Tag: France

Freak storm or freak planning?

I spoke to my father this morning who lives on the outskirts of Toulon in the Var to hear his take on the freak storms that happened a couple of days ago in the South of France. He was the last person to be able to use the D29 before they closed it. Twenty people have died and another dozen are still reported missing. The Nationale 7 is still closed. Trains are still unable to travel. There are still some 1,000 people in St Tropez with no electricity. I cannot believe I am talking about home.

My first thought when I read about this yesterday was how dreadful that this disaster happened not only in my country but so near to my home. I feel devastated for the people who have lost a member of their family. I know about these freak storms. Some twenty years ago, I was caught on the motorway in a similar one and just had to stop the car. I could not see any further than the middle of the bonnet of my car.

I asked my father if this one was worse than normal. It was a particularly vicious storm. Nevertheless, I have to wonder had this dreadful freak of nature happened only twenty five years ago, would the outcome been the same?

When I left the Var twenty years ago, there were still green spaces in between houses and buildings, we had supermarkets rather city like shopping affairs with warehouse type shops that sell everything and anything. Our flood plains have been filled by concrete and tarmac. Our towns have grown so much I cannot recognise them when I go back.

I am no scientist nor planner. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Having said that, where is water going to go when the proportion between concrete, tarmac and tiled gardens has outweighed fields and gardens? It stands to reason that motorways will become torrents. If water cannot go down into the ground, it will follow whatever it falls on to the next available bit of earth. In some of our towns, it’s a long way away.

I do hope other countries learn from that and that my compatriots’ lives have not been lost in vain.

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A pinch of art and a large dose of love

“Cuisine is a few grams of passion, a spoonful of technique, a pinch of art and a large dose of love”

When chef Eric Bendel wrote this, he clearly meant it. His restaurant is in the middle of nowhere, well actually right bang in the middle of France in Bruères-Allichamp. We were driving South and found that all the hotels in Bourges were full. A short drive on an empty route départementale and we were grateful to find a small hotel along the Cher river. Les Tilleuls isn’t the prettiest of hotels, rather a long 60’s wooden affair.

No credit card or passport were asked, what a delight and oh so rare these days. Our rooms were clean and comfortable although sound proofing is probably not high on the list. The big surprise came when we sat down for dinner. The menu is a short list of about nine items that change fortnightly and you choose how many you want. Children just get smaller portions, no fish and chips to be found anywhere.

When I read Eric’s poem I figured we should be in for a treat. When I read the menu, it was definitely an artist talking. Proof was definitely not just in the pudding. It started with not one ‘mise en bouche’ but two: three verrines each of cress, celery and cucumber gazpachos followed by crayfish with a courgette soup topped with herring caviar, all beautifully presented.

It’s one of those menus some people find pompous. Verrines are pretty little glasses filled with soups or layered puddings. Gaspacho is after all a cold soup. Yes it’s nouvelle cuisine if that means a pleasure for the eye and yes there were foamy additions to perfectly balanced plates. Last time I had a meal that made me feel like a child again was when I ate at Les Ambassadeurs, the Crillon’s restaurant in Paris. Proper posh with a stool for my handbag. Jean-François Piège was in the kitchen, I was scribbling notes for a magazine. This time, I was with my family, paying my way. Seeing my children get all excited by beautifully presented plates and happily discover new tastes was a joy.

Laure has done a great job decorating the restaurant, husband Eric clearly cares passionately about his work, attention to detail is faultless; although I must admit there were only two tables that night, being mid-week and off holiday. At around £60 per person for four properly crafted courses including nice wine, aperitifs and digestifs, we got an evening that we will remember for a long time. The joy of the unexpected, the subtlety of tastes, the fun of new discoveries; the love did show.

Some call it professionalism. That’s not enough. The passion has to be translated to provide a memorable experience.

I can still taste the mini pistachio rice pudding with strawberry cream and poppy mousse.

Thank you Bourges for being full that day.

