Living La Belle Vie: My 12 Favourite Things About France



Living La Belle Vie: My 12 Favourite Things About France

France is so very special to many of us. So special, in fact, that in 2022, over 300,000 people were issued with their first residence permits – a record number! In celebration, here are my top twelve reasons why J’adore la France!

1. Culture and lifestyle

Here in the beautiful Charente countryside, life goes at a slower pace. Everything centres around the family, and work always stops for lunch. It’s usually a two-hour lunch. Shops close. People take time out and relax together.

We moved here to escape the stresses and strains of ‘on-the-go’ living. Long gone are the days I skip lunch, or I eat a sandwich at my desk while catching up on emails!

2. “Bonjour, vous allez bien?”

In the UK, as a working mum, I would drop the children at school and smile or wave at friends and neighbours and maybe say a quick “Hi!” whilst dashing to the car. Here, time is always made to say hello, do the kisses (bises), and ask, “how are you?” And it seems to me that it’s not only polite, but it’s a genuine question.

It slows the pace and gives you time to reflect and begin a real conversation with your friends and neighbours. I love it!

3. Vivent les agriculteurs!

I absolutely adore the respect people in France have for farmers, growers, and artisanal producers. Farmers are King and Queen in France, especially in the countryside! High-quality food is abundant, and people real care about the provenance of their food.

The French continue to shop locally, regularly using their artisanal boulanger, their boucher and their farm shops. Also, people grow a lot themselves and are mistrusting of mass-produced food – especially in the countryside. Most people have a ‘potager’ vegetable garden and hens.

I have learnt so much about growing my own, conserving, jamming, sterilising and making Charentais grillon pate.

At the height of the pandemic, when the press was showing food shortages in UK supermarkets, my neighbour took me into his barn and opened the biggest armoire I have ever seen, saying: “No food shortages here, Carol. I have enough to last us two years!” Each shelf was triple stacked with jars of homemade conserved tomato soups, sauces, green beans, haricots baked beans, vegetables, jams, conserves, purees and pates. Unbelievably fabulous and beautifully summarises my love of this gorgeous countryside!

4. Cheese

As a cheese lover, and I do appreciate there are some amazing artisanal cheeses now in the UK, France is still top of my list for cheeses. From an unpasteurised ripe brie to a charcoal-covered Charente goat’s cheese – we are spoilt for choice, and I love it.

5. Wine

You can’t talk about French cheese without a mention of French wine! We live five minutes from an award-winning wine producer here in the Charente, and Charentais wines are excellent.

My mum has an extensive wine knowledge, and I am slowly learning. I now understand her interest after living here amongst the beautiful vines.

6. Cognac

I never ever liked this drink until moving to the heart of Cognac country. My love began with the magical vines and experiencing every stage of the Cognac-making process from my friend, who has generations of savoir-faire. Now, I absolutely adore a young Cognac with Schweppes over ice, and Cognac cocktails are a wonderful thing!

Right here in our town of Aigre, we have the world-famous Cognac Gautier, which is one of the oldest Cognac Houses in France. They recently sold at auction the world’s oldest Cognac, which predated the French Revolution! It’s these nuggets of local history that I love.

7. Local restaurants

Food is to be savoured and celebrated: this is a message I hear loud and clear in France! A trip to a restaurant is a good two-hour affair, and personally, I prefer a lunchtime visit to an evening. Those ‘plat du jour’ are such good value and so often truly representative of seasonal, local cooking. Plus, on a Friday afternoon, which here in the countryside is a half day, it is a great opportunity to people watch with all the groups of local workers celebrating the end of another working week. Restaurants which are full and ‘buzzing’ are the place to be!

8. Outdoor life

France is completely geared toward outdoor living, and I love it! The “Aires” (service stops) on the motorway are amazing, with showers, children’s play areas, lots of picnic benches and a generally safe and family-friendly vibe.

Tourist attractions often have picnic areas and are geared towards families with outdoor permanent table tennis tables, basketball hoops and trim trails at plan d’eau (swimming holes) and local parks.

There are also plenty of outdoor activities such as lifeguard-supervised river and lake swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing, kayaking, river trips, high-ropes courses, treasure hunts and geocaching, golf, volleyball, tennis and lots, lots, more.

9. The French healthcare system

Although we are seeing changes, generally speaking, our experience has been of a fantastic healthcare system, which is functioning well. No ridiculously long waiting lists, and although this can be a stressful profession, our front-line workers here in rural France have presented to us as caring, happy and not overly pressurised by comparison to UK colleagues who are operating in hugely different circumstances through no fault of their own.

Our medecin traitant is readily available. Well-stocked and helpful pharmacies are on-hand, too, with many products available over-the-counter. No complaints from us!

10. French cooking and cuisine

Cooking is a real family affair in France, and locals are often deeply connected to their food. Often, the men (and sometimes women too!) will go hunting for wild boar, deer or pheasant and the like, and then butcher it accordingly, then almost every part of the animal is used and turned into something delicious. The countryside here is managed to promote wildlife and good quality food.

Recipes are passed on through generations in families and often are a closely guarded secret.

Cooking is done in batches and is seasonal. So, for example, each year, our friend, with her glut of summer peppers, cracks out the huge (and I mean huge) outdoor paella pan and spends a day cooking them down with garlic, herbs, tomatoes, etc., and then they go into about 60 large preserve jars which last the family through the year.

11. Fertile soil for gardening

I love to garden, but beyond growing tomatoes (which my Dad taught me) I am not exactly the world’s most gifted gardener. However, moving to the Charente, this is now no problem! The soil is so fertile and the conditions so favourable that if I see a plant I like and take a cutting – I just stick it in the ground, and most of the time, it grows! It has been a revelation to me.

The flip side of this is, of course, that the weeds grow like wildfire here, and it is a crazy, constant battle. As such many parts of my garden are currently “rewilding”, haha!

12. The climate

The Charente has its own sunny microclimate with, on average, 40% more sunshine hours than that of the UK. We find our winters here very short (normally November to February) and with much less rain in comparison to the Northeast of England where we used to live.

To us, even the winter is not usually THAT cold in comparison, although the longer we live here, the more acclimatised we become. It is rare for us to wear a thick coat in winter, and we spend May until September in flip-flops and shorts!

The sky is so huge and blue here; I simply cannot imagine living elsewhere again. Our children are happy and thriving, and life is good. Every day, I learn something new, and I experience something that brings me joy. Vive la France!

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Carol, a teacher from Hurworth in Darlington, lives in Charente in South-West France, where she runs La Grue Gites with her family.

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