Penchant; A strong habitual liking for something or tendency to do something.
Most of us have a penchant for something.
Mine is for telling stories and my yellow bicycle.
Recently I came across someone with a penchant for pots of homemade jam.
This reminded me of another penchantier of not only homemade jam, but of the pumpkins his jam was made from.
And as it is the seventh anniversary of that time, I thought I might tell you the tale of Monsieur l’abbe and his penchant for pumpkins.
For those of you who may be concerned that their penchants are abnormal I hope this story reassures you….
But first we must go there (to France and the journey across it on the sturdy yellow bicycle)
After leaving the two Irish Moira’s of Montelieu and their tiny house in the middle of that village, and with their recommendation, (you MUST stay at the old abbey, they insisted, nodding their heads vigorously and smirking knowingly at each other) I cycled over the mountain and down the other side to the ancient Cistercian Abbey now a Chambre d’hote.
Arriving at an enormous pair of iron gates, I spotted a notice nailed to one of the gate posts beside which hung a worn but still thick rope.
‘TIREZ FORT ‘ I read.
So I did as instructed and pulled hard on the rope.
The sound of a deep bell echoed through the innards of the building.
I could hear a dog barking and after a short wait, a tall man of indecipherable years wearing pale linen trousers and a white shirt, approached the gate.
He wore a wide brimmed black felt hat pulled down so low over his brow that I could only glimpse a shadow where his eyes should be.
‘Ah the woman on the yellow bicycle’, he called out as he pulled the gates open.
‘The Arteeste’ (The two Irish Moira’s had obviously filled him in, exaggerating my skills but this wasn’t the time to correct him )
‘Entrez! entrez! Holding the gate open for me, I pushed the yellow bicycle through passing quite close to him.
He smelt of something familiar. but I was too busy mumbling ‘bonsoir’ to pay much heed to it.
Any way he had already turned on his heel, and was leading the way into a large dimly lit coach house.
‘You may leave your beautiful yellow bicycle ici’.
At first I couldn’t see where he was pointing to but, as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I saw it was to the only space clear of huge pumpkins.
He stood patiently while I fumbled with the buckles on my panniers and basket and then taking the heavy items from me headed back out into the fading light.
I trotted obediently after him.
Down a cobbled path we went and then through another door and up a stone stairs.
He strode purposefully along a windowed corridor , where on each windowsill lay a beautifully carved pumpkin.
We passed rooms with various names on the doors. The ivy room, the oak room, the magnolia room, I tripping along trying to keep up with his long legged stride.
Finally he stopped at door which read ‘the rose room’ .
‘You will sleep here’
And opening the door he laid my belongings on the bed and bid me goodnight.
I waited till his footsteps had faded before throwing myself onto the bed.
I was exhausted but as I drifted off to sleep, I became conscious of that smell again.
What did it remind me of?
That night I dreamt I was back in Co Sligo in my old house by the waterfall, wandering up through the ferny dripping hazel woods, clambering over moss covered rocks to gather bags of loam made from centuries of broken down trees and leaves for my garden.
Dark, damp, earthy, crumbly loam, smelling of ancient woodlands….
(the blue shuttered window of the Rose room, forth shuttered window from the right)
La Monsieur de L’abbey had a penchant for pumpkins,
A fascination for the oddness of their shapes.
A passion for the soft blues, greens, orange colors of their skins.
They were everywhere!
Painted, sculpted, engraved, carved into bowls, jugs, even lampshades.
That morning at breakfast there were at least four different varieties of pumpkin jam.
Some made with added rosewater, some with Cointreau.
The hovering black fruit flies were drunk and in ecstasy.
We had to keep brushing them off our bread.
‘ Ah but you must try this! Le Monsieur’s face loomed close to mine as he pushed a teaspoon of the sweet syrup against my mouth.
‘Ze summer of 2008, best year for pumpkins… you like it?’
‘Mmmm’ I said widening my eyes for effect.
His were dark brown and very shiny.
‘And ziz’? He persisted dipping the spoon into another pot
‘Ziz did not turn out as I wanted… too sweet! So I added some ginger what do you think? Interesting flavour n’est pas?’
‘Qui, qui’ I murmured savoring the hot sweetness ‘very interesting’
His teeth were very white.
‘So today’ he announced ‘you must paint!’
‘No more gallivanting about on that yellow bicycle, I have hidden it!’
‘Today you must stay in the garden and paint pumpkins, come I will show you the best place’
I followed him out into the coolness of the morning.
His sandals made a slapping sound on the ancient flags of the cloister floor.
Heading up some steps , He crossed the dewy grass towards a Grecian style tower.
A few birds were up as early as us, singing in the nearby magnolia tree but otherwise all was still
At the base of the tower and covered by its first floor but open at the front to the elements, was a small courtyard screened from the abbey by some giant bamboos.
An ornate pond glistened in the morning sun.
I could see the shapes of goldfish flitting and hiding under the lily pads.
The soothing sound of trickling water over stones had an almost soporific effect.
Three old iron bed frames were placed, one along each of the three walls.
On the rustiest of the three lay some green pumpkins of rather bizarre shapes.
The remaining beds were covered in luxurious throws of some exotic fabric and a few cushions of Japanese silk were strewn casually against the heads of the bed frames.
A small bamboo table stood in the centre.
‘You may sit here’ He patted one of the cushions. ‘This is your studio. But first you must go and fetch your materials! vite! vite!’
And so I, normally such a strong and independent woman, found myself scurrying off to do his bidding.
I hurried back across the lawn , past the bird filled magnolia tree, past a blue telephone box filled with pumpkins, passed a zany zen sculpture made of willow winding around a heap of pumpkins, passed a blue wheel barrow overflowing with pumpkins .
Down through the cloisters I ran and in through the door and swiftly up the stairs.
The mirror on the landing showed the flushed face of a woman of middle years smiling like a teenager.
Back in the garden Le Monsieur stood waiting.
In my absence he had replaced the black felt hat of yesterday with a Monet style one, white and wide brimmed, complete with black ribbon and looked for all the world like a great impressionist master.
On the low table now sat an elegant basket its lid fastened by silver clasps.
He undid the clasps and lifted the lid with a flourish
I peeped curiously inside.
A dainty teapot and two equally delicate china teacups nestled in the padded silk interior.
He lifted one of the tea cups out and placed it carefully on the table.
Then he lifted the the teapot and with all the ceremony of a geisha poured out a cup of fragrant green tea.
Steam coiled up and diseapearred into the rafters above and the scent of jasmine wafted into the air.
A soft breeze rustled the bamboo and the sunlight flitted and played with shadows across the spear like green leaves.
A few late butterflies danced, dipping and swaying among the hibiscus flowers.
The clinking of wind-chimes hanging in the peach tree broke the silence and every now and again a leaf broke loose and sea sawed through the air landing gracefully on the pond surface with a soft sighing sound only to be caught by the breeze where it sailed like a small boat across the pond.
‘Harrumph’ Le monsieur cleared his throat wakening me out of my daze.
I looked up at him
He smiled from beneath his brim
‘And now I will leave the artist to work’
And before I could reply he lifted my hand and bowing low over it, kissed it briefly.
He walked away and turning once by the willow sculpture he raised his hand in farewell
I caught that smell again.
Earthy, deep, dark and loamy and suddenly I remembered.
The smell of perfect compost for growing pumpkins in.
I lifted my brush and began to paint.