Wednesday, July 30, 2008

souris in my pool

A Problem at the Pool, I need Agatha Christy

You know what they say " a friend in need is a pain in the bum" well that’s not always the case, my friend Tate has a small handicap which means his mobility is a little impaired and a few years ago he (actually it was his mother the late and much lamented June who I "nicknamed drippy" as she was always asking me to fix her leaks) who asked if I would construct a pool for him. I explained that I was no professional and only helped friends build their own pools. Well Tate was in no shape to pick up a shovel or push a wheelbarrow so with a little help from my friends we duly build a 10m x 5m pool with a special entrance which Tate and I designed specifically for him. It had a nice Seahorse emblem at the bottom. and was a concrete construction with a tiled finish. It turned out very well and a very grateful Tate now uses it every day that weather permits.

This year Tate called me to discuss a problem with the pool. I wasn’t doing much so I said I’d visit and see the problem first hand. On arriving he explained that he had a problem with Souris (mice). The problem was that they kept getting into the pool, whether they were using it for leisure or just to have their equivalent of a pint who can say, unfortunately once in the pool they couldn’t get out and they would swim around and around until they died. The skimmers would then suck the mice up and they would go into the filter nets. Tate couldn’t get down to the skimmers to remove them so they would accumulate until the pool cleaners or a mate turned up, whichever was the sooner. Now on a good day Tate’s a reasonably nice chap, considering he’s from the Devon, and he didn’t like the thought of all these rodents dieing so he was seeking a serious answer to a serious problem.

After a short deliberation I explained that as I saw it there was a choice of three simple solutions. The choices were: 1. Get some cats and hope they remove the problem at source (it would take an awful lot of cats and who would look after them in the winter). 2. Build a mouse proof barrier around the pool (not very practical) 3. Put a ramp in so that the mice could escape the watery death once they’d had their drink and freshened up.
Yer" he said in his Devonshire accent, “Ow bis I gwaina doun?" which roughly translated means How am I going to do that? I explained that it would be easy; all that was required was to attach a polystyrene float to a short piece of wood and attach the other end to the pool entry ladder. "Is’n gwain a wurk?" (Will it work?) I was confident that it would. The next time he had some friends over they built the aforementioned Souris ramp and believe it or not it works a treat. Since the beginning of May not one mouse has met with a watery end, there have however been 2 frogs who have not managed to fathom out how to use the ladder, but then we all know how dumb frogs can be.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gites with pools

Today if you have a gîte, and if you wish to get enough bookings to show a return on your investment, it is almost obligatory to have a pool. This wasn’t always the case, when I first started renting gîtes some 17 years ago a pool was rarity, and anywhere that did have a pool was more likely to be referred to as a Villa, for that more upmarket appeal. Today the trend is towards heated pools and all that it entails. On my complex I have the luxury to have both the original unheated outdoor pool and an indoor heated pool, though I can assure you this was not by design. When I bought La Grange the huge barn was not included in the price, as the farmer Charlie and his brother Dominique wanted to keep it for their farming needs, and nothing I said or did could change their mind.

Nearly thirteen years on and the barn was looking decidedly sad, the roof was missing from one of the side wings and everything else needed attention. Then one day Charlie visited me and we spent some time engaging in pleasantries and discussing life's problems. As Charlie was making a move to leave, he turned to me and said " I've decided to sell the barn" I looked at him quizzically and he went on to say that he had advertised the barn and had an offer from some English people who wanted to turn it into gîtes. I was, for once, lost for words and before I could get my head around the situation he announced here's the price if you want it, it’s yours. To be honest all my money was tied up in the two large farmhouses that make up La Grange so there was nothing left to pay for the barn, their wasn’t even anything to use as a down payment for a mortgage. I knew nothing about mortgages I had never had one, but the situation was desperate. I could not allow someone else to sit within 30 meters of my site and run another gîte complex. With the help of my accountant I somehow managed to secure a 100% mortgage, a situation apparently never heard of before in France or so the Bank claimed, and the barn was mine.

This however was far from the solution, now that I had bought the barn the next problem was what to do with it. Here was this cavernous building that was costing me a fortune in mortgage repayments needing major repairs, and I hadn’t a clue what to use it for. After much soul searching I decided that a bold new venture was required, I would change the barn into a sports and entertainment centre and increase the rents on the gîtes to cover the extra expenditure.

