Archive for the ‘France’ Category

The celebratory dinner hosted by the French ambassador Florence Jeanblanc-Risler in Wellington on Monday night (21/3/16) was everything I love about French dining. Beginning with an aperitif and polite conversation, we moved to tables graciously set with a regiment of silver, and proceeded to work our way through an elegant procession of dishes representing the best of French cuisine.

The occasion was the launch of Goût de France, an annual event (now in its second year) that celebrates French gastronomy in various restaurants worldwide. It’s all about honouring the legacy of the greats – we toasted Carême, Escoffier, Vatel, Brillat-Savarin – and recognising the techniques and ingredients that remain the backbone of contemporary French cuisine.

In New Zealand eight restaurants are combining local ingredients with French inspired recipes this week (commencing 21/3/16) – Hippopotamus, Jano Bistro and Whitebait in Wellington. Bracken in Dunedin. Hopgood’s in Nelson, Kazuya and The Grove in Auckland, and Pacifica in Napier.

Each will bring their own style to the event. The Wellington menu  was fairly traditional, as befits an embassy occasion. The ambassador’s chef Fabien Le Gall worked with former embassy chef Veronique Sauzeau (now Le Marché Francais) and Laurent Loudeac (Hippopotamus Restaurant) on a six course menu beginning with consommé and ending with chocolat. French and New Zealand wines accompanied each course.


Entrée of salmon, three ways

Laurent’s signature dish of Aoraki salmon served trois façons (ie, confit, tartare and wood smoked) was followed by a classic pot au feu (tenderly poached filet de boeuf in bouillon with ‘forgotten’ vegetables and a dash of truffle oil). It came with toasted walnut bread that was slathered with bone marrow and salt crystals – it was the perfect rustic counterpoint to the refined bouillon and I confess I had to dunk it. Discreetly, I think.


Pot au Feu, filet de boeuf

The dessert was a degustation of chocolate – crowned for me by a dark chocolat ganache with a sliver of candied orange peel.

The cheese course was magnificent: an oven baked Mont d’Or with sautéed oyster mushrooms and crispy fried parsley to garnish.


Baked Mont d’Or, Vacherin

We  broke through the crust and took it in turns to spoon the melted cheese on to our plates. It was unctuous. No one does cheese like the French.  Ripe and savoury, sensual, sophisticated – it was un vrai goût de France.


…the end.

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Having just come back from China, where I saw one or two things that would make your eyes water (see my last post), I’m once again having to defend my position on the relatively harmless farming of ducks and geese for foie gras.

The activists who continue to picket Le Canard restaurant in Wellington are now projecting videos into the restaurant in an effort to harass customers while they enjoy an evening out, which may or may not include eating foie gras at a restaurant that specialises in the cuisine of South-West France – cuisine in which ducks, geese and foie gras have a starring role.

The reason I’m writing what is now my third blog post on this issue is that the activists are being very selective about the information they choose to present. I’d like to redress the balance on behalf of Pascal the chef, who is simply too stressed-out to do so himself, and I’d like to apologise to our long-suffering and loyal customers who are being treated as collateral damage in this campaign. Yes, the activists have a democratic right to protest but they have no moral right to harass our customers.

The videos they are projecting through the windows of the restaurant have been taken from the internet. You can goggle them on YouTube. They were filmed nearly 10 years ago, (before individual battery cages were banned by the EU) and they show the very worst of factory farming – practices and conditions that Le Canard has never condoned. This is like showing images of factory pig farming – sow crates and all – to people who buy ethically-raised pork.

They get away with it because so little is known about foie gras in this country. Indeed, the activists admit they have never seen the gavage (force-feeding) process themselves.

The fact is, there are good and bad farmers. Le Canard buy its foie gras from Rougié, a producer in the Dordogne that sources its foie gras from farms like the one shown in this video.


I believe we should be supporting farmers like these in the same way we support free-range egg farmers. Good farmers like these hate to be associated with the sort of industrial scale farms depicted in the videos selected by the activists. There is a huge difference.