Hotel restaurant Les Tilleuls

Pay as you book, check-in and board: travel Ryanair

The best joke I’ve heard in ages is this bloke serves a beer to Ryanair’s boss “That’ll be £1″. Seems cheap hmm??” Well, if you want that in a glass it will be £2.00.

Now you can add a third caveat. “Si tu veux que je te la donne maintenant, ça va te couter une livre de plus”. Oh you don’t understand, well I am sorry, I thought everybody spoke French. Oh no, I forgot the world has changed and everybody speaks English now. Or so does Ryanair’s boss O’Leary thinks.

My Dad gets this email in English a few days before travelling between Toulon and Bristol:

“IF YOU MADE YOUR RESERVATION ON OR AFTER THE 21ST MAY 2009 YOU MUST CHECK-IN ONLINE AND PRINT YOUR BOARDING PASS FOR PRESENTATION AT BOTH AIRPORT SECURITY AND AT THE BOARDING GATE. PLEASE NOTE THAT AIRPORT CHECK-IN IS ONLY AVAILABLE TO PASSENGERS WHO BOOKED BEFORE THE 21ST MAY 2009 AND PAID FOR THIS SERVICE”

So, not only is this in English but it says that if you want to check in you need to pay extra. How are you going to travel if you don’t check in? Was this made clear to the client when he booked? I think not.

The old man paid, travelled with them as I was waiting at the other end but refuses to travel with them again. Can’t blame him.

How do they get away with it? I know that they’re cheap but they have a website that still does not give you a full price until you’re almost at the end of the booking process, they undoubtedly pay their staff a pitance -considering their sorry faces- and now they charge you extra when you turn up at the airport. How much longer do we keep giving our hard earned cash to companies like that?

British food

I thought I’d translate my previous post or at least give the British who don’t speak French (that will be most of you then?) a chance to read what I think about your food. Since I’m French you must be interested. We do food so much better than you… Or do we, still?

Bridport was voted the best town in Dorset for local food by ‘the Taste of Dorset’. This reminded me that when I went to France this year, I noticed that although the word ‘provenance’ comes from the french language we don’t seem to use it very much in restaurants and even shops. I have become far more aware of where my food comes from since living here in Dorset. We stopped at a run-of-the-mill steak and chips restaurant on our journey back from the South of France this Summer and the steak provenance was: France or Europe. Mmmm, that’s specific, no South American or Russian cow there then. Goodness knows where the spuds came from? I didn’t ask. Steak was nice though.

I remember interviewing Chef Jean-François Piège from the Ambassadeur restaurant in Paris (2 Michelin stars) three years ago. His main concern was getting the best rather than worry too much about where it came from. Now that figures when the smallest menu is at €70 and they do tell you where your meat comes from -or your caviar for that matter. In fairness if you check their menu, most of the produce is french anyway. But if you can’t get it in France, then Piège wants to know that he can get it onto your plate anyway. It’s a question of choice, n’est ce pas?

So, I’d say you can be proud of what you British have achieved in the world of food in the last twenty years. You are more aware, more discerning and Dorset is certainly a fantastic place to be when you are a gourmet. Just don’t settle for that MacDo (as French call it) or drink a Starbuck (they’re trying to invade the South of France now that Paris has taken the bait) and you’ll be more foodie than a lot of Frenchies.

Incroyable but true…

La Grande-Provence?

Imagine an area where there is sunshine, warm seas, hills covered with vineyards, olive trees, the third largest city in the country (or is it the second?), the tallest mountains on the continent, sandy beaches, the only under water National Park in the country, the birthplace of real rosé wine, Roman theatres, world famous festivals… Courchevel, St Tropez, Cannes, the promenade des Anglais, the Count of Monte Cristo, the Mont Blanc:

Yep you’ve got it, that’s the South of France. Thing is though, which South? You see the region has so much to offer that they are now struggling to find a name for themselves.

Provence Alpes Cote d’Azur makes ‘PACA’ in French. Whilst most French people will know what PACA means by now, nobody else does and if it’s no good in English then it’s no good in business. And business in the Sud Est is tourism. What a quandary.

