Surviving and thriving , three months on.

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As the mad summer season fades and we have time to catch our breath, I am happy to post that Le restaurant de Montcléra has not only survived its first three months of opening, but is thriving, winning its own loyal clientele, and looking forward to a winter season of delicious lunches and sociable theme nights…

We survived a fully booked staff training dinner, when the worst seen tempest in several summers hit the terrace just as we were trying to seat 60 people at the same time – lessons learnt, but at least they didn’t see the storm that arrived actually in the kitchen (through the lights!) the day before during prep…

We survived our gendarme visit with all contracts and verifications in place (despite the many last minute arguments with different bodies who could not agree with each other) – I wanted a photo taken with the smart gendarme in his powder blue matching flak-jacket and shirt, and range of weaponry, but didn’t dare ask!

We survived a suspected heart attack in the middle of a busy Saturday night service, complete with flashing lights everywhere and a table full of Pompiers coming to the rescue (thank goodness!)

The next Saturday we survived doing a Spit roast for a wedding in 40plus° heat

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and the one after that we had champagne bottles exploding in the cellar (probably because of the same heat.)

We have learnt to speak kindly to a temperamental new Italian oven that was once burning all crostinis and pavlovas  – now producing food looking fabulous

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We managed to feed 93 extra people at the last minute for a menu for the music festival at the chateau – plus another unexpected 40 turning up in the restaurant itself (note to self, ask to be in complete charge of the food for the festival next year!)

And along the way we have established fabulous suppliers, have enjoyed using as much clean and crisp organic produce as possible 005(thank you Les jardins de la mouline and Ferme de Lalgas) and are improving our dishes every day to provide fresh and simple menus . We have explained what  pies are to locals on the weekend we sold 200 of them, and have them enjoying fish and chips on Friday lunchtimes. Relaxed folk are appreciating coffee and cake (with wifi!) in the mornings, and everyone agrees the puddings are the best part of the menu!

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Albeit my favourite things are the edible flowers grown for me by my neighbour 010 031

and the cheerful greeting you will always get when  you arrive at our door…

So, three months on, we are now looking forward to being open at lunchtimes, taking bookings for evenings only, doing the occasional Sunday lunch and promoting our first wine tasting dinner (Sat 10th October, details to follow) oh, and having time to finish the website so you can look up our information anytime, promise!

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Almost there!

One more piece of paper to present to the mairie on Friday, and we MIGHT be able to finally open our (restaurant) doors to the public on 16th June… well maybe, because at the final hurdle absolutely none of the various security, planning, building control and administrative departments know exactly what we are supposed to install or do or be inspected on, or ‘controles as they are called. To be fair, everyone is just trying to do what they are meant to be doing, but it would help, as the secretary of the mairie put it, if there was some sort of global control with a simple set of rules. I’m sticking to my favourite and most helpful department, the security side of the fire brigade who have come to my rescue several times by confirming I do not need 10 fire exits, 5 different safety inspections and an alarm connected to the pentagon…Unlike the Gendarmes who turned up in full flak jackets and taser guns regalia for a friendly and non discriminatory visit to warn they will back to check our controles.

I think I have every piece of equipment and evacuation, access and exit covered for every possible person, dossiers covering any situation and  – if all else fails (I learnt this on the 3 day obligatory alcohol course!) notices to put up to cover my self!

Now, all I need to do is get help for exhausted husband to finish all the renovations and … of course, almost forgot! Need to organise the actual food and drink…

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Inauguration of Restaurant de Montcléra

We might not be allowed to officially open yet, but we had a fabulous weekend that included the official ‘opening’ by the mayor and community.DSC_7933_DxO_RestaurantDSC_8180_DxO_RestaurantDSC_8449_DxO_RestaurantDSC_8558_DxO_Restaurant

It is all starting to look great, even that trashed bar DSC_8518_DxO_Restaurantand we are looking forward to finally getting the last bits finished.

Thank you to everyone who worked tirelessly to make the inauguration a success.

Especially George the photographer…

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And my poor tired husband who still has lots to do!

