Yes, I am still here! I feel strangely guilty about having been away from the blog for so long, away from all social media in fact for a rather naughty length of time.
This year’s holiday was something of a rarity for us, being the first two week holiday we have spent together as a family. Usually holidays are short affairs, consisting of a rented cottage in North Norfolk, for no longer longer than a week at a time when the seven days invariably pass all too quickly. The first two days of unwinding and settling into a new home usually makes for bickering between the three of us which gradually eases off in to the middle stage of gentle days and laid back mooching around until I start morosely counting down the days we have left, as though we were approaching a terrible impending doom, a long-held habit which drives my husband to distraction but one I find very hard to break.
We chose France this year for no particular reason, I am not what one would call a Francophile, I have no special allegiance to the place, have holidayed there only once in my adult life, although I do have photographs of me as a barely standing toddler on a camping holiday in the south of France with my parents, Uncle Jack, Aunty Peggy and cousins Nigel and Martin. By all accounts a holiday to remember; my father insists that four cash strapped adults travelled in one cramped car with four children under the age of six, plus camping equipment and usual holiday paraphernalia and all survived the journey without throttling anyone along the way.
Even with a measly three people in a car equipped with air conditioning and various forms of entertainment, we found tensions rising on the first day of travelling. After listening to the ever worsening tales of woe regarding Operation Stack and the knock-on effects for travellers using the Channel Tunnel, we left an extra two hours early and were relieved to board the train we had booked, even though we had been held up in traffic jams and diversions along the way. Feeling quietly smug, our visions of breezing through the French countryside, finding a pretty little chambre d’hote for the evening in good time to share a carafe of rosé in the sunset were soon dashed. Against our better judgement, but acting on advice from the gite owner, we headed towards Paris and promptly got stuck on the Boulevard Perípheríque for three tedious and expletive filled hours. This unplanned, tortuous delay resulted in having to play catch-up with time by using the motorway toll. Having been stuck in a sea of Peugeots, Citroens and Renaults for rather longer than anticipated, we had missed the vital French 12-2pm window for anything to eat apart from fast food and began worrying that we would end up sleeping in the car overnight, so we hurriedly booked a clean, efficient but soul-less hotel in Orleans to break up our journey to the South.
All three of us tired and tetchy we retired to bed, vowing be in cheerier holiday mood the next day. Refreshed after a good night’s sleep and hearty breakfast, we stopped in good time for lunch in Martel and eventually arrived in our holiday hamlet at 4.00pm only to find we could not get a phone signal to open the email which gave us the code to the key box. Michael set off in the car to find a signal whilst leaving me to have a inquisitive nose around the outside of the old stone house and the garden. At last I could breath a sigh of relief, the house was even better than I had imagined. which boded well for the next two weeks.
After a quick recce of the house and a very English restorative cup of tea we ventured out to the local town, the medieval bastide town of Najac. Classed as one of the most beautiful villages in the France, with its castle towering over the length of the village spread along the ridge of the hill, its charm and simplicity soon had us oohing and aahing at the ancient architecture and pretty doorways, not to the mention the display of bread and pastries in the local boulangerie.
Before we picked Aveyron as I final destination, I had read quite extensively about the food of the area and we were both very excited to try the famed local cheeses and charcuterie. The area is well known for duck and goose delicacies as well as its most well known regional dish, aligot, a rich blend of mashed potatoes and Tomme cheese, an accompaniment it would seem to most dishes and found on every menu and in every market.
There are lots of towns with regular weekly markets and throughout the holiday season Najac has a busy Wednesday night market too. The beautiful village square fills up with lines of the trestle tables where throngs of visitors eat their plates of chosen food, cooked in the market by the local producers.
Aligot of course, but other local dishes such as tripou (stuffed sheep tripe) and farcous (a small fried pancake made from chard/spinach/parsley, depending who who ask it would seem.) All eaten with fresh bread and local wine, chilled bottles bought off stall holders who uncork it and supply the plastic glasses to drink from. In hindsight, it was the food at the these night markets we enjoyed the most. The three of us all opted for different things so it was fun trying out each others food. The only thing that my son wouldn’t try was the snails and he sat open-mouthed as Michael happily munched his way through a plateful of little green balls encased in a green garlicky sauce.
I could spend my whole day wandering around in markets, I get transfixed by the colours, the smells, the bustle and the noise. These markets were not just full of the large professional traders with their huge gas burners, chiller cabinets and portable generators, there were wizened old ladies with tiny little ancient rickety tables selling tomatoes or potatoes from their own gardens. One lady had one croustade for sale each week, plonked down next to a small box of home grown veg.
We brought mainly from these small individual stalls, the tomatoes had so much flavour, much better then anything from the supermarkets. The fruit and vegetables were superb, including of course the strings of fresh plump garlic, the likes of which we rarely see over here. As a lover of goats cheese I was amazed by the different textures and flavours available from the local small fromageries and our baskets were soon heavy and brimming with delicious goodies.
