FRENCH FOOD FOCUS
A celebration of life, food and cooking in rural France
When you get to my age, over 75, its hard to describe yourself. You either write a book or keep it simple. I'll spare you the book and keep it simple.
Grew up in Northern California's wine country.
I'm writing this blog because I enjoy writing. My first degree is in Literature and I've always enjoyed writing. I quickly discovered, however, that I don't seem to have the right imagination to write fiction so I gave up on the idea of writing the great American novel. Not knowing what else to do I decided to get my military service done & out of the way. (fortunately, I was too young for Korea & too old for Vietnam)
I had a wonderful military 'career'. Two plus years of full time electronics school followed by two and a half years based in Spain near Madrid. Although military pay wasn't great Spain was so inexpensive that you could eat very well on what I was paid. I was also fortunate enough to spend two periods of 3 months each in France; thus starting a love affair that lasts to this day.
Back in the states I decided to make a career in the electronics industry. I went back to school and got my BSEE, never really used it as I was asked to go into Sales pretty quickly by the first company I worked for. (I was also teaching semi-conductor physics at the local community college & still have a valid teacher's certificate). After 4 years back home the company asked me to move to Brussels to start a European Sales & Service office. What an opportunity! Did that for a couple of years then moved to England to work for an English company as Export Sales Director. Quit that & formed my own company with a Canadian friend. We were doing Ok, but he really wanted to make it more of a family firm so I agreed to sell him my share.
I left to join a Silicon valley start up. Great people! My job was to start up European Operations. At the end of six years we had 5 Sales & Service companies plus a dozen Distributors and European revenue of $38 million. (it was a lot more then than now!) At this point I returned to the states to head up worldwide marketing. We continued to grow and were purchased by Xerox. That went well & 4 years later I was asked to go back to Europe to help merge a Xerox division with the organization I had built. What a culture clash! Long story short, we banged a lot of heads, doubled revenue over 3 years to $600 million and were the most profitable division of Xerox..
Back to the states to do strategic planning. Technology was changing & Xerox wouldn't so I grabbed a chance at early retirement. It was too early & after messing around for a year I joined a company where I had friends to set up a new Division. That was a fun and it prospered until 7 years later Linda put her foot down & I really did retire.
The question was where to retire too? We had a beautiful home in Carmel Valley, California, but it was a long way from family. (Linda is English & my daughters from my first marriage live in England) About then the property market was booming & we got a great offer on the house. So we sold. Now where to go was a burning question. We didn't want to go back to England with its lousy weather & high house prices. France was the logical choice; we both loved it, the climate is good in the Southwest, house prices were reasonable and you can't beat the food & wine.
We've been here full time for 11 years now and still love it. We bought our French farm house already renovated, but have spent 9 years remodeling it. We're now finished, in fact we're trying to sell it in a low key way. Its just too big and we're tired of running the gite business. We have numerous friends both French and ex-pats and an active social life.
Life in rural France is very good. You'll see this reflected in my blog.
PS: We have now sold the house (October,2010) and bought another. We've moved all of about 6 miles. We didn't want to go far as we wanted to stay close to our local friends and because we love this area. The new house is far more modern and quite a bit smaller; we think it will be much easier to keep up and with no gite business to worry about we'll be able to travel more. I'll keep you up to date on that.
now been in the new house for about 2 years (Its now September, 2012)
and still love it. We do a happy little dance every time the energy
bills come in, we're saving over $ 5,000 a year on heating &
electricity. We also jump up & down a bit as we pay our property taxes;
another saving of $ 2-3,000 per year. These major saving have pretty much
compensated for the fall in the dollar & pound against the Euro. Good
news since our income is in $ & £.
There's more than just monetary savings. The house really works for us, heat exchangers are great for hot summer days, the space is plenty for us and Linda is busy having a new garden put in. If only I could fill in the swimming pool it would be ideal. (I hate swimming pools!)
Another big bonus is that our 'new' village is great. The people are very friendly and the village is lively with lots going on. We have a good village shop & bakery and a nice simple, but good restaurant. Life is good.