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Excitement Building

Just wondering if the new restaurant renovations will ever get there when what we started with, 018

now looks like this…IMG_2969

But always cheered up when I look out of the window and see the chateau looking fabulous with spring blossom.004

Also loving my vintage plates, piling up along with numerous other equipment waiting for a finished kitchen…038 (2)

And with the new season we get to see weddings at the Mairie next door, 033

And have some interesting visitors when a tiny circus comes to town!016 (2)

Various buildings have been cleared of ancient artefacts, ready for the theatre workshops during the summerIMG_2964

using ancient artefacts to clear them.013

and the countdown has started for the official inauguration at the end of the month – we might even have the official planning permission by then too, but  will have to wait for the kitchen fire doors to arrive before we open to the public… Excitement building!

Downs and Ups

Here are two boring facts that I have recently learned; Ones doors must swing open towards the outside if one is to have more than 50 people dining inside a building of my size, (a little problematic if the original doors can’t be changed because the historic monuments people don’t want them altered), and from July this year restaurants are not allowed to have signs displayed at the side of the road. Unless you already have one up of course. But we are not allowed to put one up because… from July this year restaurants are not allowed to have signs displayed at the side of the road…
But, I have also learned this week, that one of the best experiences of setting up a restaurant in rural France is meeting local suppliers. From vegetables and chickens, to pigs and goats cheeses (and don’t forget the wines) the joy is eventually finding them down hidden valleys, on ancient farms where generations old and new are continuing to provide high quality produce – and they are passionate about their products too. (Thank you to the friends who have taken the time out to introduce me). I spent a morning talking to the cleanest happiest calmest goats I have ever seen, and was today with my neighbour, who has kindly planted edible flowers, and herbs for me in his garden. Provenance, yes! Just down the road.

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Gourmet Reminders of Spring in France

You can’t miss spring here in deepest rural France. Explosions of coloured blossom. The sound of the cuckoo. Young deer coming out of the woods to eat the new grass in our fields, which means the end-of-season hunt meal (post 30.03.15), and another fabulous slow-cooked-lamb Easter meal (post 10.05.14), this year eaten in glorious sunshine.
The traffic gets busier on the school run,

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And we have to stop off for supplies for baking.

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And more explosions of colour, of course, it’s carnival time again (post 14.04.14)

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Enjoying the Punishment

We have not quite yet survived the bureaucratic bungling of setting up a restaurant in France. We have just submitted ten copies of an enormous dossier to the mairie that needs to be presented to a load of different committees. First a planning department to change the official use of the building, (turns out that at some point after the restaurant last closed its doors in 1996, the building’s status was converted from commercial use to domestic), then a department to make sure it is fit for public use, then a meeting to look at all the fire and safety compliances, and then one to check out the handicap protocols. Oh, and don’t forget the notoriously fussy historic monuments division who have to have a peek too, because of the 700-year-old castle across the road – not that any of the reams of plans and descriptions have changed since the 1950s renovations.
No one in local officialdom is able to say exactly when or what bits of paper need to come back from all these places, but whether their pronouncements affect the planned opening at the beginning of June we are yet to see.
Meanwhile, back to the fun stuff! Shopping on a budget to equip and enhance a derelict restaurant that had been part of the community for 60 years.
The fire department couldn’t tell me where I can buy the appropriate fire extinguishers, but the old owner has lent me some wonderful photos dating back to when his grandmother first opened the restaurant doors in 1938. I need to get the facts in order before I can recount the history, but the photos are going to look fabulous on the walls…

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Glutton for Punishment!

Never try to open a restaurant in France. No, seriously, don’t be so silly as to try it.

Unless the derelict former restaurant in your village that sits opposite a stunning château, which you have been coveting forever, finally comes up for sale at an affordable price. And you get offered – without asking – a chance to set up the restaurant part of a new adventure because you had passionately raved about a dream … then by all means be as unwise as I am, it may be gluttony for punishment, but it’s exciting.

Despite being self-employed for years, I had forgotten how much France really doesn’t want to make it easy to take that first step of getting yourself legally registered as a bona fide business. To be fair, there is a wealth of information and help available if you go looking. All the correct legal advice is out there. It’s complicated, oh yes it’s complicated. Nonetheless you can find it.

