Informally dressed: French cottage style

The casual, liveable cottage and farmhouse style never loses its appeal.

Cottages and farmhouses are the kind of period French property most commonly bought by British buyers and they are buildings designed to be lived in, not for show.

Such buildings are generally in the vernacular style – using local materials for both roof and walls, and fitting well into the landscape from which they were made. Their interiors, lived in by country people who worked the land, tended to express practicality and comfort, rather than formal grandeur.

This country style appeals to the modern-day brocanteur, who, neither a cotter nor a farmer, still enjoys winkling out interesting bits of furniture or textile, and prefers to let an interior grow incrementally, rather than buying everything from the same source.

The building

When you buy a cottage or farmhouse, it rarely offers the same kind of blank canvas as a barn: solid interior walls may mean you have to make do with the existing room layout, or be prepared to undertake serious restructuring. Windows tend to be small, which can make interiors rather dark compared with a modern property. And the greater desire for space in our modern lifestyle may mean that you want to convert the attic space, where awkward beams and eaves entail a different kind of compromise.

However, cottages and farmhouses have history, and usually some architectural features of interest. Depending on where you have bought in France, and the wealth of the original owners, this might include an oeil-de-boeuf window, a fireplace with corbels, a vaulted cellar or a bread oven. A property that offers several will probably be sold as a ‘maison de caractère’.

“We bought our house because of the fireplace and features like the stone sink built into the wall,” says Helen Nixon, who lives in a farmhouse in the Charente. “But I have to admit that we’ve got used to the fireplace now, and the sink is hidden by a sofa most of the time.”

Walls and floors

Floors in farmhouses and cottages work best if they’re of the practical variety, such as terracotta, quarry, wood or ceramic. Luckily, the French prefer hard flooring, so French DIY stores offer a massive range, from click-together laminates to real-wood parquet, to ceramic tile in every imaginable colour and pattern.

Fitted carpets don’t look quite at home in farmhouse-style interiors, where people are (at least in theory) stomping in and out with muddy gumboots, but area rugs work well. Try coir or sisal in areas of heavy wear, or wool for softness underfoot. Sheepskin and goatskin also look at home, as do rag rugs or flat weaves such as kilims and dhurries.

The wall treatments that look best are usually homely, such as exposed stone or rough plaster, and matt paints generally look better than satin. Many expats would advise bringing over British paint from the UK. “French paint is like milk,” says David Halton, who owns both a cottage and a converted barn in Normandy. “I’ve bought every available type, but it just won’t cover. Whenever I go back to the UK, I stock up on trade white emulsion.”

Upstairs, wallpapers can sometimes be useful to mask the dead-flat look of plasterboard walls, but stick to something simple like a Toile de Jouy, or the traditional prints offered by Laura Ashley, rather than modern, grandiose or textured designs.

Furnishings

When it comes to furniture, plain, simple country pieces of any era are usually the most effective in a vernacular interior, and since local brocantes and depot-ventes are likely to be full of country pieces in the right styles, take your cue from these.

Living room with woodburning stove fire in converted barn, Orne, Normandy, France

“We’ve furnished our French house bit by bit from local depot-ventes,” says Richard Manton, who has a farmhouse in Normandy, “but it’s not as easy to find bargains as it used to be. For instance, we couldn’t find two similar bookcases, so we chose ones that were as different as possible, rather than having a near-miss.”

For soft furnishings, large, accommodating, family-friendly furniture works well. Helen Nixon couldn’t find a French sofa she liked, so she had hers made in the UK and shipped over. “We bought a model with cotton loose covers which are easy to wash,” she says. “I’ve been very glad of that with our cats and dog and friends’ babies wrecking them every five minutes.”

Room by room

If you’re moving across full-time, there is no need to furnish from scratch – your existing British furniture may fit quite happily into a French country setting, especially if it’s of a traditional style. Victorian, Arts and Crafts period, or Utility all look fine, as do plain, modern pine pieces from shops such as Ikea or Laura Ashley (if you have a chest of drawers, hang on to it, as these can be harder to find in France).

Fine Georgian antiques, or spindly 50s furniture, however, may look a little precious unless items are grouped together, and anything too sleek and modern can be hard to accommodate.

If your French house is larger than your UK one, your British furniture won’t go very far, so mix and match with some French pieces such as an oak or fruitwood buffet or two. A large armoire or ‘bibliotheque’, as well as being beautiful, is indispensible for storing books, CDs and DVDs.

Many French cottages have only a corner kitchen in the living room, but this can be a nice solution for a holiday home, or for a cook who doesn’t want to be cut off from visitors while preparing meals. However, you’ll find a decent extractor fan very useful to keep your furnishings clean.

Where the kitchen is a separate room, it’s usually used for dining as well – a separate dining room is a rare commodity in a farmhouse or cottage. Oilcloth, a pine table and rush seats are more at home here than fine linen and china.

Bathrooms and bedrooms in cottages and farmhouses sometimes have to be where you can slot them in rather than where you’d actually like them, especially if you’re making the most of an attic conversion.

Attic bathrooms in particular tend to be very small, but that may be no bad thing, as Helen Nixon points out. “Our first priority was to move our tiny bathroom upstairs into a much larger bedroom,” she says, “but when winter came we realised that a tiny room with a huge radiator was actually an asset.”

With small bathrooms, a simple decorative scheme will probably work best, with white sanitaryware and a wall treatment such as tongue-and-groove or white tile. Wicker or painted wood furniture looks more in keeping than laminate or modern mirror-finish cabinets. The French tend to prefer a modern look, but the odd traditional range appears in outlets such at Atlas.

