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An Irish Chef in France

View from Le Presbytère

Euro-Toques chef Martin Dwyer, is much missed in Ireland since he and his wife Sile sold their eponymous restaurant in Waterford and moved to France. They now live in the Languedoc, where they take guests - and feed them very well.

This month: Martin continues his reflections on Finding Le Presbytere:

Once we had decided that we wanted to settle in the Languedoc we headed back to that area as soon as Sile got her school holidays in 2006. By that time we had a check list of what we needed for our new venture.

We needed at least three lettable bedrooms, all large enough to accommodate a bathroom en suite, and another, also en suite, for ourselves.
We wanted the house in the middle of a village, close to bakeries and shops, so our neighbours could keep an eye on the place in our absence.
We wanted a garden, big enough for a swimming pool (should we decide to get one) and certainly big enough for us to eat outside in the summer.
This house had to be within 100 km of Carcassonne airport.
It had to be of a certain age and charm.
It had to be within our budget (not huge).
It had to be in fairly reasonable nick, restoration would be possible, rebuilding would not.

We picked a camp site in Trebes, on the outskirts of Carcassonne, to be our base for the six weeks we were prepared to look.

We were armed with a list of auctioneers in and around the area. Our first appointment was with a charming lady called Pierette in Carcassonne. She showed us quite a few totally unsuitable properties, one that was almost a runner but came with an incredible barn, so rickety that it would surely, and with great expense, have to be demolished before we even contemplated restoring the main building.

She showed us a real Maison Bourgeois in the village of Bram just a few kilometres to the west of Carcassonne. This place had terrific kerb appeal. It had those gates and railings which we associate with period dramas set in fin de siècle France. It also had great gardens both front and back but these horrendously overgrown.

The house itself was not enormous but we noticed a lot of outbuildings at the bottom of the back garden and asked could we go and see them.
“But of course” said Madame “I haven’t been there for ages”, this said pointing to her walking cane.

Sile and I went off down the garden exploring the sheds at the bottom – it was obvious we were the first people there for many years. We had to beat our way to the door of these stables, which was what they turned out to be, and it was obvious that it would take a lot of money to make them habitable.

As we drove back to Carcassonne in Pierette’s little car I noticed that my trousers were covered in what I took to be burrs, I went to flick them off and they jumped up from my sweeping hand to land again. I was covered in fleas.

I screamed I confess like a hysterical girl, I then noticed that Pierette and Sile were also fairly well covered. There was no time for false modesty, within seconds we were out of the car on the road semi naked and beating and sweeping at each other and at the fleas.

Passing cars slowed down to watch the cabaret but we were far beyond caring. We eventually risked getting into the car again, even though I did notice that my white shirt was dotted with little blood spots where I had been bitten.

Pierette told us later that she rang Madame in Bram the following day to tell her what had happened. “I don’t suppose they will be wanting to buy the house then?” she said. She was right.

We went on from Pierette to investigate the many estate agents in Carcassonne, an exercise which left us with very little faith in the business acumen of the average French Immobilier.

Having been given our list of requirements they would, without shame, bring us to an apartment by the sea, a tiny house down a dark alley or even a small hotel which was many times our budget.
Often we would window shop the properties on the auctioneer’s window and pick out one which seemed to tick all the boxes only to be told with patient condescension: “Oh No! That house was sold months ago!”

We were beginning to despair at this stage, July was gone and we still hadn’t cracked it.  Our next appointment however held great promise.

This time we were searching in the area known as Le Valley d’Orb which was a particularly lovely river valley area which followed the Orb River from where it rose in the Massif Central all the way down through Beziers to the sea.

Throughout this region there were villages scattered rather like the buttons on an eiderdown. This flat plain was interrupted regularly by villages built on the hills in the area. Most of these hills were built in a circle around the ancient church and were known as circulades.

In one of these circulades there was a Dutch auctioneer who had a reputation for getting things done; Freddy Rueda. His agency operated out of a café in the village of St Genies de Fontadet. We arrived there for our appointment and discovered that our personal agent would be Charles.

Charles, although totally French, had gone to the Guildhall in England to study music so spoke impeccable English. He arrived in the café with the usual pile of properties in a folio and then did something refreshingly different.

He asked us directly “What is it you actually want to buy?” We gave him our long list of requirements (see above). He listened. He took out his giant portfolio of properties, took out two sheets, dropped the rest and said:

“I am going to show you just two properties, the first has all of your requirements, but you will see it just for contrast, the second you will buy.” He brought us to the village of Autignac where there was indeed a possible property. But with a problem, the garden was about 100 metres down the road from the house, the house had the requisite amount of bedrooms but none big enough to take an en suite bathroom.

Then he drove us to the village of Thezan Les Beziers, which being a Circulade meant we spiralled up to the very top where, next to the church, was le Vieux Presbytere. “This place” he warned us as he put his key in the lock “is a bit smelly, it hasn’t been lived in for some years “

“However” he went on, “It has one thing which you didn’t ask for but once you have seen, you will want “ He then ushered us into a large pitch black room (all the shutters were closed), which did indeed smell, the S bends in the loos having long before dried out giving us direct access to the main sewer of the village.

We then headed down to the end where he opened first some French windows and then threw back some shutters. Sunlight streamed into the room through the south facing door on to the terrace, Charles turned triumphantly back to us; “It has a view.”

It had, from the large terrace we could see a long wide plain which led all the way down South to the Mediterranean – which was beyond our horizon - but we could clearly see the Pyrenees even though they were 150 kilometres away to the south.

Under the terraces was a charming little garden which came with a full sized tree covered in fruits like bunches of little golden balls. The house, Charles told us, had six bedrooms and a large attic space ready to convert into more.

We had found our Chambre d’Hote.

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Martin & Sile DwyerMartin Dwyer started cooking professionally over 40 years ago in the legendary “Snaffles Restaurant” in Dublin. After a time in a Relais Chateau in Anjou and in “The Wife of Bath” in Kent he opened his own much acclaimed restaurant, “Dwyers”, in Waterford in 1989. In 2004 he sold this and moved south to France where he and his wife Síle bought and restored an old presbytery in a village in the Languedoc. They now run Le Presbytère as a French style Chambre d’Hôte. Martin however is far too passionate about food to give up cooking so they now enjoy serving dinner to their customers on the terrace of Le Presbytère on warm summer evenings. Martin runs occasional cookery courses in Le Presbytère and Síle’s brother Colm does week long Nature Strolls discovering the Flora and Fauna of the Languedoc. 

Le Presbytère can be seen at: www.lepresbytere.net
email: martin@lepresbytere.net

Twitter: www.twitter.com/DwyerThezan

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