However, after a few days our initial enthusiasm started to wane a little. After several lunches in various eateries on day trips and nights out trying the local restaurant recommendations from the visitors’ book, we had to admit, somewhat reluctantly, that we were disappointed with the restaurant food. After striking up several casual conversations with other holiday makers, we came to realise that were not alone in this opinion. One savvy expat who had lived in France for several years hit the nail on the head. English food over the past few years has improved dramatically whereas French food has remained the same, and in some areas unfortunately even gone backwards. With the high standard of food available now in England, English people (there were relatively very few in the area we were in) now have much higher expectations of what they eat. We both noticed that whatever salad we ordered, it seemed the same dressing was added. Having chosen the ‘speciality’ salad for lunch at beautiful hotel in a little town square, I was looking forward to something wonderful only to have my expectations dashed by the sight of a stack of soggy grey tinned french beans plonked unceremoniously on top and drenched in the same brown dressing.
One of Michael’s favourite dishes is cassoulet, something he enjoys cooking at home and he was obviously keen to try the real McCoy, especially as duck is a regional speciality. After several attempts from different restaurants, unfortunately he came to the sorry conclusion that the cassoulet was probably not cooked on the premises but bought in and reheated, as each offering looked and tasted remarkably similar.
With quite heavy hearts, we decided that we might get more enjoyment from the local food if we actually cooked it ourselves and we ended up eating in more often than not for the rest of the holiday. Michael happily volunteered to do most of the ‘proper’ cooking which involved turning on the hob or the oven, leaving me to do lazy lunches of nothing more than cheese, charcuterie, bread and salad. Simple but so satisfying and these meals gave us a chance to sample the wealth of fresh produce available from the Midi-Pyrenees department.
It is certainly not the food itself that is the problem as the quality of the produce is second to none and even the supermarkets proudly display a vast array of local produce. The butchery counter in the local Supermarché had a large notice stuck to the glass counter with a picture of a cow with the name and information about the local producer, something wonderful to see.
On the very last night we did manage to find a very good restaurant, the food was cooked to perfection, everything was freshly made and the service impeccable. Maybe it was no coincidence that it was by far the most expensive meal we had while we were there, way beyond our budget for everyday eating. This may suggest that the more exclusive restaurants are still getting it right whilst the more middle range establishments are becoming somewhat blasé in their attitude to cooking which is such a shame, not just for the paying public but for the reputation of French cooking generally.
I am aware that our experience was of a small area on France on an all too short holiday stay, I am not a seasoned French traveller so I am not in a position to comment on the state of the French restaurant trade as a whole. Perhaps I had too high expectations from a nation quite rightly proud of its culinary heritage. I found myself inwardly wincing every time I saw a McDonald’s, the French landscape seemed the most inappropriate setting for the invasive golden arches but some would say this is progress. ‘Quel dommage’ as my mother would say, the only words in French she can remember from her school days, but so apt here.
Before I get threats with the guillotine from fans of everything French, I will say I absolutely fell in love with the Aveyron and would not hesitate to return. The rolling hills, many rivers and shady wooded valleys are breathtakingly beautiful and we found many places to go that suited us all, quite a tall order for two fifty plus people on a foodie mission with a boisterous ten year old, obviously with a very different idea of what makes a good holiday.
Swimming in the many rivers was a joy and was something we managed most days. The local canoeing kept us all entertained for different reasons, I loved the calm and peace, watching the cobalt blue dragonflies darting about above the water and the changing scenery as the cloudless sky was suddenly interrupted by the slowly passing turrets of a castle or the sillouette of a bird of prey. For Michael it was a trip down memory lane as, unbeknown to me, he enjoyed canoeing as a youngster, although his experiences of the concrete walls of Surrey docks on the Thames must have been vastly different to the verdant green banks of the Aveyron. A chance to show his son his canoeing skills in that Dad sort of way, even if the skills were a bit rusty, was a challenge too good to miss and going down the rapids was the highlight of the holiday for them both I think, two huge beaming smiles appearing on their faces as they crashed into the calmer waters at the bottom.
A visit to Gouffre de Padirac caves with a trip down an underground river was an experience we all thoroughly enjoyed and was a great place to go on a rather dreary day. The many breathtakingly beautiful villages including St Cirq Lapopie, Belcastle, Cords sur Ciel were unmissable. Probably St Cirq Lapopie was our favourite. After a morning walking around the hilltop village and taking in the spectacular views over the valley, we had a spot of lunch and then spent a few hours lazing on the banks and swimming in the river below. A perfect day.
Probably like a lot of people when they return from a wonderful holiday destination, I have come back with dreams of a holiday home or maybe even something a little more permanent in years to come. A little house with a little brasserie maybe, serving good food to passers by, willing to take a risk on eating something not cooked by a French hand. A little idea that may grow or may just disappear, who knows. In the meantime, I will carry on enjoying the beauty that is all around me in Suffolk and be grateful for what I have here. And I have a lot to be grateful for.
Hope everyone is well and enjoying the summer!!!