Should you wish to read more, catch up on my latest culinary adventures, click to this blog, my New Zealand blog.
Should you wish to read more, catch up on my latest culinary adventures, click to this blog, my New Zealand blog.
I’m going to miss France.
I’m going to miss the trees. That is an odd thing to start this list with, but it is true, I will miss the trees. Anyone who has seen autumn, winter and then spring in France will understand the immense beauty of the trees in France. I’m going to miss the wild flowers growing on the roadside and fields of soft yellow, violet and blue.
I am going to miss the road signs in several European languages. I am going to miss the trains. I am going to miss the supermarkets, the hypermarchés : an aisle for yoghurt, an aisle for milk, an aisle for cheese. I have eaten eight 125ml pots of yoghurt every week for nearly seven months, I will miss the yoghurt most of all. I will miss the bread; I will miss having fresh boulangerie pain aux céréales or baguette with every meal. I will miss the markets: the atmosphere, the fresh produce, the camaraderie between the stalls, or the slight competitive spirit. I am going to miss Bonne Maman confiture. I am going to miss the cheese. I feel my “cheese education” still has long way to go.
I will miss the houses: the wooden chalets with hearts carved in the balconies. Or the beautiful old stone farmhouses, their walls half a metre thick, with flaws and crevices in the stones. Each one has a story. I want to live in a house with a story. I will miss the narrow village roads that wind between each house. The thrill seeker in me will miss being a passenger in a French car, the journeys often punctuated by sharp intakes of breath.
I will miss jet streams in the sky; I like my sky looking like a game of pickup sticks. I am going to miss living in a mountain valley; spectacular views partout. I am going to miss seeing old men shuffling about the town square in cloth caps and berets. And old women in fur coats, their spindly legs poking out the bottom.
I am going to miss the possibility of going to Bordeaux, or Paris, or Barcelona, or Berlin, or London. Just hop on a plane and voila! I am going to miss living in the same country as Bordeaux…
I am not going to miss the smoking, the crazy amount of smoking. I will not miss seeing fourteen and fifteen year olds dragging on their cigarettes like a form of life support. And then, the gathering pools of spit at their feet because they can’t stand the taste: I will not miss that.
I am not going to miss the opening hours of French stores. I am looking forward to going shopping on a Sunday, and goodness, even a Monday if I want to.
I am going to miss the heat. I have had a taste of summer, of the sun on my skin, of the vitamin D coursing through my veins. I feel slightly cheated to be going back to Wellington in winter, like a child given a lick of ice cream and then it cruelly taken away. I want more ice cream. But, if winter means I can walk Lambton Quay, drink coffee on Cuba Street, curse at the wind and cry over the hills, then winter, I am ready.
France, à la prochaine.
When I hear the words wine country I think of Range Rovers, golden retrievers and turquoise swimming pools surrounded by terra cotta tiles with a view of the vines. This probably stems from spending lazy Sunday afternoons as a child watching the Parent Trap on VHS. The Lindsay Lohan version.
Here in France, in the middle of the Médoc, north of Bordeaux, wine country is a little bit different. Instead of Range Rovers, I have a red Peugot bike which I ride to the vines each morning. There are no lolloping golden retrievers, only roosters which crow at all hours of the day and cats to catch the field mice. And to cool down after tending to the vines we prefer to drink, not swim. A chilled glass of Rosé with a splash of creme de cassis and an ice cube. Organic Rosé made from the grapes that only a few hours ago I had been weeding, by hand.
Is there anything more beautiful than Wine Country?
