Although 'Body and Soul' was the theme of this year's Festival of Gardens at Chaumont* nowhere could be a more appropriate place to nurture them than the beautiful Prieuré D'Orsan - one of my favourite gardens and our next holiday destination. After my mid-summer malaise led to the postponement of our planned holiday to South Africa we needed a special treat to cheer us up and a one night stopover five years ago had left us wanting more. I had booked not the most expensive of the handful of rooms but, for us, the most desirable, an attic space with three windows each with a different view over the gardens. Our room had a stone floor, sloping walls clad in blonde-wood, a couple of Lloyd loom chairs and the kind of uncluttered, spartan simplicity we like. The views are enough to tempt me out of the cocooned warmth of the enormous, comfortable bed to confront the early autumn morning cool drifting in through the open windows. Cold room - warm bed, just the way it should be.
I stand by the narrow window and am mesmerized by a thousand colours green.
To the west arbours and arches
to the north orchards and raised beds
across the roof to the south..
In 1995 at Orsan in the Berry region of France architects Patrice Taravella, Sonia Lesot and gardener Gilles Guillot created anew a medieval garden at the Prieuré D'Orsan. They bought back to life "an art of gardening reminiscent of pre-Renaissance times" using the highly -refined art of wood-tressing and plant-training as shown in illuminations to recreate the style of a monastery garden. Although the garden is open to the public part of the day, guests have the sole use of it for the rest. There are few people around mid-week so we have the place almost to ourselves.
Patrice has provided a list of gardens to visit and things to do in the Berry area but we don't want to leave our cloistered confines. Why visit another garden when this is so beautiful and we have time to sit and stare,
to laze on one of the many woven chairs or benches and read, to walk around the kitchen gardens and wonder what will make its way to our evening repast,
to work out how we reach the chairs at the centre of the vegetable labyrinth
to wander out to where the hedges open and the garden morphs into a wildflower meadow, to watch the abundant wildlife from red squirrels to vibrant butterflies
or just enjoy the endless endeavours of the hedge trimmers
The only thing that saddens me is that the lavenders lining the hornbeam cloisters have gone. The hornbeams have filled out and the lavenders were old and there was no longer space for them but I miss them, their perfume and the visiting hummingbird moths that I first saw here the last time we stayed.
But all things change and there are new views and vistas like this one through the hedging giving a glimpse of the showbeds of leeks and cabbages like a blue-tinged infinity pool.
Even in the best of gardens a little devil will be chomping away...
Whilst the garden is feeding the soul, Patrice Taravella's exquisite cooking is soul food for the body. He describes it as "long way from the formal approach ... and closer to the meals shared with a gathering of friends." This is food the way we love it, the freshest of ingredients many of which are picked straight from the Prieuré's gardens and cooked in a way that allows each individual flavour to speak for itself. Despite the fact that the Filet deVeau aux Morilles is perfect cooked with earthy flavours, the Filet de Canard aux Pèches de Vigne is perfectly balanced with fowl and fruit flavours to die for, it is the vegetables that give full voice to the dishes. A course of fresh goats cheese and tomato is unbelievably exquisite the fresh, clean cut of the flavours zinging in our mouths.
And if the tomato is a revelation the Oignon Confit a Chèvre is a masterpiece. Such simple ingredients cooked to a perfection of intensified flavour - it is caramelised onion but not as we have ever known it!
There are only three couples eating in the chic dining room, the others of whom are French. Patrice informs me that he can always tell which the British diners are as they invariably move their wine glasses from the top right of their plates setting to the near side of it. I am aghast as this is exactly what I have done although the Bedsock who has left his in situ is looking smug. As an excuse for this ghastly faux pas I explain that I need the glass close and to the side as otherwise my dress will dangle on the plate as I reach across for it. I demonstrate this my linen sleeve soaking some sauce up on its way to the wine. Neither Patrice nor the Bedsock are impressed and for the rest of the meal I try and keep my wine topside of my plate setting but for those like me, who fall upon their wine like a thirsty beast, it is harder to do than one might think.
At least I am not committing the ultimate sin of texting and tweeting from my i-phone as a Frenchwoman, who has positioned herself on the one table that will receive a strong enough wi-fi signal, has been doing throughout every meal. This is so discourteous both to her partner and to our charming host. It has not gone unnoticed by the latter and the next day when I take my lap-top to the sitting room and with a certain sense of guilt link myself up to the internet Patrice remarks that "everyone is now quite addicted to these things" and adds that he doesn't even have a TV.
I point out that if I lived somewhere as beautiful and time consuming as the Prieuré I probably wouldn't spend my days slobbing on the sofa watching America's Next Top Model either. My excuse for the lap-top is that I am writing a garden blog about Chaumont which we have just visited. "Chaumont pfffft! These are not gardens, they should not be there for so long each year and they give people the wrong impression of how cheaply and quickly a 'garden' can be made" opines Patrice. I tell him that there was a similar backlash against 'Groundforce' in the UK but that actually I thought that Chaumont was fun and that they were more art installations than gardens. I don't think I have convinced him. In order to appear intelligent I say that "Forest gardening is now becoming popular in the UK." Luckily before Patrice can ask me what forest gardening actually is, another guest distracts him and I am saved from displaying my complete lack of knowledge on this matter.
The reading room is filled with books and magazines about gardening many of which feature articles on the Prieure including some beautiful photograph albums detailing the journey of the Prieure from ruin to restoration. I have asked Patrice if he has produced a cookbook but he says he has written enough books this year already. He proudly shows me a copy of 'Hortus' which features his garden. I ask what happens to all the fruit crops from the many vines, apples, medlars, pears etc. entwined around the garden.
I have an idea that a thousand women wearing fuckme shoes could stamp their stilettoes around the lawns, aerating the soil and helping Patrice with his clay drainage problem. Luckily these words don't reach my mouth either.
Patrice describes the Prieuré as a place to "ensure your happiness and rest, as well as giving you a chance to recover your health and strength away from the rest of the world."
We came, we saw, we rested.
* see earlier blog here
** for and earlier blog on fuckme shoes see 'What the Romans did for us' here
***we later find green zebra tomatoes on sale at Saintes farmers market and they are just as good!