Thursday, June 12, 2008

Don't panic..

…but when you log onto this blog in a week’s time things will look rather different. I am combining Extremely Pale Rose with the new website for my magazine I will continue to write the same weekly blog but there will also be loads of additional content.

In the meantime some thoughts on how to sell advertising because after 6 months of hard work setting up the magazine I have finally turned a profit of….drum roll…..300 euros. Somehow despite earning in a week only slightly more than the minimum hourly wage I am flushed with success.

Imagine also the delight of our one misguided friend who lives in LA who put some cash in to the venture. I am going to be sending her a whopping great dividend that will pay for the coat check (maybe only partially) at some swish Rodeo drive eatery.

I’ll also tell her its all about the future because nearly all new publications lose money for the first couple of editions, so in fact BSL has already joined the elite of the magazine world.

And so if you too want to make 300 euros in 6 months, here’s how it is done.

1. Be different. In my case that wasn’t hard. I’ve yet to meet another English travelling salesman in Provence.

2. Take a baby with you. The subtext being take an advert in the magazine or he/she will starve.

3. Tell the truth - this is a variant of (1) since honesty is not an attribute usually associated with salespeople.

In fact my pitch sounded more like a health warning… an ad in Blue Sky Living may or may not attract business, and advertisers should take proper financial advice before committing….

4. Tell the truth - but make sure that your French is so bad that people don’t understand you.

5. It’s a numbers game - someone has to say yes eventually.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Here's the plan

Well we finally gave in. We put aside our worries about the termites eating the walls and signed the compromis for our new house. As I write this I only have 2 days left to pull out of the transaction, after that we are legally obliged to buy.

Then the headaches begin. And you can follow them all right here. The plan sounds a simple one. We are going to demolish the house in July - it‘s falling down anyway. Then in August everyone is going to put their feet up. In September we sink the foundations. The Notaire explained our new house is going to be like a boat - floating on pillars that keep it above the concrete wrecking clay soil (Note to self - there’s always a reason that things are cheap. Further note - will it sway in the mistral?)

Once the foundations are down, there’s a rush to build the exterior before the end of the year. Hopefully, by January when the bad weather moves in all the workmen will be snug inside doing the electrics etc…Giving us a couple of months to finish everything off before the projected move in date of April.

As I said that’s the plan. People who know the area and the propensities of the local builders well, give us absolutely no chance of achieving our schedule. Their best guess is that it will be ready in two years time.

The only problem is there’s no contingency in the budget for this. Naïve me - never.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Blue Sky Living - c'est fini

Apologies to regular readers who have logged on for an update in the last week, but I have been working in rather un-provencal fashion - up at 6.30am, a black coffee fuelled morning, and a red-bull charged afternoon, by the time I slumped into bed my whole body was shaking from the caffeine and the list of things to do the next day that was rumbling through my head.

It all reminded me of being a London lawyer.

And the reason for all this angst? Well as of this morning, the first edition of Blue Sky Living was officially finished. The new lifestyle magazine for the Luberon and Les Alpilles will be rolling off the press shortly.

Meanwhile in the Luberon it has being raining. Usually the locals love tormenting the tourists with their attitude towards rain. They smile and explain that the region desperately needs rain content in the knowledge that the sun will come out soon. Only it hasn't. Thunder storm after thunder storm has rolled through the mountains and finally the smile has been wiped of people's faces, all the talk of how great the rain is has vanished. Instead everyone has been glum, except perhaps me - I have been too wired to be glum.

On a cheerier note.....the paper back of La Vie en Rose is published this week in the UK. The book looks great and has apparently made it into great positions in all the bookshops.

Copies of Blue Sky Living will probably reach people who are on the mailing list by mid-June...for anyone else who would like a copy it's not too late, just send me your address and I will put you on the list.

Meanwhile if you are coming to Provence next week - like my brother - pack an umbrella.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Termite problems

When I arrived in France my French was limited to the vocabulary I’d picked up at GCSE. And so to express surprise I confidently said: “Oh la la”, fully expecting the response to be as appreciative as the school examiners.

Instead people started giggling. It appeared “Oh la la” was as comic and as dated as Hugh Grant saying “whoopsadaisies (sp?)” to Julia Roberts in Notting Hill.

In response I jettisoned everything I’d learnt and concentrated on going “street“, punctuating every sentence with an array of “doncs,” and “quois”.

People still laughed, but not quite as much.

Then last week, on a hot sunny day (actually quite rare in Provence this summer), I was out with Elodie in the village. There she was kicking her little chubby baby legs in the air and attracting her usual crowd of admirers, when a young mother approached.

Pinching Elodie’s copious thigh, she exclaimed “Ooh la la, les cuisses.”

I was delighted and ever since I‘ve been listening out with surprising results. In fact I’ve heard so many “ooh la las” that I am going to roll out my old favourite - “Zut Alors!”

Regular readers will remember that a few weeks ago, I wrote about us possibly buying a house. Well we’re going ahead…..eventually that is, when the French government lets us, because even though we are going to demolish the existing building (yes it’s that bad) and start again, according to law a termite investigation has to be conducted.

I am not quite sure what happens if termites are discovered…..should I be worried - can termites survive a demolition, or will they just leave and eat someone else’s house. Answers please?

Monday, May 12, 2008

The early bird catches the chicken

Some of you may remember a blog I wrote about a month ago about a banker friend caught in the credit crunch and fearful for his job. His solution to his impending unemployment was to spend a year learning the poulet roti trade in France. After that he planned to return to London and conquer the city with his new chicken van. I’ve had to contact him twice since about his idea.

The first time to inform him that a TV company had read my blog and was interested in shadowing his experiences and again this week to inform him that he had competition.
Yes, apparently my mate is not as mad as I thought, because it turns out there is another person who has had exactly the same idea. What’s more Phoebe is a step ahead of my friend - who has yet to get the sack and is still prevaricating about whether his future lies in chickens.

