Bite’s new columnist Allyson Gofton needs no introduction from us. The popular food writer and broadcaster joins us each week from Caixon, a small village in France’s Hautes-Pyrenees where she is living the dream (for the second time) with her family.
Allyson, Warwick and their two children, Jean-Luc and Olive-Rose, first moved to the same village two years ago (that's Caixon on a wintry day below). They returned to New Zealand and, in October, took up the Gallic way of life again.
See Allyson's first column and her recipe for Irene's chicken. For more, we caught up with her below.
Professionally, and as a family, what are your plans this time around?
Originally my plans were to write a book covering the foods of a wider area of the south west. My first French book Recipes from my French Kitchen was really only about this region. However, our son suffered bad concussion while playing hockey in July and our trip was delayed four months. We missed the Northern summer, and with our stay now shortened and my son requiring more care, the book is a maybe-or-maybe-not thing, depending on how we all go. However, I am writing for Bite, which will allow me the opportunity to delve into foods, producers and produce that I did not get to last time, and from a wider area. As a mother, my first concern is the ongoing healing necessary for my son. As a family we came here for the children to consolidate their French and to enjoy simple village life before the teenage and NCEA years hit!
What was the first thing you wanted to eat or cook on your return?
The bread from Pascal and Fanny’s Boulangere in Maubourguet, the small town near us where we shop, attend yoga and enjoy a café at Café du Centre. The bread is outstanding, made from wheat grown, milled and aged in the Hautes-Pyrenees. The baguettes are so good we eat them for snacks.
Is there a food from New Zealand that you miss in France? Did you bring Vogel’s bread and a few jars of Vegemite or Marmite back with you?
For the children we have brought up Milo, chicken noodle soup (I know, not very gourmet!), Whittaker’s hokey pokey chocolate and a favourite brand of soy sauce. I added in baking powder and yeast so the recipes I cook that require these ingredients, will work at home. I miss New Zealand lamb as the French mouton, while also very nice, is not the same as ours, and it’s even more expensive than lamb back in New Zealand.
What are the must-have ingredients in your French pantry?
Butter, oh heavens! There are so many styles to choose from and I love them all. Salt, locally milled, sweet and flaky. Arome du crêpe crepes, the flavouring which you use to make pancakes or crepes. It’s bought at the pharmacy, I have no idea what’s in it, but it’s traditional here. Jambon (cured ham) and saucisson (sausages). Not only are they easy meals, but the sausages are hearty, chunkily packed with coarsely minced pork . Cheese from France and other European countries. It’s a delight to buy cheese at the markets where you can taste as many varieties as you like before buying. Locally made yoghurt for me and very dark chocolate yoghurt for the kids. They love it! Oh and another thing is their pastry which you buy fresh chilled and pre-rolled to the size you require. It’s so easy to make tarts, both savoury and sweet.
Give us an idea of a typical day’s menu
The breakfast menu is easy. It’s bread and coffee for me; sausages, bread and Milo for Jean-Luc and Olive-Rose. The kids have lunch at school, though given it’s often foods they do not like, they come home starving [more on this below]. At night I try to cook something special to test up new recipes. Tonight we had a free-range bio chicken. The meat on the leg and thigh was dark grey in colour, while the breast was white and the meat firm. I roasted the bird upside down for three-quarters of the time so some fat would soak into the breast meat and then turned the bird breast-side-up and added fresh baby seedless raisins and diced local bacon before finishing the cooking. The flavours were sensational and the kids went back for seconds. Dessert is cheese.
What prompted your move to Hautes-Pyrenees, rather than to another region?
We looked for a house that suited our requirements: a home in a village with a school in walking distance from the house; a home that could sleep all of us and one we could afford. We started looking in Languedoc as I had watched the television series by chef John Burton Race and thought the area looked amazing. When we could not find a place in that region we looked westward and came to the Hautes-Pyrenees. It’s not very well known which makes it a perfect place for discovering the food and writing about it. It’s also recently been listed by Conde Nast Traveller as the next hottest place in France to discover. Ya! Ahead of the trend!
Are you living in the same village/house as before?
Yes. It all sounds like a dream, but in reality, at times, it’s pretty tough and very lonely, especially as I do not speak French. By coming back to the same place we have met up with friends, and trying to live like a local is just a bit easier. That said we’ve all had tears trying to get into the French rhythm. School days are very long, with a four-course lunch that includes loads of lentils, cucumber in yoghurt sauce, fresh sheep’s cheese and duck gizzards – not exactly a sausage roll! You only speak when spoken to and much work is done by rote learning. The children find this formal style of teaching very hard. It gets dark at 5pm so the nights are long. Shops shut on Saturday and do not open until Tuesday. On Sunday everything is closed except Church. And, as my kids tell me, the worst bit is the lack of a strong internet connection - so we get intermittent connection and then the upload speed rarely even registers. Internet games are off the options list as is updating Facebook, my website or blogging.
