A new place to stay near Monet’s Gardens in Giverny, Normandy
The last time I was in Giverny, I was surprised by the attraction that such a small village of a handful of streets could exert on such a large crowd coming from all over the world to bask in the aura of Claude Monet. Each year, more than half a million people flock to Giverny in Normandy, France, queuing outside the home of the late 18th-century Impressionist painter to stroll through its gardens, the masterpiece alive that inspired many of his greatest works.
Monet lived there until his death in 1926. A constant gardener, his living work put Giverny on the map of the world. The main street of the village, lined with flowerbeds of course, even bears his name. But Monet’s gardens are not the only attraction of this little slice of Normandy. Michelin-starred and French local chef Excellent chef 2020 winner David Gallienne gives visitors a reason to make it a weekend with Ô Plum’ART, his stylish new retreat just steps from Monet’s gardens and the chef’s destination, the Jardin des Plumes restaurant with rooms also in Giverny.
At the gateway to the rolling Normandy countryside, apple orchards, D-Day history, historic coastal towns and the iconic island town of Mont Saint-Michel, Giverny is only 45 minutes from Paris but felt miles apart.
As soon as I step out onto rue Claude Monet with my partner and my granddaughter Marley, a sense of calm comes over me as I breathe in the sweet scent of the roses growing nearby and see the trees spread out on the hills above. on it sway in a hazy haze of greens in the wind. Much like our first time here, we agree that the light seems brighter and the air cleaner even so close to Paris. This time, no last minute rush to catch the last train from Vernon station to Paris, since we are spending the night at Ô Plum’ART.
In a 1900s brick house that was once the home of the village milkman, David Gallienne called on architect Philippe Papy, used to transforming spaces into restful homes, to create a deeply relaxing six-room cocoon.
Sleek, almost monastic, Grandpa’s used a wash of whites dotted with a handful of carefully placed flea market finds like photos of what might have been the milkman’s family as well as large milk cans and other finds chef’s trips, which make this place feel like a sanctuary but also a home.
Like the right moment, as we push open the blue gate of the house, the front door swings open, revealing Constance, the Housewife smiling, ushering us inside. Natural hues and fabrics come together in the perfect setting for guests who need to rejuvenate. An open fireplace glows with a small flickering fire in the living room where we sit on large white linen sofas while Constance offers us a teapot and a freshly baked cake.
Across the landing of whitewashed floors, a breakfast nook with rustic farmhouse-style tables and chairs is set up for afternoon tea as guests return after a day spent at explore the footpaths that criss-cross the woods.
Our bedroom is up a white wooden staircase that creaks like a real country house. Also all white, there’s a large inflatable bed pulled together with crisp white linens, some open wood furniture scattered throughout the space, and the adjoining bathroom, with clean white lines and soft sunlight streaming in. through the windows fits perfectly under the slope of the house roof.
The next day we are the first guests downstairs for breakfast, so we hang the sofa by the fire. There is a hushed calm while the rest of the guests sleep. Constance greets us with a breakfast of locally made yogurt, freshly baked Norman apple cake and tea prepared by a nearby producer who creates a leaf blend especially 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 star-studded restaurant and guest house Le Jardin des Plumes, a five-minute walk from Ô Plum’ART barely a month before the Covid does not strike and bring the whole thing to a halt. “It was hard,” she says. “It was like we never opened. It all stopped.”
She tells us how she, the chef and a small team would hit the road every week before dawn with their Picorette food truck to serve gourmet take-out food at all the farmers markets in Normandy, a region covering almost 12,000 miles. squares. “It was important to get things done, and it’s thanks to months and months on the road that the chef has managed to keep everyone on staff until the restaurants can reopen.”
The setting for the chef’s Jardin des Plumes is a half-timbered stone house dating from 1912 and it would be a crime to come to Giverny without booking to eat here. The dining rooms are arranged on the ground floor which has large large wraparound windows, while a handful of guest bedrooms are tucked away upstairs. When we arrive at the reception, the staff, led by Marie Gallienne, the chef’s ex-wife, welcomes us by showing us a small chest of drawers in our names. We open the small drawers to find our towels inside, like in the old French canteens.
We are shown to our table in the cement tile main dining room and a large grand stone fireplace where pre-Covid, Gallienne served French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. All the tables are occupied by guests who have come from afar to taste the chef’s cuisine.
Unusual touches such as a cocktail menu of ingredients brought under a bell jar delight the guests. The trio of appetizers that accompany the aperitif cocktails are local smoked trout, popcorn and marshmallow served with an oyster from a Norman producer and a chocolate truffle bite.
Upon arrival of each course, each producer is quoted as a way to recognize their work. Gallienne is very close to the farmers he works with and who are all from the region, within a radius of exactly 75 miles, the chef tells us as he brings us our first dish of his deconstructed pot-au-feu. “This is my interpretation of my grandmother’s pot-au-feu. It inspired many of my dishes and my passion for cooking.”
Usually a dish of hearty meat and vegetables 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 sprinkled with parsley from his vegetable garden. And surprisingly, it has all the flavor and liveliness of a typical pot-au-feu although it is fresher and lighter.
The chef floats from the kitchen to the tables, serving his guests, watching them regularly when the beet and scallop ceviche arrives drizzled with a spicy coconut milk sauce inspired by the Peruvian roots of the wife of half-Japanese Stanislas Bourin. This is followed by Gallienne squid ink ravioli, which come in a creamy spider crab bisque in its shell and with a squeeze of kaffir lime.
The meaty red mullet dish from the Normandy coast is served with four sauces dotted on the plate like on an artist’s palette. The second course of chicken with sticky dates, couscous spices and golden crisp “reminds me of the golden chicken skin we used to fight over when we were kids on Sunday lunchtimes,” recalls Gallienne. And why couscous spices? “I’ve traveled as much as possible, maybe to over 30 countries, so I wanted to infuse my cooking with all the influences I picked up along the way.”
After a Norman hole of green tea inspired by executive chef Bourin’s part-Japanese origins, a light Camembert emulsion arrives in place of the usual cheese platter. We enjoy a Norman Spore Cardus craft beer that sommelier Antonino Ciaccio highly recommends.
Finally, lunch ends with Teurgoule, a rice pudding dish typical of the region. “My grandma used to make this all the time,” the chef explains as he scoops huge dollops of the sweet chocolate dessert from an oversized bowl onto our plates. “It actually happened after someone made a mousse that went wrong, and the rest is history! It’s been a traditional local dessert ever since.”
Deliciously family-friendly, the pudding evokes childhood memories spent in France for my companion and in England for me. In fact, a sense of home characterizes our entire experience here thanks to the warm and relaxed service from the whole team, especially Chef David Gallienne, and perhaps their unfailing patience with our daughter Marley, even though she decides to play with her toy cars under the table in the middle of the meal.
Once it was time to head back to town, we felt much more refreshed than we could have expected from a 24 hour stay. And being able to tap into that pocket of calm just 45 minutes away, especially once the spa and sauna are open in the garden of Ô Plum’ART, means we’re already planning to be back to avoid holiday worries while we are waiting for the summer holiday period to unfold.