While he sits in his offices, his competition is plotting how to become the Walmart of the poulet roti business. She is to be seen sitting on a little stool in Lourmarin market, learning from the doyens of the roti world - Barbara and Christophe. She has a little notebook and takes down the spices they use on the skins of the bird. So involved is she in her project that when I visited all I could see were her ankles sticking out from the undercarriage of the van - it turns out she was drawing a diagram for a mechanic back in the UK so that he could customise her truck.

Until now I thought that one only did stages/placements at big city firms, which tend to throw open their doors to budding students every year, but when I asked the legs dangling from underneath the van, exactly what she was doing, she declared in a very serious voice that she was on a month long stage.

So when the poulet roti business explodes in the UK, remember you heard it here first. And also remember that there is nothing like the original and come and taste one of Barbara’s chickens.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Restaurant Review - La Petite Maison de Cucuron

La Petite Maison de Cucuron
Place De L’Etang
Tel: 04 90 68 21 99
**** An enchanting experience

I had a girlfriend once who had the miraculous ability to be in two or even three places at once. She had long lustrous dark hair and almond eyes which held a glance for a quavering, quivering, indecent second too long.

In the early stages of our relationship she kissed me goodnight at a teasingly early hour and but for her irresistible almond eyes we would have split up when I discovered that she was cramming two dates into the same evening.

As the relationship progressed I became more and more heartbroken. Stories of her being seen with other men when as far as I could remember she’d been with me abounded. I began to realise that she would never be mine. She was a mythical creature, who seemed to be able to inhabit several universes, occasionally ours would intersect but while I was falling in love, her memory would record a totally different evening with a totally different man. I was Icarus flying to close to the sun.

I mention this only because after meeting Eric Sapet the head chef of the La Petite Maison I was reminded of this girl. Thankfully it wasn’t final’s night at the Luberon drag queen contest, and even if it was the small chubby wonderfully “chefesque” Eric would never have held anyone’s glance for a quavering, quivering, indecent second too long. No, the occasion was a long weekday lunch in Cucuron and for some reason the more the meal progressed the more memories of my almond-eyed love flooded back to me.

For a week or so after the meal I was disturbed and agitated. What had triggered the thoughts? Walking around Cucuron, I was continually bumping into Eric. There he was in his chef’s whites having a coffee in the Café D’Etang, moments later in the middle of a busy lunchtime service on a bank holiday weekend I noticed him high in the village near the ruin of the old fort, but when I scrambled back down the hill, he was shaking hands with diners in his restaurant.

From the outside La Petite Maison is typical Provence - faded weather beaten crepy, with the painted “café restaurant” lettering only just visible. There’s a terrace with an iron trellis covered in leafy vines that invite long indulgent summer meals to take place in their shade.

Dining inside La Petite Maison though, is like stepping into a different world. The upstairs room appears to hover in a nether region between a London club and the south of France. The walls are panelled with wood, the chairs are a curious hybrid between upright dining and recumbent smoking - copious with heavy arms which encourage you to relax into them. Water is served in silver goblets and the red wine decanted into a giant wine glass with a barely noticeable spout from which to pour the liquid into the mortal sized glasses also provided.

On the €35 menu that weekday was an amuse bouche of steamed vegetables in an appetite-inducing vinaigrette, followed by a starter of fried frog’s legs, asparagus and garlic, an unlikely combination that inexplicably gelled. The main course, a cuisse de canard, served on a carrot and petit pois reduction was as exemplary as the first. The duck, was soft and meltingly meaty and the vegetable reduction cut through the fatty juices which often ruin duck dishes. Yet Eric somehow conjured this meal while simultaneously giving a cookery demonstration in the room below.

Adding to the feeling that the restaurant somehow existed just out of kilter with normal rules were the staff. It’s notoriously difficult to get well trained experience staff in the rural areas of Provence. The rich and famous arrive every summer but they stay for two short months, and retaining workers outside this period is often difficult. Yet in May in Cucuron we were served by waiters who wouldn’t have been out of place in London or New York, possessing the vital ability to be unobtrusively efficient. Glasses were never left empty, plates never sat un-cleared and proper pauses divided the courses.

The meal finished with a diplomat’s pudding made from Apt fruit confits, served with a nougat ice cream and a sauce Suzette. There was also a Catherine Wheel of multicoloured amuse bouche extras. Sated and content, but feeling slightly disturbed by the thoughts of my ex-girlfriend, I ordered a whisky. The waiter left the remains of the bottle, and the room emptied around-me, until I was left alone contemplating what an oak panelled dining room was doing in Provence.
Next to my table was an old-fashioned drink’s trolley brimming with spirits. With the whisky bottle now empty I reached across and fingered the cognac. It wouldn’t hurt to help myself to a glass I reasoned. No sooner had the thought entered my head then Eric materialised through an arch to my right. Thanking me for dining at La Petite Maison he ushered me into the Provencal sunshine.

It was only later that I questioned how he’d arrived at the table. The room he’d come from was a private dining room, with only one entrance, directly in my line of vision and the only plausible explanation for him appearing through that arch was that he’d been in the adjacent room throughout lunch. But then I’d seen him giving a cooking demonstration and somebody had had to cook my lunch.

A week later as I sat outside La Petite Maison, with a glass of pastis, looking at the reflection of the plane trees in the etang my mind finally became calm. Some people, like my ex-girlfriend, exist outside the norms. However it wasn’t after all the curious ability of Eric to apparently be in two places at the same time that reminded me of her, it was the teasing, quavering, quivering ability of his food to hold the palate’s attention for an indecent second too long.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The judgement of Lourmarin

In 1976 English wine merchant Steven Spurrier organised a blind tasting of the best French and American wines. To the lasting shock of the wine industry the American wines won and the tasting was christened the Judgement of Paris. In a light-hearted tribute to this event my new magazine Blue Sky Living hosted its own tasting. This time the wine was rosé and the competition for the French came from the booming English wine industry.

