Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Heaven on a Sidewalk in the Sun

The Cost of Living the Good Life in France

One must maintain one’s standards when living abroad, even when one is communing with nature in the French countryside. Now our standards, I must admit, are actually fairly pedestrian. However, the big questions remain: What’s it all cost? Is it expensive? Can one afford to live a house swap dream?

To answer these profound questions one needs to look at the absolute essentials of modern living: an adequate wine supply, good wholesome food (i.e. great red meat), dining out and those little romantic trips away.   

On wine, obviously one could spend real money if one had that predilection and the income stream, neither of which we have.  A quite acceptable quaffing red by the bottle can be had for $5.00 or, say, a better full-bodied “Cahors” cab/sav for $8 to $10. A 5ltr cask of Bordeaux Superior: about $22.40 or $4.50 a litre (a Super U Supermarket brand cask can be just $17.00 or $3.40 a litre). If things have not got totally out of hand since we’ve been away, a local Aussie 4ltr cask would be $15 or $3.75 a litre. So, everyday wine is much the same as at home. For the true blue bottom feeders, the LIDL supermarket chain regularly has wine offers around $3.00 (or less!!). We have not found a bad bottle yet.
Val checking our the chook for a coq au vin dinner in our
Montmoreau Super U

Fancy the odd wee dram? Here are some supermarket prices: Grants scotch at $21.00, Jameson at $26.00 or Laphroaig 10 year old at $56.00. Not bad at all.

If one must, absolutely must, carve a succulent lamb roast for Sunday lunch or love the taste of artfully grilled lamb chop (aren’t the tails simply divine) then French living  may not be for you.  Try digesting a leg of lamb that cost $59.00 or putting on a chop when a pack of two chops has a per kilo ticket at $29.30! Val was overjoyed at finding frozen NZ legs on special at $28.00. We were just in time to grab the last two….or perhaps there were only two at the price.

Pork (a three meal pork roast, unfortunately sans crackling, $16.50) turkey (tender, juicy fillets at $10 a kilo) and sausages (a pack of 8 Toulouse snags $10.00) are the go here.  A rack of spare ribs casually thrown on the barbie, a bottle of Bordeaux, and tasty cheese does do wonders for the appetite. Venturing into the exotic, a box of 20 quail eggs is just $6.50 while a whole skinned bunny runs to $18.40 (no pun intended).

Sad to say, to us, the supermarket red meat just does not look appetizing. However Val does create very tasty slow-cooked casseroles with the chunky cut stewing steak ($12.00 a kilo).

 Oh, LIDL does have great little whole trout and packs of Atlantic salmon at prices to hook you.

Veggies and fruit supply in our part of France is highly seasonal unlike the year-round supply of most items found at home. In July Val wanted pumpkin to showcase her pumpkin and citrus cake for a language club cooking project; sourcing a pumpkin of any variety was simply impossible. (Maybe I shouldn’t   tell you that her fallback display was lamingtons.) Perhaps this seasonality helps to maintain the so evident tastiness of the products.

Veggies from Le Petit Maine garden
The home vegetable plot, “le jardin potager” , contributes greatly to the daily fare for many French tables. Tomatoes, leeks, onions, garlic, courgettes, pumpkin, lettuce all seem to grow prodigiously in the well tended gardens. Thanks to Brian, our exchangee, the jardin potager at Le Petit Maine was well prepared and ready for Val’s enthusiastic efforts. Early in the season we had a fine crop of onions, leeks and garlic. We haven’t purchased spuds or tomatoes or courgettes or cucumber or squash for several months and the butternut pumpkins are almost ready to store. So, if one does have a working veggie garden everyday eating costs can be slashed (well reduced). But, I ask you, just how many ways can one eat yet more courgettes and squash?

The regular street markets are great for atmosphere and lively activity. Wandering our local Chalais Monday market followed by a coffee or beer and people watching at café Le Flore is now something of a ritual for us. We do find that market prices (no haggling, thank you) are usually higher than supermarket prices but quality and freshness does seem a little better than the supermarkets.

Dining out in rural France can be so cheap! The “resto” in the nearby hamlet of Nonac offers restaurant quality four course “formula midi” lunches for just $20.00 each. Others offer the same price but including wine. Our anniversary dinner at Chateau Talleyrand (white linen, professional service, excellent food over four courses, champagne apero and wine) was just $137.00 for both of us. Try that at a good restaurant in Oz!

For those trips away, fuel is dearer at $2.04 for deisel and $2.40 for petrol but the compensation is excellent accommodation at very reasonable prices. Just last week, two nights in the “Donjon Room” (55sqm suite really) at the Chateau d’Avanton was $282, brekkie included. There was just one tiny drawback at Chateau d’Avanton; our suite was on the top two floors of the donjon up seven flights of concrete stairs…but the view was magnificent.
Chateau d'Avanton....our room was at the very top of the tower
(windows open). The suite entry and bathroom were on the floor below.

On this outing, we had intended to visit Futuroscope, a futuristic theme park outside Poitiers. “Zoot Alors”, we got there on Monday in early September to find that the Park was closed; it had just that day gone into it’s post-summer reduced opening period. I suppose that falls into the category of experiences: “merde happens”.

Anyway, we did visit Chateau La Rochefoucauld on the way. The chateau has been in the de la Rochefoucald family for 1000 years entirely via the direct male line until three generations ago when it passed to a cousin’s line. The family holding got through the Revolution only because Napoleon recalled the self-exiled duke (a very able administrator and sympathetic reformer) to assist his post-revolutionary government. He restored the chateau to the duke but with much reduced land holdings.

I digress yet again, back to the cost of eating out. It was lunch time when we finished the chateau tour ($36.00 for two adults….well, the current duke does have overheads I suppose and what with no peasants these days). We settled on the very ordinary looking Café de Commerce in the village, the only café open, in fact the only café.  The “plat de jour” was a plainly served yet excellent country cooked “boeuf bourguignon” so tasty and melting in the mouth. Just $24.00 for two with a glass each of a yeasty dark local beer followed by a “petit café”.  Ah, heaven on a sidewalk in the sun.
Real cheap dining out. This is a little "ptivate" picnic spot
behind the church in Bonnes on the river Droone

Bottom line: living a full life to our Aussie standards in La Charente is no more expensive than living in Maleny and we dine out much more often! And I haven’t even mentioned the pate, the cheese, the bread!!!

The last word goes to our exchangee, Brian, on mushrooms (ceps). “Sept to Nov is the mushroom season. The locals go mad in search of Ceps. On many mornings,  M and Mde M, our neighbours, will often leave the hamlet in a small white van. They are off in search of the sacred cep. No one knows where they go. It’s a secret location and rumour has it that if they think they are being followed they take evasive action to shake the tail. You will see cars parked in lay bys and gate ways often miles from woodlands. The occupants are hunting for ceps but don’t want people to know where so diversionary tactics are used! “

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