(Editors Note: This is the second installment of a two-part article. If you would like to read the first installment, please click here.)
The Hospitality of a Comte
Chateau de Bouceel
Reluctantly, I departed Mont Saint Michel and headed inland. I had made a reservation to spend a few nights at Château de Boucéel, an 18th century chateau that operates as a bed and breakfast.
I felt a jolt of excitement as soon as I turned down the long, tree-lined drive and again when I gazed upon the impressive chateau with the steeply-sloped mansard roof, curved pediment, and tall windows. The neatly clipped lawn, white painted footbridge spanning the pond, and the charming outbuildings stirred my writer's imagination, but it was what I discovered inside Château de Boucéel that made a lasting impression on my romantic soul.
I had barely stepped onto the gravel drive when the front door opened and a tall, nattily dressed man with aquiline features rushed out to help me with my bags.
He identified himself as the Comte de Roquefeuil and welcomed me to his home.
He ushered me inside the chateau and then took me on a tour of his home, proudly pointing out special antique pieces (including a framed letter from the family of Marie Antoinette and a Louis XV homme debout). Then he showed me to the my bedroom, a opulent room with french doors, paneled walls, a parquet floor, fireplace, and a luxurious bed set into an alcove with ceiling to floor drapes.
Later, I met the Comte in the library. I sat close to a crackling fire and peppered my gracious host with questions about the history of his family and their chateau. He patiently explained that his family had been the owners of the estate for hundreds of years and that it had survived revolutions, wars, and natural disasters.
He admitted that being the heir to such an estate was a duty and a privilege; that he would do everything in his power to manage and protect the chateau and its historic outbuildings so that future generations could visit it.
I couldn't help but admire his noble cause, his willingness to sacrifice to preserve his ancestral home.
(If you would like to read more about the Comte and his remarkable ancestors, please read my article Epic Romances)
A Taste of Brandy
In a small roadside barn a short drive from Château de Boucéel, I took my first sip of Calvados, an Apple Brandy that has been produced in Normandy in some variation since the 8th century. Monsieur Hubert, a charming elderly gentleman with a jaunty scarf knotted at his neck, greeted me with a smile as warm and a manner as smooth as the drink he proffered. When I confessed it was my first taste, he raised his weathered hands.
"Arrêt," he implored. "Please allow me to tell you a little about the drink so that, when you take your first sip, you will savor it all the more."
Monsieur then spent the next half hour explaining the history and complicated distillation process of the fermented fruit drink that was once called eau de vie de cidre. He said that there were over 200 varieties of apples that could be used in the production of calvados - bitter, sweet, sour - and that each producer uses their own mixture. He proudly showed me the heavy oak barrels where the pressed cidre ferments for a minimum of two years. He ended the lesson by showing me the thick green bottles sealed with crimson wax and urging me to buy one for drinking and another for baking. Grateful for his lesson and hospitality, I complied, though I had no idea what I could possibly bake using Calvados.
Today, when I am fortunate enough to have a bottle on hand, I like to use some of the brandy when sautéinga pork roast or to make a cream sauce with apples and bacon to accompany roasted chicken.
As she often does during my travels, Madame Serendipity intervened in a most unexpected, but most delightful way.
I had spent the morning tromping around crumbling castles and was anxious to return to my grand boudoir in the Chateau de Bouceel, when a series of wrong turns delivered me to a quaint market in the heart of a Norman fishing village.
My French born grandmother once told me that if a visitor to France truly wanted to acquaint themselves with the people of a particular region, they simply had to visit le marche.
"You know baby, it ees not a coincidence that all markets are found in the very center of a town. The market ees the heart of a town, you see?"
By the time I found a parking spot on the outer edges of the town and walked back to le marche, gray clouds as thick as flannel had rolled across the sky and a light, persistent drizzle had driven away the fickle and light-weight shoppers. I must confess, I brushed my limp locks from forehead and shivered inside my trench coat, I considered saying adieu to le marche.
Tea for sale
But the first stall I came to had big glass apothecary jars filled with tea and the kind man behind the counter offered me a sample of his Provence blend, a black tea infused the aroma and flavor of roses.
I held the small cup close to my face and let the tendrils of deliciously scented steam tease my nose.
I learned that the man selling the tea came from a long line of tea growers, that his great-great-great-great grandfather operated a tea plantation in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and his great something or other (Even though I was very interested, by this point, I was having a difficult time keeping up with his rapid-fire French and the long walks and warm tea were making me a bit drowsy) sold tea to Queen Victoria (or made tea for Queen Victoria...or dressed like Queen Victoria every time she drank tea).
Just as I did that gray day, I have wandered off course in the recounting of this tale. The tea seller's family tree, multi-branched and fascinating as it may be, is really not the point.
Like the Comte, Cristophe, and Monsieur Hubert, the tea seller seemed to embody what I had come to admire about the Norman people: they have a deep respect and appreciation for tradition.
In this hectic, harried, hurried-up, changeable world, where we're always looking for the next best, new-and-improved gadget or gizmo, it's kinda nice to meet people who don't worry about bottom-lines, cutting corners, or modernizing. People who complete a task in a certain way simply because that's the way it was always done.
People who spend their days making omelets following a 120 year old recipe or weaving wicker baskets or hand picking apples for fermented cidre or blending rose petal tea...