‘From the River to the Sea: Aquitaine, A Place for Me’ by Basia Gordon. A Memoir: A time-travelling, personal journey between Scotland to South West France
We Brits are born travellers eager for adventure, an escape for cultural experiences, a taste of luxury, or perhaps, in search of a new place to call home.
When Peter Mayle moved to rural France, he intended to write a novel, not a bestselling memoir. ‘A Year in Provence,’ first published in 1989, is an aspirational lifestyle tale about a fifty-something couple renovating a derelict farmhouse in France.
Their decision had begun with “.. a meal that we shall never forget, beyond the gastronomic frontiers (and) we promised ourselves that one day we would live here.”
Unintentionally, Mayle created a new style of literary travel genre, leading to other successful narratives such as ‘Driving over Lemons’ by Chris Stewart, and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ by Frances Mayes.
“Let your dream take over your life rather than your life take over your dream.”
This translation from a French proverb is the apt starting point of Basia Gordon’s narrative about taking a year out from life and work in Glasgow to refurbish an early 19th century farmhouse in Aquitaine. She first gives a glimpse into her rich Polish heritage covering her parents’ distressing wartime experiences which led to them both, independently, to Scotland where they soon met.
As it was a long way to travel to Poland for regular holidays, in 1972 her father had bought Coutal, a “charming wreck” in rural France for £3.000: “We would never quite belong there, half marooned, half anchored to it as we were. We would always be regarded as foreigners, invariably referred to locally by the misnomer, Les Anglais.”
Memories of summers here are colourful and carefree, “as children we were feral and relished our freedom, only coming home late in the evening when we were hungry”.
After her father passed away, it continued to be a place for Polish and Scottish family reunions but with limited funds for maintenance and development. “In 2018, my partner Gerry and I decided to take a sabbatical from our teaching jobs to renovate Coutal.”
Their initial 29 hour journey from Glasgow to Aquitaine by car with an over-packed trailer (an array of objects, thirty T shirts, Philippe Starck cheese grater, Cocktail book, but no cocktail shaker), is related with light hearted humour through a series of unfortunate incidents.
The destination is Lot-et-Garonne, south of the Dordogne and north of Gascony in the Aquitaine region of France. A lush fertile landscape with fields of sunflowers, plum trees, vineyards, farms, market towns and pretty Medieval villages.
This Memoir follows Bazia’s personal, often emotional reminiscences of Coutal, the progress of the building work, daily challenges of language, laws and lifestyle to fit in, not as tourists but as locals.
This is not a quick decorating job, but hard manual labour, digging the earth, building walls, erecting a garage, creating an ensuite bedroom in the barn, electrical wiring, grass cutting, all in preparation to welcome their first visitors at their farmhouse ‘hotel”.
A rhythm of work, eat, siesta, rest, work again. They need to brush up their French especially technical and DIY phrases in order to buy wood or a hinge and learn that sandpaper is Le papier de verre.
The reader is introduced to their friendly, nonagenarian neighbours, Etienne and Suzanne Gouget, “peasant’ farmers, who eat well with their own fresh eggs and vegetables, farm reared poultry and wild rabbits.
Basia and Gerry explore the local villages, Largadonne, Born, St. Vivien with numerous vineyards all around, including Chateau de Planque and Buzet – yes, Plonk and Boozy.!
Known as the Tuscany of France, “there is a surfeit of prettiness here, rolling hills and bucolic charm” amidst the sizzling hot summer sun.
Following country customs, Basia makes soap from orange blossom, lemon grass and bay leaves while their garden is now flourishing with sunflowers, pumpkin, rosemary and lavender.
The Medieval towns of Monflanquin and Villereal attract 100,000 visitors a year, and Bodega, the annual festival in August is when clowns, musicians, dancers and jugglers stage street theatre circus entertainment creating a lively, sociable event.
Many old properties in this area with swimming pools and outhouses have been purchased cheaply, but renovation is very expensive -“dreams crumbled and houses abandoned.” Meanwhile, they plough on with their dream designer holiday home, visiting many a Vide Grenier – car boot sales – to buy vintage homeware, art, antiques and curios.
Conducting financial business with the Tax office and bank seems to be a bureaucratic nightmare .. not to mention the ensuing complications of living in France after Brexit which has been nothing but “Mayhem.. Brekshit.” Expenses are a constant source of worry – house insurance, medical treatment (will it be covered by the EHIC card?!) and endless car problems – ( L’embroyer is the word for clutch). When they buy a 16 year old Peugot, it requires a passport, proof of home address and payment by cheque.
