Selling falafels from a mobile food van in a country that prides itself on its cuisine was a risky move, but it has paid dividends for Debbie Hewitt and her husband Andy Read, as Sue Bradley discovers
From prominent citizens in a British town of 16,500 people to English newcomers in a French agricultural hamlet with a population of 10, Andy Read and Debbie Hewitt knew life would be different in their new home across the Channel. Little did they imagine that within two years of moving to La Chapelle-Bâton, in the Poitou-Charentes region, they would be producing food that would be welcomed locally and lauded in Paris.
But that’s exactly what happened after Debbie started making falafels using chickpeas grown on a nearby farm and selling them at markets, festivals and private functions.
In the space of just a few months, she and Andy were invited to take their ‘Pois Chic’ spicy Middle Eastern-style snacks to the French capital to join 15 other businesses at the Street Food International Festival 2015.
What makes Andy and Debbie’s story all the more remarkable is that neither had previously run a catering business while living in the UK.
In fact Andy, a freelance journalist, local politician and former mayor of Stroud in Gloucestershire, and former school teacher Debbie, moved to France without any plans as to how they would earn a living.
“We were, what you might call, ‘comfortably middleaged’,” laughs Andy, 46. “We had lots of friends and lived in a nice house in a lovely town and could have very easily stayed there forever.”
Yet while life was good, both Andy and Debbie had a gnawing feeling that there was something else out there.
“We felt we were still young enough to start a new business: we were 44 and 46 at the time and thought that if we left it another five years, we might be too old to start thinking about putting felt on roofs and that sort of thing,” says Debbie, who is now 49.
“Both of us thought there was at least one more challenge in us; we wanted to step out of our comfort zone and see if we could make a new life.”
One advantage they had was Debbie’s previous career teaching German and French, something that would stand them in good stead as they began to meet their neighbours and adapt to the day-to-day realities of life in France.
“Debbie could speak a good level of French and this was great to get us started. My knowledge of French was no better than the grade C at O level, which I took about 20 years ago,” admits Andy.
“I went from speaking a very high level of English to being just about able to order a baguette and a cup of coffee. It was a pretty big change for me, and I quickly came to the conclusion that having a good grasp of the French language would be key to having a great life here.”
Debbie and Andy purchased their farmhouse in Poitou-Charentes six years ago and, being cautious about the next step, they initially used it as a holiday home.
“We knew this area in western France because some English friends had come here previously and we loved the region’s tranquil countryside,” says Andy. “However, instead of selling up in the UK straight away, we wanted to make sure we had the right house in the right region, with the right neighbours. We wanted to make sure that going ahead with the move was the right thing for us.
“Our home is a typical Charantais longhouse built in the mid-1800s and surrounded by beautiful countryside. When we first came here it was liveable, although the roof on one half of the house wasn’t quite all there, and you could see the stars through it. There was no heating and not all the doors opened and closed.
“Since moving here we’ve grown to appreciate how large our region is. In terms of land mass, it’s bigger than Wales but has just 1.8m people. We can travel for two hours in any direction and still be in Poitou-Charentes. There’s not a city within an hour of our home. To go shopping for anything, other than day-to-day necessities, means an hour’s drive.”
After deciding to move to France permanently, the