“Hmm, that isn’t a good omen,” I thought as a low flying bird committed harikiri on the front grille of our Rav4 as we sped along the E9 at 90 kilometres an hour. We were in France, we were metric, and were headed to our newly purchased holiday home in the Midi-Pyrénées – a tiny town house in a village so small our address literally translates as “in the centre”. When the car battery light turned red, I blamed the bird catapulting through our engine, rather than the fact we had an iPhone and iPad charging, the radio and the air conditioning on full blast. It was thirty degrees and we were busy media professionals who needed fully charged means of communication, even if it was late July and the whole film industry were already ensconced in Provence sipping on a 1995 St Emilion.
I was after all British…and tired
When the light on the dashboard turned red, the one I’ve never really know what the battery light exactly stands for, and anyway when it turned bright red I didn’t have time to panic because the power steering had also cut out. Luckily, straight roads led to our fortuitously placed chambre d’hôtes, now just six miles away – metric could f––k itself at this point. I was after all British…and tired.
The Manoir de la Blonnerie is an 18th century farmhouse, faded in décor, run by Marie and her… lion. This was Gavroche, a huge, golden Labrador with the manners of any well placed, and well paid, maître d. “Our voiture is kaput,” I exclaimed. (My French wasn’t good). We couldn’t call a garage until the morning, so our patron commanded us inside for an aperitif of sweet wine. The lion led the way, joined by a long bodied kitten with gigantic paws, and a nosy peacock – just in case he was missing out on something. It was all very Jungle Book.
The house retains original structures and features; although rooms have been knocked through, the floor still hosts the original encaustic floor tiles and the ceiling is wattle and
daub, some of which looks in need of a repatch. I switched seats with my BF so he could sit under that part. Although the dining room can host up to 55 guests the tradition is to sit everyone together at meal times, something I find both provocative and brave. We shared our first evening with a French couple from Northern France discussing engines, starch factories and the similarity between the design of sports shoes and cars.
The restaurant at Manoir de la Blonnerie has quite a reputation among the locals. The menu is seasonal, using local produce from the farm, and everything is hand prepared by Marie herself. Every dish has the depth of flavor that comes from carefully considered spice combinations, lovingly handled simmering and long hours of preparation.
“Where is the bathroom?” Asked our new dinner companion when my BF returned from his recent excursion. “Oh, a tree in the garden”
Marie’s real passion is for her award winning sheep, so it was no surprise our first meal was lamb. The meat was succulent and tender served with organic green beans, pre-empted by a huge fresh salad and followed up with apricot and fraise ice cream made from buttermilk. The wine too is organic – although cannily limited to two carafes per couple – ample unless your car has broken down on the first day of your summer holiday.
The real charm of the Manoir is in the lackadaisical forgetfulness that runs throughout: Dishes are hugely delayed as the patron chatted away with her family in the nearby kitchen; water had to be asked for; coffee was completely forgotten about and directions to a washroom were nonexistent. “Where is the bathroom?” asked our new dinner companion when my BF returned from his recent excursion. “Oh, a tree in the garden,” he replied. “Although Gavroche favours the plant pot directly outside the front door, so take your pick.”dd
“Er… where is our room?” I squeak out in poor French. Marie looks perturbed
When we retire for the night we wait to be shown to our room, but directions aren’t forthcoming. “Good night,” Marie says in her best English. “Don’t we need a key or something?” asks my BF. “This is my home. You don’t need a key to stay here” “Er… where is our room?” I squeak out in poor French. Marie looks perturbed. After worriedly checking her booking system (a notepad on the desk offers no answers), she climbs the stairs to a first floor door. The odd personality of the house is continued in the décor: hats and umbrellas hang on walls alongside tapestries announcing the years of grandchildren’s births. Our patron tentatively opened a door. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the three bears were in there. Luckily, they weren’t and so this became our room for the night: nicely neutral and modern.
The next morning the Infamous Trio of Gavroche, Gorilla-Pawed Kitten and The Peacock join us to watch our car being towed away. Buoyed by confidence our car will be returned to us the following day, we walk into the local village of Velleches to buy fresh bread and cheese, returning to picnic beside the Manoir’s lake watching the fish a-jumping and listening to the caw of buzzards high above the woodland. It’s tranquil and rather idyllic. The Manoir’s eccentricity continues here too: Figurative sculptures from reclaimed materials are well placed alongside secluded seating areas. There is even an eco-pump piping water into the organic vegetable patch that flanks the garden wall; it’s all rather like a little le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons tempered by a little H.G. Wells.
