Brocante and Chocolate

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These last few days everything has felt slightly different as the sun streams in through the windows, and although the mercury is definitely nudging upwards a little there’s a cold easterly wind which is banishing all thoughts of bare arms and legs. Along with the week’s slow change in temperature, there’s also a subtle change in the light and despite the lingering smell of winter woodsmoke in the air there’s now a welcome new scent, that of freshly mown grass. Continue reading “Brocante and Chocolate”

Finding brocante in the attic and an ivy update

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Oh my goodness we’ve packed a lot in so far this weekend. It began with one of those early Saturday mornings when you wake up with the sun streaming in through the bedroom windows, and even though you’d dearly love a lie-in, you just know that you have to get up; it would be a criminal offence to waste such a beautiful start to the day. And as the forecast yesterday had promised much warmer weather and plenty of sunshine, there was much to do and no time to waste after months of winter and weak sun. Suddenly everything felt so different! Continue reading “Finding brocante in the attic and an ivy update”

CREATING THE PERFECT PLACE TO STAY

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Having started my series of articles about renovation with a 12th century château renovated by a truly dedicated Frenchman, I thought it would be fun to go to the other end of the spectrum for my second article and meet an ‘expat’ family who have completely transformed two barns into a pair of fabulously comfortable gîtes. These jewels are nestled in the tiny hamlet of Vergné in the north of the department of the Charente Maritime and an hour east of La Rochelle, they stand alongside a lovely farmhouse which is home to Simon and Sue Paine and their two teenage children. Continue reading “CREATING THE PERFECT PLACE TO STAY”

MAY IN THE CHARENTE MARITIME

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In France, May is seemingly full of public holidays and  the last one is Pentecost; as we chatted during supper on Monday evening we all agreed we cannot remember the last time we had such a fun weekend. It all went by in rather a social blur; friends to lunch and dinner, fabulous long sunny days staying light until nearly 10pm, and the kids decided to camp in the garden for two nights so our lawn became ‘Tent City’ as friends joined them.

I cannot believe the month is nearly over; where did it go? It seems only last week I was incredibly happy we were into the month of April and that spring was well and truly in command. Yet here we are now, only a few days from June. I hope it slows down or before we know it we will be hauling logs, lighting fires and getting out our hats and scarves again.

To try and prolong it a little longer I thought I would share with you a photo-tour of our month of May.  It didn’t get off to the best start as it arrived with pouring rain and chilly winds which quite typically coincided with the children being on Spring Break.

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after several days the skies cleared and once again the sun came out to play

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having been dormant all winter, vineyards were once again bursting with life

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villages that had seemed almost deserted became centers of chattering activity as the Brocante season got well and truly underway

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and I found a fab heavy brass chandelier for the summer kitchen

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 some of us were brave enough to have our first swim of the year

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and we dusted off our bikes and set about exploring nearby villages

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the garden demanded, but failed to get, constant attention as I waged a war I realized I was never going to win on the weeds

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we walked the well-trodden sand and stone causeway over to the Île Madame

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 and one morning when the children were all at school found ourselves quite by chance at the most incredible stone-mason’s yard

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 cherry season is now in full swing, picking, eating, picking and eating more – it’s the simple things in life that I enjoy so much!

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the locals are saying it is the best year for roses in decades

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a little renovation required, but how about this for a cute weekend retreat

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yesterday some farmers were turning their hay, making the most of the sunny dry weather

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and when we walked Bentley after supper the sun was still beating strong at 9pm

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I hope May has been a good month for you too and as always thanks for reading, thanks for following me and for your comments, I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I really enjoy taking photos whilst we are out and about and sharing them with you and telling our story from this tiny little corner of France.  Merci mille fois

A SLEEPOVER IN PONS

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Last week was VE day – Victory in Europe – and it is always a public holiday in France.  We were invited to dinner at a friends’ house and to stay the night.  The children were excited when they knew they were going for a sleepover altogether but it seemed that the invite had caused confusion, for one afternoon the week before we left, Gigi looked at me with a very serious expression on her face and asked “Are you and Papa staying the night in Pons too?”. I told her that of course we were!  The serious face turned into an incredibly big smile, “Mama and Papa are having a sleepover too, that’s so cool!”, she said.  She and her siblings are always having sleepovers at friends’ houses or have friends coming to our house, but the idea of her parents doing the same at a friends’ house had not occurred to her at all!

