In 1984 Elizabeth David added a postscript to her book ‘Eating Out in Provincial France.’ I haven’t read that particular book although I have devoured her cookery books, both metaphorically and literally, reading and following her recipes. I suspect that most of the restaurants she mentions in the book have long since disappeared and certainly eating out in France can be as disappointing as in the UK. But even now you can still buy wonderful food in the small city of Uzes.
She writes of the Casino on the Boulevard Gambetta, where one can buy the essentials and then the wonderful butchers shop; one needs to remember the cuts of meat are different, less fat but more expensive. There are some wonderful bakeries too. My favourite is the one under the arches on the Place aux Herbes, where in addition to the standard baguette they sell a variety of different breads. The shop assistant weighs the loaf one picks, a Campagne or Rustique for example and one pays by weight. There is nothing more delicious than fresh bread with a great cheese. In this part of France it has to be goats cheese. The pelardons as they are called are made locally and can be bought in various stages of maturity, fresh soft and creamy for eating immediately, or harder for grilling or toasting.
The fruit and vegetables are wonderful as well. Elizabeth David was there in February so not as much choice but as she went round the stalls of the Saturday morning market, she found creamy fleshed potatoes, crisp bronzed-flecked, frilly lettuces, bunches of chard, leaf artichokes, pumpkins and read peppers, new-laid eggs, nine or so varieties of olives and golden coloured honey. They are still available in winter.
Through the summer local producers bring their products to the Market on both Saturday and Wednesday. The season begins with a small sweet strawberry called Garrigette, then the apricots in large boxes. The same grower sells green asparagus in large bunches-it’s delicious fried with a fresh egg on top. Later on as summer creeps towards autumn, the peaches, white or yellow appear on the stalls; they have an intoxicating smell and are so luscious. Finally figs become available, eaten raw with some of that lovely bread and a runny unpasturised Brie.
Just thinking about it makes my mouth water particularly now that summers over.
‘I had a farm in Africa.’ So begins the first sentence of the memoir ‘Out of Africa,’ that compelling account of Isak Dinsen’s life in Kenya. Soon I will be saying, ‘I had a house in France,’ and that made me think about whether the past tense is correct. I think I will always have a small cottage in the edge of a village near to the town of Uzes in Southern France, because it stays in my memory. Isak Dinsen used her memories to give life to her farm as she wrote about the place and the people. In the book she charts her love affair, not just with Finch-Hatton, but with the experience of living in Africa.
Our house was only a holiday home and there is no novel or memoir to be written about it, but I began to think about the places I have lived over the years and I am suprised about how well I can recall the rooms, the furniture, the sounds and the smells of those houses. In my mind I can walk round them and think of the events that happened in each one. Is that why a sense of place is so important in writing, putting characters into a context of their homes? I wonder.
We are going to France next week to complete the sale of our cottage there. I wrote this piece some time ago after I had seen this girl begging by the expensive chocolatiere. in the square of our nearest town, Uzes.
It was just after four in the afternoon when James strolled into the Place aux Herbes, in the small city of Uzes. The square lay languid under the upturned blue enamelled bowl of the sky. The seventeenth century former silk merchants’ houses were built of topaz coloured stone which glowed in the sun, their olive- green shutters closed to stop it from penetrating the interiors. The same strong light shone through the canopy of the plane trees created patterns across the paving stones, and under the vaulted arcades the shadows were the colour of a raven’s wing.
James felt his shirt sticking to his back and he slid his finger along the neckband of his linen grand-dad shirt. He took a seat at one of the many cafes, whose chairs and tables formed fingers in the open space, stretched his long limbs out in front of him and threw the battered panama he had inherited from his father, onto the table. He ordered a beer in his schoolboy French. It arrived quickly. Condensation on the outside of the glass formed a pool of water on the table. He sipped the cool amber liquid slowly, the antiseptic taste bursting on his tongue.
From behind a pair of sunglasses he settled down to observe the town, as it shook itself awake from its siesta. Tourists, dressed in light loose clothes, wearing sunhats and dark glasses, strolled across the square, the heat a brake on their energy. Children played in the fountain, dabbling their hands in the translucent green water. A golden retriever leapt up into the basin to cool off, and showered them as he jumped out, making them squeal and laugh.
