September 27, 2015
WOOFS. Earlier this year, for typically random reasons, my two-legged friend and I decamped to Devon, where we are renovating a house. (Yup, she's mad enough to do it again.)
We will still spend a lot of time in France, but I do love Devon. Like France, it is a great place to be a doglet. We are welcome (almost) everywhere and showered with treats and compliments. Just this morning, as we were queuing in the local café, a lady said, ‘What a lovely wet nose, he's got!’ Someone else said that I had 'a very expressive little face.’
Since we arrived here, life has been a whirl of visits to paint shops and builders’ merchants. The people there always seem super-pleased to see me, probably because – unlike a certain someone – I haven't come to pester them about roof tiles or shelf brackets.
At first I thought that people might be making a fuss of me because of my literary pedigree – after all, I’ve starred in three books now – but KW says that no one here knows who I am, and that I am just one dog among many.
In addition to a beach on our doorstep, we also have 96 miles of 'Jurassic Coast' to explore – we've walked quite a bit of it already – as well as an enormous common, lots of farm shops, and cream teas at every turn. The sunsets here are also quite something.
Finally, a book update: in its third year, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France has sold 1625 copies (print and e-book combined) from April 2014 to April 2015, so this year’s donation to neuroscience at King’s College London, will be £812.50.
In total, 9940 copies of the book have sold since it was launched three years ago, and together with previous years' donations, a total of £5443 has been raised for brain injury research from the royalties. My dogmother will post the usual acknowledgement letter in due course.
July 13, 2015
Sweet Encore is delayed again, partly because of a challenging set of domestic circumstances earlier this year, but mainly because I decided to carry out another rewrite at five to midnight in the production schedule, having decided that I still wasn't happy with the manuscript.
It won't be long now, but in the meantime, I've posted the first chapter below.
I'll post more news soon, as to when the e-book will be available from Amazon; the print version will be a month or so behind it.
Chapter 1: What’s New, Kangaroo?
The call from my brother comes at the end of June, as I’m rushing around trying to find two matching shoes. I haven’t heard from him in several years. There is no particular reason for this; there has been no falling out. It’s just that he lives in the Caribbean, I live in France, and neither of us is very good at keeping in touch. After some basic niceties, he gets to the point: ‘Can Arianna come and spend the summer with you in France?’ he asks.
The request takes me by surprise. The last time I saw my niece, she was sitting under my desk in London, playing with a Buzz Lightyear doll as I typed out a feature entitled ‘Rubies are a Girl’s Best Friend’. Every now and then, I threw her a chocolate button, in much the same way as I throw dog biscuits to my little black terrier, Biff. It wasn’t difficult to entertain her as a toddler, but how would I keep a sixteen-year-old amused in a small French village, where it’s lights-out-and-everyone-under-the-duvet-by-10 pm even in the summer?
Villiers, where I live, has many charms – chief among them, for a writer, being the peace and the plentiful supply of Sauvignon Blanc – but not much to appeal to a teenager, especially not a teenager who has grown up on a lively Caribbean island, with the ocean on her doorstep and, by all accounts, a dynamic social life.
I point this out to my brother, but he is curiously persistent. ‘It will be good for her. She’ll have a great time,’ he says. ‘And she can learn French.’
‘In a few weeks?’
‘Well, she can learn the basics – bonjour and all that.’
‘And what does Arianna think about this?’
‘She’s already packed her bag.’
‘Listen, I’m running late to visit a friend,’ I say. ‘Can we talk about this tomorrow?’
I figure that my sibling will forget the plan. He often has crazy ideas – most recently to buy a holiday home in Papua New Guinea – that usually disappear when hosed down with the cold-water jet of reality.
‘OK,’ says my brother. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
I glance at the kitchen clock. I’m supposed to be at Gabriella’s at 8 pm and I don’t want to keep her waiting. ‘Come on, Biff,’ I plead, holding up a silver-hooped sandal. ‘Where’s the other one?’
Stealing my shoes and hiding them in strange places, like the woodpile, is his favourite thing. I spend a lot of time begging for them back. I know he understands because he tilts his head to one side, as if considering the request.
As I search behind the sofa, he trots out of the room and returns, his little tail bobbing, with my shoe between his teeth. ‘Thank you,’ I say, extracting it from his jaw.
