological and political planning.

Closely related to individual health are personal eating patterns. This raises the intriguing question as to why French women in general consume lots of fat, yet seem to stay slim without even trying. There are several reasons. When the typical French family sits at the dining table, the focus is on the pleasure of dining. To begin with, an aperitif of olives, crackers, canapés or crudités (fresh vegetables) is usually served. By the time you begin your actual meal, you are no longer ravenous since you have given your body time to digest your pre-dinner nibbles and are better able you to gauge your degree of hunger. To aid the process even further, sit down to eat, take generous pauses between bites and set your fork down between morsels.

Attitude is a significant part of the experience: here, there is no such thing as “forbidden food”. When you are offered a chocolate cake, just think of it as a celebration rather than feeling guilt. Think the same way whether you are enjoying a croissant (a typical croissant in France weighs more than an ounce and can measure about 15 inches) or partaking of the usual fare: a meal with a slice of baguette and butter, a fish in cream sauce, cheese with a glass of white wine and for dessert some crème brulée, followed by a strong cup of espresso coffee. When you make it a leisurely experience, it leaves you feeling satisfied. Meanwhile, to maximise the overall effects, you could also update your image with an accentuating scarf, handbag or eye-catching earrings. Make sure you do this effortlessly, of course.

Aligned with food and the sustenance it provides is the care and maintenance of the garden. In Normandy, the art of gardening is not a new phenomenon, but dates back to as far as 1502, inspired by the Archbishop of Rouen and even today, gardens inspired by Normandy ― whether they are located in France or Australia ― have a special charm. Often influenced by English gardens, Normandy-style gardens breathe life through their interiors and boundaries, their disorderliness and lyricism, and flora and fauna. They are a combination of poetry, exotic symphonies and olfactory vertigo all meeting in one place. Some may consider them as “once abandoned”, as if nature took its course. However, although natural in its appearance, the garden is precisely calculated with carefully managed chaos amidst splendid euphony. The display of massive rhododendrons, roses, magnolias, hydrangeas and neatly trimmed lawns is typically “Normand” as we say here. Well known among this array is the callistemon ― the Callistemon citrinus “Splendens” bottlebrush from Australia which with its magnificent red flowers is an attractive addition to any garden.

If numerous artists including Monet, Whistler and Maupassant were “cradled” in the gardens of their homes in Normandy, it is not surprising that people still find inspiration here. Take my friend, Anja who moved to Mont Saint Léger, Normandy from Germany though she has some family connections with Brazil, too. Initially her home in Mont Saint Léger was a “résidence secondaire” as they call it here, which the family visited during holidays and even sometimes on weekends from Germany. As she said, “It is only a couple of hours by car.” The distance did not seem to matter: it was truly worthwhile to come to Normandy.

Indeed the area has helped Anja realise a business ideal. When Anja first saw the creations of Carlos Alberto Rezende Sobral ― jewels and interior objects made out of resin from Brazil, she immediately fell in love with the product and later worked for the company in Germany. As he already had a retail outlet in Paris, as well as other international distribution points, she decided to pursue her dream of opening her own Sobral shop. She met with Sobral in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2006 to discuss the possibility of opening a shop in Normandy. Then one day she walked into an old house just next to the bell tower of the church in the ancient port town of Honfleur, Normandy. There she could look over the window to the Place Sainte Catherine and discovered it was located on an old symbolic spot. Sobral jumped at the idea: already well established in France and ready to continue with his prestigious products of exclusivity, he endorsed the setting as a great place for a new venture. Now amid shelves of cheerful designs and brightly coloured objects, she explains, “It makes your dream more tangible and accessible, especially if you can get advice from those who have already done it.”


Another acquaintance, Anne stands in the middle of her chapel, part of the 17th century convent that her parents amiably bought in 1964: “I remember as a child looking at the nuns praying in the late evenings when I used to visit my grandmother’s house during the weekends from Paris and this convent was right next door to us.” When she married, she moved from Paris to Normandy and settled in Saint Hymer, not too far from where she lives today in Honfleur. With her husband they established an insurance company and a shop where she took care of selling biscuits. “I thought I could continue the family tradition with the biscuits,” recalls Anne. Today, she no longer runs the company and the shop, but the family retain their ties with Mont Saint Michel where they continue to run the biscuit shop in Normandy. “Biscuiterie de la Baie du Mont Saint Michel is the largest biscuit shop in Mont Saint Michel.” You can visit the coastal fortress of Mont Saint Michel near the Normandy-Brittany border.

The history of the convent reveals it was once an inn and then a boarding school. Today it is a carefully restored bed-and-breakfast, called “La Thébaide,” a name which suggests it is a special place, a sanctuary or centre for meditation … a very peaceful place.

Anne, too, has her own personal history, being of Mexican origin with Scottish ancestry and family roots that go back to the first century AD when her ancestors migrated to central France from Mexico. I was quite impressed to see the huge family tree. “My name is somewhere in there,” explains Anne. “The very famous trademark ‛Bonne Maman’ confiture (jams) is run by our family and they are sold everywhere around the world. We used to greet our grandmother by ‛Bonjour, bonne maman’ instead of the usual colloquial mamie or papie (grandma or grandpa).” With abundant fruit on their property in central France, her grandmother decided to make jams and started to sell them to the neighbours and that is how the business began ― with “bonne maman” as the founder of the company. She even designed the lid of the jams which still exists today, a sort of blue and white or red and white chequered pattern influenced by the table cloths used at the time. Established in the 1950’s, it continues to produce jams and different fruit products. These days it includes the brand Andros and employs 900 people. “When you visit our factory, it doesn’t smell like a garage; it smells of fruit,” recalls Anne as she acknowledges the cherished traditions her family upholds.

Here are some of our delightful “traditions” for you to savour.

Chocolate Cake, 15 min. to prepare

Ingredients for 4/6 persons

100 g baking chocolate

125 g butter

125 g sugar

50 g flour

3 eggs


Melt the chocolate in a low fire adding a little water. Melt the butter and add it to the chocolate mixture a little at a time when beginning to cool. Add the sugar, flour and the egg yolks. Mix all the ingredients together. Beat the egg whites until very firm and slowly add them to the mixture.

Butter and flour a baking pan and pour in the mixture. Cook in oven at 200°C for about

30 min.

Do not over-cook the cake. It should be slightly moist in the centre.

Crème Brulée, Makes 6

2 cups light cream

1 or 2 vanilla beans

6 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

pinch of salt

¼ cup granulated sugar for topping

Pour the cream into a saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the sticky black seeds into the cream. Don’t worry if the seeds float in the cream; you can separate them out later. Heat the cream over medium fire. Just before it comes to a boil, remove from the heat and allow the cream to steep for 1 hour. Then remove the bean-pods from the cream.

Preheat the oven to 220°C.

Meantime in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks while gradually adding the sugar to the yolks until smooth and combined. Gradually add the cooled cream into the egg yolks. Whisk in the vanilla extract and the salt. Pass the cream through a sieve, then divide it among 6 individual ramekins. Place the ramekins in a baking pan on the middle of an oven rack in a preheated oven. Then fill the pan with water reaching half way up the ramekins. Cover with aluminium foil while piercing several places for steam to escape.

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Remove from the baking pan with water and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least 3 hours or up to 2 days.

Before serving sprinkle with granulated sugar and caramelise (broil for 2 minutes). Serve right away. Once caramelised, the cream can be placed in the refrigerator for only 15-20 minutes before the sugar begins to soften.

Further information

Sobral creations: www.rsobral.com.br

“La Thébaide” bed-and-breakfast: Anne’s e-mail address  -  toohappy@hotmail.fr





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