My guest today on A Literary World, is author and confirmed Francophile, Beth Haslam. I was honoured and excited when Beth agreed to do an interview with me as I am a great admirer, not only of her books, but her passion and sparkle for all things French. She is both a raconteur and has a great eye for photography, as you will see here. If any of you have ever thought about buying a place in France – and I know many of my friends have, including myself – and you want to know what life would be like, then read on. You are in for a treat. So without more ado, kick off your shoes, relax with a glass of wine, and let Beth transport you into life in France.
Welcome to A Literary World, Beth, we are delighted to have you with us.
It’s such a treat to have this chat, Kathryn, thanks very much for setting things up so nicely for me.
1. What made you move to France?
Semi-retirement was beckoning so Jack, my husband, and I decided to buy a second home. I’m a passionate nature lover and for years had romanticised about observing wildlife and pottering about with the dogs on our own land. Jack, a mechanical engineer, did not share these thoughts at all. However, as an obsessive maker and mender of innumerable, generally oily things, a chunk of land suited him well too.
As country folk intending to spend much of our time outdoors, a decent climate was important. We quickly ruled out the UK, because of our unreliable weather and the comparatively high cost of land. Europe was the answer.
France, which suited our modest language skills, also ticked the majority of our other boxes. Accessible, sound bureaucratic infrastructure, southern locations with great weather, and the happy discovery that property and land prices were much lower than the UK. 2. When did you decide to become an author?
I’d love to say something frightfully grand like it was a calling. Sadly that’s not the case. It was an accident really, in the main due to our domaine (estate) hunting adventures. They proved to be so extraordinary that one day Jack remarked: “D’you know, you should write a book about this.” So I did. I thoroughly enjoyed telling our stories and found, to my delight, that others enjoyed reading them. The series has developed as a consequence of our continued escapades.
3. Can you tell us what your books are about?
They recount our country estate-buying endeavours in France and our lives here as we have settled in. The first bit sounds easy doesn’t it? My painstaking property research implied that it should have been a simple enough undertaking to accomplish. It wasn’t.
Jack and I, along with our two fat dogs, set off to view several domaines over three weeks. Why bring the dogs? My idea. It didn’t go down well with my husband, who has the patience of a gnat and therefore becomes easily irritated. Nevertheless, I had special reasons.
At the time we thought it would be a tame, semi-holiday, you know, pop into a lovely old homestead to see if it clicked with us before driving off to the next. The reality couldn’t have been more different.
Natural disasters, near-death experiences on crumbling roads, dog catastrophes, eccentric aristocrats, mix-ups with the Cathars and a dead car. You name it, it was chucked at us. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Our final buying decision arose out of another mishap. It turned into a perfect example of serendipity.
We eventually bought and embarked on a project that has changed our lives. Our exploits continue today as does the series.
In some ways, my books are a story of our gradually developing love affair with France and her people. It burgeons with each month, each year that passes. Moving here is the best thing we have ever done. 4. I noticed you have a keen eye for photography, whether it be the French countryside, architecture, or your animals. Were you always interested in photography?
You are very kind. Sadly I do not possess any technical prowess, I am, however, an inveterate snapper. As someone who adores wildlife and plants, come rain or shine I’m out there every day with the dogs recording our rambles with photos. They are nothing special, just snapshots of the simple wonders that surround us. Sharing some via social media is a lovely way to reach folks in far-flung corners of the world.
5. One of your passions is growing your own produce. What do you grow? Have you expanded into areas you never imagined, and has it been easy to do this?
Thank you so much for mentioning my beloved veggie patch! My first forays ended with mixed fortunes.
Our soil is clay based. The summers and autumns here are generally hot and dry. This transforms the earth from boot-clinging claggy mud in the winter to a concrete-hard substance better suited for hard court tennis players as the year progresses.
I found that crops such as plump peas, slender haricot beans and pretty much anything that fruits above the ground were a joy to grow and gather. The root crops were a different matter altogether.
Come harvesting time, with trowel in hand I stared lovingly at my magnificent chubby-topped carrots, parsnips, radishes and turnips. Every one a beauty. All set solid in the ground.
I hacked around the edges with my armoury of garden tools to no avail, reducing my crops to a collection of battered has-beens with chipped edges. Temporarily thwarted, there have been no more forays into root planting for me since. I’ll have another go one day using homemade raised tubs instead.
My current above-ground varieties comprise the usual ‘greens’ and salad veggies. Garlic too, of course, it’s a must-grow crop here. These, together with a goodly variety of citrus and other fruits, are contributing towards my heady goals for self-sufficiency.
