Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Christmas

Tanya, Elodie and I would like to wish all the readers of this blog and all the readers of our books a very merry christmas and a happy new year

We will see you all in the New Year!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Back to work

Last year it was one of our favourite markets of the year - the Cucuron Christmas market. It took place on a crisp clear Provencal day - the type of day that makes the locals sigh and tell you that the Luberon is a corner of paradise.

What a difference a year makes. I was up at 7 listening to the rain rattling against the skylight. The wind was bending the trees at right angles and the last thing I felt like was going back to work. Still I had a cave full of wine to sell and I have to keep Elodie in baby grows.

12 months ago when we arrived for the market we were greeted with a free croissant, a smile and a Santa Hat. This year the organiser just told me to set up wherever I wanted - he had other problems - the day’s entertainers had cried off due to flooding (apparently giant inflatable sumo wrestlers are scared of the odd puddle) and the poster proudly claiming that there would be over 50 artisan stalls was looking wildly optimistic. For the first hour there was just me and my neighbours - a group of women serving a garlic and chick pea mash.

By late afternoon I was soaking wet and dreaming of the summer. I’d invested 50 euros in my stand and sold just ten bottles of wine. For a nation of proclaimed wine lovers the French are strangely reticent when it comes to a free tasting - “I don’t drink,” “it’s too early,” “I’ve got to drive.” Every excuse under the sun/wind swept, bitterly cold, slate grey sky was paraded in front of us, until we offered them our special Christmas treat . We mixed some Stone’s ginger wine, brought over by my father in law and some whisky and the French were instantly enamoured with their whisky macs, asking to order cases of the Ginger wine. The problem was we only had one bottle.

Makes me think that in 2008 instead of taking coals to Newcastle and trying to sell wine to the French I might change business and have a stall full of cheddar cheese, ginger wine, earl grey tea and maybe some rosé from an English vineyard.

Wish me luck….

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Provencal recipe

This week I opened the bedroom window to find myself face to face with our landlord. His limbs were bear hugging the branch of a tree as he inched ever higher into the blue sky. In London I would have called the police and reported a peeping tom but this is Provence and so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“Salut,” he waved cheerily at me from his vantage point directly into our bedroom.

“Salut,” I called back nonchalantly, while thinking to myself that all he was lacking was a pair of binoculars.

His hand groped forward pulling at another stray branch and shaking it vigorously.

“En remasse,” he offered by way of explanation with a beaming smile on his face.

A short time later I was outside helping out, stripping olives from the tree, which this year because of the high average temperature are bounteous.

It seems to be my luck in Provence to always end up with the purists. When I’ve harvested grapes its been with vignerons who insist on doing every row by hand and now my landlord was adamant that a handpicked olive leant a noticeably more peppery flavour to the oil. So there were no mechanical harvesters, not even batons to beat the branches with, instead there was hour upon hour of labour as we dropped each individually picked olive into the net on the floor.

At least I was learning as we picked. Here’s a simple recipe used by my landlady:

Keep the green olives in water for 8 days, changing the water every day. Then add salt, garlic and aromatic herbs and some oil and leave the flavours to infuse for a week.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The best Steack Frite in the World Ever

I am a bit worried that my writing career is at an end.

Here's the problem - it seems it's impossible for me to do anything other than post blogs about my new daughter. Now there are plenty of fathers who live life vicariously and do nothing but praise the achievements of their offspring, but people only listen if they are trapped in the corner at a party with the single possible escape route a Ronaldoesque dive across the room. The audience typically stays put choosing boredom over the risk of impaling themselves together with some cheese and pineapple on a cocktail stick.

With me readers don’t have to worry about skewered testicles and so to keep people's attention I have resolved to stop the Elodie blogs and rip up the proposal to my publisher about fatherhood in France…well it was a thought if not a terribly good one.

But before I move on here’s one final vignette about birth and pregnancy. When Tanya was in labour we arrived at the hospital at just after 11am. We saw a midwife and then a doctor who measured the contractions and confirmed that Tanya was 3cm dilated. The midwife fussed and fretted, offered to take us to our room, and then suggested a massage or a bath to hurry the process along. Then, mid sentence, she stopped.

We followed her eyes to the clock on the wall. It was now just past midday and a look of abject horror took hold of her face. She began to babble an apology, pulling us physically out of the room and down the stairs to the exit. Tanya and I were worried. We’d spent months planning our arrival at the hospital, timing the route and picking the best parking spots and now, when everything had gone so smoothly and when we’d successfully arrived at the hospital with the contractions a regular 5 minutes apart, the midwife, the woman who was supposed to guide us through the whole experience, was behaving most peculiarly.

She pushed us outside the door and glanced one more time at her watch, explaining that there was an excellent restaurant just down the road and that there was of course plenty of time for lunch before the baby arrived. She apologised again, and wished us “Bon App” before retreating back into the hospital, no doubt still berrating herself for daring to suggest that anyone in her care should miss their lunch.

And so it came to pass that I had one of the best Steack Frite of my life, covered in a wonderful peppercorn sauce, washed down with a pichet of red wine, while I wrote down the time of Tanya' s contractions on my napkin. Vive La France!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


We spent months agonising over what to call our baby. I spent hours compiling lists of names on sites like, while Tanya flicked through enormous books trying to find something suitable. As regular readers of this blog will know, we also held an online poll. Then with the birth approaching and nerves setting in we switched names on a daily basis, throwing out all our hard work and in a state of panic resolving to name our baby according to the board at the local supermarket which announced each Saint’s Day.

Finally the moment arrived and as both of us looked down on our new born, the name Elodie popped on to Tanya’s lips. It just seemed right. Or so we thought. Within days there were problems. I made my first trip to the village and visited all the gossip centres to announce the birth - the Boulangerie, the tabac and the local café.

“We had a little girl called Elodie,” I proclaimed to a puzzled silence. “Elodie,” I repeated proudly. “Elodie”

It took three goes with each person before the name was repeated back to me with the sing song lyricism of a proper French accent - “Elodie.”

It sounded completely different, pretty and enchanting, and it was then I realised that I would never be able to pronounce my daughter’s name properly.

But at least I did better than some. Shortly after the birth I received several emails from friends of my parents congratulating us rather cryptically on the birth of baby “LOD”. Most of the emails went on to compliment us on such an unusual choice of name. Tanya and I sat at the computer screen completely flummoxed - “LOD.”

Later that evening I spoke to my father, how is “Elodie” he asked.

Only he didn’t quite say that, in fact without a hint of a French accent, our daughter’s new name came out rather differently

“What did you tell your friends our baby was called?” I asked.

“L O D” he repeated proudly enunciating each syllable.

Meanwhile on the weather front, it’s been snowing in the Luberon - see pictures right.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Elodie Ivey

Our little baby arrived safely on Monday 5th November at 9.32pm. She's absolutely gorgeous. I am off on paternity leave, so no blogs for a week or so.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Things to do while waiting for a baby - Part 2’s the blog I hoped I wouldn’t have to write, we’ve thrown the entire Indian cookbook at the baby - dansak, madras, vindaloo - and yet we’re still waiting.

This week (rather than us inventing time filling excuses like taking duvet covers to the dry cleaners) the French national health service has stepped in to swallow our days. Every morning we’ve been off to Pertuis hospital for scans, acupuncture, essential oil massages and raspberry leaf tea. The baby is now over a week late by English standards and the midwives are beginning to think Tanya is something of a medical marvel.

After the first course of acupuncture a gaggle (yes there are plenty of midwives at French hospitals) gathered around the machine which had been monitoring the contractions. They shook their heads, they huddled together in consultation and finally they agreed that something completely out of the ordinary was happening - according to the peaks on the graph, Tanya should have been in the agonies of labour, but there she was happily asking what a contraction actually felt like.

And so we wait - in the meantime here are some nice photos taken on our route to Pertuis hospital.

As I write the breaking news is that Tanya has begun to feel some contractions and they are beginning to come regularly. I will leave you on that cliff-hanger and post any news when I have it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Things to do while waiting for a baby

Part 1. (Hopefully there will be no Part 2)

The English due date has now passed and the French one (babies take one week longer to cook in France) is this weekend, but still we wait. Since we live in the middle of the field there is not much to divert us.

