I have vague memories of holidaying in France with my family when I was three years old. I’m not sure if they are real memories or just memories of photographs and stories as recounted by my parents. On the long drive there my brothers and I sang “Saint Jean Trolimon” over and over again in the back seat of the car, driving my parents to distraction.
We stayed in a huge whitewashed Gite with Monsieur Le Bon and his family. We ate a gigantic dish of cockles and mussels which we had collected ourselves from the rocks. We basked in the simple country life, shared meals at a weathered wooden table, where even the older kids drank a small glass of wine with dinner. My cousin and I played in the sand on the local beach as our mums sunbathed topless. In my mind it was bliss.
When I was thirteen I went on a French exchange. I enjoyed and was good at French, my Dad had taught me a few words and phrases as a child. I still love the language. I was an awkward new teen, just finding myself, I wore braces on my teeth, dyed my hair auburn with a triangular Harmony box dye, and wore high-waisted jeans and awful brown cowboy boots from Kays Catalogue. I was a huge fan of Bon Jovi and was starting to get into the ‘heavier’ stuff like Guns n Roses.
On that trip I started wearing a bandana on my head. I w
as deeply uncool, a source of bemusement for the popular small town kids with identical Naf Naf sweaters. But for some reason on that trip a few of the older kids started to copy my ‘style’. By the end of it half the school was wearing a bandana which they picked up from the French markets. Despite my status as an unlikely style icon I was hugely uncomfortable in myself. I felt I had nothing in common with the other kids. I was an outsider, by choice. Insular, listening to music on my Walkman on the coach, feeling not quite there. I don’t have too many lasting memories of that trip but one experience that I have never forgotten was the taste of a freshly baked and still warm croissant from a patisserie in Paris. It was life changing.
France is synonymous with good food, great food, some say the best food in the world. Me, I’m all about food, and France has been on my travel wish-list ever since that glorious croissant in 1993. I wanted to go back to the countryside and eat lots of good food and drink lots of good wine. When I discovered the opportunity of house
sitting as a means to travel I saw that there were many options in France. I was spoilt for choice, but fortune landed us in the medieval commune of Tremolat in the South West, by the Dordogne river.
I knew nothing about Tremolat, I’d heard of the Dordogne and I knew that the nearest big city Bordeaux was famous for great wine, when I was told that there was a Michelin starred restaurant two minutes away from the house we’d be living in I was sold. My laughable ideals of sticking to a minimal food budget went out of the window. I’d save money on other things. I noted with glee that Giz and I would be celebrating our fifteen year anniversary a few days after our planned arrival. I booked the flights and booked a table.
The Perigord region, as it is known, is rich with luxurious local delicacies. It seemed half of every menu was made up of duck dishes, particularly that infamous French speciality Fois Gras, which was ubiquitous, even casually piled up in the local supermarket.
I ate a salad as part of the ‘formule de midi’ in a tiny bistro at the top of the beautiful town of Limeuil which featured chewy slivers of pink meat (gesiers) I didn’t know the English translation of, later googling informed me they were gizzards. Other delightful fruits of the region included the inimitable, earthy and eye-wateringly expensive fresh truffles, and walnuts (which we saw growing on trees on our long walks with the dogs) in the form of liqueur and a delicious traditional cake-like tart. We frequented local markets and bought stinky local cheeses and succulent salamis, flavoured with nuts and blackberries. We greedily requested piles of juicy peaches, tomatoes, plums and grapes in broken GSCE French. We picked up chewy, sourdough ‘pain de campagne’ from the local boulangerie and enjoyed alfresco lunches in the sunshine by the pool.
In the ten days we spent lazing around the Dordogne we gorged ourselves with glee and felt no guilt. We settled smoothly into the laid-back lifestyle, walking the banks of the river with the dogs, spotting snakes, frogs and even a swimming Wild boar. We had a beautifully lazy day kayaking in the sunshine, stopping every so often to enjoy the deafening silence so far from the frenetic city we had let behind. We wandered around quaint medieval villages, markets and castles and agreed that we could get used to this way of life. And of course we ate at La Vieux Logis, the one with the Michelin star, and all of it: the charming service, the local wine, the vast array of cheese and ohhhh the procession of beautifully cooked, impeccably presented dishes from tartare de veau to tarte aux abricots was sensational.
France was exactly how I hoped it would be, fervent crops, verdant countryside: the simple life. A friendly ‘Bonjour’ from everyone we passed on the morning walk. An abundance of great food, made without too much fuss using plenty of local produce. We’re dreaming about going back for a longer trip, maybe getting a vehicle and visiting for a month or two, checking out different parts of the country. We didn’t know what to expect when we randomly chose (or were chosen for) a visit to Tremolat, and we got very lucky, who knows what other joys we might find. Next time though, we’ll bring a guitar.
Currently reading – Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis
Title lyric adapted from “Tease me” by Chaka Demus and Pliers