Travel Tales from the French Countryside.

My friend Shirley Segedin was one of my dearest friends. I will never forget her kindness to me and my family. Her elegance, her love of preparing delicious cuisine, her knowledge of the arts and all things great and small. As I sit here reminiscing, I hear her voice, I hear her laughter, and I remember her sadness. Here is my story about a stunning 4 days I shared with my friend at her home in France. Days that never will be forgotten.

A Trip to France had been a long time coming. For many years I’d always dreamed of spending some time in Paris, the city of love and romance. There had been some opportunities in the past to visit, but I always thought it would be wonderful to be taken there by that ‘someone special’, to explore together, to enjoy the sights, the culture the glorious food and French Champagne followed by dancing cheek to cheek to the wee small hours…..ahhh, how beautiful that would be!

As it turned out, in 2009 I was invited to join my dear friend Shirley, and her partner, Guy (pronounced Ghee) I met Shirley in the mid-70s while living in Auckland. A beautiful woman, now at age 60, still so slim and fit and the epitome of style, and still doing what she does so well, buying and renovating with great flair.

This time, the choice was a beautiful 17th Cent. home, in a historical churchyard in the village of Umpeau, 80km south-west of Paris, and so it was suggested I pay them a visit.. I was so excited and decided to let the romantic notions take a back seat and go to visit my dear friend and catch up on the many years that had passed by since we had last had seen each other.

Arriving in Paris from Rome late afternoon, I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance just before the plane touched down at Orly airport. Guy was there waiting, with a warm and friendly hug, and whisked me away into the French countryside, through wheat fields and occasional forests, and vineyards, where Shirley was waiting at home with dinner about to be served… Guy explained that an Australian couple were visiting and staying for the weekend. The couple happened to be the well known Australian wine consultant and connoisseur Roy Moorefield from Melbourne and his lovely wife Selena.

As we entered the village of Umpeau, I felt the excitement growing about seeing Shirley again and all of a sudden, there she was, welcoming as ever, arms outstretched enveloping me with warm hugs and kisses, and showing me to my room at the top of the old 17th-century staircase! The aroma wafting from the kitchen was tantalising and seriously testing my tastebuds!

Dinner was about ready, but not before an aperitif of Cuvee Champagne, LeBrun de Neuville was served with little puffs filled with goat’s cheese, and a sensational course pate together with Shirley’s homemade bread.

Guy is very much part of a French Champagne Company, and so, the weekend was destined to be very convivial with two gentlemen, both with great knowledge and passion for a great vintage, (and a cellar below the kitchen that was a delight to any wine buff,) together with 3 women who all love to prepare great fresh food, and enjoy sharing delightful company!

Shirley and Guy’s home was all I had imagined it to be. A magical two-story farmhouse, the original presbytery, set in the church grounds with white paned wooden window frames and green shutters; with red geraniums in window boxes; lavender; potted cottage varieties of flowers of all types; and various fruit and nut trees including the biggest cherry tree I have ever seen in my entire life, absolutely laden with mouth-watering cherries. Needless to say, over the weekend baskets of fruit were preserved in red wine, orange peel, cinnamon sticks, sugar, and a dash of Guy’s favourite Kirsch for good luck!

The interior of their home was French country style and exudes so much of their genuine warmth, and personality. It felt good to be there, comfortable and charming!

Shirley and I spent some of the days wandering around the neighbouring villages, antique shops, linen shops, little country restaurants, visiting chateaux, and enjoying great coffee and exquisite small cakes in a little coffee shop so gorgeous and quaint. Chateau De Maintenon was breathtaking..

The nearby Town of Chartres was very visible from the village of Umpeau. The twin Spired Cathedral of Our Lady is world-famous for its magnificent stained glass windows. Partly built starting in 1145, and then reconstructed over a 26-year period after the fire of 1194. Chartres Cathedral marks the high point of French Gothic art. The vast nave, in pure ogival style, the porches adorned with fine sculptures from the middle of the 12th century, and the magnificent 12th- and 13th-century stained-glass windows, all in remarkable condition, combine to make it a masterpiece.

The magnificent stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Chartes.

On the evening prior Roy and Serena’s departure, Guy decided to prepare some goodies and cook them on the BBQ. (He excels at playing the host!) He disappeared for a moment down into his cellar, and soon reappeared with a very special bottle of red in hand! There is quite a story about this wine, as I soon discovered!