Star Academy - the French version of the X-Factor is fast becoming our favourite TV show, and last night we watched a rerun of Cool Runnings a programme about the Jamaican Olympic Bobsleigh team. As I said things are getting desperate..…

Here’s a sample of a serious conversation from today:

“What shall we do now?”

“We could go and get the duvet cover dry cleaned.”

So it seemed that all our Christmases had come at once when on one of our rare forays from the house we met Jesus, Spiderman and a 1920s gendarme (see pictures). Forget Cool Runnings I was tempted to invite them all round for a dinner party and then a game of charades…anything to help fill another baby less evening. The only problem was they ran away.

Spidy and co were actually part of the field of the Luberon Marathon and after all the excitement of the race it was back to the usual routine. Tomorrow we’re picking up the duvet cover, and if we are feeling adventurous we might go to the boulangerie. Any other suggestions to keep us amused are welcome….but to save you the trouble, as I write Tanya is downstairs cooking a curry and then we’re having an early night.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to deal with the in laws

Only two weeks to go until the due date and we’re both getting a little nervous. Every unusual movement of Tanya’s tummy might be the big contraction that provokes the mad rush to Pertuis hospital. In the meantime as local residents will have noticed our market stall is closed - Tanya is too tired and I’ve decided to start my paternity leave early, but if anyone is missing any of our wines, feel free to call up and order - the cave is still well stocked.

To keep our minds off the impending birth we’ve become tourists. We’ve lived in the shadow of Mont Saint Victoire - the imposing line of rock which dominates the skyline near Aix en Provence for nearly a year and like the impressionists before us we’ve marvelled at how the view changes with the season and time of day. Army camouflage experts should really study the place - even on a clear sunny day this enormous mass of rock can be invisible, somehow shrouding itself in its own shadow or alternatively appear just a few kilometres away with the fine detail of every crevice clearly discernable.

On Saturday we decided to get up close and personal, taking the route through Le Tholonet (the Primrose Hill of Aix en Provence full of gated villas and helicopter pads) towards Puyloubier. The road is stunning and Mont St Victoire doesn’t disappoint at close quarters.

Our trip also had a hidden bonus. Periodically we’re lumbered with unimaginative visitors. They stay for a week and shake their head at every suggestion - how about the Palais du Pape? Nah too historical; a trip to the coast? too windy - preferring to hang around disrupting our lives. Well now we’ve got another excursion for the list and the round trip to Aix along the edge of Mont St Victoire and back via Rians takes all day.

It’s perfect for the parents-in-law when they come and see the baby.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

2006 - The Verdict

Whisper it quietly but it’s one of the best year’s for wine ever. The prolonged dry spell has had the vines straining every root to find moisture deep in the soil. There are precious few grapes but they are loaded with flavour. Already bankers have been flying in from London thinking of investing some of their hard earned cash in the en-primeur market (wine sold by vineyards before it has even been bottled).

Does this sound like Bordeaux?

Actually it’s 2006 Domaine de La Brillane ( )just outside Aix en Provence. We visited on harvest day and already the cerebrally-wired owner Rupert Birch was working out how best to market his product. Magnums and Methuselah’s are for wimps, what the City movers and shakers want these days is a personalised barrel. Luckily for Rupert he had a wad (is this the correct collective noun? would plague be more appropriate?) of bankers holding a conference in his domaine last weekend. The plan was to put a big screen up for the Rugby and then spring the prices on the inebriated throng.

I’ve yet to hear how Provence’s first en-primeur market went, but the pictures to the right show just what a good year it was for Rupert’s grapes.

Another two weeks or so until the baby arrives. The hospital in Pertuis is a shining advert for the French health service. We’re going in every week now, and the mid-wives are carefully monitoring Tanya, wiring her up to a machine to test the baby’s heart over an hour long period. Sarkozy’s market reforms are much needed but I am not sure whether the French will ever put up with a health care system like the UK -we can’t afford rooms any more, but how about a corridor to give birth in?

Sebastian and Coco topped the baby name polls, not the rather avant garde Maverick (which I voted for three times). Thanks to all those that voted. Watch this space for what we finally decide.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Year in Provence

Tanya and I have now worked in the Provencal markets for exactly a year. Here are a series of photos which take you through the seasons.

Hope you enjoy them.

Here are the pics

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Compromis Kids

For most of the year Tanya and I have - as far as we know - held the accolade of being the youngest English speaking residents of the Luberon. We’ve met plenty of ex-pats but almost invariably they’re retirees in their forties, fifties or sixties. They’ve bought vineyards and old farmhouses and typically divide their time between France and England. Just once in a while we’ve wished - and it’s true be careful what you wish for - that we had some company of our own age.

About three months ago Lisa (31) and Dave (28) came surfing on a wave of chaos into the valley. With admirable impetuosity they’d quit London and headed for the south of France, packing their belongings into the back of a van and vowing to buy a property on arrival. The local immobilier must have had euro signs tumbling like fruit machine reels around their eyes.

Within days Lisa and Dave had signed a compromis, a legal document which commits a purchaser to buy a house after the expiry of a 7 day cooling off period. At this stage estate agents will usually kick back smoke a cigar and count the cash confident that the deal is all but finalised, but within days L and D‘s enthusiasm had thawed.

Over the next few months three more immobiliers thought they’d hooked the couple we’ve dubbed the Compromis Kids. They swagger into town, they fall in love with a house, they sign the Compromis without blinking and then with the estate agent salivating they wriggle free at the last minute. In the intervening time Tanya and I have become quite fond of them - they are so unsure of what their future holds they could be us, only we’re older and should know better.

In any event as I write this the Compromis Kids have just arrived to drop off a van load of their belongings They’ve decided not to live in the south of France after all, instead they’re heading to the Alps - estate agents beware - because they’ve always apparently liked the mountain air.

The only problem is that they’ve nowhere to store their belongings, which is where we come in. I am now running a wine business from a cave filled with tables, beds, chests of drawers, eel-catching nets, top hats, stereos, and Tvs. The Compromis Kids have promised to come back and collect all the stuff when they are settled in their new house but with their track record we’re not holding our breath.

Still it was nice to have some young friends for a while.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The most annoying customers in the world....ever

The attention to detail in a Provencal market is remarkable. First thing in the morning the traders meticulously arrange their produce, the olive vendor creates perfect conical towers with the care of a sculptor and the clothes lady fans out pleats and dresses dummies according to the weather. By the time the customers arrive the market has such an air of permanence it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s been put together in less than an hour.

But hidden by the colourful Provencal tableware and the tables sagging with tapenade are old boards and rickety legs. Just occasionally over the year the mistral has lifted the skirt of the market, sending a parasol cart wheeling into the air, and leaving the unfortunate trader clinging to the attached rope like a small child chasing an oversized kite.

This week our luck broke.

There were probably 100 hundred bottles of wine on the stall arranged in a rainbow of pinks when it happened. It was midday and my thoughts were already turning to lunch. An English family stood opposite us, grappling with two conflicting desires - to taste some ice cold rosé and not to embarrass themselves by speaking French.

“Un degustation?” I offered, engendering a look of mild panic on their faces and a couple of involuntary steps backwards.

“Would you like to taste?” I cajoled them back to their English comfort zone.

Circling the table I grabbed a bottle from the ice bucket catching the leg of the stand with my foot. Everything then began a slow slide. My foot was trapped supporting the weight of the wine and every time I shifted my balance to try and arrest the vinous avalanche, the angle of the table became steeper. Tanya lunged and missed as the first bottle hit the ground. The ice bucket tipped over and a deluge of water swept our stock to the ground in a series of large cracks.

There’s nothing like misfortune to attract a crowd, and quiet soon we had a throng of shoppers and market traders commentating on our efforts to clear up as if they were watching a sporting event.

Our English family went further. While I was shredding a finger on a jagged shard and adding my own blood to the pink stream running out of the market, they accosted Tanya.

“We wanted to taste some wine,” they said erasing the recent unfortunate events with the ease of a pair goldfish.

Tanya searched through the wreckage for some bottles and poured

“That’s alright, but what about a paler one,” they twittered

On my hands and knees I passed Tanya another wine.