Bruno, the director of Lourmarin cave co-operative was a worried man. It was 11.50am on a cold April day and all morning shoppers in the market had been gathering to taste two wines. Both were shrouded in tissue paper. One when poured had the colour of ripe cherries, the other vibrant pink coral.

In front of Bruno was a sheet of paper filled with ticks where tasters had indicated which wine they preferred, and with just 40 minutes left - less if the dark clouds overhead closed in - the English wine from A Beckett’s vineyard near Wiltshire was a clear winner. Could the local Hav Couloubre - Cote du Luberon, pull back the margin and salvage French pride?

Two hours earlier the Blue Sky Living team had arrived in the market.

“Allez, allez, goutez le vin rosé anglais.”

The traders had only just finished setting up their stalls, and the few passing shoppers were in a hurry to buy their vegetables before the queues developed. Most people simply shook their heads, or rubbed their stomach in horror at the thought of drinking at such an early hour. They then scurried off without even registering what they were being asked to try.
The closest trader - the oyster merchant, was vigorously quartering lemons and sewing them like seeds among rows of yawning shells.

“Un degustation de vin rosé anglais,” cried out the Blue Sky Living team as the clocked chimed ten.

A shopper turned to face the degustation, a slivering oyster dripping from his gaping mouth.

“Ca existe?” he dropped the shell of the oyster in horror. Life was uncertain enough without the English starting to make rosé.

“It’s down to global warming,” explained Bruno. A belt of chalk runs from Chablis, through Champagne under the Channel to England, and with higher temperatures and the same soil the English were beginning to make good wines.

Chasing another oyster on its way with a glass of sharp Picpoul from Sete, the shopper showed no interest in tasting England‘s finest. “Soon they’ll have cicadas,” he muttered, as he shuffled away.

The judgement of Lourmarin had initially been scheduled for a week earlier, but with the English wine had come the English weather. A night long deluge had washed away the enthusiasm of most of the traders and those that had showed up had huddled beneath their parasols as a vicious electrical storm raged over the Luberon. The Gods, the traders joked, were not in favour of our enterprise. A week later with the weather closing in once again it seemed that they were right.

“Allez goutez….”

The two contending wines were notably different in style. A Beckett’s estate rosé from Devizes near Wiltshire, was light and fruity and relatively low in alcohol at 10%. Made from a mixture of Pinot Noir, and Reichensteiner, it closest comparator in France would have been a Marsannay rosé, which many in Burgundy regard as the country’s finest. The Cote du Luberon by contrast, a Syrah and Grenache mix, was a much more robust wine, more aggressive on the palate and a better accompaniment to food. Before the tasting Bruno commented “put both wines side by side in the shop and they would sell equally well. They appeal to a different market.”

Like a child offered cough medicine the first taster grimaced as he put the glass to his lips. How bad could English wine be?

Blue Sky Living’s first customer sipped and nodded knowingly. “An excellent nose, soft and subtle to drink.” The second wine was poured “Too aggressive, and too sugary. The first was much better, and definitely French.”

Bruno shook his head and disconsolately marked one point for the English. The tasting continued with the English wine accumulating points quicker than the Cote du Luberon, even if it did so in a slightly unusual fashion. Without the benefit of a label and knowing nothing about the wine several tasters chose the English wine commenting erroneously that it was stronger and with a greater depth of flavour.

Bruno shrugged: “they must have just been sucking cough sweets.”

As the morning continued more experienced drinkers easily distinguished the French wine: “c’est plus riche, plus sensual, plus capital.” “The English wine is drinkable - just!“ By midday the scores were nearly level and the first rain drops had begun to fall.

“Wine has no accent,” shrugged one philosophical taster on being told that he’d selected the English wine, once again edging it ahead in the contest. 35 people had now tasted and in an echo of the judgement of Paris, the French wine was about to be beaten into second place. In 1976 uproar had followed the result. Several of the tasters, including some of the most experienced sommeliers in France claimed that they had been duped. A recount was ordered and when the results were confirmed some of the most illustrious names in the French wine industry temporarily ostracised the organiser Steven Spurrier.

A bulbous drop of rain landed on the tasting table, quickly followed in a staccato burst by a further fistful of watery bullets. The final taster’s nose planted itself deep into the fluted wine glass. With an expert swish the contents were transformed into a vigorous pink whirlpool. As a heavy drizzle set in there was a sigh of contentment, and a scarcely audible murmur of appreciation for the first wine. The process was repeated for the second rosé. A swish and a swirl, a plant of the nose, a sip and suck as the taster churned the wine through his teeth.

Meanwhile the nearby traders hurriedly stacked their produce in the back of their vans. Olives were decanted from wicker baskets into plastic vats, brightly coloured scarves wrapped in plastic and stacked in cardboard boxes, bunches of dried lavender bundled under a tarpaulin cover. The multicoloured umbrellas snapped shut, and the last goods were crammed away to a symphony of slamming door and churning engines. The sickly smell of diesel drifted under the quivering nose of our final taster.

“And?” asked Bruno anxiously.

“I prefer the second wine, it must be the French one”

“Egalite” declared Bruno, “18 all. Vivre le entente cordiale.”

The wines:

A Beckett’s Vineyard, Estate Rosé, Price £7,00
Available from A Beckett’s Vineyard - High Street, Littleton Panel, Devizes, Wiltshire Tel: 01380 816669

Hav Couloubre - Cote du Luberon, La Cave a Lourmarin, Place Henri Barthélémey, 84160 Lourmarin. Tel: 04 90 68 02 18

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Business update: Ivey inc defies global credit crunch

It’s finally happened, after three months rushing from Lourmarin to Saint Remy selling advertising space in my new magazine, we have quite remarkably and - despite the extortionate cost of printing a magazine - broken even.