I’ve visited foie gras farms myself and seen the gavage. The photo below shows the geese on a farm near Sorge. They free-range on grass with plenty of food, grain, walnuts and shade. When the farmer comes into the field they run up to greet him.

Foie Gras Farm, Dordogne

The last 20 days of their lives are spent in a barn where they are kept in family groups and fed maize porridge(3 times a day) from a pipe that’s inserted down their necks into the crop where digestion takes place. The whole process takes less than 5 seconds and the geese remain perfectly calm throughout. Unlike humans they have no gag reflex.

La Gavage, Dordogne

This is a good farm run by good farmers and it produces good foie gras. Farms that maltreat their birds do not.

But back to the activists who continue to say they are not picking on Le Canard. How else do you explain the fact that Le Canard is the only business they are targeting when there are many others who import, sell or serve foie gras and the associated products of force-fed ducks. (Those imported tins of duck confit contain the legs and thighs of guess what? force-fed ducks.) Where is the consistency in this protest action?

It’s strange too that the activists have taken their protest to the City Market in Wellington, not because the market sells foie gras (it doesn’t) but because Le Canard has an occasional stall there. They would force Pascal out of the market even though the terrines and rillettes he sells are made from New Zealand farmed ducks, which are not force-fed. Work that one out.

It seem clear to me that they are seeking media publicity for their cause by forcing a small French restaurant out of business. So far they’ve managed to attract three newspaper stories in which they vow to continue their bullying until the chef bows to their demands and takes foie gras off the menu.

What should worry fair-minded New Zealanders is that they have picked on such an easy target – a 30 seater restaurant in the middle of a recession. Will they be cheering when they put six people out of work?  I’m sure they will.

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I’m driven to write this post because the restaurant in which I have a share is being subjected to a bullying protest action by a group of animal welfare activists. Every weekend night for the past six months they have been outside Le Canard restaurant in Wellington accosting passers-by and restaurant diners with leaflets demanding they “Say No to Foie Gras”.

Le Canard (The Duck) specialises in the cuisine of South West France, specifically the Pèrigord region which is home to truffles, cèpes, duck and foie gras. Its customers dine at the restaurant because they like the style of food and the authentic ambiance it offers. No one has to order foie gras; those who do, know exactly what it is: the fattened liver of a force-fed (gavaged) duck or goose.

Foie Gras prepared mi-cuit for sale at a French market

It is not – as the protestors would have us believe – a liver that is diseased/infected with hepatic lipidosis. Can you imagine the health authorities of France or New Zealand allowing a diseased avian product to be sold or exported?  The gavage process is not done to make the animal as “sick as possible”, and “many birds” do not “asphyxiate to death” during the process. The highly emotive leaflet circulated by the protestors takes the very worst instances of factory-farmed cruelty and presents it as the status quo. Let me redress the balance.

I have worked as an agricultural journalist; I am now a food writer. I have lived in France, I’ve visited foie gras farms, I’ve seen the gavage in action, I’ve discussed the issue with practically every French person I’ve met and I’ve researched foie gras production for a feature I made for Radio New Zealand in 2006. This is what I’ve learned.

There are good and bad farmers. Just as New Zealand has farmers who mistreat their animals, so it is in France. Both countries have regulations to keep the worst operators in check; sometimes – as in the case of the Crafar farms – it can take some time for the authorities to act.

It is also true that both countries sanction questionable farming practices by law. These laws enable us to farm on an intensive scale and produce the food we like to eat. In New Zealand it is perfectly legal to keep sows in farrowing crates and layer hens in cages where they have little room to move. In France it’s legal to force-feed ducks and geese for the production of foie gras.

Both countries set minimum standards and both countries have farmers who choose to farm at a much higher standard. These people farm less intensively, often free ranging their livestock and opting to take less profit for a more natural or artisan operation. So it is with foie gras. Some foie gras is produced intensively; some of it is produced by artisans.

In Périgord the producers have formed a regionally defined association to distance themselves from the practices of some factory produced foie gras that has become big business in parts of France but especially in Eastern European countries that have lower standards.