But here are some things that no one will tell you that may just help you survive:

– Whatever work sector you want to register for, there are several different government departments that look after you (Chambres de Commerce, Artisans, Agriculture, etc.) All will have several different people who will help you do several different things (finance, register, retrain, whatever). No one will know what their several different colleagues are doing. No one will know what their equivalent colleague in another chamber is doing. Even tho’ they do the same thing.

Ask all of them for information on what you are trying to do, because eventually you will get most of the answers. (Warning: you will still be missing some small vital piece of the puzzle!)

– Even if you have already researched a subject, done your homework or completed a dossier for one of these several different people, don’t tell them at first. They need to do the thing they are supposed to do. (Keep in mind, however, that many of them are good at what they do when they do do it.)

– If one department rejects your request for financial aid, always ask someone else , in another government-aided initiative (of which there are many), as they will probably send you back to the original department that said no in the first place, who will then be able to begin the process that sets up the meetings to discuss the dossiers… (I guess I was talking to the wrong several-different-people in the first place.)

– When you end up spending hours in the wrong department because someone sent you there (and you only found out that it was the wrong department because someone else asked someone in the next office a totally unrelated question…), don’t worry, you can often find out extra information; did you know that to make sandwiches or sell hot chips (ie takeaways), you need to do a complicated training course and have several qualifications, but if you cater for hundreds at weddings and want to open a public restaurant, it is ‘unregulated’ and you don’t need any qualifications at all? (And no need for the complicated training course too – result!)

– Also remember, it is not all a black art. At every step you will be told something very complicated, you will not be supposed to understand the process, and it will be very dramatic and mystical and you must pay for someone to do it properly, but try not to buy into the very French habit of making the simple into something much more complicated. Keep rather calm instead, and carry on being a glutton for punishment. Watch this space, it’s very exciting!

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1930’s

2015 - before renovation, watch this space!

2015 – before renovation, watch this space!

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Beginning of Festivites

Lots of seasonal love and goodwill when ‘foodie’ friends arrive for the festive season …

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But have to confess to a bit of gluttony going on too!

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Plus some staples of course. 001 …Thank you George!

Happy Holidays.

Autumn Gourmand

We have been watching Geese fly south, and displays of yellow trees suddenly disappear in a high wind. The school ‘run’ with the youngest, which is a pleasant walk down our lane, now incorporates picking up twigs for kindling for the stoves.
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Sometimes, we meet one of our neighbours on his morning walk. He was born in the house he lives in and went to the same school 60 years ago. His brother built a house next door to his. These two are the last still here of a hamlet that was once made up of several small holdings, all with orchards, gardens, vines and animals. The well for the hamlet was (and still is) on our property, the bread oven on the back of the brothers’ old farm house. There are unused wine chai’s (storage buildings), abandoned orchards, dying walnut groves, and bat filled barns with tiny houses at one end dotted round. Some of the old trees provide us with fruit and the pleasure of picking it throughout the seasons.

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But the best remnant of this dying era is our neighbours’ garden. Large, tilled with a hand machine, seasonal. Best of all, full of organic produce sometimes gifted to ourselves. Right now it is pumpkins. Huge, dense, rich tasting (especially when roasted) pumpkins. We love our neighbour.
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We love ROASTED PUMPKIN SOUP.
It doesn’t require any fuss, unless you count making some delicious chicken or vegetable stock – but this time of the year when the wood stove is going, it is easy for me to pop on top a pot of veg scraps, herbs and water in the morning, to simmer away for a few hours.
Don’t worry about precise amounts of ingredients to use – whatever is to your taste!
– Chop a pumpkin up into even size chunks or wedges (sort of the size of a normal wedge of cake!) Leave the skin on, but scrape off the seeds with a spoon. You can save the seeds to roast and eat too, but that’s another recipe…
– In a bowl sprinkle the wedges with salt and drizzle with oil then mix together with your hands. Lay them on a baking tray and roast for about an hour in a medium hot oven.
– When cooled, scrape the flesh off the skins.
– Sweat a little onion and garlic together in a large pan until cooked and then add the pumpkin. Try adding a tiny bit of a flavour you like too – cinnamon, or ginger or chilli for example.
– Add enough stock of your choice to cover-plus-a-bit-more and simmer for just half an hour.
– Blend in the pot with a hand blender and then add some cream at this point, or swirl it about on top once it is in bowls. Garnish with parsley or coriander and some croutons…

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