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  • Brit Free Zones

    One of the most frequent complaints I hear from Brits living in France is they didn’t move here to hang out with other Brits. It really annoys me. I know we all came to France to enjoy a French lifestyle, but why should this suddenly mean running a hundred yards in the opposite direction should you spot a compatriot?

    One of the most frequent complaints I hear from Brits living in France is they didn’t move here to hang out with other Brits. It really annoys me. I know we all came to France to enjoy a French lifestyle, but why should this suddenly mean running a hundred yards in the opposite direction should you spot a compatriot?

    Three years after my first book about France came out, an updated version is about to hit the bookshops. More, More France Please covering all you need to know to live a bucolic French existence; but it in no way ignores the fact that there are other Brits here. Some 500,000 by the last unofficial estimate either live full-time or own secondary homes in France.
    Personally I am happy to admit that most of my friends are English and Irish. I think it’s only natural that you gravitate towards the kinds of people you can easily relate to and understand. And now that the Irish are a great cricketing nation we have even more in common with them.

    France is a vast country and the Brits seem to have congregated in what one must honestly admit are the best parts of it; Provence, the Dordogne, the coast around La Rochelle. But there are still gems to be discovered if you can bear to live away from the coast and put up with a proper winter. Some of the regions Brits wouldn’t have considered a few years ago will soon be easily accessible via new high-speed rail links, so get in early before prices start to reflect this.
    So for those of you who really don’t ever want to speak English again and just want to lose your selves in a flurry of Frenchness here are some far-away places as yet practically unsullied by any Anglo-Saxon influence and Sky satellite dishes. Until you read about them here of course…..

    Auvergne

    The region is empty partly due to its inaccessibility and partly due to the climate. The pretty market town of Aurilliac in the Cantal département, for example, has the dubious honour of being the prefecture in France furthest away from a motorway. Consequently a town house there will only cost you around €150,000. The landscape in the Auvergne is varied and stunning; parts of it are almost 2000 metres high and during the winter covered in snow. Once the snow melts you are surrounded by green rolling hills, volcanic peaks, valleys lakes and gorges. The prettiest département is the Allier, which is characterised by small towns along winding rivers and unspoiled views. A farmhouse in the countryside with some land will set you back about €200,000. Unlike the more popular regions of France, there aren’t new builds round every corner and housing estates springing up. There are plenty of old stone houses and lots of space; the two things Brits are predominantly looking for when they move to France. It surely won’t be long before we see car-loads of Brits lining up along the Millau Viaduct in search of their dream homes. The locals will be grateful. The population in the Auvergne has long been diminishing. It is in fact one of the least populated regions in Europe, let alone France.

    Champagne-Ardenne

    The name comes from the Latin Campania meaning ‘land of the plains’ but the good thing about these plains is they’re full of champagne. On a rainy day you’re never short of a champagne grower to visit and a bottle to sample. Other than that the region has the advantage of being close to Paris and bordering Belgium should you feel the need to pop over there at any stage (personally I wouldn’t). It also boasts 10 golf courses and 650 kilometres of waterways to cool off in after a harrowing round. It is one of the least densely populated regions in the country with over 60% of the land dedicated to agriculture. It is so low on the list of places Brits buy that a property search on a french property website throws up not a single property for sale. I can’t understand why. It’s warmer than Normandy and Brittany, the countryside is lovely and the villages unspoiled. Prices are cheap; I have seen derelict farmhouses for sale for under €100,000, that’s less than the price of a hectare of champagne-yielding vines. Things get more expensive the closer you get to Paris but even then they’re a bargain compared with the south of France.

    Corsica

    As different to the Champagne-Ardenne as you can imagine; sun, sea and the Mediterranean lifestyle. Brits are thin on the ground; my friend Rachel’s father has a house there but he only visits about once every two years so you’re unlikely to bump into him. I spent a week there last summer and didn’t hear another English voice. This is the playground of the French and, as is usually the case with the French, they have chosen extremely well. Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. If it’s sea and sand you like, Corsica is the place for you, it has over 200 beaches. It is extremely beautiful but you need to be a good driver to negotiate the windy roads and lunatic locals who seem to have picked up their driving habits from neighbouring Italians. I expected a tourist-trap when I went but found unspoiled countryside (with a few rusting cars thrown in but where else do you dump them, in the sea?), great bars, lots of abandoned stone farmhouses just crying out for friendly Brits to come along and restore them and not a free-Corsica radical in sight. According to Janet Rankin from a Corsican property website prices for decent properties in Corsica range from €200,000 to €1.2 million depending on where you go. “The advantage is though that you can command a higher holiday rental rate than most other French regions,” she says.