The duck and geese farms in Périgord tend to be small scale. The birds are hatched and raised free-range on pasture until the last 2 or 3 weeks of their lives when they go into a barn that’s separated into pens. They are gavaged 2 or 3 times a day in a process that takes less than two seconds per animal (farms are equipped with pumping equipment that delivers a measured dose, quickly and gently) I’ve read about birds lining up to be fed; in my experience this is an exaggeration but they are certainly not perturbed and I’ve seen geese walk off with tails wagging after the gavage.

Sheep in shearing pens are handled much more roughly than these birds. The farmers know they won’t get a good liver if the bird is stressed; it’s in their interests to treat them gently. It’s certainly not in their interests to grow the liver as big as possible so the birds can’t stand up. Despite what the activists say about farmers wanting to maximise profits by getting the biggest livers, the premium fresh duck foie gras (classified ‘extra’) is close to 500g; if it gets much bigger than that, the fat simply melts out during the cooking process leaving an inferior product.

Cruel and unnatural?

Some people will tell you it’s natural for a goose or duck to load up on food; it helps them prepare for a long migration. That’s true but not to the extent that it’s done for foie gras. One farmer summed it up for me when I asked if she didn’t think it was cruel to stuff food down a goose’s neck. She agreed it wasn’t natural but said it wasn’t cruel. She genuinely liked her geese and explained that there was a real art to gavaging a bird gently with just the right amount of corn mash.

Another farmer who said much the same, also added that it is hypocritical for a New Zealander (me) to suggest the gavage is unnatural when the New Zealand economy depends on forcing cows to produce hundreds of litres of milk when naturally it would only produce enough for its calf. Point taken. In the end we agreed that most, if not all, animal farming is based on pushing natural behaviours beyond what is natural.

Now for the bad farmers. You need only search YouTube to find some horrific examples of ducks kept in single cages with necks protruding, ready for the next gavage. The pipe is administered twice a day for two weeks with no kind words or gentle stroking – they may as well be on a conveyor belt. This is undoubtedly the shameful side of foie gras farming but is it any worse than battery egg production? Layer hens may not be subjected to force feeding but they do live in those tiny cages for their entire laying lives – an awful lot longer than two weeks.

Just as there are good and bad farmers there is good and bad foie gras. When my French friends buy foie gras in France they make the same distinction many ethical shoppers here make between battery and free-range eggs, or between conventionally raised pork and free range. They buy foie gras (fresh or prepared as a paté) from a local farmer whose reputation they trust. That way they know it will be good quality and that it’s come from a duck or goose that has been free-ranged and well treated during the gavage. Second best is to buy foie gras from one of the established reputable companies that process foie gras from their own contracted farmers in France.

Such a company is Rougié. Based in the Dordogne, it has been producing foie gras since 1875. Le Canard buys Rougié bloc foie-gras from a New Zealand importer.

A Cowardly Protest

People who feel strongly about foie gras would be better to aim their protest action at the governments of France and New Zealand: France for sanctioning the production of foie gras and New Zealand for allowing its importation. But instead of protesting outside parliament or the French Embassy, these activists choose to bully the little guy – a talented young chef who is trying to build a small business in recessionary times.  Pascal Bedel chose to settle his family in this country because it gave him a chance to start his own restaurant and because he admired the Kiwi spirit of equality and fair play. After 6 months of provocation from people I can only describe as bullies, I hope he still feels the same way.

By the Way…

Anyone who wants to avoid eating the product of a force-fed duck should also avoid eating  the readily available imported cans of confit de canard. The duck confit is made from the legs and thighs of fattened ducks. Which means if the protestors really knew what they were protesting against and wished to do it equably and intelligently they should be targeting every business in New Zealand selling imported duck products from France, not just the one small restaurant they’ve identified that serves foie gras.

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I watched France take on New Zealand the other day – not on a muddy field but in the elegant surroundings of the French ambassador’s residence in Wellington. Still smarting from the Eden Park loss a few days before, the French pulled out all the stops in the kitchen, pitching Le Cordon Bleu chef Philippe Clergue against our own Martin Bosley.

