Jeannine Williamson meets a couple whose vegetarian hotel even has the French queuing up to enjoy their meat-free hospitality
Opening a vegetarian hotel and restaurant in France, where meat and fish dominate most menus, might sound challenging enough. Add a lack of experience in the catering industry into the mix and many would say it was a recipe for disaster.But with their shared passion for France, vegetarianism and good food, Debbie and Daniel Armitage have made any sceptics eat their words. The former East Sussex horticulturists had no intention of upping sticks when they booked a holiday in Normandy in the summer of 2000 at what is now La Maison du Vert, but when they arrived they were quick to make a decision that would change their lives.We used to come to Normandy a lot and loved it, but it was the usual problem of not being able to get any vegetarian food,’ explains Debbie, who’d had more than her fill of cheese omelettes, salads and baguettes on previous visits.It was love at first sight when they arrived at the small hotel in the pretty village of Ticheville, near Vimoutiers, around an hour’s drive inland from the Caen ferry port. The property was built in 1903 using traditional red brick and originally served as the village bakery.When we booked to come here we didn’t know it was on the market. But once we found out we decided within 5 minutes that we wanted to buy it,’ recalls Debbie. I looked out of the bedroom window and it reminded me of the view when I was growing up in the Cotswolds. We fell in love with the garden, which was really a field at the time, and knew we could never have afforded anything like it in the UK. We could also see the potential in it. At the time most vegetarian restaurants in the UK were pretty dull and even though we had no experience in catering we would often go out to eat and think “I could do better than that”, and that’s how it all began.’The couple, who met while working for a garden centre chain and had since set up their own Brighton-based garden design business, didn’t waste any time pursuing their dream when they returned home from holiday – and that included tying the knot.We came here in July and by November had bought it and moved in lock, stock and barrel, including the koi carp that we brought from our pond in England,’ says Debbie. We had been together for 8 years and when we started looking at buying and running a business in France we read an article saying it was easier to do things if you were married. We read that on Friday and got married at Brighton register office the following Monday!’
Organic gardenThe first winter was spent renovating, renovating, renovating’ the property and its three guest bedrooms and turning the overgrown 2.5-acre field into an organic garden. In May 2001 the couple were hanging pictures at 4am, hours before welcoming their first guests. To their amazement those initial visitors included people from Ticheville, home to a population of around 250.We knew a lot of tourists came to the area but never dreamed it would attract the locals,’ says Daniel. When we moved here we told them what we were doing and they were curious. When we opened they began coming here and then French people started coming from further afield, driving an hour or so to get here. We have never advertised and all this has been by word of mouth, so we were absolutely delighted.’Today some 70 per cent of guests staying at the hotel are British, with the rest coming mainly from mainland Europe and America, and the restaurant business is a 50 per cent split between holidaymakers and French.The bright restaurant leads off the cosy entrance lounge, where guests can browse through the menu over a dish of olives and a glass of locally produced cider or organic wine. Diners can choose dishes such as lemon roast potatoes smothered in creamy garlic and caper mayonnaise, Thai green curry soup and stuffed vine leaves to start, followed by Indian thali, wild mushroom and chestnut steak’ or grated potato and onion cakes served with a variety of imaginative toppings to follow. Desserts include ice cream and sorbet made with berries and plums from the garden and apples pan-fried in caramel and Normandy calvados sauce. I think one of the reasons the French like it so much is because it’s different,’ says Debbie. They know they are going to be able to eat dishes from around the world, as we will always have something Indian or Italian on the menu. We’re spoilt for choice with ethnic cuisine in the UK, but you don’t get that in France. The French also love going for unusual things. We did vegetarian sushi once and people ordered it even though they didn’t know what sushi was.’The couple admit the first year of business was a steep learning curve and provided some invaluable lessons. When we started we did a lot of things that needed to be finished off in the oven,’ explains Debbie. That meant we had the oven on all night, which made the kitchen really hot all the time. We also did overly ambitious things such as twice-cooked souffl�s, but now we do a lot of preparation in advance. Also, we thought that as we had a hotel we had to be open all year, even though we knew it would be quiet in winter. Then we realised that as we own the place we can make our own rules. So long as we make enough during the season to live through the winter we are happy. We take our own holiday in the winter and go somewhere hot and then we spend the rest of the time working on the property. We can live very frugally as we are almost self-sufficient.’
Converted barnThe Armitages live in a cottage on the land and Debbie’s mother, who bakes all the cakes served to guests, lives in an adjoining converted barn. The hotel and restaurant are open from the beginning of April until the end of September and there is also a self-catering cottage, La Petite Maison Blanche, in the grounds. After setting out doing everything themselves, Debbie and Daniel are now ably assisted by enthusiastic young people who share the couple’s philosophy and have joined them through the Help Exchange, or HelpX scheme, working in exchange for board and lodging.Daniel has gradually built up the vegetable and herb garden and his interest in poultry has grown from a few chickens to the flock of fifty chickens, geese, turkey and ducks roaming around a large enclosure and living in what used to be part of the old pressoir, or cider press building. Younger guests love to help feed the chickens and ducks and collect their eggs and, needless to say, once their egg-laying days are over the poultry are left to enjoy a free-range retirement and live to a ripe old age.As well as the bountiful supply of eggs, vegetables and fruit from their garden, the couple also try and buy as much local produce as possible. Ironically, the one vegetarian cheese they can’t source locally is Camembert, even though it comes from the tiny village of the same name just 10 minutes down the road. Some things, such as red lentils and organic flour, you can’t get here so every now and then we take the van over to the UK and stock up,’ says Debbie. And although there is vegetarian Camembert it’s all exported and you can’t get it in France!’Memories of a UK shopping trip provide Daniel with a fitting summary of why they have no regrets about settling for the good life in a peaceful corner of Normandy. Once I drove back and did not see another car for three-quarters of an hour, but when I arrived at the UK ferry port I was immediately stuck in a traffic jam for an hour.’ Adds Debbie: I only have to look out of the window at the view and know how lucky we are.’ Tips for running a vegetarian restaurant in France
Do your homework and pick a location that is accessible and popular with British and mainland European marketsSource as much produce as you can locallyPlan menus around a variety of ethnic cuisines and dare to be differentHave well-trained staff who can talk about vegetarian and vegan food to confirmed veggies and curious carnivores alikeBe passionate about what you do!
La Maison du Vert 61120 Ticheville VimoutiersRooms from €59-€85(�51-�74) per night.Tel: 00 33 (0)2 33 36 95 84www.maisonduvert.com
Jeannine travelled to Normandy with Brittany Ferries. Visit:www.brittany-ferries.co.uk
Tourist informationComit� D�partemental du Tourisme de l’Ornewww.ornetourisme.com