    Franche-Comte

    The great French writer Victor Hugo was born in the capital of the Franche-Comte, Besançon. He moved to Paris but that shouldn’t give you the wrong impression of his native town. It is known as the greenest city in France, it has a TGV so access is easy and one of the most stunning historical centres of any major French town. The old town, known as “la Boucle” is enclosed in a large horse-shoe created by the River Doubs. But it is not just the capital that has plenty going for it. The countryside in the region is lovely, there are two ski resorts in the Jura Mountains, it is the producer of one of the finest (and most fattening) cheeses known to man, the Mont-d’Or which you eat with a spoon from its wooden box and as if all that isn’t enough to tempt you, you can skip over the border to Lake Geneva any time you feel like a bit of a change. Having said that there isn’t a region in France that is more like Switzerland than this one; both in terms of stunning scenery and cuisine. Property prices are low. You can find a basic large house with land for around €200,000. If you have more money to spend you could do a lot worse than a house recently advertised in the Jura. It is a recently-restored 18th century stone mill with six bedrooms, three dining rooms, two kitchens, a wine cellar, large outhouses and three guest rooms ready to rent out. It is on the market for €900,000.

    Île-de-France

    Still known by the locals as the Région Parisienne, Île-de-France is the most populated region in France with more residents than either Belgium, Greece, Austria or Sweden. But they are not Brits, at least not once you get outside Paris. The idyllic and ancient village of Maffliers, for example, is 35 minutes on the train due north of Paris, on the edge of the Isle Adam forest. It has just one British resident according to a French friend of mine who lives there. She married him. The Ellery Ludlow Agency (0033 1 34 08 78 13) has a five-bedroom property for sale in the village. The house was originally a coaching inn and used to be owned by a Napoleonic officer. It is on the market for just over €1 million. “It is not sun, sea, cheap wine or housing which attracts the buyers here rather the proximity of Paris together with rolling countryside,” says Françoise Ellery from the Ellery Ludlow Agency. “The prices are in a different bracket to a lot of other regions in France although still much cheaper than southern UK prices.” The agency has another property that is about to come on the market in the village of Nargis, 50 kilometres south of Fontainebleau, just on the border of the Île-de-France and Centre regions. The added advantage of Nargis is that there is an Irish pub there, but still “not a Brit in sight” according to Françoise. The property is a modern farmhouse with swimming pool, three double-bedrooms, large kitchen and annex properties also with two double-bedrooms. It will go on the market for €1 million.

    Lorraine

    This region used to be written off due to the fact that the north was very industrialised; famous for steelworks, iron and coal mines. This is no longer the case. It’s too expensive to run those sorts of business in France. So the countryside has taken over again and the region is blossoming, if not booming. According to a French friend of mine the Lorraine boasts one of the most beautiful villages in France; Beaulieu-en-Argonne. It is half an hour from Reims and two and a half hours from Paris but only has 30 inhabitants, not one of them a Brit. Properties are cheap; this is not one of France’s most popular regions. For example a 17-bedroom mountain property is for sale for just €440,000 and a fine looking manor house at €536,000 in the Meuse département, the same one as Beaulieu en Argonne. But my advice is to start in the village itself and get a feel for the place.

  • Corsica - France in a whole new light

    The sun-drenched Mediterranean island of Corsica, our region of the month, is a fantastic holiday destination that gave me a whole new taste of France. This, if you like, is France on the edge – a small yet intense area of rugged traditions and landscapes to match, of glorious seascapes and mountains, sweeping beaches and hilltop villages that feel untouched by time.

    The island is divided into two distinct regions - Haute-Corse in the North and Corse-du-Sud in the south. In Haute-Corse, nestling at the back of a magnificent gulf, is the fascinating Roman city of Saint Florent. Between land and sea is a marina with splendid yachts from around the world. This laid back, authentic summer resort has much to offer visitors. I particularly enjoyed walking along the quays, admiring the landscape and stopping at one of the numerous restaurants or bars for refreshment along the way. 