There have been some lows - An art gallery in Saint Remy de Provence on a cold February afternoon. I’d sold nothing all day, I was cold and hungry and wanted to be back home, but I decided to try one last sale.

I was greeted with the biggest smile I’d had all day and the female owner draped herself on me as she pulled me down into the chair opposite. Salesman’s smile on I began my pitch. The room was all grins and questions and joking responses. An advertising sale was inevitable. Ten more minutes passed. After fifteen I realised that the owner was completely inebriated and just passing the time of day.

The problem was I couldn’t leave without being impolite and there was still the slim chance that she was serious about the advertising. On and on we chatted, until mid-sentence her head lulled back on her high backed chair and she fell asleep, emitting a high pitched snore.

I nearly gave up the magazine business there and then.

On the wine side we are also enjoying the benefits of all our hard work in the markets last year. Repeat orders from clients are coming in and we’ve got over 200 hundred bottles to deliver next week.

To come: More on the house purchase and the English rose tasting which ironically was rained off and is likely to be again this week.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A fool and his money

So the world is in financial meltdown, property prices are plummeting, mortgage rates are rocketing and anyone with any sense simply buries their head in the sand and waits for it all to pass.

Particularly us - we live in a renovated flat with views of the Luberon Hills just minutes from Lourmarin. Our tenancy is secured and the rate can only rise by the small yearly amount allowed by the French government. I know we should sit tight particularly since our various tenuous business ventures flirt with profit about as frequently as Elton John a beautiful woman.

Instead we’ve being talking to architects and builders about a plot of land we’ve seen. It’s the usual fool’s gold story, a falling down house with foundations about as stable as Bear Stern’s balance sheet. In this case the rescue bid has come to late and the whole edifice has to be smashed down, and a new sparkling house resurrected in its place.

The views would be just as spectacular as our current flat, the walk to the village even shorter and Tanya and I would have the family house we crave. The problem is I don’t really have a job and for the last three years or so our life philosophy seems to be that things will get better in the end. They haven’t yet, but they will eventually won’t they?

So we lie in bed awake at night, listening to the squawks of our baby daughter, thinking about which way to face the new house to defend it from the howling mistral and then in the morning half light the worries descend and eat away at us…is this just one risk too far?

But it’s a beautiful location, with a view of the hills, within walking distance of the local school, outside a village we love.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The judgement of Lourmarin 2008

In 1976 wine merchant and writer Steven Spurrier organised a blind tasting of the very best wines that France and America could produce. Unfortunately for the French their wines were resoundingly beaten, with one of the blindfolded judges rather embarrassingly commenting that a Napa cabernet “bespoke the magnificence of France”

In honour of this event I have organised my very own blind tasting. This time there will be no Mouton Rothschild or Haut-Brion, just the new season rosé from Lourmarin matched against the very best that England can produce - a’becketts Estate rose from Devizes in Wiltshire.

Now the theory is that English wines are getting better and better. Global warming means that quality wines can now be produced in England - the soil is the same, the weather is similar so why shouldn’t the wine be just as good, if not better, particularly because the English vigneron does not have to fight against the excessive heat that now sends alcohol levels rocketing in southern French wines.

Next Friday morning - 11 April - we will find out whether the theory has translated into reality. Throughout the market outside the cave co-operative in Lourmarin we will be blindfolding shoppers and seeing whether they prefer the English or the French wine.

You never know there might be a surprise result…..

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Who's laughing now

Credit crunch, what credit crunch? The French have every right to feel smug at the moment. For the last decade our Gallic friends have looked enviously on as the Brits have been glutinously ramming debt onto our store and credit cards, and drowning ourselves in mortgage debt.

Meanwhile the sluggish French economy underperformed the rest of the world.
Credit cards as such do not exist in France - everything has to be paid off at the end of the month and the moment a Frenchman gets overdrawn at his bank, a letter drops through the post box telling him his account will be closed if matters aren’t remedied immediately, and that he will then be placed on the list of bad debtors at the Banc de France and never allowed to open an account again. Hardly a recipe for financial risk taking and innovation, with the result that the French are one of the most parsimonious nations around.

Saving is still in vogue, and despite producing some of the best and most expensive wine in the world, poor old Jean Pierre doesn’t have the choice of glugging back the premier cru and worrying about it 10 years later, instead the average French man drinks wine dispensed from petrol pumps in the local cave-cooperative. It might rot his gut and give him a fearsome headache in the morning, but at least he’s got money in the bank.

And so who’s laughing now? Certainly not the Champagne swilling, adrenalin obsessed, gambling junkies of the city of London. Only this week I had an email from a friend in the square mile fearing for his job. His plans for the future were about as creative as the sub-prime securitisations that got us all into this mess. He wants to come to France for a year and - wait for it….- work in a poulet-roti van.

Once he has learnt the trade his idea is to return to London and set up a rotisserie business, presumably hoping that the credit crunch is still biting, and that the filet mignon munching, caviar spreading, Margaux necking multitude have suddenly developed plainer habits and can think of nothing better than a quiet evening at home with my friend’s version of a KFC bargain bucket.

I told some of the locals in the bar, and wide smiles crept over their faces. Smug, the French, never!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sanitised France

So there I was in a deserted Bar Tabac in St Remy de Provence. It was the type of place that used to typify France - a carpet of cigarettes, a fog of smoke as thick as a 6am pea-souper on the M25, a line of clients at the bar the stub of their Gitanes playing a game of dare with their finger nails, and a happy bubble of voices.

Only this image was from the past. Today there was no-one, not a soul, just a floor smelling of bleach, a rack full of cigarettes for smoking outside - the mistral was blowing so strongly smokers needed to carry a personal beach wind break to light up - and the owner with his head in his hands contemplating how the new non smoking law had slashed his business. 30% down in just a couple of months…he could see no alternative, he was going to have to open a sandwich bar….and no he didn’t want to advertise in my new magazine. Still there was no-one to talk to, so he offered me a free beer and looked genuinely sad when I declined explaining that I couldn’t risk the police drink driving road blocks.

