We said a wistful farewell to beautiful Paris as our gentle journey through France continued. As we boarded the bus to transport us back to our riverboat, our Tour Director took pity on us and gave us each a macaron from Laduree, a venerable Parisian pastry shop established in 1862. Mine was raspberry with raspberry jam filling packed with fresh raspberry chunks. Though these little round puffy sandwich cookies have become popular throughout the United States, the one I enjoyed from Laduree was the best I had ever eaten. I was comforted to learn that Laduree has a pastry shop at the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport for passengers needing to take a little taste of Paris with them on their way back home.
Our riverboat captain also seemed to realize the melancholy we felt in saying goodbye to Paris, and he steered the boat up the river for a short distance so we could take photos of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty from the perfect vantage point on the river. Then, heading down the river, past Versailles, our first destination was the pretty medieval town of Conflans-Sainte Honorine, marking the confluence of the Seine and the smaller Oise River. Here we disembarked for the thirty-five-minute drive through the lovely French countryside along the quiet, slow-moving and peaceful Oise River, bordered by willows and flowering chestnut trees to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise.
Here we made our pilgrimage to the ancient and dignified town where the world-famous painter, Vincent van Gogh spent the last two or three years of his short life. Destitute but supported financially by his loving brother Theo, Vincent rented a tiny, sparse upstairs room in a small boarding house where he took his meals alone at a little table downstairs. Vincent’s final years were astonishingly prolific, as he painted his iconic “Starry Night” in this quaint town along with several self-portraits and paintings of the City Hall, buildings and fields surrounding the village and the medieval Church of Notre Dame.
Every garden in this lovely little town was in bloom when we took a leisurely walking tour from the church to the city hall and the tasteful little Van Gogh Museum. It was springtime, and we witnessed the colors and scents of roses, irises, lavender, rosemary and cherry trees bursting with ripe cherries, the vibrant energy of nature that so inspired van Gogh.
At the Van Gogh Museum, which ironically did not contain any of his paintings, we watched a poignant and very touching video containing large, vivid images of many of van Gogh’s paintings in the context of the deeply moving letters between Vincent and his faithful and caring brother, Theo. The little shop of the ground floor sold books, prints and other van Gogh-related items. The tone of this quiet and reverential space was understated and respectful without a hint of commercialism.
Unexpectedly, we also visited a small and equally understated Absinthe Museum nearby. It had a lovely walled garden courtyard, planted with the various herbs, such as anise and wormwood, necessary for brewing this green and highly alcoholic liqueur. We learned that this elixir, which could become addictive and even cause hallucinations if imbibed to excess, was part of the lifestyle and culture of many of the painters of the time. Absinthe in fact became quite the rage in the late 1800s and around the turn of the Twentieth Century, so much so that ordinary French men and women became addicted to it, ruining families. Eventually, through the influence of the wine industry, Absinthe, but no other alcoholic beverage, was prohibited for a time.
The museum was filled with historic posters depicting the evils of drinking Absinthe, but we were nevertheless “treated” to an Absinthe tasting. As a non-drinker, I tasted only a small sip of this green herbal liquid, originally thought to cure every illness. It was very strong, highly alcoholic and tasted like licorice. I asked the guide if Absinthe was ever paired with food, and she said that it was sometimes used to poach fish and shrimp and to flavor ice cream.
After the walking tour, Wayne and I visited a charming little chocolate shop on the main square of Auvers-sur-Oise near the quaint old City Hall, that van Gogh had painted. The chocolate shop also sold ice cream, and sure enough, they had Absinthe-flavored sorbet, along with rhubarb, coffee, raspberry and all the usual fruit flavors. Perhaps we should have been more adventurous, but we were happy with salted caramel and chocolate, as good as ice cream can get.
Back on the Seine, on our way to the home of the painter, Claude Monet in Giverny in the province of Normandy, we found our time on the river breathtakingly beautiful. The Seine is a deep moss green color and is bordered, right down to the banks, with lush green willows, sycamores, birches and even pines. The effect is perfect serenity, with swans and geese gliding through the quiet and restful waters, filled only with bird song and the soft, lapping sounds from the slowly moving water. All was green and more green, with no fast-food restaurants, gas stations or any commercial activity anywhere in sight.
Our group was fortunate to visit Monet’s family home and garden in Giverny early in the morning before any other tourists entered the area. The morning air was filled with bird song, the sweet notes of so many different species whose individual calls created a harmony, bringing all the colors of the thousands of flowers together into one beautiful and joyful vision.
We toured the famous water lily pond where Monet created two-hundred and fifty paintings of water lilies during the forty-three years from 1883 to 1926 that he and his family lived in this bucolic rural home and garden.
Tanka for Claude Monet
I think of Monet,
Alone in his garden with
The water lilies
From dawn to dusk, his
Children far across the pond.