With a team of helpers in the kitchen the two chefs each prepared five amuse-bouche sized tastes based on New Zealand ingredients. In a nice twist, each one was matched with a wine from the rival country, chosen by Chris Archer of Archer McRae and Alastair Morris of Regional Wines and Spirits.

Le Cordon Bleu event at the French Residency, Thorndon.

The match started with a Dumangin champagne and a Palliser Estate methode traditionelle, the bubbles replacing the rugby match anthems. Similarly, there was no intimidating haka but chef Clergue did manage to gain an early psychological advantage with the impressive height of his hat. Bosley admitted to being completely outclassed on that score.

Chef Martin Bosley

Chef Philippe Clergue














As to the food. The French kicked off by showing us exactly what to do with our greenshell mussels. Clergue presented a crunchy croquette, or ‘cromesquis’, with a velvety sauce that hinted of crustacean. It was matched with a Cambridge Road Arohanui Rose 2009. Bosley retaliated with snapper on cauliflower puree with asparagus and almond caramel, his try was trickier but not as succesful. The wine was a new one on me, a 2009 Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc, a lovely match with the fish.

The second round was salmon. Bosley’s was a mini version of his famous cedar planked salmon, served with a chive citrus emulsion and a sprinkling of wasabi flying fish caviar. Texturally brilliant and quite different to Clergue’s rendition. The Frenchman served his salmon raw. It was thinly sliced, silky textured, and it was wrapped around a delicious oyster tartare. Both were superb.

Clergue's Salmon

Bosley's Salmon







Lamb was next. Clergue partered his saddle of lamb with sweetbreads and fondant potatoes. Chef Bosley presented confit lamb loin, topped with fennel pollen and a Jerusalem artichoke crisp. It won my vote for dish of the match. And I’d love to know how he got hold of the pollen – did he shake it off the flowers himself or has he trained a few bees to do the job for him? Either way, you have to admire his commitment.

The beef fillet was too close to call. Bosley’s was a riff on steak béarnaise, topped with a gaufrette potato crisp.  Clergue  partnered his with chestnuts and a hint of juniper in a spiced wine sauce.

Bosley's beef fillet

Clergue's beef fillet












A Dry River Gewurtztraminer was possibly my wine of the night (I gave it 2 ticks so it must have been good) It matched Clergue’s orange crème brulée, which for classic simplicity beat Bosley’s more intriguing dessert – a combination of orange and pickled radish dressed with honey and yoghurt.

Overall winner? Our hosts were too diplomatic to hold a formal vote but I reckon France won by a whisker. Let’s hope they don’t do the same on the field.

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It’s hard to believe we’ve been back in Wellington for nearly 4 weeks. Mostly the weather has been dismal but yesterday when the sun came out I spent all day in the garden pruning and weeding. It took me right back to our recent sojourn in France where gardening is quite a different experience.

We always stay in the same area – in the countryside, roughly between the towns of Nontron and Brantome – and we usually rent a very rustic old farmhouse owned by friends who live in Paris for most of the year. This time we stayed with some other friends in their recently renovated farmhouse in the same hamlet.

Hamlet of Laumède, Dordogne

Built in 1867, their house has a courtyard surrounded by herbs, lavender and a few hardy roses. Gardening mostly involves dead-heading the flowers and weeding the cracks in the terrace but this year I also undertook the daily job of hand watering a sorry looking artichoke plant that was suffering from the drought. (I’m happy to say that by the time I left, the carefully nurtured plant had indeed born fruit).

Gardening at Laumède in the drought was easy, the artichoke was the only thing that showed signs of life. In Wellington it’s hard work because everything grows madly all year round and a good deal of it can only be accessed with crampons. The view is different too. At home, when I take a break from cutting back the jungle that covers my vertical slope, I look down on the Karori wildlife sanctuary with its colonial pumphouse. In France, we looked out over a sunny meadow with a neatly stacked woodpile and a couple of apple trees. It’s very rural. Not that long age we were sitting on the terrace enjoying an aperetif when a wild boar trotted across the lawn in front of us and disappeared into the trees that grow by the river.

