Urban gardener: Norman conquest


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The Independent Online

As a lapsed Catholic, I haven't had the urge to light a candle for anyone for quite some time, but I've just made an exception. A couple of weeks in France was made infinitely better by spending time listening to the French-language CDs of Michel Thomas. So impressed was I by the confidence they gave me to have a go (regardless of whether or not it sounded a load of bolleaux), that I was going to send a letter of gratitude to M Thomas, before someone told me that this Second World War veteran and genius of a language teacher had died three years ago. A candle, therefore, in a small seaman's chapel at the picturesque town of St Vaast-la-Hougue, would have to do instead.

With two ongoing projects in Normandy and a close working relationship with the French sculptors Serge and Agnès Bottagisio-Decoux, it makes sense to persevere with the language I found quite impossible to grasp at school.

Thierry and Valérie, guardians of the house and garden I initially became involved with in Normandy, are clearer to me now than they were six years ago. Thierry (pictured), with his Normandy accent, still speaks far too quickly; but while apple-picking, I pestered him with what must have been a painfully slow and abstract interrogation about his cider-making. Built like an ox, he could easily pick me up by my neck to shut me up but patiently he obliged, explaining that there are 15 different types of apple in the orchard that are used to provide a reasonable balance of sugar, tannins and acidity. I've Googled the names he gave me (Petit une Mère, Jaumer, Grase Lond and Caterine) without success, so either he's having a laugh at my expense, or they are obscure local varieties peculiar to the Cotentin peninsula.

The apples are picked during October and November and stacked into large piles that mimic the form, and temporarily steal the thunder, of three rusty steel pyramids close by that are the main focal point in the garden. A nearby barn houses an ancient, defunct cider press; these days Thierry hires someone with a modern portable press which is both quicker and more efficient. The juice is then fermented in oak barrels for six weeks before being bottled; last year he filled 250 bottles.

An orchard gives so much to a garden, both aesthetically and spiritually. And the positive effects orchards can have on the community and in maintaining local distinctiveness are lauded by the charity Common Ground (commonground.org.uk), which this year celebrates Apple Day on Tuesday.

I wanted to tell Thierry about this, and even more I wanted to tell him about a small celebration of my own. An allergy to apples, pears and a number of other fruits (itchy mouth, swollen lips etc) that I moaned to you about on these pages a couple of years ago has disappeared as mysteriously as it began. Faced with our amazing crop of apples at the allotment this year, I couldn't resist trying one forbidden fruit and to my absolute delight, nothing happened. Not wanting to celebrate too soon, I raced to the supermarket to see if apples coated with wax and an assortment of preservatives might be the culprits. Again, nothing. Jubilation. Apples, pears, figs, apricots, plums and peaches are now back on the menu. I can't begin to tell you how amazing this is, so why I thought I could explain it all to Thierry in French I've no idea. I don't think he's ever considered force-feeding anyone with cider apples before to keep them quiet but, by the look in his eye, I'm certain it crossed his mind.