Last night I brought a little bit of New Zealand to a French vingernon’s kitchen. More than a little bit, three courses. Three courses prepared in what is affectionately, or sometimes hatefully, referred to as une cuisine de camping. This house is a continual work in progress. There are wires hanging from the ceiling and every once in a while, Gerard must stand on a chair and push the insulation back into place with a broom handle. There are dust draps over everything and in the morning, in my east facing bedroom, I can see the sun rays through the gaps in the tiled roof. Thank goodness it is hot. Imagine the kitchen. I’m sure there are student flats with better kitchens. However, I’m sure these flats do not have Le Creuset. The shining orange Le Creuset helped calm my nerves cooking in a crazy French kitchen for Gerard and Ghislaine. One can not go wrong with Le Creuset.
entrée: salad of roast kumara, asparagus and green beans with mesclun and a mustard dressing.
main: leg of lamb baked with eggplant and mint.
dessert: pavlova with kiwifruit
When I began the cooking in the afternoon, determined to break the pattern of eating at 9.30-10p.m, the house keeper, Maria, asked me if I was sure I wanted to cook the kumara in the oven. She wondered if maybe I had muddled my french words a bit. Kumara, or patate douce, is somewhat of a novelty in France. Last night was the very first time Gerard, a man of 56, had tasted kumara. He liked it very much. He even had seconds.
The lamb was quite sensational, if I may say so myself. Or, I could just thank the powers of Le Creuset and be far more modest. Thank you Le Creuset. The lamb was tender and flavorsome and the aubergines, lightly spiked with mint, were soft and sweet. I will be making this dish again.
As for the Pavlova, I think the days of future pavlova Queen are a long way off. While pouring, as supposed to delicately placing, the whipped mixture on the baking tray, I prepared myself for another pavlova flop. But, I would never have guessed that a pavlova had the ability, indeed the quality, to be “the little Pavlova that could.” After a long sleep in a cold oven and a generous blanketing of cream, it really wasn’t too bad.
Gerard and Ghislaine were really rather impressed with New Zealand cuisine. As for me, I had survived “la cuisne de camping.”
And I hadn’t even made that many dishes. Did you read that, Mum?
Two weeks ago I left the beautiful and lively city of Bordeaux for the Landes region in south western France. I was starting the next chapter of aventure française: WWOOFing. Worldwide opportunities on organic farms. This is a volunteer program, of sorts: for a few weeks you work on an organic farm in exchange for lodging and meals. It is a wonderful opportunity to speak French and discover a new region of France.
I was to be living with Marie Hélène and her partner, Christoph, on the outskirts of a tiny village called Pissos. For two weeks I was very much part of their lives. During the day I would work with Marie Hélène in her organic market garden and at night I would help around the house: feeding the chickens and the pigeons, taking care of the horse and doing the cooking.
I enjoyed working in the garden. There is something very liberating in being able to get absolutely filthy without a care in the world. I would return home each day with dirt under my nails and a mud streaked face from wiping away perspiration. The garden is hard work but the rewards are tangible and, tasty too. Radishes as an apéro with fresh bread, butter and salt; salads for lunch with lettuce picked less than an hour before; new season potatoes sautéed in olive oil and peas eaten straight from the pods. In the coming months Marie Hélène and Christoph will have tomatoes of every variety, courgettes, cucumbers, rhubarb, beetroot, green beans and artichokes.
Like so many of my French experiences, my time with Marie and Christoph will be remembered by the food that we ate. My first night we had spaghetti with beautifully tender and rare entrecôte steak. The next night we sat down late, at 10.30p.m, to a succulent piece of black Gascogne pork that had been roasted in the coals of the original 180 year old fireplace. A friend of Marie and Christoph farm the black pigs, organically, of course.
Every morning for breakfast there was hot coffee, served in cereal bowl sized, hand-made ceramic mugs. Croissants, pain au chocolat or baguette, warmed and slathered with butter and honey. (Honey, from their friend the apiculteur who collects the honey from the beehives in Marie’s garden and, who also happens to be a dab hand at irrigation systems.) For midday apéro hour we ate whole anchovies which had been marinated for a few days in olive oil, vinegar, salt and garlic. We pulled the little fish, dripping and glistening, from the bowl with toothpicks and ate them with crusty bread. A friend had kindly given Marie and Christoph a big white bucket of crabs he had caught the day before. In the evening, the crabs still scuttling in their bucket, we made crab soup.
