Anna Bibby owned a successful art gallery in Auckland until one day, on holiday in France, she bought a falling-down house in a picturesque medieval village. So began the process of renovating her beautiful old house which, of course, wasn’t without its issues and roadblocks.
Anna didn’t speak the language, she didn’t know anyone and her understanding of French culture was limited. Despite all this she managed to find artisans to help, she survived the brutal winter in the unrenovated house and the locals took her under their wing.
In Learning to be French (and failing), Anna tells her humorous story, taking real delight in her new life the French countryside.
Here is an extract outlining her doomed attempts at cooking French food and blithely blundering into local French culture with amusing results.
* King Charles issues official ban on foie gras in all his royal residences, Peta confirms
* What is a ‘snot block’ and where can you find the best in New Zealand?
* Anna Bibby’s adventurous French farmhouse reno
* At home with fashion photographers Karen Inderbitzen-Waller and Delphine Planqueel

I invited Carole and Vincent, Krystyna and Philip, and Jean and Monique for dinner, as I suspected it was these neighbours who had left the food on my window sill during our hours of need. I was extremely nervous, as Carole and Monique were both fabulous cooks. With food being such an important aspect of French life I did not want to get it wrong… but of course I did.
Before they arrived I’d opened the oven a thousand times to check on the carbonnade flamande, a beef casserole, and surveyed the table, which I thought looked gorgeous with its flowers, candles and new Country Road plates. Coucou, kiss kiss, they arrived en masse.
Carole, smoking a fag, handed me a bunch of roses – no surprises there – while Vincent quietly followed. Stern Monique and jovial Jean shadowed by all three of their dogs, arrived in their wake, and plonked a lettuce, freshly plucked from their garden on the table.
Finally, Krystyna and Philip, well groomed and looking as though they had stepped out of the pages of Vogue magazine, made their entry.
No one had brought wine and I was doubtful my stash would go the distance, but there was always Vincent’s cave with its 650 bottles to fall back on if needs must.
Awkwardly, they all stood around the table waiting. Waiting for what?
Kindly Vincent explained that they wanted to know the seating arrangements. Peter had immediately sat down and remained glued to his seat for almost the entire evening, so, out of my depth, I was left to fly solo.
Thank goodness Vincent took pity on me and, after opening bottles of wine, swiftly equipped everyone with a glass. However, I was flummoxed: why on earth was everyone still standing? Then I realised why.
Carole and Monique decided to re-set the table the French way. Dessert spoons now crowned plates, the forks were turned over to sit upside down, then the napkins were placed on the plates. My new dinner plates were turned over and examined. Being so large, they must be American, Carole stated with undisguised disapproval.
Finally seated, Carole asked where the ashtray was, and Monique asked where was the bread. There wasn’t any. Shocked faces stared at me in disbelief – how could the meal proceed without this vital component?
While Sharon placed the casserole on the table I made a mad dash to the boulangerie.
Finally, we had lift-off. Loud voices filled the room and expressive hands flew through the air. My meal was scrutinised, discussed and critiqued right in front of me. Peter stopped translating after Carole had said there was too much salt in the meat, and the meal was a tad too spicy for the delicate French palate.
Casserole finished, plates were wiped clean with bread, and crusts strewn across the table onto a sea of crumbs, my bread plates having been deemed unnecessary.
I had made my bread- and- butter pudding with apricots for dessert – the one Sharon liked – and it looked perfect, the apricot jam and butter having formed a crusty golden top.
However, my neighbours looked perturbed. Hadn’t I forgotten something? Costa enlightened me: they were waiting for the cheese and salad, the course usually wedged between the plat principal and the dessert.
However, Jean looked quite content with what lay in front of him, and had immediately helped himself to an ample serving of the bread- and- butter pudding, to which he added cream and a generous dollop of ice cream. Monique was not at all impressed and, glaring disapprovingly down the table at her unrestrained husband, told him off, at which point Jean rebelled and took another heaped scoop of ice cream.
By this stage I was exhausted, my face red with embarrassment. In a last- ditch attempt to salvage some dignity, I asked Peter to tell them that this had been a Nouvelle- Zélande dinner, and I hoped they had enjoyed my country’s cuisine.
Carole’s immediate response was mais oui, but in future I must remember not too much salt and pepper, and perhaps it would be a good idea to buy some proper dinner plates. She was so naughty, you couldn’t help but love her!
Monique added her five cents’ worth by pointing out that the cream and ice cream had not been necessary – after all, we were all watching our weight. Jean caught my eye and winked. He’s a bit of a character.
That Saturday, while Sharon and I shopped at the market, I overheard Monique chatting to a friend, saying, ‘Mais oui, the femme Néo- Zélandaise . . . oui, her French is terrible, oui oui, and that accent is horrible, but she’s a wonderful cook . . Formidable!’
Sharon poked me in the ribs and laughed.
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