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April 02 - Gardening in a Warmer World July 24 - La Boucherie J.-C. Malavard June 13 - The Unsung Muse of Istanbul May 02 - Potager passion 2013 January 30 - Wounds and Wildflowers September 27 - Coq Story March 29 - The joyous lavender farmer March 27 - Consulting the oracle February 15 - Abdullah's olives November 10 - The living willow fence--one year later October 25 - Ode to crème fraîche September 08 - Le Grand Mechoui at Revest-des-Brousses May 10 - An island of serenity March 23 - Blood and guts February 10 - Birdie! January 13 - Planting a living fence November 25 - The clay connection June 09 - Bee story April 21 - Of dandelions and Camembert March 12 - The secret shops of the Palais Royale. February 01 - The pleasures of winter September 30 - Pigeon September 10 - Health care à la française June 11 - La Ferme aux Escargots June 04 - Nest of flowers April 10 - Potager passion March 25 - Pépette II--The sequel January 27 - Meditations on mustard January 14 - Provence wears it well...snow, that is. November 20 - Our part-time dog November 11 - A new university for the 21st century October 14 - Mushroom madness September 04 - Road trip with Paula Wolfert June 18 - The Pottery of Sampigny June 02 - Le Temps des Cerises May 20 - It's that intoxicating time again... April 23 - Where la vigne is queen March 27 - The joys of la cueillette February 14 - Bringing in the blue January 16 - Bonne année 2008! November 07 - Fire at the heart of the home October 19 - Manna from heaven... September 19 - My neighbor's lamb July 26 - The way to a woman's heart... June 18 - Guinée rocks the rue de Logelbach May 15 - A passion for farigoule April 16 - Sowing the seeds of content April 04 - Bruno's world March 14 - Putting down roots February 14 - La Fête de la Truffe December 20 - An olive branch November 30 - Happiness is a hot chestnut. October 31 - Uncovering the soul of a mas October 02 - High horsepower September 21 - The magic of Moustiers June 21 - The cencibelles of Cliousclat May 22 - In possession of a potager... April 26 - A spring morning amble through Aix-en-Provence March 20 - The staff of life en pays Berbère March 08 - Why I love my quincaillerie February 22 - Le pays de Forcalquier February 14 - Valentine surprise in Verona February 06 - La Truffe December 20 - 12/20/2005. La Source December 01 - 12/01/2005. The pool at the Club Waou November 26 - 11/26/2005. Fall Trilogy III--Le Chemin de Randonnée November 23 - 11/23/2005. Fall trilogy II November 21 - 11/21/2005. Fall Trilogy I November 15 - 11/15/2005. Jammin' November 09 - 11/09/2005. Civil unrest in France October 31 - 10/31/2005. Flu season October 10 - 10/10/2005. Our own little piece of Provence October 04 - 10/04/2005. China--a window on the future? July 26 - 7/26/2005. Elegy for a potager July 07 - 7/7/2005. La Bonne Etape June 27 - 6/27/2005. Our royal tourne-broche June 22 - 6/22/2005. La dermite des prés June 13 - 6/13/2005. A spring foray in the Pyrenees May 16 - 5/16/2005. Lights, camera, action! April 28 - 4/28/2005. April in Paris April 06 - 4/6/2005. Vinegar porn March 06 - 3/6/2005. The miraculous monarch February 16 - 2/16/2005. Valise de rêve December 15 - 12/15/2004. Diversity for all December 09 - 12/9/2004. Fécamp--Destination gourmande November 24 - L'Ostau de Baumanière November 16 - Rice, bulls, and gypsy caravans November 15 - 11/15/2004. And the winner is... October 27 - 10/27/2004. Lunch heaven October 13 - 10/13/2004. Oh-so-French pharmacies October 05 - 10/5/2004. Vézelay--la colline éternelle September 07 - 9/7/2004. Where in the world... July 15 - 7/15/2004. Road trip through Auvergne June 02 - 6/2/2004. La fête du pain normand April 26 - 4/26/2004. A sun-drenched weekend in Collioure April 14 - 4/14/2004. Denis' Easter card April 01 - Lights, camera, action! March 29 - My life as an enzyme March 18 - Life in a food-crazed nation March 05 - Marabout February 26 - Tale of two towers February 23 - La Fête des Violettes February 05 - My precious levain January 28 - Surviving the salon January 13 - La Poste and I December 01 - Home alone November 19 - Those dirty French! November 03 - Three years at 10 rue de Logelbach October 20 - A Paris weekend September 16 - Paris on wheels September 03 - The sleepy magic of the marais Poitevin July 29 - Dejeuner sur la (mauvaise) herbe July 23 - Blue is the color... July 10 - My famous hat June 10 - 06/10/2003. Dr. Death and the Giant Lobster June 04 - 6/4/2003. Summer in a skillet May 13 - 5/12/2003. Oysters for Breakfast. April 29 - 4/29/2003 Dateline Dakar March 27 - 3/27/2003. Le Moulin d'Arbalète March 17 - 3/17/2003. A spring day in the Pays de Caux February 26 - 2/26/2003. Residents of Nice take to the streets... February 14 - Some winter violets for turbulent times February 03 - Ramblings on the week's news from l'Hôtel de Ville January 20 - The mother of all vinegars January 07 - "Brrrrr...Il fait froid!" December 11 - La crise de foie November 20 - War of the waters November 13 - The weekend of three tails October 30 - Gender issues September 18 - Figs, green walnuts, and pêches de vigne September 18 - La rentrée August 01 - Paris in August July 25 - The Gymnase Club July 15 - French ads June 27 - Sojourn to Ardèche May 23 - France ushers in spring with muguet des bois. May 23 - The Concours Lépine--or the French at their most eccentric April 19 - Going to the polls in Paris April 08 - The bounty of Belleville March 28 - First the poubelle, now the tri... March 15 - For women only March 07 - French Country comes to Paris February 21 - Paris underground February 15 - Everything's on soldes! January 31 - A breath of spring January 25 - Paris...the soul of discretion January 16 - Winter rolling toward spring January 03 - Bonne Année!! December 10 - Christmas roses November 28 - Wild mushroom season in Paris November 16 - Leaving home November 06 - The Camondo cuisine October 23 - Paris, Post-September 11 October 17 - 10/17/2001. Paris Mayor Says NO to Doggie Turds October 05 - 10/05/2001. What am I doing here? October 05 - Why I love my butcher October 04 - A dog's life in Paris.

