I’m sitting on a comfy chair with an iPad on my lap, there is a bit of a breeze, not much but just enough to move the air without chilling it.It’s amazing how different France is to England despite being so close by. You have to drive a decent distance in to get away from the flat monotony of the majority of Northern France, the landscape barely undulates until you get all the way to the Loire Valley, about a 5 hour drive from the main channel ports. Such flat land lends itself to riding a bike or waging a war. The reason the best bits and prettiest towns and villages of France are beyond the Loire is that all the towns and villages nearest to England have been blown to bits, twice!
We tend to press on even further though for our holidays, down to where I am now, the Dordogne/Perigord/Limousin sort of region, it’s nice here, quiet, warm, leafy, sunny, and did I say quiet? It’s quiet. Quiet is a great feature in a holiday. French holidays aren’t like other holidays for one simple reason, bread. This is the thing you see, I’ve been to lots of places and had many wonderful memories but only in France do I do what I do everyday without fail. Not just me though, many and even possibly most do it too.
We only ever have a proper holiday in the countryside, the city is for short breaks. There are a few constants that I love. We are almost always at the end of a track that involves some driving with the sound of grass brushing the underside of the car. I get up earlier than I do at home by choice rather than by force of a work day. I get in my car and make what is, in total, a round trip of about 20-30 minutes. I go and buy a fresh loaf of French bread from the tiny Boulangerie that every village in France has at least one of. Because the bread is amazing.
The trip almost always involves the sighting of a farmers hens, with the hens will be a cockerel, the national symbol of France and how appropriate a symbol. A cockerel is incredibly full of his own self-importance for no good reason other than that he exists, much like the national attitude that seems to pervade the French. It brings to mind, if I may digress, how incredibly appropriate or inappropriate national symbols can be. Few would dispute the Russian bear for example, the kiwi though for New Zealanders is ridiculous when you think about it. You might like to ask me to explain why if it isn’t obvious to you if, say, you are someone unfamiliar with the national characteristics of my countrymen. As a tilt at the Aussies, given the old English use of the word ‘bounder’ many might think the kangaroo makes an excellent representation of the Australian. The Bald Eagle for Americans might cause some debate these days as should the British Bulldog, but the Cockerel suits a Frenchman perfectly, moving on and back to the bread.
Why would I make such a journey for a loaf of bread? Only someone who has never had French bread would ask such a question. The bread is what defines the day, the first thing you eat each day of your time in France is a thing almost beyond description, forget the croissant, it’s the bread. The little Boulangerie is the central point of any village, a steady stream of people coming and going armed with a baguette or many. The baguette to look at standing among its peers in the basket before purchase appears as though it would make a handy weapon.
When you take it in hand though the first thing you notice, if it’s your first handling, is that it weighs less than you expected. The crust has more in common with a pastry than a loaf, it’s very brittle but rough almost sharp in places to touch. The best way to distribute it is by breaking chunks of it off rather than slicing, if you slice it you only need one stroke of a bread knife. When you break into the crust you’ll then notice the bread inside has more in common in density with candy floss than the bread you know at home, the bread is so light and so soft and the smell so redolent of the aroma that only the freshest loaf can offer, you actually start to feel like you might involuntarily drool a little bit. In many ways it’s almost a shame to put anything but butter on it, actually you’d be happy enough without even butter. So the day begins with fresh bread, coffee, clementine juice rather than orange and all is right with the world.
With that ceremony over we plan the days around which of the local towns and villages have markets. The markets all sell the same range of goods but each is in a village, town or even city prettier than the last. We buy some things grown freshly, locally to use for a few meals and retire to a small bar to recline in a wicker chair with a drink and quietly criticise the passers-by. It might appear to the casual observer that the rural French are fond of ‘keeping it in the family’ but I may just be imagining things.
After a few days when baffled about something you even start to pull faces like a Frenchman with an accompanying shrug of the shoulders, you know exactly the combination of expression and movement that I mean, you may even be able to hear the “bffft” that comes with it. It’s a brilliant combination to express a range of emotions.
Much is made of the excitable Latin temperament but that’s actually the Italians, the French are more arrogant or indifferent even than temperamental. All that shouting and extravagant hand waving one sometimes associates with southern Europeans actually isn’t all that prevalent in France in my experience, except by me, at French drivers. The French country roads are largely empty which is a very good thing as if they weren’t empty of cars they would be full of dead people. The French either drive at glacial speed, just the other side of a blind corner, or at full speed, right where you are, just were or are just about to be, they will want to be there or have been there first, I have no idea why this is. The first rule of survival when driving in France is to assume the driver of any car you see is blind, insane and suicidal, take all that for granted and the daily trip to the Boulangerie will also involve a return journey, to your holiday idyll on a country lane, in France where the bread is actually almost the best bit of the whole holiday.