Romance in France; one editor’s blissful life

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

At The Copy Collective, we have many dedicated, talented and hard-working copywriters and editors living and working around the globe. We love to hear from our people about their different daily circles. Editor Clare Wadsworth enjoys a very romantic life in the south-west of France.

Chestnuts, mushrooms and clementines at the greengrocer’s in Condom in South-West France – autumn has arrived and the vine leaves are turning the same colour as the local Armagnac; the grapes have all been picked and the wine will be good this year. The local cooperative is working flat out and so are all the private wineries. Vines have grown here for 2,000 years and there are about 1,200 producers. Almost all the oenologists are Australian.

Apart from the grapes and the harvest, all the men are discussing rugby or football or hunting – pigeon and wild boar, hare and deer. They fish for pike and carp. Well-waterproofed pilgrims with backpacks, long walking sticks and scallop shells still head purposefully down well-trodden leafy paths south towards Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain, occasionally accompanied by a mule.

In the evenings the sky is slate-coloured, lit by pale sunbeams; in the early mornings I walk the seven dogs across rolling, wet, green fields glistening with thick cobwebs and can see the cathedral, still lit up, in the distance.

Work trickles in ­– this would have been impossible before Internet, but it is still challenging when wi-fi (pronounced by the French as wee-fee) and telephone are intermittent – and non-existent in a rainstorm. There may be the first chapters of an autobiography to comment on, an article to proofread, the daily – or rather nightly, due to the time difference – news digest for an Australian university: it is challenging to live 2 ¼ hours from the nearest Apple store, but computer-literate friends are very supportive.

This is a land buried in the past and we chose to come here from busy, bustling, commercial Hong Kong so that there could be no possible comparisons – here everyone seems to keep their money under their mattress and the banks would not dream of changing dollars or pounds to euros! Few people still speak Occitane, but farmers wear the wide black Gascon beret and anyone who lives more than five miles away is a stranger, and they are even more foreign and mistrusted if they come from Bordeaux or Paris.

A beautiful old building with a statue of the Three Musketeer's out front
Condom Cathedral with the Four Musketeers. Copyright Tourisme Condom

The most famous Gascon ever is d’Artagnan, Alexandre Dumas’ fourth musketeer, who is commemorated everywhere. But the best jazz festival in Europe is held in Marciac every summer, promoted by Wynton Marsalis, and there are concerts of classical music in many cathedrals and open-air operas in bullrings too.

Farmers harvesting grapes
Grapes arriving at Val de Gascogne. Copyright Val de Gascogne

Local farmers tend to be militant socialists, easily aroused, and the only crops planted are those subsidised by Brussels and the EU: sunflowers and sorghum, maize and wheat and colza, sugar beet and even woad from which comes a blue dye, often used for the shutters locally.

There’s not much for the young or the large out-of-work North African community, mostly from Algeria and Morocco, France’s ex-colonies, and the enchanting medieval walled villages, stone churches and chateaux that attract tourists hold little appeal for them.

The roads are winding and empty, tree-lined and a joy to drive along through undulating fields. If you can see the mountain-tops of the Pyrenees it is going to rain. This land has been fought over for centuries and the villages, many of them round bastides, have views out over every direction to warn against invaders. The churches date from the 11th century on, but there are few services nowadays and fewer priests. The chateaux are not expensive to purchase, but prohibitive to maintain. Builders, craftsmen and workmen are hard to come by, unreliable and very expensive.

Food is of prime importance, despite the intrusion of McDonald’s, frozen meals, supermarkets and a younger generation that refuses to cook. My hairdresser always wants a detailed description of every meal I serve guests. She listens intently and then says ‘Errgh’ disapprovingly!

This is where the best duck liver, foie gras, comes from, along with duck breasts, hearts and carcasses to grill and duck legs, wings and giblets preserved in their own fat called confit de canard. Duck tongues and feet are exported to Hong Kong though! Cassoulet is a cripplingly heavy dish of white haricot beans with duck sausage and confit. Then there are delicious Agen prunes.

A colourful farmers market stand
Condom Greengrocer. Copyright Penelope Wadsworth

There are still wonderful weekly outdoor markets – different days in different towns – with locally grown vegetables and fruit, hams from Spain, cheeses from Holland and the Pyrenees, spices from North Africa and cooked food stands with roast chickens and quails, paellas and couscous, spring rolls and snails.

Most of the local cheeses are goat or sheep and therefore not counted as ‘dairy’. Bread is usually disappointing, but the butchers have free range meat and fishmongers bring oysters and mussels, smoked fish and fresh from the Atlantic Coast.

What a miracle to be able to work from here! It’s the best game I’ve ever played – utterly unreal with time to read and write and listen to music, walk the dogs, entertain friends, explore the countryside. Less so for the overworked, overtaxed Gascons, bound by chains of bureaucracy who seldom look further than their land and their families.