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  • Debra Palmen

From Wild Brittany to Wilder Paris

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Yay, here we are in Paris! But it’s been quite a trek to get here.

After enjoying the brocantes and restaurants and charcuteries and boulangeries of Dieppe, it was time to venture deeper into the Normandy countryside. We always visit our friend Serge, who we’ve been buying from for many years. He wasn’t home when we arrived, so we retreated to a nearby quiet valley for a picnic lunch. He was still half an hour away after our lunch, but he’d shown me where he hides the key to his main scrap metal yard so we made our metalware selections while we waited.

The number of churches being demolished in Normandy is somewhat less than it used to be, which is good news. But it means the amount of ecclesiastical salvage is somewhat less than it used to be as well. Still, I managed to coax 23 pieces from Serge’s enormous, rusting pile, and they will clean up nicely. One piece is an interesting old metal cog from an ancient, long-gone machine, but I liked it’s shape. The rest are from demolished churches, and I don’t expect I’ll have them for long. The ecclesiastical metalware I source from Serge never lasts long.

He knew I always look for charming glass pate pots, but so do all visiting dealers. They're used for many purposes, including pate and jam of course, but also for individual entrées or desserts that look good in layers - that's certainly a popular look used by food magazine stylists - and lots of people also use them as small vases.

Serge solved the problem of hiding them from other dealers by secreting his stash in a 44 gallon drum in a far off corner of one of his lesser scrap yards, full of junk, that no-one ever goes to. Including me.

Other dealers were prowling, so he told Doug in a hurried whisper where I needed to go. The drum had been out in the weather for months while it awaited my arrival, so it was partly full of water and definitely full of dirt and wet rust.

But I plunged in anyway. Early selections were easy, but the deeper I got into the drum the harder it was for me to reach the pots. The other dealers were then treated to the sight of my bum sticking in the air, with my top half buried in the drum and my legs flailing about to keep my balance. Must have been quite a sight, and it certainly drew them all.

Suddenly, this far off corner full of junk that no-one ever visits was the place to be. Suddenly everyone had a compelling reason to visit this corner, on a route that just happened to take them past my wriggling bottom.

By then I had amassed a few boxes of pate pots and there were lots of oohs and aahs at my ‘lucky find’, and lots of casual lurking very close by – not trying to pressure me to move on, certainly not. They just happened to pick a spot right next to me, to casually stand and look at nothing. Certainly not peering intently at me, waiting for me to get tired of repeatedly diving into the drum, willing me to give up, certainly not.

Eventually it became clear that the ‘act casual and she won’t notice us’ charade wasn’t working, so one dealer just approached me directly. Surely you don’t want them all?, she said. But yes indeed I did. All the good ones, anyway. Oh I think I’ll be leaving a few behind, I told her.

It was for her to discover that all the pots I put back were chipped or cracked or otherwise of an unacceptable standard. And she’d have to balance on the edge of the 44 gallon drum, as I had to, getting just as grubby as me. Except I was dressed appropriately for ratting about Serge’s scrap metal yard and barns, while she was wearing what appeared to be a Chanel jacket and designer jeans. Clearly antiques dealers in France are a lot richer than they are in Australia, and definitely more stylish.

While she was discovering the harsh reality of coming second, Serge came by with a rickety old wheelbarrow to help me haul off my stash of 120 pate pots.

I did say that if I found 200 I would buy them on this trip, because they're so popular I always sell out months before the next buying trip. But when confronted with having to wrap and pack 120 pots, wow that was a lot.

The neighbour's super-friendly little black cat I had made friends with on our last trip was still a willing accomplice as I hunted through Serge’s yard, standing on a table to peer into the metal drum as I delved into its depths.

Now he’s a young undesexed tom cat, but still friendly as ever. He’d been hit by a car in the past year and has an injury that impacts on his walking, which I was concerned about. But Serge assured me that a vet had seen our little furry friend, and that they often sit under his apple trees together, enjoying the afternoon sunshine while Serge secretly feeds him.