We head into the restaurant for an aperitif and find ourselves seated beside a French couple who have just returned from Spain and a holiday of “golf, golf golf”
That evening, we head into the restaurant for an aperitif and find ourselves seated beside a French couple who have just returned from Spain and a holiday of “golf, golf, golf.” After a brief car conversation Golf Man asks us: “do you play golf?” My BF and I shake our heads. “Do you know that golfing terms are the same in French and English, but that golfing terms in Espagnol are not?” We stare back at him, blank faced as he proceeds to list every golfing term in the three languages.
The next day, the garage calls. Our car part has arrived, but apparently it’s the wrong part. It’s Friday. It’s a Bank Holiday. Everything is shut until Monday. Possibly Tuesday. We are moved out of the house and into the Pigeonniere, a recent restoration of a dovecot that is now a self contained apartment. The bedroom is tucked in among the pigeonholes, providing a lovely respite from the heat of the day and the worry of its cost – double that of a stay in the farmhouse. We wake late. The sun is hot and high. Golf Man and Golf Man’s Wife are already mid-breakfast which is truly farmhouse; home made bread, preserves, sheep’s cheese and fresh coffee.
I would rather queue in a Post Office in Bethnal Green than listen to the translation of sheep’s cheese into different languages
“Have you tried the Chabichou?” Golf Man asks me. I would rather queue in a Post Office in Bethnal Green than listen to the translation of sheep’s cheese into different languages, so I escape to join Gavroche and the Gorilla-Pawed kitten who are sunbathing before it gets too hot. Outside, finches twitter excitedly as they flit in and out of their precarious nests in among the rose bushes that climb the height of the house, sheep baa from neighbouring fields, cockerels crow from next door, the peacock scuffs by and a guttural bray rises from the far barn.
We were racking up a premium bill on organic, so we pump up the tyres of Marie’s kids mountain bikes and set off in search of battery-farmed bread and ham. The next village doesn’t even have a shop. It is deserted and we’re cotton-mouthed. I suddenly notice that my legs are bright red with a tan line as definitive as a pair of shorts. My BF ties his shirt into a turban on his head as we push our bikes uphill. He had a heart operation earlier in the year. Cycling in 38 degrees sunshine probably wasn’t the wisest choice. “You’re not going to die are you?” I enquire. “I don’t think so.” But I’m not convinced. It’s all getting a little too Margaret Atwood for my liking. We make it back to the Manoir, to find we have been moved out of the Pigeonniere and into, well, the entrance hallway. Ah, so that’s where the washroom is.
At dinner we discover we have made way for The Dancers, a widowed teacher from Brussels and a gay chap from Ghent. We discuss car problems, they kindly advise us on insurance policies and then the chap asks us, “Do you dance?” It’s all getting a little Groundhog Day. “Do you know the Lindy Hop?” I top up my wine glass in preparation. I spend the evening learning about every hop going, about being a follower or a leader, about core tempo, the eight-count pulse. I feel my own pulse slowing. My BF declares he has sunstroke and retires to bed – to Marie’s bed in fact. The Manoir is so busy we have been moved into our patron’s own bedroom. I soon follow pausing en route to pop a suggestion into the comments book that perhaps sitting together should be optional – making sure I write it in English, French and Spanish.
We are now on first name terms with the maid, the gardener and Marie’s mum and dad who live in the farm next door. Humour has left me
We are now on first name terms with the maid, the gardener and Marie’s mum and dad who live in the farm next door. Humour has left me. We are watching our holiday break ebb away and our bank balance deplete on car parts and conversations over car insurance. It is a modern day purgatory.
Finally, the correct car part arrives and we drive full pelt – with sticky Cadbury bars and out of date haggis in the backseat – straight to our little village in the Midi-Pyrénées. Despite being a few extra hours drive the Lot Valley is so much more beguiling and picturesque than its predecessor. The valleys are more lush, the rivers more bountiful and its villages more populated. There is more activity too; brocantes and vide greniers set up their crafts and antiques stalls, local produce markets and an abundance of fêtes can be found somewhere on most days. Still, we will certainly return to the Manoir de Blonnerie and The Trio on our next drive down, knowing that it will feel like returning to visit family friends. What a wonderful ability to produce that pleasure in someone from just a few days’ stay in your home. C