As much as the springtime palette of Provence the month before had filled my eyes with vivid colours and light, it was still a gentle pleasure to return to Normandy in May. A brief visit this time to collect an oak buffet I’d bought nearly two years previously, to visit a few dealers and attend the annual five kilometre long vide-grenier in the Orne. Never tiring of seeing crumbling timber barns, large Normandy dairy cattle grazing in small orchards, apple trees all in blossom, lush meadows full of buttercups, Graham and I span along country roads swathed in billows of Queen Anne’s lace.
We came off the ferry at Cherbourg and drove straight to a brocante warehouse where there were usually interesting pickings to be found amongst the less than appealing stock. I started to make a pile of “bibelots” and Gerard, the owner, appeared with a rusty vintage Co-op shopping trolley which rattled around the hangar with me as I filled it with picture frames, coffee pots, platters, glasses, jugs and so on.
Running my hand over piles of sheets, I picked out the linen and the fil de lin. Only the ones with the right feel, the right shade and finely worked monogrammes and drawn thread edging. They call it Jours de Venise in French. Little drawn thread holes of daylight. I came across a small shop counter in a perfect yellowed grey paint. “It comes from an old Mercerie, a haberdashers, in Avranches,” Gerard told me. We pulled off a piece of old lino that covered the top and the grey paint was still intact beneath the yellowed glue. In the van it all went, along with some flaking white shutters and metal garden chairs.
From here we drove to Portbail to visit Therese, a dealer I had known for a few years. Her shop is tucked away in a warren of high banked lanes, just inland from the coast. “Mais vous voila!” she greeted us, “On vous croyais perdus!” (You are here! We thought you were lost!) Once we had settled the matter of the buffet which had a big “Vendu” chalked across its top, and loaded it onto the van, as well as a handsome oak farmhouse table, we crossed the lane to her stone house with green doors and shutters. “Tu veux voir mes poules?” Therese asked. At the bottom of the garden three chickens rushed towards us. “They are old ladies now, but they still give me a few eggs.” She opened the flap in the hen house and on a round nest of straw lay one fine egg.
Back inside, Therese’s husband had set an 18th century table de milieu (these moveable tables were used in the days before the dining room became fashionable) in front of a blazing log fire. We pulled up armchairs and Therese poured wine into 19th century glasses, and offered us “cake salée” (savoury cake with ham and gruyere) and a plate of vibrant strawberries. Warmth, delight and abundance were all here.
Therese’s passion for her work radiated from her as she spoke, with flourishing gestures, of the beauty of a piece of furniture we’d both admired – and of going buying. “It is like a fisherman going fishing, or a hunter going hunting. At home one may be warm and loving, but when one is out hunting, it becomes a different affair – there can only be concentration and focus!”
Don’t leave it so long next time, Therese said as we hugged goodbye. We drove on the the manor house B&B near St Sauveur that we both loved. Monique appeared at the door “Ah, I thought I heard a noise!” Kisses and greetings. She joined us for a glass of wine in front of her fire, logs hissing on a month’s worth of ash in the massive stone fireplace, and then went to see to her chickens in for the night. The stillness of the place, the smell of the land, the croaking of the frogs in the remains of the moat, the call of a night bird. A blessing to be in such a place with its wide stone staircase and vast beamed rooms.