A striking visit to Pays d’Auge

A couple of years ago, dear friends decided to move from Paris and take on a small Manoir in Pays d’Auge. This unique little region of Normandy is just an hour and a half from the Chateau. And it’s a world apart. This is an up and down place, of gentle hills and vales, where black and white Normandy dairy cattle still pasture in cider apple orchards. Here, time seems to have decided to take a break.

Geologically, too, this is a distinctive area. There is no stone. So from the most humble cattle shed to the fanciest chateau, all are built of local materials -- clay and timber. Every decorative detail that could be carved in stone is modeled in clay. It’s enameled in bright colors, baked hard enough to withstand wind and cold, and cemented onto roofs and walls. Colored tiles, colorful chimney pots, bright “épis de faîtage” come in all shapes and sizes. Themes – zoological, mythological, historical – are mingled into fantastical creative combinations.

Our friends, with expansive imaginations and funds to match, are having a lot of fun.

Their house is already “originale,” as the French say. It rises amid its fields like a seaside villa on the Deauville esplanade. It was rebuilt in about 1900 with the proceeds from a horse race. Our friends have added to its originality: Sprouting from sharply-angled rooftops are a rearing horse, a pensive heron, a flamboyant parrot, and an owl. A kitten pursues a dove on the wall. There are a pair of white mice on a windowsill. Green ceramic frogs ornament the fountain. And there is more…

“I’ll show you,” said my friend, and took me to the Poterie du Mesnil de Bavent. This is a treasure trove. Founded in the 1840s, it’s the last workshop still making the type of distinctive Norman pottery on display at the Manoir.

Two artisans were at work; one at a wheel where he was spinning the pieces for a replacement of épis de faîtage at the Haras du Pin. It is exacting work. The pieces will be dried and will shrink. He must calculate the amount of shrinkage so that once dried, painted, and fired, the entire ensemble will fit together neatly.

Another worker was removing a clay rooster from its mold. She will clean it, then hand-carve the details that give these ceramics such vivacity. Some of the larger pieces receive glass eyes – “tout est dans le regard,” says my friend. “It’s all in the expression.” She has a large white hound next to her stove that she bought from the Poterie. I understood what she meant – you wouldn’t want it to squint.

Ah! I could not resist: I left with a white cat snarling on a roof tree tile, two yellow chicks, and a pair of hedgehogs. I asked for a quote on a magnificent, completely hand-made set of épis de faîtage. These were glazed in simple white, rather than the jewel-like tones of most of the pieces. But while elegant, I know this is not the Courtomer style.

Never mind; I’ll find an outbuilding in need of dolling up.


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