“Too dry,” they chimed

I grazed my arm as I searched for another.

“Hm I like this one,” said the wife.

“But they should serve it colder,” her husband chided, as if it was somehow our fault that our entire stock of chilled wine had just shattered.

“Yes we might have bought some if it had been cold,” the woman nodded in patronising support.

The two of them waddled off, Daily Mail clasped under one arm, and their moral rectitude under the other. What was the world coming to when they couldn’t get cold wine? If things went on like this they’d have to speak French in France.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

My birthday

And so there I was on my birthday in a room full of French women, all of them heavily pregnant, watching a video about breast feeding. Produced by some public health body or other it made women who don’t (breast feed) look like the spawn of Satan - invariably they were pictured fagging away while their poor under nourished child screamed - and women that do like little angels, all beatific smiles as twins happily nuzzled on their ample boobs. In any event there’s nothing like being on an interactive pre-natal course to expand one’s French vocabulary - contraction, waters breaking, push, breath, epidural, oh **** this hurts, I am right up to speed now.

As we left I was feeling slightly better about all the social security bills I’ve been paying. Extortionate as they are, it’s reassuring to visit a maternity unit like Pertuis. There are 20 odd rooms, most have two beds but you can guarantee your own room - presumably provided you promise to breast feed - for 30 euros a night. The staff counselled us about when we should come to the hospital - whenever we want. None of this wait until the contractions are regular and occur every five minutes. No, in Pertuis, if we have even a remote worry, in fact even if just fancy a change of scene, we shouldn’t hesitate to pop into the maternity unit.

Compare all this with the experience my sister in law who had her first baby in St George’s Tooting. Feeling regular contractions she rushed to hospital with my brother, only to be turned away. The contractions weren’t regular enough. Half way home they turned back convinced the Doctors were wrong. They were. My sister in law gave birth on a trolley in a hospital corridor due to lack of beds and was sent home a couple of hours later. When we tell the French midwifes this story they are appalled. Tanya is due to stay in the hospital for five nights and I even get a bed and a wine list.

So here’s a tip for expectant mother’s - move to France.

Meanwhile in the fields the grape harvest has begun. Cars are parked on the verges and teams of pickers toil up the long rows of vines. On the roads there’s chaos as vigneron’s chug their way to the Cave Cooperative. Forget caravans, camper vans, mopeds, Sinclair C5s, there can be few slower things than a tractor load of grapes. It’s all very quaint and rustic.

But it’s not the tractors that are the main worry, it’s the mechanical harvesters. Imagine a machine that straddles both lanes, blocks out the horizon and moves at less than 1 mile an hour and then imagine rushing with your pregnant wife to the hospital and encountering one.

Second tip, for pregnant mother’s, make sure you don’t give birth in France in September.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

How to bring a smile to a pregnant woman's face....

The markets have finally quietened down and for the first time in months we have had a moment to stop and think.

The result - panic.

We’ve got a baby arriving in under two months and we’ve done absolutely nothing about it. When we first visited the hospital to register they handed us a list of preparatory courses. That was 4 months ago and the baby seemed a long way off. But now, well what if our baby comes early? We’ve no idea what to do if Tanya starts getting contractions - should we go to the hospital straight away or should we wait until they are spaced a certain distance apart?

I was sufficiently worried yesterday to start reading baby books but after just a couple of pages - all about breach positions and caesarean births - I was even more jittery. In a knee-jerk, panic buying, oh god we’ve got to do something, reaction Tanya and I headed off to the French version of Mothercare and €800 euros (buggy, car seat, changing table, cot etc…) bought me one hour of peace.

Then the doubts came back. We might have all the kit, but now I am assailed by this vision/ recurring nightmare of the car not starting when it’s time to go to the hospital. I’ve drawn up an emergency list of phone numbers to call, and I asked our French teacher whether I could put her on it. Looking across I saw that Tanya was looking ashen. Nothing about labour is appealing to her at the moment but within seconds she’d cheered up.

The reason? Our French teacher, Pascal, had of course agreed to be added to the list, but she’d also suggested a simpler solution, a fire engine full of fit young firemen in uniform from Cucuron are apparently on 24 hr call for just such eventualities.

It’s comforting to know. Well for Tanya it is. If she wasn’t before, she’s certainly glowing now.

Finally if anyone is looking for a special way to spend their birthday this year, here’s what I will be doing when I turn 35 this Thursday. You might think that I would be enjoying a meal. Perhaps a glass of champagne, then some foie gras with a deliciously sweet sauternes, and a hefty Cote du Boeuf to follow for the main course. Not a bit of it, in fact I will be celebrating by attending a 2 hour breast feeding course at Pertuis hospital - in French!

Happy birthday me.

Ps Readers of the blog voted Sebastian their favourite boy’s name, so this week I’ve set up a poll for girls. Vote away.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How to be cool

Part 1

Young boys across the world do stupid things to impress girls but nowhere have I ever seen anything quite as foolishly macho - or is it masochistic - as the customers at the mobile pastis bar at the Clarensac village fete this weekend.

To give you some context, every year the villages near Nimes hold annual bull runs. The Gardians - or bull herders - from the Camargue are challenged to drive the bulls through the village streets. Their objective is to keep the young bulls sandwiched between the protective cordon formed by their white horses. Meanwhile the villagers try and break the bulls free and steal the garlands from their horns. Successful competitors paint bull motifs outside their house and the front door of a champion bull runner is covered in enough hieroglyphics to make a pharaoh jealous.

Most of the village cowers behind bull repellent iron railings while the young boys let off excess testosterone. Some of them stand directly in the path of the horses, forcing the rider to veer out of the way and release the bulls, others attack from behind and grab the bull’s tail allowing themselves to be swept along with the nonchalance of skateboarders hitching a lift on the passing fender of a bus.

But the really cool people ignore the surrounding mayhem and have a pastis at the bar. The fact that this bar has been wheeled directly into the path of the rampaging bulls is of no importance, for behind the padded walls of the mobile bar, a couple of the cutest young girls in the village are serving drinks. In this context displaying even a flicker of interest in the bulls is considered too big a risk - lose eye contact with the girl and they might lose her forever. And so with their hair slicked back, they drink their pastis and make small talk oblivious to the fact that their testicles are about to be skewered. Now that’s cool.

Part 2 - How to be uncool

Tanya and I were at the festival because Tanya’s sister Claire, who lives just outside Nimes had gone to England for the weekend, and asked us to baby-sit her children - Rosie (5), Tristan (3) and Freya (8 months). In the UK we would probably have had a walk in the park and got some videos out for the children. But despite their age, and only having lived in the village for a couple of years, the kids were infected by bull fever.

The first run was scheduled to start at midday, but as I confidently informed Tanya, this was the south of France and nothing happened on time. At about 12.15 we ducked our way through the protective railings and headed towards the centre of the village. Tristan held one of my hands and Rosie the other, while Tanya pushed a sleeping Freya. We walked quickly aware that we had to get back behind the railings before the bulls were released.

The crowd around us thinned suggesting the moment was approaching. As we pulled the children anxiously onwards, the air cracked around us, and a puff of smoke from the gunshot drifted across the village roofs. The bulls were about to be released and we were standing in their prospective path with two toddlers and an infant. At that moment we made babysitters who raid drink’s cabinets look like model professionals.

The second the shot was fired Tanya set off like an athlete from the blocks. I hoisted Rosie under one arm and Tristan under the other and frantically followed. Moments later we stood panting behind the barriers as the villagers looked on in bemusement, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about, after all the bulls were so far off they hadn’t even wheeled out the mobile bar yet.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Things just keep going wrong

Well we had the car back for a week. And then this morning just as we were off to Cucuron market I tried to start it - once more nothing. It’s now down at the local garage in Lourmarin, where Bruno, the mechanic described the people who repaired it in Aix as “cowboys,” for good measure he added that our steering column was about to break and that one day soon the car would only be able to go in one direction - straight - which is clearly not good if there is a bend approaching.

Our problems in Ansouis market have also resurfaced. Despite months of loyal service the organiser approached us this week and said that we were never to return to the market. It was as if he had never seen us before. Suddenly we were exiles.