I've been meaning to get around to writing this page for some time, but strokes and whatnot kept getting in the way. Rather than let it linger empty and forlorn on the website I think I'll start the page and write a bit more as often as I have time and inspiration. Bear with me if you will.
So, 'my France' a bit presumptuous of me, but its meant in all humbleness to simply mean those things that make France France to me. Its strictly a personal view with no pretensions to grandeur and no assumption that I have great insight denied to others.
I unashamedly love France. I have done so since
the first time I visited back in the early 1960's. I still remember my
first visit driving up from Madrid and crossing the border at Hendye. As
we drove (I was with a friend who was also in the Air Force) I found
the villages charming and the girls pretty. In fact my friend was a keen
photographer and wanted pictures of everything which was OK, but I got
tired of driving. When finally I forced him to drive he made me promise to
take pictures. I did; of every pretty girl we passed. It seemed that most
of them were on bicycles and most of them had pretty legs.
I remember another trip this time driving on my own, I picked up a hitchhiker, a guy about my age. We conversed, sort of, in my fractured French for nearly 50 miles before we realized that we were both Americans trying to be polite by speaking French. We had a good laugh, I dropped him off and never saw him again.
I remember yet another trip driving from England to through France when my little TR3 put a bolt through the radiator, steam everywhere. I was with my fiancé; who spoke better French than I did. We had almost no money. I finally found a garage that looked cheap. It turned out to be a great choice as the owner was a sports car fanatic and had a fully equipped shop in the back. He & his assistant worked most of the day to take out & repair the radiator, did a great job. When he presented his very modest bill I had to tell him that I had no money & couldn't pay. A Gallic shrug was his answer! I left a car coat as security and returned once I was able to get funds.
On yet another occasion a friend and I finally got 4 days off from work. We were determined to see Paris, but we had very little money. In fact we had $35.00 between us. Never fear, we stayed in a left bank student hotel for 10 francs a night (remember these are old Francs). We saw most of the sights. We ate mostly from purchases from the street markets except being desperate for some meat after the first two days we went into a student restaurant and ordered the only meat dish we could afford. Turned out that it was horse meat! Not bad actually. We found a little folk music place called 'L 'Abbey' just behind the Abbey St Germaine where you didn't clap, but snapped your fingers in appreciation. Turned out that the singers, one black, one white, were Americans. Also turned out that they were homosexuals. My first ever knowing contact with that community; their seduction efforts didn't pay off, but we did get a couple of free glasses of wine out of the encounter. We had a wonderful time, magical! And we had $5.00 left over when we left.
I married my first wife in France. We were married by the Mayor of Chateauroux. In fact we were two hours late for our own wedding having confused 14:00 hours with 4:00PM. No matter the French coped. The Mayor presented me with our marriage contract in a beautiful little hardbound book. Unenforceable! I has all the rights and she had none. We left France not long after and I didn't return for over 6 years.
I learned quite a lot of my French in Chateauroux. I'd taken French in High School, but hadn't paid any more attention than was necessary to pass. After all; who needed to speak French when they lived in California? Using what I did remember I was able to build upon it by conversing with the local grocer's 8 year old daughter. She was taking English in school. We'd go around her parents store taking turns naming items, she in French, me in English then switching off while her proud parents beamed. It was great fun and I did learn a lot. Also, back to Spain.
My homecoming to the states was Kennedy's assination. We were literally on a plane to New York when the pilot announced the news. Great homecoming! Anyway for the next four years I started a career in the computer industry, got a degree in Electronics (my first was in English Lit.), taught part time and generally tried to raise my family. In 1967 the company I was working for wanted to set up an office in Europe and asked me to be the technical side of it. (I was the only 'managerial' type who have ever visited Europe!) I jumped at the chance and we were off to Belgium. Neither I not the sales guy had a clue as to how to operate in Europe, but we had some good advisors and learned quickly.
I remember my first business dinner in France. Posh restaurant, no menu in English (anyway I wanted to show off my French, such as it was), but I refused menu help. I got slightly confused between starters of Shrimp and marinated brains. (the words are somewhat similar in French) Needless to say I ordered the brains - and ate them! I wasn't about to admit my mistake. (actually, they have very little flavour of their own, the sauce provides most of the taste. Its the consistency that is difficult.) In any case this was only the first of many regular business trips to France. I worked out a routine for quick visits; a plane into Le Bourget in the early morning where my French colleagues would pick me up, a full day's business then they'd drop me at the Gare du Nord where I could catch the fast train back to Brussels and have a very nice dinner in the dining car. It was a great life.