I set about the task with gusto. The first thing that I had to do was to add a new first floor as the barn is 9m high in the central section. Once the main beams were in place it was possible to start construction of the indoor pool that would be the focal point of the entertainment complex. Unfortunately at this point I had a serious accident which lead to several weeks in hospital and a big operation on the double disc hernias that I had suffered. Oops! To be continued....

Sunday, July 27, 2008

As with the last post made were I answered one of those frequently asked questions ,Why gites? I'm now going to aswer another of those questions, Why The Vendee?
The answer is a little more streight forward because from the out set I had a strong feeling of where I wanted to be. I love the sun and light and open air, infact one of the other reason for giving up sailing was a back and neck injury which ment i lost a lot of the use of my hands, to such an extent that I would be talking to people and I hear a glass drop and break and look around to find who was the culprit, only to find it was me, though I could swear it was still in my hand. Another residual problem is i suffer from SAD, sun addiction dificency or what ever its called so i get depressed without good light.
With those factor in mind i wanted somewhere where there was a lot of sun yet not to far away from England and my family, also I wanted it far enough away so that friends would have to put a little effort into visiting and not just crossing the channel on the hop as to say, turning up unexpectingly.
A close look at a weather map of Europe and it becomes very clear that the Micro-Climate of the Vendee/Charente-Maritme area fulfilled all my needs, with sunshine hours to equal the best of the south of france. I didnt want to go into the Dordogne as this was, so i was told almost all English with signs like "French spoken here" and besides it was getting to far away from the ferries. Likewise i didnt want to go too far up into the vendee as the micro climate slips a little as you head north. In the end i choose the first house on the first day, it was on the edge of the Lucon-Fontenay le Comte praire as far inland as the micro climate extents in the south of the Vendee. In those day (17 years ago) it was like England in the 50's, slow pace of life, friendly neighbours who spoke to you, polite children and no traffic, infact we used to joke that in Fontenay if there were two cars together you were in a car park.
Oh how things have changed, though to be truthful there are still no parking meters or traffic cops and even in places like La Rochelle where you have to pay to park near the harbour it will not cost you a fortune and in typically french fashion they allow you 2 hours free for lunch (How civilised).
There are other reasons for choosing the Vendee but i will leave that to my friend Tate who writes:
If you are looking for a holiday in France why visit the Vendée? After all it’s just a strip of coastline with a flat plain behind it, isn’t it? Well actually no it isn’t. The Vendée is without doubt one of the jewels in the French holidaying crown. Who says so? Well actually the French, but they say it quietly because in typical Gallic style they like to keep the best for themselves.
For years the French have visited the Vendée for their holidays, to enjoy the exceptional climate, the miles and miles of exquisite sandy beaches and the sleepy rural communities. In fact the French liked it so much they chose to build their holiday homes, not in Provence, or on the Côte D’Azur but on the Vendéen coast. Now the secret is out and the Vendée is fast becoming a popular destination for holidaymaker and émigré alike, READ MORE>>>

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why Gites

Why Gites?

Through the years one of the questions I am most often asked is “why gîtes?” With a background in horticulture, boat building and luxury yacht chartering, why spend the last 17 years running a gîte complex? The answer is simple I didn't choose it, it chose me.
In the mid-1980's when the world was plunged into the deepening gloom of the last real recession I was building and chartering luxury, ocean going catamarans. Now as I’m sure you’re aware, luxury and recession do not make good bedfellows, and I decided it was time to make a quick exit from the business and try my hand at something else. I sold my last two charter boats in America and returned to the UK to plan my next move. There was however a slight hitch, having spent the previous 15 years or so sailing, sometimes in stormy waters, sometimes becalmed, but always at a tempo I could handle, I found the pace of life in England too hectic. I had no idea what I wanted to do next, and England wasn’t helping me decide. My life had been extremely varied; I’d been through my Fred Wedlock and Adge Cutler phases and had carried on through my days of fishy tales and sea shanties. I had accumulated a wealth of stories, anecdotes, songs, sea shanties and comic verse and I thought it might be a good plan to buy a house in France where, the pace of life was notoriously slow, and write my memoirs lest these gems should be lost to humanity. Consequently in order to contemplate my next move, I decided on the spur of the moment to investigate potential properties in France and I asked my friend Tim if he fancied a holiday in on the other side of the Channel.
With Tim's and his 4 year old daughter in tow I set off. It was the second week in August, not the best time to take an impromptu trip to France, and all we could find with only a weeks notice was a campsite near Royan in the Charente-Maritime. I didn’t know much about where I wanted to be but I thought that this was as far South as I wanted to go. We had been told by everyone that everywhere would be closed as it was “The French Holiday”, of course true to form it was.

