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  • Debra Palmen

Who doesn't Love France in the Autumn?


Do you know, apart from the fact that I don’t speak French (other than at pre-toddler level), apart from the fact I always put on a tonne of weight every time I go to France (because I eat everything in sight), and apart from the fact that I have zero prospect of affording the chateau that would be essential to live in (as they tend to cost more than my budget), I can really see myself living in France one day.

What a lovely time we had there. It's autumn in the northern hemisphere but the weather has been glorious. We enjoyed a good espresso on the seafront at Dieppe and it was impossible to tell if the blue horizon was sky or ocean. How many shades of blue are there, we wondered? Eleventy-hundred is the answer.

Contrasting with deep cornflower blue skies, the autumn foliage is striking throughout the French landscape. Such rich reds and oranges and burgundies are unusual this early in the season, but made for a very pretty drive down to Brittany.

Our friends Vincent and Sue live in a fairy tale forest, deep in the Bretagne countryside. Their gorgeous ancient stone barn bulges with antique French copper pots and pans, and as usual I had a terrific time making my selections. You know I’ve bemoaned having no money for this trip, and it totally sucks, but we still carried off a nice selection.

So now we’ll be able to offer all manner of saucepans, frying pans, preserving pans (lighter weight and dang heavy), mixing bowls, lidded casserole pots, baking trays and ladles. We’ll bring home a few of the smaller things in our luggage, but once it has all arrived and is polished our copper display will be outstanding.

We then visited a few brocantes in the area and came away with some lovely ceramic terrine pots from an old butcher’s shop, and a couple of really beautiful frosted glass Art Deco vases. Naturally I’m keeping one of the vases for my own. And why not? An interior decorator once told me that you can’t have too many vases. At the time I was skeptical, but now I acknowledge her designer wisdom. Particularly if you limit yourself to beautiful French Art Deco examples.

There are a few photos here of some nice things we found, but more will appear on FB shortly with measurements and prices.

Well pleased with our efforts, we headed east. I had arranged for us to stay at Le Chateau de Bourgon, a 20-bedroom medieval chateau which has only been open to guests for the last four months. What a marvelous place! I want a medieval chateau! Isabelle, our host, has spent the last 16 years repairing and renovating the chateau and its grounds. It’s a real labour of love and will be the work of a lifetime. She loves her home and every part of her life running the chateau, and her enthusiasm was contagious.

We had a lovely time with Isabelle and her little cat and boisterous dogs. I always like to have a moggie-fix during our travels and Minoo, the chateau’s cat, was a sweetheart. She quietly sat on the chair next to me during our candlelit dinner, occasionally giving me little pats to let me know she was still there. I’m well used to being bodged by pussycats during dinner time but Minoo was terribly polite, unlike our gang. She was less gentle with Opium, the idiot three-month old springer spaniel who lurked under the dining table and hasn’t yet learned to just leave the cat alone. Opium insisted on continually poking her nose close enough to warrant a good smack from Minoo. With claws.

It didn’t phase the pup, though, and in the morning both dogs were full of fun and thrilled to accompany us on walks through the woods and while foraging about in the walled garden and the extensive vegetable garden. I saw a beautiful, huge, ancient stone building a few hundred meters from the chateau, three storeys tall and very imposing. I asked Isabelle if this was a neighbouring mansion. But no, it was her stables. Of course.

Over breakfast she showed us a very large, ornately carved dresser that had been sold by the Countess who owned the chateau over 100 years ago. The current owner decided to donate it back to the chateau, and Isabelle lamented that she had nowhere to put it. I pointed out that in a 20-bedroom chateau I expected she might have room to squeeze it in somewhere. But no, she’s got a lot of stuff and it’s really big and really, really heavy. We agreed it looked just fine where it was in the breakfast room.

So we had a terrific time at Le Chateau de Bourgon and will certainly stay with Isabelle and Minoo and the mutts again on our next trip. Then it was on to see Serge, who always delivers the goods for us, and he didn’t let us down this time. Yes, that includes ecclesiastical angels. I can hear one of my customers shrieking Mine! Mine! Mine! from here. You know who you are.