When money is tight, they keep calm and carry on, “We shall be eating baguette sans fromage for a month.” Basia is fascinated to know that a staggering 30 million baguettes are sold in France every day, plus all those crisp crosssants and pastries!
Over recent months, the Gilet Jaunes marches have swept the country, protesting against President Macron’s changes to taxation and welfare, a grassroots revolution for economic justice. As welcome breaks from politics and the building site, Basia and Gerry relax on holiday in Majorca with a literary pilgrimage to the home of the poet Robert Graves, a heritage tour of Berlin and an exciting trip to China to observe efficient bullet trains and cutting-edge technology.
Back in ‘Coutal’, the renovation work resumes, installing a new kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. The design is Scandi chic for the Barn in contrast to traditional oak wood in the farmhouse, now furnished with old church pews from Scotland.
“I wonder what my father would have thought of the changes at Coutal Haut?” muses Basia.
During a cold, wet January, Basia and Gerry celebrate Burns Night with a party for friends, and find that the bottles of whisky are cheaper in France than in Scotland.! Their rural retreat has often been a revolving door of family and friends, which prove to be enjoyable diversions from the job in hand, especially if guests bring Tunnocks caramel wafers from Glasgow.
Amongst all the anecdotes, the most poetic stories describe an appetising feast of good food and drink. The buzzing farmers’ Markets are the place to buy the freshest fruit and vegetables, and they also pick their own walnuts and plums – the delicious Pruneaux d’Agen is a famous speciality.
Cheap, gluggable, quality wine is purchased in BIBS – a bag of 5 litres in a box and they also try their hand at making walnut wine. Embracing local manners, it is important to greet everyone you meet each day, with a cheery Bonjour.
Their elderly neighbours, Etienne and Suzanne, are true Masterchefs, rustling up Broad bean soup, truffle omelette, venison pate for lunch. A turkey “fed with grains and fruit produced the most succulent, mouth watering meat we had ever tasted.” Quality, simple peasant cooking at its best.
Just like Peter Mayle’s passion for French cuisine which enticed his move to Provence, it’s the food and wine which has been a highlight of their sabbatical in Aquitaine. “From the River to the Sea” is a most enchanting, time-travelling journey, enriched with childhood memories, cultural & culinary adventures, relating the story of a beloved family home, ‘Coutal’ for over nearly fifty years.
From the River to the Sea: Aquitaine, A Place for Me – A Memoir by Basia Gordon is published by Matador.
Hardback: £17.99 ISBN: 978-1800461345
Paperback: £12.99 ISBN: 978-1800461352
The GlenDronach Original 12 year old Single Malt Scotch – ‘Coorie in’ with a warming dram this winter.
It’s February and with chill winds, rain and snow around the British Isles, the time of year as the Scots say, to ‘coorie in’. Coorie, traditionally ‘to cower’, is such an evocative word meaning to cuddle up and snuggle in, the Scottish equivalent of the Danish Hygge.
Just picture the scene, wrapped in a woolly jumper or tartan rug, curled up on the sofa in front of a log fire. Coorie is about embracing all things Scottish to find a sense of warmth and happiness. This is the timely message from GlenDronach distillery – ‘Coorie in’ with a dram for a relaxing evening or leisurely weekend at home.
First the release of its rich aroma and then the first sip of the smooth golden liquid slipping down the throat, there’s nothing like the a dram of Scotch whisky for the ultimate Winter Warmer.
So let’s take a closer look at The GlenDronach Distillery and sample their 12 year old Highland single malt.
GlenDronach means ‘valley of the brambles’ in Scots Gaelic. Amidst the hills of the Eastern Highlands, in the fertile landscape of the Forgue valley, The GlenDronach is one of the oldest licensed distilleries, founded in 1826 by James Allardice, an early pioneer of sherry cask maturation. Spanish Sherry was a popular import into Scotland in the 19th Century and Allardice discovered that these casks were the perfect marriage to craft his distinctive Highland spirit.
This heritage has been preserved by a wonderful legend: a parliament of rooks roosting here has been the guardians of the distillery secrets for nearly two hundred years – it is believed that as long as the rooks remain, it will be good for the whisky.