I know its wrong, but I couldn’t help feel a little nostalgic when I left. This used to be France, a country where real men drank litres of pastis and then cornered their Peugeot round hairpins while simultaneously urinating out of the window, fag in their other free hand rather than on the wheel. Ah the glory days…I guess even the over funded French health service can’t afford it anymore. So life has become rather sanitised. I had a coffee with the barman but it wasn’t as much fun.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Blues

As regular readers will know I’ve temporarily stopped selling rosé in the markets and have been spending the last few months trying to set up a magazine.

Viable year round businesses in the Luberon are as rare as wild boar sightings but they do exist. My plan is to sell rosé in the summer markets and then spend the winter producing a magazine.

It’s all been going so well, but then earlier this week, I got the travelling salesman’s blues.
They crept over me like the first few gentle bars from a Chicago guitar. I think it all began on Monday at the Salon des Jardins et Nature in Avignon. Maybe subliminally the name depressed me. Certainly the deserted car park, full of pot holes which were in turn full of water, did nothing for my mood.

There was a box office which looked more like an army command bunker, and a large hall full of desperate looking salesman salivating over the limited prey.

Shops round the world are now pumping fragrances into the air to encourage people to buy, but
clearly this technology has yet to reach Provence. Instead there was a pen full of sheep which gave the atmosphere a malodorous fetid stench.

I was there to meet the swimming pool manufacturers who were hunched in a corner trying to cover their noses with handkerchiefs while necking glasses of rosé . I approached one of the region’s finest, proffering a glossy brochure about my magazine. I’d barely begun my spiel before a hand was shoved into my face and a half sentient henchman grabbed my arm and led me away. The boss was here to sell not to buy.

I thought nothing of it, but as the week progressed and I failed to impress more and more people, I became depressed. What was the point in it all?

The rut deepened as I met grumpy Provencaux after grumpy Provencaux. Despite the positive advertising figures I’d had enough of putting on the salesman’s charm. I sat at home gulped red wine and bored Tanya to tears with my self-indulgent woes.

Then I met Eric Sapet the Chef of the La Petite Maison in Cucuron. If anybody can put a smile on you face it is Eric. He is comic in proportion - small and round with a cherubic face - his every step exudes bon-humeur. His cooking is half decent too - a starter of watermelon and sardines sounds like a Beano school dinner, but when you eat it, it is absolutely delectable.

Eric, beamed at me, and told me he thought my magazine was a great idea. The only smell of sheep was the slowly stewed lamb shank bubbling away in his kitchen, and I left feeling the world was a good place again.

And so if you are in Provence this summer, go and eat at the Petite Maison, it will make you smile

Thursday, March 06, 2008

I love Paris in the spring time

A year ago I decided I never want to go back to Paris. Ever, ever, ever. We’d travelled up from gentle old Provence where even the gruffest of the villagers give us the time of day and by 11 am on our first morning in the French capital I’d had enough.

We’d had a late breakfast where we were charged extra for the butter and jam to accompany the stale bread. My mood lightened momentarily when some freshly squeezed orange juice materialised, but actually it was another excuse to bump up the cost. When the bill arrived a small glass of the juice, which had been volunteered rather than ordered, turned out to cost €11. To make matters worse it had been watered down. As the day continued so did the rip-offs.

We asked for some house wine near the Louvre. Two tiny glasses and a bill for €22 later I’d had enough.

“Is that really the cheapest wine on your menu?” I asked.

The waiter shook his head, “no, but the house wine is Chablis, and you asked for house.”

My temper was as dark as the sky. It rained for the rest of the weekend, I caught a cold and back in England my grandmother died. As we left the Gare du Lyon and headed back to Provence I was sure I never wanted to return.

That was a year ago. After Christmas Tanya came up with the idea of meeting our friends for lunch in Paris. The TGV takes three hours from Aix and the Eurostar the same time from London. We sent out an email and three months later on March 01 we all met up for Champagne under the Eiffel Tower and then lunch.

The restaurant we’d chosen was La Fontaine de Mars. Loved by people who know Paris it had been billed as the thinking person’s bistrot with fair prices and excellent food. As we entered a red semi-circular curtain was drawn back to reveal the restaurant. The stage was set - could Paris redeem itself.

The first good sign was that the waiters spoke to us in French. I am the first to admit that I’m not fluent, but I can hold my own and I don’t accept this nonsense that Parisian waiters are only being polite when they speak English - they are trying to establish a psychological advantage over the customer.

Not this time, the waiters from Fontaine de Mars were exemplary throughout the meal - not one snotty glance at the four children under 4 wreaking havoc in their restaurant. The décor lacked that knock you in the face Frenchness that distinguishes some of the great Brasseries - your Bofingers and La Coupoles. There were no mirrors and no art deco lamps hanging from cavernous ceilings but there was a bustling familiarity about the room and comforting weariness to the wallpaper and chairs, which was nicely offset by the crisp white linen of the tables and the polished sheen of the old wooden bar.

Despite a menu full of French classics - Toulouse sausage, cote de veau and fish soup - our London friends excelled themselves, 12 out of 14 ordered steak frite. I tried some. Crispy on the outside, reassuringly under done (by English standards) on the inside, and accompanied by home cooked chips and a light béarnaise, it made me smile, as did the wine list. No sign of rip-off Paris here - a bottle of dry sauvignon for 11 euros - that was the price I paid for a glass of house wine by the Louvre. The red was priced in a similarly friendly manner.

The only complaint was the foie gras which arrived on a bare plate. Foie gras on its own, is a nice, if unremarkable experience. Foie gras served with a sweet reduction - fig, raspberry, quince it really doesn’t matter - dances across the tongue, particularly when accompanied by some texture enhancing cracked peppers. It’s really not that hard.