A French bed may prove more practical than a British four-poster if you’re jammed into a small space, but can still give a nice sense of enclosure because of the high footboard. Antique beds in many different styles are still readily available in brocantes, though you may have to extend the length, as people have got taller over the decades.

Gillian Albert runs a B&B in the Loire and says: “Most of my guest rooms only have a bed, a night table and a chest of drawers, because there’s simply no room for anything else, but luckily guests just seem to think it’s charming and olde worldy.”

Gillian herself, however, has hung onto a very spacious master bedroom with its own fireplace – clearly short stays and living full time are two different entities.

Born in a barn – French style

Living in a converted barn is the dream of many a Brit buying in France, and the blank canvas that a barn offers is very enticing. But converting accommodation that formerly housed animals or hay raises some unfamiliar issues.

If you are now the proud owner of a barn in France, with permission to develop, you now have to think carefully about what to do with all that space. Essentially there are two options: boxing out or open-plan.

Jean O’Halleran, a property developer who has renovated eight French barns, says she feels that a person shouldn’t buy a barn unless they like open-plan living. “This is what barns truly lend themselves to,” she says. “No matter what you do with a barn, it does always feel like a barn, not like a house. The sheer amount of space you get is wonderful. ”

Jean’s last conversion, in the Mayenne, was 34 metres long, with seven bedrooms, and she positioned the entrance hall in the middle. This was open right up to the roof, while the 60sqm galleried living room was placed on the first floor to make the most of the spectacular views.

Jean likes to be able to see right from one end of the building to the other in her conversions, and although it may be necessary to install internal walls for the sake of warmth, she prefers to keep internal doors few and far between. However, one thing she always builds in is a closed-off mudroom, sandwiched between a drive-in garage and the kitchen. “The mudroom is great for drying off the dogs, and means you can unload your shopping under cover,” she says. “I usually slot an extra loo and shower in here too.”

One problem that many would-be owners don’t realise is that barns tend to lack architectural features such as interesting fireplaces and windows, so character has to be added by you. “That’s not an insurmountable problem,” says Jean. “I focus on texture, and I source a lot of reclaimed materials such as old bricks and reclaimed timber flooring. I choose textured finishes for the walls, such as rough-plastering, and use paint effects like rag-rolling, while for kitchen tiles, I usually choose something hand-made and a little irregular.”

When Emma and Ken Snelson undertook their barn conversion they decided to box out, as it was always intended to be a gîte and needed a large number of bedrooms, but to make up for the rooms being smaller, they left the original cathedral ceilings on the top storey. What they hadn’t bargained on in their conversion was the clearance work when they first started.

“Farmers tend to leave all their junk when you buy a farm building,” says Emma. “Our stable was full of old tack and had to be dug out before work could begin.” Then, when the Snelsons came to put in the upper floor in the old stable, another issue arose. “There wasn’t enough head height on the top floor if we kept the floor at the existing level,” says Emma, “so we had to lower it and put a new floor in.” However, that left the Snelsons with a lot of old floorboards, so Emma cut them up and used them to make the kitchen units.

The quality of the building materials can also be an issue in barn conversions. When the stone was originally quarried, usually locally, the good blocks were traditionally reserved for the house, with working animals such as horses getting the next-best, then livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens, in descending order. “In the part of our house that used to be the cowshed,” says Emma, “the stones are rough schist and there are no good cornerstones. It had also been slapped up any old how, probably by the farmer himself. We had to rebuild the lot, and then rough-plaster over it to get a decent finish.”

In Ian Hackshall’s 18th century stone gîte, the lowest floor was a cow byre and the top floor was a hayloft, while humans were snugged into the storey in between. “There was 2ft of compacted cowdung in the byre and it all had to be dug out by hand,” he says. Ian went for the open-plan look and the old byre is now just one of five levels Ian has created in the house, connected by a handmade oak staircase that winds its way up the centre of the property. This finishes in a walkway on the top floor which connects two of the bedrooms.

It may be open, but it never feels cold, not just because of the large woodburner in the living room, but owing to the underfloor heating system. “This is a good solution in large spaces,” says Ian. “With underfloor heating you get no convection, and that enables you to keep a barn conversion open-plan, because there are no draughts. Underfloor heating also keeps the walls clear of radiators, which means you can put your furniture anywhere you like.”

Underfloor heating is expensive to install, and some people find the hot feet-cool head feeling a little unnatural to live with, but it is cheap to run, and also offers other advantages, such as safety (there are no hot radiators that might burn small fingers). In Ian’s house the heating cables are laid in a lightweight concrete screed, with ceramic tiles on top, which means that the system can be used even on the upper storeys.

When it comes to decoration, Ian has kept things simple, using natural colours and textures throughout, and plain white walls. The only fabric used is undyed cotton poplin. To make the most of the open-plan feeling, he has used doors only on the bathrooms and elsewhere has hung curtains. He also made a four-poster bed from wood and mild steel, and hung it with the same cotton poplin.

The final issue that concerns barn-dwellers is light. Barns originally have the minimum of windows, with perhaps ‘chattières’ in the roof to allow air to circulate around the hay. That pretty much gives you the choice of where to install your windows, but some owners prefer to simply glaze the openings that already exist. “We are planning to join our two small limestone barns with a glass conservatory,” says Joanne Clarkson in the Haute Vienne. “That means we don’t really mind the rest of the house being darker, so we’re just glazing the existing openings and installing rooflights. The floor will be of polished limestone, though, to reflect as much light as possible.”