Today GlenDronach Distillery maintains the old fashioned, handcrafted techniques as part of the slow, time consuming journey from the germination of the barley to the careful distillation process through the copper pot stills.
Then the distilled liquor is transferred to the sherry casks and left to mature over many years in the warehouses. Nearly 70% of the flavour in whisky is derived from the cask so the wood itself is an essential ingredient.
All the distillery’s sherry casks are Spanish oak wood from trees in Galicia which is toasted over log fires which unlocks the alchemy of oak wood, before the casks are filled with Pedro Ximénez or Oloroso sherry from Andalucía.
Sherry casks have been a natural, traditional process for centuries, and Spanish oak is still very important for the crafting of The GlenDronach Whiskies.
“I still believe single malt Scotch is the most complex spirit in the world —my goal is to create this balanced character; for the GlenDronach, I want something with finesse and elegance but that’s also weighty and robust. It’s about having those layers and the tension between fine and deeper notes. Dr Rachel Barrie, Master Blender
The GlenDronach Original, Aged 12 Years
What The GlenDronach Distillery team say:
Appearance: Deep, amber-red gold.
Nose: Sweet, vanilla with hints of ginger and spicy mulled wine
Palate: Creamy, silky-smooth, warm oak and sherry sweetness, raisins, soft fruit.
Finish: Long, full and firm, slightly nutty and dry.
First, it’s interesting to research the original characteristics of the Spanish sherries, which will influence the overall aroma, flavour and texture.
Pedro Ximénez sherry: Intense sweet dried fruit aromas of raisins, fig, prunes and dates; orange peel, coconut, nuts, treacle, vanilla, as well as leather and tobacco.
Oloroso sherry: Rich roasted coffee with notes of chocolate, brazil nuts, almonds, muscovado sugar with a bone dry finish.
A sherry with a blend of Oloroso with PX has been described as “the aroma of old navy rum; take a sip and it explodes with raisins, molasses, salted caramel and a finish of walnuts”
The GlenDronach single malt, having been soaked for 12 years in these Spanish sherry casks is sure to offer a similar symphony of flavours. Time to pour a dram, savour and sip in leisurely contemplation.
Nose: An intriguing, aromatic blend of rich fruit cake and dusty wood.
Palate: Approachable, gentle flavours of dried fruits, toffee, cinnamon, ginger, walnuts, orange peel. Balance is the thing it pulls off well, neither too sweet nor too rich, with enough complexity to keep it interesting.
Finish: Warm, spicy and velvety smooth with a soft, pleasant whiff of wood smoke.
This GlenDronach Highland Single Malt, with its sherry wine, citrus and spicy flavours, is ideal to mix in classic Cocktails.
It’s said that this is the world’s most popular whisky cocktail and the recipe is very simple:
50ml GlenDronach 12 Year Old, Brown sugar, Dash of bitters, orange peel.
Pour ingredients over ice and stir with a bar spoon. Strain into a chilled glass with ice, garnish with orange peel.
The rich, smooth and silky taste is equal to its ‘reputation’ as a drink for the macho-man who is perhaps also, rich, smooth and silky.
A Smoky Martini would usually be created with a strongly peated, smoky whisky. Instead, replace the vermouth in a classic dry Gin Martini with this Highland single malt for something tantalisingly different. The late Sean Connery (aka James Bond) would no doubt approve.
60ml Gin, 7.5ml GlenDronach single malt whisky
Add both ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Alternatively, turn this into a Burnt Martini by combining 60ml gin, 7.5ml Scotch whisky and 15ml dry vermouth.
As a Scottish twist on the Manhattan, the Rob Roy was created around 1894 at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, inspired by an operetta, “Rob Roy,” staged at the nearby Herald Square Theatre. The story is based on Scottish folk hero, Rob Roy MacGregor.
50 ml GlenDronach Single Malt, 20 ml Sweet Rosso Vermouth, dash Angostura Bitters
Stir ingredients over ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with maraschino cherry and serve straight up.
The art of Whisky tasting is always an individual experience and we may all detect remarkably different aromas, tastes and flavours; here, a few dram drinkers describe their personal views of The GlenDronach 12 year old:
Complex and intriguing. Rich caramel, hint of nuts, malted barley, nutty, oak smoke and spicy.
The nose offers aromas of stewed fruits, rhubarb and bramble jam crushed hazel nut, brown sugar and a faint charcoal smokiness. Richly flavoured with sherry fruitiness. A classic warming dram.