A French style garden graces one side of the pond with a Japanese garden on the other, the areas linked by two arched Japanese bridges. An ancient Copper Beech, older than Monet, anchors the Japanese garden, backed by a bamboo grove, and fronted by every colorful flower imaginable, all selected to harmonize with the sky, the light and the waters of the pond at different times of day and through all the seasons. We were there in May when some of the magnificent blue and purple irises were still in bloom and the white blossoms of the wisteria swayed in the breeze and reflected in the pond.
The home where Monet and his family lived is a large, old fashioned two-story French farmhouse with a yellow, light-filled dining room, a blue and white tiled kitchen with a wood stove, a sitting room with floral upholstery and curtains and bedrooms upstairs. Today the house is filled with replicas of Japanese ukiyoe wood block prints, including Hiroshige’s world- famous “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” and other vaguely Asian looking vases and pieces of ceramics, affirming the influence of Japanese art on Monet and several other Impressionist painters of his era. Like the home in the center of the glorious Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, Canada, Monet’s home, though charming, is much less interesting that the magnificent gardens that surround it.
After our respite in the countryside, we continued our journey down the Seine to Rouen, the capital of Normandy. This beautiful and ancient city is home to the Cathedrale Notre Dame, one of the oldest and most beautiful Cathedrals in the world. Our friend Claude Monet completed at least twelve paintings of the exterior of beautiful Rouen Cathedral at various times of the day and in different weather conditions between 1892 and 1894. Rouen is also the place where the woman warrior, Joan of Arc, was burned at the stake. We also discovered that Rouen is a culinary paradise.
We began our walking tour of the ancient city in chilly spring rain. By the time we arrived at the Cathedral, the cobblestoned streets were flooded, and we were eager to get inside. The exterior, though, as Monet’s paintings attest, is well worth an extended viewing. This massive Gothic structure, created over eight hundred years, evolving through the aesthetics of every historic period, is covered with elaborate external carvings below three huge towers, each in a different style with a tall central lantern spire, a signature element of Norman Gothic church architecture.
Since Christianity was introduced to Rouen in the year 260, a church has stood where the Cathedral now stands. Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, was buried there in 960, and when the church was reconsecrated as a Romanesque Cathedral in 1063, William the Conqueror himself was present. After transitioning through the Carolingian and Romanesque architectural styles, the church was redesigned in the “new” Gothic style in 1145 with the emphasis on filling the interior of this sacred space with light. The famous stained-glass windows were introduced in the Thirteenth Century, and some of the original vivid red and blue glass is still in place. The glorious Fourteenth Century rose window in the north portal is the only Gothic rose window to survive in its original form. Additional stained-glass windows were added over the centuries, including two Twentieth Century windows depicting St. Joan of Arc, an ironic turn of events since this young woman was burned at the stake as a witch and heretic in the nearby Rouen town square in 1431 but canonized as a saint six hundred years later in 1920
We visited Rouen Cathedral years ago, and I still love it today as I did then. This time, as we entered, cold and wet, mass was going on, with the presiding priest in the elegant gold and white vestments of the Easter Season, the sanctuary infused with lavender light from the rose window and the dozens of other stained-glass windows throughout the church. The arches, pillars, statues and chapels lining the nave, the beautifully carved Choir stalls surrounded by the tombs of the Dukes of Normandy, including Richard the Lion Hearted, and the High Altar, with the sculptural kneeling angels guarding the huge crucifix all remained, as they have been for centuries, and the quiet hush of history still fills this place with the creative energies of all the artists and workers who brought this magnificent structure to life.
After our time in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Wayne and I soldiered on through the cold wet morning with our guide to explore the medieval city center. Along the cobblestoned street, we walked under the bell tower with one of the oldest clocks in Europe, a huge, elaborate affair with only one hand to tell the time, as medieval people were interested in the hours of the day, but not the minutes. This beautiful clock is decorated with symbolic images of the phases of the moon, the days of the week and the tides, as the Seine becomes a tidal river before it reaches Rouen. Along the way, we passed several interesting chocolate shops that sell the local specialties—macarons and caramelized almonds covered in cocoa powder known as La Larmes de Jeanne d’Arc, or Joan of Arc’s Tears. We stopped at the shop that claims to have invented these addictive little treats, a place called A Jean-Marie Auzou, and bought ourselves a bag. Delicious indeed!
The old central marketplace, still in business with sellers offering bread, cheese and butter, is the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at the age of nineteen on May 30, 1431. The Hundred Years War between England and France was raging at that time with England in control of France. Joan was a deeply spiritual young woman who saw visions filled with light and heard the voice of God. Through these signs, she felt a profound vocation to defend the French forces in the siege of Orleans and to ensure the coronation of Charles VII as King of France. To achieve these ends, Joan dressed in male clothing as a soldier and rallied the French troops. Today she remains an archetypal figure, heroine of comic books, cartoons and movies as the fearless woman warrior championing the cause of good in the world.
Sadly for Joan, the Inquisition that put her on trial, primarily for the crime of dressing as a man when she had been told not to, was controlled by the English, and after extensive and well-documented interrogations, she was found guilty of heresy and witchcraft. She was burned at the stake, and to keep the French from started rumors that she had escaped, her body was burned two more times and the ashes were thrown into the Seine. As a result, there was no burial place or monument to commemorate Joan’s life. However, the verdict was subsequently reversed and on May 16, 1920, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Joan was canonized as St. Joan of Arc and is now the Patron Saint of France and a national hero. A modern church, Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, has been built on the exact location in the marketplace where she died, and is now her memorial.