Jean O’Halleran, whose conversions have mainly been granite buildings which really need light, prefers to run a row of French windows down the south side of the structure wherever possible. “That means you get lots of light on that side, and you can run all the services down the north side,” she explains. “That makes the plumbing and installing the septic tank, etc, much easier.”

When it comes to rooflights, she says, she feels Veluxes give a better light, but that on the whole she prefers dormers. “Dormers look much nicer,” she says, “and they do give you the head height, which can be important when the roof pitch is low. However, you really need to get a decent builder in, because dormers will leak if they’re not properly installed. I would never advise anyone to install dormers themselves.”

* Before you buy a barn expecting to convert it, it’s crucial that you have a ‘certificat d’urbanisme’ that gives you permission to develop the building in the way you wish. The ‘CU’ is said to be becoming harder to obtain and, in particular, watch out if a barn seems to be going for a bargain price – if it seems to be too good to be true, you might find that a CU has already been applied for and refused.

The French look: the continuing charm of French interior design

French interiors are known the world over for their charm, but charm is a hard concept to put a finger on. ‘Raising domesticity to an art’ is the hallmark of the French look, claims French style magazine Maison & Jardin, and that’s not a bad place to start.

There are many different types of French interior, of course, but one hallmark of French houses is that they are usually bigger than English ones. Other than those bourgeoise varieties packed with objects intended for admiration, this can result in a rather spare atmosphere, especially those in the southern style, where life is lived mainly outside. Many an English owner in France, unnerved by the greater amount of space in their French property, has stuffed it to the gills to create the more familiar and cosy look of the English country cottage.

In terms of elements of style, French homes often do without fitted carpets – though rugs may be plentiful. Downstairs rooms often have terracotta or ceramic tiling, or parquet flooring, while upstairs rooms generally have bare floorboards. Furniture is often painted white or grey – a soft, knocked-back look – though the style itself may be quite ornate.

Though not allergic to flowers, the French are not fans of chintz, that quintessentially English fabric, but prefer either very loud floral prints from the likes of Canovas, or the subtle madder- or blue-on-white tones of Toiles de Jouy. Further south, the Indian-inspired paisleys of Provencal fabrics in rich mustard, green and red are popular. Curtains may range from multiple layers of chiffon drapes in the grand Parisian style, to nothing at all in the countryside, where shutters provide the only protection from the weather. However, if you live in the average British street and need privacy, heavy cotton curtains with repeat designs will give you a more French look than the plain nylon net beloved of the British.

French interiors, even in a British setting, are not difficult to create, even if you never set foot in the ‘Hexagone’, though it is vastly useful to be able to pay a visit to the odd brocante. But don’t be too hidebound by rules in creating a French-style interior – the French themselves have borrowed from every style in the world, including the British.

KITCHEN/BREAKFAST ROOM

The French kitchen is traditionally a workplace, though working-class and country families do eat in the kitchen rather than in a separate dining room. The French generally pay more attention to the batterie de cuisine than to interior decoration, but the simplicity of a workroom where form follows function retains its own charm. Cut-paper borders or bands of cotton crochet, often featuring kitchenalia, are used to decorate shelf-edging, while splashbacks are usually tile and work surfaces are often tiled to match.

Large tables, perhaps covered with oilcloth, serve for both food preparation and meals, with simple bentwood or rush chairs au Van Gogh. Storage in the French kitchen is provided by large, freestanding furniture (a ‘placard’ – cupboard, or ‘armoire’ – wardrobe) rather than rows of fitted cupboards. The French kitchen buffet is capacious, and, unlike the English dresser, generally has a closed top in glass or wood, and a marble surface for eggs and butter. The sink will usually be white enamel.

Rather than cookers the French prefer ranges, which are set 2cm or so lower than a conventional cooker so that you can see the contents of pans on the back burners easily. These have 5-6 burners and 1-4 ovens and looks something like the British Rayburn. There are no wall cupboards as a rule – the French prefer to keep their copper pans, enamel colanders, etc, to hand on shelves or hanging rails. The French batterie de cuisine is usually comprehensive and may include esoteric items such as crepe pans, turbotières, tripières and a moulin for making mashed potato and soups. If the French have electric implements in their kitchens, they’re likely to be hidden away in disgrace.

Get the look:

  • Get rid of your top cupboards and replace them with shelving.
  • Front the bottom cupboards with gingham or other checked fabric rather than doors.
  • Use copper or enamel pans, and keep them out on display.
  • Use Le Parfait jars (with a rubber seal and metal clip) for storage of pasta, rice etc.
  • Install a white enamel sink in place of metal.

Tip: Certain knick-knacks will give your kitchen an instant French hit, including sets of spice jars in descending sizes; regional pottery – flower-strewn from Quimper, the greeny-yellow glazes of Provence, or the tin glazes of Normandy; le Creuset-type enamel pans; enamel coffee pots; wood-burning stoves from the likes of Godin; and terracotta wine-racks.

SITTING ROOM

Most ordinary French people spend their evenings in the kitchen and either do not have a living room, or have a ‘salon’ reserved for family events. The grand salon is a stiffly formal affair, with chairs placed against the walls and few soft furnishings of the squashy sofa type. The middle-classes and above, however, do have petit salons that the British would recognise as living rooms. Here the furniture is usually Louis XV or XVI-style (ie: rather curlier than English style) with a heavy velvet finish, or Empire-style with a brocade finish. Wooden furniture has hand carving and curved panelling, with ornate handles and finger-plate, and is usually in fine woods, or painted – the ‘stripped-pine’ look is not in French taste. The petit salon, though relaxed, is still often more formal than an English sitting room and readers might prefer to merge styles in order to retain some comfort.