This time we spent four hours at Serge’s place, and unearthed all manner of good things. I’ll photograph a selection when we’re back in England and I can find the right boxes, but we carried off good enamelware, a couple of lovely 1930s ceramic jug and basin sets, two brass fretwork boxes that held coals and were used by churchgoers to keep their feet warm during long, long church services, two very beautiful Cherrywood benches that Serge had bought elsewhere in Normandy that very morning, a lovely dove-grey painted desk/washstand, a nice old wooden basket that was traditionally used for collecting apples – Normandy being a huge apple producing region, and lots more. It was one of the best hauls we’ve ever had from Serge.

Then it was south-west into Brittany. The wild forests of Brittany are dark and unspoiled, dotted with the occasional pretty hamlet. This region is famous for its megalithic standing stones (pagan) and it’s many, many cross-road crosses (Christian). They’re everywhere, but sit together easily. At one church a cross had been erected right beside a standing stone, with both equally accepted.

It’s certainly very different to the rest of France. As you delve deeper into the countryside you find that all signs are in French and Bretagne, the local dialect. The autumn colours haven’t developed as much here yet as they have over in England, and many summer flowers are still in full bloom, so many small villages are just lovely.

It was through this landscape that we made our way to the charming hamlet of Peillac, to have lunch and a spot of shopping with our new contacts Vincent and Sue. They have a lovely property just outside the hamlet, with a big old stone barn to die for and several other outbuildings, all packed to the gunnels with nice things. We bought more antique French copper from them than we ever have at one go, all lovely, all reasonably priced. Our copper customers will be dead impressed with our haul.

We were invited to lunch, so we shopped, ate, drank good Bretagne cider, shopped some more, chatted, had lots of coffee, and before we knew it six hours had passed.

We were due to stop in the Perche region that night, which is only a few hours from Paris, so we had a long, long drive. But we still found time to stop in a local brocante Vincent and Sue had recommended along our route, where with some speed-shopping I carried off medium-sized glass carboys, wooden dairy and cooking paddles, and good enamelware.

We made it to the village of Fresnay-sur-Sarthe late in the evening, but fortunately we still had picnic supplies for an impromptu but delicious dinner in our room. Next morning it was off to visit Giles and Sylvie, who have a large brocante called La Chatterie (the cattery). Don’t ask me why. My French isn’t good enough to ask, and their English isn’t good enough to explain.

I knew Giles & Sylvie often have pate pots hidden in a far barn, and it didn’t take me long to find their stash. Which I promptly bought. I also found a good supply of attractive French hessian grain sacks from the late 1940s, which lots of people like to use for upholstery projects or to make floor cushions. I also unearthed a beautiful Italian cross, a bunch of attractive kitchen utensils, a small wooden wine cask and the bigger brother of the lovely little ceramic French hare tureen I found up in Lancashire in England. And yes, I’m keeping this one too – they’ll look great together.

So now we’re in Paris, ready to face the deep rivalries for all the best bits at the Porte de Vanves market early, very early, before the sparrows wake, on Saturday morning. The wilds of Brittany have nothing on a bunch of dealers who each want the same vintage image, or lovely textile, or Art Deco lamp. But I'll put on my game face, sharpen my elbows and get ready to fend off enemy dealers. All so I can get the best bits for you.

The trouble is, the van is so full I’m not sure how we’ll fit my Parisian purchases in. Doug has already banned me from buying anything that’s big, because he’ll need to find a special nook or cranny for everything I select. But he’s a terrific packer, and I have faith that he’ll manage to cram in anything I buy.

But No Tables! he’s already declared – getting in first before I find something I can’t live without. On my last few visits to Porte de Vanves I’ve found fabulous tables that had to come home with me. But not this time, apparently, unless I want to hold it on my lap all the way back to England. But tomorrow is my last chance to buy in France until next year, so I’m going to make it count.

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