He looks thoroughly pleased with himself, but realising that I am about to go out without him, rushes to park his enormous paws in front of the door, where he assumes his most beguiling expression. For a second, my resolve wavers. But the last time I took him to Gabriella’s he barked his head off for most of the evening. Gabriella is ninety-four years old, deaf and almost blind, so it wasn’t helpful, although she joked, probably with some accuracy, that he just felt left out of the conversation.
After some fancy footwork to get past him, I head down the cobblestone slope that leads to Gabriella’s, catching the scent of honeysuckle on the warm evening air. It’s on nights like this that I really love France. Gabriella’s house, a former coaching inn, is one of the oldest in the village, flanked by a mass of snowball-white hydrangeas and lavender bushes. The door is open and she is sitting at the farmhouse table in her kitchen, waiting for me.
She is always nicely dressed – Dolores, her Portuguese housekeeper, visits every morning to help with the cleaning and ironing – but tonight she looks particularly crisp in a mustard cotton dress.
‘Coucou, it’s me,’ I shout.
‘Is that you, Keren?’ (No one in France calls me by my correct name.)
‘Yes it is.’
I kiss her on the cheek, inhaling the essences of lemon and tuberose in the expensive Italian cologne that she wears.
‘Come on in. Come in. Have you got your little dog with you?’
‘No. He is at home.’
‘The dog is in Rome? How did he get to Rome?’
‘No, he’s at home,’ I say, a little more loudly.
‘Wait! I need to adjust my hearing aids,’ she says. Then, after fiddling around with them for a few minutes, ‘Say merde,’ she commands.
‘Merde!’ I shout.
‘Good. Now I can hear you.’ She motions for me to sit down next to her at the wooden table. ‘So what’s new, kangaroo?’
‘Nothing much,’ I reply, deciding to spare her the details of how I spent today leaving countless messages for Victoria Beckham, for a newspaper article that I am writing.
‘How was your day?’ I ask.
‘I’ve just been listening to a French political show,’ she says. ‘These stupid governments say they are fighting for peace, but fighting for peace is like f*****g for virginity.’
When I’ve stopped laughing, she takes my hand and squeezes it. ‘Now, I’ve made us some soup. Be so kind as to get spoons from that drawer over there. And in the icebox you will find a bowl of vegetables. On the second shelf down.’
Her kitchen is chaotic – copper pans simmering on the stove, fruit and vegetables strewn across the table, a string of garlic swinging from the ceiling – but Gabriella knows exactly where everything is. The jars and tins in her kitchen all bear big white labels, with their contents marked in giant capital letters.
‘There is a metal stand next to the gas ring. Can you see it? Good, now bring it here to the table’. I follow her instructions like a robot. ‘And put the vegetables in the computer [as she calls the microwave] and turn the dial to the right. That’s it. Now come and sit down and tell me your news.’
‘Actually, I’m feeling a little…restless,’ I say, hoping for one of the nuggets of wisdom that she often pitches my way. The former wife of an American diplomat, Gabriella was born in Italy, grew up in a decaying former convent in Mexico, and lived all over the world, including a stint in Washington, before landing, at random, in rural France. Much like me, in fact, except that I came here via west London and a career in fashion, rather than Mexico and the diplomatic service. Along the way Gabriella has learned to speak five languages fluently – ‘including swear words!’ – and collected friends in the manner that others collect shoes or wine.
‘You’re feeling reckless?’ she says, getting up and moving slowly to the stove to stir the pan of soup.
‘Restless,’ I repeat, loudly. ‘I want something fabulous and exciting to happen. To be surprised by life, but in a good way.’
‘My dear, life is full of surprises, even when you are as old as me. But you can’t just sit back and wait for them to happen,’ she says. ‘You have to make a move. Do something.’
I’m not sure why, but magical and unexpected things do seem to happen after visiting Gabriella. I nearly always leave her house feeling happier and more inspired than when I arrived. She manages to make you feel as if you are the most important person in the world. ‘If I were your mother-in-law…’ she will say, before delivering some pithy piece of advice.
But I must admit that she is my friend in spite of myself. I did my very best to dodge her acquaintance, when she knocked on my door unannounced one day. I stuck my head out of the upstairs window and saw a thin woman with white hair and a walking stick below.