6. Most of us associate France with good food and wine, my readers would never forgive me if we didn’t talk about this. Can you tell us what are your favourite dishes?
We live in a region that used to be called Midi-Pyrénées (now Occitanie). It’s a rural area famed for excellent food, also the longevity of its inhabitants, although having seen the vast quantities of foie gras and cheese consumed here I sometimes wonder why.
We regularly dine at friend’s homes where we get treated to regional favourites. One of the most memorable was the first invitation we received to supper with a revered fruit grower and his wife (their home is shown in the photo below). Both in their eighties, they’re a charming couple. It was madame’s first go at entertaining l’anglais, and she evidently decided to add a touch of internationalism to the canapés.
It was quite dark in the farmhouse kitchen, so identification was difficult when madame plonked a mountain of meat in front of us. As we dutifully cooed at it, I suddenly realised what we were looking at. It was a great big pile of Spam.
In spite of being a die-hard carnivore, if there’s a foodstuff Jack really dislikes, I’m afraid it’s Spam. He complains that it’s full of unidentifiable substances and should have been phased out when ration books were dispensed with. I glanced at him, hoping he hadn’t realised what he was looking at, equally hoping the gin and several glasses of wine already imbibed might have mellowed his attitude towards this reconstituted luncheon meat.
Madame glowed with pride at her pink pile. Monsieur said she had hunted high and low for the one dish she’d been told was a particular fave amongst all English people. It was such a thoughtful gesture, we just couldn’t let her down. The plate was ceremoniously pushed towards us. Our hosts watched, refusing to partake themselves, plainly thrilled at the thought of pleasing their guests with such a treasure.
Satisfied they had achieved their aim, it was monsieur’s turn to inject another wow-factor with his production of the main course. A dish that originated from Gascony, out came a large casserole dish full of what appeared to be grease. I was fascinated, poor Jack, still recovering from his Spam overdose, was horrified.
Monsieur said it was his home produced confit de canard, a traditional preparation method popular before the days of refrigeration. He had slaughtered several ducks at the end of summer and then salted, cooked and stored them in fat to preserve throughout the winter. “Erm…so, this makes the dish around six months old?” asked Jack, tentatively. “Ah oui!” came the triumphant reply.
Spooning large portions on each of our plates, monsieur assured us the meat would be tender as the fat had continued the chemical process of enhancing both the flavour and texture of the meat. And he was right. It was absolutely delicious, even Jack enjoyed it. I later learned the word confit is the past participle of the French verb, to preserve. That made sense.
Another French couple we know well are from the north. It was Andrée (featured in the photo here) who introduced us to the amazing Flamiche au maroilles, a cheesy wonder on a pastry base originating from le Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It can be served as a canapé, light supper accompanied by a green salad or whenever you fancy a savoury snack. I loved it so much I inveigled my friend into allowing me to write a blog about her prowess with the dish. Here’s the link.
The French are famous for eating most body parts. Nothing much gets wasted here. A favourite in our area is gizzards. Generally duck or goose, our lot are apt to sneak them into as many dishes as possible.
Gizzards are not a foodstuff I would go out of my way to choose. That said, after my first experience of eating Salade Landaise at a restaurant, I’ve become a covert fan. My proficiency with the language was still very poor at this stage, and I gaily assumed gésiers was an interesting word for a salad vegetable. Not so. I quickly discovered that landaise salad is a mix of lettuce, sweetcorn, tomatoes, pine kernels and a curiously unidentifiable selection of warm objects.
I munched my way through with relish before asking about the ingredients. I confess I was surprised to learn that the wrinkly bits were gizzards. Morsels of Bayonne ham and lardons, bacon pieces, had also been used. It was excellent.
A stalwart in our parts is French onion soup. The best I have ever tasted was in a super little restaurant I dined at with my sister in our principal department city, Montauban.
The proprietor directed us to a table lit with a cute chintz lamp. We settled down and listened to our three menu choices. Everything was homemade here, she said, describing each. I had no idea which of the mouth-watering options to go for, in the end plumping for onion soup, side salad and ham-filled croissant. We both did.
What an inspired choice!
Mammoth portions soon arrived. Everything was a taste sensation, especially the chunky soup. Smoked, caramelised onions in a broth laced with white wine and Cognac, the melted, toasted cheese topping made it a culinary triumph. Each mouthful yielded comfort – just the job on a nippy day.
