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Kathryn Ireland’s French Country Style

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Photo: Emma Hardy

“Darling, it’s detox or retox,” Kathryn Ireland had told me when she tried to explain the purpose of the retreat, her plummy English accent emphasizing the re instead of the de. I had been on wellness and weight-loss retreats before, at sterile-looking places hidden away in the mountains where the only daily offerings are hiking and a few grains of quinoa. But Kathryn’s approach—a week of restorative yoga and antiquing at her house in the lush hills of France’s Tarn-et-Garonne department, an hour north of Toulouse—sounded like Gallic nirvana; far less regimented and more spontaneous, just like its hostess. I had watched Bravo’s Million Dollar Decorators and seen La Castellane, Kathryn’s bohemian-chic farmhouse, in magazines and in her book Summers in France, and filed it away as a destination must.

I was barely a kilometer down the autoroute from the airport with Tim, the young New Zealander Kathryn had dispatched to meet me, when Tim’s cell phone jumped off the dashboard with a loud buzz. It was Kathryn, ordering us to join her at the farmers’ market in Montauban, where she and 10 other guests were shopping. My kind of retreat: shopping first, then yoga. Tim parked in front of the stone cathedral and we found Kathryn herding a group of women in Lululemon yoga pants back to a giant white Mercedes-Benz van, her arms laden with bags of fresh artichokes and buckets of pink peonies. In a black nylon trench and sleek wraparound sunglasses, she looked like an incognito A-list celebrity—one whose house she might have decorated.

“Darling, you must be exhausted! But do come and see this amazing market, it’s the best in the country! Everyone comes to Montauban!” she exclaimed, scooping a handful of cherries off a nearby table. We were drifting through the market, beneath two alleys of old oak trees casting shade on rows of tables attended by farmers and busy French housewives who were stuffing baskets with apples, peaches, pears, and armfuls of sunflowers.

“Where is Stuart?” Kathryn suddenly bellowed, looking around anxiously for her “picker,” a bloke from London who was genius at shopping obscure flea markets and uncovering vintage gems such as faded linen sheets and French agricultural maps. I swiped a few cherries and tried to keep up.

As Kathryn told it, Tarn-et-Garonne, though one of France’s poorest regions, was rich in characters. Everyone was here. Just this morning Kathryn had bumped into the charming ex-model and actor Daniel de la Falaise, who lives on a nearby farm. The actress Louise Fletcher had a house down the road. “Bob” De Niro was mentioned a few times. And Kate Moss had recently been spotted in the local 8 à Huit convenience store.

Then there was her neighbor “the count,” whose family owned a chain of steak houses called L’Entrecôte and lived in a beautiful château in Gaillac. There was the dentist in Albi with the bedroom eyes and his wife, Claude, who taught painting—not Madame Claude, Kathryn corrected, referring to the infamous Parisian madam. For a minute I thought I’d been inadvertently punked by a provincial French reality-television show, The Real Husbands of Tarn-et-Garonne.

In addition to the local cast of characters, Kathryn had imported several specialists for the week: Georgia Coleridge, a friend from London, was a “cleaner.” I imagined a doe-eyed English girl with a broom, but Georgia was a healer who had “cleaned” La Castellane of all lingering spirits and would hopefully sweep out my spiritual space, too. Jan Scott, a former movie producer from Los Angeles, specialized in spiritual baths served up in tubs of flower petals. Zaza Guirey, a willowy aristocratic beauty who was Kathryn’s oldest friend from boarding school, practiced Zero Balancing and acupuncture.

As she pulled the van up the driveway in Montclar-de-Quercy to La Castellane, past the barn with its bright red tractor and the stone pigeonnier with its whoosh of climbing roses swirling over the bright blue door, Kathryn rattled off another list of places she wanted us to see—Château de St.-Géry, an 18th-century marvel; the brocante shop in Cordes-sur-Ciel; and of course there was horseback riding. “Some women have jewels, I have my Arabians,” she laughed, pointing to her three glorious horses. There was so much to do, plans were clearly in flux.

But first, a Thai massage.

“You are flexible and strong, but can I be honest?” asked the nice Spanish massage therapist from Bilbao. Her name was Aranzua and she spoke softly, looking me square in the eyes as she pushed and pulled at my stiff limbs. “You are holding too much emotion and trying too much to control,” Aranzua said. “That is why your breath is short.” I was lying on a mattress in the huge library. The colorful décor was so inviting it was distracting—bright Moroccan pillows piled on deep red couches, the way Kathryn had lined up five rustic ocher mixing bowls on the entryway console. Did they come from the local flea market? The mere thought of a French country flea market sent adrenaline rushing through my body. It was impossible to relax in this room.

I had come to France to get lost in the aromas of roasted figs and tall terra-cotta pots filled with lavender. I didn’t care so much about losing weight or sweeping my spirit clean of past lives. I wanted to experience life in a small town in the far-flung reaches of rural France—La France Profonde.

Later, at lunch in the barn, with a view out over the green patchwork fields in the valley and candelabra hung from rope cords and dripping wax on the long table below, which was set with Kathryn’s hand-printed fabrics and generous bouquets of pink peonies, we feasted on couscous salad with tomatoes from the garden, ratatouille, and Pétale de Rose, a little-known rosé from a vineyard in Gassin, near St.-Tropez. Kathryn had also imported Sidonie Gaunie, a chef from Montpellier who was particularly keen on desserts. I slipped my spoon into a slice of warm flourless chocolate cake and wondered aloud what the real benefits of this week would be.