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The clay connection

A couple of weeks ago, I had to replace the glass cooktop in our Paris apartment.  Yes, I had a glass cooktop; I'd inherited it, shall we say, from a woman who didn't cook.  This cooktop had been cracked for ages, but I'd limped along with it uncomplainingly--on most days--until it blew out the electricity in the whole apartment. 

A visit to the Darty website (the home electronics chain with a near monopoly in France) confirmed that most electric stoves were now 'induction' stovetops.  These looked basically identical to the glass cooktop I'd had, and I figured that induction was just some "new and improved" version of the old vitroceramique stove I'd had.  I detest electric stoves but am condemned to having one in Paris, for reasons too long and boring to go into here.  So in spite of cooking on one daily, I spurned all further knowledge of the various types and advantages of these smooth (so easy to clean!), flameless, and to me--soulless--stoves.

As almost all of those available were now of the induction variety, I chose one that had one large, adjustable sized burner, and two smaller burners.  I'd been eternally vexed with my old stove by the puny burner size, and often had to position my larger utensils (jam basin, fish skillet) across two of them.  The next day, the new stovetop was delivered and installed in a matter of minutes. 

After the technician departed, my electrician, who had been on hand to replace the fried wiring beneath the old stove, casually remarked, "Well, now you'll have to get all new pots!"

I looked at him quizzically, thinking I hadn't clearly understood his French.  "Pardon?"

"
Oh, yes," he replied calmly.  "These induction stoves require special induction cookware, that has a special clip in the bottom surface to conduct the heat.  A good thing I told you; you would have thought your new stove didn't work!"

My jaw dropped.  I broke out in a sweat.  Get rid of my pots?!?  My stainless-lined copper pans, and, and...I almost choked...all my clay pots?  I felt a little faint as their images turned in my mind:  daubières, caquelons, fait-touts, marmites, poêlons... caquelon, elegant daubiere My clay cookware ancient, old, and new, each piece with vicissitudes which I knew like the quirks of an old friend, and treated just as indulgently. 

