Pardon my French

Festive France: Reflections and Recipes from the French Countryside
by Louis Jansen van Vuuren, Hardy Olivier and Anet Pienaar (Jonathan Ball)

To slightly rephrase the back jacket’s own question: what do you get when three South African friends—“a chef, an artist and a stylish woman”—semigrate to France, buy up half a village and set about out-Frenching the French with regards to food, snobbery and style?

Some of the answers are captured between the hard covers of this sumptuously produced coffee-table-cum-kitchen guide to the kind of good living that few have the time, talent or money to pull off.

The stylish woman is Anet Pienaar, whose husband—Naspers tycoon Ton Vosloo—plays a cameo role in the book, mostly to be sent off with a phrase book to perform simple tasks and buy croissants. The chef is Hardy Olivier, who is chiefly responsible for the lush, haute-terrifying recipes and is also handy with a hammer. His partner, the artist, is “King” Louis Jansen van Vuuren, the driving force, indeed the tour de force, of this group.

There is something deeply pretentious-sounding about Francophiles, especially the ones who actually own property in France (I know, I’m a squirming member of this club).
In the beginning we gush about garlic; we make fools of ourselves in hardware stores with rubbish French; we thrill to the sight of our first country stereotype in the flesh, who is often rudely bearing down on us in a battered Citroen, swinging a tot of breakfast wine.

Such experiences of finding one’s feet in a foreign country are both real and clichéd. One is aware of the probability of coming across, as my friend PJ would say, like a complete poes. Anyhow, Peter Mayle, who wrote the blockbuster A Year in Provence, did it first and got rich enough to compensate for having coined half the clichés about life in rural France from an outsider’s point of view. So what’s left to say?

The adventures of Anet, Hardy and Louis in Limousin, written in turn by Anet and Louis, start out predictably enough. The cleaning lady wears Chanel, the plumber takes three-hour lunches, the French don’t seem to require more than one bathroom, coffee is always black, and so on.

But reading on, the universal clichés give way to the unique experiences and personalities of the authors. And the authors, in particular Louis and Hardy, are not quite the usual suspects.

Unblushingly pretentious themselves, they buy a chateau from a bona fide duchess, do it up in breathtaking boere-baroque, acquire two matching dogs and start social climbing faster than a wisteria.

On the subject of how they set about ingratiating themselves with the local gentry, Louis offers astonishing insights into the protocols that appear to rule aristocratic social intercourse in the French countryside. There is much to be learned from Louis on this score, from what time to arrive at a dinner party (half an hour after you’re told to) to the etiquette of giving the hostess a gift—never take it with you, have it delivered that morning to give her time to “arrange” it.

Louis and Hardy themselves spend two or three days getting ready to have a dinner party at their chateau. This involves going to Paris to buy truffles and transparent sugar cubes, polishing the Christofle silver and deciding which of their “designer regalia” to wear to impress the countess. Louis and Hardy give their dinner guests gifts—typically a small flacon of bespoke perfume that Louis has had made up in the capital, presumably while he’s waiting for his sugar cubes to be hand spun by trained silkworms or something.

All of this prep is besides the cooking. Hardy’s recipes don’t all start with “hang the pheasant upside down for 48 hours”. Even so, they are not for sissies. I enjoyed reading them in much the same way I like watching Bear Grylls crawl on his belly through a Vietnamese jungle clutching a Stanley knife and a photograph of his daughter. The shock and awe factor is enormous. Among my favourite “don’t try this at home” Hardy recipes are Pigeon on Hay (“handful of hay or dry grass, readily available in France during autumn” reads this recipe) and “green tea matcha blancmange with crisp almond caramel tuiles”, because I am titillated by the feeling that this—whatever it is—is too exotic to eat, let alone make.

Louis and Hardy’s debut dinner party, for those whose ancestors’ necks scraped the guillotine, backfired spectacularly when Louis fed the main Madame a chunk of wasabi artfully disguised as a rose in a bouquet of sushi. Lesson learned: the French may have a fine palate, but they only like French stuff.

Happily, the couple’s social standing survives to tell more tales, culminating in them all—Anet and bit-part Ton included—cracking the nod to a private ball at the local castle. Naturally this throws them all into a tizz about what to wear and triggers another trip to Paris to buy the hosts Swarovski crystal.

By the end I found—a bit to my surprise—that I had really enjoyed this lavish, campy book and its trio of authors. They are obsessed with appearances and surface and spend silly amounts of time and money picking out bathroom accessories. Yet Hardy and Louis and Anet (I can’t say much about Ton, he’s been sent to the bakery again) also come across as admirably industrious, warm and generous folk.

When they’re not testing themselves on how very French they were today, these wannabes bring a healthy dollop of small-town South Africa with them—big hearts, big drinks, broad humour—which is probably the grace that saves them from being complete you-know-whats.

Festive France is richly illustrated by the photographs of Inge Prins.

Though it is not stated in the book, the chateau La Creuzette is run as a guest house by Louis Jansen van Vuuren and Hardy Olivier, offering packaged holiday stays with cookery classes or painting lessons. Their address is www.lacreuzette.com

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