We went around the table and introduced ourselves. Kaylie and Jann, from Sydney, had read about Kathryn’s retreat on a design blog. Kathy and Nan had met Kathryn at a San Francisco event promoting her fabric collection for Scalamandré. They were hoping to pick up a few decorating tips. Teri had been to the retreat the previous summer and convinced her friend Mary to return with her. And Penelope, a decorator from New Zealand by way of San Francisco, had come for inspiration. She was excited at the prospect of visiting markets and hearing Kathryn’s stories.

The next morning, after Aranzua’s yoga class, we were back in the van, zooming along country roads, through fields of sunflowers and freshly cut hay. In the distance, a medieval hilltop town perched on a rocky plateau poked up through the early morning mist. “Puycelci!” Kathryn exclaimed as she navigated the van around the lush Vère valley. “That’s the town you go to with a paramour.” Before we could establish the difference between a paramour and a lover, Kathryn was on to the next: the farm where she buys the most delicious apple juice. And then she swerved off the road and sped down a long driveway. “Let’s just stop in at Ann’s house,” she announced, accelerating up a hill.

Ann’s “house” was an ancient limestone village of buildings clustered around a sunny courtyard filled with tiny pink climbing roses and pots of fragrant lavender. Ann didn’t flinch when 11 strangers filed through her double kitchen, marveling at the tangle of copper pots hanging over her enormous Lacanche stove and snapping pictures of her roses.

And then we were off, again, to the medieval town of Cordes to see the antiques dealer Kathryn was sure would be open on a Sunday morning. He wasn’t, but Cordes beckoned, shrouded in mist, its parapets glistening in the early light. We began to hike up the winding cobblestoned road, past houses nestled side by side, each one punctuated with mauve or cobalt or mint-green shutters. At the top of the road we ducked into a café, taking in the valley below as we sipped galopins, miniature glasses of beer, while Kathryn told us about the nearby town of Albi, which had been a stronghold of the Cathars, a 13th-century religious sect also known in these parts as the peaceful heretics of the Languedoc.

It was this rich history and the surrounding landscape reminiscent of the English countryside that had drawn Kathryn to Quercy in the early 1990’s. She and her then-husband were staying at a B&B nearby, when they heard about a farm for sale.

“You feel very protected here,” Kathryn said as we drove up the driveway of La Castellane, under the ancient oak trees. “All you need to know is where is the rosé, who is opening it, and what’s for lunch!”

The Kathryn Ireland version of “extreme balance” turned out to be anything but leisurely. By day three the mood was downright frantic, with too many activities from which to choose. When Stuart volunteered to drive Penelope and me to Réalmont for an afternoon tour of a vide-grenier (attic-emptying), I inadvertently skipped out on Jan Scott’s flower-filled bathtub. The prospect of finding those ocher bowls, or a French agricultural map, was too tempting. We had barely climbed out of Stuart’s Volvo when he spied a portfolio propped up on a table a couple of yards away. It was filled with hundreds of 1940’s maps. We picked up more treasures: a garde-manger for Kathryn, brass pots for Penelope. On our way out of town something caught Stuart’s eye and he pulled over. A stack of large ocher bowls was sitting on a table outside a grubby-looking brocante. The owner, a tall, dark man with a lisp, lured us inside with piles of embroidered linen sheets, heavy white porcelain serving plates, and a marvelous grain table.

We rolled into La Castellane just in time for a glass of rosé. A light dinner of tapas was spread out on the kitchen table—stuffed eggplant, potato tart, salad from the garden, and a potato-and-string-bean salad. For dessert we dug tiny spoons into pots of compote with crème fraîche and listened as that evening’s guest, Daniel de la Falaise, talked about his olive oils and honey. I had first met de la Falaise and his sister, Lucie, 20 years earlier in Paris. They were bright-eyed kids from Wales blessed with the looks, charm, and connections to pursue modeling careers. Lucie became the face of Yves Saint Laurent’s fragrance Paris; Daniel, an actor. But now he was living the Gallic dream, working as a private chef, photographer, and food writer, occasionally venturing up to Paris to cater a party.

The next day Zaza, Georgia, and I walked the long alleys of Daniel’s garden, snipping off flowers of sweet onion, basil, and tarragon. Dipping slices of sourdough into tiny pools of oil flavored with hints of basil flower and bay and chili and sipping fresh Goldruch apple juice, it was easy to imagine the life of a gentleman farmer in these rolling hills. All I needed was a jaunty straw fedora like Daniel’s and pair of smart riding boots.

Back at La Castellane we stayed up late that night. At our urging, Kathryn hauled out a box filled with her fabric samples and recounted how she had moved to Los Angeles from London at 24 and met her ex-husband at Joan Didion’s house, and how she had convinced Steve Martin to become her first client. Standing in front of the group in a long floral-print dress, Kathryn shared her worst decorating nightmares and her triumphs.

On the last day I took a cooking class with Sidonie in the chef’s kitchen, with its enormous Aga stove and hodgepodge of utensils and pots. We made a vegetable tian, thinly slicing and then carefully layering eggplant, tomato, potato, and red and green peppers in a vegan mille-feuille. At sunset, we gathered in the kitchen garden to taste the sweet organic wine of Laurent Cazottes, a fourth-generation local vintner whose Poire Williams is a favorite of Kate Moss’s. While we were sipping aperitifs flavored with cherries, elderberry, and pear, Stuart had been decorating the barn with hundreds of votive candles. Over dinner, we toasted Kathryn and her hospitality, raising our final glass of Pétale de Rose. As the late June moon rose up over the old oak trees and darkness settled in the valley below, we gathered around a bonfire. Georgia had instructed us to write three words on a piece of paper—three things we wanted to discard from our lives. We tossed sprigs of lavender and rosemary into the flames and their spicy and sweet scents filled the air.

La Castellane; kathrynireland.com; all-inclusive. $$$$$

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