A herd of cows in Dordogne

Boar and roe deer roam quite freely in this part of France and that’s why I like it. People who have moved here for the lifestyle say it’s one of the last untouched parts of Europe. That’s not entirely true but you do feel that little has changed. The old-timers farm in much the same way they always have. A herd of cows is more accurately described as a ‘group’ – never more than twenty and mostly lying down on the grass in a sociable circle. I realise this sort of farming is supported by subsidies but I like the way the farmers here keep a few rabbits and ducks and mix pasture with small crops of sunflowers, maize and wheat. Everyone who lives here has a potager and a few fruit trees from which they make confiture and eau de vie, and if they have walnuts they’ll be pressed to produce oil at one of the water mills that still offer the service.

My part of France, with canine friend Lola

It’s for all these reasons that I much prefer staying in la France profunde than in the cities or towns. And that, in a very round about way, brings me to the point of this blog post. I’ve written quite a lot about this area, particularly during the year we lived here as a family, and because I’ve given it such a good press people often ask me where they can stay if they happen to be passing through on a road trip. Most definitely look for a gite. The advantage of booking a self-catering holiday home is that you can go mad at the markets and cook the most wonderful food. There are lots on the internet – you can google a gite – but there’s nothing like a personal recommendation so I’m posting photos of two rural gites that are owned and run by good friends of ours in the Dordogne. Both are charmingly renovated farm buildings – very comfortable and beautifully situated – but best of all they are hosted by owners who are très sympathique, know their areas really well and speak fluent English.

The first is near the town of Ribérac, east of Périgeux.

Gite near RiberacLunch at Riberac gite

It’s owned by Ib and Marie, both Danish architects who lived here for several years with their children and now divide their time between France and Copenhagen. The gite is connected to their own home and has a gorgeous courtyard and a private terrace with a swimming pool. It sleeps 8-10. We’ve had some wonderful times here with Ib and Marie and shared some great conversations about the local architecture. A few weeks ago we joined them for a concert at a church in one of the local villages and then a very long lunch under the trees in their courtyard.

Gite near LaumèdeGite near Laumede

Gite number two is a short bicycle ride from our ‘own’ hamlet at Laumède.  I used to cycle up to Gilles and Jean-Françoises’ home most afternoons for French lessons with the ever-so-patient Gilles. The couple have lived here for several years during which time they’ve restored their house and converted their barn into two four-person gites with a shared terrace. The property, which dates back to the 1500s, was a farmhouse when they bought it but it has also been used as a military post on account of its strategic position with views across the whole valley. Their home is House and Garden gorgeous with lovely little out-buildings including a porcherie and a tiny bakery with a bread oven where Jean-François (a fabulous cook) makes pizzas. The most recent addition to their ongoing rennovation, is a very glamorous swimming pool sited at the back of the house in front of a small forest where you’ll find chanterelles popping up in the autumn.

If anyone is interested in either of these gites, let me know and I’ll put you in touch. (And no, I’m not taking a commission!)

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Sunflowers in France

Driving through the back roads of Perigord Vert you notice three crops growing beween the dark green forest that gives the region its name: wheat, maize and sunflowers. The first two are fairly ho-hum – patches of beige and dull green – but the sunflowers cut a cheerful swathe of yellow across the landscape. That’s providing the sun’s out and all’s well with the world; on a bad day, when the rain clouds gather or the autumn chill sets in, the same field can be a real downer. It may seems foolish to attribute human emotions to plants but sunflowers are a special case, you could almost say they’re bi-polar.

In France they’re called ‘tournesol’ on account of the way the young flowers turn their faces towards the sun, tracking their god across the sky from east to west as the day progresses. The older plants tend to fix themselves eastwards. I’ve photographed entire fields of them, their heads like flat plates on slim stalks all focused in the same direction, on target like thousands of synchronised periscopes. When it rains their heavy heads droop downwards in a group sulk. And then, when the sun comes out they look up, ever so slowly, until the whole field is a cheerful canvas of van Gough yellow.

