Miracles do happen if you wish hard enough, says author Louis Jansen van Juuren, who is living his best life, sustainably, near a woodland paradise in Creuse.
My life in France became a colourful tapestry woven with the threads of divine coincidence. Call it what you will: kismet and karma, fate and providence. Stitched together with passion and ardor. And as the French say: “Le Bonheur est parfois caché dans l’inconnu-luck and happiness are often tucked away in the unknown.
More than 20 years ago, we moved from a quaint shoebox house in the Auvergne to a petit château in the beguiling department of Creuse. It was a leap of faith. The ramshackle manor was called La Creuzette most likely after the French word creuset, meaning crucible or hollow shaped object. Think colourful cookery pots!
Nothing was hollow about the château except for a couple of big and costly surprises waiting for us when we began the restoration process to transform the magnificent old lady back to her days of glory.
The mammoth task took my partner Hardy and I 20 years and a few tears. The wailing mainly came from our bank manager when we arrived unannounced at his desk, begging for an extension to our already hefty loan. We should have made the necessary appointment with his secretary, who would have, as usual, informed us that he was out of town for a few days- even though his car was parked outside the office.
With Herculean effort, we eventually built a sought-after holiday destination at La Creuzette. It was singled out by the glossy Figoro magazine as one of its coups de coeur at the time. Our magical journey resulted in the publication of three books and several TV series about our escapades in the French countryside. To crown it all, more than 30 families have bought a property in and around Boussac since our arrival. The locals are ecstatic about the financial and creative injection into the local community. The estate agents gleefully wring their hands in anticipation each time the southerners arrive. This happens like clockwork in the European spring.
Time waits for no one, and 20 years later we started to dream about living life at a less hectic pace. The unspeakable word, retirement, began to feature in our conversations, To cut a long and winding story short, we sold La Creuzette to friends who fell in love with the estate after they visited us one splendid summer. 1 always thought there could-or would-be no life after our petit chateau, but we had to move on. We were still involved with a few activities there, but the hunt for a new home had to begin in earnest.
We were sure we wanted to stay in the Creuse area. It is truly one of the most natural and unspoilt gems of the French countryside, a region full of surprises.
The extensive oak forests are something to behold. They offer shelter to various deer and, of course, champignonst In autumn, patches of mushrooms appear in the damp, fertile soil in the woods and forest around our village chanterelles, girolles, cépes, mousserons, morilles, pieds de mouton… to name but a few of these delicacies that appear in steaming stews.
The wood of the French oak tree is also world-famous for making wine barrels. “Matured in French oak’ conjures up delectable taste sensations!
A SUSTAINABLE PLOT
The search for a new home took on epic proportions and soon became my obsession. I needed to put my roots down. I dreamed of a forest and a kitchen garden where I could interact with nature and try to move closer to living off the grid. A more sustainable and way of life was in the making.
It is often said that your wish will materialise if you desire it with your entire being, heart and soul. I did precisely that. We had to find a place soon, as our temporary dwelling wasn’t really big enough for two demanding hounds and us. We perused every magazine, newspaper, and agence immobilière in the vicinity.
One desperate night, the universe responded: I scrolled through a website offering houses for sale. My heart) started a spectacular drumroll when I spotted a place on the edge of a forest.
We met the estate agent in a small hamlet called Lépaud, about 19km from Boussac. It was a sunny autumn day in 2019. The property was a few kilometres outside the village. To get there, we drove along the edge of a vast forest. I opened the car window and the air was cool against my cheek. The autumn leaves, the woods and the smell of moss were beguiling. Hardy, my partner, who was driving, pulled over and we sat for a while, taking in nature at its undiluted best. A stag with magnificent horns crossed the dirt track, paused briefly and disappeared into the leafy surrounds. We drove along the forest road for another half a kilometre before stopping in front of an imposing house with suitable-sized outbuildings. Called Le Rembucher, it was on the edge of the forest. There were hirds everywhere.
The building was the hunting pavilion of Château de Lépaud, a Renaissance castle built by the illustrious princes of Combrailles. After milling around in every nook and cranny, I wanted to sign on the dotted line there and then. Hardy told the anxious agent that we would think things through. There was too much work to be done, and he was done with restoring dilapidated treasures. I was disappointed, and we drove away in silence. There was no sign of the deer.