The reason? All the local vignerons have clubbed together and drawn up a rota of who can sell wine, when, in the market. Of course the months covered are only August and the beginning of September, when there’s real money to be made.

Still nobody thought to tell us, and so I suddenly discovered my inner Frenchman and angrily gesticulated for half an hour in an attempt to protect our right to trade. My rather dodgy French was empowered by my sense of injustice and I like to think I held my own.

“What are they going to do call the gendarmes,” shouted the other traders.

“You’re not selling the local wine, so there’s no reason for you not to be here,” they argued a little spuriously.

The problem is the rota for vignerons is now full and so unless we want to have a weekly fight we have to give up the market.

Making matters worse, two large wine orders have just arrived, so I have a cave full of wine, a car that doesn’t work, and even when it’s repaired one less market to work in. Meanwhile the French tax authorities are trying to extort extravagant sums of money from me because they refuse to believe that another James Ivey could possibly live in France. He does - he lives near Saint Cecile in the Dordogne and last year several hundred euros was taken from my account overnight to pay his tax liability.

I’ve only just got the money back, but rather than apologise the Direction General des Revenues is taking a different tact this year - they are trying to fine me for not completing my tax return. I have! It’s just that the other James Ivey - the one the authorities won’t admit exists - hasn’t.

So you see it’s not just all rosé and sunshine out here….back next week with a cheerier missive.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A big announcement

It all began a month ago. We were packed to go to Ansouis market, the wine was in the boot of the car and there were table legs and boxes protruding at irregular angles from the back seat. I turned the ignition. Nothing, not even an apologetic cough.

The car we drive has a long history of electrical faults which can sometimes seemingly be rectified by a couple of softly spoken words. Examples of past misdemeanours include the locks refusing to open when we are due to return to England, or on hot days with the hood down, the wiper fluid reservoir inexplicably emptying giving us an impromptu shower. In our heads these problems have imbued the car with a whimsical personality. And so I stroked the bonnet, muttered encouragement and tried the ignition again. Still nothing.

The next day we called the breakdown services. After lots of embarrassingly poor French, they promised to be at the house within the hour. I tried the car again, just in case. It started immediately. In another life our ancient BMW might have been a dead pan stand-up comic, but for reasons I will explain later I didn’t get the joke and so I took it to the local garage.

The mechanic listened to the healthy whir of the engine and said that unless the car had broken down there was nothing he could do. I pleaded that there was a genuine problem, and he promised that next time it materialised he would jump in his car and come and help. By then it might be too late, I thought to myself.

For a couple of weeks everything was fine. Then, on the morning after the launch party, I was returning the tables and chairs I’d borrowed from Domaine de La Brillane. Once again there was nothing, not even a rolling start down the considerable hill outside the vineyard could start the engine. This time the fault was permanent. I called the local garage and went straight to answer phone, the mechanic who’d promised to fly to my aid - this being Provence in August I shouldn’t have been surprised - was on his annual holidays.

We were without transport for a week (see photo above right for our solution) and a garage
which Rupert Birch, the vigneron at Domaine de La Brillane, described as “cowboys” repaired the car. They claimed that fuel wasn’t reaching the ignition, whereas my trusted local holidaying mechanic had thought the problem related to the starter motor. In any event the car now works, but for how long?

Usually the answer would be unimportant. We’d take the rough with the smooth, break down again and call the pick up company. But the problem is - and here’s the big announcement - that Tanya’s pregnant and we’re expecting a baby at the end of October. I can picture the scenario now - it’s a moonlit night as we emerge from our house to rush to the hospital. We both leap, or at least I do, into the car - this is already optimistic, because the locks are playing up once more - and I turn the key……

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Provencal launch party

Preparations for the launch of my second book La Vie en Rosé had been going on for a couple of weeks. The main problem we faced was keeping everything cold. Our tiny fridge couldn’t cope with all the nibbles one of our fellow market traders, Vincent, had offered to prepare, so we drove into the countryside in search of the Fridge Magnet (a man who’d made a fortune renting fridges rather than something you stick on your fridge).

In the Luberon it is practically impossible to build anything at all. If there is an existing footprint then there’s a chance permission will be forthcoming for renovating, but new builds are next to unheard of. Bumping down a dirt track we discovered that the Fridge Magnet must have some pretty powerful political connections. Sprawling before us was an opulent palace of a villa with manicured lawns and high tech security systems. It was more LA than Provence and no more than a year old. We took the loop road round the back to the warehouse.

“I never knew there was so much money in fridges,” said Tanya as we pulled to a halt.

In front of us was an empty building the size of an aircraft hanger, in the centre of which, sitting on a table was a single fridge. A scruffy man looked up from his desk. He was surrounded by so many piles of paper he could have been running a public company. Maybe local custom was to rent rather than buy I thought to myself. It would explain why the warehouse was empty.

“How much is it to rent a fridge?” we asked. In my head I’d figured it would be about €20.

“€200” he said jerking his finger at his solitary stock.

We could buy a fridge for €150, so could anyone else, so how had the Fridge Magnet built his empire? Were there really enough gullible people out there to pay such an extortionate price? We departed with our questions unanswered and the Fridge Magnet went back to his figures.

“Maybe he’s a day trader,“ speculated Tanya.

At 5.30pm on Saturday, half an hour before the party was due to start there was still no fridge and no sign of the food. The mistral had whipped up and sent the tablecloths dancing into the air, peanuts were scattered across the gravel and the number of promised helpers (still all absent) had halved. I phoned Vincent, the caterer, and got an answer machine.

The first guests - punctually English - started to arrive. The musician was still nowhere to be seen and my mood was fast approaching panic. Clearly I haven’t lived in Provence long enough.

Within half and hour our helpers had arrived, miraculously restored to their original number, the musician was playing and Vincent came bumping down the track.

“You said you had nowhere to keep the food cold,” he shrugged, in the local style, as if to suggest his behaviour had been perfectly logical, “so I came late.”

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The night market

At the moment it’s 30 degrees in the shade and every market is an endurance test. We sup from frozen bottles of water and watch to see which wilts first the brittle holiday good humour of the tourists or the optimism of the trader attempting to sell flowers. Bouquets swoon the moment the sun hits them and shoppers stumble from stall to stall in a befuddled haze. No doubt visitors have heard about the famous markets of Provence - the wonderful linen, the fruits and the herbs - and feel that a market needs to be ticked off like a visit to the Palais de Pape or a glimpse of a white horse in the Camargue. But in August browsing in a market is for the masochistic - sensible shoppers grab their vegetables and head for the pool.

Thankfully there is an alternative. We’ve just started doing Cucuron night market. It’s a little like an evening at the theatre. The play starts in the cool of the day just before night falls and there are several acts, which gradually build to a dénouement.

Early on smoke rises from an empty grill, traders squabble over access to electricity, and a thin stream of people take their seats in the cafes. The smell of moules simmering in a drum, seasoned with parsley and cooked in wine drifts across the square. Tables of games - giant chess and miniature skittles - are set up and the punishing sun falls below the old village walls.

The crowds swell driven from villas and old village houses by the cool evening air. An illuminated corridor of stalls fringes the etang, reminding us of the Christmas market and how we sold mulled wine, clapped our hands for warmth and pulled our Santa Hats low over our ears. Now we’re in shorts and the main worry is how quickly the ice for our rosé will melt.

Rickety tables and chairs emblazoned with the name of the village, quickly fill with people clasping plastic plates full of food - aromatic lamb seasoned with the local herbs and served with a fragrant couscous or spicy Merguez sausages smothered in mustard and crammed between bread.

We sell wine by the glass and listen to the music bouncing around the streets - the flamenco dancers twirl by the etang, the horn of a brass band keeps a jaunty tune together, and the staccato beat of tribal drums echoes from a distant café. Small girls weave at speed between adults trailing nostalgia as the hems of their flowery dress rise high in the breeze.

Meals are finished, a jazz band floats on the lake and men in linen trousers and pressed flowing shirts clasp their partners hand and stroll amid the spot-lit stalls - examining leather handbags and sparkling jewellery - unaware that they’ve become part of the show. And then one by one as midnight approaches the crowds thin, leaving us, the traders to count the money and take down the stage. Islands of light remain around the etang, but with a final clunk the power is pulled and the vans move in.

