A slate sign poked out from an old watering can, indicating the little brocante boutique solely for the guests at the chambre d’hote. I rifled out a couple of glorious white soupieres, some pots, a watercolour of a large pig and some beautifully pristine monogrammed sheets. On the tag was written “TBE” which, I learned, stood for “tres bon état”, very good condition.
By chance, flipping through an old Maisons Normandes magazine, I saw a feature on the refurbished Chateau de Chaulieu, the chateau inherited by the Baronne Camille de Caix de Chaulieu in the late 19th century. Two months earlier I had bought three large boxes of lace having belonged to his wife, Therese, and a few dozen damask napkins tied in pink ribbon. Unwinding some of that the lace, wondering whose were the last hands to wind it, wondering what lay on the card or paper beneath, was like unwinding time. To find an article on the chateau, with new vibrant decor, was marvellous.
We agreed we would put everything in the van after dinner when things were quieter at the chambre d’hote. In the darkening evening we probably looked a tad suspicious as we carried out four pairs of heavy oak shutters – but they slipped perfectly behind the vestiare lockers, and “la brocante nocturne” was concluded without problem. Sylvie was then squeezed in to the ancient garage, beneath old beams, and I was led back into the main house through a narrow passage, dark brown flaking paint on the bottom part of the walls and ancient white above. This was the only part of the house not refurbished, and in the loft above stood the old roof trusses sound and dry, roof slates visible, with a beaten earth floor.
We left early next morning after conversations about English scones, the uses of soda crystals for whitening laundry, and the disinfectant effect of lime wash, “le torchis.” It had once been obligatory to paint dairies with a coat of lime wash twice a year. “Please take a jar of my rhubarb and rosemary jam with you” said Gabrielle, one of our kind hosts.
We drove along quiet roads through the Perche region, past swathes of barley ripe and golden and the derelict chateau at La Ferte Vidame. Graham voiced the need for coffee as we approached the small town of Bretoncelles. Beside the church a modest Saturday morning market, a café and an antiques shop all clustered within twenty paces of each other. The Gods of Happiness had done their work well here. First to the shop with the Antiquités sign. Full of delicate and precious objets. It was not my preferred sort of shop, but the elderly owner was genteel and welcoming. In his seventies, he said he really should be getting ready to retire, but that antiques had been his life for so long so what was he to do? At the back of the shop I found some brulot cups, the thick ceramic coffee cups that were made to be stood on the range to keep the coffee burning hot. And a pair of Porcelaine de Paris coffee cups and saucers too, hand painted in blues, pinks and gold garlands, were very pretty. “Ah, I have another pair upstairs,” he said, going slowly up the winding wooden steps behind his desk. Two small parcels were wrapped in white tissue paper and popped into a pristine carrier bag – I was more used to crumpled pieces of old newspaper and cardboard boxes.
Coffee then, outside, watching the life of the little place. A wizened man, jacket hanging, trousers baggy, leaned in discourse at the baker’s stall. He shuffled off with a magnificent loaf under his arm, as long as a cricket bat and twice as wide. The church bell rang, the municipal plantings on the Place de l’Eglise were colourful, children in the bar played on an old “Babyfoot” game while their parents enjoyed a Saturday morning glass of white wine.