The next day for lunch, despite not arriving back at the house until 1.30, Marie roasted a whole chicken from a friend’s farm. Whole is not an exaggeration: the head, the stomach, the liver, the intestines, even the reproductive organs. We ate the chicken with fries which had been cooked in duck fat. Friday night dinner was take away pizza from the local pizzeria. Pizza with fresh duck liver, magret de canard fumé, mushrooms and foie gras, or, pizza with white asparagus, sun dried tomatoes, Serrano ham and poached egg.
Saturday afternoon, after a very successful morning selling at the market, Marie and I returned home with boxes of fresh meat, fish, cheese, bread and yoghurt. That night for apéro hour we shelled prawns and broad beans.
Sunday in Pissos is a day of rest and cooking. I helped Marie prepare the vegetables: aubergines, tomatoes, mushrooms, fennel, onions, fresh garlic and broad beans. They were cooked on the stove top with cumin and chili until wonderfully translucent and caramelised. Christoph prepared the outdoor brick fire place where we roasted a whole fish. We ate at the outdoor table in the shadow of 100 year old plane trees, discussing politics and the “fin d’une era.” It all felt so very French.
Sunday evening a friend of Marie and Christoph was cooking for us. On the menu: rognons d’agneau, lamb testicules. I was nervous about trying this particular cut of meat. The rognons were prepared simply with olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and then grilled in the fireplace. I was given the first taste, and in front of an audience. I didn’t dislike the taste or the texture: slightly creamy like pâté, but I don’t think they will be going on the weekly grocery list.
Monday lunch was another meal of no mean proportions. A friend of Marie and Christoph roasted a salmon fillet and brought it the house in a beautiful green Le Creuset dish. The salmon had been cooked with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and generous quantities of olive oil. We ate it with boiled potatoes, a salad from the garden and an herbed crème fraiche sauce. The crème fraiche, from the milk of Jersey cows, is made by a friend. It is soft, almost whipped and butter mellow yellow. I could have eaten it with a spoon. In fact, that’s exactly what we did.
Lunch the following day we ate a lentil salad with tomatoes, feta, onions and garlic. In the evening, after planting 200 tomato plants, we had fat andouillette sausages with sautéed new potatoes. Our attempt at eating light.
I cooked the next day, a soup or stew, I do not know. Carrots, mushrooms and sausages cooked in a spicy tomato broth. Apple and wild blackberry crumble for dessert. Last minute on Thursday night Marie decided to make a cheese soufflé. She gave me the pot of béchamel sauce to lick, I felt at home. The soufflé was golden topped, puffed and smooth.
Lunch on Friday, after standard apéro hour, we ate grilled pork steaks and fries cooked in duck fat. Saturday lunch was another meal of “firsts” for me. Our friend at the market hadn’t sold all the veal liver he expected, and for fear of wasting it, he generously gave us five or six veal livers. And hearts, and heads, and feet. The head and feet were destined for the dogs, for which I was secretly glad. I think my two week experience of nose to tail eating had already been quite comprehensive. The veal liver, though, was yet another interesting meal. Cooked in the fry pan with only salt and pepper for seasoning and served with a tomato salad and a slice of veal heart, just for good measure. Nose to tail eating, I feel, is an acquired taste.
That evening we went to a friend’s fête. On the lawn in front of a beautiful old stone house with a grape vine arching across the façade, we danced until the wee hours of the morning. We ate barbequed wild boar and Spanish Merguez sausages and warmed our hands over the barrel drum fire.
Sunday was my final day with Marie and Christoph and we enjoyed another wonderful meal. We tasted regional charcuterie: smoked garlic sausage and delicious salted pork wrapped in a pâté. The second course was fried trout and eel which Christoph had caught in the river that runs next to the house. Marie cooked roast pork with carrots, mushrooms and new potatoes. A slice of cheese, apple crumble and coffee to finish.