It’s the best show in town and it’s free.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Vive La Difference

In the popular imagination every Provencaux corners his battered Renault as if it were a Formula One car while at the same time finding time to gnaw on a clove of raw garlic and cock a leg out of the window to enjoy his inalienable right to urinate in public.

But this is just stereotypical nonsense isn‘t it?

Yes and no - whenever I am on the point of concluding that the widely popularised differences between the French and Brits don’t really exist something happens that convinces me the stereotypes are true.

This week we visited an English vigneron - Rupert Birch - near Aix. Rupert’s far from the average smug rich Brit abroad who has bought a vineyard on a whim rather like you or I might buy Mayfair in a game of Monopoly. These former city types spend their days clasping glasses of “their” wine in manicured hands while employing a legion of Frenchmen to do all the work.

Instead Rupert’s gone native. Visit his cave and his eyes go all glazed as he eulogises about the Brillane reds with the passion of a Frenchman. His hands are calloused, he spends his days in the fields or anxiously studying the weather forecast. He’s as near as you can get to being assimilated into local society although I have yet to see him urinate out of a window. And yet it was our trip to Domaine de La Brillane that got me scratching my head about cultural differences.

Rupert was showing us through his extensive collection of press clippings - the front page of La Provence, a nice piece in the Figaro, and the wine column of Nice Matin - the pile of praise for his wines was seemingly endless.

“I’ll just go and get my copy of Playboy” he said mischievously and headed off to the anti-room leaving Tanya and I in bemused conversation.

On his return Rupert flicked delighted through page after page of nubile naked women - blondes draped languorously over sofas followed by brunettes lovingly entwined in each others arms. A Brit might have lingered over the arresting images, but Rupert behaved like a true Frenchman.
Apparently French Playboy readers just glance casually at the front page and then hurry to their favourite section - the centre page spread. What is it they are so anxious to see - Pamela Anderson in police uniform? Carmen Electra dressed as a schoolgirl.?

No the French Playboy reader is after one thing only - this month’s wine review of Domaine La Brillane. Vive La Difference!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Just call me Goutier (sic)

It’s been a dreadful week in the markets. The tourist season is supposedly upon us, the cave is full and the bank balance at rock bottom as a result of all the wine we've purchased. Yet in Lourmarin on Friday we hardly sold anything, and so, desperate for cash flow we prepared to make a one off visit to Apt on Saturday.

We set the alarm, went to bed early and at first light I stretched out in bed only to feel a throbbing pain in my foot. I quickly rehearsed the previous day in my mind . I hadn’t bumped into anything or stubbed my foot accidentally loading and unloading for the markets. Was it possible I’d kicked out in the night and badly bruised my big toe? I shifted my position and the weight of the moving duvet cover made me wince. Only a super powered karate kick could do this much damage, and anyway what sort of crazed dream would make me lash out at the wall? I stumbled from bed to load the wine into the car and immediately fell back onto the mattress in agony.

Instead of a market I spent most of Saturday with my foot up and a glass of rose in my hand bemoaning my misfortune. By early evening if possible the swelling had increased. I barely slept on Saturday night. On Sunday we missed Ansouis market and on Monday morning I hobbled through Lourmarin to the Doctor.

Easing myself onto the couch, I explained I thought I had an infection. The Doctor took one look. He barely even examined the affected area and he asked with something approaching glee:

“Do you like good wine?”

I nodded my head, enjoying the sympathetic repartie.

“And plenty of charcuterie?”

Another nod, another understanding smile from the Doctor.

“And of course the blue cheese?”

Well, I might be English but I am as partial to Roquefort as a native.

Clapping his hands together and helping me down the Doctor pronounced his verdict.“C’est un crise de gout” he proclaimed, beaming as he wrote out the prescription, reciting the complicated dosage as if he did it at least five times a day. As I left he vigorously shook my hand. If only there had been a prize for the best patient of the day, I am sure I would have won.

I limped into the Pharmacy and was greeted with garlands. “Take a seat Monsieur, put your foot up Monsieur and we’ll get the prescription right away.”

It was the same in the village. I’d never had an illness that drew so much sympathy before. As I made my way back to the car, people patted me on the back and wished me “Bon Courage.” A free baguette and some goats cheese was even pressed into my hand by a well wisher.

Back home I explained the strange reaction to Tanya. In England gout sufferers are afforded little consideration. The illness might be painful but it’s seen as self inflicted. Why the difference?

“Blue cheese, wine, charcuterie,” said Tanya “you’ve caught the French equivalent of the common cold. ”

It was all becoming clear. Every man in the village had doubtless suffered un crise de gout. My limp had probably been instantly diagnosed by everyone within a hundred metres. It was almost a badge of honour. I wanted to protest that all I’d been drinking was a little rose and that my blue cheese intake was very limited, but Tanya wasn’t having any of it.

“You’re an honorary Frenchman now, I shall call you Goutier (sic)”

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

And the winner of the next series of The Apprentice is....

After months in the markets Tanya and I have possibly become just a little complacent. We set up our stall, sit back on our chairs, munch a croissant and read La Provence. Even in a nation renowned for the liquid breakfast past experience has taught us that there is little point in trying to sell wine until 11’o clock.

Provencal markets have a more relaxed air than the average UK affair, where some beer bellied bruiser with industrial lungs bellows out his wares. In the dappled romantic light underneath the plane trees you don’t hear anyone shouting out that oranges are a euro a dozen. Instead shopping in Luberon markets is a serene affair and like the other traders we wait until the customers come to us. At least that was the case….

This week we were visited by an old friend from London. Readers of my books will be familiar with Peter Tate, a passionate Francophile and long term supporter of our crazy decision to give up our stable careers in London to work in French markets.

Tanya and I did the usual - set up, bought a pastry and waited for the rising sun to engender a thirst. Peter was having none of it. Standing in front of our stall like a sales rep at a mobile phone conference, he accosted anyone who came near. Noting the bottle neck of punters building up around his ample frame, one of my fellow traders commented that he was like a bouchon, the French word for cork or traffic jam. It was uncannily accurate. Nobody could move into the rest of the market until they got past Peter who was wielding our bottles of wine like a cowboy playing with his six shooters. Conscious of our budget we normally pour people a small sip, trying to ensure that a bottle lasts a whole market, but Peter took the view that the bigger the glasses the more guilty people would feel if they didn’t buy anything. His sales patter took no prisoners.

“Would you like to buy some wine?”

“I can’t I am a diabetic.”

“You can still buy it, you’ll just have to let me drink it for you.”

All winter we’d been cultivating a relationship with a lovely French lady called Lydia. Gradually she has begun to buy her wine from us. Tanya and I are polite charming and anxious not to offend, so poor Lydia didn’t know what had happened when we set Peter loose with his pidgin French. She foolishly mentioned she’d been invited for lunch and despite her protests that she’d already baked a cake as a gift she found a bottle of red pressed into her hands.

Tanya and I looked ruefully on, wondering how many of our business relationships would survive the morning. But at the end of the market, our stall was practically devoid of wine, and our money belts bulging with euros, leaving me thinking that Peter should put himself down for the next series of The Apprentice. The only problem is he’s in his sixties and would probably tell Alan Sugar to F-off.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The law of the market

The markets we do come in all shapes and sizes, belligerent beasts where there’s a snarl of traffic at 6am in the morning as everyone tries to cram into narrow streets and genteel villages where speaking in a whisper sometimes seems to loud.

Out of them all the last place we expected any trouble was Ansouis. Every Sunday morning one of the most relaxed markets in Provence takes place. There’s a small square shaded by two plane trees. It’s covered in the type of loose earth which is perfect for a game of boule and the traders trickle along as and when it suits them. Nobody has ever been ready to sell anything until at least 9.

Barbara, who runs the mobile boucherie, makes everyone coffee. When we’re around there’s always a series of jokes about the English, and the morning passes peacefully accompanied by the soothing sound of water flowing through the adjacent ancient baths. It’s hard to think of a more pleasant way to spend a weekend morning.

