The good life

Born hosts Sarah Lloyd and husband Steve Allen knew they wanted to channel their love of food and entertaining into a business venture when they moved to France, as Anna McKittrick discovers...

Sarah Lloyd first fell in love with France when she trained as a chef in Paris. She vowed to return there one day but it wasn’t until 26 years later that her French dream finally came true when she moved to Lot with her husband Steve Allen. Sarah was living in the south-west of Ireland in County Limerick when she met Steve who was working in the construction business in Dublin and it was their shared love of France, coupled with a desire for a change in lifestyle that led them across the Channel seven years ago. “I’d always wanted to live in France as I love the lifestyle, the food and the culture, but I got waylaid. When we decided to move we knew we were chasing the climate, the seasons and the food so we concentrated on the south-west of France,” says Sarah.

Although the couple knew the area in which they wanted to live, they didn’t know where exactly to begin with: “We came over three times on viewing trips and we rented a car and started in Biarritz and zigzagged our way across the south-west trying to decide on an area,” remembers Sarah. But after three trips she still hadn’t found her perfect place so when they returned to Ireland, Steve suggested that Sarah look on the internet to see what type of house she liked and go from there. Sarah soon discovered that the properties in the department of Lot ticked all the boxes: “It was the stone, the pigeonniers, the terracotta tiles, the countryside with undisturbed views. So it was architecture that drew us to Lot.”

The couple’s first foothold on the French property ladder was a small ruin in the north of Lot which they spent a year and a half renovating before selling to buy the stunning mas which they now call home.

“Once we had lived in Lot for a while we realised that the people were incredibly nice here and the lifestyle was good, like Ireland or England 20 years ago,” enthuses Sarah. When choosing their second property they knew it was going to be run as a business so it had to have the wow factor to entice guests, while being somewhere that Sarah and Steve could see themselves living long term.

“We knew it was going to be a chambres d’h�tes because in Ireland friends always gravitated towards our house at weekends where we hosted big dinners. So we thought we’d do it for a living and charge people rather than doing it for free,” says Sarah.

After searching throughout Lot for six months Steve found the perfect property online in the village of Calvignac. Brimming with character and charm the mas has four vast bedrooms, each with an en-suite, and is the ideal size for running as a chambres d’h�tes. Sarah says the architecture of the property is amazing: “The house was built in three stages. The first part is a 15th-century maison de chasse, then in the 16th century the farmhouse was built and attached to it but became two fortified farms, and then in the 18th century a new stairs, kitchen and little house were added.” The unique property benefits from a melange of period features with 15th-century windows, arrow slits in the wall between the bedroom and bathroom, vast dome fireplaces, incredible oak beams, parquet flooring and old stone sinks among others.

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The property was half renovated when Sarah and Steve bought it and even though the previous owners had raised the roof and put in 13 new doors and windows, it still needed a lot of work.

“As always I think when you’re buying a house, we thought from viewing it that it was more or less finished but there was a lot more to be done and we’ve spent the past four years renovating it,” says Sarah. The couple restored the house themselves having gained building experience converting their first French property, and employed local electricians and plumbers to help with the more technical aspects of the renovation. When doing up the property their aim was to be as eco-friendly as possible, installing a wood chip central heating system which not only heats the house in winter but all of the water.

When creating the overall look of the chambres d’h�tes Sarah and Steve went for a luxurious decor as they wanted to tap into the higher end of the guest-house market.

They invested in luxury French beds and Egyptian cotton sheets and blankets that add to the sumptuous feel of the bedrooms, along with the heavy linen curtains. Beautiful antiques that they brought with them suit the French house perfectly and are a nod to their Irish heritage. Although Sarah never studied interior design she says it’s something that she enjoys and appears to be a dab hand at. In the attic Sarah came up with the clever design solution of using fabric to cover the sloping ceiling between the beams which were tricky to plaster or wallpaper. Not only does the finished work look good but it also provides insulation.

Sarah says the renovation was made easier by the bare bones they had to work with: “We had bought the most beautiful house and it’s very easy when you’ve got something so incredible to make it even more beautiful if you just tweak it slightly.”

Sarah and Steve’s love of food was one of the things that brought them to France and offering tables d’h�tes three nights a week allows them to indulge in their hobby and use the abundance of regional products on offer in the gastronomic region in which they live.

Sarah says studying to be a chef at the famous La Varenne cookery school in Paris was heaven and opened her up to an incredible foodie world. Rangis market in Paris offered her first taste of the delights of French markets and now in Lot she loves going to the market in the nearby village to pick up seasonal produce. “In Ireland you could get everything all year round so you didn’t get excited about seasons anymore whereas in France it’s very easy to enthuse about food.”

The menu on offer at Mas de Garrigue is largely French – not only because of Sarah’s culinary training in France but also because it is the type of cuisine she grew up with. Steve grows his own fruit and vegetables in the quarter of an acre potager and they rear two rare breed noire de gascon pigs called Posh and Becks who they’ll be sending to the abattoir in March. Sarah then makes her own p�t�s, terrines, jambon and sausages that she serves to guests.

While Sarah does the majority of the cooking, Steve, a member of the well known Allen family who started Ballymaloe House, the first country house hotel in Ireland, is a born host. Having grown up surrounded by guests and accustomed to entertaining, Steve looks after front of house while Sarah’s in the kitchen. Sarah, who was already fluent in French prior to making the move, says that serving guests is a great way for Steve, who couldn’t speak French, to practise his language skills. Steve is also a member of the local stone-building club which has thrust him into the community and enabled him to improve his French at the same time.

During the summer Sarah and Steve are incredibly busy with the business but over the winter months they get time to explore the region that they have come to know and love. Sarah says that when they initially had the idea of running a guest house in Lot, people said they were mad and should go for more touristy destinations such as the Atlantic coast or the C�te d’Azur. But they are delighted with their choice: “We were trying to change our lifestyle for the better and we didn’t want to live somewhere that died in winter and was overcrowded in summer, so we were looking for somewhere that was a bit undiscovered but also stunningly beautiful, which Lot is.”

The location of Sarah and Steve’s property on the banks of the River Lot halfway between Cahors and Figeac is incredibly picturesque and they are within easy reach of the Plus Beau Village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. Aside from the scenic location Sarah says they have been incredibly lucky with the house they bought and the people they met as a result.

“Our neighbours threw a drinks party to welcome us and introduce us to the village. It’s a real community spirit here and is very close-knit and kind. There’s a day when they give each other lily of the valley to signify friendship and we’ll often find a little bunch waiting on the doorstep.”

The saying ‘good things come to those who wait’ rings true for Sarah and Steve and after seven years in Lot they are still as excited as ever to be living their French dream. LF

www.masdegarrigue.com