Oh, and the wine; one or two bottles with nearly every meal. Mojitos in the middle of day, floc de Gascogne and porto blanco. We drank beautiful Bordeaux reds, and always organic. There is less guilt in pouring a second or a third glass. Two weeks of wonderful meals and new delicacies to try.
But, please, feed me fruit and water for the next week.
2p.m Saturday 23rd of April I said good bye to Bonneville and began my trip south. Intending to return to New Zealand in June a bronzed beauty, I thought the south of France would be the best place to be. So, of course, the further south I head, the darker and more threatening it becomes.
I arrived in a cold and drizzly Bastia at 7a.m on Sunday morning after a very long ferry crossing. From this point on things all got rather interesting. A lack of cheap accommodation in Corsica meant I had to look outside the box. Enter: Maison Saint Hyacinthe, a convent 7km into the mountains outside of Bastia.
Not wanting to intrude on the nuns too early on Easter Sunday, I camped myself on a bench in la Place Saint Nicholas to observe the Sunday morning rituals. A flea market was being set up at one end of the square and a cycle race at the other. Old men in cloth caps and plaid shirts shuffled past me, making comments about the weather; I did have my sunglasses perched optimistically on my head.
I eventually caught a taxi out of Bastia and up the hill to the convent. Pippa had arrived late the night before to a rather angry head nun but we were glad to see that we had each arrived safe and on the right side of the Island. While filling in the accommodation forms, the Chaplain spoke to us in Polish. Our home for the next two nights was to be a Polish convent in the mountains of Corsica.
We began the walk two kilometres down the hill to the nearest bus stop. We missed the bus but instead picked up a dog which liked to chase cars and snap at their wheels. The dog followed us for the remaining five kilometres into the town centre of Bastia despite our efforts to lose it. We even asked two police officers what they would recommend, only to be laughed at and told we could keep him as a travel companion. We lost the dog only by sneaking into a café to eat ice cream for lunch.
The rest of the afternoon we spent walking around the port and citadel areas of Bastia. For our first proper meal in days we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant by the harbour. For the very reasonable price of €18 we had an entrée, main and dessert. We had mussels and whole baked fish: there is just something about eating fish when you can see the fishing boats bobbing calmly in the port.
The next morning the nun was appalled when we told her that we had walked all the way to Bastia. She said we must faire du stop, or hitchhike… After a feeble attempt we decided we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do this. We had resigned ourselves to another 7km walk when a car pulled over and offered us a lift. We jumped in, only to be confronted by a lovely set of gold teeth. With childhood memories of Denis the Menace and stranger danger school lessons running through my head, we made it to the centre of Bastia. Only to take a bus straight back in the direction we had come from to a little seaside village called Erbalunga on the Cap Corse coast.
In an isolated Corsican village on a sedentary Easter Monday, we hit a low. After a very expensive phone call to New Zealand I discovered I had about €2 to my name. Not even enough to afford a hot chocolate when the rain set in for the afternoon. We walked the 2km hill back up to the nunnery in the rain, occasionally catching each others eye and laughing at the hilarity of our current situation.
The next day we left the convent heading to Calvi on the other side of the Island. On our one carriage train that seemed about as old as the Island itself, and later a bus, we wound through the Corsican Mountains. I was pleased to see we seemed to be heading towards the sun. We passed by fields of olive trees, big green nets hanging underneath the trees. The highest mountains still had white peaks while others were a brilliant red. We saw the pine trees that I only associate with Mediterranean climates, their very trunks seeming to exude heat.
Once in Calvi, lunch, bathrooms and accommodation were our top priorities, in that order. After finding a hotel for the night we were free to explore Calvi: the citadel, the beach and the supermarket for a €10 dinner. The next morning we planned to leave Calvi quite early for Ajaccio. Once again, finances proved to be inhibiting as Pippa’s card declined buying the train tickets. We headed to the beach to lie on golden sand and watch the surf: the best place to decide our next move.