But this Sunday was the 1st of July and the smell of tourists and money was in the air. Just as I was uncorking our bottles of wine I noticed problems on the other side of the square. An old man, with an elegantly pruned handlebar moustache had set up a small table and chair. Under a cloth was an enormous paella, cooked and ready to serve in plastic takeway dishes. The price was 5 euro a portion conveniently undercutting his rival, who, like us, had been in Ansouis all winter.

A lynch mob of gesturing French market traders quickly surrounded the interloper, almost driving him from his seat with the draught created by their whirling arms. Most markets have a municipal policeman to deal with just this type of dispute and ensure fair play, but in Ansoius the majority ruled. Ruefully fingering his moustache the paella vendor headed home for what must have been a large lunch.

Turning back to my stall I was accosted by a young Frenchman. His eyes were dark, his hair short, and his accent heavy with the local twang. The pantomime of a conversation we had went something like this.

“You’re in my place.”

“But we’ve been here all winter.”

“No, you haven’t”

“Oh yes we have.”

“Oh no you haven’t”

Anyway you get the idea. Our challenger turned out to be a local vigneron trying to bully us from our pitch. He must have scented blood. We were English and therefore vulnerable. Did we have permission from the local Mairie? Did we have an alcohol licence?

The aggressive questioning continued, until quite soon we were surrounded by the same whirling mob who’d driven the paella vendor away. We were fighting against a man who grew his wine no more than a 100 metres from where we stood. How could we win? Parochial interest in France always triumphs….. against central government....against European law.... and most definitely against a couple of English market traders.

But unbeknown to us there was a more powerful force at work - the law of the market. We’ve been working in Provencal markets for nearly 8 months. We’d turned up in the winter when customers were sparse, traders stuffed newspaper in their shoes to keep warm and the village dogs toasted themselves by lying on the pavement in front of the poulet roti stand. Winter service had to triumph over summer opportunism otherwise there would be chaos.

The vigneron was sent on his way. Our pitch was safe.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It's like love - you never know

All year our fellow traders have been talking excitedly about the summer. “You just wait,” they advised with eager almost salivating eyes. And so come the end of May, caught up in the increasing hysteria about the arrival of the tourists I put in a bumper order from our suppliers. The cave was full, June arrived, and we were ready to make our fortune - well at least enough money to see us through the winter.

Unfortunately the Gods thought otherwise. There are few products as dependant on blue sky as rosé. Give us bright sunshine and the wine shines an almost luminous pink, even tempting euros from the pockets of the Dutch. But under limpid grey skies rosé loses all its appeal. And for the first few weeks of June a Dulux palate of grey is all we got. Then, as if to remind us how lucky we are, the deities sent the mistral for a week. Toying with (as flies to wanton boys) they followed this with the south of France’s first ever twister, which descended on Lourmarin market 10 days ago and sent parasols and small dogs twirling into the sky like Dorothy and Toto from the Wizard of Oz.

So come mid June our sales ledger was far from healthy.

Finally, finally, this Friday, the skies cleared to a vivid blue and everything was set. The rosé bathed luxuriantly in a transparent ice-tub winking at punters like a whore on a street corner. My money belt was full of the change I’d need for the avalanche of cash that was going to come sliding our way. I checked my watch. 10.00am and the market was getting nice and busy. As I uncorked bottle after bottle, a gypsy vendor passed with his wares mounted on an old wheelbarrow. I shook my head. He was trying to make a living with one of the most ridiculous products ever - bird whistles. Long flute like pieces of wood which, so he claimed, could be manipulated to make any sound from the harsh cry of the hawk to the sweet melodies of the nightingale.

Who on earth would buy these things?

Two hours later I'd sold a solitary bottle of wine. Conditions were as perfect for us as seam bowler on the first morning of the Lord’s Test but nothing had happened. And then I noticed it, the market had been transformed into aviary. To my left the song of a parakeet, to my right a lesser spotted tit, there wasn’t a child in Lourmarin who hadn't cajoled his parents into buying a whistle. The gipsy came by again and I offered him a glass of wine.

“Ca marche?” I asked.

“Pas du toute” he said with a grin, looking for signs of the tax man behind the mountain of rosé on our stall.

Later, I was commiserating with another trader who’d had a similarly barren morning. She gave me a consoling hug, and said, “It’s like love,"

I looked quizically at her - "What's like love?"

"The markets - you just never know.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The world's first asparagus tourists

Tanya and I became the world’s first asparagus tourists this week. We’d been talking to Martine the honey lady who works next to us in the market and I, like the city dweller I used to be, confessed that I had never seen a field of asparagus growing. “Venez chez mois,” said Martine enthusiastically. And so we did.

After cake and watching her husband make the honey we headed to the asparagus field. You can imagine the anticipation. Richard Branson’s prospective moon tourists have nothing on us. Cameras and binoculars swinging around our necks, controlling our breathing lest the excitement got too much we prepared for the moment. Just what did a field of asparagus look like? And here’s the exclusive for all you city dwellers a field full of growing asparagus - admittedly one that has been allowed to go to seed - looks just like a Christmas tree farm. All that’s missing is the fairy lights.

On the subject of tourists when we arrived home from the market this morning we noticed a strange car parked under one of the olive trees. On further investigation we also discovered a pink kneed couple complete with picnic rug, camp chairs, and Tupperware pots. They waved cheerily at us, saluting our passage by raising their glasses full of wine and lounging back and enjoying the view.

Our view! (Sorry to sound possessive)

I unpacked our gear from the market hoping our guests would realise they were on private property and leave. But after half an hour they were still there recumbent and sated after their long lunch. I thought at this point I would politely go over and point out the no-entry sign swaying in the wind above their head.

“Vous êtes Anglais or Francais?” I asked

Judging from the confused expressions - although it could have easily have been the poverty of my French - I assumed they were English.

“Hello,” I said in as friendly a manner as I could, “I am afraid this is private property, would you mind moving on.”

“No problem,” the man added wiping sweat from his perspiring brow, “since you are English I don’t suppose you have email, I had my phone stolen this morning and need to cancel the contract.”

What could I do. I led them over to the house, installed them at our computer, consoled them about the loss of their phone and even offered them a glass of wine.

Half an hour later our post market lunch was burning in the oven, and our impromptu guests were still here. I poked my head around the door and found that far from cancelling a mobile they were instant messaging their relatives to arrange being picked up from the airport.

“Any chance of a top up?” they flushed.

It was 3.30 pm when they finally left, having caught up with their extended family all over the world. “Thanks ever so much” they waved as they bounced off down the road.

“And you wonder why tourists get a bad name.”

“Shameless,” agreed Tanya.

“I wouldn’t allow them on the asparagus tour,” I concluded.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The taxman cometh

The phone call came a week a go. A kind man, speaking slow understandable French explained that a new law was coming into force affecting the social security status of my wife, would I mind if he visited our house to help us understand the legislation? I said yes, and thought nothing more of it.

Then an hour before the scheduled visit I was hit by a panic attack. What if this had nothing to do with Tanya’s social security payments? The French were so notorious for sneaking on their neighbours that the process even had a name - “denunciation”. Did someone suspect we were living beyond our means? Had we been denounced?

My next thought was - so what if we have? I am sure every other trader in the markets slips some sales through on a cash basis, but so far I’d been scrupulously honest. I had nothing to hide….
…..except that as well as honest I was also terribly disorganised. After a long day in the market, one of the last things I felt like doing was filling in a spreadsheet detailing our exact sales. It was often not until a week later that I sat down and tried to reconcile what I remembered selling (as opposed to personally drinking) with the wine that had disappeared from our stock. There was plenty of margin for error and the bare minimum of paper records.

And so I began rushing around the house hiding any signs of wealth. I put the hood up on our convertible car to display the slashed rear windscreen we couldn‘t afford to replace, I changed into scruffy clothes and I arranged the sunshade on the terrace so that I wouldn’t have to show the inside of our apartment.

Ten minutes before our meeting was due to start a smart black Audi pulled up outside the house. I’ve lived and travelled in France for 3 years now and this is the first time I have ever known a Frenchman be early. On time - possibly, and only when there was a TGV to catch. Carelessly and forgetfully late after a long lunch - nearly always. So what was the inspector doing arriving at 2.20? I suspected some ploy to catch me shredding papers and anxiously guided the investigator, I mean social security advisor, onto our terrace.