We moved to England where I first was Export Sales manager for a UK company then started a company with a friend. I was still visiting France on a regular basis, mainly Paris. This went on for several years with pleasurable visits, but nothing special. Eventually I sold my interest in the company and joined a Silicon Valley start up to set up their European operations. This was great fun and highly successful.
My favorite of all the Distributors I set up was the one in France. The owned, Jean-Claude, was quite a character and very rich. He would only take on products where he liked the products and the people; fortunately he liked me. Whenever I came over he'd grab me and say "lets go to my cafeteria for lunch." His 'cafeteria was a Michelin one starred restaurant. His table was always waiting & he had the same lunch every day. Guests got menus to order from. What lunches we had!!
The head salesman for your products was a character
named Gerard Bertomier. A real nice guy, but a maniac behind the wheel of
a car. He was so bad that even the other French wouldn't ride with him.
I'll just give you two of my many Gerard stories. #1, he had invited
me out to dinner along with Mrs. Bertomier and we were looking for a
parking place up in the Sacre Coeur area of Paris, no easy task. The car
in front of us saw somebody pulling out so he signaled. To get into the
spot he had to go past & back in. Gerard deliberately pulled right behind
him so he couldn't back up. Much gesculating & sign language ensued,
but Gerard would not back up & started blowing his horn! This was too much
& the other driver got out of his car as did Gerard. They were arguing
furiously. I thought they would come to blows. At this point Madam
Bertomier got out of the car & started hitting the other driver with her
handbag. He gave up ^ we got the parking place!
Another time I was hopping over to Paris just for the day so I said to my wife; I'll buy bread, pate, cheeses, wine & so forth & we can have our neighbors over for a French evening. Gerard met me at the airport and I told him my plan; OK he says good idea. We only had one appointment with the French weather bureau, but it was an important one. I said why don't we do the shopping now? No, no we need lunch says Gerard. Then we had to discuss the meeting. Then we had the meeting which went well, but by now its 4:00 PM and I have a 5:15 flight and we're in central Paris and its Friday afternoon & the traffic is terrible. Gerard says; now we shop. And off we go at breakneck speed. I keep saying look there's a boulangerie or charcouterie, but no says Gerard we have to go to the special one. At one point I could look ahead to 1/4 mile of stalled traffic. Gerard just passed it all on the wrong side of the road! Finally the right place. Gerard double parked & I went in. Being Friday it was jammed with French lady shoppers buying for the weekend. I just pushed my way forward pretending not to understand the very rude thing being said about me. I got my stuff and ran over the the bread shop. Hopped back in the car. We did make the plane & I was able to buy duty free wine at the airport. I don't think my wife or our friends truly appreciated what I'd gone through to get our meal.
And so it went. Many trips to France on both business & pleasure. Eventually, my first marriage broke up and shortly thereafter the company asked me to move back to the states so there I was pretty close where I grew up. About a hundred miles South in Silicon Valley, so called. Its actually the Santa Clara valley and I went to University there. In any case only the occasional business trip to France for the next few years. (lots to the far East, but that's another story.)
Finally, in 1988 I moved back to Europe based in England and the frequent trips to France resumed. I remarried and fortunately my new wife, Linda, loved France as much as I do. I can remember taking her to Paris for her birthday. We'd decided to marry and buying her wedding hat as a good excuse for a few days in Paris. I took her to a restaurant called 'Toit de Paris. This place was on the top floor of a very nondescript building in Passey. You went up in a grubby elevator, but walked out into a stunning restaurant. I'd arranged for a table that was positioned just right; as she looked up Linda had the Eiffel Tower framed in the window in front of her. It was a memorable place. The first time I'd been there was with Yves, our French managing director, he'd arrived a bit earlier and already had his aperitif. He asked what I'd have & I said 'What are you having?' He said, 'A glass of port.' So I said I'll have the same. (I do dearly love good port, but normally not as an aperitif.) It came & was absolutely delicious. What vintage is this I asked? 1910 says he. Gulp, I'd never had then or since a port that ancient. Wonderful & so very French.
