sabelle Dequenne’s great-great-grandfather (or, if you prefer, her arrière-arrière-grand-père) Frédéric Dequenne was an Alsatian winemaker and a perceived Protestant. In 1871, the Prussian Otto von Bismarck besieged Paris, reduced Europe’s most epicurean diners to eating dogs, cats, rats, and flowers, and subsequently annexed Alsace-Lorraine for Germany. Not wishing to be German, Frédéric fled Alsace and settled among distant relatives in the Manche department of Normandy in the village of Pont-Bocage. Upon arriving in Normandy, Frédéric abandoned his perceived Protestantism, converted to a perceived Catholicism, and began distilling brandy.
As a point of curiosity, Frédéric brought with him a Swedish wife named Karin Cecilia. No one knows how they met, only that she was young and beautiful, he was handsome, and there was a boat to Denmark involved.
From the Brechard branch of the family Frédéric bought land that sat on the edge of the marshes beneath Pont-Bocage and called the farm Chez Marais, where he planted an orchard of apple trees and established a herd of dairy cows. Frédéric ingratiated himself among the local citizenry and by the time Isabelle was born fifty years later, the insular villagers were cautiously contemplating the possibility of perhaps thinking of maybe recognizing the Dequennes as naturalized Normans.
For three generations the Dequennes distilled their apples into a potent Calvados and made cheese and sold both in the nearby market town of Marignan. Inheritance of the farm passed to male heirs, but the problem of which son would inherit Chez Marais from one generation to the next was solved naturally by the habit of the Dequenne women to produce three girls for every boy. That is until Isabelle’s Mémère Claire reversed the ratio and gave birth to one daughter and three sons. The looming inheritance problem was later rendered moot by the battle of Chemins des Dames in 1917, which killed the two extra sons and left a single remaining heir.
By 1920, Isabelle’s father, Alain, was the last of Claire’s children who was both above the ground and in France (the daughter, Louise, having met a French-Canadian army officer whom she married and returned with to Montréal), so when Claire and her husband Pierre died, Alain Dequenne inherited Chez Marais and its cows, goats, horses, chickens, orchard, and Calvados distillery.
Content to farm, Alain remained in Pont-Bocage, often saying that the same bayonets that drove God out of him at Chemin des Dames also drove out any desire he had to travel. Alain journeyed beyond Marignan only twice after the war: once to Cherbourg in 1937 to meet Louise and one other time, shortly after 1918, when he traveled to Spain with his cousin Rémy Brechard. The trip to Spain was unusually productive in that Alain, the 19-year-old war veteran, returned to France with a nearly-20-year-old Spanish fiancée, Emanuela Arce y Fornaguera, who was, by reputation a magical, beautiful woman. The great irony of Emanuela’s life was that she escaped World War II’s dress rehearsal in Spain only to find herself at center stage for its gala 1944 performance in France.
To Isabelle’s delight, she inherited her mother’s rich, dark hair as well as an undying passion for tarte tatin, which is an upside-down apple tart and Norman specialty that Emanuela enjoyed making. In honor of Isabelle and Emanuela, I’ve decided I’m going to give making one a go this weekend. In case you’d like to give it a shot too, here’s the recipe I plan to use. Good luck and let me know how it goes in the comments!