Early in the season they look shiny and new but as the days grow shorter their petals fray and they dry up, turning a dullish colour like yellow paint that’s been contaminated with a dirty brush. It’s the saddest sight to see sunflowers like this, all gone to seed, waiting for the harvester to come and lop off their heads. And it all happens so quickly. Over night the fields are all stubble and there are only photographs to remind you of the youthful glow that once filled the gap between beige and dull green.

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Mobile Still

A couple of days ago we were visiting friends in a small hamlet a few kilometres away from our own and I saw what I imagined was a bit of old farm equipment parked up in their neighbour’s field. The people here never throw anything away; they all have massive barns crammed full of stuff, some of it really old and some of it still in working order. The French are famously reticent about inviting you into their homes but they love showing you around the interesting stuff they’ve stored away in their ‘grange’.

John Franklin in his barn with a lightning rod from a local chateau

Anyway, sometimes the really big stuff spills out into the surrounding fields and it’s not unusual to see antiquated tractors or a rusty old plough with grass growing through it. But this was different – a sort of machine on wheels with big copper vats, chimney pipes and a rickety roof. Our friend John knew all about it. He’s an Englishman whose own jam-packed barn has made him a hit with the local French community. A mechanic by trade he loves old equipment and he knew all about this piece. It turns out it’s a mobile still owned by his friend Michel. The pair of them are fixing it up in in readiness for the ‘eau de vie’ season that starts in October.

For hundreds of years the people here have fermented part of their fruit crop and had it distilled into a potent sprit to help keep them happy and warm over the very cold winters. Presumably that’s why they named it eau de vie – water of life. I’d been told the tradition was dying out and that people now carted their barrels of fermented fruit to permanent distilleries but Michel told me this was wrong; his is one of about 25 mobile stills that continue to rattle along the country roads of the Dordogne every autumn.

John and Michael adjusting the pipes

Certainly the business is much more regulated these days. Licences are issued for a lifetime and the authoriites ensure the machinery is shut down and sealed at the end of each season. When the licence expires the police punch a hole in the still, which renders is useless until the new licence holder fixes it up. Michel’s still has three hole marks, one for each of it’s three previous owners; he is the fourth and this season will be his second on the road. His previous still (without wheels) is now gathering dust in John’s barn.

The mobile stills can’t move very fast so each one covers quite a small area. Michel says he travels around the hamlets in his circuit, parks up and builds fires under the two big copper vats. Fruit that’s been fizzing in people’s barn for months is tipped into these and boiled up to produce a vapour that’s directed through coils of copper pipe. Eventually the pipes deliver a primary distillation which is then put into a second vat where the process is repeated. The final distillate is diluted to around 45% abv. Michel charges 3.50 euros a litre to produce the spirit, which his customers bottle themselves with equipment they all seem to have tucked away in their barns.

Dordogne Distiller, Michel Pellisier

Friends have given us bottles of their eau de vie as gifts. The first couple of sips are always a bit of a shock but then it gets smoother and it really is a nice way to finish a meal. It is usually made with apples, pears, peaches or plums but some people make cherry or strawberry eau-de vie. My favourite is plum, but to be honest I’ve always found the fruit is all in the aroma; the fire in the spirit makes them taste much the same.

I asked Michel which fruit he prefers and he told me he never drinks the stuff himself, he makes it for pleasure. It’s doesn’t earn him much money but for six weeks of the year he enjoys the conviviality of turning up in a hamlet and stoking up the copper while people roll out their barrels and hang around to watch and talk, in the same way they have for generations in the Périgord.

During the rest of the year he works in the town of Piegut where he continues another local tradition – he  makes false teeth. I’m not sure if I should believe this but apparently Piégut has the distinction of being the denture town of France in the same way that Nontron makes knives and Agen has prunes.

Unsurprisingly the denture tradition doesn’t get much attention in a region that has so much else to offer, but it’s a business that’s likely to outlive mobile distilling – if only because the authorities are no longer issuing lifetime licences. Michel says he is one of the three youngest mobile distillers in the départment so he may well be the last. When he passes on, his still will be punched with one final hole and I’m guessing it will come to rest in a Périgord barn – a dusty reminder of how people used to live in these parts.

