Friday, April 18, 2014

France et Moi with author Fiona Valpy

Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to writer Fiona Valpy about what France means to her.
France et Moi French Village Diaries Fiona Valpy
Fiona Valpy
Fiona is the author of The French for Love that I reviewed last year (see here) and next week she will be celebrating the publication of The French for Always. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these novels that are set in Bordeaux where Fiona lives, writes and teaches yoga.

Firstly, I think France is a special place and it is famed for many things including its cheese, wine and diverse holiday locations plus, dare I say it strikes and dog poo littered streets. What do you think makes France so very unique and ‘French’?

Fiona: Well stubbornness is certainly an important French character trait! And that’s meant that they’ve doggedly preserved their heritage and their values so that there’s still a lovely quality of life here, which is possibly dying out elsewhere. It’s a country with a very strong and unique sense of identity, and I think part of its appeal to visitors is that, just a short hop across the English Channel, you can be immersed in such a different culture.  

2) Before you moved to France, what is your fondest memory of time spent here?

Fiona: We came on lots of camping holidays when I was a child. And I spent a summer working on a French campsite as a rep for a British holiday company, which was hard work, but good fun too; every spare minute was spent on the beach topping up my tan. But my best memories of all are of my honeymoon in Burgundy, staying at a wonderful hotel in Puligny-Montrachet with my husband, enjoying incredible food and wines.

3) Imagine you are sitting outside a French café at 10.00am on a sunny morning watching the world go by, what do you order from the waiter?

Fiona: Every Saturday morning we go to our local market and the highlight is a coffee, sitting under the vaulted arches in the square. I always order a grand crème.

4) What is your favourite thing to buy in a Boulangerie/Patisserie?

Fiona: Very conveniently, there’s a boulangerie/patisserie right next to the café where we buy pastries to accompany our coffees. You can’t beat the classics: a pain au chocolat, still hot from the oven, is sheer bliss! 

5) France has many different cheeses, a silly question, but which French cheese are you? A hard and mature Tome, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or maybe the salty and serious Roquefort?

Fiona: Oh that’s a GREAT question! I recently went to a wedding where they had a wedding “cake” made entirely out of cheeses which I thought was a fab idea. Each layer was a round of a different kind, and perched on the very top was a heart-shaped Saint Albray, which is a soft white cheese from Aquitaine, a bit like a Camembert. So I’d like to be a Saint Albray au lait cru: stronger than I look, but with a very soft heart too!

6) What is your favourite regional French dish?

Fiona: Hmm, it’s so hard to choose… In the winter, especially after a day’s skiing, the ultimate comfort food is a delicious, creamy tartiflette from the mountains; but in the summer I would say half a dozen oysters from the Atlantic coast, preferably eaten at a shack on the beach and accompanied by a bottle of chilled Bordeaux Blanc.

7) Best French tipple, and yes I know there are many to choose from?

Fiona: Well it has to be a wine, of course! I love a crisp, dry, well-chilled white, sipped outside as the sun goes down. A Sancerre or a Chablis or, from nearer home, a Graves.

8) How important do you think it is to match your French wine with your food? Any top matching tips you can share?

Fiona: Very important, because both the wine and the food are enhanced, but I don’t think it’s something to be precious about. Some of the very best pairings are the simplest – a bottle of local vin rouge with a steak-frites, for example. The fun is experimenting to find which wines bring out the best in the food. Try a very pale rosé from Provence with a platter of slices of charcuterie; a coarse farmhouse pâté with a glass of deep red, tannic Pomerol; and – one of my personal favourites – champagne with chips! They are all perfect partners. 

9) Can you describe your perfect French apero for us the drink, the nibbles, the location and the company?

Fiona: A glass of champagne, (my favourite is from a small organic producer called Benoît Lahaye in Bouzy), served with light-as-air gruyere gougères, in the garden with my family. The family is the important bit though: I’d be happy with a glass of water and a packet of crisps, as long as the people who mean most to me were there.

10) France has some beautiful cities and there are a few that constantly battle to be my favourite, what is your favourite French city and why?

Fiona: Our local one, Bordeaux. It’s a lively mix of the old and the new, with its beautiful architecture and sleek, modern tram system. Visit the waterfront with its amazing “water pavement” for children (even grown-up ones!) to play on, as well as the beautiful shops and great restaurants.

Finally, do you have any current projects you would like to tell my readers about?

Fiona: I’m hard at work on my next book, which should be published towards the end of the year. As long as I don’t get too distracted by food, wine and visitors!

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.

