Ma Vie Française #9: Robin Ellis, cooking up a (healthy) feast in Southwest France

I’m thrilled to welcome the actor, cook and author Robin Ellis to the blog today. Robin has kindly agreed to take part in my occasional series of Ma Vie Française interviews.

Many of you will remember Robin as Ross Poldark in the original TV dramatisation of the Winston Graham Poldark novels. He also appeared as Rev. Halse in the recent BBC Poldark adaptation. Robin has had roles in many well-known films and TV series, including Merchant Ivory’s The Europeans, the BBC’s Elizabeth R, The Moonstone, Sense and Sensibility and the pilot episode of Fawlty Towers. His extensive stage experience included a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Robin as Ross Poldark

Robin now lives in Southwest France with his American wife, Meredith Wheeler, and pursues a second career as a cookery writer, focusing on a healthy way of eating and Mediterranean cuisine – more of that below.

I met Robin several years back at Festilitt, our local literary festival. He gave a cookery demonstration while being interviewed about his life and books – thus showing that men can do more than one thing at once. Mind you, he did have a very capable assistant. We sampled delicious salmon fishcakes with garlicky tzatziki while Robin regaled us with stories from his acting life.

Robin and Meredith at Festilitt

Robin has recently published a new cookbook, Robin Ellis’s Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking. Meredith took the mouth-watering photos in the book and generously supplied nearly all the images for this interview. The book details are at the end of this post.

That’s enough from me. Let’s hear from Robin.

Life on La Lune: Thank you very much, Robin, for agreeing to appear on the blog. The first, and obvious, question is what led you to move to rural Southwest France and how long have you lived here?

Robin Ellis: This year is our twenty first year of “permanence” here in the Tarn. It’s by far the longest either of us has lived anywhere.

In 1990 Meredith brought me down to the Tarn to meet veteran TV anchor and correspondent Hughes Rudd, a colleague she had worked with at ABC News in NYC.  At lunch one day I found myself asking if anyone knew of a house for sale. When we left UK, the idea of owning a second home was the last thing on my mind; we were getting married that summer and had enough to worry about.

Fatefully the answer to my question was “yes” and the next afternoon we walked into the courtyard here and… coup de foudre!

We fell in love with this house.

Rural idyll

I had no real grip on where it was or what it would mean to own it and come here, I just knew it had our name/future on it.

I bought it that evening.

We spent the next nine years travelling back and forth—spending about a third of the year here.

Returning to the UK after each visit became more and more difficult over time, and in 1999 we decided—as our “millennial gesture”, Meredith says–to move here permanently.

What appeals to you about la vie française that you don’t find in the UK?

I’m not sure comparisons are helpful, and they are certainly perilous!

The main contrast for me is not the change of country but the change from town to country!

I am a townie. I can remember visiting my parents for Sunday lunch in their retirement village north of Oxford and being impatient to get back to the smoke. I loved my parents but what was I missing in London?

So I astonished myself by falling in love with this house in the middle of La France Profonde and gradually realising that I wanted to live here permanently.

I do respond to the French customs of social politesse. There is a formality when meeting people that I appreciate.

We have also found the people of our department (Tarn) exceptionally friendly and welcoming.

Is there anything about France that you would change if you could?

I wouldn’t presume! When in Rome etc..

Although…there is a tendency here for drivers waiting on a side road to pull out in front of you as you approach their turning with not a car in sight behind you, causing you to slow down to accommodate their move. It’s not dangerous but it is an irritation.

On your website you mention your lifelong love of cooking. What sparked it off, considering (if you’ll forgive me!) that it was uncommon for men to cook when you were growing up?

My mother was a good cook. Not fancy necessarily, straightforward but delicious.  We’d eat together as a growing family round our scrubbed-top pine table in the kitchen.

I learned early that eating together was one of life’s social pleasures; but I also learned from watching Ma cook, that it took a certain amount of work to produce delicious food!

Your diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes inspired your quest for a healthy, but interesting, diet. Had you always intended to write cookbooks, or did that provide the impetus? And what marks out the Mediterranean diet as different and beneficial?

Diets are problematical; they are difficult to maintain and often involve a wagging finger factor.

Better to find a way of eating that you enjoy, that suits you and your health needs, and stands a chance of becoming habitual—so important.

My diagnosis meant I should be willing to accept certain restrictions to my eating habits.

It wasn’t difficult as I had been cooking this way for years—my culinary nose had always pointed south—thanks, I guess, to my adventurous parents taking us on holidays by train to Spain and Italy. The way of eating I’d experienced on many visits south had become our norm—the shelves in my kitchen were heaving with books by Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, Claudia Rosen and a long list of others all cooking in the Mediterranean manner. So with a few adjustments it was just what the doctor ordered.

