On the road again: Part II
Today, my very short driving career, how to survive a long car journey without troubling a service station for a sandwich, and a recipe for bacon and egg breakfast pie.
Vanessa and I have been friends for a long time. When we both lived in London, me in Stoke Newington, her in De Beauvoir, we often clattered up and down the Kingsland Road carrying pots and pans, platters, rolls of knives, to make dinner for six, ten, twenty in each other’s houses. Once we catered a wedding together. Her Mini was so full of crates of fruit and vegetables we’d picked up at New Covent Garden market, I slid my seat as far forward as I could to accommodate them. I also had to remove my hairclip so my nose didn’t feel like it was quite so perilously close to the windscreen.
Now, Vanessa lives in Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot. A few times a year, she and her dog, Daisy, make that long, long car journey from Italy to London, a distance of 2,300km.
It’s not because I can’t drive, because technically, terrifyingly, I can.
I say journey, what I mean is royal progress. Vanessa is the queen of if you have to do it, why not make it as pleasurable as possible. She creates a great itinerary, staying with friends along the way, discovering new towns and villages en route, so the journey itself is a mini holiday. And of course, what is a holiday without food? So I asked her to share with me her car picnic essentials. It’s a long way from a few rounds of egg sandwiches and packets of crisps, which you devour before you get an hour from home.
Vanessa’s car picnic essentials
With a sharp knife, a corkscrew, tea towels which serve as napkins, tablecloths and wrappers for the sharp knife, and some essential cutlery you can always make a feast.
A cool bag to stash a few slices of interesting ham, pâté, cheese, chunks of crispy vegetables (celery, radishes, endive) which survive astonishingly well sealed in a cool place.
A small, watertight container with chunky sliced small tomatoes in olive oil and basil that will act as a dressing or dip, and also enliven any sandwich in lieu of butter.
On a long trip with dawn starts, get a couple of hours under your belt, pull off the road and find a village bar for a coffee. I walk the dog and seek out a bakery and deli in a small town. It’s one of the nicest pleasures on a trip. It’s a mini visit, and in France, Spain or Italy it can be combined with picking up some local wines, too. If you’re lucky and land on a market day, it’s a marvellous dip into local life.
The art of the lunch on the road is to find a tiny spot of greenery with at least a bench so you can unpack your bounty.
NEVER leave home without a flask of black tea, some salted nuts and a bar of chocolate, refreshment in case of afternoon traffic or flagging energy at the end of the day.
On these journeys, I nearly always prefer the adventure and the picnic than the hotel and suppers along the way.
When it comes to long journeys – though ours this weekend, from Durham to Marseillan, is a mere 1,600k – I’m a better caterer than I am a co-pilot. When it comes to driving, I’m as much use as Daisy.
It’s not because I can’t drive, because technically, terrifyingly, I can. In the early 1990s, I was going to live in Moscow and knowing how to drive seemed like a good idea in a city where winter temperatures can dip as low as -20C.
How hard can it be, I thought? I booked myself one of those week-long courses where you start learning on Monday and take your test on Friday. Reader, I passed. This doesn’t mean I’m any good at driving, I’m just very good at exams.
Off I went to Moscow where I drove about in a massive company Volvo, sharing road space with boxy Ladas and cars that looked like their owners had made them themselves at the weekend. They probably had. But I always hated driving and when I returned to London, I never drove again.
I come from a line of terrible drivers. When I was small, my mother wrote a weekly column in our local paper, The Northern Echo. It embraced anything she was thinking about that week, from the Russians sending a dog into space, to what my brother and I had been up to (I can remember pleading with her ‘Pleeeaasee don’t write about us’, a sentiment with which I feel some of my new neighbours might sympathise). One week she wrote about how she just couldn’t imagine being able to drive, even though she observed around her that perfectly ordinary people managed to parallel park and take the second exit from the roundabout without screaming in terror.
