Francophile favourites: Alison Judge of Vin & Company Wine Tours
What was your first French experience?
The omnipresent French exchange when I was 14 years old. I first went to my host in Paris. She seemed quite mature (she was a year older than me, but I was a year ahead in school). It was such a revelation: one of the first things she asked me when we were alone was whether I was a virgin or not! I nearly choked – although I had 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 one who worked nights – so she could rotate them. Looking back now, that may have been bragging, but she seemed very confident in that area!
All the typical cultural differences come into play: eating salads (!); a toilet on the ground at the grandparents in the countryside (yuck); buy Gauloises and openly smoke them on the Champs-Élysées (cool). When she returned to my home in the UK, she started dating my best friend’s older brother, then openly asked about his 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.
Holidays near Saint-Affrique with girlfriends and our children in tow in their late twenties also allowed me to appreciate small village life and the freedom of children.
What do you like about the French lifestyle?
Talking about food with producers in the markets. Always swapping recipes and tips. See the products change with the seasons. I’m lucky to live in a fairly ‘alternative’ area with lots of organic artisan bread – 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’s cooking for lunch and he’ll happily tell me about the mushrooms he found the night before and how he’s going to cook them. I also like that people are much more comfortable talking about politics and culture (in a general sense).
How often do you visit France?
I live here now, in the foothills 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 hilltop villages in the Pyrenees. I drive a bus for my tourists and the windier the road, the happier I am! Many of my American clients are very impressed with my driving skills, but also have a pretty macho attitude 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 spectacular mix of castles perched on ridges, and although I visit them a lot with clients, I am always overwhelmed by them. The Château de Peyrepertuse, with its view of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea, and the land covered with small plots of vines, is particularly spectacular.
Driving up into the upper Minervois is also a truly magical experience. I have the chance to work with many winegrowers and to be able to travel all the wine regions of Languedoc. I never tire of visiting the vineyards!
Are there any culinary specialties that you particularly enjoy?
As I am in wine tourism, I must say that the wines of Languedoc – which are really on the rise – are my favourites. There are delicate whites (if you know the right people!) as well as robust reds and remarkable rosés – I’m really spoiled for choice. A close second should be bread and goat cheese. I would say that 80% of the fresh food I buy comes from within 25 km. I love to cook so it adds to the fun (and taste!).
Tell us about a secret and special place you love…
In the village next to us, two brothers have opened a small restaurant in the forest, called Poulet Bicyclette (chicken on a bike). 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 cook the pizzas and meat dishes. Two ponds filled with koi carp, rushes and water lilies surround the dining room, it looks like a painting by Monet. I got married here and it’s 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
Excerpt from France Today magazine