A typically colourful dish from the new book

Meredith liked it too—vital factor!

Yes—my diagnosis was also the hook for a book—the impetus as you put it.

Friends who came to lunch kept saying—”you should write a book!”

Nice idea, I thought, but there are already too many professional chefs and cooks doing brilliant books.

Then a eureka moment—a book of healthy recipes with a diabetic angle.

Robin’s four cookbooks

Do you have a favourite market that you visit regularly?

Castres Market on Saturdays and the Wednesday market in Réalmont—both within twenty minutes’ drive.

The first is the full traditional French market—with professional stall holders mixing with locals selling their home-grown produce picked the night before.

I get there as it opens in the summer at 7am. Too crowded and hot by 9am.

Herbs and spices stall at Castres market, run by Robin and Meredith’s friend, Florence Henrion
Choosing produce at the Castres bio market, held every Thursday afternoon

The second is a farmers’ market in the old sense. It is the event of the week for the retired farmers who come with their wives to drink coffee or pre-lunch tipple of choice, play cards in the cafés, shop a little but principally to chat.

Which is your favourite recipe, the one you find yourself coming back to most often?

I once heard film director Robert Altman asked this about which of his films he liked best and found his reply a touch complacent, if not boastful—“I love them all,” he said!

Depends on the day, the season and the availability of produce. Sorry to be difficult!

I have a great affection for Ma’s Gazpacho. I found it written on the back of an envelope in her lovely round flowing hand. She must have taken notes on holiday in Spain in the fifties. The balance of ingredients do work and it’s a great stand by for company in these hot summer months. The riper and redder the tomatoes, the tastier it is.

We try not to mention the ‘B’ word on this blog, but we can’t ignore its implications. Do you and Meredith see yourselves remaining in France, and, if so, do you plan to take French nationality?

We live in a presbytère next to a church (deconsecrated) on the right and a cemetery on the left. We haven’t booked places in the latter—as yet but…!

Meredith and I did our separate 90-minute interviews applying for citizenship 16 months ago. We were warned it would take a year, but Covid 19 has kicked in and it may yet be months before we hear.

We wait and hope that we are granted citizenship of the country we have lived in permanently for 21 years, and where we plan to spend the rest of our lives.

I will always be English, Meredith always American, but we pay our taxes here and are unable to vote in France or in UK (after 15 years abroad Brits lose the right to vote). It is a logical step. I feel an emotional attachment to the idea of Europe and we both want to remain European citizens.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give someone thinking of moving to France?

Be prepared and willing to speak some French. Dig out that school French—surprising how much you remember. At least a bit of grammar—to distinguish past, present and future tenses is very handy. The people of the Tarn have been welcoming from the start. Not once did they show irritation at our clumsy, halting attempts to speak their language. They generously show their appreciation of our efforts.

I read Simenon in French.

Good stories in a repeated, easy vocabulary.

I also found reading Simenon an excellent way to pick up vocabulary while enjoying a good story.

Thank you again, Robin, for answering my questions. And good luck with your French citizenship applications. I’m looking forward to trying the recipes in your new book!

Please do leave any comments for Robin below.

Robin’s latest book:

Mediterranean cuisine is among the healthiest in the world and a vegetarian diet has been proven to be advantageous for people who have diabetes. In this book, Robin Ellis shares his lifetime collection of healthy and simple vegetarian recipes, especially selected and adapted for people wishing to control or prevent Type 2 diabetes.

This lavishly-illustrated collection of delicious seasonal vegetarian dishes avoids carb-heavy foods such as potatoes as well as substitutes such as tofu—not a traditional staple of the Mediterranean diet. Robin focuses on simple, delicious and healthy Mediterranean cuisine, making the most of fresh local ingredients.

Click the link below to see it on Amazon. Publication of the paperback in the States is delayed to the end of September, but you can get it with free worldwide delivery from The Book Depository.

Find Robin on:

Twitter

Website

You might also find these of interest:

Ma Vie Française interviews

French Provincial Cooking

Goose Fat and Garlic

Copyright © Text – Robin Ellis and Life on La Lune; Photos (except Festilitt and Poldark) – Meredith Wheeler; 2020. All rights reserved.

17 comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful interview, Vanessa. I’ll never forget meeting Robin at Festilitt. France is a foodie’s paradise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really enjoyed Robin’s cookery demo at Festilitt and hearing about all the interesting things he’s done. The latest book looks a real treat. Waiting for my copy to arrive!