After he had been sat for some time, from between the arches of the arcade, emerged the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She had the golden glow that looked like it had been perfected on the beaches of the Cote D’Azur. Her hair was spun gold, pulled back into a bun and held in place by a red ribbon. Her face was long and thin with high cheek bones and a well formed nose above bow-shaped lips. As she passed in front of him she looked directly at him, and he could see her eyes were a startling pale blue framed with long dark lashes. She was tall and slim, almost boyish. Her clothes were shabby chic, cut-off jeans and a tight white T-shirt, and she carried a grubby blue canvas bag. Over her arm hung a red and white beach towel, and by her side trotted a grey-brown shaggy dog.
James watched her amble across the square, the roll of her walk accentuating the slight curve of her hips. He thought she looked like a starlet, what was the French, une vedette, and he imagined her dressed in a clinging white gown, walking along a red carpet with an admiring crowd applauding her. Or perhaps flouncing along a catwalk in Paris, London or Milan, wearing a well cut trouser suit, under the appraising eye of the fashionistas. Then he thought of taking her to his firm’s annual dinner, introducing her to his friends, her smile dazzling them, and he being warmed by their murmurs of approval. Other thoughts, of her naked and in his bed, came as well.
By now she had reached the far side of the square and was about to disappear from view. James dropped some euros onto the table, to pay for his unfinished drink, grabbed his hat, and rushed after her. He rehearsed the words he would need to ask her if she would have a drink with him. ‘Prenez une tasse du café.’ ‘No,’ he thought, ‘une coupe de champagne.’ Surely she only drank champagne.
Back out onto the Boulevard Gambetta, James cast around and saw her to his right, some way ahead, walking purposefully, the dog loping at her side. He hurried to catch up. She stopped in front of Deschamp’s, the chocolatiere, and within a few seconds he was besides her, in front of the large glass window. They stood side by side looking at the tasteful display inside. Chocolates arranged precisely on glass salvers, in pyramids, circles and triangles, a few to each plate. The sort of chocolates his mother would buy to take to a dinner party. They came in a variety of shapes, enrobed in dark and pale brown chocolate, as well as creamy white. By each cluster was a small label written in an elegant script, describing the different flavours, cherry, violet, caramel, apricot and orange. The very sight of them made his mouth water. He looked at the girl, and saw her long dark eye-lashes quiver, as she stared at the chocolate coated candy, as if trying to decide what to buy. He thought he would pre-empt her by purchasing some, then give them to her and ask her to have a drink with him.
Inside the shop he made a small selection, and waited impatiently whilst the ‘vendeuse,’ she was far too elegant to call a sales assistant, put them into a small oblong box of gold coloured cardboard. ‘Pour offrir, Monsieur?’ James kept glancing behind him, making sure the young woman was still outside. ‘Oui,’ he replied abstractedly. The vendeuse placed the box in transparent cellophane, tied it with a long strand of thin gold tape and handed it to James together with a few coins, the change from the ten euro note he had given her. As he turned to leave, the girl moved towards the door. He opened it and held it ajar to allow her to enter and for a moment they stood face to face, looking into each others eyes. He was about to speak when she moved to one side, folded the beach towel carefully, placed it on the ground against the wall, and sat down on it. The dog, which had been stood patiently by her side, flopped down next to her and placed it’s head on her bare knees, paws outstretched. From her bag she took a battered straw sunhat, which, instead of putting on her head, she placed on the ground in front of her. She was very still, leaning slightly against the wall, her long neck bent forward and her head bowed.
James stepped out onto the pavement and stopped next to her, his shadow falling across her face. She didn’t look up, but he could see her blue eyes had lost their liveliness and the pretty lips were turned down. One hand rested in her lap and the other was motionless on the dog’s head. Then he saw, in the hat, a piece of card with the words ‘Pour manger S.V.P.’ He closed his eyes for a moment, before bending down and placing the box of chocolates and the coins he was still holding into the upturned hat, before walking away.
Coincidences happen all the time, but how easy is it to make them convincing in a novel. A senior editor told me it was easier in a play or film because the viewer has less time to think than the reader. Would you find this convincing?
I have owned a small cottage in the South of France for twenty five years, and when we first bought it we wanted to have a roof terrace. Somewhere to eat and sit in the sun. We were advised to speak to a builder in the next village, a Monsieur Martin. He was described as a ‘Homme Serious’ meaning he was well respected. We went to see him at his home to discuss our proposal for the new terrace. He was sturdy, dark haired and spoke French with a strong Provencal accent. His wife was an attractive brunette, who moved swiftly around the large sitting room, fetching coffee and water for us, as we had walked from our cottage to their house and it was very hot. From time to time she translated his heavily accented French into a more standard version.