But that’s my only whinge. Other dishes including snails smothered in garlic and lightly dusted with parsley were exemplary. The bill after three and a half hours (the lunch was rather liquid) in the city, which after my last visit, I’d christened the rip-off capital of the world came to 60 euros ahead. No one rushed us, we were allowed to linger as long as we liked and when one of our party turned up over two hours late - his excuse a training run for the London marathon in the Bois du Boulogne - rather than dismissively telling him the kitchen was shut, the chef put his whites back on and started again.

The next day we had a walk in the Jardin du Luxembourg and watched as small children sailed toy yachts across the pond - a much grander version of the Aldborough Boating lake I frequented when I was young. Before we got the train home we lunched in the Brasserie European opposite the Gare Du Lyon. From the outside it looks nice, but unremarkable. Inside it is a revelation, all mirrors, baroque lighting and waiters in penguin suits slaloming between tables. The food was quick, and perfect for the morning after an overindulgent evening, chicken with a tarragon gravy and mash potatoes and rosemary infused roast lamb.

Nearby hidden inside the Gare Du Lyon in one of the city’s greatest brasseries - Le Trein Bleu - where we’d considered eating, but the European provided the same, if not a better, theatrical dining experience. The customers had been lured by the food, not the reputation, and there was no danger of encountering the curse of the famous restaurant - rows of guide books on the tables.

We caught the 3.16 home to Provence. Paris, I had to confess, had been great fun.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

French women and their bodies

Before it all becomes a distant memory I wanted to write something about French women and pregnancy.

By the time that Tanya was four months pregnant we began to notice what can only be described as peculiarly French attitude towards her bump. Women who barely knew us came up and rested their hands proprietarily on our growing baby. To begin with we assumed that this was just the natural motherly urge exerting itself, the type of thing that could happen anywhere.

Then the inquisition began.

“You’re still very slim,”

“Did your mother put on weight when she had you?”

“Bien, bien, nothing at all on your legs.”

The statements, come questions, were complimentary, but there was an almost forensic level of interest in the changes that pregnancy had on the female form. The size and shape of Tanya’s bump was closely monitored by the women of the village but it was only after the birth that I began to appreciate their perspective. They spent an obligatory minute or so cooing over our new baby and then they turned to Tanya. Hands were pressed against her stomach, and appraising glances cast upon her silhouette as she walked.

As much as French women love babies there is one thing that they love more - their bodies, and as much as they made out they’d been monitoring the development of our baby, subconsciously at least they’d been keeping a keen eye on Tanya’s body.

What effect would pregnancy have? Would she permanently put on weight? And when Tanya did quickly regain her shape, there was no element of jealousy, rather a sense of mutual celebration, that the spectre of weight gain after pregnancy had been banished and that the sense of order in the world had been restored - French women could sit down to their three course meals, drink their wine and retain their reputation as some of the slimmest in the world, and nothing not even pregnancy could disturb this eternal truth.

Sipping my early evening beer in the village this week, I noticed the same pageant of clucking, touching and appraising. One of the village women was pregnant and the quest for reassurance was beginning again.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Probably the best garagiste in the world - Part 2

So there I was broken down by the side of the road with my wolfish best friend. My smart travelling salesman outfit - picture a banker on a team building weekend, chinos, pressed shirt and shiny semi trendy shoes - covered in muddy paw marks, icicles growing larger by the second on my fingers and no sign of anyone at Axa assistance finishing their cigarette break and coming to my aid. Things then got worse.

The snow come sleet come hail got harder, my movements slowed to the pace of an arctic adventurer making his final approach on the north pole and the wolf come dog broke free and attempted to commit suicide in front of a passing juggernaut which skidded across the ice rink of a road and collected my wing mirror as a momento of the occasion. A mad woman inexplicable yanked on her handbrake as she passed, turning her car like a Catherine wheel, before flinging the door open and gesticulating wildly.

“This is no place for a dog,” she screamed wildly, apparently unconcerned by my plight.
I shrugged, refrained from revealing my suspicions that my companion was in fact a wolf and bundled my furry friend in through the open door.

Now some readers might be wondering why this blog is entitled - probably the best garagiste in the world. To recap Bruno, the Lourmarin garagiste, sold me a 15 year old BMW, with the promise that it was far more reliable than my 19 year old model. Thanks to him I was now considering digging a snow hole by the side of the road. Fortunately, my wife, Tanya, had been thinking laterally. Winking orange lights approached.

“You’re Mr Ivey.”

I nodded trying to control my chattering teeth.

“Bruno sent me.”

Despite the overwhelming smell of garlic I felt like kissing my rescuer. Half an hour later I was dropped at my house, Bruno repaired my car free of charge, and I thanked the Lord that I’d bought the car from a local mechanic prepared to rescue me, instead of counting his profits like Axa.

And now as you will see from the adjacent pictures the blossom is out!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Probably the best garagiste in the world ever - Part 1

Readers of this blog will be familiar with our car problems. Up until January we were reliant on an 18 year old BMW convertible prone to break down at least once a week. I finally lost patience when the locks ceased to work and I had to climb in through the back window. And so I went to see Bruno Cif, the garagiste, in Lourmarin.

Bruno is a bear of a man, whose head is invariably plunged deep into an engine. He doesn’t shake hands - they are covered in grease - instead he raps knuckles. He has a collection of lawn mowers, olive harvesting machines and vintage cars, and is obsessed with anything with an engine. He’s a mechanic’s mechanic and so when he offered to sell me a 14 year old BMW at a knock down price and guaranteed the engine for three months, I happily said yes.

I digress, last Monday was a horror of day. Lightning in the combe du Lourmarin, rain like peeing cows (this is an expression my little niece has learnt at French school!) and even at 9 in the morning I needed the lights on the new car full on and the heater blaring. My first meeting went well - another ad sold - and I headed off from Apt towards Cavaillon. I didn’t get far.