      Like

  2. I liked reading this discussion with Robin and I kind of agree with his (former) opinion that all we need (not) is another cookery book 😉 I know what I’m talking about because I moved in February and all my approx. 60 much loved cookery books (and they are Art! Because I love them for their photography and story-telling quality too) are still in their removal boxes under a table – I haven’t missed them once except for telling myself over and over: If ONLY I HAD A PLACE for them I would leave through some of them…..
    I found your thoughts and opinions interesting and envy you a bit for the frank and friendly contacts you have in Tarn. Hero Husband and I adored France from our many visits, hols and friends, right until we moved in the close vicinity of Paris…. Now we’re back in our home country and we will eventually make our peace with F and visit again with joy and enthusiasm (if the opportunities present themselves!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also have many cookery books, some of which I no longer consult, since they are out of date. There are a few, though, that I like to read because they are so erudite and give an insight into social history as well as giving recipes. Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking and Jeanne Strang’s Goose Fat and Garlic both fall into that category.
      Robin will have his views on this, but while it’s never a good idea to generalise, I get the impression that different parts of France vary in terms of attitude to non-French people. “Paris n’est pas la France.” I hope you can make your peace with other parts of France, once it’s safe and practical to travel again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh don’t get me wrong, we are perfectly at peace with France as a country. We only made wonderful experiences and had&have lovely friends everywhere. It’s just that living in the terrible stress, the violence, lack of empathy and consideration in the greater Paris region has put us off our love affair. We won’t, by no means, neglect now our friends, but we are more than happy to say ‘adieu’ to the stress, intolerance, rudeness we experienced daily – and we WILL most definitely come back for visits. But it was a case of becoming ‘like them’ and losing our integrity or ‘ducking out’. When HH was offered a job in Zurich, we knew and thanked God that we were now able to return ‘home’. – I collected (loosely) cookery books always for their ‘set-up’ rather than by famous names and I have a very ecclectic collection of Swiss, English, American, French and some Italian cookery books. But I’m also a very innovative cook, I open the fridge, turn out the veggie basket, see what’’s in season and promotion – and then I just go! I never have any complaints and love also cooking for friends and guests.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, I think I understood; I just didn’t express it very well. I’m sure you want to get that unhappy experience out of your system, but you recognise that not all of France is like that. 🙂

          I also like to improvise when cooking. My husband is completely the opposite and needs to follow a recipe to the letter. But he is an engineer by training and used to precision!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Ha ha…. I have one belle-soeur who only cooks with the help of the ‘National Swiss Housewife’ cookery books, and she doesn’t change a comma in the recipes. Sometimes she asked me for ‘my’ recipe of something she liked and was dismayed when i told her: OK, you open the fridge…. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

        • 😉 (improv meals)
          No need to worry about my sis-in-law. Part of her being is that she always has a list of ingredients she needs! Nothing is left to hazard! 🙂 Whereas my cooking is often a ‘chance meal’…..

          Liked by 1 person

  3. […] A few years back, Meredith and I met writer Vanessa Couchman at the gem of a literary festival held in October in the hilltop village of Parisot in the Tarn and Garonne department–about  90 minutes drive north of us. Vanessa has lived in France since 1997 and writes historical novels set in France and Corsica (a special passion). Vanessa invited me to be a guest on the regular feature on her blog, Ma Vie Française. […]

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  4. I really enjoyed this interview Vanessa ! There is something so very special about being in France ; it touches your soul and stays there ! It’s difficult to describe that ‘feeling ‘ but so many people experience it and try to paint it , write books about it and photograph it that ‘IT ‘ must be an intoxicating blend sensual delights …
    The book sounds wonderful and I’ll certainly buy a copy !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I agree. Even after living here for more than two decades, I never tire of France. There’s always something new to discover. I’m sure Robin will be delighted if you buy a copy of the book. I am waiting for mine to arrive!

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  5. Could the tendency in France for drivers waiting on a side road to pull out in front of you as you approach their turning be a throwback to the days when agricultural vehicles on the side roads had priority ? A bit like the way for years people seemed to calculate house prices in “old francs” making them seem astronomically expensive to a foreigner!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for commenting. Priorité à droite still exists, in fact. Where there is no stop or give way sign on the junction of a minor road with a more major one, the vehicle in the minor road has priority. Not just agricultural vehicles, either. One of our local towns is full of junctions like that, so you have to keep your eyes peeled! Our elderly neighbours always talked in old francs, long after the euro came in. They never got their heads around the changes in value.

      Liked by 2 people

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