Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book review for Tout Soul by Karen Wheeler

French Village Diaries Tout Soul Karen Wheeler Poitou-Charentes franceMy review today is for Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France , Karen Wheeler’s third book about her life in Poitou-Charentes, France. I really do recommend reading Tout Sweet: Hanging Up my High Heels for a New Life in France and Toute Allure: Falling in Love in Rural France , books one and two before this one. The first two books are full of Karen’s excitement and optimism of a new life in France and a new romance, where as book three (as the title suggests) is a soul baring book from a period in her French life when things go from bad to worse. Life, wherever you live, doesn’t always give you sunny courtyards and glasses of rosé wine and this book is an honest, but very readable account of a difficult time. Her relationship is not going well, she falls out of love with French village life and then her world is turned upside down by an accident involving a friend. To read this book without having read the others would not give you the whole picture.

This is a heart-wrenching and far more emotional read than the first two. However despite the somewhat subdued feel to this book, Karen is still able to bring alive the changing seasons of the Poitou-Charentes countryside, that I know and love so well, with her descriptions of her daily walks with Biff, her beloved doggy companion. Having Biff and his need for routine and care really gave meaning to her life during the dark times and his antics often made me smile. She captures perfectly the café culture and the important part it plays in French village life and the characters she writes about feel very real. She also has the ability to write about very personal situations with honesty, openness and without making the reader feel uncomfortable, but a box of tissues may come in handy.

It has been a privilege to share her life in France and I am very much looking forward to catching up with Karen’s life in book four Sweet Encore: A Road Trip from Paris to Portugal that will be published later this year.

You can read my review of Tout Sweet here, Toute Allure here, and my France et Moi interview with Karen here. Karen has also written a French inspired diet book The Marie-Antoinette Diet that I reviewed here and was lucky enough to hear her talk about here.

Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France is available in paperback and ebook format and links to Amazon can be found below. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ile D'Oleron with our family

For a serial traveller like Ade who is used to sleeping his way around the cheap hotels of Europe, one of the benefits of our abandoned holiday plans was that he woke up in his own bed on the morning of his birthday and the sun was shining. The fridge was bare and the boulangerie closed but the garden provided the main ingredients for pancakes for breakfast and chive omelette for lunch - delicious birthday treats whatever your age.

French Village Diaries Cassis Mont Ventoux Holidays Ile D'Oleron Poitou-Charentes
The closest we got to Cassis and Mont Ventoux

Exploring in France is something I don't think I will ever tire of and having felt a renewed rush of love when we crossed back into Poitou-Charentes that is where we set off to do some 'closer to home' exploring. We may have missed out on the southern delights of Nimes, Cassis, Mont Ventoux, Orange and Le Puy en Velay but there is always next time. Just off the west coast in Poitou-Charentes is Ile D'Oleron, a holiday island with wet lands, bird life, cycle paths, oyster beds and the perfect place to escape to and spend a few days with Ade's parents, Ed and Mini the dog. We laughed, we ate, we walked on the beach, we cycled (120kms) and had great fun, putting the disappointment of the road trip behind us. I can thoroughly recommend Ile D'Oleron for a day trip or a longer stay, especially if you are a cyclist as it is flat and well covered in cycle paths that weave through marshes, oyster beds and forests enabling you to link the main towns without worrying about the traffic.

French Village Diaries Holidays Ile D'Oleron Poitou-Charentes
Birthday aperos on the beach
Life is all about taking risks and learning from your experiences. A road trip in a 20 year old car is more risky than a drive to the shops in a new car, but nothing is risk free and driving in Gizmo is a lot more fun and a certainly more of an adventure. In Gizmo children wave, their fathers smile, motorcyclists give us the thumbs up as they roar past and a Parisian couple in a Jaguar even slowed down beside us to wave and smile as they passed. In our Mondeo we are invisible. In Gizmo we smile and others smile too. We hope to be back on the road soon.

