Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to author Steven Herrick about what France means to him.
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’?
Steven: The French! After numerous visits, I’ve yet to meet a surly arrogant French person. Even the waiters of Paris have been friendly and cheerful. Maybe it’s in the way I approach the natives... always armed with a smattering of French spoken with a horrible nasal Australian accent. Perhaps they just feel sorry for me?
2) What is your first memory of a trip to France?
Steven: I was in my twenties when I first visited. I spent hours marvelling at the variety of cakes on offer in the shop windows of Parisian patisseries. My sight-seeing tended to focus on food and people rather than galleries and museums.
3) I’ve read 'baguettes and bicycles' so I know you like to visit Boulangeries/Patisseries but do you have a favourite thing to buy there?
Steven: How long have you got? Being a cyclist, I have a soft spot for paris-brest, a choux pastry filled with praline-flavoured cream. I also enjoy millefeuille, kouign amann, croissant aux armandes, cafe eclair, canele and chocolate mousse. And then there’s the bread...
FVD: wow, you certainly know your patisseries.
4) 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?
Steven: Anything but a coffee!
I love the French. They excel in food, wine, cars, design, films, poetry, practically everything but coffee. They use robusta beans instead of the higher-quality arabica and it shows. In fact, I’ve written a blog on where to find decent coffee in Paris. The list runs to only three cafes, but a friend assures me he’s now found a total of eight cafes where he can drink a decent cup.
So, to answer your question? A glass of Kronenbourg, s’il vous plait.
5) Having cycled through many regions in France and enjoyed your three course meals is there a particular regional dish that sticks in your mind?
Steven: I’d always been slightly disappointed in cassoulet until I tried a serving in Castelnaudary, reportedly the home of the dish. It was fabulous. I’m also a sucker for confit de canard - it’s my default dish after cycling fifty kilometres anywhere in France. Lunch or dinner.
6) What would be your most memorable day on a bike in France?
Steven: Every day on a bike, anywhere in the world is memorable. But, if pushed, I would nominate two days.
A) Cycling in the Pyrenees on the D918, perhaps the greatest cycling road in the world. It includes the legendary Tour de France mountain climbs of Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and the unforgettable Col d’Aubisque. All on one road. I’m not suggesting you ride them all in one day of course, but I spent a week climbing one a day and each day was cycling nirvana. I quickly add, I don’t ride mountains as any testosterone thrill. I ride very slowly and sedately, enjoying the quiet and the majestic surrounds. It’s not about the thigh muscles, it’s the scenery.
B) I really enjoyed riding along the Canal du Centre between Paray-le-Monial and Chagny in Burgundy. It’s a beautiful canal path which is rarely used. If you have a few days, detour into Beaune and cycle through the vineyards.
7) Mont Ventoux in Provence is a regular in the Tour de France and many amateur cyclists dream of conquering it (including my husband) do you have any words of advice?
Steven: Spend a few days in the area and ride it from all three sides! But, certainly train for a few weeks riding up smaller hills, preparing for the rigours of Ventoux. My first climb up Ventoux was from Bedoin, the route used most often in the Tour de France. I started very early in the morning and had the ascent all to myself. It was glorious. I paced myself and enjoyed the view. The last section of bare rock and scree is breath-taking in all sorts of ways. The second day I began from Sault which is a longer but much easier route and yet still includes the difficult scree section. Take lots of water and relax. Bend your elbows, keep your head up, tell yourself this is the best ‘office’ in the world. And, on the descent, stop and pay your respects at the Tom Simpson Memorial.
8) 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?
Steven: Perhaps a Saint-Marcellin, a soft cheese made from cow’s milk that has 50% fat and it’s exterior is a mottled creamy yellow. Not attractive, but pleasant in small servings.
9) Do you have any embarrassing language mishaps you are happy to share?
Steven: Every time I open my mouth. The worst examples are when we cross the borders between France and her neighbouring countries. Oui, Ja, Si!
10) Do you have any plans to visit France again soon?
Steven: Yes, next year we hope to cycle in Provence and perhaps return to the French Alps. But first, my wife and I are planning on cycling down the Danube from Vienna to Belgrade.
Finally, do you have any current projects you would like to tell my readers about?
Steven: My most recent ebook is bordeaux and bicycles (Eurovelo Series: Book Two) - a cycling adventure from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean following the Canal des Deux Mers. I’d like to think of it as a handbook for those who enjoy slow food, easy cycling and grassroots travel. I’ve also just finished editing my next children’s book, titled ‘Bleakboy and Hunter stand out in the rain’ which will be published in 2014.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.