The good food life in Limousin
- Credit: Archant
After spending many family camping holidays in France, Jan and Richard Rogers renovated a B&B in Limousin, bought some chickens and opened their doors to guests
Many people, particularly the French, ask us how on earth we came to be living in Limousin, which, to their way of thinking, is in the middle of nowhere.
It’s a long story which started when our children, long grown up now, were much younger. Like many families strapped for cash, but wanting to go abroad and glimpse beyond our everyday life, we came to France often, invariably in the form of a camping holiday. We enjoyed the country, the people and particularly, as Richard is a chef, the food. Thus started our love affair with France.
With the children away at university, our trips across the Channel became more frequent, albeit often only for long weekends, and friends introduced us to the more civilised joys of chambres d’hôtes and more especially table d’hôtes, which we fell in love with immediately. What better way to meet people, practise your language skills and sample local food than sitting around a table and sharing a meal? Our holidays in France became so frequent that our family started suggesting that since we spent so much time there, we may as well live there. What a splendid idea!
Our holidays took on a new meaning, and we began to wonder what it would be like to live in France, where we might live and what we would do when we got there. Richard was not used to sitting still and felt he had plenty of meals to cook for others left in him, and I was too young to give up work. As the ideas turned around in our heads we decided to spend a week in Limousin in the winter; we had liked the area when we’d holidayed there but we needed to get at least a glimpse of the region during the colder months.
Richard, not wanting to waste time in France, suggested looking at businesses, and it seemed sensible to look into an area that at least one of us knew something about. Thus started our foray into the French hospitality business. We visited derelict cafés and restaurants until, after seeing it on the internet, we visited the chambres d’hôtes business in the Haute-Vienne department that is now La Chouette.
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They say that if you like a place in the rain, you will certainly love it when the sun shines – and we did. The owners had run the property as a B&B with a very British name for under two years, were not doing well for many reasons and wanted to sell up and move back to the UK. To cut a long story short, we bought the property, renamed it La Chouette (there was an owl living in the barn at the time, and c’est chouette à La Chouette!) and set about putting our B&B back on the map.
With Richard’s catering expertise, and the ‘front of house’ experience I acquired in the UK, we believed we could make a success of La Chouette if we worked hard. Running a B&B offering table d’hôtes satisfied Richard’s desire to cook for others and met my need to start in the shallow end of the hospitality industry.
Cooking for others is oxygen to those with a passion for it, be they professional chefs or passionate home cooks. Offering table d’hôtes not only provides that oxygen but does so in a way not possible in a restaurant. The uncertainly of restaurant service doesn’t exist to any great extent – you normally know in advance whether you’re cooking or not and how many you’re cooking for. The added bonus is that not only can you cook and serve menus that you like and that constantly change, but you get to share the meal with your guests, something completely unknown in the hotel or restaurant trade.
One of our first tasks was to establish a potager so that we could serve fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden, and to buy laying chickens for breakfast eggs. We quickly discovered that not only did the girls lay wonderful eggs, but they are the ultimate recyclers, devouring kitchen and garden waste and also providing endless entertainment for guests with stale picnics. It wasn’t long before friends and relatives renamed us Tom and Barbara, after the characters in The Good Life!
HOME SWEET HOME
Setting up the garden and buying chickens turned out to be the easy part of getting the show on the road. La Chouette is in a beautiful spot overlooking woods and on a sunny south-facing slope. It soon became clear that we should make good use of the abundant sunshine we enjoyed and conversations with a local plumber led to us having our first solar panels fitted to the barn roof, a part of our story which was, in fact, the subject of an article in French Property News in 2005.
I am very happy to report that they are still going strong for us and it’s very soothing to hear the purr of the pump bringing the heat off the roof to give us piping hot showers. We even have free hot water in the winter months, so long as the sun’s shining.
Although four rooms had already been made into en-suite guest rooms in the adjacent stone barn, the house and grounds needed a lot of attention, and doing that and welcoming guests at the same time was not easy. After our first season, when we had more guests than we ever imagined we would, we decided to close over winter to get the major work done in the main house.
This included rewiring, replumbing, installing a heating system and second set of solar thermic panels, insulating the house and establishing a fifth guest room and a large guest dining room. By the time we’d finished the building work, we had a spacious and separate area that was ours alone and that fifth guest room to take us up to the maximum allowed so we could take advantage of a high number of guests in the peak season. Our kitchen had doubled in size and was fitted, as befits a chef, with lots of new gadgets and professional equipment and our new dining room could seat us and all our guests around one large communal table.
One comes to France for a more laid-back lifestyle, but the other side of this coin is, of course, that things take much longer than you think to organise and carry out. Good artisans are always in demand and do not get to your job quickly, so improving a property is slower to do than one might think.
Over the years we’ve worked hard at improving the property little by little. Winter projects have included converting a hangar into a guest lounge, making a rainwater collection system to water the garden, building a pergola with kiwis growing over it and rebuilding the old bread oven. Previously unusable, we can now make pizzas and roast meat, and it works as a smoker too. Eat your heart out Jamie Oliver!
Our guests have, of course, been our first priority and we’ve worked hard at improving our service to them. When we go away from home on our annual holiday in the sun (in winter of course, when it’s easier to be closed for a month) we shamelessly steal ideas we think would work well at La Chouette.
By constantly evaluating the service we provide, we have risen to Limousin’s number three spot on TripAdvisor, and this year we are proud to have been awarded TripAdvisor’s 2013 Certificate of Excellence.
After 10 seasons of hard work we’ve proved that we can make a success of running our own business abroad – and that we can even impress the French, who are now our biggest client base. With Richard approaching 66, the time has now come to retire properly and become a little more like our guests – holidaymakers and tourists – and we have decided to sell our beautiful house.
We have loved living here and, although we appear to be in the middle of nowhere, running a table d’hôtes means that people come to us. Plus, we’re not far from the mairie in our village, less than 10 minutes by car from the nearest town and railway station, and it’s only 20 minutes further to Limoges. That’s not the middle of nowhere by any standard!