The rev counter flared, the engine cut and my new car came to a whimpering halt by the side of the D900. In Lourmarin we always congratulate ourselves that we live on the Mediterranean side of the Luberon. Whenever there is bad weather it’s always worse on the north side. And so it proved. I found myself on a semi-blind bend, with no choice but to get out of the car and slow the onrushing juggernauts. I clutched my mobile in one hand, waved the traffic down with the other, and shut my eyes to thudding hailstones which smacked into my cheeks.

Axa Assistance - the name turned out to be more than a little misleading - answered their phone after twenty minutes, promptly put me through to the Vaucluse call centre, where I was cut off. I tried again, same result. By now it was snowing and I was no nearer rescue. Things then got worse.

On the other side of the road, a white shape moved in the snow. There has been plenty of press in the UK recently about how dogs are pack animals and that the dangerous dogs that attack humans have reverted to wolf like behaviour. I wasn’t worried about that, I was worried that the shape that crept between the trees was actually a wolf. Packs from the Alpes Maritime have been edging closer and closer to the Luberon and sightings in the hills are not that rare. The safety of my car was over 100 metres away. The white shape darted between the traffic and came careering towards me, vaulting the safety barrier, before leaping at my throat.

Then it licked my face with its great big sloppy tongue. So now there were two of us - me and the strange wolf come dog - stranded in a snow storm with our only hope of rescue, the phone operator at Axa Vaucluse deciding that the lengthy line of flashing call waiting lights was more important that his cigarette break.

To be continued…..

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A restaurant review from a travelling salesmen

Le Bistrot Decouverte - Saint Remy de Provence.

The world is full of great chefs who have no idea how to run a restaurant. Miraculous creations emerge from the kitchen, plates are dressed as sexily as Carla Bruni, and the resulting festival of flavours would turn even the swooning Sarkozy’s head away from the nearest brunette.

Two months later the restaurant is out of business - overheads have soared, customers have been poisoned and the restaurant manager has had an affair with the chef’s wife. In short it is not as easy as it looks, which is why the Bistrot Decouverte in Saint Remy de Provence is just so good. If the owner were a physicist he would have compressed the theory of relativity to a page A4, instead like a fine sauce he has reduced the menu to a series of intense yet simple flavours.

We visited on a sunny lunchtime in late January. The type of day that makes the locals sigh that their home is a corner of paradise, while the second homers hide their smug satisfaction behind a pair of oversize reflector shades. The terrace was full with early diners sipping on the remains of their red wine, toying with their coffees and showing absolutely no sign of vacating their tables.

Without a reservation we paraded up and down the high street for their amusement, the more longingly we looked at their tables the more the residents - it was as if they’d set up home - reclined, and nonchalantly soaked up the sun. Bills arrived, but unlike the customers they didn’t lounge indolently around. Credit card machines - which in France you wait for as long as a train in England - were pressed into slightly unwilling hands and we had our table.

The house wine was a lazy Cote du Rhone, starters were simple, but the quality immaculate. Thin slices of Iberico ham from a pig which had grazed exclusively on a diet of acorns, were nutty - and perhaps the sun was getting to me at this point - almost truffly (sp?!!) in flavour. The smoked salmon was from Scotland, but it was fleshy and fresh, and as peaty as a good whisky. But the point about all the starters was that in a small restaurant, with limited time the kitchen could quickly turn them out and concentrate on the mains, which were impeccable - a deep and luxuriant lobster risotto and of course, given my current obsession a Steak Frites, only they didn’t serve frite - well of course they didn’t.

Frites have to be tended and nurtured and in a busy kitchen it’s all too easy to turn out something with the texture of an old leather jacket left to shallow fry in the sun, so instead the thick juicy entrecote was accompanied by gratin potatoes and a crushed peppercorn sauce. Again delicious, but despite the professionalism, the concentration on detail, it was all a little too easy, a little like a McDonald’s with upmarket ingredients.

Where was the potential for disaster or moments of culinary genius? Still nobody seemed to mind, least of all us. We lounged in the sun, ignored the queue of customers still looking for a table (it was past the witching hour of 2pm), casually ordered some coffees which came accompanied with freshly baked chocolate amuse bouche, and congratulated ourselves on finding possibly one of the best venues in Saint Remy de Provence.

The only problem was that as we left I felt like we’d been in a fantastic restaurant in London rather than the south of France.

“Didn’t the bill arrive quickly,” I purred.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In the middle of January I had a revelation. There I was looking into the lovely eyes of my daughter considering how I was going to bring her up on the meagre income of a Provencal market trader, fattening her up on the summer season’s bounty and scraping together enough money to survive the winter.

Then came the revelation - rather than standing with the other traders for the next three months bemoaning the emptiness of the markets and harking back to the halcyon pre 9/11 time when every cobbled street glistened with the sweat of overweight tourists, I had to do something else for a few months.

So what does a former lawyer turned market trader do to earn a living in the quiet winter months? Well I’ve become a travelling salesman and Elodie (because we couldn’t bear to be parted and more to the point because she sleeps well in the car) has become a travelling sales baby. The idea is for advertising to fund the production of a new magazine about the region - inspired by the glorious winter weather it’s going to be called “Blue Sky Living.” We’re going to cover the Luberon and Les Alpilles and this summer everybody will be reading it.
So rather than the usual missives from the markets for the next few months I am going to be writing about the trials and tribulations of an Englishman trying to sell advertising to the French.

So far I have been assaulted by a Doberman, driven from a goat’s cheese farm by the overpowering stench and mistakenly visited a factory which I thought made boiled sweets but in fact turned out to boil the discarded bones of dead animals. It’s all in a days work.

In the meantime there are a few related new features on this blog. Firstly because every travelling salesman needs a good lunch I am instituting a search for Provence’s best steak frite and secondly because I am going into the magazine business I am going to start posting some of the more quirky and amusing news stories from the region. There are two new links to click on at the top of the page which take you through to these new pages.