I had managed, through John Evans an estate agent in Bournemouth who specialised in French property, to get three appointments with French Estate Agents, and he assured me that they were interrupting their holidays especially to see me. True to their word they did interrupt their holidays, not only that but their attitude was totally different to my experience of English Estate Agents. The refreshing thing was that unlike their English counterparts who only ever seem to be interested in rushing you through the viewings and selling you anything as long as they sell you something. These Estate Agents took the whole day, not to sell me a property, but to sell me their part of France. Henry Prouteau the agent whom I eventually bought from explained to me that it really didn't matter if I didn't buy from him, as long as I bought in the area. The reason was, he explained, that all of the other agents in the area operated in the same way, so he might not sell to me loosing out to a competitor, but on another occasions he would pick up buyers from other agent’s sales pitches. To be honest in the Fontenay le Comte area there were only two agents and they were both part time, how things have changed. Today in Fontenay le Comte there are thirteen Estate Agents.
There was in those days such a huge selection I could have picked several houses in the three areas that I looked, but having spent three days looking at houses, I eventually bought La Grange, the first house that I had seen on the first day of looking.

It was my intention to renovate the house while I waited for idea that would make the change of direction that my life needed, and I thought that I would be able to live off the interest from the sale of my boats. My immediate priority was to build a swimming pool as this part of France can get mighty hot in the summer and having spent so long on and in the water I couldn’t leave it behind altogether. I was also renovating the house with a view to having family and friends over to visit and, if necessary, doing a little bit of B&B to supplement my income. Circumstances however have a way of laying waste to the best laid plans and changing the way we live, and this time was no exception. The bottom fell out of the money market with the crash of the ERM and I was no longer able to survive on the interest generated by my savings. It was a case of either use up my capital or procure gainful employment. I hadn’t worked for anyone for longer than I could remember and I wasn’t really keen on starting now. Looking at the property I had bought and the work I had started the answer to my dilemma was clear, convert La Grange and start renting out gîtes. In consequence I drew up plans for the conversion of the two farmhouses at La Grange into 6 gîtes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Restaurant review Auberge de la Foret

My Freind Tate recently wrote a review on his favourite restaurant the Auberge de la Foret, an attractive cosy little restaurant which nestles in the Mervent forest just east of Fontenay le Comte in the south of the Vendee. he writes:

This year (2008), two good friends from England came out for a week’s holiday and to spend my birthday with me. The three of us and Trevor could have eaten anywhere in the local area but as it was my birthday I chose the Auberge de la Forêt. It is unreservedly my favourite restaurant in the area and Monique the proprietor is without doubt a lovely lady and I’m sure she won’t mind me saying that she’s no spring chicken. She is often the chef, the waitress, and the sommelier. She takes the money, chats to the clientele and I don’t doubt does the washing up as well. If that’s not enough she also runs the accommodation and the bar, and looks after her husband. She is from a breed the like of which no longer exists, and is in my opinion simply the best. She is the wonder woman of Vendéen hospitality.

The restaurant is as its name would suggest, set in the forest of Mervent, a beautiful forested National Park where the steep valley of the river Vendée has been dammed to create lakes from which water is drained, treated and pumped to the local area. The lakes are also used for yachting, canoeing, swimming and fishing, and the forest is a walker’s dream. All in all the National Park itself is worthy of a visit, it has a zoo with a wide range of animals, which includes a petting zoo and a play area for children.

