Vivre la Belle Vie
Annabel Langbein’s search for une belle maison in France, plus divine dessert recipes.
Words Carolyn Enting. Photography Fiona Tomlinson
Annabel Langbein feels another book coming on – and jokes it could be a sequel to Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence – as she and husband Ted search for a home in Southwest France. Understandably, the process so far hasn’t been straightforward, and they’ve mostly been laughing along the way, even when their Udrive hire car from Paris nearly didn’t last the distance. Taking a €1 deal to drive the car south seemed a good idea at the time! “It was a complete wreck and the longer we drove it, the slower it went and made the most terrible noises. We literally hobbled into Bergerac,” Langbein laughs. They’ve now bought a car, with the help of some French friends, and clocked up more than 3,000km, crisscrossing the countryside like a couple of bloodhounds seeking a “belle maison.” In the meantime, they’re fortunate enough to be staying in the very villa where Paul Simon wrote his famous album, Graceland, though that was unplanned. “We had a disaster with our booked accommodation. It was absolutely not what we thought it was going to be. Things didn’t work and the bed was broken so I phoned our friend Mike in Hong Kong and asked if there was anyone staying in his villa, La Malvanie, and could we rent it? He said, ‘come and stay as long as you like’, so that was so lucky.” The couple feel fortunate to be wintering summer in Southwest France while their Wānaka vegetable garden sleeps under the snow. As keen gardeners and outdoor people the idea of an endless summer and growing their own vegetables holds great appeal, as does being closer to son Sean in London and daughter Rose in Portugal. Their intention is to spend six months of the year in Wānaka and the other half in France, and at the time of this interview, they’d put in an o er on a place but didn’t hold high hopes for getting it. “It’s a very convoluted process but people do it,” says Langbein who remains upbeat. “Earlier this year I put something on Facebook about our intention and got a flood of replies from people who had bought property in France and have been incredibly helpful providing a dossier of sorts of all the things you need to know so that’s been fantastic.” They do hope, however, that they’ll find somewhere sooner rather than later. “Both Ted and I have realised that we’re not the kind of people who like floating around on holiday. We like projects,” she says. “It’s about establishing a rhythm in your life. We both have this feeling about wanting to create a sense of home when we are here and not just be flopping around being tourists but actually building a life here.” After many return visits over the years, they’ve pinpointed the Southwest near Bordeaux as their dream location, with its forests, sunflowers, grapes and cultivated plots. “The landscape is very pretty. It folds and curves and is all limestone, which is so appealing because that gives you really sweet soil and everything grows well,” says Langbein. “It’s a very soft environment and not far from the famous Lascaux rock paintings from around 17,000 years ago. It’s been a place where humans have lived for a long time and with good reason, it’s such a benevolent environment.” Travelling ambassadors Being in the same time zone as daughter Rose is a huge bonus. Rose has inherited her mum’s love of food and they’ve discovered they love working together. To date they’ve released two cookbooks – the most recent, Summer at Home (2021), was created in Wānaka during the 2020 lockdown – and they’re constantly innovating. Earlier this year they became co-ambassadors for De’Longhi Group (Kenwood, De’Longhi and Braun) and it’s a beautiful connection because Langbein’s love of cooking was cultivated through baking with her mother, and she still has her mother’s Kenwood mixer. Likewise, Rose has grown up in the kitchen and has fond memories of licking chocolate cake mix o the Kenwood beater and confesses that now that she has one of her own, she “feels like a grown-up”. Langbein admits she is currently making do without her favourite tools while she’s living in limbo. She’d normally travel with her Braun hand blender but, realising that its blade meant she couldn’t bring it with her (they were travelling by train from London to Paris with carry-on luggage only), it’s currently residing in London with her son Sean along with her knives! So, for the moment she’s making do with a microplane zester and grater. She’s also missing New Zealand co ee and her De’Longhi co ee machine, which makes great co ee at the press of a button. “It makes you realise how good New Zealand co ee is and how lucky we are.” When she and Rose first began collaborating on projects, she says felt a little redundant “because she’s got this and if it had been me with my mother, I’d probably be rolling my eyes a lot more,” she says. But they’ve become a great team. Rose realises what Mum brings to the table and the energy that goes into producing a video clip, as well as her encyclopaedic brain for winning flavour combinations – after writing more than 10,000 recipes in her career to date. Rose brings fresh ideas that get Langbein excited and while she’s figuring out the recipe, Rose will figure out how she wants to present it. Rose also looks after the social media for Langbein’s Bella Gin, a limitededition release with Broken Heart Gin, that has taken years of fiddling, resulting in an unbelievably delicious gin. In fact, so delicious, one enthusiast returned to buy 12 more bottles at $90 a pop. French cooking In between house-hunting, Langbein has been frequenting the French markets seeking out the biodynamic and organic growers, of which there are many in the region. Her favourite is a charming market in the village of Vergt, which only sells vegetables, or where you might find trays of fresh strawberries in the hardware store. Whether she’s in Vergt or Wānaka she continues to shop smart and admits to being “greedy with French cheese”, marvelling that what $30 buys you in New Zealand costs €2 in France. Shopping with an open mind rather than predetermining what she’ll buy or have for dinner is key. Instead, she’ll look at what is on special or in season and shop accordingly to stock up her pantry with regularly used items or to whip up an economically lean yet flavoursome and fulfilling meal. Since settling in for the season in France, go-to meals have been risotto with broad beans and asparagus, and caramelised fennel with risotto and prawns, “because prawns, like cheese, are a 10th of the price they are in New Zealand”. Last week she made apricot jam because apricots have come into their own and there’s no better combination with cultured butter on fresh French bread. Cooking on a budget At home in Wānaka Langbein grows most of her vegetables and lives resourcefully. Often at this time of year, she’ll “cook o some garlic and ginger with some Moroccan spice”, add chickpeas and a can of tomatoes, and then other veggies depending on what is in season to make a tagine that can be served with rice, couscous, or mashed potato. She recommends buying seasonal vegetables such as pumpkin and a sack of potatoes when they’re cheaper, along with aromatics like garlic and ginger, and building up your spice cupboard each week. With good-quality spice blends you can take the same base ingredients and turn them into a curry, tagine or stir-fry. Buy sacks of rice or chickpea flour in bulk from Asian supermarkets so you’re not paying for packaging or extra processing. Another cost-saving tip is to buy frozen spinach which is often cheaper or bunches of fresh spinach rather than pre-packed bags that cook down to nothing. Chickpeas also make a great addition to many meals and you can often get a can for $1 – the ones you need to open with a can opener rather than those with the tabs to pull open. Or, if you have time, it’s even cheaper to soak your own chickpeas before you cook them, she suggests. “They’re really cheap to buy but the time involved may not be the trade-o when you can get chickpeas for a dollar, but then you’ll probably get the equivalent of four cans of chickpeas if you soak and cook them yourself for the same price.” The Simply Dinner kits from New World, which she helped to create, also feed four for $25. “I’ve created the sauces so it’s really easy to make a nice dinner and it works out at $6.25 per person for a generous portion so I feel really good about that,” she says. For anyone lacking confidence in the kitchen or on a budget, her advice is to “take heart because it is possible to conjure a magical dish out of almost nothing with the help of some spices”. And try not to feel intimidated by competitive cooking shows where there are winners and losers. “There shouldn’t be anyone losing. Cooking is about giving,” says Langbein. “It’s not about being complicated or extravagant. It’s just about creating a rhythm in your life that involves having dinner and an interesting conversation.”