Our Summer Place...is in France
What it lacks in convenience it more than makes up for in fresh air, good wine, and all the foie gras we can eat
Every summer, my children and I swap Los Angeles for the village of Monclar-de-Quercy in the Tarn-et-Garonne, in southwestern France. I bought a farmhouse there 10 years ago. Since then, it has grown to the size of a small hotel-which is, in fact, what it is from June to September. The only difference: Nobody gets a bill.
We set off in May. Along with my boys, Oscar, Otis, and Louis, come two Jack Russells, Greta and Gitana. On the plane, while the children play with Game Boys, I plan the summer's guest list. My friend Carina and her three daughters always come for a month. The girls mellow out the boys, and it isn't long before they're all picking fruit and playing make-believe. Thanks to Carina's expertise in homeschooling, we quickly fall into a rhythm of work and play. Work takes on another meaning: my most pressing problem becomes what to pick from the kitchen garden for lunch.
When I bought the house I was pregnant with Oscar, and although my roots are in England and California, my nesting instinct led me to France, with the unrealistic goal of buying some run-down château. Unbeknownst to my husband, Gary, I arranged for us to view houses from the Dordogne to Provence. This is how we happened upon the Tarn-et-Garonne—it's equidistant from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, close to Spain, and utterly unspoiled. Imagine the English countryside with Tuscan architecture. The undulating landscape is littered with bastide towns, each atop a hill.
On one side of the house, the land rolls down to the Tescou River, and on the other it flattens out toward the village of Verlhac. I fell in love with the simple farm buildings and the 18th-century pigeonnier, reminiscent of the fisherman's cottage in Scotland where my brothers, sister, and I once spent our holidays.
Although grapevines border the driveway, it didn't dawn on us that what we were looking at was, in fact, a working vineyard. After we exchanged papers on his estate, Monsieur Blaquière held up a bottle of wine and toasted us. My French was minimal, but I managed to understand that we had another 9,999 bottles left to drink! At that point I turned to Gary and said, "I have a feeling we just bought a vineyard."
A vineyard with linoleum hiding the limestone floors, Formica on the kitchen counters, and, in the farmyard, amid antiquated machinery, "free-range" ducks roaming everywhere. (Apart from owning the biggest vineyard in the village, the Blaquières produced foie gras. Wine making has become a passion for my family, but I leave the foie gras to the neighbors. I trade them bales of hay for it.)
We created additional bedrooms and bathrooms, and converted the large, attached barn into a kitchen and family room. After many summers without a pool, we finally gave in. I sat outside and oversaw the builders, who hated taking orders from me, a woman. But a month later I had the pool I wanted.
I used to give out invitations freely, but I've learned that all it takes is a couple of ungrateful house guests to leave a bad taste in your mouth. One family never got over jet lag. They overextended their stay in every way. (You know it's not working out when you can't even stand to be around a pool with someone.)
But most people have been more agreeable—some heroically so. Louise Fletcher, an old friend, came to visit while she was shooting a movie in Paris. I cajoled her into riding with me by assuring her that we were basically walking the dogs, but on horseback. "The horseflies are terrible," I heard her say, then I watched her fall—seemingly in slow motion—off her horse. We had ridden into a swarm of bees. Louise, who is allergic to bees, sprained her back falling.
Then the bees attacked me, so I tore off my shirt and ran screaming to our neighbors, the Belavoines, in my jodhpurs and bra. They were sitting outside, drinking Pernod. While Benoît Belavoine went to Louise's aid, his mother threw me under cold water and poured vinegar over my head. Louise and I had each been stung about 70 times on our heads alone. The fact that she still talks to me is a miracle.
My favorite time is the weeks spent opening up the house, planting the garden, and getting the horses and grounds in shape. We do our first shopping of the summer at Leclerc. You can buy everything at French supermarkets (the lingerie aisle is a must). Then, on Saturdays, we visit the open-air market in Montauban to stock up on honeys, juices, cheeses. The bread comes from the baker in Monclar: it is like cake, and better than any bread I've ever had. We load up the kitchen with fruit from our own trees-figs, apples, cherries, peaches. Many times we simply move to the vineyard for dessert and eat grapes straight from the vine. The house is also filled with our roses. It's one of my greatest pleasures to cut some in the evenings and place them beside the bed of a soon-to-arrive guest.
The children have acclimated well; they love carrying pails to the end of the driveway to wait for our neighbor Elyse, who lets them help milk her cows. A remarkable woman who brought up six children single-handedly, Elyse invites us to lunch every summer. The first year I declined, saying I had far too many people visiting.
"I don't mind if there are twenty-five of you," she protested.
"Elyse," I replied, "we are twenty-seven!"
She was true to her word, serving us seven courses of homegrown and homemade food, starting with duck saucisson and ending with her specialty, frozen chocolate mousse.
Summer passes too quickly, and we are packing before we know it. Back in California, I do nothing but reminisce. And by February I am planning the summer again. My dream is to have a select group of friends living in the area, and gradually it appears to be happening. But I've got to recruit more, and the only way to get them to move there is to have them visit me first. Once they come, they always return. Even Louise, after her traumatic experience with the bees, has bought a house nearby.
Kathryn Ireland is an interior designer. Her fabrics are sold at her shop in Santa Monica (310/393-0670) and at the Old Imperial Laundry in London (44-181/940-9550).