Welcome to my first ‘France et Moi’ of 2017 where this week I am talking to author Catherine Berry about what France means to her.
1) 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’?
Catherine: Passion. Whether for good; think eating, loving, creating, flirting, or not so good; think strikes, rights, schedules, there was an undeniable passion that permeated our French living.
2) Where did your love of France start?
Catherine: Like many students, I attended my first ever French language class in my first year of high school. I was a studious, serious student and most probably approached this subject initially with a simple desire to do well. By the time I was doing my final school year, my French class had dwindled to four students. It was a joy and the teacher, a nun with a refreshing sense of humour, did more than just instruct. She nurtured us, took us on wonderful weekend French retreats and successfully passed on her love of all things French.
3) When you first arrived in the Alps region of France what was the best thing about being immersed in French life and the scariest thing?
Catherine: Watching my children become confident, resilient, knowledgeable about the world and, yes, bilingual, was the best thing about our initial immersion. Of course, this lasted much longer than just the beginning. I was still standing back admiring them and marvelling at their growth years later. Health issues, including a broken arm after just one week, were downright scary. I had no intrinsic understanding of French medical protocol, nor the language and was not sure how far our health insurance would stretch either. I experienced a vertiginous spike in fear when I realised that I would have to submit a French tax declaration...in French.
4) Every region in France has it’s own culinary specialty, do you have a favourite regional dish?
Catherine: Our region is big on cheese and potatoes. During the months of potentially snow-bound isolation, families living high up in the mountains would have had to rely on a repetitive menu based on what they would have grown, made and stored prior to winter. Tartiflette is one such cheese and potato dish, but my favourite is the raclette. Before leaving for France, I stood in the playground of my son’s French/Australian school and listened to the French mums bemoaning the fact that they could not find a raclette cheese in Melbourne. At the time, I did not appreciate the angst that not having access to a good cheese could cause. Neither did I really know how raclette could and should be prepared. Once in France, I found that eating raclette seemed even more social (if that were possible) than a regular French meal. We all put our little pans that were loaded up with slices of raclette into the machine in the middle of the table before slipping the molten cheese onto the accompanying salami, prosciutto, gherkins and potatoes. If you didn’t wish to buy a whole wheel of raclette, it could be bought pre-sliced on trays at the supermarket. In days gone by, the lump of cheese would have been melted on an open fire, scraped (hence raclette from the French verb racler) and after dinner would have been left to solidify in order for the process to be repeated the following night.
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?
Catherine: A bit of all of them, but you’ve described the goat cheese as fresh and lively and I relate most closely to that description. I’m not sure, though, that it is always a positive as I am constantly dreaming up the next thing to jump to. Being active both physically and mentally is a must for me. I hope that my children have not suffered too much as a result of my nomadic tendencies.
6) What is your favourite thing to buy in a Boulangerie/Patisserie?
Catherine: One of the chapters in my book is entitled ‘Mon péché mignon’, which literally means ‘my cute sin’ or more loosely ‘my weakness’. Bread, of any description, has always been my weakness. Imagine my conflicting emotions when I push open the door to any boulangerie. The day of our arrival in France, the lady who owned the little cottage that we had rented came by to offer to take the two girls (then aged 9 and 12) to buy our daily bread. She gave them the necessary language to buy two loaves of the superior, non-commercially produced ‘good’ bread. No doubt she presumed that our bread tastes were as refined as hers. Unknowingly, coaching them through “Deux pains de tradition, s’il vous plait”was a gift to the girls as it threw them straight into an authentic situation. Linguistically, they never looked back.
7) Best French tipple, and yes I know there are many to choose from? Also, as an Australian, do you prefer French or New World wine?
Catherine: Kir Royal (crème de cassis and champagne). My general preference is to drink red wine, but we often serve a Kir Royal as an apéritif. I’m not sure what attracts me to this drink. It could be the colour, the bubbles or the regal bottle from the Chambord castle but it is probably the anticipation of the lovely lingering that is to follow. So, I guess that means that I’m really not that fussy. Similarly, I am happy to drink wine from any country. Occasionally, when we were living in France, we would try and search out a bottle of Australian wine, but that was more as a nod to friends far away than to the taste.
8) Have you ever witnessed the Tour de France whizzing through your area?
Catherine: The Tour passed through Annecy a couple of months before we were due to set off on our French adventure. My husband had previously spent many sleepless nights following the race on Australian television. On this occasion, I joined him and was unimaginably excited to see the place that we would soon be calling home. Once living in France, going to watch the Tour became a must-do event. We were not there this year to see it go through our village of Talloires, but we did hear Robbie McEwan comment that if he had to choose a place to live in France, it would be Annecy. We’ll second that!
9) I know you have travelled extensively in France, but if you were to recommend just one location for a special holiday in France, where would it be?
Catherine: I love France. Just one location... I can’t do that! For love; Paris. For love; any little cobblestone-paved village on market day. For love; wandering the coastal tracks, forest paths, sandy coves of the hexagon. For love; setting out and never reaching your destination because there is too much to distract you on your way.
10) I enjoyed your memoir ‘But You Are in France, Madame’, do you have any plans to write more about your house in France?
Catherine: I was asked this question recently and it is true that the prologue to my book is actually the epilogue to our story. It is here that I mention that we did end up buying a house in France. I should have documented the purchasing process. That would have made a great drama. All I know at this point is that the past year since pushing the button to publish has been memorable. Definitely worth repeating.
If you would like to experience Catherine’s life in France her house in Talloires on Lake Annecy is available for holiday rentals, see here.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.