Interiors: Normandy spring brings outdoor living
Normandy resident and author Sharon Santoni on changing seasons and the pleasures of entertaining outdoors
Spring is long-awaited here in Normandy. By March, we are craving sunshine and keep our eyes closely trained on the trees, hoping to spot the first sign of a tiny new bud, a herald of the season of renewal. And as those buds unfurl and grow, the forest behind the house gradually glows bright green and promises that warmer days are not far away.
I keep a couple of horses at home, so my winters involve a lot of mud and some fairly unglamorous tasks, such as hauling hay and fresh water to the paddocks. After three months of nearly freezing temperatures, I am definitely eager to move on.
The birds provide one of my earliest indicators that a shift is taking place. Over the field where the horses graze, skylarks start singing in late February. High up in the sky, their distinctive warble carries far as the male birds try to impress the girls. Hearing the first lark song of the season announcing the unofficial end of the winter months never fails to make me smile with a tinge of relief.
All through the winter we have been cooped up inside with crackling fires burning in the fireplaces, so from the end of March and onward, any opportunity to get outside is welcome, even if it’s only for a quick espresso or with a pair of secateurs in hand to start some spring pruning.
The first flowers are the daffodils that grow in loose groups on the lawn and the white petals that open across the branches of the huge magnolia tree, illuminating the garden. Once these are finished blooming, we know that the wisteria will not be far behind. This is the moment to start tidying the garden and planting for the summer months ahead.
Our own potager is fairly modest, but our closest neighbours are true experts in the kitchen garden.
Even during the chilly afternoons of March, they can be found turning over the rich brown earth and sowing the early onions or the first potatoes. When we first moved into our house, my neighbours, who grow literally one tonne of potatoes in their impeccable weed-free potager, asked with earnest curiosity what I’d be growing in the way of food for the family.
When they understood that I planned to cultivate mostly salads, tomatoes and courgettes, there was a long silence. We did not have the same priorities and I clearly was not going to make the grade. During the following year, their misgivings about my choice of crops never stopped them being generous and friendly, and I’d often find a basket of cherries or beans or potatoes left outside my door.
In spring our local farmers market takes on a very different appearance as well. After months of apples and pears, we begin to see the first strawberries and, of course, the asparagus. Aah, the asparagus! Is it because it’s available for so short a time that we love it so much?
The change from winter to spring inspires us to entertain again. Here in Normandy, we are generally able to eat lunch outside for the first time of the year in March. It may not be truly warm yet, but the pleasure of sitting in the sun is undeniable.
Having hosted and been guests indoors all through the winter, we now change the menus and lighten the mood.
Gone are the stews and heavy sauces, and in come poached fish, fresh strawberries and mixed salads.
But if I have a special affection for springtime, it is for the month of May – most importantly because that is when we moved into this house. I remember the day so clearly; arriving a couple of hours before the moving van and walking through the empty rooms, flinging open windows and shutters, and feeling the warmth enter along with the delicious perfume of the wisteria in full bloom across the facade of the building.
Today that wisteria is even bigger and has to be pruned twice a year if we don’t want it to creep right inside the house.
It’s a natural reminder that the seasons will always move forward, regardless, and it is for us to adapt, keep up and enjoy.
Easter beneath the magnolia
The magnolia tree in our garden is a gentle giant. Majestic and elegant, it spreads its branches in all directions but is limited to the space left available by its neighbours: two centennial holly trees and an oversized cypress that are regularly trimmed to allow the magnolia to express itself fully and easily.
Until I lived in a house with a magnolia in the garden, I never knew that it smelled so sweet or that when in flower it could light up the garden like an electric bulb.
When we first moved here, the structure of the garden was very basic. The former owners had used the house as a weekend home for thirty-odd years, and it was all about low maintenance. I let the first year go by, more or less observing what each season revealed, and in February I discovered that most of the beds were dominated by little white snowdrops. That spring I dug up thousands of snowdrops and replanted them all in the lawn beneath the magnolia.
Today, they have multiplied to form a pond of white flowers that make a mirror image of the shape of the large tree above. When it is in bloom, the magnolia attracts all the attention, and if the weather permits for us to be outside, it pulls us like a magnet. There we sit, in a garden seat, an easy chair with a newspaper and a coffee, or sometimes even around an Easter table.
Our Easter is all about pastel colours, and the pink-and-white flowers of the magnolia complement the pascal tablescape beneath.
The grass around this area, speckled with spring primroses, is the perfect place to hide a few eggs for the hunt.
And although it may not be warm enough to spend the whole day outside, a couple of hours at an Easter table, making the most of the first sunshine of the season and the perfume of the flowers, makes for an idyllic spring Sunday.
Buy the book
This is an extract from My French Country Home (published by Gibbs Smith) written by Sharon Santoni, with photographs by Franck Schmitt.
Get the look
The elegant country feel of Sharon’s tableware and furniture can be sourced on the French high street. Prices and availability are correct at time of going to press.
Raise a classy glass
Easter lunch beneath the magnolia tree demands a chilled glass of fizz. And nothing says elegance en plein air quite like a flute from Villeroy & Boch. This model: Vieux Luxembourg, €9.90, 174mm.
Add a romantic flourish to your outdoor area with soft curves on your dining chairs. Cushions essential! This is a steel one in graphite grey, costing €49.90 from www.leroymerlin.fr
A white table basse (coffee table) in the salon will perfectly showcase your freshly cut spring blooms.
Josephine table: €170 from www.maisonsdumonde.com