‘Are you the writer?’ she asked.
‘Who wants to know?’ I said, annoyed by the interruption.
‘I’m Gabriella. Gabriella Hartgrove,’ she replied. ‘Someone at the mairie told me that we have a writer living in the village and I thought I would investigate.’
‘I am a writer, yes. But I’m very busy right now.’
‘Well, is there a time when it would be convenient for me to call back?’
Gabriella was determined to be friends with me and I think I was swept along by the sheer force of her personality. I did not know at that point that Gabriella was nearly blind and almost deaf. For her even to have found my house at all was testament to her character and tenacity – or ‘grabbing life by the balls’ as she calls it. We laugh about it now, but the truth is that I was not as polite as I could have been that day. ‘Don’t even mention it,’ she says, whenever I do. ‘The most important thing is that we are friends now.’
Over dinner of minestrone soup followed by Italian-style vegetables – Gabriella’s favourite diplomatic posting was Rome – I tell her about the call from my brother.
‘MORON!’ cries Gabriella. (I like to think it is a term of endearment, as she calls me this often.)
‘You should have bitten his arm off. Of course you should let her come. What have you got to lose?’
By the end of dinner, Gabriella has convinced me that a visit from my niece is the best possible thing that could happen this summer.
‘Do you need me to read any letters before I go?’ I ask.
‘Not tonight,’ she says, and I’m almost disappointed. She usually has a basketful of letters from friends around the world, waiting to be read. They’re always handwritten and sometimes up to twenty pages long; and before I start to read, Gabriella gives me a potted history of the writer, such as: ‘Her parents survived the Titanic’ or, ‘She left her husband for another woman, who then ran off with the family tiara.’ People have written novels with less happening in them.
‘Remember,’ she says, as I get up to leave. ‘One of the secrets to life is to recognise the opportunities when they come along. You’ve got to grab life by the balls.’
‘Got it,’ I say.
And then she sends me back into the summer evening with her usual sign-off: ’See you later, alligator.’
‘In a while, crocodile,’ is my reply.
I’m still smiling as I walk back up the cobblestone slope, past a stone wall topped with a froth of wisteria. I stop to admire the sky, turning milkshake pink above the church spire, and breathe in the sweet, warm air. Tonight is the summer solstice.
Biff is lying along the back of the sofa, his hairy face pressed up against the window waiting for my return. He races to the door, dangling his lead in his mouth. I get the hint. Heading up rue St Benoit for our usual evening walk, I can hear live music and laughter coming from the square. And voices. After 10 pm. What’s going on? And then I see that the Café du Commerce on the corner is lit up and there is a crowd outside.
The café appears to have finally reopened. A couple of months ago, a sign in the window announced that it was under new ownership and would reopen soon. (Cafés in rural France change ownership frequently. If someone lasts 18 months they are doing well; but most have closed the doors by year three, thanks to the punitive French tax system.)
Opaque white screens subsequently appeared in the windows, hiding the mysterious makeover that was taking place within. But often when I took Biff for his bedtime walk, I would notice that the lights were on, sometimes as late as 2 am, and the sound of hammering and drilling could be heard inside. Occasionally, I would see two men – one chubby and short, the other thin and with long hair – sitting in the moonlight, enjoying a cigarette break.
As I walk down one of the side roads leading off the square, I hear someone say ‘Bonjour!’ When I turn around, I see a man, barefoot and in loose-fitting shorts, smoking a cigarette in his garden. He’s in his late forties with once-dark hair and a five o’clock shadow. He reaches over the stone wall to pat Biff, before striking up a conversation in French.
‘Nice evening,’ he says.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘You live in the village?’
‘Yes. And you?’
‘I’ve just arrived. I’m renting here for the moment, while I renovate a barn nearby.’
I start to laugh. ‘You’re English?’
‘I am.’ He grins, switching to our native tongue. ‘You too?’
His French is excellent, though I thought I detected the faintest hint of anglais in his accent. But it was the mention of the renovation that did it: if someone is mad enough to take on an old barn in my region, the Poitou-Charentes, they are almost certainly British.
‘Well, welcome to Villiers,’ I say. ‘Don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not normally as lively as this.’