I called Darty and established--to my relief--that they would exchange the stove no questions asked.  As their website gave no caveat emptor about these induction cooktops (p.s. Prepare to throw out all your cookware), I had a feeling I wasn't the first customer needing to exchange one.  At least I wouldn't have to conceal from Denis that I hadn't quizzed a Darty salesperson for at least 40 minutes on the relative attributes of vitroceramique vs. induction stovetops, like any responsible French person would have for such an important purchase (never mind the 6 people waiting in line behind him or her). 

Given that I had squeaked through a potentially disastrous situation, I was able to describe  it as highly humorous to Denis when he picked me up for dinner that evening.  "Can you imagine my expression when he told me I'd have to throw out all my old pots?" I nearly shrieked with laughter--now that moment was behind me.  We agreed that we scarcely recognized a world where most of the electric stoves sold required that you replace all your cookware.  Could it be that most people just don't have that much cookware?

I admit, they almost certainly don't have as much as I have.  And these days, most of what I have is clay pots.  Terra cotta, earthenware glazed and unglazed--any kind of clay pot that can be cajoled into tolerating stovetop cooking (as opposed to oven use)...well, as the French say, "J'ai un petit faible... (I have a little weakness...)  In my case, it's a big, enormous weakness--more like a compulsion of acquisition.  But please note, I cook with all but the most ancient and precious of my pots.  So I don't suffer from purely a collector's fetish.

I moved to France totally innocent of this addiction. It was in searching out artisanal products for sale on this website that I first discovered some of the few remaining French potters producing clay cookware.  And I fell in love.  For of course, if I were going to sell it, I had to test it.  And so began my clay pot saga.

daubiereMy first clay pot was a rather plain daubière (not the one at left, which is quite old), a Provençal pot-bellied pot with a concave lid.  Conceived for cooking daubes--wine-marinated stews that are simmered extremely slowly for hours, preferably on the hearth, the daubiere is designed to conserve the cooking juices by minimizing evaporization.  The sloping sides of the pot encourage condensation, as does the lid, which you fill with water.  As this water evaporates, it cools the lid.  The cool lid in turn condenses the steam rising inside the pot, keeping the contents juicy over a prolonged cooking period. 

As delicious as the daube is, its origin was probably practical rather than gastronomic.  A woman who was going to work all day in the fields could put her daube on to cook in front of the fire in the early morning.  When she returned at the end of the day, the contents would be simmered to silky perfection, still hot and ready to eat, with no signs of scorching.  She would have ingeniously lined the bottom of her daubière with pieces of pork skin, placing them fat side down.  These not only prevented the meat from sticking to the bottom of the pot, but also imbued her sauce with an unctuously velvety texture.  The more intense heat at the beginning of the cooking period brought the contents of her pot to a gentle boil and ensured the annihilation of any bacteria.  Then, the slowly falling heat was perfectly adapted to ensure the long, gentle simmer that makes the daube the delicious thing it is.  In addition, the long slow simmer was ideal for transforming the cheap, gelatinous cuts of meat she was able to afford into melting succulence fit for a king--sheer alchemy!

Alchemy is also the domain of the diable--literally, devil.  This squat, unglazed pot is native to the Poitou-Charente region of France.diable  This pot was originally conceived for cooking potatoes, but also does a superb job on beets, carrots, onions, and chestnuts.  The trick of the diable is not to use any oil or butter in the pot.  Just throw a handful of coarse seasalt in the bottom, pack in your vegetables along with a few unpeeled garlic cloves or herb sprigs if you like.  Then, heat the diable to a devilish heat, either over a wood fire, on the stove top, or--less authentic--in the oven.  In an amazingly short time, your vegetables will be cooked to perfection, with an alchemical concentration of flavor that you've never before experienced.  That's because the salt and the unglazed clay draws water out of the vegetables (kind of the reverse of the daubière ), thus concentrating their flavor and refining it to its purest essence.  My diable in Normandie (pictured above right) bears the traces of many fires and much salt-sweating.

tripiereHeading northward into Normandie, we find another great traditional claypot form:  the tripiere.  This distinctive pot looks as if a giant's hand squashed a round pot, flattening it into this unusual ONI shape.  (ONI?  That would be the acronym for objet non identifié--UFO in French).  Originally conceived to slow-cook tripe to melting perfection, the tripiere can be used to gently cook other meats--especially fragile ones--to moist tenderness.  One intriguing old recipe I've tried is using it to cook a whole rabbit along with a truffled pig's foot with no added liquid.  The pig's foot creates a naturally aspicked juice around the rabbit, keeping its prone-to-dryness flesh soft and succulent.  I buy every tripiere I find, as no French pottery worthy of the name is still making them.

