Ladies and gentleman – may I introduce the lady who made all of this possible: my mummy.
Not only my mother and undoubtedly my biggest supporter, she’s also the greatest source of cooking knowledge throughout my life and a humbling reminder that no catering challenge is too much (who else can single-handedly throw a gourmet birthday party for 110 without batting an eyelid?)
In addition to being a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen (not to mention other talents), she’d give Apollo a run for his money in the sun-worshipping department and, on her first morning here at Le Manoir de Raynaudes, she had turned towards the sun and stripped down to a bikini before I could utter “Piz Buin”. Between murmers of “Uh! It’s heavenly here” and “Ooh, my wine seems to have gone down rather quickly” (and this from a supposed lightweight), we did manage to fit in a bit of culture (Albi, Cordes, Najac – you know the drill – plus Puycelsi, St Antonin and St Martin-Laguépie) and some lovely food, including a loooooooong supper at our local, Auberge Occitane.
After six glorious days, she was gone, leaving Peter and Orlando in awe of my brilliant mother and me missing her hugely. I climbed one of our cherry trees the morning she left and, as I remembered the kilos and kilos of cherries she’d stoned for me while she was here and I looked out across the fields towards the Pyrenees, I thought of her oft-used phrase: “It’s not a bad life, really.” So true. Come back soon, Mummy. You fit perfectly into my idyllic little Raynaudes existence.
Although life here is about as good as it gets, what I really miss are my friends and family, so I was seriously excited about the arrival of my great friend Gaby and her lovely mum – my first visitors since I arrived. After all the photos and weeks of hearing about where I’m living, what I’m cooking, who I’m working for (and, let’s face it, the pool I’m scrubbing), it has been wonderful to actually have somewhere here so they can experience it for themself. And I think Le Manoir did itself proud – I certainly hope so, especially as Gaby was hear to write an article about us for the Telegraph. So, as well as feeding them to within an inch of their lives, we thought it was essential to fit in a bit of local culture, too…
First stop was Albi, to visit the huge, brick cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, as well as lunch at Epicurien, a wander around the old town (confusingly reburbished in the mid-80s) and a browse of the shops.
The next day we visited two of the prettiest local bastide towns: Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn and Najac, in the Aveyron. Amazingly deserted, we had the place to ourselves, which made for an eerily quiet, but very peaceful stroll.
A visit to Le Manoir wouldn’t be complete without a lounge by the pool – and then came the only miserable part of their stay: it was time for Gaby and Dixy to leave. Rather appropriately, it didn’t stop raining for 24 hours after they left…
The sunlight, rather than my alarm, woke me up this morning – bliss – on my first day off since arriving. I ate breakfast and sat reading by the front of the house, looking at one of my favourite views, towards the Pyrenees.
I then went for a drive, taking the road out of Raynaudes (with a perfect view of the house as you leave, before you rise to a point overlooking the hamlet) and onto Cordes-sur-Ciel, a nearby bastide town with five layers of city walls, gradually added throughout the 13th century. It’s a cliché, but it’s picture-perfect and charming. The town is far too attractive not to be a tourist magnet, but it’s still a pleasure to visit at this time of year, before the high-season crowds descend.
There are plenty of arty-crafty boutiques, galleries and souvenir shops to lure in wealthy out-of-towners, but I was way more interested in the townhouses lining the steep, cobbled streets. The temptation to stick my head right in through the open windows, have a good snoop and take a few photos was strong, but I resisted – the poor inhabitants probably get sick of visitors’ nosiness (and I’m doing my best to “go local” while I’m living here). I made do with taking a few shots of the buildings’ exteriors and of the amazing, endless views of the countryside, stretching out in bright greens and yellows beneath the town.
This evening we were invited to dinner by some of our guests: a gregarious extended family that has rented all four of Le Manoir’s apartments every April since it opened. The theme tonight was “Tacky 70s Buffet” (no hairstyles were harmed in the making of this meal) and included a pineapple studded with the obligatory cheese, pineapple and ham on sticks, pigs-in-a-blanket, prawn Marie Rose… the full works. Absolutely brilliant. It’s a common misconception that chefs won’t like the food you make for them… Quite the opposite – we love it, especially if it involves a faithful send-up of Peter’s brilliant cheeseboard odysseys, as parodied by David (“le Cheese String has been a favourite of le French schoolchildren for over 100 years”… “and here we have the original 2-D cheese: le Dairlylea slice”). Fuelled by litres of Gaillac rosé, we followed the meal up with a few rounds of a game that involved holding a Euro between your butt-cheeks and dropping it into a pint glass, then the cereal box game. Not sure if this is going to catch on in the smart circles of the Tarn, but maybe this is one bit of culture the English shouldn’t share.