Monday, 11 October 2010

Prieuré Notre Dame D'Orsan - Soul and Body

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.

To me the beauty of the garden is its order which provides an incredibly serene and relaxing atmosphere.  Despite the fact that everything but EVERYTHING has been twisted and trained, cut, contorted and caged so precisely, this is not a garden under stress. There is no sense that the plants are fighting or merely enduring their bondage, they are embracing it, cloaking, covering and caressing the frameworks they cling to.  This is a garden both loving and loved as these hearts reflect

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.

I'm told the tomato is green zebra, one I have heard of and can (will) grow from seed but I can't believe I will ever achieve this tart, citric, fruitiness with one I have grown myself.***  Patrice is not a man afraid to use salt - not uniformly in the cooking but a sprinkle of salt crystals across the dish and in tiny clusters on the food which suddenly explode in your mouth cutting into and complimenting the clean flavours.  I ask him if this is some special magic salt but he laughs and says it is just salt and that fleur de sel is for the tourists.

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.

"No fruit this year" he shrugs.  I'm astonished but he explains that Berry is on France's hail belt ("Hallé Berry" I think but luckily the words don't reach my mouth).  Early in July a huge hail storm gathered.  Normally the Prieuré is notified by the Met Office in advance so that they can set-up a machine that pumps some kind of stuff into the atmosphere which will melt the hail before it hits.  Sorry to be so vague on this but I was a little gobsmacked and wasn't sure whether Patrice was joking.  He wasn't - this time there was no warning and thirty minutes of hard, heavy, hail hit the garden washing a layer of mud off the clay soil and through the lower area of the house.  It also damaged and destroyed all the fruit and only time will tell how much of the garden will die of disease invading the weakened trees. He shrugs philosophically in a way that French people and farmers must so often do.

On our last afternoon we notice a photoshoot taking place in the garden.  Patrice nonchalantly says it is yet another advert being filmed against this backdrop.  They are dressing one of the more intricate woven garden seats with what appears to be accessories including a hat, a suitcase and wait for it.... a pair of fuckme shoes!**

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!


Ms B said...

Glorious! I was there.

VP said...

I met the breeder of the Green Zebra tomato last year at the food growing bloggers get together in Oxford. Did you save some seed from your meal - you should be able to grow some tomato plants from them...

SS said...

I'm either very jealous or extremely pleased for you but can't work out which.

Plant Mad Nige said...

What a heavenly spot! Far too manipulated for me, I'm afraid, but I love those sorts of gardens when someone else is doing all the work.

There's a vast difference between 'Continental' and 'English' gardening. The latter, even in fussy examples, seems to be more 'laissez-faire' and naturalistic. In contrast, the French and Italians just can't stop fiddling and snipping.

The bit about the wine glass strikes me as being another piece of gross discrimination against 'South-paws.' I invariably move all my drinking vessels to my left hand side. Not to do so would risk my slopping the stuff all over my neighbour, since my right hand is even more useless than my left.

Gosh, now I've gone and been rude again, and your hosts seemed to be so utterly charming.

Stupendous piccies, by the way.

James A-S said...

Sometimes I worry, dear Arabella, that you do not have enough holidays.

All this selfless research you do on our behalf into interesting gardens and foreign destinations must be exhausting - to say nothing about your extensive research into the cause and effect of psychotic behaviour in kittens.

We are of course extremely grateful for all this hard work but, and I think I speak for all your devoted readers, we are concerned that you may perhaps be overdoing things.

There are not nearly enough blogposts where we find you you lying in luxuriously enbubbled baths, hobnobbing with chubby Spidermen, eating Michelin starred food and swigging fine vintages.

Please look after yourself and take a break occasionally.

the cycling gardener said...

A few stolen moments with your sublime guide to Prieure D’Orsan has been the perfect antidote to a pig of a morning.

Arabella Sock said...

Ms. B. - I was minded that you were not hot on vistas on your recently blog, but I do think they worked well here in the right setting.

VP. I'm afraid we ate every single little last bit of the tomatoes! Wish I had thought to save some pips now.

SS - both will do nicely.

Plant Mad Nige - I'm a southpaw too. I wish I had thought to use that as an excuse. Although I did once buy left-handed dressmaking scissors and then it turned out I cut cloth with my right hand. I agree about French and Italian gardens and the fiddling/snipping but I think it really did work in this context.

James, you are so right. My next blog will feature relaxation, baths and toes.

I'm glad you enjoyed the blog Cycling Gardener. My main reason for writing it was the pure self-indulgence of reliving the experience. Back to psychotic cats and keeping an eye on our gardening heroes now.

janerowena said...

What a beautiful post. It sounds heavenly.

Helen/patientgardener said...

that lookss an amazing place to go. I just need to get over my fear of driving on the wrong side of the road and I'm off!

HappyMouffetard said...

Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous.

Karen - An Artist's Garden said...

What utter bliss

Anonymous said...

What an amazing garden, love all that plant torturing stuff myself. I went to a garden in the Cotswolds a couple of years ago that was inspired by the Prieure D'Orsan, but I dont think they'd quite nailed it now that I see the real thing.
Fabulous post. I feel quite rested myself after reading it.