He laughs. ‘You mean the pot d’acceuil in the café?’ he says, revealing that his French is a cut above average by using the phrase for ‘welcome drinks’. ‘I was just about to wander over. Do you want to come along?’
I hesitate. I have to be up at 7 am tomorrow to work on ‘Who Wore It Best?’, a feature I agreed to write about the advent of the ‘It’ dress – one of them by Victoria Beckham – that countless celebrities have worn.
‘It looks like a private party,’ I say.
‘Nah, it’s an opening party. And anyway, I am invited,’ he says.
In my head, I can hear Gabriella shouting, ‘What are you waiting for, you MORON? GO!’ This is, after all, an opportunity to get to know a neighbour and meet the new owners of the café.
‘Well, I suppose… maybe for half an hour. But I might just take my dog home as it looks a bit crowded in there.’
‘Great,’ he says. ‘I’ll get my shoes and meet you on the square. By the way, I’m Matt.’
Biff looks outraged that I’m leaving him at home for the second time this evening. Cocktail parties, with their stray crisps and canapés and distracted humans, rate second only to barbecues as his favourite social event, so I feel rather guilty. He fixes me with an intense, black-eyed stare. ‘I know. Life can be cruel sometimes,’ I say, waggling his ears. ‘But I won’t be long.’
My fellow anglais is waiting for me at the top of rue St Benoit. ‘My wife Zoe will be arriving at the weekend,’ he says, as we walk over to the café. ‘Hopefully, you’ll meet her soon. You’ll have to give us the lowdown on the village, as we’re probably going to be here for a while.’
‘So how far have you got with your barn?’
‘Put it this way: you can still see stars through the roof.’
The Commerce is rocking as we arrive – literally, thanks to the live band playing in the corner. And what a transformation. Under the previous owner, Clément, the interior decor was pure 1970s Soviet Russia. (Think beige vinyl seating, Formica tables and fluorescent strip lighting and you’ll get the picture.) But all that late-night activity has paid off. The grim vinyl furniture and flooring has been stripped out and replaced with rustic wooden tables and chairs; and they’ve even hacked back the ugly suspended ceiling to reveal the original plaster cornicing and a centre rose.
It is easy to spot one of the new proprietors. Short and solid, with a cheeky grin, he looks quite pleased with himself, as well he should.
‘That’s Basile,’ says Matt. ‘The owner. Apparently, he’s worked for restaurants in Paris, Bordeaux and La Rochelle.’ This of course, begs the question: what is he doing in Villiers?
‘His wife is from the region,’ says Matt, as if reading my mind. ‘And wanted to move back.’
‘Is his wife going to help out in the restaurant?’
‘I think his friend Guy is going to run it with him.’ He nods towards a thin, rather wan-looking man, with long dark hair. He’s not from the village, but I recognise him as the man who helped Basile with his midnight renovations.
Our fellow guests are a mixture of local business owners and people that I haven’t seen before, many of them young and unusually well dressed for a Thursday night in rural France. Where have they all been hiding, I wonder? This is clearly the start of a whole new era for the Café du Commerce.
We take our complimentary drinks – chilled lychee juice with sparkling wine, which is quite exotic for these parts – and move outside. ‘Beautiful evening,’ says Matt. And it is. The sky is royal blue and there is a new moon above the mairie.
‘You’ve arrived in France at a good time,’ I say. ‘Just in time for summer.’
‘I know,’ he says, sitting back in his chair, looking pleased with himself. ‘
‘So what do you do?’ he asks, narrowing his eyes. I have the impression that I am being analysed.
‘I’m a freelance writer. You?’
‘Not really. I spend a lot of time on my own, surfing Twitter – oops, I mean drawing up plans – as I imagine you do.’
‘How do you know Basile?’
‘I don’t. I met him in the boulangerie this morning.’
It’s a little surreal, I think, that a couple of hours ago I was eating soup with my 94-year-old friend. Now, here I am enjoying cocktails and a musical quartet with a stranger. This is not at all a typical summer’s night in Villiers.
‘Let me show you a picture of the barn,’ says Matt, getting out his smartphone and showing me a photo of a cluster of stone buildings with the roof falling in, of the kind I see everyday when walking Biff.