Get the look:

  • Eschew carpets and lay terracotta, stone or ceramic tiling, or wooden flooring instead. If you’re in a flat with noise regulations, cork flooring may provide a suitable alternative.
  • Install an open fire or woodburning stove – or even a fake one if you’ve no chimney. The fireplace is the heart of the French sitting room.
  • Keep patterns to stripes, checks or Toile de Jouy – avoid chintz and Native American patterns.
  • Rough-plaster the walls for a country finish.
  • Hang lots of mirrors with gilt frames.

Tip: the French enjoy their ‘petit soins’ – somewhere at hand to rest your coffee cup, a blanket on each chair for winter evenings, a vase of fresh flowers, or chandeliers with real candles. They also enjoy ‘objets d’art’ or objets trouvés’ grouped as collections.

BATHROOM

Belle Vallee, Domfront, Orne, Normandy, France

The French bathroom is generally rather spartan by British standards, containing the bare minimum of items needed for washing, bathing and showering, and often tiled floor to ceiling in white. However, all the items will be very good quality. A roll-top cast-iron bath is standard, or perhaps a freestanding model in zinc or copper, if you can find one. The other sanitaryware is generally white, with a bidet included next to the toilet basin. Towels are usually cotton waffle or linen edged with lace, rather than the Turkish towelling used by the British.

Get the look:

  • Towel rails in chrome or bent wood.
  • Taps in chrome and enamel.
  • A circular shower rail with a curtain, rather than a glass door.
  • Radiators that are cast-iron and curvy.
  • Large mirrors with gilt frames.

Tip: for daily washing, the French often install handbasins and bidets in their bedrooms, screened by a folding screen.

BEDROOM

The French bedroom is instantly recognisable, partly because of the shape of the bed. French beds tend to have very high footboards compared with their headboards and the footless, divan type of bed is rarely used. Bedframes may be plain wood, as in a bateau-en-lit (boat-bed, or sleigh-bed) type, or carved wood padded with fabric in the Louis XV or XIV style. The four-poster is a rarer creature – the French generally prefer to canopy their beds at the head end only, often using a wooden ‘couronne’. Also popular are ‘daybed’-style beds, turned side-on against the wall and canopied from head to foot.

Sometimes a room may have a complete set of matching furniture, but this is not de rigeur. Toile de Jouy often figures heavily in the bedroom, along with the type of wholecloth quilt known as a ’boutis’ where the pattern is produced solely by stitching, and in general, feminity rules, with lots of lace and ruffles. French bedding often has a lace edge to the sheets and pillowcases, and the pillows should be square, not oblong.

Get the look:

  • Add large square pillows to your bed.
  • Toile de Jouy will instantly Gallify the most British of bedrooms.
  • Paint the furniture white or pale grey, with touches of gilt.
  • If you have a chaise longue, this is the place for it

Tip: a French boudoir should be a haven to retire to (a boudoir is literally a ‘sulking room’), not just a room for sleeping.

Beds and boards – the French way to furnish

Every French house deserves at least some French furniture. Let’s sort the antiques from the bric-a-brac.

Most British people buying a period house in France still prefer to a least partly furnish it with French furniture, and although the days of rock-bottom bargains may be over, there are still gems to be found if you shop carefully.

Brocante antique shop, Domfront, Normandy, France

Furniture can be found in both brocantes and depot-ventes (where the sales are on commission), though the higher-end antiquités stores are for those with very deep pockets. If you have a ‘vide-grenier’ in your area, this too is usually worth a visit – it’s the equivalent of the British car-boot sale, and if you’re lucky, real bargains can be found.

There are sound reasons for buying French furniture for your French property. If you buy a property with lots of beamwork, or an exposed structure such as colombage (half-timbering), you’ll find that locally-styled furniture is usually in matching woods and therefore looks perfectly at home. In the Alps, for instance, your construction woods might well be pine or fir, and painted pine furniture is a good match for bare fir walls with their strong grain. In the north of France, both your flooring and your furniture are quite likely to be oak. And walnut, cherry and other fruitwoods are also available, all of which look right in rural surroundings.

Brocante
Domfront, Normandy, France

Finer French furniture such as marquetry pieces can look well even in modest period French properties, as if the local ch‚teau had been raided by the Revolutionaries, but one thing to be aware of is scale. French houses, particularly in the south, tend to be much larger than British houses, and larger properties obviously require more furniture – they will cheerfully swallow up everything from your English house. They also often have high ceilings or cathedral-ceiling roof conversions where small-scale furniture looks instantly puny and out of place. Enter the gigantic French armoires and kitchen buffets that would swamp the average British room.

There are, however, some specific items you might prefer to source in the UK, such as chests of drawers. The French tend to prefer drawers or shelves built into their wardrobes, and the French commode-type of sideboard is often too formal for a bedroom space, while the ‘semanier’ with its seven drawers – looking something like an English tallboy — is often too tall. A classic pine or oak English chest of drawers fits well into most French houses, particularly if you replace the wooden knobs with white ceramic French ones.