An absolute whopper of a sherry-finish whisky. Beautiful fragrance, rich flavour with wonderful smoothness.
This GlenDronach 12 year old Single Malt is clearly an all round winner with both whisky lovers and the experts. It has been awarded numerous Gold medals at the International Wine & Spirits Competition and at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition over recent years.
Dr. Rachel Barrie joined the Brown-Forman family in March 2017 as Master Blender for The GlenDronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh distilleries and the following year, she was inducted into The Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame. This is the highest accolade The Whisky Magazine can bestow, honouring individuals who have made a lasting contribution to the whisky world.
Find out more about The GlenDronach Distillery on the website, with the range of whisky expressions & vintages, and where to buy:
For a simple supper or celebratory dinner, choose Cheese from Paxton & Whitfield with hampers and gifts galore.
Savoury or Sweet that is the question. At the end of a delicious dinner, do you prefer to indulge in a rich dessert or order the Cheese board.?
Here it is, on the back of the menu.
How, instead of a pudding, an extra fiver
will buy you the choice of the Cheese Room.
It shines in the corner, a treasury,
the moony glow of the cheeses walled round
with glass. As soon as she sees it, she’s lost.
From ‘The Cheese Room’, Judy Brown
The fromage-loving French very wisely first sample the Brie and Comté, before finishing with, perhaps, Tarte Tatin or Mousse au Chocolat.
It is often assumed that women, in particular, are addicted to chocolate but, no, many of us would prefer a gift of the finest cheese for birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter.
Whatever the occasion or just a weekend treat, this is just the time to enjoy quality food and drink at home: plan a wine & cheese party, family supper or celebratory dinner party. Instead of throwing a block of polythene-wrapped mousetrap cheddar into your supermarket basket, take a virtual trip to Paxton & Whitfield, Britain’s leading cheesemonger for over 200 years, sourcing and maturing exceptional cheeses.
Before describing my tasty feast of three Scottish cheeses, let’s look back at the inspirational story behind the founding of Paxton & Whitfield and its heritage.
The original idea began in 1742 when Stephen Cullum set up a cheese stall in Aldwych market, before his son Sam moved the business to premises near Jermyn Street – where there is still a shop today. He also took on two new partners – Harry Paxton and Charles Whitfield, whose names would formally establish the company in 1797. Its reputation was sealed in 1850 when it received the Royal Warrant as cheesemonger to HM Queen Victoria.
Paxton’s has always been a market leader, working with British Artisan cheesemakers and importing the best from Europe, and as Winston Churchill once observed “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield“. Today, the company maintains Royal Warrants from Her Majesty The Queen and HRH The Prince of Wales.
So now it’s time to share my experience of tasting and testing three Artisan cheeses from different geographical regions of Scotland. The large cardboard box of cheese was kept fresh and insulated with an ice pack and wool blanket, the overnight delivery ensuring a swift arrival.
Paxton’s compiled this delicious selection to sample on a tour from the Western Isles to the Moray Firth and Royal Deeside.
Isle of Mull Farmhouse
As part of the Inner Hebrides, a short ferry ride from Oban, is the Isle of Mull where in 1979, Jeff and Chris Reade followed their dream, moving with their four boys from Somerset to take over Sgriob-ruadh Farm, near the colourful, waterfront town of Tobermory. The only dairy farm on the island, the Reade family continues to run this successful family business.
All of the cheese is made with unpasteurised milk from their herd of mainly Friesian, and also Ayrshire, Jersey and Brown Swiss cows, fed on grass and whisky grain husks, called Draff, from the Tobermory Distillery.
Every morning, the fresh milk is taken directly from the milking parlour to the cheese-making vat. As the cheese is unpasteurised it takes on the character of the seasons and in winter, it’s almost white in colour with an occasional blue vein as a mark of maturity.
The traditional Farmhouse cheddar has been handcrafted here for over forty years, most recently winning Gold Awards for Artisan Cheese and Best Scottish cheese.
Taste Test: Richly smooth with a slightly crumbly texture, super creamy with a tangy, salty taste and you may detect a soft boozy note too.!
Serve with your preference for crisp crackers, light, thin water biscuits, or traditional oatcakes. The traditional accompaniment of a savoury relish would be ideal, grapes and quince jam. For a heartier meal, grill a slab on wholemeal toast and serve with sweet onion chutney, and on the side, a Stout or even better, a dram of Tobermory single malt.