And finally - if anybody would like to receive a copy of the magazine, could they please email me with their name and address and I will be in touch nearer publication time in June.

Ps. Cousin Big Nick…next time you leave a comment, post your email as well and then I can get in touch!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sympathy Labour

During Tanya’s pregnancy I read a lot about husbands who become so involved in their wife’s labour that they develop sympathy symptoms - morning sickness, swollen legs and in extreme cases false labour. All I can say is that at the time of Elodie’s birth I was a little too busy and excited but this week I got there in the end and here is how it happened.

There I was sitting happily in the Sunday sunshine looking down at one of my favourite French dishes. Now there are three main ways that restaurants tend to serve Steack Tartare. Firstly, the minced steak is presented in the centre of the plate, upturned egg in its shell on top and the various condiments - capers, onions, herbs, sauce etc.. - around the side. This method tends to be favoured by cheaper restaurants as it involves little or no effort on their part.

Secondly the waiter arrives at the table and asks for your preference - spicy or not - and then mixes the Steack Tartare in front of you.

Thirdly and this is what I had on Sunday the preparation is done in the kitchen. The ensemble that arrived was magnifique. Rather than the cheaper minced steak I could see that my dish had been entirely chopped by hand into the finest slivers. On top were two soft boiled quails eggs. I couldn’t have been happier. Sun shining, Saint Remy de Provence, delicious food, all good.

One day later my opinion of steack tartare had changed considerably. I was bent double in our kitchen, head on the table, arms cradling my head, groaning in agony as my whole body was convulsed by yet another wracking pain. And the funny thing about these pains was - if pains can be funny - they disappeared as quickly as they came, re-appearing every five minutes or so. In the lucid, agony free moments, I quite reasonably suggested to Tanya that what I was experiencing was akin to labour.

She looked at me with icy unsympathetic eyes and then simply walked away.

I still think it was a perfectly reasonable suggestion - oyster poisoning is meant to be one of the most painful things in the world, and so why not Steack Tartare poisoning. Anyway the delay in this weekly blog is partly explained by food poisoning and partly by the ensuing rows.

Bon App!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Il pleut

By common agreement among the expat community the Luberon is enduring the worst weather in a decade. In a region of extreme conditions this is quite a statement. What’s more there have been no electrical storms, no reports of the mistral gusting above the usual 30kmh (at which point things get interesting) and no return of the blizzards which three years ago according to our landlord made it impossible to reach the end of the drive yet alone the village. Instead the problem is slate grey skies and a very English drizzle. It’s been going on for weeks and as I said for the expats it is a bit too much like being at home. But the locals, the locals they love it. They really honestly couldn’t be more delighted.

The moment I raise the topic of how bad the weather has been their eyes narrow. If I was a 50 year old man who had just announced he intended to elope with their teenage daughter they couldn’t look more disgusted with me.

“What do I mean the weather’s bad?”

“Well, the rain, the rain,” I moan.

“ah but the land needs the rain,” they reply as if I am some sort of dimwit who doesn’t understand the principles of evaporation and precipitation.

“but 10 days of rain,” I persist, “why can’t we just have a good storm.”

They shake their head as if they have never met anyone so stupid.

“The rain is good rain,” they patiently explain.

By now we are both absolutely drenched, and I am feeling more and more miserable but I get the feeling that given the opportunity my local interrogator would be dancing around with the glee of a French Gene Kelly twirling his umbrella.

Anyway here is the theory of why we should all like the rain - the Luberon rarely has good rain. Usually when the heavens open, it comes down in a cascade, flows of the rock-hard earth, causes a minor flood in the village and then drains straight into the river, meaning the soil barely has a chance to absorb any moisture. 2007 was full of dry hot spells and the odd “bad” rain day and as a result the vines and the olive trees were constantly in danger of withering up.

So despite the fact that we can’t go outside Tanya, Elodie and I are learning to smile, look out the window, and say, “oh good, more drizzle.”

Monday, January 07, 2008

Smoke Free France

January in Lourmarin is a strange month. Half the shops are shut, the one main café is closed and its possible to walk down the main high street without encountering anyone. Last year it was bitter enough for the fountain to freeze and when the mistral blows it’s so bleak and barren that staying in and watching a rerun of At Home with Victoria Beckham begins to look like a positive use of time.

The Parisians have boarded up their maison secondaires, the Brits have jumped on the last Easyjet home leaving just the permanent residents - the hunters, the farmers, the bar owners, the vignerons and us - the market traders. Because of our nationality we will always be outsiders but for a couple of winter months we belong to an exclusive club of all year round residents. Near strangers kiss us in the street - presumably they are just pleased to see anyone at all, even if they are English - passing acquaintances embrace us as if we’ve been on a solo voyage around the world as opposed to just back to England for Christmas and as for the scene in the tabac this Sunday - I might as well have been at a close friend’s wedding, nibbling on assorted crudités, I certainly had little or no chance of getting the paper. Instead I learnt of the 3 wild boar which had been shot near our house in our absence, that the local garagiste had a car for sale that might suit us, and that everybody thought that Sarkozy’s new beau was, to paraphrase, “a right old tart.”

Meanwhile Tanya and Elodie were waiting on the terrace of the one open café. Last January, despite the same winter camaraderie, this was the one habit that distanced us from everybody. While the remaining population of Lourmarin huddled inside the café, we braved the icy air and sat outside. People shook their heads as they opened the door and the warm cosy scent of Gaullois drifted out. This year though the terrace is full and every smoker is sporting the enormous puffa jackets they got for Christmas. France has finally gone non-smoking and for everybody it’s a real pain. The French have as much affinity for the cold as cats water, and their lower lips quiver like lost children as nicotine pins then to the freezing terrace, meanwhile Tanya and I pace up and down looking for a spare space, and the bar staff wince as they ferry drinks outside (before of course stopping for a cigarette - at least it is easier to get served.)

Bonne Annee.