We eventually made it on a bus bound for Ajaccio, though of course we couldn’t expect the journey to pass smoothly. The public transport system in Corsica reflects the Island life perfectly. There is really only one major line throughout the Island which services all the big towns. Unless you would like to do a whole tour, you must make several transport changes. A man directs all the passengers where to stand in the dusty car park and then you must wait (and hope) for the connection.
Less than 30 minutes from Ajaccio our train began to slow and puff rather violently. Pippa commented how funny it would be if it broke down, stuck in the middle of the mountains. Our train chugged to a noisy halt, the drivers jumped onto the track, hammers and other tools in hand, while the carriage filled with smoke. We waited and waited and the cold, damp dark began to descend. The train rolled back to the last station where, again, we waited and waited.
A bus arrived to take us to Ajaccio but our night was not over yet. Money issues are not a recent development in our lives: we have become quite accustomed to eating baguette for lunch and dinner on some days, scrimping for train tickets and finding cheap accommodation. Alors, enter: Couch Surfing. In front of the closed Ajaccio train station we waited until 10.30, with each passing minute thinking our luck had finally run out and wondering what we were going to do stranded in Ajaccio late at night.
Mr. Couch Surfer eventually showed up, energy drink in hand. We piled into his little car and began to drive out of Ajaccio… He explained that his house had become almost a hostel for couch surfers in the recent months, with at least one couch surfer every night for over a month. We made quick introductions, discussed Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and then very nearly passed out with exhaustion.
The next morning we rose early and walked another 35 minutes into Ajaccio town centre. Morning bank balance check revealed that we were now in the money, from rags to riches overnight. We spent the morning wandering around Ajaccio, enjoying the sun, the markets and the palm trees. In the afternoon we found a beach and swam in the Mediterranean! The water was clear blue, the sand golden and there were sail boats just off shore.
Late that night, after a lovely meal in a harbour side restaurant we took a taxi back up to Mr. Couch Surfer’s house. The driver got slightly confused and we were dropped off about 100 metres down the road. It was dark and there was no footpath, just steep rock rising up from the road. We took off running and every time a car passed we threw ourselves against the rock. Another night on Mr. Couch Surfer’s couch. Another early start, ready for our ferry back to mainland France at 8.15a.m. As a parting gesture from Corsica the heavens opened and it poured.
A series of unexpected events in Corsica, but despite all that happened, I loved the rustic charm of this Island. At times though, this “rustic charm” was just plan ol’ run down. I loved the diverse and interesting terrain. And I loved the Corsican people: polite, friendly and always keen for a chat.
Seven months ago, nearly to the day, I arrived in France. Slightly terrified, mostly excited, I managed to simultaneously have no expectations and extremely high ones of what this aventure française would be like.
In the irrational, dream-land part of my brain I had the rather childish notion that as soon as my feet touched french soil I would be transformed into this french goddess. A perfectly made french life (complete with language skills and a fantastic wardrobe) would simply be handed to me with my passport stamp, just because I thought I deserved it and wanted it.
Funnily enough, this didn’t happen.
Instead, the first few weeks/months were difficult. The language, the transport, the bureaucratic formalities, the work; all were a challenge. I think back to my first week in France in Yssingeaux and I was totally overwhelmed. At the end of each day my brain physically hurt and I’m afraid I probably scared people by staring intently at their mouths trying to lip read.
My french language skills have not improved as much as I expected. I am slightly disappointed by this-I like to blame my lack of complete fluency on the region and our proximity to Switzerland but maybe I didn’t make as much effort as I could have. Before I left New Zealand I was told that things happen for a reason. Maybe the reason for aventure française was not to master the language but, rather, to figure out what I want for a life, for a career. I may not be able to slip in and out of french and English as easily as I could have hoped, but I am returning to New Zealand with a clear sense of direction. I feel this is far more valuable to me at the moment.
The past seven months have presented other opportunities for learning new skills, other than language. I have learnt to ski in one of the most spectacular mountain areas in the world. I worry I have the potential to be an adrenalin junkie at the speeds I enjoy reaching on my skis. Bring on the bungies and canyon swings.