The caveat attached to the angels is that they are either cut-off at the waist or thigh, although their wings are intact. Part of the problem with ecclesiastical (church) salvage in France is that when old churches are demolished no care is taken to preserve beautiful old fences or gates or metal screens – unless they’re removed from the premises before the machinery moves in, they're just chopped up. It’s such a pity. Nonetheless, Serge had put aside some pretty fabulous church salvage for me, and I snapped it all up. Just wait ‘til you see it all.

The two amazing finds at Serge’s this time were super rare. His barns are notoriously chaotic and quite dangerous. You have to move carefully lest you knock something and cause an avalanche of stuff that buries you. And they have nothing on his scrap metal yard, where broken bones would be the least of your problems if you started a cascade in there.

Some years ago Serge showed me where he hides the key to his scrap metal yard, and that’s where he stores the ecclesiastical metal ware so of course I have to go in. He told me he doesn’t let any other dealers in there unsupervised, but trusts me to be sensible and walk away from enticing pieces that require just a little too much scrambling to get to. And mostly I do.

So it always takes careful hunting to find the good stuff at Serge's, but this time I suddenly chanced upon a vintage cast iron crepe pan in one of the barns. That might sound ho-hum to you, but it was a terrific discovery because I’ve been looking for a good, vintage crepe pan for years.

Many French chefs use vintage crepe pans because they’re so, so much better than the cheap, much lighter modern versions. They’re always expensive and snapped up whenever they appear on the market, so I’ve never had any luck getting my hands on one. But yay! Serge came through for me.

Once he knew how happy I was to have found this pan, and at an excellent price, he took me off to his secret stash of more. So now I have six. Six for sale, that is, because of course we’re keeping one. That’s how antiques hunting so often works – nothing for years, and then plenty.

The second amazing find at Serge’s was a cast iron fireback that dates from mid-1700s. These were decorative pieces that were literally placed in the back of open fires, to help reflect warmth back into a room and protect the bricks at the back of the fireplace. Because they were subjected to extreme heat they needed to be really thick and heavy to avoid cracking, so they weigh a bloody tonne.

Doug was less than impressed with his job of getting it into the van, but he managed even though he’s injured his ribs. I have no idea how I’m going to offer the fireback for sale, but I had to have it. It was salvaged from a demolished chateau in Normandy, and features fleur de lis within a sun, an eagle, a cherub and a crown, so it has some type of royal connection. How fabulous.

I have a cast iron fireback of my own, English and also around 270 years old, which features a dragon. I still haven’t figured out where it’s going in my house, I only know there’s no way I’m parting with it. Because I already have the English fireback is the only reason I’m not keeping this French one. Or am I? I have time to consider because the shipment won’t arrive in Australia until late December.

We decided to not travel into the Paris on this trip. It was disappointing because we haven’t missed out on Paris for some years. But the cost of accommodation this time was hideously expensive, and we’re skint and were only going to be there for a short while anyway. The clincher was that we knew we would most likely catch up with a number of the big dealers from the Porte de Vanves Market at the Lincoln or Newark Fairs anyway.

And what a good decision it turned out to be. We tootled back west through rural France to the seaside town of Yport. It’s a former fishing village, and I have to say there was definitely money in them thar fish. It’s one well-off little town. We relaxed and enjoyed a picnic in the sunshine on the foreshore, before heading north for one last night in Dieppe.

Next morning we finally got to tour the Dieppe Saturday morning market, which we usually miss because we’re normally in Paris on a Saturday morning. Oooh, there was so much good food throughout the market, which extends throughout the centre of the old town.

And I now have a theory about why Doug and I always put on heaps of weight in France, while the French remain maddeningly skinny. And it’s this: the French are surrounded by all this good food, it’s available to them at any time so it’s no big deal. Meanwhile, Dougie and I are like kids in a candy shop – or like grownups in a foodies market – saying “oooh let’s have some of this” and “oooh let’s have some of that” again and again. And again.

So we end up gorging on a bit of this and a bit of that, and a bit more of it all again. But the French know they can just pop out any old time and be surrounded by all this fabulousness, so they pace themselves. Maybe we’ll learn from the French and pace ourselves next time. But probably not. And we didn’t this time, either.

Then it was a pleasant night crossing of the Channel back to England, for the drive north to attend the Lincoln and Newark Fairs, the biggest antiques fairs in Europe.

More on that next time.


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