The day of the big sleepover arrived – you would really have thought we were going away for a month, not a night.  Our fabulous neighbour was left in charge of the ducks and chickens, the kittens had plenty of food and Bentley was coming with us.  All the shutters throughout the house had to be closed, a job in itself which seems to take forever and then there is the actual reality of ushering five children out of the door with all their “stuff” – of course we were running late!  It was the most perfect day, hot and sunny with clear blue skies.  As we headed east our coastal landscape slowly gave way to the gently undulating hills of inland Charente Maritime, with rows and rows of vines as far as the eye could see.

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In the late afternoon after we arrived we walked for miles, through the vineyards as is so typical in France; no cars, no noise, no-one to be seen apart from a solitary tractor working in the vines and the chatter and laughter of the children.

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The most delicious dinner followed and for once no need to worry about driving home, what a treat that was.  Several glasses of wine, much laughter and hours of talking.  The children went to bed far too late, only to be woken along with everyone else and a very nervous Bentley at 5am by the roar of overhead thunder and much flashing of lightning.

The storm brought with it cooler air and a stiff breeze but amazingly the rain held off for the annual VE day Brocante and plant fair in Avy the next day.  Beer tents were overflowing with friends enjoying their day off; dogs on leads; children running here and there amidst so many people carrying their purchases – flowers, zinc pots, copper pans, pieces of furniture – for anyone wanting to experience the “real” France, a visit to a Brocante during the spring has to be very high up on the agenda.

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For once we were in no rush, time was on our side and later we took the opportunity to explore the beautiful town of Pons.

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Perched on a rock, this Cité Médiévale is very much worth a visit.  In the centre there is the remaining vestige of the old fortified castle and its magnificent keep.   It was destroyed in 1179 by Richard the Lionheart and then rebuilt again later. We were careful to speak in undertones and remain very un-British!

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All around are small streets full of history, adorned with turrets, arches, stairways and fabulous private houses.

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Alleys join the lower town where pilgrims on their way to the town of Santiago de Compostela stopped at the Hôpital Neuf (New Hospital) founded in 1160 by Geoffroy III of Pons.

On the other side, a walk in the park is an occasion to see a typical French public garden with carefully manicured shrubbery and glorious avenues of huge green trees à la Française – chestnuts, oak and plane (sycamore for our American friends) trees are typically planted for this purpose.

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Our little sojourn away has thoroughly recharged our batteries and is good proof of the saying, “A change is as good as a rest” !

BEHIND THE SCENES AT OUR LOCAL BROCANTE

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Choosing a second subject for my series of “local artisans” was made easy by many comments I received after introducing you to our ‘boulanger’ last month.  Since so many of you take a special interest in the ‘brocantes’ of France I thought I would head to a local treasure cave and see if I could squeeze out some details of this time-honored French tradition which you might find interesting.

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The ‘brocante’ is a French institution with a devoted following, both in France and overseas. Over the past few decades this world of bric-a-brac and antiques has grown significantly, especially since the advent of the internet.  In a lot of countries, this has also led to a proliferation of television shows, magazines devoted to the subject and numerous websites and blogs featuring vintage homes with a French feel, many of which I love to follow.  However, in France, the ‘brocante’ for many towns and villages is still what it always was, more of a working junk-shop than an antique shop, and with many items in stock being sold for re-use rather than profit. The country ‘brocantes’ we enjoy here in the Charente-Maritime have changed little over time, in ours we could as easily buy a cattle-trough for our cows, as we could a complete set of monogramed bed-linen for a newly-opened ‘chambres d’hôte’, for example.

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The Brocante du Val d’Arnoult on the outskirts of Pont l’Abbé is owned by Pierre and Michéle Morardet, a drive-in yard sits alongside two long warehouses, with reams of agricultural evidence both inside and out, 200 year-old plough-shares sitting side by side with used pesticide tanks, beaten-up zinc watering cans and rusting garden chairs.  It’s an incongruous melange of items that is compounded as you walk though an innocuous door into what seems, from the outside, to be an innocuous shed.

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Once inside however, you realize you are in a far from innocuous place – instead, you’ve relocated to a time capsule of all things French; national products, colonial souvenirs, kitchen implements, big farmhouse furniture, glassware for mansion houses and toys for a million grown children – this crazy warehouse has it all.  Indeed, if you wanted to outfit a house with a vintage vibe, you’d find everything you need here, right down to the thimbles for the sewing kit, and the 1950’s cooker for the 1950’s kitchen.  Each time I come here, I feel like Alladin looking into his cave for the first time, knowing smugly that one is rich in antiques beyond one’s dreams, but still with an urge to add more.