Of course, not every French claypot is highly specialized.  In fact, one of my favorite pots is fait toutthe aptly-named fait-tout, or "do-everything."  I've read countless old French recipes that begin, "Prenez un fait-tout et...."  Indeed, the fait-tout is the workhorse of the clay kitchen.  It's in this pot that many of my garden vegetables find themselves simmering in a splash of olive oil.  One of the magical alchemical properties of claypots is that you can use them to cook vegetables without adding any water or other liquid other than a nob of butter or dash of olive oil.  The thick walls of clay make for such gentle heat conduction that the vegetables cook in their own juices.  Just try to imagine what that does for flavor--and vitamin conservation!  This beautiful old fait-tout was made in Vallauris, a Provence town that was once--in better times--home to an immense production of culinary pottery.  Vallauris even exported tagines to Morocco!  Sadly, the last real pottery production there ceased in the 1990's, leaving only a handful of touristy potteries producing wares flaming with vulgar colors.

All my old French cookbooks reference clay cookware for many if not most recipes.  Even in a volume of Curnonsky's dating from the 1950's, nearly half of the recipes begin with "Dans un plat en terre..."  How did cooking in clay pots--the method of choice for cooking slowly, for cooking with reactive elements such as wine, and delicate dairy products--fall so quickly into disuse after having been the method of choice throughout the history of humans?  Probably because, in a word, claypot cooking is slow.  In fact, a claypot would have been a better logo for the Slowfood movement than a snail.  Most claypots require overnight soaking before being used for the first time.  Then, they must be heated slowly and gradually.  Many of them can't tolerate high heat, so cooking times are longer.  Unglazed pots must be washed by hand, as must be precious older pots (to avoid chipping).  Clay pots must be allowed to air dry thoroughly for several hours or overnight before storing.  And all your movements in using claypots must be slow and careful--for they're breakable!

Clay chicken roasterWhy bother?  Because the quality of cooking you get in clay cookware is simply superior.  Whether it's meat or vegetables, it all comes out better cooked in clay.  Clay's gentle cooking conserves moisture and doesn't denature or destroy flavors.  Rather, it concentrates them.  And clayware used in the oven concentrates and radiates heat, much  like a baking stone but better, to mimic the effect of a brick oven.  A chicken roasted in the claypot at left turns out crisper on the outside and bursting with juice within.  Hmmm, wish I had one in the oven right now!

Plus, cooking in clay may be slow, but it's forgiving.  Countless times, I've gotten carried away typing at my computer while my dish simmered away happily--and harmlessly--in a claypot.  No scorched odor reached my nostrils, kindling dismay,  as it would if I'd forgotten a Creuset pot for that long.  And clay pots are much easier to clean than copper or enameled cast-iron. 

As I've alluded, I have a collection of clay cooking pots that is spread throughout 3 houses  with examples from the 17th century to the latest Emile Henry tarte Tatin dish.  In Paris, I even sleep with my claypots.  That's right; those aren't clothes in my bedroom closet; those are cook pots!  I know my bosom pal Paula Wolfert would get riled if I said my collection rivals hers--so I won't, because I know she'll read this article.  And clay pots are what brought us together!  (Paula ordered a pot from my website, and the rest is history.)

When I arrive at the house in Provence with a weekend stretching before me, my claypots seem to 17th century caquelongreet me like so many friendly faces.  I keep some of my oldest pieces here--pots that intrigue me with their secret stories.  Some of them I dare to use, like the 17th-18th century caquelon at right, pictured perched on a potager burner.  For yes, potager means not only vegetable garden (originally to provide soup--or potage--ingredients, but also signifies a 'cookstove' consisting of concave iron grates meant to be filled with glowing hot wood coals from the main kitchen fire.  (The ashes fall into a special drawer below.)  In this sense, potager means 'soup maker.'  I'd found the grates selling for a euro or so at flea markets long before we began our house renovation.  My four-burner potager was custom-built to accommodate them.

