The crème brulée arrives with a professional flourish as the smartly dressed server, a crisp-white napkin over his arm, sets it down on the washed-oak table. Beneath the crackly golden crust, it’s unctuous and silky. Parfait. It’s a fitting end, not only to a meal prepared by a Cordon Bleu chef, but to a day filled with laughter and learning.
Patsy Sackx and Catherine Bamford are long-time friends who, during the Covid lockdowns, not so much as pivoted but pirouetted down a new avenue, setting up French language immersion weekends away in Aotearoa for Francophones.
With international travel off the menu, the Auckland-based pair, who had been hosting boutique tours to Normandy, Brittany and Provence since 2016, decided to “create a little bit of France right here”.
They first tested the market with a Gallic-inspired getaway to Matamata…the reaction? Si bon! – and so they spread the net wider with ateliers in Martinborough and (where else?) Akaroa.
Patsy, originally from Antwerp in Belgium, and Catherine, who was born in the village of Bourg des Comptes in Brittany, arrived in the country several decades ago when bakeries had barely heard of a croissant, the local camembert tasted like a bar of soap and wine was still very expensive.
“You couldn’t even find a rosé,” says Catherine. Even though they hankered after family and the food, they both loved the ‘blue-green beautiful’ land they had adopted as their own.
The duo brings their own brand of fun to the four-day experiences hosting groups of eight through a range of gentle adventures, all the while speaking French. They are the ideal tag-team. Patsy, who teaches French to children and adults, emboldens those who have only a beginner’s grasp of the language while Catherine, who works in hospitality, focusses on the more accomplished speakers.
“We attract people with a passion for the language and the culture,” says Catherine. “Those who love the food and music of France and who want to gain confidence and skills in a relaxed atmosphere.”
A Friday night game of pétanque is usually enough to break the ice. And what better environment than a grand colonial homestead overlooking the pinot noir vineyards of the Wairarapa? As participants throw their boules onto the crushed-gravel court at Lismore House, a verre du vin on the sidelines, French music playing in the background to set the mood, inhibitions magically disappear.
By the time Vincent Boudet, personal chef for the weekend and lecturer at Wellington’s Le Cordon Bleu Institute, gathers the group for a cheese-making demonstration, the conversation is flowing smoothly. “At dinner time, he explains the menu, speaking in slow French so that everyone can understand,” says Patsy.
Not that the pair are endlessly insistent on sticking to the lingo – “If you want to speak in English, of course there’s no pressure.”
Although the traditional gastronomic offerings – think cheese soufflé followed by cassoulet – are undoubtedly a highlight, there is some work to be done. Each morning there’s a French lesson tailored to the various levels within the group and, in the afternoon, an activity to explore the area.
In Martinborough that might be an electric bike tour of the vineyards while in Akaroa, a four-hour nature safari to see the penguins or a cruise on the harbour with the dolphins is on the agenda. “Three of the tour guides at Pohatu Penguins are native French speakers,” says Patsy. “So, it feels really authentic.”
Even if learning the word for penguin (manchote) is not top of the priority list, forming new friendships with like-minded people might be. For Louise Pagonis, newsreader and tour guide, that has been one of the clear bonuses of attending an atelier. “Patsy and Catherine treat you like a friend the moment you walk in the door,” she says. “The thing I remember most is huge amounts of fun.”
Louise, who signed up because, during the pandemic there was no opportunity to head to Europe to practise her French, enjoyed the itinerary, the feeling of an ‘international’ experience within New Zealand and watching everyone’s confidence build.
“Some participants were rusty and hadn’t spoken for a long time; others didn’t had varying levels of French, but I was impressed by the way Patsy and Catherine would encourage people, so it was not intimidating for anybody.”
She not only came away from the weekend so inspired that she decided to sit a DELF exam (an internationally recognised diploma) at the Alliance Francaise – and passed – but she also gained a couple of good friends, who she still meets up with when they are in town.
This year they’re of the notion to rendezvous in Avignon for a true taste of Provence. But who knows? If some global disaster should scupper those plans, tant pis (too bad). There’s always Akaroa.
French immersion atelier with Boutique Tours France start from $2500 per person including accommodation, meals and guided experiences. The tours are limited to eight people.
International travel experiences include a 14-day tour of Brittany to Normandy and a taste of culture and food in Provence and the French Riviera, from $9800 per person.
Visit: boutiquetoursfrance.co.nz for upcoming dates and more information.