Hardy stopped the car. “What now?” I asked, looking around. He rolled down the windows for the second time that day. “This is the only other place on earth I want to live,” he said, his voice thick with feeling.
We jumped right in with the house renovations. The first night we spent in our new home was magical. I had to remember what darkness in the countryside felt like. We were so used to village and street lights that when we were enveloped by natural darkness, we suddenly felt insecure Our new dwelling was surrounded by so much darkness it lit up the sky!
I have been a vegan for a decade and I dreamed of a garden that we could progressively re-wild and establish a permaculture kitchen garden and an organic potager. To be able to mostly eat from our own garden became a new kind of devotion. The sheer joy of making my own compost and running a no- waste kitchen was becoming a reality. Exhilarating potential while helping to give our fragile planet a bit of a breather.
TAPESTRY OF LIFE
One of the many jewels of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, within which Creuse lies, is the historic village of Aubusson. For centuries they have woven- and restored wall hangings and carpets there. A fascinating link between Boussac and Aubusson is still a talking point. The famous Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six tapestries, was discovered rolled up in the corner of the mairie in Boussac, moth and rat ravished! The eccentric writer. George Sand, who had seen them hung on Boussac castle’s walls, wrote over 40 letters to the French government to have the national treasure restored. The work took four years and the tapestries now hang proudly in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. A bestseller written in 2003-The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier -romanticises the story of the tapestries. It is a tour de force of history and an imaginative answer to the mystery behind these great masterpieces.
When you stand before an antique tapestry, you can’t help but be filled with wonder, they radiate a mysterious aura. The carton-the paper on which the design is painted in gouache or tempera-is used as the pattern for the tapestry. They are just as exciting artworks in their own right and have become collectors items. We have both developed a passion for collecting the artworks of Aubusson: Hardy collects the woven tapestries while I gather the carton paintings.
It was a bonus that our new home was close to this quaint village. Hardy was not just an ardent collector, he now restores them as well. Our outbuildings have provided ample space for three studios where we can explore our creative passions.
A further place of inspiration is the Prieuré Notre Dame d’Orsan. The gardens are like a beautifully illuminated manuscript brought to life. Created in the late 20th century on the grounds of a medieval priory, they reflect the symbolism of a monastery garden through modern eyes. The architectural complexities of the interlinking spaces become apparent from an elevated viewpoint. It is said that the medieval gardens were designed for God to gaze upon, and the Renaissance gardens were designed to be viewed from man’s perspective.
The present owners have extended the ethos by focusing on sustainable planting and al rejuvenating soil regime that is literally ground-breaking. The vegetables, herbs and fruit trees are cultivated using traditional gardening techniques and without pesticides. Hunting is forbidden and the woodlands are left in a natural state and open to the public. I always leave this magical place with a restored faith in letting nature lead the way.
It took much research and trial and error to establish our vegetable and flower gardens. They were designed with love and conviction, and the creative energy we used led to us creating a book about our garden and its abundance. Our latest publication, There’s a Vegan on my Verandah, emerged after inspired interchanges with friend and foodie Isabella Niehaus. It was not to be a conventional recipe book, rather the documentation of conversations between two creative friends about the delights and memories that food invokes. We cooked from my kitchen garden at Le Rembucher and explored the local organic markets around our village.
Market day is quite the event in the countryside. The first village market after the long winter is an occasion. After the smoky inertia of winter, the air is filled with quivering promise. The community awakens. Shutters and blinds are opened. Carpets are beaten, chandeliers are washed with vinegar and water, and copper pots are polished until they gleam in preparation for the spring dishes they will soon hold. The book is available in English, Afrikaans and French. It has been awarded three accolades already and will compete for the coveted “World Best annual Gourmand Awards in Umea, Sweden”.
Often at the end of the day, we sit on the verandah of the hunter’s pavilion outside Lépaud, counting our blessings for a bountiful life in Creuse. Hardy opens a chilled bottle of champagne with gusto. The cork arcs through the air and lands with a clang against the formidable iron gates that lead into the forest. A votre santé!
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