Saint Saens and the 23rd PsalmSaint Saens et le Psaume 22

Those familiar with the iconic twenty-third psalm which begins “The Lord is my shepherd…….”  may also recall the following line – “in pastures green he leadeth me – the quiet waters by”….

Such an image is convincingly evoked when driving from Dieppe to Saint Saens.

The road climbs up out of Dieppe onto a wide plain of arable fields and large cider apple orchards. Soon however it descends, lowering one into the beautiful Varenne valley. Here the silver river glides gently through lush water meadows which are the valley floor.

On either side the ground rises up in huge rolling fields dotted with sheep and bison. Meanwhile like the thread of a necklace, the road itself links a series of small villages once reliant upon coaching traffic from Paris to Dieppe.

Farms, stables, water cress beds and saw mills punctuate the route. And from June until winter, all the way one is immersed in a landscape of ‘pastures green’.

Saint Saens is a just reward for this journey. The Varenne runs through it in two streams, once serving a large tanning industry.

Vestiges of the trade are evident in a canyon of fine town houses built by wealthy tannery families.  The heart of the town is marked by convivial commercial activity generated by a healthy collection of little shops. Bakers, green grocers, a fishmonger, a butcher, a charcuterer, a miniature Fortnum and Masons, all mustered close together in a ‘rue principale’ seething with life.

Here 35 minutes from Dieppe, and Rouen, the visitor will find a warm bed and breakfast welcome.

Philip

 Celles et ceux qui connaissent le célèbre Psaume 22 « Le Seigner est mon Berger » sont sans doute familiers avec la suite « Sur des prés d’herbe fraîche, il me fait reposer. Il me mène vers les eaux tranquilles ».

Cette image est particulièrement bien illustrée par la route qui sépare Dieppe de Saint Saëns.

Celle-ci commence par une ascension depuis Dieppe vers les vastes plaines arables et les vergers à cidre. Mais elle retombe très vite pour entrer dans la superbe vallée de la Varenne. Ici, la rivière argentée se glisse à travers les praires verdoyantes du fond de cette vallée.

De part et d’autre de la vallée, le terrain grimpe en bosquets et près parsemés  de moutons et même de bisons. Pendant ce temps, la route continue de serpenter à travers les petits villages normands, qui comptaient autrefois sur le trafic des carrosses entre Paris et Dieppe.

Fermettes, écuries, lits de cresson et scieries viennent ponctuer le chemin. De Juin jusqu’à l’hiver le trajet n’est autre qu’une immersion dans les « près d’herbe fraîche ».

Saint Saëns est à la hauteur de la route qui y amène.  La varenne traverse la ville en deux bras, desservant autrefois une industrie de tanneurs très prospères. Les vestiges de ce commerce sont évidents, comme le témoignent les multiples grandes maisons de ville appartenant aux riches tanneurs.

Le cœur de Saint Saëns est marqué par une activité commerciale chaleureuse, avec de nombreuses boutiques. Boulangeries, marchand de légumes, poissonnerie, boucherie, charcuterie, épicerie fine : tous ces commerces sont rapprochés autour de la rue principale, pétillante de vie.

Ici, à 35 minutes de Dieppe et de Rouen, les visiteurs trouveront une chambre d’hôtes charmante et accueillante : le Petit Chalet.

Autumn in Normandy

Autumn in Normandy, or indeed elsewhere is typically associated with the months of   September, October or November, but this year the mild scents of Autumn have lingered through the traditional autumn months and carried into December.

Two weeks ago we picked seven kilos of sloes in a lazy afternoon sunlight, at the edge of the Eawy forest.

As we picked the sloes, bare handed for once, (able to retain twelve before transferring them to our bag), I thought of the marriage of these sloes to the large apples we had been given a few days before.

Apples are the principal feature of a Normandy autumn. In our part of Normandy – the Pays de Bray – orchards remain common sights in almost every village, instantly recognisable by the trees in regimental rows, by their scarlet fruit, and the multiple “nests” of mistletoe. This year has seen a bountiful apple crop, so much so that feeble old trees have toppled and broken asunder beneath the weight of fruit.

Traditionally farmers made their own cider, thereafter distilling some to produce the fiery spirit or apple brandy known as Calvados.

At the turn of the century it was common practice to employ itinerant workers to collect the apples, and then a specialist artisan with his mobile distillery of gleaming serpentine copper pipes, to convert the apples into cider and calvados.

One can still find these services offered, but like many a rural art, they are now few and far between, and have to be sought.  I’m told that in previous times, the permitted amount of distilled cider was limited to ten litres, before one attracted the attention of  “Douanes” or Customs and Excise – and an inevitable tax!

Cider making has always been a relatively simple process, (the fermentation of apple juice), but like many a harvest “procedure”, the value of the occasion to rural folk, was not only measured by the end product, but by the social ritual of a shared event.

Neighbours would help neighbours so that cider making would rotate from farm to farm.

Mobile mechanical devices, with wide-mouthed vats directing the fruit towards blades, would chop the apples into a crude pulp at the turn of a handle. The masticated apples were then laid between alternating layers of straw or reed, and finally pressed in huge oak presses.  In Wiltshire this straw and apple “sandwich” was referred to as ‘the cheese’.

As winter emerges from the relative balm of autumn, the apple orchards become   skeletal and bare.  But instead of finding this depressing, I remind myself that each orchard in spring, with their generous emergence of heavenly pink blossom, will do more than perhaps anything other, to signal the miracle ‘renaissance’ of nature.

And then I shall be compelled to turn my thoughts to Madame Bovary and how her carriage must have weaved through the lanes around nearby Ry, lined with orchards, and gilding even her already avid mind.

Our sloe and apple jelly made a delicious accompaniment to roast duck.

Happy New Year everyone, Sir Philip