Living a Dream: Our Search for an Old Stone House in the French Countryside

Bonjour! Thought I’d share my latest post for HipParis. Follow ParisDejaVu to see what happens next in our adventure to find the perfect country house…


Living A Dream: Our Search For An Old Stone House In the French Countryside

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Paige Frost 3It started on a whim. We were vacationing in the South of France near the idyllic medieval town of Roquebrun, about an hour’s drive from Montpellier.  Its sun-baked stone facades are built up into a cascading hillside; a smattering of cafes and merchants dot its central tree-lined street. At the foot of the village, the Orb River meanders through the densely green valley, inviting swimmers, fishermen and kayakers to partake. It’s a hidden gem in the Herault region of Languedoc-Roussillon, affectionately known to locals as Le Petit Nice.

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Nebojsa Mladjenovic

Nebojsa Mladjenovic

Glancing up the hillside at Rocquebrun’s ancient buildings — from my perch on a sunny cafe terrace — it was impossible to miss the sign hanging on a nearby iron balcony: A Vendre. The house faced the river offering what appeared to be an unbroken view of its lazy waters, arched stone bridge and the rugged valley beyond. It looked too good to be true. I had to see inside. Nebojsa Mladjenovic

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Andree & Edward

Andree & Edward

One phone call and two hours later, my family and I were standing on that balcony, gazing at the sun-dappled Orb River and those dramatic hills that carry on to the Mediterranean. The house was small; just two bedrooms, a living room and tidy corner kitchen packed into three tight stories. There was no garden, no place for an outdoor table. Still, I was falling hard. Andree & Edward

The house had been lovingly renovated by an Irish family who’d spent their summers there. Their kids were grown now; they were ready to sell. It was such a happy, cheerful home. In its sunny yellow walls and crisp interior, you could almost hear the laughter that had filled it each season. I looked at my husband and through a barely suppressed giggle, mouthed the words we were both thinking. “Coup de coeur,” as the French say, that handy phrase employed to justify all manner of passionate — perhaps unreasoned — choices.

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Paige Frost 4And yet few impulse-driven whims make for good life decisions. We’re an American family in Paris on a five-year contract! Roquebrun was a good seven hours away and virtually shuts down for nine months of the year. As much as we loved it — enough to begin crunching numbers and mulling a possible offer — buying a house in the South was, perhaps, not the most logical of choices. And so we walked away from Roquebrun, tanned and happy, our sunny memories intact, and returned to Paris with a new mission: to find a country house with a more reasonable, if no less enchanting, set of attributes….

Read the rest of the story here on the HipParis blog.


Paris Blooms on rue Cler

Despite a rainy week in Paris, the city is in bloom. And since no one can resist a peonie, I thought I’d share a few shots that capture the Spring-like mood here, rain or shine. These were snapped on rue Cler, a pedestrian market street frequented by expats, visitors and locals in the 7th arrondissement not far from the Eiffel Tower. Go on a Sunday morning, grab a seat at one of the many cafes and watch the world go by…

Bon dimanche!

How to Avoid a Bad Meal in Paris

It’s easy to find a great meal in Paris. It’s also easy to eat a bad one. Surprised? So was I. But after one too many soggy croque monsieurs and stomach turning plates of confit de canard (a personal favorite when it’s done right), I started to get suspicious. What was going on in those well-hidden kitchens? Was French cuisine not all I had imagined it to be?

                                                                       What’s going on back in the kitchen?
You see, I’d long nursed a fantasy about French food. The ingredients were always fresh and seasonal, the chefs well-trained and meticulous in their methods. Alas, non. There’s a dirty little secret hiding in many Paris cuisines: the food often isn’t prepared fresh by a trained chef at all. It can be pre-made en masse then frozen and delivered in bags to restaurants and cafes all over the city. That tough-as-cardboard blanquette de veau? Most likely defrosted and slid onto your plate. How about that dry pave de saumon au beurre blanc? Boiled in a bag, I can almost guarantee it. Concerns about restaurant quality have even sparked a movement to publicly identify restaurants where meals are indeed prepared on site. But until that leads to a foodie revolution (or at least some helpful signs in restaurant windows), here are a few tips to help you avoid a bad meal in Paris.

                                                                  Keeping it simple: scrambled eggs & salad.

Check the menu. A restaurant’s menu offers your best clue whether your meal was cooked by an actual live chef. If it’s long (like multiple laminated pages) and looks like it’s been around since the Mitterrand era, be wary. If it looks like the same menu you saw at the cafe down the street, it probably is (and that supreme de volaille has been supplied by the very same mass vendor.) Yuck.

                                                                             Crispy confit, done just right.  
English spoken here. Or German. Or Dutch. You get the idea. Any resto that offers pre-printed menus in multiple languages is to be viewed with suspicion. Ditto, international flags out front (or on the menu or stickered on the windows). Worse yet, a friendly “greeter” who stands outside and invites you in to dine. You know this, right? Of course you do. But still, it bears repeating. These places can be tempting after a day of sightseeing. (Oh, he seems so friendly! And he’s smiling!) But just don’t do it. These restaurants may look “charming” or even seem authentically French. They’re not. They’re just tourist traps and the food will be awful. Trust me, you can do better.

Service continue. This is a tough one. Visitors are often surprised (and deeply frustrated) by the limited dining hours in French restaurants. Lunch is usually served from 12 noon until about three o’clock at the latest. After that, there can be precious little to be found (if you’re looking for a real meal) until restaurants begin dinner service at 7:30pm. Hence, the popularity of the boulangerie sandwich or sidewalk crepe. Increasingly, however, you will find restaurants that offer “service continue.” Unfortunately, the food is often lacking. The reasons are obvious. If there’s a trained chef working the kitchen, he or she needs a break after lunch to eat, rest and prepare for dinner. If it just needs to be thawed and plated, why anyone can do that! Opt for a crepe to tide you over and eat like the locals do at 8:30 or 9 o’clock.

                                                Salad with foie gras and artichoke hearts. Yum.

Look for a chalkboard. A chalkboard menu says two things: 1) The menu changes often and seasonally, reflecting what was fresh at the market that day, and 2) Someone took the time to develop the offerings and will likely present them to you with care. Now, not all chalkboard menus are created equal. I’m not talking here about the enormous printed chalkboards you find tented on sidewalks outside cafes. I’m referring to the little ones (that are often barely legible) propped up on your table by a server who knows their stuff. Brevity is your friend here. I always trust a menu with just a few items. Maybe three entree, plat and dessert selections each. The longer the menu, the more suspicious I get. A chalkboard menu won’t guarantee you a great meal, but it does increase your chances.

Famous sights and excellent food don’t mix. If there’s one thing you should almost never, ever do, it’s eat in a restaurant adjacent to a world-famous monument. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule (Le Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower being the most obvious) but generally speaking, it’s a bad idea. Seek out your dining experiences in the lesser known parts of the city. Young, exciting chefs in Paris are opening restaurants away from the sky-high rents in the most visited areas. Get off the beaten path and try a little neighborhood gem. And if you must eat as you gaze at Notre Dame Cathedral, opt for dessert. After all, even mediocre mousse au chocolat is still pretty delicious.

                                                       Fondant au chocolat…with warm, oozing center. Divine!