Sunday Brocantes | Rabbit Hill

French Markets & Cooking Workshops, Vintage and French Lifestyle Essentials

Through my eyes and my lens...the markets, the brocantes, farms and gardens ... traditions and culture of Normandy and beyond.

{Rules} of the Chateau ...

At exactly 6:29 PM the distant hum of a car engine can be heard ambling down the long and narrow, pot-hole infested dirt road.  If there has been a recent late afternoon summer shower, then the hum is intermittently interrupted by the splash of a wheel sinking into a newly formed pond in the single lane driveway that leads to the Chateau ...

There is no turning around on the quarter mile path, until you are smack in front of the glorious stone façade of the 18th century castle.  If you perhaps have missed the very discreet sign at the entrance that states ‘tous les jours 18h30 à 20h” or miscalculate your timing and are arriving 10 minutes too early, you must (sheepishly) return back to the tiny main road because the La Ferme du Chateau will not be opened early on any day, and most frequently is opened a few minutes later than it’s 6:30 pm stated hour.  It is open for a mere 90 minutes, every evening, every day of the year.

We lived in Normandy just over a year before we discovered the little root-cellar market on this expansive estate.  On that breezy warm July evening we arrived 20 minutes before the opening time and stopped half-way on the road to inquire to the smiling gentleman farmer if we might shop at bit early—we had our then five-month old baby in the car and were on the way home for dinner.  Still smiling, the gentleman farmer who turned out to be the propriétaire of the farm, firmly replied ‘non’ -- They are still working; picking the fresh greens and vegetables and bringing the cows to the barn to be milked.  We retreated—sheepishly—feeling silly for asking for special accommodation—We are locals…we live just 6 minutes down the road. 

We went home, waited…and returned 30 minutes later, just to be sure and respectful,  and it was on that evening that I first fell in love with the Chateau.  And this affaire d’amour started with the mystery of the farm, the castle and of course with the unspoken ‘rules’ of the Chateau.

Isabelle and Didier De La Porte are the owners of ‘la ferme’ which they began in 1979 as a fully ‘bio’ or organic farm.  The estate itself has been in Didier’s family since 1948.  Didier became interested in bio-farming knowing that the challenges associated with it would keep him intrigued and dedicated—and so far it has.  They both subscribe to a life of hard work and few if any vacations, but brimming with passion and satisfaction… a beautiful French country life.

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The market or produce-stand is located in the cellar of the large main house.  7 days a week  the small ‘root cellar’ is patronized by locals filling their market baskets with vegetables, artisan made cheese, bottles of raw milk, locally produced cider and vinegars….it is a way of life; as second nature as stopping at the grocery store on your way home from work.  But in the summer, there is a distinctly different vibe….the Parisians are in town.  

Parisians are to the Normandy Coastline what New Yorkers are to Nantucket.   They arrive in their black or silver cars with dark tinted windows, they drive the country roads like…. Well…. Parisians!  Locals, like us refer to them as the ‘75’s due to their hometown revealing license plate numbers.  They come to the countryside on the weekends and summer weeks… and they do not blend in with the locals. Not at all.  And it would seem that rather than adapting…as in ‘when in Rome’---when in our little town—they instead establish the rules… or think they do.

At 6:31 Isabelle passes the now thick crowd of shoppers, some blocking the door in anticipation, carrying a wood crate or basket of the last ‘picks’ of the day, or freshly steamed ‘betrave’…. The door is opened and the mob shuffles in.  Rule number one—arrive on time. The cellar is dimly lit by a single bare bulb that hangs from a wire attached to a 300 year old beam overhead.  Tall people must duck slightly to enter and within minutes it is shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, standing room only.  Arms begin reaching in all directions, filling baskets and the plastic sacks that hang from a hook over the bins of carottes, betrave, salade, tomate, oignions, courgette, concombre and jars filled with fresh herbs.  

Faites attention! To the elbows of the person next to you—Bags rustle, potatoes sometimes tumble to the floor—but otherwise it is perfectly silent.  Rule number two—do not speak.  Do you want that beautiful aubergine resting on the top of the pile, three crates up?  A Parisienne woman holds firmly to her husband’s arm as he precariously leans over to reach it.  Rule number three—do not step out of line.  Yes, you are already in line—what you fill your bag with is whatever is within reach, and whatever you do—do not leave the line.  You can reach over for anything, but you must keep one foot planted firmly in place.

Isabelle stands at the head of the line with a primitive produce scale, a small pad of paper and a pencil and counts and weighs each item, and when she is done, she tells you what you owe and slips the piece of paper into your sack as a record…. Or souvenir, if you are from Paris—because you have just visited an authentic Normandy ‘secret’ market… something to tell friends back in the city about.

When we get back to the car—my French husband and I share observations about the strange foreigners called Parisians and the way they behave at ‘Le Chateau’.  In the summer, we go almost everyday, evenings at la ferme have become part of our daily French life.  It is a comfortable ritual and a charming piece of home….   Even with the Parisians making the rules….

This article originally appeared in Parisienne Farmgirl Magazine in 2012.

This article originally appeared in Parisienne Farmgirl Magazine in 2012.

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