Murray Chalmers regularly writes columns for The Courier’s food and drink magazine, The Menu. Here he looks back on his culinary adventures in France…
In case there isn’t enough change in life right now, I’ve just sold my share of the house in France that I’ve co-owned for the last 10 years.
This happened on the same day as one of the many deadlines that Boris Johnson and the EU set themselves for agreeing a deal so, with one eye on the television and another on my bank account, my head was constantly spinning with thoughts of Brexit, the Euro exchange rate and my own particular exit from a country I love, and the 10-year relationship that had led me there.
France was a revelation to me for many reasons.
For one thing it forced me to live a slower life and I have to admit that felt good. For the many years that I commuted weekly between France and London (Ryanair was like a bus to me and Stansted was the shelter) I found that I started to feel more a Monsieur than a Mr.
An hour after arriving in France on a Friday, I’d have a glass of chilled rosé in my hand, the sun on my back and something wonderful cooking in the oven.
I loved it because, while it’s reductive to generalise about nations, I’m a confirmed Francophile. I love the French, I adored being in France and I spent a lot of time and energy trying to somehow become French.
Rolls-Royce of cookers
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the food that I bought every day and the kitchen kit that I cooked it on.
One of the first things we bought when we put in a new kitchen was a Lacanche stove which is known as the Rolls-Royce of cookers – and I have to say that it gave me as much joy as a Roller would give a vintage car freak.
I loved our cooker so much that when I was negotiating selling my share of the house to my ex-partner I felt like listing the cooker as a dependant just so I could keep it.
It could easily have become a Kramer vs Kramer situation, with an inanimate object at the heart of the battle. All that stopped this was the sheer terror of thinking how to dismantle this behemoth and ship it to Scotland, because I don’t think Ryanair’s excess baggage policy would extend to something which was almost as heavy as the plane.
Series of pipes
The odd thing about the cooker is that it looked like something only a very serious cook would use and yet it was precariously connected to two gas canisters in our mill-house over the river.
The connection was a series of pipes which went from our kitchen, across the garden, over the bridge that crossed the river Lède running through the grounds, through a forest of bamboo and then into the rather ramshackle mill house.
This could hardly be less secure and we quickly learned always to have a spare canister of gas available for emergencies, because it was difficult to gauge when the gas would run out.
When this did happen in the middle of cooking the Christmas turkey one year I started wondering if a pack of microwaveable lentils could ever replicate a roast, until I remembered with relief that the second oven was electric.
Buying food in France is such a joyful experience that it can never be thought of as a chore.
Everyone has allegiance to a particular supermarket chain, much the same as we do in the UK. I was a Leclerc man and – although it was quite a drive from our rural idyll – I would often go there to buy something that I could have just as easily bought in the shop in the next village.
It wouldn’t be unusual to drive miles to buy some onions and bread and come back with a set of saucepans, a cherry stoner, an old- fashioned food mill and enough wonderful sel de Guerande to salinate our swimming pool as well as our pasta water.
Supermarkets in France differ from ours in so many ways, not least that they make shopping a pleasure.
After a week of being in London I’d almost feel liberated in France and would sometimes imagine I’d been living on rations back in Britain, only to find that the war had miraculously ended in a French supermarket.
The diversity of food available is huge and awe-inspiring. My favourite thing used to be in the summer when the posh Brits would arrive (we lived in the region beneath the Dordogne which is very popular with the British) and would argue loudly about how to sniff a melon and then recoil in horror when they found out that chickens actually have heads.
Many of these people wore yellow cords, checked shirts and loafers and spoke in that clipped way that Prince Charles does – an odd mixture of entitlement, ennui and emphysema.
These people were always louder than everyone else, and when they ran in packs I christened them “the wawas”, an expression which perfectly communicated their brittle rasp.
Set of pans
Leclerc would often run special sales promotions with rewards that promised so much more than a Tesco clubcard. A recent one was for a brilliant set of pans designed by top chef Hélène Darroz who has two Michelin stars for her restaurant within London’s Connaught Hotel.
It’s a measure of how much I spend in Leclerc that I have three full sets of this brilliant kit waiting to be brought back here to feed the army I obviously expect to be catering for in 2021.
Now I’m back living permanently in Scotland I have to admit that I really miss France. That’s not to denigrate Scotland but is more an expression of a thirst for new experiences and knowledge which only comes from being in a different culture.
Ironically, when normality returns, my first trip will be to France to pack my things and bring them back to Scotland. That this is coinciding with Brexit is a very bitter pill to swallow indeed.
One of the things I already miss is seeing things grow because the house in France sits within 18 acres and has its own walnut grove. Picking the walnuts is something I used to really enjoy, not least because our house is part of a mill which used to produce walnut oil.
If we’d been keen we could have continued this milling process ourselves and I often longed to see what would happen were we to start those huge wheels turning.
This would mean that the waterfall from the river in the garden would drive the massive wheels that operate the press, and the magical elixir would flow once more.
It was so moving to go into the mill and just stare at the metal and stone and think of the wonderful oil that must have been produced there over many years. I believe the walnut grove was partly sponsored by the commune (council) which would have meant that the local village would have profited from the bounty from the trees. This heartily appeals to my socialist sensibilities.
The first year I harvested the walnuts I knew nothing about doing so. I remember spending the most blissful afternoon collecting the nuts from the ground and shaking them from the trees.
The smell was one I loved because it was totally new – a camphorous, resinous, medicinal aroma that was as fresh as the nuts within and which, were I to smell it now, would instantly return me to that particular part of south-west France.
What I didn’t know is that picking walnuts without gloves leaves your hands stained in a way that suggests a 40-Woodbine-a-day habit. I carried on picking all day, assuming soap would easily remove the stains, but I was wrong – they are notoriously difficult to get rid of and remain on your skin for about a week.
I remember I had to have some pictures taken back in London the following day to promote my business and I had to do every photo with my hands behind my back, so deeply burnished were my fingers.
It’s very sad to be saying goodbye to a house, a country and a wider set of freedoms and benefits. I’m firmly of the belief that the eye has to travel and it’s so important to experience new and different cultures.
For me, France provided a wealth of tradition, culture and knowledge which complemented that of Scotland and often vastly eclipsed that of the divisive UK. That’s why you’ll find me currently spending much time reading French cookery books and watching repeats of Rick Stein’s French Odyssey where the great man journeys from Bordeaux to Marseilles on a barge.
In the depths of a Scottish winter, and with the continuing misery of Brexit, this return to goose fat and garlic is a reminder of brighter, more unified times.
Below is a selection of books I enjoy – the out-of-print ones can be picked up for a chanson online.
Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, £21.99
Rick Stein’s Secret France, £18.59
Goose Fat and Garlic by Jeanne Strang, out of print
An Omelette and A Glass Of Wine by Elizabeth David, £14.99
Chateau Cuisine by Anne Willan, out of print
Roger Verge’s Vegetables, out of print
Roger Verge’s Entertaining In the French Style, out of print
French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David, £14.99
Simple French Cookery by Raymond Blanc, £13.99
The French Kitchen by Michel Roux Jnr, £25