Connage Highland Dairy is also on a family-run farm in Ardersier, Inverness, founded by Hamish Clark and today run by his two sons, Callum and Cameron and their wives. They have an organic dairy herd of 140 cows, mainly Holstein Friesian with some Jersey crosses and Norwegian Reds which graze on clover pastures along the shore of the Moray Firth.
Brie is the most famous French cheese, renowned as “The King of Cheeses,” named after the region where it was originally created – Brie De Meaux AOC was first created in the Middle Ages by the monks of the Priory of Rueil en Brie.
For their award-winning Clava Brie, the Connage cheesemakers ladle the very delicate curd by hand into moulds and mature in a temperature controlled store. The cheese then develops a soft white rind before being individually hand wrapped. This is organic and suitable for vegetarians.
Taste Test: This magnolia-tinted wedge just looks so artistic, with its smooth white rind, and then sample the earthy, mushroom flavour. This is a distinctive, finely crafted delicacy.
Brie is at its classic best when ripe, creamy and buttery, served with crackers or crusty bread, especially a French Baguette. This cheese is well complemented with walnuts, honey and Plum chutney, to enhance the sweetness, and a glass of fine wine – a crisp, dry Sauvignon Blanc or a soft Pinot Noir.
The Cambus O’May Cheese Company is located near charming village of Ballater in Royal Deeside. A sixth generation cheesemaker, Alex Reid makes Scottish, artisanal cheese using the traditional crafts passed down from his grandmother.
“Our recipes haven’t changed in over 50 years nor has the way we make our cheese. Pure, unadulterated, unpasteurised goodness. Made with love to be consumed with passion.” Alex Reid
Auld Reekie is inspired by the local smoking methods for speciality smoked venison and salmon in Royal Deeside. This handmade cheese is lightly smoked over whisky barrel shavings which give the creamery an aromatic whisky distillery atmosphere.
The name is taken from the old slang term for Edinburgh due to chimney smoke, and where by 1777 there were 400 illicit distilleries, producing a thick smog which blackened the grand sandstone buildings.
This two day, cow’s milk curd is carefully developed to combine the flavours and textures of traditional cheddar-like cheese with a delicate wood and whisky finish.
Taste Test: This is hard, amber-coloured with a crumbly texture. The aroma ‘reeks’ with a pungent smokiness, while the flavour is more mellow, richly creamy with an underlying hint of earthy peat from the whisky-scented wood.
A good partnership for this fragrant cheese would be a fruit chutney, such as fig or plum & apple. And to drink? The local Royal Lochnagar Distillery is on the River Dee near Balmoral Castle – their 12 year old single malt offers notes of soft smoke, hay, oak and gingerbread. Alternatively, what could be more appropriate than the punchy blended malt from Islay, Auld Reekie, richly peaty, with spices and fruity sweetness.
If this has whetted your appetite, take a look at the range of cheese on offer at Paxton & Whitfield; there are two London stores, but it’s so easy to browse and buy on line for home delivery. The colourfully illustrated website is user friendly with a clear menu for Cheese Boards, Hampers, Gifts, Drinks, (Port, wine, beers), seasonal events and celebratory diary dates.
Valentine’s Day purchases include free UK* delivery on all orders over £40. Choose from the exclusive selection of cheese for your date night at home or a special romantic gift.
The finest English and French, heart-shaped, artisan cheeses including limited edition truffled Coeur de Neufchâtel, with chutneys and crackers, offers a restaurant-quality Valentine’s cheese board delivered to your door.
Coeur de Neufchâtel is one of Normandy’s oldest cheeses, it’s said that milk maids would present these love tokens to knights heading off to fight in the 100 years war.
Review from March 2020: “I bought the Valentine’s cheese box for my partner. The cheeses were of exceptional quality and married perfectly with the charcoal crackers and the sweetness of the fig chutney. 5 stars.”
And with Easter on the horizon, instead of chocolate eggs, why not enjoy a platter of cheese for a savoury treat. ?
For all information, range of cheese, hampers, gift boxes, drinks and on line purchase:
Paxton & Whitfield supplies Artisan cheeses and fine food products to Selfridges; Harvey Nichols and Harrods, as well as leading restaurants and hotels including several Michelin-starred establishments.