Fiona: It’s my pleasure Jacqui.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ready, steady, go - Gizmo on Tour 2014

French Village Diaries Mini Cooper wedding road trip
17th April 1998

The lovable small Mini car has always held a special place in our hearts. We met through the London and Surrey Mini Owners Club, our two Minis plus our friend Jo's Cabriolet were our wedding cars, our wedding cakes were Mini shaped, Ed has Cooper as his middle name and no prizes for guessing where Mini the dog got her name from! 

In the years before Ed, most of our holidays were road trips in France with our Mini Cooper (Gizmo) and although things changed for a few (baby) years, when we moved to France in 2004 Gizmo came along too and since 2008 every two years we've been hitting the roads again. Ade's parents come over to look after Ed and the animals and we pack Gizmo and go, planning our route to avoid motorways and main roads and actively seeking out gorges and pretty villages.

April is the perfect month for a road trip in France. The weather should be reasonably warm, the main tourist areas won't be too busy and we get to celebrate our wedding anniversary (17th) and Ade's birthday (22nd). This years trip begins on Saturday and for anyone who wants to virtually follow our progress here is where we're going:

Day one, Deux-Sevres to St Nicolas de la Grave, Tarn et Garonne
Day two, to Meyrueis, Cevennes 
Day three, to Nimes, Gard, Languedoc-Roussillon
Day four, to Cassis, Bouches du Rhone, Provence
Day five, to Montbrun les Bains, near Mont Ventoux
Day six, to Orange, Vaucluse, Provence
Day seven, to Le Puy en Velay, Haute-Loire, Auvergne
Day eight, to Sarlat, Dordogne
Day nine, back home

Ade will be swapping the car for a road bike on day six and will be cycling up Mont Ventoux! Gizmo and I will be his back up team and cheering him on.

I will try to post regularly and keep you up to date as we make our way across France. I'm sure we will have lots of photos to share along the way.

French Village Diaries Mini Cooper wedding road trip
Gizmo near Meyrueis, Cevennes 2012

Monday, April 14, 2014

RIP Sue Townsend

French Village Diaries Sue Townsend Adrian Mole

The Secret French Village Diary of Jacqueline Brown aged (almost) 42 ¾

Friday April 11th
Today started out as just another routine family breakfast where we were all lost in our own morning worlds, but changed when I heard on the news that author Sue Townsend had died. I am someone who is usually about as emotional as a plank of wood, so it felt strange to be upset about the death of someone I didn’t know and had never met, even on Facebook. Reading the Adrian Mole books was obviously an important part of my growing-up years and just goes to show how much an influence books and authors can have on you. It is slightly spooky that Ed is almost 13 ¾ and although an avid reader I don’t think he has read about Adrian Mole. I will have to dig out my 1980’s copy for him.

I wouldn’t want to revisit my teenager years; life is definitely better now with the exception of my memory. This evening I experienced that sickening panicked feeling when I opened my handbag to find my purse missing. Trying to calmly recall where I’d used it last I remembered shopping yesterday morning and taking my bag into the English Conversation Club at Ed’s school earlier today. The kids may be a tad unruly and difficult to control but I couldn’t bring myself to believe one of them had pinched my purse. Lots of scrabbling in my many receipt strewn handbags later and the thought of having to approach the scary and severe headmistress on Monday, in whose presence I always lose the ability to speak French, was making a bad situation feel worse. Ade then asked if I’d taken it on our bike ride yesterday afternoon and if so was it still in the bike bag? Phew! One lost purse found, but who forgets a 35km bike ride? I am officially getting old! The grey hairs on my head I can cope with, the chin hairs and memory I’m finding more of a challenge than teenage spots.

French Village Diaries Mini Cooper road trip France
The essentials ready to pack
Saturday April 12th
Ade has been busy preparing the Mini and packing all his essentials as today was his last day here before our road trip south next weekend. This means lots for me to do this week prior to his parents arriving on Friday to look after Ed. I must also remember to pack my essentials, namely my tweezers: I won’t look chic in Cassis in my carefully coordinated capsule wardrobe and sprouting chin hairs. This evening we spent some time getting in the holiday mood by looking through the photos of our 2008 road trip and noticed I was wearing the same clothes I am wearing today, although they are a loser fit now and won't be packed for this trip. I guess the cycling (another 39km ride today) is keeping the middle age spread from spreading. I wonder if I’m the only one whose wardrobe seems to have an average age of over six years?