Another item some have found in short supply in France is the classic pine refectory table, so at home in the English country kitchen. French dining tables tend to be made from better-quality woods, often with quite fine marquetry, and are very much dining room furniture rather than kitchen furniture. However, if you can’t find what you want for your particular situation, you can always cheat. “My ‘refectory’ table always garners a lot of compliments,” says Andrea Smiley, a textile dealer in Normandy. “After all, it’s over 14ft long and 4ft wide, so it really dominates the room. But people look quite surprised when I tell them it’s just made from scaffolding planks and four pub table bases. I gave it a bit of a distressed finish and now it looks right at home.”

Back across the Channel, vintage French beds are among the items most often bought by the British, and with good reason, since they offer a huge variety of styles. The bateau-en-lit is always a favourite, with its deep curved ends shaped like an elegant boat: the narrow ones can also be pressed into use as a sofa or chaise-longue, visually light because they are backless. More modern versions of the bateau-en-lit may have drawers built in underneath, providing useful storage.

Also available are classic Louis XV-style carved bedheads with a curved top and either upholstered or wooden backs. The upholstered type usually needs to be reworked, unless you buy from a high-end shop where the reupholstering has already been done.

One issue with French beds is that they tend to be rather narrow for British taste, where the king-size bed is now standard, and they also tend to be short. When buying an antique French bed, allow for the fact that you might have to extend it to ensure a comfortable night’s sleep, or just buy the bedhead and foot and have the bed base made separately.

Among the other items you might find still readily available in France are kitchen dressers – known as ‘buffets’. These capacious pieces of furniture are very useful, even in an otherwise fitted kitchen, for storing unattractive items such as electrical equipment.

Unlike the open shelves of a traditional English or Welsh dresser, French buffets usually have a closed top, with either solid wooden doors or glass doors, glass shelves and a mirror back, useful for displaying attractive glassware. Different regions of France have different styles, but wherever you are, it’s worth looking out for a marble top — surprisingly handy for keeping butter and vegetables cool in summer.

Many 19th and 20th century kitchen buffets in revival styles have a heavy, overvarnished appearance, but this can quickly be relieved with a rough rub-down and a coat of white or pale grey emulsion paint, picking out the carved sections in contrast.

The French often use the word ‘armoire’ for both wardrobes and cupboards and the same piece of furniture can sometimes be pressed into use in either kitchen or bedroom. French armoires may be fitted with shelves, using a nifty wooden ratchet system that gives almost infinite changes of level, or it might have a hanging section on one side with drawers on the other (a wardrobe with only hanging space is sometimes called a ‘penderie’ or ‘garde robe’).

If the piece is oak or chestnut, the doors and drawers tend to be solid rather than veneered, though veneered woods such as walnut can also be found. Doors may also be mirrored, and you may also come across the type with a horizontal openwork section that is backed with fabric – this maintains the free passage of air and prevents clothes from becoming musty in a damp climate.

When looking for wardrobes, make sure the item will come apart easily if you need to move it up narrow stairs or down a narrow corridor – quite often, French pieces are made with a detachable cornice and bottom section with exactly this in mind.

Armoires can be used for book storage, but proper bookcases (‘bibliothèques’) are also available, in all manner of styles from plain oak with plain glass doors, to more intricate pieces with bevelled glass and perhaps a ‘chapeau de gendarme’ top.

Whatever your taste or style, and even if you bring a container-load of English furniture with you, you should be able to find something archetypically French that will make your house into a maison.

A fruitful summer

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Bottling summer’s abundance is one of my pleasures in life. White currants

June is a busy month in my kitchen. 

When we moved to rural France in 1996, I kinda sorta hoped to grow my own veg, keep chickens etc. That idea was quickly booted into touch firstly by our lack of topsoil (the canny French farmer who sold us this land knew what he was doing…) and my husband’s hatred of all things fowl, with their pecky little beaks and beady little eyes. 

What I can grow, however – even if it meant hewing holes in the ground with a pickaxe – is fruit.

We inherited about 12 cherry trees (most of them dying or gone now); eight or so calvados pears (rock hard and gritty); and two apple trees. The apples proceeded to keel over and die that first winter and we lost four trees in the Grande Tempête of Boxing Day 1999, but the rest remain and are thriving. 

Redcurrants, whitecurrants (actually pink), gooseberries in shades of red, green and purple, jostaberries, plums of all sizes and colours, apple trees, quinces, crab apples, walnuts, wild cherry and medlars have all been up and fruiting for the past 10 years, not to mention the elderflowers, grapevines and roses, whose petals and fruit can both be processed.

Getting the fruit put up means working quickly in season. Every sunny morning in June, I rush out as soon as the dew is dry, collecting elderflowers and rose blossom before the heat of the day gets up. I cut whole heads of flower off the tree, filling a big steel salad bowl. It gets a good shake, then the petals are removed into a colander, to allow at least some of the insect life to drop out. Another good shake and then you put the petals in a bowl and pour 500ml of hot or boiling sugar syrup over them. (Sugar syrup is made with 50-50 water and sugar, brought to the boil, then boiled for one minute – nothing could be simpler). You then leave this for three days, strain it (I used a chinois sieve, which is conical and holds a huge amount), then filter it through muslin and bottle it. I use two types of bottles – glass for keeping in the cupboard and plastic for freezing, or if the syrup turns out a bit thin. 

Another way to preserve petals or soft fruit is to add 40-proof alcohol (Putinoff vodka from Lidl is good) and leave them to steep. But this is a longer process – about three months in a dark place, shaken every so often is about right. Then you strain the mix and filter it through muslin. You can either leave it as it is, as a kind of eau-de-vie, or, measure the amount and add about the same amount of sugar in grams (ie: 500ml of liquid to 500g of sugar) to make a liqueur. 