‘Well, good luck with that,’ I say. ‘Where exactly is it?’
‘On the outskirts of Villiers, surrounded by green fields but only a ten-minute walk from here.’
He swipes through the pictures on his phone to show me a three-dimensional plan of the finished house. At the front, you see only the traditional stone facade; but at the rear, a modern, single-storey building will be built on either side, forming a U shape. Each side of the ‘U’ will have floor-to-ceiling windows opening on to a terrace and swimming pool. It is certainly going to break new ground in Villiers.
‘It looks like it’s going to be quite a party house,’ I say.
‘That’s the idea. Another drink?’
‘Um, I have to get up early tomorrow for work.’
‘One glass won’t do you any harm. It’s not like you have to go far to get home.’
‘OK,’ I say, showing the self-discipline that has got me where I am today.
Inside the café my new neighbour stops to chat to Basile, before reappearing with a bottle of Chablis and two glasses. ‘They’ve got a cracking wine list,’ he declares as he pours the wine. He clicks my glass. ‘Santé! To the good life in France.’
‘So have you actually started work on your barn?’
‘Not yet. We only bought it a few months ago. We haven’t got planning permission yet. It’s difficult because I have to keep flying back to the UK to deal with work projects.’
‘Would I recognise any of your work?’ I ask.
He laughs. ‘Sadly, no. We can’t all be Norman Foster,’ he says, referring to the famous architect. ‘Some of us have to design boring office blocks and public buildings.’ This seems unusually modest for a Brit newly arrived in France. Most tend to embellish their achievements, and in his shoes some would be claiming to have designed half of the City of London.
When I glance at the clock on the mairie opposite, it has gone 1 am. In the three hours that we’ve been chatting, we’ve covered all the usual ground – septic tanks, solar panels and French bureaucracy. I learn that he has two daughters from a previous marriage, both of them at university; and that Zoe, his second wife, is a textile designer and ten years younger than him. She is currently in India on a work trip. ‘Or at least that’s what she tells me,’ he says.
‘You and Zoe are going to get on like a house on fire,’ he continues. I’m not sure what makes him so certain of this, but in France it is quite usual to strike up instant friendships with fellow expats, the common bond being that, for whatever reason, you both felt motivated to cross the Channel and acquire a pile of old stones. At the very least, he and his wife will be interesting additions to the village.
Inside the café, the saxophonist is hitting his stride and the party is still going strong. ‘Time for me to go,’ I say.
‘Yeah. Me too.’
We say good-bye to Basile, who has been partaking liberally of his own largesse, and walk back across the square, tailed by the soaring saxophone.
‘Thanks for the drinks,’ I say, when we reach rue St Benoit.
‘Pleasure,’ he says with a grin. ‘Thanks for the company and the conversation. See you around.’
Back home, I find an email from my brother. ‘Please let me know ASAP if there are any dates that you can’t do,’ he has written. I type back a reply, though I’m still not convinced that the visit will happen. But Gabriella is right: life does keep delivering surprises. And, like buses, there are none for ages and then they come along in threes: the call from my brother; a new expat in the village; and most surprising of all, the fact that the local café has reopened with, by all accounts, a halfway decent chef. As for my niece, I cannot wait to see how the sweet, chubby-cheeked toddler who played under my desk, has turned out. All I have to do is grab the ensuing opportunities by the balls.
© Karen Wheeler 2015
September 26, 2014
Meant to post this a while ago – acknowledgement of this year's donation to neuroscience research at King's College, London.
May 30, 2014
If ever I were to be invited on Mastermind (unlikely, I know) my specialist subject would be ‘leading cake shops of the world’.
From the kings of French patisserie, Pierre Hermes and Christophe Michalak – world champion pastry chef and resident cake king at the Plaza Athenée – to the 'red velvet' cake at the Magnolia Bakery in New York, over the years I’ve done more research into the subject than is strictly required in my line of work.
But there is one pastry shop that had, until a couple of weeks ago, slipped below my radar: Pasticceria Marchesi.
I don’t know how, despite many visits to Milan for the fashion shows, I’d failed to notice this elegant, 19th-century pastry shop on Corso Magenta.
But just before going to Milan for a work meeting, I discovered that the Italian fashion label Prada had bought an 80 per cent slice of Marchesi.
