Food writer Trish Deseine’s French Christmas
After 25 years in Paris, the food writer is looking forward to her first festive season in her home in rural France
The country life: Trish Deseine gets ready for Christmas in her house in southern France. Photograph: Deirdre Rooney
On June 28th, after 25 years of Parisian life – half of mine so far – I took the starring role in my own little road movie and headed off on a 775km journey to live in my house in the south of France, a former bakery near Béziers in Languedoc Roussillon.
I bought it in 2009, casually, as a bolthole and roof-over-my-head contingency plan. But this house was a keeper. I knew it instantly, in the same way you know it when you meet someone who will be important in your life.
It was very pretty, thick-walled and dry – still smelling slightly of flour, said my imagination. It had great light (rare in old houses in the region), and the original bakery shop window, with ornate sliding glass doors and marble shelf, made me dream of filling it one day with flouncy St Honorés.
Heavy wooden shutters, with solid locks and fading celadon paint, absorbed the heat and the street’s chit-chat and made the house feel cool, and safe inside.
Still, I never thought I would live there full-time. By June this year, my three boys had all left home for university. My 14-year-old daughter – who had been in the same school since she was three – was ready for a change. But mostly, leaner times for writers meant that living in the manner to which I had accustomed myself in Paris, had become impossible.
We unloaded the lorry, high on lack of regret, rosé and sun, with the unsolicited help of my new neighbour, ex-cop Francis, and his Chewbacca-lookalike friend. After a short week spent unpacking as best we could in hot, cheerful chaos, I left to go to Ireland for the summer. It was only on arriving back in September that I realised the immense task I had ahead in turning this house into a home.
It was a task immediately made even greater by the absence of a ceiling in the kitchen. Francis, hired to remove just one small inner kitchen wall, when I was away in Ireland, very possibly misled by pastis, had decided the ceiling wasn’t straight and had to go too.
The official builders subsequently enlisted to patch up the damage and finish the job, then let me down at the last minute, with no time to reschedule before almost two months of cookbook shoots had to be done. So le Père Noël will have no problem entering our house this year. He simply has to watch out for the eight-foot drop to the kitchen floor from the chimney hole in the ceiling.
Despite my kitchen’s state of disrepair, so far southern life is good. Spare and simple. We spend hours walking in the red-hued land, through vines and the Languedoc garrigue, pinching figs and grapes first thing for breakfast and chasing spectacular sunsets in the evening.
My daughter, to my immense relief, settled right in at school, her confidence boosted in the more relaxed state education and southern French laissez-faire attitude. No more school runs or school lunches; her school is 300 metres from our house. The best bakery in the village is 50 metres away and opens at 7am, but, unlike Parisian grazer-friendly boulangeries, at 9.30am the sacristains, croissants, chouquettes and pains au chocolat are all gone until the next day’s batch.
In the southern tradition – frustrating in the middle of a food shoot – shops close at noon on the dot and open again at 4.30pm, until 7pm. With just the two of us to cook for most days – no more carb-dependant teen boys to keep constantly fuelled – there is very little planning required and choices are quickly made.
Picking up a couple of ripe-for-the-day peaches, a scrawny farmyard chicken to last most of the week, or fresh goat’s cheese from one of the market trucks which sit in a circle, like wild west wagons, before our grand town hall a few mornings a week, is an altogether gentle pleasure.
All four of my children will be in Cazouls with me at Christmas this year and for now, home is here. I find I don’t miss Paris and I wonder, now my children are no longer there, will I again? I doubt that I could ever long for it in the visceral way I have often longed for Ireland over the years. No, I have done my time in Paris, and Paris has served its purpose as a wonderful contrast to the years growing up in Northern Ireland, as a solid backdrop to my career and raising a family. All that is left for me to take from it now – beauty and pleasure – has and will always remain there in abundance. It’s a city which gives itself up easily, once you know its streets and moods, codes and seasons.
This year’s Christmas preparations, a lot less frantic but just as lavish as in the city of light, will start in earnest with a trip to the Marché au Gras (foie gras and poultry market) in Sérignan.
Here, the butchered birds are sold alongside blood cakes, rillettes, pâtés, duck and goose fat and, of course, foie gras. I’ll go for a capon, a fat duck and a couple of livers, one to make into terrine, one to fry fresh with grapes and verjus, or deglazed in passion fruit jam.
Oysters are from nearby Bouzigues, ordered freshly opened and on ice from our local fish shop in Maraussan.
Alongside the obligatory Christmas pudding (Heston Blumenthal’s) and this year’s cheap and fancy ice-cream Bûche de Noël from Picard, I’ll serve the traditional 13 desserts de Noël, a collection of candied and dried fruits, nuts, nougats and fougasse sweet bread. It is steeped in religious meaning, and comes originally from Provence but is popular also in Languedoc. They bring good fortune and health for the year ahead – as long as you are sure to have a little nibble of each – and an easy, lingering way to end a long Christmas lunch before a trek in the hills through the vines.