The third quick (and cheap) preserving method I use is vinegar, which works well with elderflowers and berry fruits such as redcurrants. Collect the fruit or petals (you can wash fruit, but not petals), if using fruit, mash it with a potato masher, then add hot vinegar, place in jars and once again leave for 2-3 months, then strain it, filter it and bottle it. It’s wonderful in the depths of winter to help yourself to a glass of rose liqueur or a long drink with a splash of redcurrant vinegar.  

On top of that, of course, there are the chutneys, relishes, jams and jellies, though these are all more time-consuming (less, admittedly, since I started doing them in the slow cooker overnight). It’s the syrups and liqueurs that are my first love.

This year I’m trying a cold-process method for the fruit syrups (redcurrant, whitecurrant and ‘fruit walk’). You just gather and wash your fruit, mash it with a potato masher, leave it for 24 hours to ferment slightly, then process to remove the seeds (I use a moulin, then a chinois, then a sieve, then muslin). To this liquid, you just add an equal quantity (or less, if you prefer it sharp) of sugar, stirring until it dissolves, then bottle it and put it in either the fridge or the freezer. This cold method results in a superior product but it won’t keep unchilled if you don’t heat-process it, so I’ll keep it in the freezer in 30cl bottles and only get one out at a time.   

In the past two weeks, I’ve made walnut vinegar (with green walnuts), rose syrup, elderflower syrup, rose vodka, redcurrant vodka, redcurrant syrup, whitecurrant vodka, whitecurrant syrup, rose liqueur, redcurrant jelly, ‘fruit walk’ syrup (ie: whatever I can get my hands on), and redcurrant relish. Kind of like nuts for winter. 

Speaking of nuts, this year I’m trying that old French classic, vin de noix, for the first time – about a bottle and a half of red wine, 200ml of calvados, about 250g of sugar, six green walnuts, quartered, a couple of walnut leaves, ripped, and a dash of vanilla. Should be ready in a couple of months. 

Indigo-dyeing day

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I’m more than pleased with my first try at indigo dyeing. Indigo dresses

I thought I’d share my first attempts at indigo dyeing. 

It’s all courtesy of my friend M, who has a lovely workshop because she dyes yarn for a living, and decided to invite all her friends over to try their hands at this technique. I was in the second workshop, and decided to cut some dress lengths, because in the past, when I’ve done shibori dyeing, I’ve ended up with pieces of fabric that were too small to use. 

This time I was determined not to make the same mistake, so I cut a simple sundress shape out of fabrics in my stash. One is a white-on-white stripe chintz that I’ve had for over 25 years and never used, and the two others were cut from a bamboo and cotton single duvet cover.

I also did some test samples on offcuts of kimono silk and old haori linings that I’d removed from garments that I dissassembled.

I spent the night before the workshop tying and stitching my fabrics.

mokume shibori

One dress length I did as mokume – a technique where you sew running stitches through the cloth then draw it up. I actually did this on my sewing machine, using a 20mm tacking stitch through both pieces of fabric, and when drawn up, the piece was only around six inches long. You can see here how the striped chintz adds an extra level of texture. 

 'bean' shibori and maki-nuiAnother, I knew I wanted mostly dark, so I tied individual dried beans into it, using elastic bands rather than thread. On the bodice section, I used black-eyed beans, in the middle section I used chickpeas and on the skirt part I used white kidney beans. (The different sizes proved to be a waste of time, as they all came out looking virtually identical.) I also whipstitched in between the motifs on the bodice part – a technique called maki-ori. 

kumo shibori

The third piece was a last-minute decision – kumo shibori of a sort, though very rough in technique. I just drew up a handful of cloth into a point and secured it with one or two elastic bands, going all over the cloth until it was covered. Each dress length ended up about six inches wide and a foot long. 

The indigo had been mixed in a plastic dustbin, using ready-to-use indigo crystals. Apparently it’s important to let it settle until it forms a yellowish layer on top, rather like oil on vinegar in a salad dressing. Into this, you dip your fabric, preferably wet to the ease the penetration of the dye, and trying to disturb the surface layer as little as possible to avoid oxygenating the mix.

Three of us, L, V and myself were all trying this, suspending our pieces on coathangers with bits of string, as the level of the dye was well below the height of the bin. Each dip takes a few minutes, then as you pull out the fabric it turns first bright turquoise, then – as it oxidises – blue. You allow it to dry a bit, then dip it again if you want to strengthen the colour. Between us, we did dress lengths, t-shirts, scarves and various pieces of cloth. We were later joined by C, who used cushion-cover-size pieces, each with a different design. 

Indigo vat

I dipped my mokume dress and the silk samples twice and the other dresses three times, but I now wish I’d carried on dipping perhaps another twice to get a really dark indigo blue, given that this colour will fade. Nevertheless, I’m absolutely made-up by the results. All of the silk samples were rubbish, pretty much (indigo doesn’t penetrate as far into fabric as the Procion dyes I’m used to, so my pleated efforts, etc, were totally wasted) but the dress lengths all came out exactly as I’d hoped. 

Indigo samples

An indigo vat will keep for some weeks, so I’m now going to shibori some more garment lengths – maybe trousers this time – and see what effects I can get while the going’s good. Wish me luck.  

Review: Phyderma products

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Premium skincare products with a silky feel on the skin.