18th century caquelonThis beautiful green caquelon is just as old, only I don't cook in it on account of its green glaze.  While most people get all alarmed about the lead in glazed earthenware, in fact the copper in green glazes is far more toxic.  Lead is still present in all colored glazes, but it only poses a potential problem in old pieces that were fired in wood-fired ceramic ovens.  Modern gas ovens create extremely high temperatures that render the lead 100% inert (meaning it doesn't react or leach out into food).  As you've probably figured out, caquelon is the old-time French word for 'saucepan.'

Another claypot form that I have a terrible passion for is the leche-frite.  How can you not leche fritelove a utensil whose name means 'lick drippings'--something all of us secretly like to do?  I have several leche-frites of different sizes in Provence alone, as we do lots of cooking on a spit turning before the kitchen fire.  The leche-frite is designed to catch the drippings from the roasting meat, and usually, to simultaneously cook vegetables bathed in these flavorful juices.  Interestingly, all the earthenware leche-frites I have ever seen are covered in a colorless glaze.  Perhaps colored glazes have a more difficult time holding up to the harsh and uneven (one side very hot, one side cooler) heat experienced by this utensil before the fire.

beanpotSome clay pots with specific functions and regional histories have forms so idiosyncratic that you just have to love them.  This beanpot is a replica of an old exemplar from the Vendée region of France.  I know claypots well enough by now to interpret the form of this pot for you.  Remember, with claypots, form = function.  The upright form means the pot is meant for long cooking.  As for the unusual handles, arranged like bat ears on one side of the pot, that was to keep them cooler, on the side away from the fire.  Remember, much claypot cooking was done near the fire, and not over it.

Some claypots are multi-purpose workhorses.  Years ago, at a flea market in Normandie, I found this marmite-shaped pot, stamped 'La Bourgignonne' on the bottom.  This pottery must now be defunct, as I've never been La Bourgignonneable to find any trace of it.  And I don't consider this pot very beautiful, on a strictly aesthetic plane.  Yet, it's beautiful to me, because for years, it was practically the only claypot in my Normandie kitchen.  It has proved itself stalwartly solid--a treasured quality in fragile claypots.  And I've used it to cook countless vegetable mixtures, stews and many another happily-consumed dish.  La Bourgignonne has been a real workhorse of a pot.

In Normandie, I've found a number of glazed clay dishes or plates whose function no antiquarian has ever been able to define for me.  I'm sure that a number of them were made in Auvergne or southward.  They're simply wide, concave plates (plat creux) with sloping sides, much like overly deep tart plates.  Each one I have bears the scars plat creuxof much use.  One beautiful green one has  radial knife marks webbing its bottom, testament undoubtedly to uncounted quiches or tartes being cut at the table.  I use these plates to make tourtes (deep tarts, usually savory), or gratins, or simply for serving.
This warm ochre yellow plate, moucheté (fly-specked) with brown has a pretty bad chip along its edge, yet that doesn't diminish my love for it (even though it had the chip when I bought it).  Rather, that chip tells me a story--a tale of human fallibility, of someone as clumsy as I, or as tired as I sometimes am, when she cleaned up the dinner dishes after a long day, and who cursed to herself (Merde!), much as I would have done, when she bumped the plate against the counter, chipping it for posterity.

These days, one of my biggest thrills when traveling is looking for clay pots.  (I've learned to always travel with bubble wrap in my suitcase.)  Luckily for me, one of the world's richest hunting grounds for clay cookware is just across the 3 tangia potsMediterranean in North Africa.  The three pots at right I bought in Marrakech.  They're used for cooking tangia, a lamb stew supposedly prepared only by men that is placed in the communal bread oven to simmer as the heat wanes.  I have countless tagine plates, glazed and unglazed, for cooking, and highly ornate ones for serving only.  I also prize an old clay gdra for making warka leaves, because it was so very difficult to find.  Some of the more everyday Moroccan clay cooking utensils I've bought in North African neighborhoods of Paris.  I found a marvelous wide clay dish with a rough pattern scratched in its base that is used for baking flatbreads over Moroccan flatbread bakerthe fire.  The raised pattern allows steam to escape from beneath the bread, making it crisper, and incidentally creating an ornamental pattern in the crust.