Today, visitors show their respects to this popular heroine while shopping for Camembert and Neufchatel cheeses and copious amounts of fresh butter to make Normandy’s favorite snack, a fresh baguette with salted butter and Camembert cheese—yes, a butter and cheese sandwich! Our slender and fit guide assured us that locals have no weight problems as they walk everywhere, which did seem to be true based on our observations.
After our time with the Cathedral, the Clock Tower, the Chocolate Shop, Joan of Arc and the Cheese Market, Wayne and I, still on foot and still wet and cold, started to walk back toward our river boat when Wayne slyly remarked that he thought there might be a restaurant near the Cathedral, and he seemed to know exactly where it was. It turned out to be LoDas, the only Michelin-Starred restaurant in Rouen, and he had already made a reservation. Our lunch in this tiny, elegant, both modern and traditional place lasted for three and a half hours, encompassing five courses of delicious, innovative, Japanese-influenced French food, loaded with umami, using only the freshest local spring ingredients.
We started with amuse bouche, all very light—cauliflower mousse folded into a thin half-moon of daikon and a pickled red radish on a perfect, flaky home-made cracker. As we were in Normandy, there was plenty of bread, one just called butter bread, which looked like a yellow cake layer cut into wedges, and it had the texture of cake, but it was savory, served with local butter sprinkled with salt. We were also given slices of dark seeded baguette, which we could dip into olive oil and sprinkle with cracked black peppercorns which we were encouraged to crush ourselves in a little lava stone mortar and pestle placed on the table.
The next course was a divine piece of boneless mackerel in a deeply flavored broth containing fennel, cabbage and seaweed. The Japanese umami concept was very evident in this creative dish. Next, Wayne had a big piece of perfectly cooked goose liver served with fresh spring peas and pea puree while I as a non-meat eater was served “The Perfect Egg,” one that had been cooked at a very low temperature for a long time but still retained its soft yolk, like a Japanese ajitama egg, the kind that are added to high-end ramen dishes. My Perfect Egg was served in an Asian style ceramic bowl with smoked mashed potatoes.
After courses highlighting lobster with parsnips and cod with green garlic, we were served the cheese course of Neufchatel and Camembert, the two local cheeses we observed in the market along with generous amounts of butter. My dessert was a strip of candied rhubarb with elderflower sorbet and another little piece of rhubarb on top of a flaky pastry with white chocolate. This never-to-be-forgotten meal, reminiscent of the lunch we had in Rouen decades ago at the Michelin-starred Boyer, sadly no longer in existence, was truly a living but ephemeral work of art. It ended, like all great French meals, with perfect coffee, little hand-made macarons and deep chocolate truffles. Wayne went into the kitchen, which was visible through a glass wall, to thank the young female chef, apparently the wife of the founder, and we both spoke in our hearts, “Long live LoDas!”
Next month we will conclude our journey down the beautiful Seine past chateaux, medieval castle fortresses and a glimpse at the famous Bayeux Tapestry to the beaches of Normandy, famous as the places where American, Canadian and British soldiers came to the rescue of France and all of Europe during the Second World War. Meanwhile, I am happy to leave you with the recipe for a traditional, butter-laden Norman treat, Sable Cookies.
These luscious crispy cookies are sometimes referred to as Sand Cookies in the United States, and in France they are also called galettes or petit beurre. If you don’t have time to bake, you can order them on line beautifully packaged from La Mere Poullard or St.Michel, which sells them as La Grande Galette. Paired with the Financiers popular in Paris and featured in my September 2022 blog, these little French pastries would make fabulous high-end treats for the grown-ups who are giving out mini-Snickers bars to the kids on Halloween. They could also be elegant additions to the Thanksgiving dessert table or the platters of Christmas cookies we will all be making in the weeks to come.
- 2 cups flour
- ½ cup (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- ½ cup sugar
- 5 egg yolks
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons milk or cream
Large mixing bowl, hand-held electric mixer or food processor, plastic wrap, large parchment-lined cookie sheet, rolling pin, 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, pastry brush, dinner fork, wire rack, metal box or airtight container
Makes: 12 large cookies
Preheat oven to 350 Degrees F
- Sift the flour and sugar into a large mixing bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer (or a food processor,) add the small chunks of butter, little by little until the mixture reaches a sandy consistency.
- Add the salt, vanilla and four of the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Form the dough into a flat round, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour.
- Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thickness of ¼ inch. Using a 2-inch cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out 12 round cookies and place them on the parchment-lined cookie sheet. Make a lattice pattern on each cookie with the tines of a fork if you wish.
- Mix the remaining egg yolk with 2 tablespoons of milk or cream and brush the top of each cookie with the mixture. Bake in the preheated 350-degree oven for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack and store in an air-tight container, preferably a metal box.