The people over at Phyderma recently sent me a few of their products to review, so I thought I’d share my findings. 

Esprit dOrient

First up is the Esprit D’Orient (Eastern Spirit) Brume Parfumé Corps & Cheveux (Hair and Body perfumed spray, 24.90 euros), with organic argan oil and silk extract. This is a product you use on dry hair or skin, or after a bath, and it act as a conditioning spray. For me, the smell is a little sweet and doesn’t suit my personal taste, nor did I find it made much difference to my hair, which is already fine and silky. However, it works very well as a freshen-up – for instance, if you’re going out for the evening and don’t have time to bathe before changing.

I also found another use for it, not advertised on the product, and that is as a freshener for sheets or for clothing that’s hung too long in the wardrobe. For this purpose, it works brilliantly, due to the clean smell and the very fine diffusion – it’s unusual to find such a fine actuator on a skincare product (it’s more like Elnett hairspray), and this delivers a micro-fine, even spray with no droplets. If the fragrance was different, I would probably use it on my face and hair, but as of now, it’s mostly being used on my pillow and sheets each evening. The pearl-coloured can looks quite nice on the dressing table, too. 

SubliLift mask

The second product I tried was the SubliLift Masque Lift Éclat (Radiance Lifting Mask) with Bio-Cellulose – Oslift (oats extract and ‘botanical’ extracts). This is the new kind of disposable one-use-only mask that has come from Asia, and consists of an impregnated bio-cellulose mask trapped between two layers of paper. You peel off the backing paper, position the mask with its cut-out eyeholes over your face, tap it down and then remove the top layer of paper.

For someone who has not tried this technique before, it felt very strange. The bio-cellulose has a cold, slightly unpleasant feeling, but you quickly get used to it. The mask dries a little and on my skin produced a tingling, cooling effect, followed by noticeable tightening. All I was hoping was that the DH wouldn’t come in and start making Leatherface remarks.

Afterwards, I noticed that my open pores were very definitely less visible and my skin looked smoother. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed that it worked, because at 59.90 euros for a pack of four, it’s well out of my normal price range. I used two masks on consecutive days and the effect was noticeable.

Personally, I would regard this mask like a spa treatment and use it in the run-up to an event such as a wedding or a school reunion when I want to look my absolute best. 

Phyderma Perles de Jeuness

Product number three was Perles de Jeunesse (Pearls of Youth, 69.90 euros), a new serum in the Caviar Time Collection, which uses plankton extracts. This is something of a flagship product for Phyderma and makes use of a new airless pump dispenser, so I was keen to try it. In my view, the outer (card) packaging rather lets this product down, as it looks like a supermarket brand and for the premium price, I’d expect something more enticing, but the inner packaging is lovely – high-end superclear acrylic with gold detailing and a gold actuator, which looks elegant on the bathroom shelf. 

The pearls themselves are visible inside the bottle, and they look great – about the same size and shape as real seed pearls, with a sheen that gives the product an exotic appearance. I was a bit surprised when the dispenser didn’t actually dispense a whole one for me to pop open, but in fact it pops the pearl inside the tube and dispenses exactly one dose onto the back of your hand. I find two doses is about right for both face and neck.

The product is very silky and watery, with a pearlescent sheen, and absorbs very nicely into the skin. My skin is very sensitive and prone to itching and hotspots, but this has caused no irritation at all. As to its claims to reduce wrinkles, I couldn’t speak, but it certainly reduces the appearance of wrinkles – I tested it first on the backs of my hands, and it made them look much smoother. The product is also very agreeable to use with its silky feel and very light, clean fragrance. You can always add more layers of product if your skin is dryer.  

I probably wouldn’t buy this product for myself, to be honest, because of the price, but I would certainly wangle it as a present.   

Phyderma Soin Combleur De Rides

The last product I tried is the one you would have to pry out of my cold, dead hands. It’s the Soin Combleur de Rides (Fill Out Wrinkles, 39.90 euros) with hyaluronic acid and silk extract. This is a silicon primer of the Smashbox type and comes in an airless pump (ever my favourite mode of delivery). The bottle (unlike the one in the photo) is in frosted glass – very luxe – with a superclear acrylic cap, which looks great in the bathroom. 

The product, as you would expect from a silicon primer, has a very silky feel on the skin, making your complexion look instantly matte but dewy. It also has a trick up its sleeve in the shape of very fine mica particles that give a subtle sparkle. I absolutely love this product and would definitely buy it again. 

Incidentally, after using all four products for about a week, I was told – quite out of the blue – by a friend that my skin was looking ‘radiant’. Mmn. At the age of 52, I don’t get ‘radiant’ very often, so this is well worth bearing in mind.  

Phyderma products are available from affiliated stockists and www.phyderma.fr and www.phyderma.co.uk

A change of plans

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The best-laid plans.

Well, it’s Friday the Thirteenth. Ooh err. 

All nonsense, of course, but the day starts with our having to cancel planned filming on our new movie, The Garden, as it’s chucking it down with rain and some of the crew have come down splat with colds in any case.

They were filming here yesterday in bitter temperatures. Although I’d sent out an email reminding everyone to dress in their warmest clothes I was a bit surprised when they all turned up in short jackets. I think people underestimate how cold you get when you’re standing around in the cold rather than walking around in it.

The DH, of course, was walking about without a coat at all, not because he’s hard, but because he’d donned his Regatta fleece thermals as a base layer and was wearing neoprene-lined wellies, so he was as warm as toast.

