Stoke Newington-based food writer Debora Robertson had long been an admirer of an old, beautiful, but neglected and crumbling house in the village of Marseillan in southern France, ever since she first rented a holiday place directly opposite it one summer, 15 years ago.
“Every time I looked out on it, I wondered why the prettiest house in the village was surrounded by a thick skirt of bamboo and melancholy.” After many years of coveting the house during regular holidays to the area, it eventually went up for sale and, to their slight surprise found Robertson and her husband were able to buy it.
And so last year, tired of the fast-paced London life, the couple packed up their much loved home in Stoke Newington, stacked their dogs and cat in the back of the car and waved goodbye to Hackney.
They had bought the house of their dreams and moved to Marseillan permanently to enjoy a very different lifestyle in the fishing port and holiday village on the edge of the Etang de Thau, in the middle of the Mediterranean coast of France. “I went and fell in love with it and we made this plan to sell the house in London and get this one and start a different life and here we are.”
Robertson, 56, is a food journalist and writer who contributes to publications such as The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Delicious Magazine, Sainsbury’s Magazine and BBC Good Food. She writes about homes, food, gardens, dogs and lifestyle: “Best thing that journalism offers you is a very varied career where you can pursue your own interests. It gives an excuse to be nosy, meet people and ask questions and that is incredible.”
Originally from the north of England, Robertson wanted to live in London ever since she was a little girl: “To me, London represented enormous variety where you could do and be whatever you want to be.”
She had lived in Stoke Newington for the past 30 years. It was the only part of London she could afford and a lot of her friends were already living there for the same reason.
She said: “It was a blend of people from all walks of life, a very welcoming place. Even though you were in the middle of a big city we knew everyone in our area and how their kids grew up.”
In London, Robertson had a very busy and social life and experienced “that relentless pressure of trying to fit everything in.” But she still longs for certain things about east London, such as the Columbia Road flower market on Sunday mornings, going to the pub and being with friends. She said: “I miss talking to my dog walking friends each morning and spending time in Abney Park and Clissold Park. I also miss Turkish food shops and Indian restaurants and mainly, London’s excellent bookshops, theatre, cinema and art galleries.”
Having spent more than a year in France now, her life is quieter, moves at a gentler pace, and she has more time to think and reflect.
Robertson believes living in a new culture means you are constantly trying to work out what the unspoken rules are, and “doing everything in a second language is challenging and sometimes tiring.” She is acquainting herself with all of the cultural activities available to her in southern France which has its own pleasures – local concerts in the church, events in the small theatre, festivals, food and markets. She has documented her new life in a column for the Daily Telegraph and now in her online Substack column.
She added: “All my friends say that I left at the right time as it’s a chaos in the UK. While I am lucky to lead a nice life in France, I’m also very conscious about people in difficult times.”
As a culinary expert with six cookbooks under her belt, she gives advice for people about how to save money while stocking up their kitchen and being budget friendly during a cost-of-living crisis. She said: “In England, there is an undertone that nice food is very middle class…and pretentious. But in France we [all] have the same recipe[s] and everyone expects nice food.”
Robertson said: “I’m very conscious about fuel economy, food waste and cooking seasonally as it is better for the planet. In my home, I don’t keep too much meat as it is very expensive. We make vegetables and cook whatever is seasonal because they are cheaper. I also cook from scratch a lot. I have started using a pressure cooker more and that really cuts down the cooking time of things.”
“Planning sounds very boring but it does help because you waste less. Britain is a very wealthy country and it is a shame that people who are working are dependent on the food banks.”
Even France has its own social problems but Robertson believes wherever you are, it is important for the community to support each other: “There is a sense of social responsibility that we are…going to get through this together by taking care and looking out for each other.”