The Southern part of the region borders Spain – is there a detectable Spanish influence in the food where you are? What are the specialities of the area?
Right where we are, no. But only one hour west you are in the Basque region where there is a Basque /Spanish influence. When driving you know when you are in the Basque region as the road signs are in French, Spanish and Basque, though you are still in France. There is a great affection for sheep’s meat and sheep’s milk cheeses, along with cured pork products. The regions, at least in the southwest where we are, remain strongly regional - it’s historical. This area was once part of Gascony and many older people still call it such.
Escargots, foie gras … is there a local treat you just can’t eat?
Yep, I cannot stomach snails. I hate feeling their little feelers on my tongue. And frog’s legs are not for me. You can get sweet and sour frog’s legs in the Chinese restaurant in Tarbes, our closest city, but I have never been game enough to try them.
Tell us about socialising … Do you eat out much or cook more at home?
You are rarely asked out for meals here. It’s not the done thing. You would be invited for apperos at 5pm until 7pm at which time you depart so the house can have dinner at 8pm. It’s not that people aren’t polite. People here are really kind and friendly; it’s just how things are done. You may be invited for Sunday lunch, though, as this is the entertaining meal of the week, but you need to be prepared as it’s long with many courses. Most nights, for the next while, it will just be me and the children until Warwick arrives and then, well, it will just be the four of us!
What are the local restaurants like, very traditional?
Eating out is done at lunch time here and, yes, everything is very local. The café bars and restaurant proudly display the names of the producers of the foods they are using. They will name the farmer and the butcher, the vege grower, the baker etc. They are justly proud of the provenance of the food they cook. Everything is sourced locally.
Do you miss the variety of ethnic foods available in New Zealand?
Yes, most definitely. And I also miss the attitude to try something new. Here, people love their traditional foods and do not seem to be fussed over trying new things. We cannot get any curry pastes, so no vindaloo for a while; basic soy sauce is hard to buy. Fresh herbs are pretty much only parsley and there’s no squeezy tubes of flavourings, such as chilli, lemongrass etc. Thus our diet tends to be local but healthy.
Would it be difficult, for instance, to find ingredients to make a Chinese or Japanese meal?
Yes, I have to travel to an Asian food store about an hour away. As a result, fried rice is about as creative as I can be with Asian cuisine, though we are able to get the spices for Moroccan dishes and there’s more ways to buy couscous and quinoa than one could think possible!
Takeaways … oui or non?
Not a concept here, though I can buy a pizza and take it away to eat, but there is no other takeaways to be had. A McDonald’s came to a location about 40 minutes from us three years ago and it caused outrage back then. I see that it is now well patronised by younger people. Change is coming!
Tell us how you will be celebrating Christmas
It will begin the night before when we attend midnight mass at the local church. It’s ancient, built in the 14th century. It’s had many repairs since. There will be sweet wine and a rich yeast cake to have with the congregation after mass and before we head home in the freezing cold, hopefully snowing. Locals will have food and presents when they get home, though we will hit the sack. For lunch we will begin with foie gras on sliced gingerbread - always served with a sweet white wine - and for mains, I’ll roast a leg of New Zealand lamb (we can buy it in some supermarkets here) and accompany it with roasted vegetables. Dessert will be something creamy, though I am not sure what. If it is cold the fire will be going and we will play indoor games like Monopoly. Then on Boxing Day all goes back to normal. Christmas day is the only public holiday. The children will go back to school a few days later.
You say in your Bite column that you frequent markets to buy your produce but always within a 30km radius. Why?
I think I said that my food would come from a 30km radius. Markets are not just for buying food; they are where you are told all the gossip and news. I catch up with people who can speak English and we chat. I also get to see what’s new to season, what may be new to cook with a write about. The Hautes-Pyrenees has many historic markets. They are in small hamlets in the valleys deep in the mountains, in the tiny towns on the flat land below. Each market is different and there’s always something interesting to try. The markets are a great way to see the area.
Any tips for market shopping in France that we should know about?
Go early to get the choice of good produce. Take a trundler to load the goods in to as inevitably you buy more than you intend. Take plenty of small change as many of the producers do not have change for large denominations. Learn pardon je suis néo-zélandais and je désolé je ne parle pas français and they will offer you much assistance.
How expensive is grocery shopping where you are? Do you grow your own vegetables?
The price of food has gone up since we were here a couple of years ago, though it is a good third less for me to shop for my family than in Auckland. I had a great vege garden last time, but I don’t plan to start one this visit, rather buy at local markets.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Change is coming to rural France. It’s not easy to leave the comfort and our easygoing Kiwi lifestyle but, in case you think you’d like to live the dream, do it sooner than later. You’ll be surprised how cheap it is to have the adventure too.