French Village Diaries Cassis Mont Ventoux Holidays Ile D'Oleron Poitou-Charentes
Ile D'Oleron
This post is the fifth post in our holiday series. To read the previous posts see here:
The Planning
Day One
Day Two
Oh Nuts!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mini Cooper road trip day two, the nuts bit

Continued from Day Two. We rolled into a parking place in St Beauzély and Ade took a peek under the bonnet. It didn't take him long to notice that hidden away under the air filter was a plate held in with three nuts and bolts, but only two were there. The clunking sound left him with no doubt that the missing nut had been sucked into the engine head. The only option, if we were to get Gizmo running again, was to perform major roadside surgery and strip the engine down to find and remove the debris and hope the damage it had caused was minimal. Obviously when I say 'we' I mean Ade (my hero), but I was chief nut and bolt holder, spanner fetcher, umbrella stand and kitchen roll dispenser so all bits could be dried before reassembly. 

French Village Diaries mini cooper road trips nuts
Nut debris - ouch!
I have now seen bits of a car engine I never knew existed and can't quite believe just how many pipes, hoses, nuts, bolts, wires, gaskets and bits fit into such a small engine bay and how many of them needed to be removed in the correct order to get to the bit we needed to get to. This procedure took about two hours in a village high up in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain - where oh where was the sunshine of yesterday when we needed it most.

My hero, who was not only well prepared with a boot full of tools and a head full of knowledge, but also kept calm enough to logically think the problem through, did it -  Gizmo fired into life once more, although Ade still has the scars from the scratches and blisters earned that day.
French Village Diaries mini cooper road trips nuts

A perfect Mini covered workshop
We made it into Millau (about an hour from Meyrueis where we were headed) and found a handy Mini-sized covered workshop in a supermarket car park to make some further checks as although running we had a stuttering, lumpy engine rather than the meaty, throaty roar we are used to. Like our old cat whose legs are slightly bowed and who climbs the stairs slowly and cautiously, Gizmo too struggles a bit more than he used to. Ade had spent many hours working on him prior to setting off to ensure he was in tip-top condition but maybe with this road trip we were expecting too much of him.

We were tired, cold, damp and hungry and with evening approaching we both felt carrying on would be unwise. We sought refuge in a Campanile hotel that we could see from the car park where we gratefully made use of a warm room (with radiator to dry out the ECU), a bath, a restaurant, a clean bed and most importantly wifi; to catch up with news from home, research further the engine problems and unfortunately cancel all remaining hotel bookings.

We do have breakdown cover via our French car insurance, but we knew we were unlikely to be able to get hold of a Mini specialist on the Easter public holiday weekend to help us fix him. It was far more likely that Gizmo would have been towed to a local garage where he would have sat outside waiting for someone to look at him on the Tuesday and more than likely decide a new engine the only fix. We would have been given assistance to get home (or a hire car to continue), but for us, abandoning the car (who has been with Ade for twenty years) was not really an option.

Following a bit of spark plug adjustment Gizmo was running a bit better on Monday morning and with our hearts as heavy as the thick cloud shrouding Millau, we set off on a direct north/west course for home. There is something quite frightening when faced with the possibility of being stranded and unable to get home safely, but each kilometre driven was progress and as Gizmo warmed up, so did the weather. It was soon obvious that stopping and starting was more of a problem than foot-down driving so we ignored our morning coffee needs and munched through the kilometres passing by towns like Rodez, Figeac and Sarlat where we would normally have stopped. The further we drove the more it began to feel like getting home in one day was a real possibility.

The Dordogne redeemed herself from the cloudy uninspiring place we had driven through on Saturday afternoon and was bathed in sunshine, her quiet roads lined with pretty chateaux and attractive towns and villages. To stop a while would have been nice, but our mission continued and crossing the border into Poitou-Charentes was quite emotional. I was immediately struck by how colourful our special region of France was. The fresh bright greens of spring, the vivid yellow of the colza/rapeseed crops and the dark earth of the fields recently sown with sunflowers. We may not have mountains and gorges, but the rolling hills of the south Charente felt very welcoming and on a road we had not driven before we could see in the distance the castellated skyline of Villebois-Lavalette looking like a mini Carcassonne and enticing us enough to promise we will be back to visit it soon.

