“Is this why they made us repack our bags at the check-in desk?” “Mmmmm,” I mumbled. “This” was a handsome Portuguese ceramic platter, hand-painted, rectangular, with a yellow and blue border and cornflowers, gentians and buttercups painted in the centre. And it was heavy; just like the Bristow’s blue speckled pots I have carried from Malta and back again.
First they spent time in our London kitchen, and now they reside in Gozo, where I use them for chilled soups, cheeselets at breakfast time, porridge in winter, chutneys, pickles and cucumber salad when I make vegetable curries.
These pots match the blue and yellow table linen I also have in Gozo: one made from a length of printed Souleiado cotton from Provence, now a rarity as the company no longer exists. Another is yellow and blue stripes with a grape design.
A heavy piece of striped ticking in the same colour scheme might one day make cushion covers for dining chairs. Highly impractical, but very pretty napkins, some blue and some yellow, embroidered with a marguerite in the corner, are made of cotton voile.
In our London kitchen, quilted sunshine-yellow tablemats and napkins are the background for some traditional hand-painted blue and white porcelain which we brought back from Viano do Castelo in Portugal.
Four yellow side plates and a bread plate bought in a local charity shop form part of my informal cheese service, complemented by a growing collection of individual pieces of blue and white china and porcelain.
A rectangular Meissen plate holds a wedge of Manchego or Lancashire; a whole Camembert perfectly fits a Royal Danish plate; soft cheeses are shown off to perfection on a Limoges platter, and a small shallow Herend dish holds home-made quince jelly.
Dark blue egg cups grace the breakfast table. Blue and yellow Denby are for fruit crumbles. Blue glasses hold miniature flower arrangements, and so it goes on. I blame Monet.
Some years ago Claude Monet’s ‘cookery notebooks’ were published by one of his descendants, as a glossy cookbook, with recipes adapted for the domestic kitchen. Journalists from all over the world, one or two from each country, were invited to Monet’s house in Giverny, Normandy, where a lunch, based on recipes from the book, was cooked for us under a marquee.
The chef was none other than Joel Robuchon. The other British journalist was from the BBC and it was arranged that she would interview the chef and I would translate. Only the garden was open for viewing that day, but we had special dispensation to carry out the interview in Monet’s kitchen, reached through the dining room.
It gave us all goose pimples sitting in this spot, where Monet’s cook Cecile use to turn out such splendid dishes, classics of the French kitchen, as brochet au beurre blanc (pike in butter sauce), aubergines farcies (stuffed aubergines), canard aux navets (duck with turnips), crème au thé ( tea-infused custard), and delicate, lemon-flavoured madeleines.
The walls were hung with copper pans of every size, as well as salmon kettles, a turbot kettle and oval pans for omelettes and Dover sole. As far removed from a fitted kitchen as one could imagine there was a large central table, flanked by many sideboards, cupboards and deep sinks.
The woodwork was painted sky blue and the walls were lined with blue tiles from Rouen. Blue is considered a cold colour, but seeing the size of the imposing kitchen range, which, of course, would have been fired by solid fuel and constantly hot, the blue tiles and paint would have given the impression of tempering the heat.
Seated at the kitchen table we could see through to the dining room. Beautifully contrasting against the blue kitchen in chrome yellow, with the features picked out in darker chrome yellow, the room seemed full of sunshine, and one could immediately feel why Monet chose these colours.
Normandy has pale, cool light, and the yellow was so cheerful and warming, without being overwhelming: perfect for a northerly aspect. The dining room housed magnificent buffets cauchois, traditional tall glass-fronted sideboards from Normandy, displaying blue and white china.
Even these were painted yellow; one might see this as vandalism, painting antique wooden furniture, but they were not, of course, quite as antique in Monet’s day. The table was set with Monet’s original blue, yellow and white porcelain dinner service, made to his own design, extremely covetable, with very clean modern lines, unlike the curlicued, gold-trimmed bone china of the day.
The Limoges manufacturer Haviland & Parlon worked with the Monet Foundation in the 1970s and eventually reproduced this design. It is still highly covetable, but at nearly €254 for a five-piece set, out of my reach.
A few weeks after that visit to Giverny, I was in Selfridges during the sale and came across four Kenzo plates, blue rims, yellow trim, and hand-painted yellow and blue flowers. Those plates were the beginning of a tiny bit of madness, leading, over the years, to the gradual acquisition of some lovely table linen and china.
Blue and yellow was a favourite colour scheme of Monet’s, and if you should ever have the chance to visit his house in Giverny – only 40 minutes or so from Gare St Lazare in Paris, you will understand why.
It is striking that the colours work equally well in a northern setting as in the Mediterranean.