French Village Diaries cycling away middle age spread Deux Servres
Cycling away the middle age spread

Sunday April 13th
An early start today to drive the 2-hour round trip to drop Ade off at the airport and on the way home – shock - Ed actually removed his headphones and chatted to me! He obviously had his fill of parent time as he declined the offer to walk the dog with me this afternoon. I watched a bit of the TV coverage of the London Marathon and rather than feeling inspired to climb a mountain (something Ade is planning on Mt Ventoux by bike next week) or take up running I found I barely had the energy to do the ironing, finish the quarterly business accounts, plan a 500 word article and think about what to cook for dinner. I wonder what my midlife crisis adventure will be? I fear this week will be one of those with more things to do than time to do them. So far so good, I’ve not managed to kill any of Ade’s tomato seedlings and with a holiday on the horizon and the fact I still had the doors wide open at 9 pm this evening, I'm happy to say goodbye to another winter. 

I found Ed reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ in bed this evening and laughing out loud. Some things are timeless - thank you Sue.

Friday, April 11, 2014

France et Moi with author Patrick Moon

Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to author Patrick Moon about what France means to him.

French Village Diaries France et Moi Patrick Moon Virgile's Vineyard Arrazat's Aubergines Languedoc
Patrick studied History and French at University, before qualifying as a solicitor and becoming a partner in a large London practice. Aged 44, however, he gave all of that up because he felt that ‘there ought to be time in life to achieve more than one thing’. He went on to write books and produce paintings, as well as making wine and growing olive trees at his ever-demanding property in the Languedoc. You can read my review of Virgile's Vineyard: A Year in the Languedoc Wine Country and Arrazat's Aubergines: Inside a Languedoc Kitchen here.

Firstly, I think France is a special place and with plenty of space and lovely scenery great to explore by bike. If you were to take a day off from the vineyard and olive grove where would you take your bike?

Patrick: Definitely to the nearby Lac du Salagou beautiful at all times of year, with a challenging 26kms VTT circuit all around it. I confess, I’ve only done the complete loop once, but I regularly do the best stretch as an ‘aller retour’ of 16kms. An exhilarating mini “assault course” every time!

2) France has some beautiful cities and there are a few that constantly battle to be my favourite, what is your favourite French city and why?

Patrick: I’m afraid it’s the obvious one: Paris, about which there’s really little left to be said! But a very close second would be Toulouse. I love the ubiquitous pink stone, the walks on the quais beside the Garonne, the absurd concentration of top-quality restaurants, one of the best small art museums I know (the Fondation Bemberg), a delightful little opera house boasting top-quality productions… Perfect for an occasional night away.

3) What is your fondest memory of time spent in France?

Patrick: Probably the time I spent as an English language assistant in Versailles in the middle of my University course: a twelve-hour working week in the lycée that somehow magically contracted into six, with free accommodation, nearly free food and a short and frequent train ride into all the wonders of Paris. It seemed to take me years as a young lawyer to recover the ‘comfortable’ lifestyle I enjoyed then!

French village diaries France et Moi Patrick Moon Arrazat's Aubergines4) I know from reading your two books set in the Languedoc that you immersed yourself in the food and wine of the area but do you have a favourite regional dish?

Patrick: I love Cassoulet, but it takes literally days to make it. There’s a section in ‘Arrazat’s Aubergines that explains all the processes, but I suppose that’s one of the reasons I like slipping off to Toulouse – or even Castelnaudary on the way, where it was invented – to have someone else cook it for me.

5) Is there anything French you won’t eat?

Patrick: Tripe. It the only thing, French or otherwise, that I won’t eat. Well, all right, I’m not great with sheep’s eyes either, but I don’t think even the French would serve them!

6) France has many different cheeses, a silly question, but which French cheese are you? A hard and mature Tome, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or maybe the salty and serious Roquefort?

Patrick: The complete cheese board (depending on my mood)!

7) Imagine you are sitting outside a French café at 10.00am on a sunny morning watching the world go by, what do you order from the waiter?

Patrick: Just an expresso. And then I’m afraid I’d go for a walk and watch the world that way.

8) How important do you think it is to match your French wine with your food? Any top matching tips you can share?

Patrick: Very important. But that doesn’t mean hard and fast rules about white with fish, red with meat and so on. I think the ‘weight’ of the wine is often more important than the colour. For instance, I’d often favour a substantial Languedoc white wine with the local sheep and goat cheeses, in preference to the hearty reds more ‘traditionally’ served. Or if it’s Roquefort, perhaps a dessert wine.

9) How would you explain that very unique French concept of ‘terroir’?

Patrick: It’s the distinctive effect that the soil and situation of a particular parcel of land can have on what’s grown there. It’s probably most marked – and certainly most talked about! - in the world of wine. It’s easy to dismiss it all as ‘hype’ but try, for instance, the two different cuvées of red wine made by the Domaine de l’Hermitage in the Languedoc’s Pic Saint Loup region. Same grape varieties, same pruning, same vinification, but utterly different taste – not to mention different prices to match! – and all down to terroir.

