Letters from the Loire: A tea salon in the Loire Valley
Teresa Dolan has been running a business in France since 2005. She tells us how she got here - and what it's been like.
Why we came to France and Fontevraud l'abbaye in particular...
We have been living here in France since 2005. We can hardly believe it. It will be our 7th Christmas spent in Fontevraud l'abbaye and our 8th Christmas in France. I am suddenly caught by an image of us all sitting in front of a far from adequate fire in a barn of a summer cottage on that first snow-laden, bitterly cold Christmas that we spent in St. Jean de Villenard in Brittany. This was our base for house hunting the length and breadth of France in search of an ideal location for our Salon de Thé/Boutique and B & B. We knew that we wanted to be close to a major Tourist attraction so, along with a restrained budget, that limited our choices somewhat.
Seven years on, some of our visitors say 'Oh that's not very long…' whilst others say 'hmm that's a good enough length of time to know whether you like living here in France or not..' In the beginning some said that we were foolhardy to open a small business in France - some even gave us three years and that would be it. I recall writing a feature for The Telegraph in our early days and being literally bombarded by rabid readers declaring that we were insane to even think of opening the type of business that we have. One reader even declaring that he would 'rather have cancer then run a business in France'!
Why Fontevraud in particular is an easy question to answer: Abbaye Royale. House hunting in the depths of winter can focus the mind on what is important in a property and seeing visitors milling about in the abbey grounds one cold December morning in 2005 confirmed in our minds that if we wanted to run a tea room/boutique and Bed and Breakfast all the year round location was absolutely key to the longevity of any enterprise that we established.
And so.....whilst I am not saying that it has been easy running this business, we do love it. We have never been in it to make 'loads of money' just enough to keep on top of our overheads, and live a reasonable life style, that has proved to be the case. Admittedly the past few winters have been especially difficult for us due to frozen pipes, fewer tourists and the abbey next door, the raison d'etre of our enterprise and why we set up here in the first place, for the first time ever closing for the whole of January! Whilst we appreciate that most monuments close during the winter months and this is only for one month, our particular one never did before, so 2012 was a bit of shock for us and this closure did affect our trade. We've also been up against it, so to speak, this year because along with Gas coming to the village (yes some things are slow to reach these parts...) Fontevraud l'abbaye is being partly pedestrianized with a focus on the square outside the Mairee with an artist's constructed water installation as a central feature. This has led to us thinking that on certain days we have been transported back to the barricades of the communes of 1878 and the like as what with the iron girders straddling our street, we could hardly negotiate our front door let alone welcome in customers.
What it’s like running our business here and what we like most about it...
Despite such adverse factors however, it is a joy to open the doors of our tea room each day and share our baking with the likes of Russians, South Africans, Eastern Europeans, South Americans, Indians and Chinese to name just a few of the countries of origin of those who come in for a slice of Queen Victoria Sandwich, some scones with jam and cream, a Ploughmans's lunch or a Quiche salad.
We like the fact that we meet people from many different cultures and it is great fun finding out about their favourite cakes etc. and a joy from time to time to exchange recipes. Polish style bread has become a staple of our family since the visit of a Polish family a year or so ago...
Other visitors come and stay in our B & B though, to be honest, not as many from the UK as during our first few years, as more visit us from across the world including the UK. We are also pleased that in addition to running our B & B, we have a number of irons in the fire in the form of our tea room and petit restaurant as baking, cooking and serving teas and lunches are passions of ours.
Those who do stay seem to really enjoy our place and we have some people who have visited us four years on the trot, so we guess we must be doing something right. Some of our regulars are musicians who each year perform, or run workshops, at the abbey next door. Every Easter, the hugely talented Philippe and his charming wife Brigitte Pierlot of Flora music visit. They perform the most sublime Baroque music and each year to date they have given us one of their excellent CDs. This year it is John Jenkins (1592 -1678) “Pleasing Slumber” and as I write to you it is playing in our tea room. I love it as it transports me back in time to the Salons of yesteryear. I am imagining whilst I listen that I am Madame Pompadour, or some such like doyenne swanning about the place in my glorious attire and powdered and perfumed coiffure.
We've also made some brilliant friends because of people who come through the door and we like to think that we have also introduced people to other people, putting them in touch with others who want to learn French for example, join a discussion group etc. find a plumber or whatever. Jim and his Father (whom we all call ‘Dad’), Liana and Philip, Lucy and Robert, Carole and Richard, and Katie and Steve have all been folks who have come through our door for a bite to eat, and gone on to become very dear friends....
From time to time we also put on events and forums in tandem with Sylvie from the local language school, so that’s fun and keeps us busy; especially during the winter months when in the past we have held all sorts of events from tea parties at Chez Teresa to a Burns Night Soiree - to even a bash for William and Kate on the day of their wedding. Dancing with a Wiliam and Kate cardboard cutout was one of the highlights... The last I heard they were still there propping up the bar at Bistroglo in Turquant.
By the way, we were mentioned in a recent Sunday Times article (29 July, 2012); a piece by Anthony Peregrine called The Loire without Lycra which traces his journey on a bike, presumably sans Lycra. We cannot for the life of us remember his visit, which just goes to illustrate that we never know who is going to walk through our doors - nor do we know quite why he chose to seek out our 'English' teashop. Obviously, it was part of a longer feature. We appeared as part of his Day 2. I wish that he had been more descriptive about our quiche and its taste, and I also wish that we had placed him in our dining room as there is much more space there. The article is anyway quite amusing and led to a few visitors coming in for lunch as a result of them reading it. I suppose as they say 'there is no such thing as bad publicity'...unless in those immortal words of Brendan Behan it's your own obituary…
Were we mad to set up shop here in France? We don't think so. Plus our hopes for the future are bright as we become more established.
After an incredibly wet start to the season, we all felt rather sorry for guests to our B & B who visited earlier rather than later in the season. Our wonderful guests from the Netherlands left yesterday morning and in fact since I began writing this piece the weather seems to have miraculously transformed itself into sunshine and no rain. Our son predicts that thunderstorms are on the horizon. We will just have to see.
Teresa Dolan was brought up in 1960's Britain. With her husband Tony and son Jay, she runs a Chambre d'Hôtes and Salon de Thé next door to the historic abbey where Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard the Lionheart are reputedly buried. She has written for a number of publications over the years and she also writes short stories for children. In addition, Teresa runs creative writing and themed workshops for expats and tourists to the Loire.
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