Alison Judge de Vin & Company Wine Tours
What was your first French experience?
The omnipresent French exchange when I was 14. I first went to my host’s in Paris. She seemed quite mature (she was a year older than me, but I was a year early in school). It really opened my eyes: one of the first things she asked me when we were alone was if I was a virgin or not! I almost choked – even though I had boyfriends and wasn’t shy at all, I was far from fully sexually active. She bragged about her older boyfriends – one who worked days and the other at night – so she could take turns. Looking back it might have been bragging but she looked very confident in it!
All the typical cultural differences come into play: eating salads (!); toilets in the field with grandparents in the country (yuck); buy Gauloises and smoke them openly on the Champs-ÃlysÃ©es (cool). When she returned home to me in the UK, she started dating my best friend’s older brother and then openly asked about her sexual experiences, stating that she didn’t want to be his “teacher”. I will never forget this first experience and it really opened my eyes to our cultural difference.
The holidays near Saint-Affrique with girlfriends and our children in tow in their late twenties also allowed me to really appreciate the life of a small village and the freedom of children.
What do you like about the French art of living?
Talk about food with producers in the markets. Always exchange recipes and tips. See the products change with the seasons. I am fortunate to live in a fairly ‘alternative’ area so lots of organic artisan breads – I can visit at least three or four different bread stalls in my local markets. I can even talk to my plumber about what he eats for lunch and he will enthusiastically tell me about the mushrooms he found the day before and how he is going to prepare them. I also like that people are much more comfortable talking about politics and culture (in the general sense).
How often do you visit France?
I live here now, at the foot of the Pyrenees between Carcassonne and Perpignan. As I work in tourism, I know my region better than many locals and often people are surprised that an Englishwoman can know most of the small villages perched in the Pyrenees. I drive a bus for my tourists and the windier the road, the happier I am! A lot of my American clients are very impressed with my driving skills, but also have pretty macho attitudes towards women who drive big buses. And being English, I get all the jokes about making sure I’m on the right side of the road!
What are your favorite places to visit, local or beyond in France?
I am very attached to my region, with its dramatic mix of castles perched on ridges, and although I visit them a lot with clients, I am always blown away by them. The ChÃ¢teau de Peyrepertuse, with its view of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea, and the land covered with small plots of vines, is particularly spectacular.
Climbing in the upper Minervois is also a truly magical experience. I feel very lucky to work with a lot of winegrowers and to be able to travel through the wine regions of Languedoc. I never tire of visiting the vineyards!
Are there any food and drink specialties that you particularly enjoy?
As I do wine tourism, I must say that the Languedoc wines – which are very promising – are my favorites. There are delicate whites (if you know the right people!) As well as full bodied reds and exceptional rosÃ©s – I’m really spoiled for choice. Bread and goat cheese should follow closely behind. I would say 80% of the fresh food I buy comes from within a 25 km radius. I love to cook so it adds to the fun (and taste!).
Tell us about a secret and special place that you love …
In the neighboring village, two brothers opened a small restaurant in the forest, called Poulet Bicyclette (chicken on a bicycle). You walk up a dirt road and are greeted by two gypsy caravans that serve as the kitchen – complete with a hand-built stone oven – where they bake pizzas and meat dishes. Two ponds filled with koi carp, rushes and water lilies are surrounded by the dining room – it feels like a Monet painting. I got married here and it is a truly magical place. ??
Since 2006, Alison has operated her own transport and vacation company located in Cathar country between Carcassonne and Perpignan. For more information, visit www.vinetcompany.com
From France Today magazine