It's been a couple of years since we spent our summer holidays in rural France. It's a world away from Dubai that's for sure - fresh, green, cool, relaxed ... simple pleasures. A perfect recipe for recharging the batteries. Although travelling to new places is exciting, there is something comforting about returning to familiar haunts and this year I realised that in the time since our last visit there were loads of things I'd temporarily forgotten about holidaying in France -
1 Rosé wine is a BIG thing - I love a glass of Rosé and in France, it's seriously popular so there is a huge range in the supermarket. And that makes me a happy camper.
2 Screw tops on wine bottles are NOT a big thing - the French like to sell mainly French wine and French wine producers don't love those new-fangled screw tops. Now, where did we stash that corkscrew? Good opportunity to teach teenage sons that retro art of removing a cork though ...
3 Wine at lunchtime is a thing - A very civilised thing, but it does make me want to sleep in the afternoon. Is that just my age?
4 It is not a myth that virtually every person walking down the street in France will be carrying a baguette - I've even seen baguette vending machines for emergency out-of-hours purchases. Yes, really.
5 The credit card machine in the boulangerie is always covered in a light dusting of flour - I like that.
6 Sometimes my rusty A-Level French from circa 1986 (surely it can't be THAT long ago?) is enough - Occasionally things go so well that a conversation could have come straight out of a GCSE text book. It happened to me on a day when I went to the Post Office to buy a stamp and then walked around the corner to the boulangerie to purchase 10 freshly baked croissants (volume is required when feeding teenage boys). Decided to keep it simple and not venture into complicated topics like whether the light dusting of flour ever interferes with the functionality of the credit card machine (see point 5) and left feeling well and truly in the smug zone.
7 But my rusty A-Level French from circa 1986 is insufficient when it's necessary to get cross - Like when you have returned to the dry cleaners for the THIRD time and the curtains (which were supposed to be ready 3 weeks ago) are STILL not ready. Must learn some 'I'm LIVID' vocabulary ...
8 Markets are everywhere - Yes, they're pretty. Yes, they provide the ultimate photo opportunities. Yes, it's great to buy tomatoes from the guy who grew them. Yes, the atmosphere makes you want to buy everything. BUT ... well, it's flipping expensive. So approach with caution - especially if you want to be able to afford a few bottles of Rosé to enjoy with those tomatoes.
9 Nothing much changes from year to year - like Franck, the Pâtissier who has been selling exactly the same macarons and cakes since we started visiting France 8 years ago. No new flavours, just the old favourites - but when they're that good, why change? He truly has found his niche.
10 Everywhere closes for lunch between 12pm and 2pm - And it's brutal .... even when we had driven for an hour to get to a paint shop (somewhere that sells Farrow & Ball has that kind of pull) and got there at 12:02pm, they still wouldn't serve us. Oh how happy was I ....
11 Trying to get lunch outside of that 12-2pm window is a challenge - You see the thing is, we're pretty rubbish at eating at a particular hour at the best of times, but during the holidays even more laid back rules apply. We've been caught out so many times that we now carry an emergency picnic set in the back of the car, so that if we're caught short with starving teenagers we can swing by the supermarket and transform a baguette (of course - see point 4) and some cheese into a feast.
12 There is a widespread fondness for Chantilly cream in France - I wouldn't say that I dislike it, but you can get too much of a good thing.
13 And using Chantilly cream to top a cappuccino is just plain WRONG.
14 The French are very proud of their food - Dishes are often cooked with a simplicity that is refreshing. Take buttery pastry + crème pâtissière + fruit + a light glaze, to make a delicious tart. Maybe lose the Chantilly cream though (see point 12).
15 You can get a fantastic meal in the most surprising places - I guess it comes from that pride thing and the fact that the whole of France stops for lunch EVERY DAY, so tourist destinations that I wouldn't normally associate with being great culinary destinations are just that. For example, the restaurant at La Rochelle Aquarium does the most beautiful lunch - think Beluga lentils dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette, a few salad leaves and a perfect poached egg. See what I mean?
16 Finding a takeaway coffee in rural France is virtually impossible - And oh how I have tried. There are plenty of places to sit and drink one but when you want to wander with your drink, it would seem that that just isn't a THING. Until now ..... Welcome L'Escafette to the St Jean D'Angely Market.
Honestly, truthfully it's the first time we have found a takeaway coffee in all the years that we have been visiting here. And it was good too. Fingers crossed that the locals will embrace coffee on the go so that they're still in business next year. UPDATE 2019 - they are NOT still in business ...
17 The air is really clear - And when the sky is blue, it's really blue. Like living life through an HD TV screen.
18 And at night, there's no light pollution, so the stars are wonderful - I can still only identify the Big Dipper though. Some members of the family can point out all sorts of constellations in the sky, but they may be bluffing - you know, say it with confidence and people will believe you. I can confirm that #1 teenage son has those genes for sure.
19 We sleep super late into the morning - That will be the window shutters making the room pitch black. And for #1 teenage son, the fact that he was getting up at 2am every day to watch the swimming at the Olympics. The Rosé probably helped too ...
20 But we also stay up late - It gets dark around 7pm in Dubai so those long days caught us out every time.
21 Simple, rural holidays mean that the children do get bored - And that has to be a good thing. I'm sure we got bored as children - and out of boredom comes creativity. Taste tests always feature at times like this and dressing up in bizarre matching clothes does too - don't ask .... especially about those shorts.
But sending teenage boys out to explore on bikes also featured heavily. Armed with a map (to give me some comfort that they would eventually find their way home), a couple of bottles of water and a few snacks feels like proper holiday magic.
22 The roads are seriously quiet - Quiet enough for a few impromptu driving lessons for #1 and #2 teenage sons. Think it turned out to be right up there on their holiday highlights. Who can resist all that 'Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre' stuff?
Happy holiday memories. See you next year, France ...