In the course of dealing with potential customers for La Vieille Grange, people often ask me, ’How did you come to own a house in that part of France?’ The answer usually runs along the lines of ‘Oh, I was on holiday, on my way back to the UK from Spain and chanced to stop nearby and liked the area.’
The real answer involves London dinner parties, animated conversations in pubs and heady notions of owning property ‘on the Continent’, an absurdly extravagant ambition for anyone newly arrived in the capital from the provinces, with a degree and not much more.
But the road to Mercadiol really started from Holland Park at the house of Frank Keating, a sports journalist who worked on the Guardian in the late 1960s with a friend of mine, Carol Dix. This was the time of stripped pine furniture, Carnaby St, Biba and Oz Magazine but it was also the time when many young Britons started travelling overseas. After one French-inspired meal, the talk around the table turned to France and to the area that to my ears sounded both exotic and accessible, the area known as ‘the Dordogne’. English people were visiting, spending time there for the food, wine and sunshine – and buying houses because they were so cheap, at least compared with London prices.
Within weeks Carol, her boyfriend Peter and I, had vowed to explore the notion of ‘a house in France’ and do some research. At the dinner party the name of friend who had actually taken the plunge and bought a house in the area was passed to us – a lady who for part of each year worked on the beauty counter at Selfridges – or was it Harrods? – and for the rest of the year retreated to enjoy the delights of rural France. This magical mix of long holidays and occasional forays to the big smoke sounded too good to be true and I resolved to find out if this dream lifestyle was really possible.
A village fete, French summer in the mid-1980’s. It’s baking hot, I’m 9, and I’m starving. Mum is holding my hand and somehow juggling my baby brother on her hip, and we are looking for something – anything to eat.
Unfurling through the crush of sweaty adults and sticky children, the tantalizing smell of charcoal and bbqed meat reaches my tender nostrils. It smells like Australia, like home, and I’m sold.
“Mum” — I say. “Mum, that smells good. I want that”. We press through the crowd and find a small family group gathered around a roasting pit, carving thick slices of charred meat, juicy and brown, and pressing them into warm flat-breads.
Mum looks nervous. These guys are Romani, and through France as well as through the rest of Europe, unfortunately don’t have the best reputation, particularly in a market setting.
“Are you sure?”, she asks me. “Yes”. “Certain?” “Yes”. Mum shrugs and nods towards the matriarch of the group, who hands me a sweaty paper parcel, inside which is nestled the kebab.
Strangely enough, even though I know she is also hungry, she doesn’t buy herself one.
We walk away and find a quiet spot to sit and eat. As I unwrap the roll and take a big bite, something doesn’t seem entirely right. The texture of the meat is odd, and has a strong aroma. I take another bite, chewing thoughtfully.
“What do you think?” asks Mum. I’m a notoriously fussy eater, so this is a question I hear often. I pause, bite, chew and answer. “I dunno, maybe it tastes a bit funny.”
I don’t finish the kebab, discarded no doubt into a pile of empty soda cups and similar greasy paper napkins.
As we bounce along the dusty roads on our drive home, I’m asked again about the kebab. How did it taste? What did I think of it? Did I like it?
“Well,” says Mum, “you ought to know it was horse meat”. She turns around grinning.