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It turns out that Pierre and Michéle have not always been in the brocante business.  This is only their fifth year here, and before starting out on this part of their lives they ran a chambres d’hôte in the Gers, visiting the world of brocantes at weekends just for fun. Then, it was just a hobby.  Now, it is their lives, and looking at the floor to ceiling racks of stock, I truly appreciate just how big and busy that life must be, and just what a step up it must have been for them.

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My first question was an easy one – where on earth did they find all their stock? It turns out the answer is simple – from their customers.  While they do occasionally visit an antiques fair or auction, Pierre and Michéle actually buy most of their stock from people they know – either people who bring items to the shop for evaluation, or via house-hold sales, sometimes after a death in the family, or sometimes when a family knows it’s time to move and start afresh.  The house sales can either be an all-in affair, where everything must go and Pierre and Michéle just leave a bare, swept floor, or a selective occasion when specific items are bought and the rest of the house is offered to a disposal team.  Most of their stock is acquired this way, though sometimes the better conditioned and more sought-after items are those that have been specifically brought to the shop to be sold.  Surprisingly, there does not seem to a specific trend going on at any one time in their world – furniture, books, clothing, paintings, jewellery or glassware – it all comes and goes, both ancient and modern.

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I asked Pierre and Michéle about their working rules and pricing, and got somewhat of a shock when they replied they had none.  Instead, they fly by the seat of their pants, buying and selling stock at prices dependent on a variety of factors. One of these is profit, of course, but they have no fixed mark-up or percentage.  They have a good, up-to-date knowledge of the market and what things sell and buy for at any time, so they have a guideline to refer too, but they modify their offers to buy based on what they feel an item is worth, more than what it will sell for, happy that they can then adjust the selling price to reflect any discrepancies.  The buying price is their working medium, for example, not the selling price.  For, as they explain, as long as they make some profit, of some sort, on an item, then they have not made a loss.  They write into this set of guidelines their own foibles too, which include gut-instinct and sound business practice.  Old stock does not rot in place, and a bargain is never turned down, even if not on the menu.

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Pierre tells me a story of how once at a flea-market he went past a stall where an old lady was selling a pushbike.  It was like any other pushbike, and Pierre is not an expert on bikes at all, but as he went past the bike called out to him.  Startled, he stopped and looked at, asking the old lady how much she wanted.  15 euros was the reply. Pierre scratched his chin and offered 10 euros, entirely unsure of why he was buying this bike.  But when he got home, and opened a magazine on his desk, he realized why.  He had seen an identical bike before, in this magazine for sale at 600 euros. Gut instinct had won the day, with a handsome payoff.

The Charente-Maritime is a busy summer destination for many people, and the clientele at Pierre and Michéle’s brocante truly reflects that – there are a huge number of French customers, not just locals (some of whom are fellow dealers) but also Parisians who own second homes in the region. Added to the French contingent are a large number of Germans, Dutch and Spanish, with a smattering of Russians and others.  I asked about British and Americans, and although they do have some British customers from further inland, there were very few American names in their database.  However, a lot of their customers have one thing in common – they buy things to use, not to sell.

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Pierre and Michéle explained that their customers are made up of three distinct groups – the first being those who come to buy items for their collections.  These people are on the business’ email list and often have specific requirements.  Typically, they are the sort of people who browse through the shop in three minutes and then leave without asking any questions.  Then, there is the group who want to buy something for a purpose – to either replace something they have already or something they want to be an addition to something they already have.  Lastly, there is the ‘chance encounter’ group; people who drive by, stop to browse saying they won’t buy anything, and then go home with a stuffed giraffe head or a box of 24 assorted plates that they think would look wonderful on their vintage dresser.  As is typical of the modern age, we also found out that Pierre and Michéle do over 50% of their business on-line.  Much of the stock in their third warehouse is just for this market.

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After an hour of questions it was time to head out for lunch, I looked around, amazed to think that so much of what I saw would be bought and put back into use over a period of time.  But to be truthful, it was easy to understand, as there is a great deal of stuff in there that I really wanted to come home with me in the back of the car.  Some to leave as is, and some to “play with” – a bit of sandpaper, a pot of paint, a little fabric – there is so much fun to be had in the world of brocantes.  Most of all I really want this chandelier!

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 http://www.brocanteduvaldarnoult.fr/

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