Staying power

A spur of the moment decision to spend a season working in the Alps led to a happy family life in Lot for one English woman running a manor-house B&B, as Anna McKittrick discovers

When Anna Congratel set off to do a ski season in 1993, little did she know that she would fall in love with a Frenchman and end up living in France.

Now nearly 20 years on Anna, her husband Abel and nine-year-old twins In�s and Louis are happily settled at Manoir de Malagorse, the beautiful chambres d’h�tes they run in Lot.

Anna, a trained physiotherapist, and chef Abel’s shared love of the mountains and skiing meant that when the couple initially put down roots in France in 1996 they did so in Courchevel, where they set up a restaurant called La Yaca which they ran for 15 winter seasons. Moving elsewhere in France to run a B&B had always been on the cards for the couple and when they went on holiday to the south-west Anna was smitten with the area just as Abel had predicted. “My husband always said I’d love the south-west and while on holiday, on a complete whim of madness, we bought Manoir de Malagorse. I think sometimes that’s the best way and I think if we’d done all the plans and costs we probably wouldn’t have done it,” remembers Anna.

The property, which they purchased in 1999, required an extensive amount of work so the couple decided to keep the restaurant business up and running while they renovated the manoir.

But Anna says splitting their time between the two locations wasn’t always easy: “It does take a lot of physical energy moving all the time. It gave us very little down time – which was ok when it was just the two of us, but then when we had our children in 2003 it was more difficult.”

The couple kept running the two businesses simultaneously until they sold the restaurant two years ago to concentrate on Malagorse.

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When Anna and Abel bought the manoir they knew they wanted a project to get their teeth into and Anna says as soon as they saw Malagorse they realised its potential: “I fell in love with it straightaway. The reason we also chose Malagorse was that because it had the main house and then four other barns, we could renovate them progressively which is exactly what we’ve done.”

The first year they renovated the main house, which Anna says needed everything except a new roof, and they were ready to open for business a year later.

The main house, which dates from around 1804, has four double en-suite rooms and Anna has created a welcoming environment in which to receive guests.

“I really enjoy the interior design side and the idea was to use the natural materials such as the wood and stone and have a minimal feel that’s not going to date with time.

“We’re very much in the countryside here so I wanted it to reflect its surroundings. It’s not country rustic though as there are touches of sophistication but it’s always done in a relaxed way,” enthuses Anna.

“The house is very French looking and we bought everything out here as I don’t think you want to come to France and feel like you’re some-where else. We’re quite pleased that the decorating we did 10 years ago still hasn’t dated.”

Once the couple had finished the main house their next project involved converting two of the stables into luxury suites with locally sourced stone on the floors, beautiful oak woodwork and sumptuous textiles adding to the charm of the accommodation.

One of the suites is geared to families while the other is perfect for couples wanting to escape from it all. Guests can also relax in the old bakery, which the Congratels lived in for a brief stint when they first moved but is now the library and bar area. The family have now converted one of the barns into their own living space which Anna says is nice as it gives them a little bit of independence.

The most recent project involved transforming one of the other outbuildings into a two-bedroom loft apartment with a fully equipped kitchen which opened this summer.

“When we were working on the barn our neighbour asked us if we were demolishing it and we said ‘no we’re renovating it’ but it did look like we were demolishing it because we were just left with three walls and a massive empty cavern in the middle,” laughs Anna who says the latest project has been plain sailing as they have built up an excellent network of builders and artisans over the years.

With Abel’s culinary background the couple always planned to offer tables d’h�tes and food is very much part of the whole experience of coming to stay.

When it comes to food, Anna says they do serve typical dishes from the region but it’s not their speciality: “When you come to the south-west the restaurants can be a little samey and there’s lots of duck and foie gras so we definitely don’t concentrate on that. We offer slightly more modern cooking with lots of vegetables, fruits and spices but with a French touch as my husband’s very much a French cook. We use regional products and have great local cheeses but we just cook in a slightly different way.”

Wine is one of Abel’s passions and they had an extensive wine list at the restaurant they ran in Courchevel, something that they have carried on at Malagorse.

“People think we’re mad because we’ve got a large selection of wine for only eight rooms but it’s my husband’s big thing. We’ve discovered some amazing small producers who are passionate about their work. We try not to always go with classic wines and like to offer wines from areas that guests don’t know,” says Anna.

Providing exceptional service is something that comes naturally to Anna and Abel and they are happy to be able to share this beautiful part of France that they have come to know and love.

The twins have also settled well into life in Lot and enjoy making friends with the children who come to stay at Malagorse. Anna says that even though Abel is French, having bilingual children has helped her to feel ingrained in the French culture.

But for Anna the cross-country move was a welcome change: “I must admit in the mountains I never really felt at home. I think it’s quite difficult in a ski resort, even though there is a sense of community, there are a lot of different people coming from all over the world and they’re all quite transient so it’s not classic France.”

“I feel very accepted and at home in the south-west – the people are welcoming and there’s a wonderful quality of life down here.” LF

www.manoir-de-malagorse.fr