While we were in England the following winter, M. Martin did the work on our terrace, but when we asked him to do some more work he declined, saying he was building a school in a nearby town and would be occupied there for some time to come. In spite of living very near to us and in a village we visited frequently, we never saw him again.
Now we have sold the cottage and this summer was the last visit we would make with our dog, Rudi. Three days before we left Uzes, we took Rudi to the vets to have his worm treatment and his passport updated, for the return to the UK. The surgery was very busy and the waiting room was full of other people with their dogs. The only cat owner decided to stand outside rather than risk causing mayhem. In addition to us, their was a sophisticated woman in a blue and orange shift dress with her six month old brown labrador, a large Alsation who appeared to have a cough with his two equally large owners. Sitting at the far end of the row of seats from us, was an elderly couple with very old poodle. The dog was emaciated and unable to stand on all four legs.
When the vet came to call them into the consulting room, she said, ‘Monsieur Martin.’
‘I thought I recognised him,’ Alan said to me.
‘Are you sure,’ I said.
At first the man refused to go in, but his wife insisted. She lead the way towards the consulting room, with the poodle gamely following. M. Martin trailed behind her, his steps heavy and slow.
Some ten minutes later, we saw them emerge from the door at the rear of the building. M. Martin was carrying a plain brown box. There was no sign of the poodle.
We were called by the vet for our consultation. We got up and walked towards her office. Alan asked her if that was M. Martin from our village and she said it was. The dog had been so ill, there was no option but to end it’s life.
Is it a true story or not?
The last two weeks have been so fraught that I have been unable to think straight never-mind being able to write on my blog. The ten days spent in our little bit of France, a maison du village close to the super-cute town of Uzes in southern France ended on a sour note. The market in Uzes is an amazing experience- this is how people shopped before department stores. Stalls selling everything, clothes, shoes,table clothes, cooking utensils and of course food. At this time of year the cherries are in season. They are a speciality of the region, dark red burlat cherries, not too sweet but not too sour. We bought a large punnet of them along with other fruit and vegetables.
After we got home, we made coffee and went to sit in our small garden, which is across a narrow lane. As I drank my coffee, I struggled to read Le Figaro, while my husband read the Times on his Kindle. A few minutes later, two men walked into the garden. At first I thought they were kids acting the fool, and I said to them, in my best French, that the garden was private. The two men kept on coming towards us, and I then realised the one leading had a knife pointing at me. Before I could move, he was stood next to me with the knife at my throat. Without thinking, I pushed my chair back. This must have suprised the man because he let go and I was free to run from the garden screaming ‘Help, Help’ (my French had totally escaped), into the square, and then along the narrow street to the door of one neighbour, where I banged on the gate and rang the bell, and then to another where I knocked frantically on the window, making the dog bark, but no one came out. At some stage whilst I was doing this, I saw one of the men come out of our house carrying my handbag. He must have gone onto the kitchen door and run through the house to the front door, where he emerged into the same street. I continued to run towards the gite at the end of the street where I knew about six young men were staying, with visions of my husband being attacked by two men, when I realised the man with my handbag was running towards a blue Renault parked around the corner. I followed him and saw the registratioin number of the car, which I kept on repeating aloud (it was CC 108 LT, if you want to know) To my relief as I turned back into our street I saw my husband on his feet, I was afraid I would find him in a pool of blood, and on a neighbours telphone to the police. More of the locals arrived on the scene as we tried to deal with the police and make calls to cancel credit cards and have my mobile barred.
I have had my handbag snatched before, but being in real danger of harm was a very unnerving experience and I am still very shaken. Sometimes life is not a bowl of cherries.
Sometimes one needs to getaway from it all and we have the perfect bolthole. A small house on the edge of a village, but close to the magical town of Uzes. Sitting in the Place aux Herbes on a sunny afternoon, and it usually is sunny, with a glass of wine and indulging in some serious people watching is my idea of heaven. And it’s a great place to indulge the imagination with all the stories one can invent for the strangers you see. So no blogs for a couples of weeks as I will be without the internet, using pen and paper, being as unobtrusive as possible and just observing.