A passion for baking and a long-held love of France has been a recipe for success for a very British tea room in the heart of the Loire Valley
Most people would probably agree that the French aren’t known as a nation of tea drinkers. Our Gallic neighbours are far more likely to be found enjoying a caf� au lait or an industrial-strength espresso, while we Brits love nothing more than a good cuppa. Cream tea, tea break, tea and sympathy – the word itself is as much a part of our vocabulary as the act of making it is part of our daily routine. So does a move across the Channel mean changing the habit of a lifetime, swapping tea for coffee and Victoria sponge for croissants?
For one British couple, it is a case of enjoying the best of both worlds, rather than choosing between them. Having moved from Kent to the picturesque village of Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, 15km from Saumur, in March 2006, Teresa Dolan and her husband Tony opened Chez Teresa, a chambres d’h�tes and salon de th�. In the true spirit of the entente cordiale, the two cultures happily exist side by side and a taste of Angleterre is now very much a part of daily life in the heart of the Loire Valley.
The Dolans’ love affair with France began in 1989 when they first visited with their son and holidayed in Dieppe. The 200th anniversary celebrations of the storming of the Bastille made the experience all the more memorable, and as they wandered through the wonderful markets, soaking up the atmosphere and the culture, they decided that France was a country they could live in. Estate agents’ windows revealed that property here was incredibly cheap, but as they had only recently managed to get onto the property ladder in the UK, didn’t speak any French and had no idea how they would earn a living, the timing was far from ideal.
Although they decided not to make the move at that time, it remained their dream to one day live in France, and almost 20 years later it finally became a reality. Basing themselves at a friend’s cottage in a bitterly cold Brittany for a month of househunting in late 2005, their search for a new home began in earnest, taking them as far south as Limousin and even Languedoc-Roussillon, before a property that seemed to tick all the right boxes convinced them to head north again to the Loire Valley. They were all set to proceed with the purchase of a property in B�ziers just 15 minutes from both the ocean and the mountains, but were so intrigued by this mystery property that they felt compelled to go and view it.
"We wanted to find a place that we could call home but where we could also run an English-style tea room and guesthouse. Because I have a passion for baking, it had always been a dream of mine to open a tea room," says Teresa.
Situated next door to Fontevraud’s beautiful 12th-century abbey, the property was large enough to accommodate a small tea room, had ample living space for the Dolans plus two additional bedrooms that would also allow them to offer bed and breakfast. "It was a place we had barely heard of and certainly never visited," says Teresa. "However, we quickly fell in love with it, so it was goodbye to the south of France and bonjour to life in the Loire. We discovered that there were very strong cultural and historical links between England and this valley of the kings and queens of France, so felt it was the place that we could make a go of our business."
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Their dream property was built in 1895 of creamy tuffeau stone with ornate carvings, and is full of period features including fireplaces, oak beams and an attractive spiral staircase. "There was a little bit of work to do on the house and my husband Tony discovered do-it-yourself skills he had no idea he possessed!" laughs Teresa.
For Brits feeling nostalgic for a taste of home, or indeed anyone dropping in who may find themselves intrigued by Marmite and Bisto, there is now a small shop within Chez Teresa, aptly named A Taste d’Angleterre, offering an impressive selection of British produce for sale. The abbey brings them plenty of business in many ways, as they are often asked by staff at the cultural centre to accommodate artists and musicians on assignments there.
Since leaving her career as an events organiser behind in the UK, Teresa’s days are now spent creating culinary delights and looking after her guests. She likes to do her bit to further the entente cordiale by bringing French and British culture together in a number of ways, starting with breakfast � la fran�aise for her English guests and vice versa. In addition to afternoon tea, the tea room also serves light lunches of soups and quiches, with good old English cheddar a key ingredient in the latter, as well as evening meals. The salon de th� at Chez Teresa has become extremely popular with Brits, as well as with the numerous visitors who are drawn to the village from as far afield as Poland and China.
"What we love about our lives here is that because of the work we do we meet people from all over the world, plus we have made some wonderful friends, many of them French but also from the expat community," says Teresa.
It is no secret that les Fran�ais are extremely proud of their cuisine and protective of their Frenchness’, so what do the locals think of this tribute to British culture in their midst? Croissants and pains au chocolat forgotten, her scones and sponge cakes are a particularly big hit and are very much in demand, while the traditional Christmas cake she made in December went down so well with two French ladies, they commissioned one each.
In fact, so many visitors were asking for her recipes, in particular for her cakes, that Teresa has recently produced her own recipe book which is available to buy at Chez Teresa. Always keen to embrace new opportunities, the growing number of commissions from her French customers has also planted the seed of yet another idea, and she now plans to expand her range of cakes and promote an ordering service. You can almost hear the cogs whirring along with the mixer.
As if all of this didn’t keep Teresa busy enough, she has also fully embraced her new life by getting as involved as possible in the local community. Singing with the local choir, which performs at weddings, for charity and at the abbey itself, is now an important part of her social calendar. She’s even found time to write a short story for children, written in both French and English, and even set up a conversational club to encourage French and English-speaking people to chat over a cup of tea and slice of cake. Furthermore, in association with the local language school, they now host tea parties and organise trips to places of interest and vineyards in the area.
"I am very busy but feel I have a good balance, so am able to join in with things and enjoy myself," she says. "It is so important to become part of the community and to make the effort to speak French. It took a while to get to know the locals but we haven’t looked back since." Even the fact that life comes to a halt for two hours at lunchtime doesn’t provoke quite as much frustration as it did in the beginning. After all, c’est la vie.
Teresa and Tony have clearly made themselves at home in Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, and Teresa’s enthusiasm for this historic village is catching. "We feel blessed to have found such a lovely property in such a friendly village, where we have everything on our doorstep. In addition, the abbey is quite literally our neighbour and we never fail to be amazed by its magnificence," she enthuses.
Steeped in history, it has strong links with the UK as both French and English monarchs are buried here, including Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, so it really is the perfect setting for what she wants to achieve. The abbey is the star attraction for tourists, and the roof terrace at Chez Teresa is the ideal spot to enjoy the view.
The Dolans are certainly living their dream to the full and have made a success of their move across the Channel, so does Teresa have any advice for others tempted to embark on a similar adventure? "If your aim is to open your own business do your research and plan, plan, plan. If you are moving to a village, it is a good idea to think of more than one way of earning a living." Having followed her heart to the heart of the Loire Valley, she loves her new life and the opportunities and experiences it affords her on a daily basis. With almost five years under their belts they have grown in confidence and the business has evolved as a result. "We’ll never make our fortune doing what we do, but our quality of life is really very good and we have a hell of a lot of fun." You can’t ask for much more than that. LF