Problem is, the South West has already taken the ‘Sud de France’ name. Beaten at the post by the newcomers. It makes no grammatical sense in French but sure works for the English speaking clientele surfing the net. To my mind “Le Sud” is the South East. Probably because I come from there so I’m definitely biased… Possibly because historically that south was the holiday south, until they took the tourists for granted and started getting competition. I hate to admit.

So now the Beautiful and Bountiful South is fighting back. Finally. Why not Le Sud? Tout simplement… The domain name has been snapped up.

Mmm, why change at all? So taxpayers money can be spent on marketing a new name that will inevitably make a third of the region angry at the choice: Provençaux, Alpins or Azuréens? I’m a Varoise, so none of the above, therefore I don’t care. I’d love to design the new logo though, should be good fun!

I read they’re thinking of Grande-Provence. I’d love it now I live in Grande-Bretagne!

Fool’s Well

Hundreds of big yellow plastic capes with ‘Le Puy du Fou’ written on the back is one memory I am not about to forget. The Fool’s Well, as it would translate, is best visited when the sun is shining. ‘Le Grand Parc’ is indeed a very large park where in one day, you are taken from the Middle Ages to the 19th century through plays and amazing stages. As luck would have it, we chose to go on an ‘orange alert day’ when, unbeknown to us until later, the weather forecast from meteo France recommended we should stay indoors. Luckily, you can buy large plastic yellow tents with a hood that cover your whole body and keep you reasonably dry. You can also buy baseball caps to keep the sun out of your eyes on sunny days.

The yellow capes gather on the seats around the Well and a narrator appears, telling us the story of the Puy du Fou. There used to be a castle where we are now seated with a beautiful young dame.  To our right, a mount opens and from a cloud of smoke a woman appears, on a bed. She wonders where her castle is, where her birds have gone. As the story unfolds, birds of prey appear. Falcons fly low over our heads, vultures shake their feathers and seem to say: “So, what we gonna do now” as if they came straight out of Disney’s Jungle book. The bird keepers do an amazing job of keeping their birds under control. The play lasts over 30 minutes but even soaked -and getting wetter still- we were left wanting for more, thankful the birds did not mind the rain.

In normal circumstances, this is the time when I head home for a dry heated room. But this display has proved that this is no ordinary place. The next show is only 15 minutes away, we have to see what the Vikings have to offer. The stage is bigger, there are around 20 actors around a lake. The yellow capes laugh as a huge black cloud opens up, a few capes give up, most are enthralled and stay put. A viking boat has appeared from under the water. Are these still figures, swords in hand, real people? I won’t tell you, I hate it when all the surprises are spoilt.

The Roman arena at Puy-du-Fou
The Roman arena at Puy-du-Fou

Next stop, a huge arena. The yellow capes, probably keen to warm up, perform a football-like wave (arms up, stand up, pass it on to your right and start again). Another feast with gladiators, lions, tigers and much participation from the crowd. Later, the Battle of the Dungeon tickled my fancy mainly because the baddies were English. The children loved the narrator, dressed as a Fou (clown).

5.30 finally arrives, time for the Musqueteers. Am I glad I waited for this? Well, I have never seen anything quite like this before. More smoke, water and lights are used to amazing effects. Spanish dancers and horses perform a perfectly synchronised show that make 40 minutes go like a flash. The rest of the day was not just spent going from one show to the next. We arrived in a 1900’s town centre (BOURG) complete with bakery, sweet and toy shops, we passed the 18th century village with its potter, ironmonger and post office and walked through the medieval city. But we still did not manage to do everything. My children want to come back as they have noticed there is a separate entrance with yet another castle. It is bigger still than any impressive display we have seen today and is only open in Summer. It is Cinescenie, claiming the biggest stage in the world with extravangant technical effects and over 1,000 actors. I am under strict instructions that we have to come back in the Summer. I’ll wear jumpers and winter coat just in case, but I’ll be there.

Le Puy-du-Fou, Vendée, Western France

http://www.puydufou.com/uk/