    For the culturally minded, there is the 12th Century Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta with its mysterious relic of Saint Flor and wine lovers can explore the fruits of the region on La Route des Vins. Owner-growers of vineyards were happy to invite us to taste their wines and learn from their authentic experiences. The 33 estates of the Patrimonio AOC are concentrated on almost 500 ha in the hills which surround the resort of Saint-Florent. 

    At beautiful beaches such as Plage de la Roya and Plage du Lotu it’s fun to follow the Chemin des Douaniers, from fragrant ‘maquis’ scrubland to expanses of fine sand with crystal clear waters inviting you to take a dip.

    Our photo shows Bonifacio. Right on the tip of Southern Corsica, this beautifully restored old town is magnificently situated on a limestone promontory looking out towards the Island of Sardinia.  Boat excursions explore the limestone cliffs and caves and even cross to Sardinia. A short drive from Bonifacio are some magnificent beaches and a spectacular golf course that any afficianado of the game will want tick off their 'played' list.

    Both of these traditional resorts are great places to stay on Corsica and French Connections has a range of self-catering apartments, villas and gîtes in both areas starting from just £300 per week

    Can't wait to go there? Read our complete guide to Corsica, find holiday rentals and book accommodation

  • France to Corsica - a fantastic ferry experience

    We’re all familiar with the crossings on the English Channel between the UK and France, either by Eurotunnel or ferry. But have you ever thought of making the ferry experience part of your holiday? I recently had the opportunity to do just this, travelling from Marseille to the wonderful French Mediterranean island of Corsica, a distance of approximately 330 kms. Whether you are looking to spend your full holiday on the island or just a part of it, it is well worth experiencing the overnight SNCM Ferry to reach Corsica.  

    Early one evening in October we boarded the SNCM vessel Pascal Paoli (named after Filippo Antonio Paquale di Paoli, who I later learned was a Corsican patriot and leader who designed and wrote the Constitution of the State). Swift embarkation allowed us enough time to become acquainted with our small but comfortable cabin with en-suite shower/WC before we sailed and to get ready for dinner on board ship. 

    A buffet salad entrée that was satisfying enough as a full meal was laid out enticingly in the dining room where one served oneself, followed by a choice of main meal and delicious desserts to die for (again help yourself buffet). Accompanied by a delightful Corsican Rose, this was a perfect way to start our trip to Corsica.  

    SNCM runs ferries from various ports along the south coast of France. You can either fly down to your Port of Embarkation or do as we did and take the Eurostar to Paris, making the simple change across stations via the efficient RER metro from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. The speedy, comfortable TGV between Paris and Marseille added to the laid back mood of the trip as we relaxed into our seats and watched the French countryside fly by. From the station at Marseille it’s a short distance (metro or taxi) to the Place de la Joliette where we boarded the ship.

    For anyone staying along the south coast of France, a trip to Corsica makes an unforgettable experience and is well worth adding to your trip. Our photo shows the ferry at the island's port of Bastia.

    Aferry.co.uk have a wide choice of routes and ferry companies in the UK and Europe and you can compare prices in one easy hit! 

  • The cuisine of Corsica

    Just off the south of France lies the island of Corsica or as it is sometimes called, the ile de beauté, meaning beautiful island. As the name suggests, it is strikingly beautiful with its forests of green oaks, chestnuts and pine, glittering bays, and bone white beaches along 1000km of coastline.

    Corsica has been shaped by a hotchpotch of cultures from the ancient Greeks to Genoese settlers and the cultural melting pot can still be felt at work today. The heart and soul of Corsica is to be found in its mountains which are shrouded with shrubs, trees and unruly scrubland or maquis. This is where you will find the wild herbs which flavour the island's cheeses and charcuterie.

    Once the preserve of bandits and berges or shepherds, the mountains today are more frequented by trekkers. The GR20 hike, a footpath running north-south and about 180km long, will take you through a wondrous landscape of peaks, forests, waterfalls and mountain lakes.

    Corsica not only has this splendid diversity of landscapes but has also has the diversity of diet and the best quality of foods to offer you. If you can imagine the quality of meat you would have from cattle grazing on rich pastures and aromatic herbs, pigs feeding on chestnuts and acorns, this is what you have in Corsica. Fruits are left to ripen in the sun and the sea gives forth its catch which is the envy of its neighbours.

    Of course the island has been poor for centuries and the fishermen had to live off their catch with the people living in the mountains living off the produce they had grown.

    Cornmeal and chestnut flour was the most used and this had to been ground by hand. However, these hard times have given us the most delicious food which was created by these housewives who varied their diet by using what was available to them at the time. They have been handed down the generations and today they form part of the islands cuisine.