Since Miuccia Prada was always my favourite designer when I worked in fashion, I figured that any pastries with the Prada stamp of approval had to be pretty good.
And so I made a special trip to Corso Magenta to investigate 'the Prada patisserie'.
And what can I say, other than that these colourful cakes, almond biscuits [left] and pastries are the last word in gateaux fabulous.
Marchesi is also said to do a marvelous panettone and the best cappuccino in Milan.
But It is the mini-pastries (€1 a piece) that are the star of the show – the bite-sized choux buns filled with zablagione and a little kick of alcohol particularly so.
And as might be expected of anything with which Prada is associated, the packaging [left] is super-elegant. The little pastries are placed on a tray, wrapped in white paper and ribbons and handed to you in a stiff white carrier bag.
Just last year the Prada Group lost out to LVMH, owners of Luis Vutton, on the purchase of another luxe patisserie in Milan – Cova café on Via Montenapoleone.
Cake, in fashionable circles, is a hot commodity.
The message from top fashion labels is: Let them eat panetone! And choux buns! And mini-meringues!
A Marchesi café has just opened in Harrods, London and it can only be a matter of time before Marchesi cake shops are rolled out around the world.
So forget macaroons from Ladurée. A beautifully wrapped package of Prada cakes or a pink box of Marchesi chocolates [shown left] will soon be the most desirable thing to take to a dinner party.
In the meantime, if you want to know the secret of eating cake without turning into an obesity statistic, I’ve written a book on the subject: The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eake Cake and Still Lose Weight. You can see the Amazon reviews here.
Marchesi Angelo, Via S. Maria alla Porta, 20123 Milan.
May 27, 2014
I can't believe that it is two years since Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in France was published. It seems like another lifetime ago.
In it's first year Tout Soul sold 3183 print and 3460 ebook copies – a total of 6643.
In its second year – sales from 31st March 2013 to 31st March 2014 – it has sold 682 print copies and 990 ebook copies, a total of 1672 copies.
The figure is down on last year partly because book sales tend to tail off after the first year; but also because a certain e-retailer increased the price of the print book (and it's profit margin) by £4 from £6.49 to £10.49, which noticeably depressed sales.
I can't do anything about that, but the good news is that the lack of on-line discount means that many people have bought Tout Soul from bookshops instead. Hurrah!
At a donation of 50p for each and every (English language) version sold, this means that £836 has been raised in the second year of publication; to which I'm also adding 25 per cent of the £1887 advance on royalties from my Polish publisher, bringing the total of this year's donation to £1308.
Rather than splitting this between two charities, this year I have decided to give the full amount to the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at King's College, London, which carries out pioneering academic research into stem cell therapies for repairing damaged brains.
I've made this decision because King's has sent me regular updates on its work, so that I have an idea of progress that is being made and how the money is being spent.
The research team works closely with King's College hospital, which is one of only four major trauma centres in the UK, dealing on a daily basis with patients who have sustained life-changing spinal and brain trauma injuries.
Together with the £3322 donated last year, the total amount raised for brain research via sales of Tout Soul so far is £4630.
I'd like to thank my readers for making this possible.
And I'd also like to thank Waterstone's and its wonderful staff, in particular certain booksellers in the Kensington High Street and Lancaster branches (you know who you are!) for all they have done for my books, in particular the wonderful handwritten recommendations, which are like a sprinkling of fairy dust for a book.
I'll post the letter of acknowledgement from King's – and a little update on their latest advances in brain injury research – here in due course.
February 2, 2014
A quick note to say that I will be giving a talk at the Entente Internationale du Pays Civraisin at Les Terres Rouge, Civray (on the road to Ruffec) this Thursday at 8 pm, on the health benefits of the 18th-century French diet and the slimming secrets of Marie Antoinette (including the recipe for her magical soup).
I'll also be signing book afterwards, if there is anyone left in the Poitou who doesn't already own a signed copy of one of my books.
Members and non members welcome, as I think, you can join the Entente on the night.
Photograph by Chris Tubbs.
A large banner outside the local Intermarché declares a ‘pigs’ hearts promotion’.
Inside, between the soft drinks and the pet food aisle, a large fridge is bursting with them: dark, bloody and quivering, like they’ve just been plucked from a porcine chest cavity.