Every year on the third Sunday in November, the famous Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction takes place. The Hospice’s Domaine consists of vineyards which have been donated by generous benefactors over the centuries. These great wines are sold in casks at auction and then entrusted to the best wine houses whose delicate task is to age and then bottle them.

The Hospices wines were sold at auction for the first time in 1859 to maximize the Hôpital de Beaune’s revenue. For many years, the auction took place à la bougie (by candle), the sale going to the last bidder before two candles expired after burning continuously. T’Albert Bichot bought its first wines at the auction in 1876! Over the years, the Hospices de Beaune wine auction has become the most famous wine charity sale in the world.

The auctioneer from Christies in action at the Hospices de Beaune

The bottle that Guy had chosen was a 2005 Premier Cru, aged and bottled by Pierre Andre. This particular vintage was best described as a Grand Vin de Bourgogne, of the Cote d’Or bearing the recognised Appellation Beaune Controlee`What a beautiful drop, and served on this warm summer evening at just the right temperature, slightly chilled at around 18 deg.

Our starter, Shirley’s tossed salad, was to die for! The little red and yellow tomatoes tasted so good, and her dressing with great olive oil and red wine vinegar hit the spot!

The setting was al fresco, and a selection of homemade spicy sausage, local chicken, and a much loved speciality, andouilette, (a larger sausage made from offaland spices)was grilled to perfection, served with a delicious ratatouille of red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, spices and onions, and new potatoes boiled to perfection!

As for Shirley’s Apple Tarte Tartin dessert, (Originally created by the Tartin sisters and served in their French hotel as their signature dessert) it was so beautiful and moist with the fresh caramelised fruit baked on top, and a scoop of Crème de Fraise ….thoughts of fasting entered my head for a moment…but only for a fleeting moment! The evening’s golden glow progressed into the purples of the European twilight and all the while we laughed and talked about days gone by and days yet to come. Her chocolate and almond cake was equally as delicious.

Guy’s love of sailing, prompted thoughts of perhaps skippering a yacht along the stunning Dalmatian coastline of my Croatia; Roy and Serena also expressing a wish to visit that much-talked-about part of the world and promises to all keep in touch in the future. And so another delightful evening draws to a close as we all yawn and head off to our beds.

Thank you Shirley and Guy for your wonderful and generous hospitality, and the days spent in such a beautiful part of our world in such wonderful company!

The date is now 20th January 2021. Twelve years have passed, since my magical visit to France, and during that time I spoke often to Shirley by phone. The devastating news came one day in 2015 when I learned of her diagnosis, a dreaded description of cancer, which she felt would be conquered and cured. Shirley was a fighter, she was determined to be there for her children, daughter Frana, sons Ivan and Stefan. She returned to New Zealand a broken woman. Sadly her fighting spirit was crushed and she succumbed after intensive medical care. Shirley died on the 17th January 2017 in Auckland.

May you rest in peace dear friend.

TWO FAVOURITES FROM SHIRLEY’S KITCHEN

Apple Tarte Tartin 

6 granny smith apples, depending on the size, 80 grams of butter                160 grams of sugar
Juice of 1 lemon                 Ready rolled pastry ‘ pate brise type of pastry that you would use for a quiche
 
Butter a glass pie dish, clear so you can see the apple slices falling when you turn out the tarte
Cut butter into pieces place in the dish then sprinkle over the sugar
Peel & slice apples dip into lemon juice then arrange in a fan shape pattern in dish
Bake for 30mins at 200° so apple is cooked & slightly browned
Remove from oven allow to cool a little then quickly place rolled pasty on top, tuck in excess, return to oven & bake another 40 mins till pastry brown & apple looks golden & caramelised
remove from oven, run a knife around the pie dish, cover with a serving plate then turn it over, you will see the apple slowing falling onto a serving plate. Serve warm with cream or vanilla icecream – BON APPETITE!

Chocolate & Almond Cake
250g each of dark choc, butter sugar & almonds
Icing- 150grms each of cream & dark choc
8 Eggs separated
 
Preheat oven to 170° Lightly grease & dust a 27cm round cake pan
Beat sugar & egg yolks till thick
Chop choc & carefully melt with butter over hot water
Add melted choc & almonds to the egg mix. Beat egg whites till stiff & fold into chocolate mix till just blended.
Pour into prepared pan& bake for 1 hr until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean
COOL then chill.
Melt together the choc & cream & mix till smooth & well combined, pour over cake, serves 12 – ENJOY

Bisous, Shirley