I spent five weeks in France this summer at my parent’s house near Port Grimaud in Provence, Var. Sadly, this is the last time as they are selling the house this autumn. Having a second home is a brilliant fantasy but the reality is you spend your whole time fixing, repairing and cleaning. My parents are now nearing their mid-80’s and they can’t continue.
I’ve been going virtually every summer since 2005. When I look back at my photos, they are repetitively beautiful: the full moon in a dark starry sky, provencal markets, cocktails by the pool, sunset at the beach, plates and rusty metal things from Jas de Robert, chestnuts and mushrooms in autumn, fireworks from the terrace, leafy yet regimented grapevines that will be squeezed into pink and grey wines, rambling family dinners, frogs in the pool, bloated blinking toads in my bedroom, wasps in my car engine, snakes dropping from pastel shutters, boars and cork oaks, the gleaming white yachts of Saint Tropez.
My mum hates it. She hates the weather, the French, the terrible restaurants, the expense, the traffic, the isolation. She’s very deaf and although when she was younger she was fluent in French, it’s difficult for her now.
My dad loves it. He watches football on the giant telly. He likes the English ex-pat blokes down there (in the winter it’s all men), the music, the heat. As he eats meat, he likes the restaurants too.
I lived there for a year in the mid-noughties, putting my kid into the local French comprehensive. It was miserable as a single mother. In winter there is no work, everything is shut: the restaurants, the bars, the shops. The French aren’t that friendly, even if you do speak fluent French. Most of the English ex-pats are criminals and alcoholics. Everybody is on the run. From England, from child maintenance and children, from the law, from drizzly northern cities, from ordinary unglamorous British lives. Every oddball, renegade, chancer and fantasist lives down there on the Cote d’Azure. Everybody has a past, and nobody wants to acknowledge it.
It was so lonely, I spent all day watching made-for-TV movies and drinking rosé. Rosé quaffing would start at 11am, after the mums had done the school run, and the shop. We’d meet in the cafe opposite Leclerc in Cogolin and start on the apero. The women, all married, would bitch about their husbands and wonder aloud about plastic surgery. God it was boring. After a few months of this, my kidneys started to hurt.
As a Londoner I found it difficult to live in a small community. Living in a city of eight million people, I’m used to a certain amount of anonymity. During the off-season months, I was part of a community of around 50 people. Fifty bored people who gossiped viciously about each other and of course, about me, the weirdo single mum who read books and didn’t drink much.
Every Sunday morning I’d visit the Jas de Robert brocante market, the highlight of my week. It’s where I gathered my collection of antique French kitchenware. One thrilling morning Johnny Depp turned up with his kids. My daughter and her friends shook his hand. He waswas very charming and friendly, and interested in meeting other bilingual children. The entirety of Port Grimaud knew about this within the hour. Nothing is private in a small community.
If I lived there today, it wouldn’t be so bad, at least I’d have the internet, although it never works consistently. Power cuts and mud slides are also regular events. It’s a strange place- somehow simultaneously rural and built-up.
This year the outstanding event was my parents 60th wedding anniversary. Perhaps they will get a letter from the Queen. Although the big celebration will be in October, the actual date was in July. I decided to host a ‘diner en blanc’ on the beach.
Every Monday night throughout the summer there is live music, free, at l’Escalet beach. This is a particularly unspoilt place, unlike some of the beaches further up the coast which are actually builder’s sand, rough and yellow, plonked next to the sea. At l’Escalet, the water is clear and the band play backlit by the setting sun, framed by rocks, gentle waves and boats on the horizon. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
My mum didn’t want a fuss so we had to do it secretly. My sister sneaked the chairs and tables into my van, plus vases of flowers, lanterns for candles, proper white china plates and bowls, snowy table linen and real glasses. Somehow my parents didn’t realise that half their furniture was missing from their villa.
My sister-in-law Bernie, who is a domestic science teacher and a fine cook, and I made the food: potato salad with creme fraiche and fennel flowers; stuffed vegetables; melon and smoked salmon salad; beluga lentil salad with feta; watermelon, mint and feta ‘pizza’; caponata (so much nicer than ratatouille); heart shaped cheeses, white chocolate and limoncello cake and a giant fruit salad. My brother hoisted a magnum of champagne.
My friend Begs helped me set up on the beach so everything was ready when my parents turned up. The French loved it too, congratulating us as they descended to the rocky bay, ‘felicitations’ and ‘bon apetit’. I also heard one couple say ‘they have class, we can’t compete’. One man wearing white linen from head to toe asked to be invited.
As the weeks went on, more and more tables were set up. It became a mixture of Glyndebourne and Glastonbury. A beautiful setting for a diamond wedding anniversary. Here are some of the dishes we made:
- 200 g rice, couscous, bulghar wheat, You can buy quick cook or packaged to shorten cooking time
- 400 ml vegetable stock if making rice or bulghar wheat and 200ml for couscous
- pinch saffron, ground finely in a pestle and mortar
- 4 tbsps Olive oil
- 4 shallots, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- bunch flat leaf parsley
- sea salt
- 2 preserved lemons, finely chopped
- large handful apricots, roughly chopped, Optional: marinate/soak in sherrry
- handful pinenuts
- 50 ml olive oil
- 6 yellow, orange or red peppers whole, cut off the tops, keep as hats, remove inner seeds and pith
- Cook the grain you are going to stuff the vegetables with, using the vegetable stock. In fact slightly undercook it.
- Mix the cooked grain with the saffron
- Heat a frying pan with the olive oil
- Add the shallots, garlic to the olive oil, fry until golden.
- Preheat the oven to 180C
- Mix this with the grain, the preserved lemons, parsley, the apricots, the pine nuts, the salt.
- Put the peppers into an oiled baking tin, remove the hats and stuff the peppers with the mixture.
- Add some olive oil to the peppers, replace the hats and bake for 40 minutes
- Remove from the oven and serve.
- 100 ml olive oil
- 1 brown onion, sliced
- 2 aubergines, medium, sliced
- 2 red peppers, cored, sliced
- 1 yellow peppers, cored, sliced
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 100 g olives, pitted, green or black
- 3 tbsp capers
- 3 tbsp sherry vinegar
- sea salt, to taste
- jar roasted or marinated artichoke hearts, to garnish
- handful fresh basil leaves, to garnish
- Prepare the vegetables. Put a deep frying pan with the olive oil on medium heat on the stove
- Fry the onions until soft, then add the aubergine and peppers, until soft, the edges caramelised.
- Add the bay leaves, garlic, olives, capers
- Add the vinegar and sea salt to taste
- Garnish with artichokes, basil leaves
Watermelon, feta and mint ‘pizza’
- 1 watermelon, cut into 2cm thick triangles
- 100 g feta cheese, cut into squares
- handful fresh mint leaves
- Assemble the watermelon wedges as pictured.
To say the French are not friendly is an understatement. Do they think it is cool? Or do they really feel so miserable?
We drove home and nearing Calais someone smiled at me and I knew they were not French. Give me Italy every time.