For a vegetarian, which fortunately I’m not, the pre-packed meat section of my local French supermarket is a veritable cornucopia of horrors.
Displayed in the chill cabinets you can find everything from whole cow tongues – disturbingly enormous coils of flesh – to lambs’ kidneys, pigs’ trotters and assorted brains, feet and cheeks.
Even the unashamedly carnivorous might find themselves having to avert their eyes and march quickly past the piles of coiled organs.
There are items in a French supermarket that you won’t find in Walmart or Waitrose.
While UK supermarkets offer a carefully edited selection of chicken breasts, steaks and other prime cuts of carcass meat, here in France it is organs-a-go-go – every bit of a beast from its cheeks to its feet.
Recently, I stood behind a woman in the checkout queue, who was buying a pair of cow hooves, pre-packed on a polystyrene tray.
When I asked what she was planning to do with them, she replied, tout simplement, ‘Make soup’.
Offal may have fallen out of favour in the western diet but in rural France, it is still very much on the menu.
After an unexpected encounter with tete de veau (veal’s head) shortly after my arrival in France – it was the only dish available in the rural restaurant that I’d been taken to by a local mayor – there are few things on a French menu that can shock me.
Since that memorable day – ‘Eat it before it goes cold and the brain turns to jelly,’ warned my friend – I’ve encountered such delicacies as a bovine thyroid, an ox tail, pig trotters, cheeks and ears on restaurant menus.
The French even have a saying: tout est bon dans le cochon, or ‘everything is good in the pig’.
Even the lard is sold off in big chunks in the supermarket. Nothing, apart from the nails, goes to waste.
Offal, as my French neighbours know, is not only an economical source of protein, it also contains more nutritional bounty than prime cuts of carcass meat.
While researching 18th-century cuisine for my latest book, based on the eating habits of Marie Antoinette, I discovered that in 18th-century France, organ meat was highly prized.
The bits of the animal that are now thrown away meanwhile, where considered delicacies. Calves’ hooves with whipped cream. Stuffed lamb’s testicles. Gratin of stuffed cow eyeballs. I could go on, but I won’t, in case you are reading this over breakfast.
But it’s one thing to eat offal in a restaurant; a whole new rung on the ladder of French rustification to take livers, kidneys or hearts home and cook them yourself.
Unpacking a tub of chicken livers recently to make my own chicken liver paté, I realized that I’d really gone native as far as the cuisine is concerned.
Boiling up bones for several hours to make my own stock or bouillon – something I would no more have attempted when I lived in London than open heart surgery – is another habit that I’ve picked up since moving to France, where no part of the animal goes to waste.
It’s all so eighteenth-century.
But this it seems is very of-the-moment.
A recent edition of US Vogue ran a three-page feature on the art of making the perfect bouillon. The writer even went to Las Vegas to consult the French chef Alain Ducasse in his new(ish) restaurant there, on the precise ingredients that go into the perfect stock.
It is a sign that the old culinary ways are suddenly fashionable again.
It helps if you have a lot of time on your hands, but if you live in the French countryside, you probably do.
But there seems to be a growing recognition in the wider world, that when it comes to cuisine, the old French ways are the best – that old-fashioned, slow-cooked food is better for your health and your hips than the fast, microwaved, additive-packed kind.
I haven't tried hoof soup, but the spring vegetable soup photographed above features chicken bone stock as its base. Pepped up with mint and basil, it is one of many delicious soup recipes in my new book, The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight.
January 12, 2014
So my little diet book, The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight, is now available as a paperback, expanded with new recipes.
The reason that I took a year-long detour to research and write this book – which is not just about weight loss but eating for better health – is that the subject matter is something I feel very passionately about.
Modern food production has become something of a dark art, with manufacturers using cheap and questionable ingredients in order to cut down their production costs.
One of the controversial ingredients that I flagged up when The Marie Antoinette Diet was launched as an e-book in June last year, was high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or glucose-fructose syrup.
It's increasingly difficult to find a manufactured food or drink product that isn't pumped full of this cheap sugary gloop, which has been linked with dangerous weight gain in rats.