Sometimes in life it is not the places you visit, but the people you are with that matters and I'm so proud of what Ade was able to achieve and rescue us from the mountain. We picked ourselves up and carried on, albeit in a different direction, but it did make us realise how much Poitou-Charentes still has to offer.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Day two, Tarn et Garonne to the Aveyron

Day two dawned moist and damp, we are on holiday so I won't use the 'r(ain)' word, but a delicious breakfast set us up for the day and we set off east to Montauban and then found ourselves in Bruniquel for morning coffee. This is our third Plus Beaux Village de France in two days and although it would have looked better with yesterday's blue skies and sunshine it was still worth climbing the cobbles to the top of the hill.

French village Diaries Bruniquel Plus Beaux Villages de France

The driving was Mini-fantastic, twists, turns, gorges, stunning scenery and best of all tunnels. For those of you who don't know, the only way to drive a Mini through a tunnel is to open the windows, drop into second gear and ROAR through like a dragon - and yes, it always puts a smile on our faces.

French village Diaries road trip cordes-sur-ciel

The Gorges d'Aveyron led to the Gorges du Viaur and it's impressive viaduct. We left behind the low fruit orchards of yesterday with their fresh, green new leaves and climbed the high roads of the Parc Naturel Regional des Grands Causses and the Plateau du Levezou towards Millau. We saw blossom in the hedgerows and the Brebis milking sheep of Roquefort in the fields.

French Village Diaries Viaduct du Viaur road trips
Viaduct du Viaur

Because of the weather we were often up in the clouds, but rounding a bend and catching a distant view of the Millau viaduct, it's tips with their flashing lights just visible, poking out of the distant hills was superb.

Then, with a clatter and a clonk Gizmo stalled at a junction in the small village of St Beauzély and the holiday sparkle lost it's shine!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Day one, Deux Sevres to Tarn et Garonne

A week ago today we set off for what should have been an eight day blast around the south of France in our Mini Cooper. We were excited, optimistic and looking forward to visiting lots of lovely places (see here), however if you are a follower on Facebook you will know that things didn't go to plan. Here is part one of what turned out to be quite an adventure.

We set off in the sunshine which is worth a mention as despite the lovely weather we've had recently, blue skies and sunshine aren't normal weather for when Ade's parents are visiting. I hope it continues for us and them!

French Village Diaries France road trip 2014 Deux Sevres to Tarn et Garonne
Ready to go

Our morning route took us through the Cognac vineyards to Aubterre sur Drone, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, but sadly not one thoughtful enough to provide picnic tables for travellers, however being quick on our feet we snapped up the only bench to munch our baguettes. It is a very pretty village clinging to the hillside like many of its Provençal cousins, has a Romanesque church and a monolithic underground cave church (which we didn't get to visit this time) and has been on my wish list to visit for a while. Patisseries are always an important part of our road trips, but the choices in Aubterre were not great and we agreed we should have bought them from our boulangerie before leaving home (desolée Bernadette). 

Some of the funniest things we saw this morning was a lamb chasing a German Shepherd dog around a garden and some old supermarket trolley shelters being used for cow shelters in the fields. (Little did we know then that we would soon find our own original use for a trolley shelter.)

French Village Diaries France road trip 2014  Aubterre sur Drone Poitou-Charentes
Aubterre sur Drone

Having driven through clouds in the Dordogne the sun came out again as we left the Bergerac ring road and found ourselves in rolling vineyards with hilltop chateaux and plum orchards. A sight that made it really feel like we were on holiday. We then drove into the Lot et Garonne and Bastide country, there are over 350 fortified hilltop towns in the south west of France, and Montflaquin provided a great place for our afternoon patisserie with a view. We were joined by lots of swallowtail butterflies enjoying the sweet chestnut blossom and sunshine. All was well with our world!

French Village Diaries France road trip 2014 Lot et Garonne
Afternoon tea with a view

We drove a total of 350km today and took no wrong turns, although we did manage to bypass Riberac so only glimpsed what looked to be a lovely church from the distance. Our rest for the night was not far from the banks of the Garonne river at Douce France, a B&B with friendly hosts, a welcome beer in the sun and a covered pool. Thankfully we swam plenty of lengths before walking just over a kilometre to dinner as the pizzas were HUGE. The restaurant also had a very friendly cat who was well behaved until she jumped onto the table.

