Writing is rarely a route to riches, but when Colin Duncan Taylor moved to France, he found it was a key that opened the door to many a château.
Our home in the south of France
We bought our farmhouse during the final days of the French franc. The bank mislaid our money, and by the time they found it, the age of the euro had begun. In the interim, Donna and I moved into our new house. The owner had handed over the keys with a smile on the appointed day. ‘I’m sure the money will turn up,’ he said. ‘I trust you.’
This was an early taste of the welcome we received in our village, lost in the countryside somewhere between those two pillars of French rugby: Castres and Toulouse.
At first, La Croix was our second home. For six years we snatched a few treasured days of tranquillity towards the end of each month. Inevitably, every time we drove over the Montagne Noire to catch the flight home from Carcassonne, we thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just stay here, forever. How we made the dream come true is not the subject of this article. Instead, I want to tell you about something that happened a year after we settled permanently in France.
Several more years went by, during which we devoted our energies to renovating our farmhouse and steering a course through the mysterious process of integration. In conversation, tu gradually became more common than vous, and we felt particularly honoured one summer’s evening when we were invited to the Château de Garrevaques to celebrate the 70th birthday of Madame Barande’s son-in-law. By then, I had heard many more tales about the Occupation, and it was an unsettling experience to find myself dancing to YMCA, in what had once been the Wehrmacht’s dining room, while I watched my reflection in a monumental mirror which the Germans had consigned to the cellar to make way for a portrait of Adolf Hitler.
HEARSAY TO HISTORY
Most of this was hearsay, and transforming it into my first book, Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood, called for rigorous research. I soon became adept at navigating my way through the extraordinarily rich digitised resources of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. I interviewed many of the characters I already knew, and I used my new-found status as an author to obtain interviews with anyone else. Among the older château-owning families, patronage of the arts still lingers in their genes, and I soon learned that I was no longer merely un anglais; I had become un écrivain,
When the day came to plan my book launch, I called in at the Château de Garrevaques. By this time, Madame Barande and her son-in-law had both died, but other members of the family were so delighted to find their story in my book, they offered me the use of their home. A few weeks later, I had the eerie experience of being back in the château regaling guests with my account of how the retreating Germans had tried to blow up the creaking parquet floor beneath our feet along with the rest of the historic home.
MENU FROM THE MIDI
One day, I rang the bell at the Château de Thuriès, midway between Toulouse and Carcassonne. I knew it offered luxurious bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Perhaps it was frequented by the type of clientele that would be interested in my book.
The owners looked familiar, and after a few exchanges in French, our accents revealed we were compatriots. I also discovered that Jayne and Steve Simmons have appeared in several seasons of Channel 4’s Escape to the Château DIY. They kindly bought my book and we became firm friends, frequently sharing meals together. And that brings me to the subject of my second book, Menu from the Midi.
The ritual of enjoying a six-hour feast with friends is one to which most newcomers quickly adapt, and indeed, partaking of France’s rich culinary heritage as often as possible and in a variety of settings is another step towards integration. One such evening during dessert, or perhaps it was over cheese, I resolved to write about gastronomy in its broadest sense.
I set to work the next day, but good food and drink are not to be rushed. Over a period of nearly two years, I had the pleasure of interviewing a wide range of producers, and this naturally involved sampling all their delicious specialities. When it came to the section on wines, my writing opened the doors to yet more magnificent châteaux – and their cellars.
Despite my love of history, I have to admit I enjoyed this type of research more than any other. Before long, the pages of Menu from the Midi were being filled with stories of the world’s oldest sparkling wine, le Rolls-Royce of olives, secretive mushroom hunters, the cultural importance of the Midi’s pigeon towers, the cheese-making ghost town of Roquefort, and the contrasting commercial trajectories of Armagnac and Cognac.
Eventually my gastronomic journey reached those final two words, but this time I wrote them with regret: THE END. Fortunately, for a writer they are misleading – they are the halfway point – and they are followed by the lengthy process of publication and promotion. Writing this article is part of that process; giving an interview to a local radio station in French over a poor telephone line is among the most daunting; and organising another book launch is perhaps the most enjoyable.
How, I wondered, was I going to match my first event at the Château de Garrevaques? Covid restrictions made the use of any public space problematic, and although the name of my own farmhouse appears on the maps drawn up by Cassini in the late 18th century, it is not as grand as a château.
A few days later when I was dining at another friend’s château, I raised this problem with Jayne Simmons. Her response was instant: why not use the Château de Thuriès? Naturally I accepted, but as my guest list grew longer than the allées in her park, both Jayne and I began to worry about how we would fit everyone inside if it rained. Even in the south of France, precipitation is a risk in October.
Perhaps, I thought, my French guests would be intrigued by a visit to an author’s home, particularly the home of un écrivain anglais. Also, they were unlikely to have watched anything on Channel 4, whereas my English-speaking guests would be starstruck by the Château de Thuriès and its owners. There was my solution: two separate book launches.
Preparing for the book launch - chez nous!
It did rain – on my English readers. And a week later in my best French, I presented Menu from the Midi to guests who sought the shade of our trees to protect them from a hot autumnal sun.
Success brings fresh challenges. Other château-owning friends enjoyed my events at Garrevaques and Thuriès so much that they have asked, Colin, when your next book comes out, would you like to hold the launch at my place? I shall have to write more quickly, but about what?
As I near the end of writing this article, I look up from my desk and glance out of the window. The Pyrenees march across the horizon and their summits glisten with the first dusting of snow. Those mountains hide more mysteries and more châteaux than I shall ever be able to explore in a single book.
This article was first published in French Property News, March 2022