In one experiment, at Princeton University in 2010, rats that were fed high-fructose corn syrup, gained fat 300 per cent more quickly than those fed an equal dose of table sugar or sucrose.
To put it bluntly: once you start eating something containing this syrup, it's difficult to stop.
Yet, you'll find this ingredient in everything from confectionery to ketchup, pizzas to breakfast cereals.
So I am delighted to see that sugar, and in particular HFCS, has suddenly become a hot news topic.
What I'm not so sure about is the rush to suggest that sugar should be eradicated from the diet completely, as suggested by a number of books that have just been published on the subject.
The alternative view – and the one that I subscribe to – is that not only is this unrealistic for most people, but also that sugar per se is not the problem.
It has, after all, been around for over two centuries without causing the tsunami of obesity and health problems that are now being attributed to it.
Rather it is the quantity that we are eating, and the aforementioned HFCS, that are cause for concern.
Sugar is now routinely shovelled into foods that just don't need it – including, as I recently discovered, organic stock cubes, canned tomatoes and tinned crabmeat.
Yes, we definitely should be eating less of it, not least because it contains lots of calories and it's not great for your teeth. But banning it completely?
Good luck to those who are prepared to try, but for most of us, this is just not do-able as a long-term strategy – not least because life without sugar would be so joyless.
Never baking a cake again? No chocolate or wine? No almond croissant with your coffee in the morning. Once again, good luck with that.
The better strategy in my view, is to have it in moderation and in a way that causes least harm. (For example, one of the worst things you can do is drink your sugar, either by adding it to tea or coffee, or as a fruit juice or worse, carbonated drink.)
Despite its frivolous title, The Marie Antoinette Diet draws together a lot of nutritional science and research in, what I hope, is a readable way.
It also contains some delicious recipes for soups and cakes, for my argument is that, if you are going to eat cake, you should:
a) bake it yourself as that way you will know what is in it;
b) make it count nutritionally, rather than just scarfing empty, additive-packed calories.
But should you be eating cake at all if you want to lose weight?
As registered dietician and nutritionist Dr Mabel Blades, who acted as the consultant for The Marie Antoinette Diet says: 'One of the reasons why diets fail is that people start to feel deprived and the biscuit tin starts to sing even more loudly.'
'Allowing a small portion [50-75g] of deliciousness each day, will help to keep people on their diet.'
Mabel has more to say on the subject of sugar, on her own blog.
For this reason, my book contains recipes for lovely, homemade cakes, along with delicious soups; and lots of advice on the benefits of old-fashioned foods and cooking methods.
In the meantime – and apologies if I'm preaching to the converted – if you care about your health, scrutinize labels and do not buy anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, glucose-fructose syrup or high-fructose corn syrup.
As Mabel says, 'everything in balance'.
And now I'm going to climb down off my soap box and get on with Tout 4, aka (appropriately) Sweet Encore.
October 3, 2013
WOOFS. Ever since a little doglet of our acquaintance went to the vet’s on the journey-of-no-return, my (human) pet has been super-nice to me, saying things, like ‘Biff, you’re the best dog in the world’ and ‘I’m so lucky to have you’.
I haven’t exploited this (much) as I know that there are lots of dogs out there who aren’t so lucky and who are languishing in rescue homes, waiting for a human to love them.
Some are even thrown onto the streets – something which, sadly, happens a lot in France when their owners decide to move back to the UK without them.
The Hope Association is a charity which helps animals who've fallen on hard times.
On the 18,19 and 20th October, 10–4.00 pm, it will be holding its autumn book sale at the salle des fetes in Clussais La Pommeraie, 79190 (on the D45 between Sauzé-Vaussais and Lezay.)
There will be thousands of books, both French and English, for €1 as well as homemade cakes and other delicious things, and a jumble sale.
The last sale raised over €8,000, so if you live in the Poitou, please do come along and support it.
If you have books to donate, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have clothes to donate, please email: email@example.com
August 8, 2013
Charlotte and Glyn have asked me to post a reminder for those living in the Poitou: this weekend (Friday August 9 and Saturday 10th) is The Mad Hatter's annual music festival with a great line up of bands. It starts at 4.30 pm Friday. You can pitch your tent and stay for two nights or book in for the evening feast and music on Friday or Saturday night. More information on their new website www.madhattersfrance.eu.