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Brocante in Brantôme

Brocante market in Brantôme
We’ve just returned from the summer brocante market in Brantôme. It’s held in the park on the edge of the river and it’s full of really interesting stuff. Old iron tools, embroidered linen, cracked paintings in ornate frames, cast iron marmites and piles of red striped torchons (tea towels) that are typical in the South West of France.

Some of the second-hand stuff is over-priced junk but there are some great bargains and some really beautiful old things that you can recognise from paintings and engravings of French country life. The iron fire guards, rush-seated chairs, ornate corkscrews and coloured glass soda bottles are snapped up by locals and newcomers who would rather fill their battered oak sideboards with ornate pre-loved crockery than buy brand-new from Ikea.

Dan and I have a real weakness for brocante. It stirs up the old dream of one day buying a house or a barn in Périgord. This is how we have justified buying an old iron bed, a second-hand moped, a pan for roasting chestnuts and various other things that are too big to bring back to New Zealand. We spent a year and a bit living here with our children in 2005-06 and we’ve returned several times since. At the end of each visit we leave more stuff behind; it’s as if each purchase gives us another reason to return. In the meantime our friends use it or store it and promise to give it back when we do find a place of our own.

Today Dan bought a lovely old Monopoly set so we can play at putting hotels on the Champs-Elysées, and I found a wooden container with an iron rim that was used for measuring grain. I also bought a bunch of ancient looking iron keys. They’re heavy enough to cost me excess luggage but this is one purchase I plan to bring home. I’m going to hang them up as a visual reminder of the sort of front door I’d like to unlock one day in France.

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Oysters in France

A cabane serving oysters in Andernos-les-Bains

I’ve been in France for about 10 days now. In fact I’ve lost track of the days – my time has been measured in meals. Being on holiday is really the only excuse I have for spending so much time at the table – that and the fact that after two years we have a lot of friends to catch up with. From the day we arrived we’ve been plied with so many glorious wines, cheese and sauscisson that I have to remind myself the phrase ‘French women don’t get fat’, only applies if you’re French.

My meal count got off to a good start only hours after we flew into Bordeaux. After 36 hours door-to-door and some truly awful airline food (never fly Qantas) we were treated to a fabulous déjeuner at a friend’s holiday home on the coast.

Hélène Pont shopping for oysters

The Pont family moved to Wellington last year  for a four year posting with the French Embassy but they’re currently on holiday in France. My friend Hélène had promised me oysters if we dropped in to visit before heading inland for the rest of our stay. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The Pont’s holiday home is at Andernos-les-Bains, a seaside town on the edge of the Arcachon basin, one of the main oyster areas in France. Total production is around 10,000 tonnes of oysters a year but the ostréiculteurs are mostly small scale. In towns like Andernos they have their own little precinct – a village of huts or ‘cabanes’ that line rows of canals on the edge of the sea.

The oysters are grown on farms, way out in the bay. When they’re ready to harvest they’re brought in to shore and kept in oxygenated tanks at the back of each cabane. Some of the huts have basic shops in the front where you can buy oysters directly from the producer;  one or two have a small area with tables and chairs where you can eat freshly shucked oysters with a glass of white wine.

Our lunch started with a trip to the oyster huts. I love shopping for food with the French, they’re so fussy. And I love the way the shopkeepers respond – with the sort of mutual respect you’d never enjoy as a tourist in France.

Hélène had phoned ahead so our oysters were freshly shucked (shells still intact) and arranged on a platter, ready for the table. We also bought some little grey shrimps (crevettes grises) that are too small to peel, some pre-cooked whelks (bulot) and some small black bigorneaux. Then we made the requisite stop at the boulanger for some pain de campagne and returned to find the children setting the table for lunch on the terrace.

It was a fabulously simple hands-on meal that took up a large part of the afternoon. I love eating like this, winkling the meat out the whelks with special little implements, slurping the oyster liquor out of the shells and biting the heads off the shrimps. It all takes time and it’s gloriously convivial with lots of  passing of plates and pulling of corks.  So merci beaucoup to les Ponts, it’s great to be back in your country. Bon appétit et passe-moi le sel, s’il vous plaît.

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