I am not known as a francophile, quite the opposite in fact I think I have just got plain bored and irritated with all the éclat that Frenchness is supposed to imply simply by association; as though you become a more sophisticated, attractive, intelligent person because you consume French food, wine, culture. And heavens, what delights await you if you speak French even passingly well; friends are drop-dead impressed, your boss marks you for that promotion, and you can order at French restaurants over here without sounding like a total prat.


Eating with friends who regularly visit France and you get to hear things like darling, shall we open just one more bottle from our favourite cave? Your host then looks round at the assembled group with an expression of triumph mingled with the mystical secrets of the holy grail, and you know you are about to be given a glimpse into that most exclusive of worlds - The French Insider Knowledge. This is enough to have me reaching for my glass of Newcastle brown ale and tucking into a plate of trips and onions, if only metaphorically speaking.


Other friends who own property in France and who you would normally reckon on being above such obvious displays of posy oneupmanship, will positively fall over themselves to out-do each other with who's eaten the best confits, truffles, foie-gras etc., who's renovated the most authentic peasants hut, got the most stunning view, vineyard, olive grove et al. Casually peppering your conversations with these snippets like some émigré, and just hinting that its all second nature to you after all, certainly seems to have become de rigeur in certain circles. If only in the hope that the person listening will think gosh, what an interesting sophisticated attractive person etc., and make a mental note that it's about time they holidayed in France. Pah. Stuff and nonsense. Give me the Lake District any day.


It seems to me that everybody wants to own their own exclusive version of France, that can be nicely salted away until that drinks party. Just the place to trot out that real old canard; that wonderful little restaurant you found up some mountain track... can't quite remember where, superb trad peasant food... local produce... charming maître d.... 50FF... wine out of this world but sooo cheap..., [Key words to remember here are ambience, tranquillity, and authentic].


I suspect the reality, not that were going to admit it, is that knowledge of this kind is hard won from hours spent traipsing round dusty towns and vineyards, with your kids in tow and a grubby Collins midget French dictionary in your anorak pocket. I can almost hear it now. "Do stop winging Benji - were finding the Real France"..


So this brings us to a bit of a paradox; how do you let the right people know that you are unquestionably in the know, while not letting them know too much of what you know. [After all, you don't know that much really, but you know that it's important to give the impression that you do].


So it is an immense surprise for this fully seasoned cynic to be sitting here in France this morning, looking out onto the Pyrenées, and lazing around in the warmth and peace after the best breakfast ever, I swear. I wasn't prepared for it to be this good, and I can feel all that harumph and humbug give-me-the-lake-district stuff beginning to evaporate somewhat. But this does have even more the feeling of a culture shock after the journey down here. Arriving here in the dark, you know the kind of thing, long journey, nothing to eat since those peanuts on the plane, unfamiliar car, reading the map by your lighter, hairpin bends and uncertain fuel situation and all that yippee holiday stuff goes right out at the window. By this time, you and your caro spouso are white and tight-lipped, privately loathing each other, and who was it that suggested a holiday in the first place. You find your holiday house, grope around for unfamiliar light switches and flop uncaring and exhausted into bed.


Waking up in a different country still makes me idiotically excited, and I found myself up with the larks this morning [these look more like swallows, though] and running around this house like a kid finding Christmas in every room. The first and best present of the day was opening the dark shutters of our room and stepping out onto the balcony. It was like suddenly finding myself in some wonderful film; but I could only gape - not bad for a cynic - and struggle to absorb the sheer beauty of what was in front of me.


Striking the eyes first is a vertiginously rising limestone cliff just over the valley with its fragments of castle, then looking beyond are the forests and forests, the pale blue hazes of monumental mountains, and a sky that already promises heat, with swifts and swallows scooping through the air with the occasional bee; but it seems to be the warm quiet that hangs around this place that you continue to notice long after you have acclimatised to the view.


Aching hunger finally broke through our lyrical appreciation of this landscape, and we became utterly possessed in the pursuit of something to eat. Carefully estimating the fuel situation, and gambling on finding anywhere open on a Sunday morning, we gingerly re-negotiated those buttockclenching hairpin bends in daylight this time, down to the nearest village. And success! Bakers and grocers both open. In our state, crisps and coke would have been great, but boy, what a bakers and what a grocers. In the bakers first. Almost weeping with joy, we gawped at the shelves and shelves of fresh bread. What sort did we want? Fat stubby ones with pointy bits, long thin flutes, round and flat with seeds, knots, and croissants, nut biscuits, and just look at those cakes... 10 minutes later and two carrier bags full, it was time to find the grocers. We finally found it over in a corner of the small sunny square. The low awning shaded large shallow baskets of fine white peaches, plump apricots, local grapes, and tiny mirabelle greengages; a pyramid of avocados, small pink potatoes, fat fists of stripy garlic, cherry tomatoes still on the vine and bunches of damp herbs. Practically beside ourselves by now, we staggered inside with our arms already full, only to be assaulted by thickly crusted cheeses with melty centres, tubs of fresh olives, arabica coffee, Rosé wine, charcuterie and fresh meat that gets all the old juices running... We have bought hungrily and lavishly, but also with sheer, unadulterated delight.


Just 20 Gaulouses from the Tabac opposite, and bingo; breakfast in the bag.


Carting our glorious hoard back to where we are going to call home for a week, and spreading it out on our sunny breakfast table makes it look like an advert for holidays in France. Hunger sharpens all the senses as well as the appetite, and it is, without doubt, our first and best feast.


All this has left me quietly musing about France, and the attraction it has for so many people. I wouldn't presume to know exactly what that is, particularly on so slight an acquaintance, but I can begin to see just how the combination of good simple food, wine and warmth might lift the spirits of even our poor, pale, migrant souls. The spectre of Sainsburys on a wet Monday is beginning to fade nicely. Well, I'm off to do nothing more demanding than soak up some sun on our roof balcony and read. Oh, and darling, shall we open another bottle of wine from our favourite cave?



Autumn 2000



Claire Miles

Hitchin, Herts.



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