The next week, she received a letter from a local driving school saying if she would only put her faith in them, they were sure they could teach her drive. They would like to offer her free lessons until she passed her test. It’s entirely possible that sending Laika, the Moscow street dog, into orbit was a less complex endeavour. It took two years and more than a hundred lessons. When she finally passed, she bought a pale blue Hillman Imp from a young priest at the local seminary. It came with a bottle of holy water in the shape of the Madonna on the dashboard and rosary beads hanging from the mirror, for which we were all extremely grateful.
France has over 9,000 km of almost entirely excellent motorways, yet my only contribution to driving in this country ends at fishing parking tickets out of machines. We still have a right-hand drive car and my husband is too lazy to stop the car, get out, walk around to the other side, press the button, retrieve the ticket, and walk back round to the driver’s side. Honestly, some people.
Facebook groups for foreigners resident in France are full of fury about the state of French driving, the casualness of French parking, the terrifying exuberance of French tailgating which, along with rugby, football and cycling, must be right up there as a national sport. Allez les bleus, but not so close, not so fast, s’il vous plaît.
While I might not admire French driving (a nerve, I know, from Ms Non-Driver, but just because I can’t do something doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions), I do quite enjoy their general indifference to cars, or at least to those flashy status-symbols that so often seem to play the role of personality substitute for their owners.
My English friend Claudia, who’s lived in a village to the north of us for many years, describes her first encounter with French car culture. ‘When we arrived, I had an old red Mercedes and it was pristine. I parked it at Clermont-l’Hérault market and came back to find someone had sheared it all down one side and taken the wing mirror off. When our builder arrived, he took one look at it and said, with no surprise at all, “Meh, Languedoc special, fits right in now.’
This feeling doesn’t just persist with country people. My London friend Tom’s family have a flat in Paris. ‘I went to a party one evening and my dad asked me to walk this very BCBG (bon chic, bon genre, the French version of Sloane Rangers) lady to her car. It was a beaten-up wreck of a Peugeot 205. And her ex owned a very smart department store right in the middle of Paris.’ He goes on to describe an episode of Top Gear about French cars he’d enjoyed: ‘It stated that four per cent of French people said they washed their car by hand. They would think you were mad spending a Sunday morning doing it. To the French, the paintwork is the wrapping it comes in, scratches, dents, on a brand new car, they don’t care.’
… [she] gave us one of those withering teenager looks and simply curled up her toes, just enough to let us drive past. It was one of the most magnificent acts of defiance I have ever seen.
In many parts of France, this is probably just as well because of the extreme narrowness of the roads in some villages and towns. Many years ago, we rented a house in Agde. This was before the advent of SatNav and when we arrived at the end of our 1,000km drive, all we had to help us locate the house was the owner’s hastily hand-drawn map. It was not to scale, or accurate. Very quickly, we were lost in the winding seventeenth century streets. A young girl sitting on the kerb painting her toenails gave us one of those withering teenager looks and simply curled up her toes, just enough to let us drive past. It was one of the most magnificent acts of defiance I have ever seen.
Eventually, we emerged into a small square which would have been an enormous relief, had it not been filled with tables and chairs from the corner café. Mercifully, the café goers seemed not at all perturbed. They simply got up and rearranged the furniture to clear our route. I suspect it was not the first time that had happened.
So this is to say, on reflection, I won’t be dusting off my licence and driving here any time soon. My mother gave me a bicycle for my birthday in July. I realise now it is the same shade of blue as her old Hillman Imp. At least it is something I can drive without recourse to holy water or rosary. So modern.
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Not Auntie Louie’s breakfast pie
This sturdy pie is essentially a cooked breakfast encased in pastry and it’s great for long road trips. My great auntie Louie was an excellent baker and made delicious bacon and egg pies. Hers most definitely did not have pancetta in them, but I was trying to use up some things from the fridge before our journey and I had a nice chunk hogging a corner of the deli drawer. You can use bacon if you like – just cook a bit of it to render out the fat to fry the onions in, and leave the rest raw to bake in the pie.