Drawing up outside the Auberge one is immediately struck by the quiet situation in the midst of mature trees. There are some tables outside purely for having a drink, but going inside is a treat not to be missed. The bar leads to a dining room split by a large fireplace with a huge Stag’s head mounted above it. During November the Auberge plays host to the hunters and the festival of horns, where the hunters gather and give a recital of music on their hunting horns. I had the misfortune to just miss this event having misunderstood Monique when booking a meal at the Auberge. I arrived when the festivities had just ended, but did however see some of the hunters with their hunting dogs and I can tell you that the dogs were more the size of Dartmoor ponies than dogs. The fact that it is an Auberge means that there are generally, though not always, other diners in the evenings, this coupled with the fascinating décor gives the Auberge a great ambience.

I almost always have the house pâte, which is homemade I prefer it to any other coarse pork pâte I have ever eaten. I normally follow the pâte with the pave de bœuf (similar to rump steak) in a shallot sauce. Monique’s sauces are legendary, her tarragon cream sauce which I ate with Sandre, a river fish similar to Zander, is stunning. I can honestly say that every sauce of Monique’s that I’ve ever eaten has been fabulous and I’d be pushed to remember a sauce that I’ve eaten anywhere that I’ve thought better than any of them.

The cheeseboard is always copious and varied and Monique always leaves it on the table so that you can help yourself to seconds if you have the room or the inclination. To finish there is normally something sweet and home made to delight the pallet, I first had oeufs au lait here and when I asked Monique what it was she told me that it was like crème caramel without the caramel. When I went to pay for the meal Monique’s combine harvester driving husband (a big guy and the only reason I don’t ask her to run away with me), asked if I had enjoyed the crème caramel without caramel and then he and his crew roared with laughter at the description.

The wine list is good enough (the cellar is probably better) it includes a Georges Duboeuf Cotes de Rhône and a Georges Dubeouf Morgon. When I first ate at the Auberge the Cotes de Rhone was half the price of most of the wines, and was fantastic value for money. Unfortunately being more gourmand than gourmet, I have continued to drink and recommend the Cotes de Rhône and as a result Monique has had to re-stock and subsequently the price has risen, but it is in my opinion an excellent wine and still represents great value.

I make no bones about it, I think the food is fantastic, it is not ostentatious, and it isn’t arranged on your plate like a work of art it is well presented and looks like food. It is fresh, home made, well cooked and full of flavour. There are no white coated waiters or sommeliers, but the service is friendly and as efficient as time constraints permit. The least expensive menu of lardon (bacon) salad, pave de bœuf, cheese and a sweet is 15 euros, I negotiate and get the pâte (which is from the 17 euro menu) included for 15 euros, but then Monique does like me. The décor is not grandiose but is in my opinion perfectly in keeping with the type of hostelry that this is. In summary the ambience is excellent and the food is better, Monique’s service is fantastic and in terms of value for money it is undoubtedly hard to beat. My English friends both agreed with my take on the restaurant, and Trevor’s only criticism was that there wasn’t a chocolate sweet with his coffee. It is simply my favourite restaurant in the area and I highly recommend it. – Tate
He is happy writing these reviews as it fulfills two of his passions, namely; writing and eating out.
I will publish more of his rantings in the weeks to come.
You can see the review with the pictures of the restaurant and Tate here

Monday, July 21, 2008

Restaurants in Fontenay le comte

One of the questions most frequently asked of me is “what is the best local restaurant” and to be honest this is not the easiest of questions to answer. Of course I have my favourites, but they differ depending on whether I'm with a close friend or in a group, and obviously what I like to eat isn’t everyone’s Idea of culinary heaven. It is therefore true that when recommending a restaurant to a new visitor to my gîtes I can get somewhat bogged down. Do they want a Restaurant with the best ambience or do they want the cheapest meal. Does the Restaurant need to be child friendly and if so how many children do they have and what age are they. Then there’s the biggest question of all which is what type of food do they like? So the simple “what is the best local restaurant” is not always that easy or straightforward to answer.

To that end, on my website, I am now in the process of compiling a guide to restaurants in the area. I am encouraging customers to review the restaurants online, plus my friend Tate writes an exclusive in depth article on all of the restaurants he tries. When possible we add menus and photos to the articles to give as comprehensive a service as possible.

I have nearly completed the page on restaurants in Fontenay le Comte in the south Vendee, and have started on the pages for the Mervent Forest area, the Lucon area and the Marais Poitevin or green venice area. Eventually I hope to cover the whole of the Vendee.

Customers and restaurant owners are encouraged not only to post reviews on the website but also to add restaurants that I have inadvertently failed to include.