10) Can you describe your perfect French apero for us the drink, the nibbles, the location and the company?

French village diaries France et Moi Patrick Moon Virgile's VineyardPatrick: A light fruity white wine, perhaps Le Joly Blanc from Virgile Joly, the hero of ‘Virgile’s Vineyard’; my own green Lucques olives, with some good charcuterie; the terrace at my home over-looking the foothills of the Larzac on a late summer’s evening and as many of my friends as will fit round the table. Then on to the serious business of dinner…

Finally, do you have any current projects you would like to tell my readers about?

Patrick: Well, my third book What Else is there for a Boy Like Me? has just been published for the first time. It’s very different from the two Languedoc books: first because it’s about Rajasthan in India and second because it’s more personal. There’s a lot more detail on both this and the French books on my website Meanwhile, I’m already starting to think about a fourth book about Kerala in the South of India, with a big focus on the food products of that part of the world, rather as ‘Arrazat’ spotlit those of Southern France. I’ll be posting more information on Facebook and Twitter, if any of your readers want to follow me there.

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.

Patrick: Thank you for inviting me!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Guest post from author Julia Stagg

Today is an exciting day for anyone who has been virtually taken to the Ariège-Pyrenees through the pages of Julia Stagg’s novels set in the small mountain commune of Fogas as it is publication day for A Fte to Remember (Fogas Chronicles 4) . Although I have not yet read it I remember snippets of the other three books with fond holiday-like memories and I’m sure I won’t be disappointed with this one. It’s been too long since I had a mini break in Fogas. A few years ago Julia wrote a guest post for me about her beloved Ariège-Pyrenees region and I thought today would be a good day to repost it. (The original disappeared into the black hole that opened up when I transferred from iWeb to Blogger).

french village diaries guest post Julia Stagg The Fogas Chronicles
Julia Stagg at the auberge
The Ariège-Pyrenees is a remote département in the southern corner of France, which snuggles up to Spain and Andorra. Relatively unknown, even by the French (the number of people who called us in haute saison to ask exactly where our auberge was while en route to stay there was staggering), it has retained a lot of its traditions. Time moves slowly. Strangers stand out. And Paris seems a long, long, way away.

When we first moved there in 2004 we felt at home from the first. The locals were welcoming, glad to have the auberge up and running again (my first novel L’Auberge is not based on fact!) and the scenery took our breath away. It still does – those mountains really do make your soul sing. But being newcomers, of course we stood out in a community where genealogy needs no internet access, old Madame Rogalle able to trace the ancestry of every family in the village. And happy to supply a few choice details no web search could ever unearth. What surprised me though was that we weren’t the only ones who were viewed as foreign.

During our first season running the auberge, it was amusing to see the second-home owners, who descended from Paris, Bordeaux, Montpellier, being put in the same bracket. In fact, because we were working those long summer days, we were regarded as honorary insiders and were therefore party to the moans and grumbles about the visitors who had come to our region. Visitors who were French.

It set me thinking about the meaning of ‘outsider’; how we all perceive it to mean something different. And how the label is made redundant over time when that which was unfamiliar becomes everyday. This became the focus of my second book, The Parisian’s Return, where the newcomer to the small commune of Fogas is French and brings with him all the preconceived ideas he has about this little known area. Likewise, he is met with all the prejudice that people living in a rural community can harbour for anyone from the bright lights of a metropolis.

Despite having lived most of my life as an ‘outsider’, I have no magic formula for making a move to another place work out; no secret to the success of becoming accepted. But I like to think that we achieved a level of ‘local’ status during our time running the auberge. And I like to think that when we go back (as often as we can), we are welcomed as returning residents. Of course, that also means we are now part of Madame Rogalle’s news updates. A small price to pay in my book!

Thanks Julia. To read more about her first three novels see my reviews here: L’Auberge, The Parisian’s Return and The French Postmistress.

I have been a BIG fan of Julia’s work since first coming across L’Auberge about four years ago and last month I was lucky enough to meet her in person! Despite busily scribbling away on book five of The Fogas Chronicles, she packed her notebook and pen, hopped on a train for the two hour journey to York where she treated me to lunch and we chatted like old friends for hours. She really is a lovely person as well as a great writer; so do please check out her books – I’m sure you will love them.

If you haven’t come across Julia’s work before you can find her on Facebook, Twitter and on her website, plus read my interview with her here.