We had many other French adventures during the following years. A time when we introduced our vegetarian Niece to Paris and she tried sooo hard to eat the little bulot sea snail that were served as an amuse. A time when we had a whole vacation planned in Spain centered around wine tasting except that I came home a week before & announced that we were going to Geneva instead. My friend Pierre had called that day announcing that he had reservations for Girondet outside of Lausanne & did we want to come? How could one turn down a chance to eat at what at that time was in my humble opinion the best restaurant in the world. It was a sign of trust and love that Linda didn't kick up a fuss at having to change our plans. She adored it! Another Girondet story concerns when a couple of years later we had introduced a unique new product which for some reason Pierre & his crew were selling way out of proportion to the Swiss market size. Well, by about August they'd oversold all expectations for the year & Pierre teasingly said; well I think we'll quit now. I said how about an incentive? What? Lunch for a salesperson & his partner at Girondet for every two extra units you sell. Done! says he. They sold 22 additional machines at roughly $75,000 each. The lunch for 15 cost just over $1,000. What a deal! Linda was delighted to attend as my partner. Not France, but I consider the French speaking part of Switzerland as one of the best parts of France even though the Swiss wouldn't agree.
There are a lot more stories of France, but I'm going to end this with two last ones about eating & restaurants. I hope that thought these reminisces you have gained some insight into why I love France so much.
Both of these happened within a week of each other.
We were on vacation with my brother & sister-in-law and another set of
friends. The deal was that we shared resources except that once each
week one couple would choose a restaurant & pay for it. So, my
sister-in-law had read about a restaurant, Chez Bruno, that sounded
good. I called & made a reservation. We decided to go up to where it
was, make sure we could find it & make sure I#d really called the right
place. We thought that it was a casual place, sort of like eating in a
farmhouse kitchen. Wrong! When we pulled into the parking lot at lunch
time & were greeted by uniformed attendants we started to suspect that
this was no simple place. Linda & I went in to check the reservation &
as we did we passed boxes of truffles on one side & wild mushrooms on
the other. The restaurant was very sophisticated & filled with very well
dressed French. We had to try it, but there was no way the ladies
were going dressed in their casual holiday attire. No problem, we'd go
back to our gite & they could change. Unfortunately the mother of all
thunderstorms hit on our way back. I'm talking torrential rain & wind.
And we had to transverse Toulon at rush hour in this. We made it back
but had to tell the ladies that they had only a 20 minute turnaround
time. Meanwhile my buddy Leo & I were plotting a route through Toulon to
avoid the traffic. It was still bucketing down with rain. Off we went,
Leo driving, me navigating. All was well until two cars ahead of us on a
steep hill with 3 inches of water cascading down the street somebody
stalled their car. Leo immediately pulled up onto the sidewalk & got
past. The rest of the drive was easy & by the time we reached the
restaurant, late but not too late the rain had stopped. The meal was
unique; every course contained either truffles or wild mushrooms or
both. Bruno himself came round to tell us what we would eat. Leo the
philistine asked; 'could you repeat all that in English, please?' Bruno
laughed & was off. A very memorable meal all in all.
When it was our turn to find & pay for dinner I was determined that our friends should have a proper bouillabaisse. None of them had ever had one and this part of France is THE place to have one. Walking along the coast I spotted a small seaside restaurant whose side said ' bouillabaisse given two days notice' I figured that they must be serious about it. We went in & asked, but there was a certain reluctance due to the big storm. The fishermen hadn't bee able to go out. Finally, they said yes for two, but we said no we needed it for six people. O la la! Lots of discussion and several phone calls resulted. Ok they could just do it, but one particular fish would be missing. We showed up on the night, in fact we were the only customers. We had a bouillabaisse to end all bouillabaisse's. It was magnificent. The owned served, he peeled the shrimp with one hand using a fork & spoon. Amazing! An unforgettable meal.
On that note I'll end this, but if you can't tell why I love France by now you never will. Enjoy the blog as I continue to write about our adventures in France.