Two other foodstuffs the French here are mostly crazy about are mushrooms and cheese. They tend to get picky about precise varieties, though. Aficionados of anything that grows attached or close to a tree, where fungi are concerned, our locals particularly adore cèpes, girolles, chanterelles and trompette de la mort (trumpet of the dead, a blackish mushroom which looks as ghastly as it sounds).
As for cheese, no main meal is complete without a revered goût (taste). Restaurant trolleys heave under the strain of multiple varieties presented after the main course has been consumed. Soft cheeses, hard, blue-veined (Roquefort, of course), extremely smelly, there are far too many to name. But they are all deeply loved. My favourite is Saint Agur, a mellow blue cheese produced in the Auvergne with a winning combination of buttery, salty, sharp flavours.
7. Favourite French wine?
I confess I have three.
I do enjoy rosé. It is light, adaptable and a perfect aperitif. My favourite is local to us. The Gaillac rosé is produced in the wine region of Toulouse, south-west France.
As for whites, we are undoubtedly spoiled with many fine varieties. Among my favourites is the French crisp Pinot Gris. Thought to be a mutation of the red grape Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris’ skins are not green like other white grapes, but instead have a greyish blue hue, which gives them their name.
For the more sophisticated palate, I think it’s hard to beat Chablis, an excellent dry wine renowned for the purity of its aroma and taste. Chablis provides the perfect accompaniment to fish and light meat dishes or just on its own, chilled and sipped gently on a sunny evening.
As for reds, my absolute favourite is Chateauneuf du Pape. The first vines were planted by the ancient Romans in the Southern Rhone Valley. Chateauneuf du Pape (The Pope’s New Castle) takes its name from the period when the Pope moved to Avignon in 1309. It is indeed a noble wine.
8. Favourite French movie?
Amélie, a very famous movie about a young waitress in a Montmartre bar. Struggling with her own isolation, she spends her time observing people and letting her imagination wander. She has set a goal: to do good to those around her. The path of Amélie is coloured by encounters with quirky characters including Georgette, the hypochondriac tobacconist and Lucien, the grocery clerk. It is sensitive and wonderfully entertaining.
9. Favourite French music?
I have an eclectic taste in music. As an early music singer and therefore Baroque lover, I’m naturally drawn to composers such as Charles Gounod. Johnny Hallyday yodels out of my radio most days as does Charles Aznavour, both still national heroes. But there is one particular type of music I’m drawn to. In our part of the country, no fête is complete, no spectacle is ended without it, and summer markets reverberate with it. It is those cheery strains of an accordion. It is quintessentially French, and I can’t help but love it.
10. What advice would you give to others who want to buy a house in France and have a lifestyle change?
As a couple of business people we thought we had everything nicely buttoned-up, you know, organised. We had no idea how different things would turn out to be. I would say, be brave and follow your dreams, but have a plan. Be flexible and expect the unexpected.
Try your best to learn the language and immerse yourself in the culture. Surround yourself with locals and celebrate their local customs. Before long they’ll become part of yours too. Your life will become enriched, and you’ll end up firm friends with utterly delightful people.
11. What’s next for you?
I am dying to start work on the next episode in our French adventures. I’ll need to adopt a pretty disciplined approach, though, as this year will be busy as usual. The privilege of owning a sizable domaine brings with it daily responsibilities to the buildings, land and animals we share it with.
We will also continue our Reeve’s pheasant breeding programme. Watching those magnificent cock birds with their ridiculously long tails strut their stuff among the wild boar and deer gives us enormous pleasure.
When I find a millisecond, I’m determined to visit three fabulous villages. Rocamadour in the Lot, Dordogne, Bruniquel in our home department of Tarn-et-Garonne and Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn. I am also waiting for one of my history-loving pals to come and stay. She’ll be my perfect excuse for a return visit to one of my favourite places on earth, Carcassonne in Languedoc.
Here are tourist links for you to enjoy and what I hope to experience soon.
So, yes, it’s going to be another action-packed year, another where I’m sure there won’t be a dull moment. That’s life here in rural France, and I love it.
Thanks again so much for having me on your blog, Kathryn. It’s been an honour and a pleasure to spend time with you.
Thank you for sharing so much of your life with us, Beth. I also share a love of the same wines and accordion music – so much so that both are mentioned in my WWII novel Conspiracy of Lies. Claire Bouchard enjoyed Bal Musette and she was also a connoisseur of French wine – La belle vie. The links for Beth’s books.
I would also like to give a special mention to Susan Allen, Owner and Editor in Chief of The English Informer Group, (Do check it out, fellow Francophiles. You will be well rewarded.)
Susan very kindly featured an earlier interview I did for Beth’s blog. Thank you Susan. www.theenglishinformer.com