When Paula was working on her claypot cookbook, she swore to me that couscous cooked in a claypot tasted better.  To humour her, I went along with her, but, as much as I swore by claypot cooking, I couldn't imagine how the pot you steamed couscous in could make a difference in its taste.

 Yet, she was right.  I hauled back an extremely heavy old clay couscoussière from the Tunisian couscoussiereTunisian desert last spring.  And on a lark, I used it to steam some couscous in Provence.  It was Denis who, after the first bite, observed that the couscous was better than usual.  If Denis--who has usually finished his dinner by the time I'm just getting started--noticed the difference, I told myself it couldn't be my imagination how good this clay-cooked couscous tasted.  And yet, I'm hard pressed to describe the difference.  The flavor was just fuller--a difference I would have pooh-poohed if I hadn't tasted it myself. 

Which brings us to the metaphysics of claypot cooking.  Just why does food cooked in claypots taste so good?  I'm sure most of it can be explained by simple, unadorned physics.  And yet, I'm just as sure there's something more.  Is it that, all food coming from the earth, it's karmically appropriate that it be cooked in an earthen vessel?  Is it because each and every one of my clay pots was made by an actual person who turned the clay on a wheel--is it the touch of a human hand that I taste in my food? 

A friend who works at my beloved Cliousclat pottery told me a wonderful story.  He said, whenever he visited his grandmother's house, a certain aroma greeted his nose.  He never really knew what gave off this scent, but for him it embodied all that was wonderful about his grandmother--her warmth, her love, her cooking.  After she died, he inherited her clay cookpots, and--lo and behold!--the mystery was revealed.  The pots gave off a subtle aroma  from the countless dishes they had cooked.  And it was this subtle, homely perfume that my friend had smelled everytime he opened his grandmother's door.  You could say the pots had retained the soul of the food, sending out wafts of it from time to time, like faint smoke signals, beseeching to be put to use once again.

vielle pot a cuire normandWhen Paula Wolfert came to spend a week with me here in France, I took her to the Cliousclat pottery (she was working on her claypot book at the time).  We visited the pottery, of course, which is like Ali Baba's cave of treasures, and that evening we had dinner with Nicholas Sourdive, who, along with his brother, had inherited the pottery from his father.  Niko is the creative force of the pottery, having forged a style that is recognized by authorities of the art as one of the finest in France today.  Niko is a bit shy at first meeting, so I was surprised at how quickly he took a shine to Paula.  At the end of a long, convivial dinner, he asked us when we were leaving in the morning and promised to join us at our hotel (two steps away from his house and the pottery) for morning coffee. 

Paula and I were shivering a bit in the morning chill, taking our coffee outdoors on the main street of the village, when Niko materialized out of the cool mist.  He was carrying a pot.  Carefully, he placed it on the table and smiled at us.  The pot was about as plain a pot as I'd ever seen, uncolored terra cotta with just a hint of glaze clinging to its inside.  It was shaped like a Spanish cazuela and indeed, Niko explained, this was a pot his mother had bought in Spain and cooked in all her life.  Then he became quiet. Tears welled in my eyes and I glanced sideways at Paula to see if she realized the poignancy of the moment.  For the retiring, reticent Niko to have gotten up early and trotted down the road to show us this humble family pot--well, he was offering us a piece of his heart!Moroccan couscous plate

P.S.  If I had to pick just one claypot (oh, tragedy!), it would probably be a poêlon (clay skillet) like the pile of them pictured at the top of the article. At right, a couscous platter from the Moroccan desert.

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Products of Interest:
Provençal poêlon
Vallauris daubière
Diable
Provençal daubière

About Paris Postcard
Here's where I share the frustrations, humor, and sometimes almost heartbreaking beauty of daily life from the perspective of an American expatriate living in Paris. I'm writing to you exactly as I write to my family and friends, so what you read here is usually not about gardening. Rather, these weekly postcards are a way for you to get to know me, and I hope, to occasionally laugh out loud--both with me, and sometimes at me. Barbara Wilde
   
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