I have improved my cooking skills. I love being able to open my fridge and semi-invent a recipe in my head. Mother, you will be pleased to know that cooking in such cramped conditions has forced me to become a cook who tidies as she goes. Sometimes I am still far too ambitious for my own good though. The weekly grocery bill is testament to this.
I have learnt to be independent and “keep house.” Monday afternoon grocery shopping is one of my favourite parts of the week and let’s not mention the obsessive checking of the letterbox. I have learnt to build a home away from home: it is absolutely necessary to have a fruit bowl. A full bowl of bright coloured fruit will make everything seem alright. Though, a bottle of wine in the pantry doesn’t hurt either.
I have learnt that my Mother was right (not that I ever questioned her) when she said “there is a meal in the house if there is a can of tomatoes in the house.” I have consequently learnt that my father’s motto regarding the importance of ironing is somewhat misguided. Having not owned an iron for seven months, this is a domestic practice I have let go…
Maybe one of my most important discoveries is that I am a New Zealander at heart. I think part of me will always be at home in France but I do feel proud whenever I tell people I am from Nouvelle Zélande and it is followed by an “oh la la la, il est beau là bas.” The ground moves beneath us, we are so very far away and we tend to have four seasons in one day (a concept lost on the French). But we also have beautiful landscapes, a wine and food industry gaining international recognition and… pineapple lumps. (My students love these!)
Tomorrow when I leave Bonneville I feel like I will be stepping off into a sort of void. I don’t really know what to expect when I travel during May, nor when I return to New Zealand. All I can really say is that the past seven months have been some of the most challenging and the most rewarding. I have met some wonderful people, had incredible opportunities and made memories that I will cherish forever.
Au revoir Bonneville, a la prochaine…
This market, along the banks of the River Saône, is the most beautiful market I have ever seen. A quintessentially French Sunday market; the sky a brilliant blue, the red and blue umbrellas of the stalls forming a canopy under the avenue of plane trees.
Elle and I wandered through; I was trying to take it all in. It was crowded, it was noisy. The smell of fresh strawberries, of fresh fish, of coffee, of cheese all blending together. It was wonderful.
The sellers shouting at each other, at us, like at a cattle market, “Mesdames, Messieurs, oranges-kiwis-bananes, venez, venez.” All in one breath and often with thick foreign accents.
I saw artichokes nearly the size of my head and leeks nearly as wide as my arm. The root ends of green and white asparagus were being broken off with a resounding “snap.” Strawberries sat in little wooden wicker tubs, as if you had picked them yourself. All the fruits and vegetables were so delicately arranged in aluminum pans: red, yellow and green peppers, their rounded surfaces almost glinting in the sun; mangoes, cut in half and arching their backs, showing off their hedge-hogged flesh.
We passed by the “resto” part of the market. Families were out for Sunday lunch, their tables weighed down by plates of iced oysters from the fish stall next door and chilled white wine from the wine stall opposite. Apart from large cauldrons of vin chaud at Christmas time, I have never seen wine being sold at a market before. But what a fantastic way to buy it-immediate access to the vineyard, or at the very least, the representative label.
The market was of significant size. The stalls continued along the river: rotisserie chickens, flowers, cheese, bread, condiments, butchers. A beautiful hippie in a long floaty skirt played accordion music.
Markets such as these is what I associate with France. It may be idealistic, I may have my head in the sand, but even after seven months of living in France that association and love of markets remains strong.
After the market, Elle and I wound our way up through a spring green park to the Basilica on top of the hill. The last time I visited the Basilica it was freezing cold and foggy…
We had been to visit Sophie’s family in Yssingeaux the day before (and to drop off my two suitcases!) and they very kindly gave me three quarters of a brioche praliné. I nibbled on my brioche while I looked over Lyon, enjoying the heat of the sun. I could vaguely make out the path of the incredible market we had just walked.
Days like that make me wonder why would I ever leave?