Tue. Jan 31st, 2023

The last time I was in Giverny, I was surprised by the pull such a small village of just a handful of streets could exert on such a big crowd come from all over the world to bask in Claude Monet’s aura. Every year, more than half a million people squeeze into Giverny in Normandy, France, lining up outside the late-18th century Impressionist painter’s home to stroll through his gardens, the living masterpiece that’s inspired many of his greatest works.

Monet lived here until his death in 1926. A constant gardener, his living work’s put Giverny on the world map. The main village street, lined with flower beds of course, is even named after him. But Monet’s gardens aren’t the only draw of this little slice of Normandy. Local Michelin star chef and French Top Chef 2020 winner David Gallienne is giving visitors a reason to make a weekend of it with Ô Plum’ART, his stylish new retreat a short walk from Monet’s gardens and the chef’s destination Jardin des Plumes restaurant with rooms also in Giverny.

The gateway to Normandy’s rolling countryside, apple orchards, D-Day history, historic beachside towns and iconic island town of Mont Saint-Michel, Giverny’s only 45 minutes from Paris but feels miles apart.

As soon as I step outside on Claude Monet Street with my partner and baby daughter Marley, a sense of calm falls over me as I breathe in the sweet scent of roses growing nearby and see the trees staggered on hills above sway in a blurry wash of greens in the wind. Just like our first time here, we agree that the light seems brighter and the air purer even such a short distance from Paris. This time though, there would be no last-minute dash to make the last train from Vernon station back to Paris, as we’re staying the night at Ô Plum’ART.

Inside a 1900s brick house that was once the home of the village milkman, David Gallienne tapped architect Philippe Papy who’s used to turning spaces into restful homes, to create a deeply relaxing cocoon of six rooms.

Pared-back, almost monastic, Papy’s used a wash of whites scattered with a handful of carefully placed flea-market finds like photos of what might have been the milkman’s family as well as great big milk canisters and other finds from the chef’s travels, that make this spot feel like a sanctuary but also like a home.

As if on cue, as we push open the blue gate to the house, the front door swings open, revealing Constance, the Maîtresse de maison smiling, ushering us inside. Natural hues and fabrics come together in the perfect setting for guests needing to reset. An open fireplace glows with a small flickering fire in the living room where we sit on great big white linen sofas as Constance offers us a pot of tea and freshly baked cake.

Across the landing of white washed floors, a breakfast nook of rustic farm-style tables and chairs are set up for afternoon tea as guests trickle back in after a day out exploring the walking trails that crisscross the woods.

Our room is up a white wooden staircase that creaks just like in a proper countryside home. Also all white, there’s a big bouncy bed pulled with crisp white sheets, a few open timber items of furniture dotted around the space, and the adjoining bathroom, with clean white lines and soft sunlight streaming in through the windows fits snuggly under the house’s sloping roof.

The next day, we’re the first guests downstairs for breakfast, so we snag the sofa by the fire. There’s a hushed stillness as the rest of the guests sleep in. Constance greets us with a breakfast spread of locally made yoghurt, Norman apple cake fresh out of the oven, and tea that’s made by a producer nearby who creates a mix of leaves specially for Ô Plum’ART.

We eat while she tells us about her work with David Gallienne, who took over from chef Eric Guerin at the Michelin starred Jardin des Plumes restaurant and guesthouse a five-minute walk from Ô Plum’ART barely a month before Covid hit and brought everything to a halt. “It was hard,” she confides. “It was like we never opened. Everything stopped.”

She tells us how she, the chef and a small team would set off on the road before dawn with their food truck Picorette each week to serve gourmet dishes to go at every farmers’ market across Normandy, a region covering almost 12,000 square miles. “It was important to keep things going, and it’s thanks to months and months of being on the road that the chef succeeded in keeping everyone on staff while we waited for restaurants to be able to reopen.”

The setting for the chef’s Jardin des Plumes is a half-timbered stone house that dates back to 1912 and it would be a crime to come to Giverny without booking to eat here. Dining rooms are laid out on the ground floor which has great big wrap-around windows, while a handful of guest rooms are tucked upstairs. When we arrive at reception, the staff, managed by Marie Gallienne, the chef’s ex-wife, greets us, showing us to a chest of tiny drawers with our names on it. We open the little drawers to find our napkins inside, like at old French canteens.

We’re shown to our table in the main dining room of cement tiles and a great big stone fireplace where pre-Covid, Gallienne served French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. All the tables are taken by guests come far and wide to try the chef’s cuisine.

Unusual touches like a cocktail menu of ingredients brought under a glass bell jar delight guests. The trio of mises en bouche that go with the apéritif cocktails are locally smoked trout, popcorn and marshmallow served with an oyster from a producer in Normandy and a truffle with chocolate bite.

When each course arrives, every producer is cited as a way to recognize their work. Gallienne’s very close to the farmers he works with who are all from the region, within a 75-mile radius, to be exact, the chef tells us as he brings us our first course of his deconstructed pot-au-feu. “It’s my interpretation of my grandmother’s pot-au-feu. She inspired many of my dishes and my passion for cooking.”

Usually a filling meat and vegetable dish all boiled together in a pot, the chef’s version is a delicate plate of finely chopped vegetables and meat laid in a thick broth scattered with parsley from his kitchen garden. And surprisingly, it has all the flavor and heartiness of a typical pot-au-feu despite being fresher and lighter.

The chef floats from the kitchen to tables, serving his guests, checking on them regularly when the beetroot and scallop ceviche arrives doused in a spicy coconut milk sauce inspired by executive chef half-Japanese Stanislas Bourin’s wife’s Peruvian roots. Gallienne’s signature squid ink ravioli follows, which comes in an unctuous spider crab bisque in its shell and with a kaffir lime kick to it.

The mains of fleshy red mullet from the Normandy coast is served with four sauces dashed on the plate like on an artist’s palette. The second mains of chicken with sticky dates, couscous spices and a golden crisp “that reminds me of the golden chicken skin we used to fight over as kids during Sunday lunch,” recalls Gallienne. And why couscous spices? “I’ve traveled as much as I can, possibly to over 30 countries, so I wanted to infuse my cooking with all the influences I picked up on the way.”

After a trou Norman of green tea inspired by executive chef Bourin’s part-Japanese background, a light camembert emulsion arrives in place of the usual cheese platter. We tuck in with a Norman Spore Cardus craft beer that sommelier Antonino Ciaccio recommends highly.

Last but not least, lunch ends with Teurgoule, a rice pudding dish typical of the region. “My grandmother would make it all the time,” says the chef as he spoons huge dollops of the sweet chocolate dessert from a super-sized bowl onto our plates. “It actually came about after someone made a mousse that went wrong, and the rest is history! It’s been a traditional local dessert ever since.”

Deliciously homely, the pudding touches on childhood memories spent in France for my partner and in England for me. In fact, a feeling of being at home characterizes our entire experience here thanks to the warm, laid-back service of the whole team, especially chef David Gallienne, and possibly their unwavering patience with our daughter Marley, even while she decides to play with her toy cars under the table mid-meal.

Once it was time to set off back to the city, we felt far more refreshed than we could ever have expected from a 24-hour stint. And being able to dip into this pocket of calm that’s just 45 minutes away, especially once the spa and sauna open in the garden at Ô Plum’ART, means we’re already making a plan to be back to keep vacation niggles at bay while we wait for the summer vacation period to roll on.

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