    The pigs were slaughtered each year to make the cured meats; the sausages which were hung to dry out or smoked over the fire are still a speciality today and often prepared in the same manner.

    The last century has seen some changes with the planting of olive trees, citrus groves, almond orchards, and peppers, tomatoes, avocados and Corsican Kiwi.

    The cuisine is very much original, like its people in many ways, individual and fiery. Roast lamb is served not with mint sauce but with a spicy vinaigrette. Their tomato sauce or coulis is again, often spiced with pimento before being served with fish.

    Their omelettes are no ordinary omelettes; they are made with the most delicious local cheese, the brocciu cheese, made with ewe's milk and lots of local wild herbs such as nepita or sweet marjoram or wild mint.

    They also make the most divine cakes, pancakes and polenta and other specialities such as ravioli and other pasta dishes. This is probably as a result of the Italian influence when Corsica was ruled by Italy and it can still be seen in the dialect as well as the most wonderful cooking.

    So for this month's recipe I have chosen a hearty Corsican pasta dish using the local cheese and if you have the time to spare, a wonderful meaty sauce to accompany it. The sauce can be a meal in itself as it is a good old fashioned meaty sauce cooked with red wine. So if you are wise you can plan ahead for two meals here, which is what we do with this combination.

    If you prefer you can make a tomato coulis to accompany your pasta dish which is equally delicious; if you have the time the meat sauce or Stufatu sauce is a traditional recipe and is wonderful.

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    Le Stufatu (Corsican Meat Sauce)

    • 1kg/2lb meat such as shin of beef
    • 2 onions or 4 shallots finely chopped
    • 2 - 3 garlic cloves finely chopped
    • 200mls/7floz red wine
    • 1 teaspoon of tomato puree
    • 1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 bayleaf
    • Salt and pepper

    Method

    Brown the meat in the hot olive oil, remove from pan.

    Brown the onions and garlic making sure they do not brown too much.

    Add the wine with the tomato puree to the pan.

    Mix well then add the meat back to the pan.

    Add about two glasses of warm water, the bayleaf and finally, the seasoning.

    Simmer for about 2 - 3 hours until the meat is tender. You may need a little more water if the sauce has reduced too much.

    You now have a wonderful sauce, although it is more than a sauce, the meat will make a hearty dish in itself. This sauce can be made with most meats but beef has been used for this recipe.

    Now for the pasta dish to accompany your meaty sauce:

    Les Ravioli au Brocciu

     Ravioli

    Serves 4 - 6 people

    • 500g/1 lb plain flour
    • 6 free range eggs
    • Pinch of salt

    For the filling:

    • 500g/1 lb spinach, fresh or frozen
    • 6 fresh sage leaves or 1 teaspoon dried sage
    • 250g/ 8oz Brocciu cheese (or Ricotta)
    • Salt and pepper

    Method

    Cook your spinach, squeeze out the moisture and leave to cool.

    Chop spinach.

    Making pasta:

    Sift the flour and salt onto a large wooden board or table.

    Make a well in the centre of the flour and break the eggs into the hollow.

    Quickly, draw up the flour with your fingers (you may find the egg may run over the mound and on to your board but just scoop it up into the flour if it does!)

    It will be quite sticky but continue to mix it into a ball of dough.

    Lightly flour your board again and start kneading your dough by stretching it out with the palm of your hand, sort of stretching and pulling.

    Do this for about ten to fifteen minutes. The dough will become soft and pliable.

    Divide your dough into four pieces.

    Roll out each piece to form a thin rectangle shape.

    Take your filling and using a teaspoon, place spoonfuls of the mixture on to the pastry leaving about 2inches between them. You can make bigger ones or smaller ones as you wish. I have made slightly bigger ones in my recipe.

    Brush the area around the filling with water and then place another sheet of dough over the top of the fillings, pressing down in between the fillings.

    Cut the ravioli pieces either with a sharp knife or a pastry wheel if you have one.

    To cook your ravioli, simply drop them into a pan of salted boiling water for about five minutes or until they float to the top.

    Remove the ravioli with a slotted spoon and layer them in a shallow baking dish or serving dish and a generous serving of grated parmesan cheese over the top.

    At this stage if you have made the Stufatu sauce, pour about 3 serving spoons of the sauce over your ravioli and serve immediately.