I could see his eyes roaming over the garden furniture evaluating their cost, he looked up at the imperious green hills and made an excuse about wanting a coffee, presumably so that he could peer inside. By now I was really nervous. A jail sentence awaited me if I was caught defrauding the French treasury. The taxman removed some papers from his case and smiled at the suspiciously high quality of the coffee. His opening gambit couldn’t have been much better.

“Nice place you’ve got here.”

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

It's competition time

It’s 8am on Sunday morning and Lourmarin should be slumbering, with just the odd early morning dog walker enjoying the silence of the streets. Instead there’s mayhem. All across the Luberon the village’s annual vide grenier (empty attic sale) has been advertised, and as one of the region’s property hotspots people have travelled for miles in anticipation of rich pickings. But to get the good stuff you have to be early, hence the series of rugby scrums developing as the church clock strikes the hour.

Why the intense competition? Most people who have been on holiday to France will have visited a brocante market - all weathered furniture, old iron work and rusty boule - and winced at the preposterous prices. How can things that look so battered cost so much? Well the joy of the vide grenier is that brocante quality pieces can be had for next to nothing….that is if you beat the professional dealers who are scouring the market for items they can take home, shine up and sell on for ten times the price.

Tanya and I join one of the rolling mauls through the narrow street and emerge at the other end with a Brucey conveyor belt full of items - 6 beer glasses, a watercolour painting, two old fishing nets, a painting of a lion, a coffee maker and an old fan, but no cuddly toy. The price of our early morning shopping expedition - €20. Everyone loves a bargain, hence the fight erupting near by over an old wine rack.

And now some news which will delight my relatives back in England - the Luberon is enjoying it’s wettest spring for years. All winter the locals have been muttering about the secheresse, the river beds have been at all time lows, water basins have been empty and the upcoming long hot summer was expected to knock the eco-system over the edge. Even some vines, the greatest hunters of water ever invented, were expected to die, in the coming drought. Then the rain started and it hasn’t stopped. As I write this there is an ugly grey drizzle falling outside, which is delighting everyone apart from me. The smiles are broad because it’s good rain, not the barrage of heavy droplets that ricochet off the hardened earth and are swept away in a deluge before the benefits can be felt, but rather an insistent trickle which will seep through the soil and fill the water basins - rather important if that’s all you’ve got to flush the loos all summer. No wonder people are smiling.

Finally the competition - win a ticket to the hottest party in town the launch party of La Vie en Rosé on August 4th just outside Lourmarin. Email the answer to this question to me and Tanya and will pick one lucky reader out of the hat. Unfortunately we can’t pay for flights and accommodation but we promise there will be plenty of free rosé .

Name two foods that Tanya doesn't eat.

Answers to me - by July 4th.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bad news for the Dutch

The Provencal market trader is a verbose sort and when business is quiet he’s likely to sound off about all sorts of things - Pertuis’ new potato confrerie, illegal Luberon raves and of course foreigners.

I’d have thought the Americans would be public enemy number one - Iraq, George Bush, and global warming - there’s more than enough material to fill half an hour of idyll gossip, but no. Although the Americans take a hit for their inability to learn how to even say “Bonjour,“ or “Merci,“ without doubt, and rather surprisingly to me, it’s the Dutch who are the least welcome tourists in Provence.

In the local imagination Holland is little more than a massive car park for camper vans. Apparently all that flat land makes an easy marshalling point for these white tanks before they bulldoze their way south laden with cans of Amstel and a month’s supply of Edam. The last thing any self respecting Dutch person would do on holiday is buy any regional produce - so my fellow traders rant - instead they illegally park their vans in the municipal parking - who needs to pay for a campsite when there’s a parking so close? And who cares if the residents have to lug their shopping and their children a couple of hundred metres to get to their houses? Camp chair in the next door parking space, country of origin proudly displayed by a bumper sticker, the Dutch sit under the trees, congratulating themselves on their ability to holiday on the cheap.

“Never ever spend any time serving the Dutch,” my neighbouring trader continues. “They’ll taste absolutely everything you have on offer, they’ll talk to you for hours and prevent you from engaging with other customers, and then they’ll just walk off. Forget “oursins” in the pocket (see blog dated May 22nd) the Dutch have whopping great Portuguese men of war. If their fingers so much as stray near a spare euro, they risk being stung to death. No wonder they don’t spend anything,” my neighbour concludes triumphantly.

He’s on such a roll that I hate to tell him I’ve always found the Dutch rather pleasant.

Finally apologies to anyone who came to see us in Ansouis market on Sunday, as you’ll have noticed we bunked off. Our excuse - the weather was a little bit iffy and there was water jousting to watch in Cuceron.

Health and Safety prevents this type of thing in England, which is a shame because as a betting spectacle it beats greyhound racing - Two boats with outboard motors line up at the opposite end of a stretch of water, and members of the crew stand on a podium mounted at the stern, holding a wooden lance. Then, you guessed it, the pilots cut the outboard motors loose and the two water knights hurtle towards each other. Carnage follows. The event was eventually won by a stocky young girl, whose low centre of gravity, much to the chagrin of the competing boys, prevented anyone from dislodging her.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


In the market this morning I learnt some new sayings and had a chance to reflect on some old ones.

First the new ones:

“Oursin dans les poches,” - A disparaging label for tourists who refuse to buy anything. Literally it means that they have sea urchins in their pockets. If you’ve never seen a sea urchin before visualise a miniature second world war mine floating at sea - they are round, small, spiky, salty, balls of anger and if you had one in your pocket you certainly wouldn’t be rooting around for loose change.

“Le Gibier d’Ete” - I first read about this saying in Peter Mayle’s excellent A-Z of Provence, but had never heard it used before. Once again it’s a derogatory way to describe tourists, in fact a market traders worst nightmare is that the Gibier D’Ete might all end up having Oursin dans les Poches. Gibier in French is an umbrella term for game and includes wild boar, hares, partridges, in fact pretty much anything that can be shot at. In summer when hunting is banned, the locals have to prey on the tourists instead. Hence their nickname “les gibiers d’ete.”

And a couple of old ones from England:

“The grass is always greener on the other side” - this expression came to mind as a delightfully eccentric French lady lectured me about the superiority of English society. She reflected on her visits to Kent villages, and described how people made way for her as she drove down the street, opened the door to her car, let her cross the road and generally behaved in a gentlemanly way. England she concluded was a much more polite society than France. I didn’t dare point out that nearly seven million English people a year thought differently and chose to spend their summer holiday in France.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” - Well there is if you are a Provencal market trader (and you are prepared to stand in the markets all winter making friends with the other vendors). As I set up at 7am this morning, Martine the honey and asparagus saleswoman who has the stand next to us, handed me a bag full of fine asparagus. “It’s perfect for soups and omelettes,” she advised. Later in the morning with my stomach rumbling I went in search of eggs. Barbara who runs the boucherie wouldn’t hear of me paying for a dozen of her free range, and so back at home at 2.30 I sat down to my lunch and started thinking about writing something on sayings, and whether they were true.

I’ll let you know whether the tourists really do become our prey or whether they turn out to have sea urchins in their pockets. As for the grass being greener, I am on the side of the 7 million English who come to France, it’s really rather idyllic here.

Finally for those of you who are regular readers of this column, the promised update on our big cat. Since I wrote the piece there have been no more sightings, but we did have a visit from a South African tracker, Owen, a man who’d spent a lifetime working in the Kruger national park. He disappeared into the trees near where we’d last seen the cat and within minutes signalled us over with a piercing whistle.

“Look here, and here,” Owen said pointing with a stick at impressions in the earth, “no way that’s a dog, put your hand in the mark and you can feel the five pads.”

We complied.

“That’s a cat, and it’s a hell of a big one.”

As a result sunbathing continues to be a nervous occupation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Be careful what you wish for....