We were a mixed group at Douce France; a Belgian/Irish couple, a Franco/Italian couple and us all conversing in French (as best we could). Thanks to Fred and David for making us so welcome.

French Village Diaries France road trip 2014 Deux Sevres to Tarn et Garonne
The Pizza Cat 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Book review of The French for Always by Fiona Valpy

French Village Diaries book review The French for Always Fiona Valpy Bordeaux FranceToday is the release day for The French for Always , Fiona Valpy’s second novel set in the Bordeaux region of France and before I go any further I must say this book is one of my top tips for a holiday MUST read this year – you heard it here first!

I am the sort of reader who experiences a tingle of excitement when I discover an author whose work I enjoy has a new release pending. The tingle was so strong when The French for Always popped onto my Kindle that I just had to have a quick peek. How silly of me! I ended up deeply immersed and unable to put it down.

Set in a chateau among the Bordeaux vineyards we meet Sara, a very likeable character but a bit of an emotional wreck. Her fiancé has deserted her and their wedding business mid season, leaving her to put on a brave face and carry on making dreams come true for five happy couples. She also has a lot of family trauma from the past that she’s never really dealt with which is bubbling just under the surface. With no real roots, she feels she belongs at the chateau, but without Gavin she must face the prospect of having to sell it.

This book transported me to Sara’s chateau and as the guest at a great mix of weddings, under a blue sky with plenty of sunshine, I laughed, I cried and I enjoyed every page. Each of the couples and families we meet bring their own idea of love to the book and brought the odd wedding tear to my eyes too. What more could I ask for in a bit of novel escapism? Well, there is always a sexy Frenchman who could come to her rescue, just like in a good fairytale, but although vigneron Thomas steps in to help out, he has dreams of his own that involve getting as far away from Bordeaux as possible.

It was also lovely to catch up with some of the characters from The French for Love , Fiona’s first book, who play a cameo role in this book. This was a nice little tie in and now I want another book please Fiona. You can read my review of book one here.

Thank you to Bookoutre for my review copy. The French for Always is available in paperback and ebook format, links to Amazon can be found below.

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 (see here for my review). 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.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lazy bake chocolate cake

French village diaries lazy bake chocolate cake recipe
Lazy bake chocolate cakes

I love cake and a day without homemade cake is a day that is lacking in all that is good with the world, but baking takes time and organisation. Having returned from a recent trip to the UK I found myself without some of the ingredients needed for my favourite Fat Free Cherry cake and Chocolate and Courgette brownies, but needing a contribution to a shared lunch the following day. Much as I love both of the above recipes they have rather time consuming methods so I needed a quick make and bake with the ingredients I had. I am delighted to share with you my new Lazy Bake Chocolate Cake recipe, ideal for those days when you need chocolate cake and need it now!

There is no need to remember to get the butter to room temperature before creaming it with the sugar. There is no five-minute beating of the eggs and sugar to form a frothy pale mousse-like consistency. There is no grating of vegetables to give a moist texture. There is the real ability to have a warm chocolate cake in your hand, ready to eat within half an hour of weighing out the first ingredient.

French village diaries lazy bake chocolate cake recipeMakes 12 cup cakes
70g caster sugar
70ml sunflower oil
110g plain flour
40g cocoa powder
1 tsp of baking powder
2 eggs
1 or 2 tbsp of espresso coffee or milk

If you want to finish them off with a buttercream topping don’t forget to take butter out of fridge as you start making the cakes.

Mix the sugar and vegetable oil in a mixing bowl, sieve the dry ingredients and add to the bowl. Lightly beat the eggs and combine them with the other ingredients. The batter should be quite wet, so if necessary add 1 or 2 tablespoons of coffee or milk (I added sloe gin to one batch and it was very nice!). Divide the batter evenly between the 12 cup cake cases and bake at Gas mark 4 until risen and springy to the touch, about 15 minutes. Leave to cool before adding the buttercream topping.

I won't admit to how many batches of these cakes I have made in the last month, but I can assure you this recipe has been thoroughly tried and tested.