The day began thrillingly frost-covered, with the whole landscape looking like a Christmas card, but to my, and everyone elses’s surprise, he didn’t want to film in it for continuity reasons, and instead waited until most of the frost had burned off. A missed opportunity to my mind, but then it’s not my movie.

My job, as usual, was makeup and costumes. Our main female character, who is nameless, is dressed a bit like a rock chick, necessitating jeans, loads of cheap jewellery, a t-shirt with writing all over it and a denim waistcoat. This, quelle surprise, had gone missing in the post (exactly as happened with our last shoot), but luckily one of the crew had an old denim jacket that he didn’t mind us butchering, so while the crew had breakfast, I frantically cut it up to make a waistcoat (sleeves off, shoulders narrowed, bottom trim removed and sides taken in). I then frayed all the raw edges and it looked great – exactly what we were after. 

Since our earlier location had blown out (hence the necessity to film at our house), and along with it, the caterer, I was also doing the food, and had spent hours over the previous few days creating vegetarian soups and curries, plus puddings, for the supposed seven to eight crew members. Only two are veggie, but it saved cooking two separate dishes.

After everyone had had breakfast and gone out, I tidied up, kept the woodburner loaded up and then, at 11.00, took hot chocolate, cakes and hot water bottles out into the garden, all of which were met with alacrity by the freezing crew. E, our sound girl, ended up with a hot water bottle under each arm, stuffed up her gilet, while P, a new guy on board, had feet that were completely frozen.  

Once elevenses were over, I started on lunch, gently reheating a Chinese mushroom soup I’d made the day before, plus a quiche that P had brought with him, and focaccias and ciabattinis. M kept popping in and out, as she had to ‘look summery’, but she was streaming with cold, and C too began to feel achey and shivery as the day wore on.

Lunch was meant to be at 1.00 but they carried on filming till 1.45, then we all sat down and everyone ate like they’d never seen food before. It must have been tough going outside again after that, even though the day had warmed up to a balmy 9 degrees or so. I was glad I could stay in by the fire. 

Another hour’s filming and they began to lose the light, and they finished up about 4.30. I made coffees for everyone then, and we reviewed the rushes, and everyone toddled off home again, ready to be up at 6.00 this morning for another day.

Sadly, it is not to be, so it’s back to adopt Plan B, fridge up the massive vegetarian curry that was defrosting in the kitchen, and we’ll just have to hope we can start again tomorrow.   

A question of balance

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A bit of balance would be very welcome in our lives right now.

Well 2015 does seem to be getting off to a bad start. We could really do with things getting back to normal pretty soon. 

Not only did I start the year with a job loss, so have almost no money coming in, this was shortly followed by the terrible massacres in Paris (and even round here the gendarmes are now armed with sub-machine guns, which is hardly a comforting sight), then the death of a close friend, and then by some upset in a couple of groups of which I’m a member. Someone also reversed into our car while we were parked.

Hopefully these things will all blow over, but it feels almost like there was a shiver in the ether or something. I am keen for things to get back to normal.

The death of our friend and colleague Steve Gold, in particular, has thrown us into not only grief but a mid-life crisis. The other day, the DH and I sat down and decided to make strong efforts to achieve more happiness in our lives. In his case, that means film-making and electronics; in mine it means more sewing and beading. And for both of us it means getting out more and feeling as if we really live in France, rather than just in our house. Beautiful though it is, it could be anywhere – Scotland or Wales – and if one doesn’t make the trips to the bakery and the café and the patisserie, some very pleasant aspects of French life go by the board. 

In the interests of achieving some peace and quiet psychologically, I am also progressing in my Zen Den. The daybed has arrived, which replaces the old double bed, and it has been furnished with a nice mattress and lots of cushions. I’ve installed some lovely Diptyque candles, a little Zen garden, my singing bowl and runes, lots of light in the shape of SAD lightboxes, daylight-balanced fluorescents and softer lighting for evening. There’s room for my yoga mat to go down without having to move anything, and the animals, much as I love them, can be shut out. (As anyone who’s tried to do yoga with cats or dogs around will know, they do tend you ‘help you out’ in distinctly unhelpful ways…). My plan now is to sell our old Renault to pay for a huge cupboard to be built in.

The other night I had one of my white menopausal nights and came down at about 4.00am. Instead of sitting in our vast living room, I went and snuggled up in the Zen Den under a quilt and read a 1920s book of household tips until I felt sleepy again. It was lovely to have this quiet, white retreat with no fear of disturbance and I think it will be a haven in the coming months. 

Charlie Hebdo sold out

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The first million copies have all gone. It’s 9.30am and we’re just back from a trip into town to buy Charlie Hebdo. No joy – it’s sold out. 

In our local presse, we managed to reserve a copy for Friday – the Thursday reserves are all booked. One copy each – you can’t buy multiple copies, it’s strictly one per person. In the supermarket, meanwhile, it was all sold out within minutes of the store opening.

The solidarity shown by the French people since this godawful incident is amazingly heartening. The extremists have stuck a fork in the toaster this time, when they kill journalists, police officers and Jews and threaten the civil liberties of an entire nation.

I know that the image on the cover offends some Muslims who have decided it’s Mohammed (although whether it is, is moot, and there is besides a long tradition of depicting the Prophet in Shia Islam – the idea that depictions are and always have been forbidden is simply not true). But I live in a village with a church, whose presence offends me because I am an atheist. I have a friend who is a big fan of Thatcher. We can’t all go around killing one another because we disagree about subjects – offence is something that is taken, not given.