It was 8.54 am on Wednesday morning and thanks to the Aix rush hour and the legendary punctuality of TGVs, some kamikaze driving was called for. The short term car park was the wrong way up a dual carriageway, but for some reason that didn’t seem to matter, instead I felt like I was playing Frogger as I slalomed past onrushing trucks. Discarding the car we dragged our heavy suitcases down the road, furiously pumping our arms but going nowhere fast.

“If only we lived in England,” shouted Tanya as we grappled for our tickets, punched them and wheezed our way through the sliding doors. Sure enough, there was the TGV, smooth and sleek with its engine purring a challenge to the station clock. Panting our way to our seats we reflected that engineering works and replacement bus services had their upsides.

We were returning to London for a wedding but rather than anticipating seeing family and friends I spent the 4 hour journey to Lille fretting about an incident in the market, which had the potential to make Tanya’s comment prophetic.

A boy and a girl had approached the stand and studied the wine list. If I’m generous to my conscience they were 17 but it’s possible they were no more than 14. They selected a bottle and handed over some money, “it’s a present for our father” they chimed.

Tanya was off shopping and I simply didn’t know what to do. In France the journey from nipple to grape is one of the shortest in the world. Once a child is able to walk parents are happy to dilute water with a touch of wine and the two eager young palates before me probably knew more about tipicite and terroir than I did. Should I serve them? Culturally - never mind for now legally - was this type of transaction acceptable in France? Mechanically I counted out the change and handed it to them.

It was only after they left, bottle in hand that I pondered the consequences of my actions. “A present for their father,” - what type of fool was I? In a couple of hours they’d be swaying down the main street of the village singing the Marseillaise and when the gendarme picked them up and asked them where they got their wine from, that would be the end of our nascent rose empire.

And yet, perhaps I was right, perhaps French children were more honest and adult about alcohol than the English. They’d certainly showed no sign of embarrassment as I served them. Had I refused it could have been another Anglo-Saxon faux pas to add to a long list embarrassing errors.

More on the big cat next week - a south African tracker is coming to search for paw prints, that’s if we haven’t been deported in the meantime.

By the way for those of you who have read Extremely Pale Rosé , the wedding we were attending in England was Peter Tate’s daughter’s. She looked beautiful!

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Provencal Panther

When we moved into our house the landlord promised we’d see wild boar at the bottom of the garden, spinning a romantic tale about mothers and their babies coming down from the mountains in the hot summer months to look for water. While he was on the subject of wildlife you’d have thought he would have mentioned the panther. “There’s a tile on the roof that’s a bit loose, the hot water tank only lasts for one shower, and oh by the way there’s a man eating cat on the prowl.“ It must have slipped his mind. Still caveat emptor we’re stuck with our new companion.

It certainly puts a novel twist on sunbathing. First we check which direction the wind is blowing - I’ve seen Big Cat diary and the lions always make sure they’re downwind of their prey - and then we position the sun-lounger. Orientation with the sun is irrelevant, all that matters is a clear view of the tree line and an escape plan.

The Provencal Panther, as we’ve dubbed our new feline friend has been spotted twice. At first I was sceptical - the feral domestic black cats that inhabit the countryside are pretty large and the house guest responsible for the first sighting had been up all night drinking coffee and looking after his child. Fairy stories and caffeine were obviously a potent mix.

But a day later Tanya rushed to the window and reported an animal twice the size of the domestic cats, and one which moved in a totally different way, a kind of elegant elongated tiptoe with its belly pressed close to the ground and its nose quivering for scents. It slipped into the shadows before I got a chance to see it, but now we’ve got a long lense camera trained on the trees and a hotline to the picture desk at La Provence.

In another unrelated development a group of tourists have started hugging our olive trees. We emerged from the house one afternoon to discover a trail of hand holding hippies traipsing through the grove. They selected a suitable tree and formed a human circle around it, resting their backs against the trunk and emitting a low humming sound. Tree by tree they made their way around the field oblivious to the lurking danger. I had to presume that the invisible energy source they were tapping into would protect them if the panther attacked. Anyway I had washing to hang up.

Many thanks to for the free images

Friday, April 27, 2007

An election joke from Lourmarin market

Le Pen, Royal, and Sarkozy meet at St Peter's Gates. Floating on a cloud nearby they see God. In a great booming voice God says:

"Monsieur Le Pen - what did you do for France."

Le Pen replies with a salute: "Oh Lord I tried to save her."

God thinks for a bit and then says: "Very well come and sit on my right hand side. Now Sego what did you do for France."

Sego gives a curtsy and sweet smile "Oh Lord, I tried to make every Frenchman happy."

God thinks again and then says, "very well come and sit on my left hand side." He turns to Sarkozy. "Now then my little Nico where shall I put you?"

Nico looks at Sego and Le Pen and replies "Oh Lord, I think you'll find you're in my place."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A trip to the coast

This weekend we were in Cannes for the Concours Mondial du Vin Rosé , the biggest rosé tasting in the world.

But first we had to get over the culture shock - on the Croisette people’s sun glasses looked like they’d had an optical version of baby bio sprinkled all over them. Triffid frames engulfed tanned faces barely affording their wearers an opportunity to breath. Men draped themselves in white linen suits looking like modern day Don Johnsons, ageing women ignored the effect of gravity on their cleavage and wore plunging tops and heavy jewellery which counted time as they tottered along. There were sofas on beaches, cocktails sprouting tropical fruits and queues outside nightclubs. It may only have been April but we saw more marcha in an afternoon on the Cote d’Azur, than the whole winter in the Luberon.

At the Concours things were very serious. In a backroom over 1,400 wine bottles had been wrapped in little black plastic body bags and a great sheet of plastic tarpaulin had been spread across the carpet. It reminded me of a crime scene.

Out front teams of tasters were methodically working their way through all of the wine. Now you would have thought that being a taster at a Concours would be one of the great jobs in the world, on par with being the swimwear correspondent for Sports Illustrated. And when we arrived late morning after the tasters had already evaluated over thirty bottles, I’d expected the chatty conviviality of a pub before closing time. Not a bit of it.

Instead everybody sat hunched over a small handheld personal computer from which their tasting notes were immediately uploaded to the central server. Tanya commented that it could have been a conference of engineers. Nobody seemed to be taking any sneaky sips to relieve the monotony of all the spitting and the lunch that followed was as dry as the Sahara, with the professional oenologues no doubt preserving their palates for an afternoon of data input.

On our return to the Luberon, things had changed. Spring had arrived. Just a week ago one of our vigneron friends, Rupert Birch, ( confided that he was worried he’d killed his vines. Then the fields around his domaine had been full of rows of inert skeletal fists but in the space of a weekend they’d sprouted long green fingers. The plane trees, lifeless for so long, have finally started to provide shade. It’s as if God finally decided to put up the parasols for the summer. Our house is now surrounded by yellow fields of rape, wild poppies grow in red swathes, and the whole thing looks a bit like an impressionist painting.

You can find the results of the Concours at:,mondial-du-rose.php?langue=fr

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Welcome to the all new Extremely Pale Rosé website.

Just to update those who have read Extremely Pale Rosé, Tanya and I are now running our own wine business in the south of France. We live near the village of Lourmarin and our shop front is the local markets. When we started trading in October last year one of the locals observed that we would be "living on love and cold water." They were right. We survived a long cold winter and sold practically no wine. But we made friends with the other market traders and secured our pitches in three local villages for the summer and now at last the tourists and the sun have arrived.

As I write this I am just back from the market in Cuceron, where I was approached - or should I say interogated by a middle-aged English lady. As well as wine we sell my book on the stand. The lady flicked through it and looked up. I prepared to explain the story. Instead of asking a polite question she pointed the spine into my face: "Why isn't it translated into French?"

I replied that we had recently found a Dutch publisher and that we were searching for a French one.

"People like you are wrecking this place. It's an English invasion," she said and stalked off.

I wish I'd had the opportunity to continue the conversation. I sat there thinking over her (un) righteous indignation. The honey lady next to us makes her own honey and the potter his own pottery and they both sell it. But for some reason a writer is unable to sell his own books. Had she been French I could have understood her ire, but from a Brit it was the worse kind of snobbery - for some reason she believed she had a right to live here and yet none of her fellow country men did.

Where was she in January when the fountains in the village were frozen and our clients were just the locals? Back in England?