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It’s been a while since Hannah & Steve quit their jobs at the local hotel/restaurant to buy their own small little bistro not too far from here. There were allsorts of hassles with everything from potential business partners, to bank loans, to finding somewhere cheaper to live to regroup. They eventually moved into Chardonneret, here with us. With CoCo the hamster, and Bill the spaniel puppy. Their potential business partners pulled out, remaining friends though, leaving the way clear for Hannah & Steve to go it alone after finding a small restaurant for sale in a local village. The place had been closed for two years, and the present owners were happy for Hannah & Steve to buy. Various meetings with various banks and accountants ensued before the right offer was put before them with Banque Populaire. We went up to see the place with Hannah & Steve, and they explained their plans to us. We were meant to have around 6-weeks in which to refurbish the place. As we’ve come to expect from certain quarters of French life (we haven’t been disappointed yet) there were hurdles to jump. In the end, due to some amazingly silly problems, we were left with just 15 days to turn the run-down, unheated, unmodernised wreck into something resembling a restaurant!

l'Oeil de boeuf

The exterior, showing the very small window, the 'oeil de boeuf'!

Steve wanted the whole of the kitchen tiling from floor to ceiling. That was to be the single biggest job. There was a wall to build to seperate the kitchen from the washing up area too. That needed tiling from floor to ceiling as well. Upon measuring, we found there was in the region of 75m squared of tiles to fit! I felt faint at this point, seeing the fortnight in front of me stretching into eternity. After having smelling salts thrust under my nose, I realised that it wasn’t a nightmare, and that Steve really did want ALL of the three rooms comprising the kitchen area to be fully tiled. Top to bottom!

Kitchen

The kitchen as it was. Basic.

Hannah meanwhile, was explaining the décor she fancied for the walls, ceilings and tables. Cream for the walls, white for ceilings and red for the detail. All wallpaper in both the grande salle and the petite salle to be stripped, new wall lights to be fitted, then walls & ceilings re-papered. New ciling lights to replace the nasty neon strip lights! The paper chosen was a kind of fibreglass, glued on to any surface and then painted when dry. It’s seemingly indestructible and covers a multitude of sins, as we found out.

Petite salle

La Petite salle.

So, having been shown around the place, the barn with potential for an office upstairs, storage downstairs. The grenier with a brick-built partition wall separating the office upstairs from the grenier itself – a fantastic salle de réunion for the future. There’s also two smaller rooms and a shower room upstairs. One could be a sleepover room/office, the other they plan to use as a very small salle de réunion for now.

Grande salle

La Grande Salle

So – how to do it? I mentioned to them both that we’d used helpers from HelpEx before, and why don’t they give that a try? I helped them draft a listing on the HelpEx website, and a shout went out to anyone willing to come & get mucky transforming the place with us. Us being the two sets of parents, and various other friends and relatives with a few hours spare to devote to the cause. Help came in the form of two lovely Australian girls, bored with working in a London bar. They wanted to see a little bit of the ‘real’ France, and jumped at the chance to lend a hand! Clara & Kate arrived, and settled into the daily routine of sanding, painting, cleaning, papering, cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning! They were thrilled to have snow while we were working, the large flakes spreading like a white blanket over the village, deadening sound and forcing life behind closed shutters to await the thaw. It grew cold. Minus 12 on a good morning, though with radiators fitted inside the bulk of the restaurant, they were toasty enough. It was a different matter though at our house! We suffer a bit from the north winds at this time of year, pipes freezing, then thawing and often bursting, meaning lots of repairwork for me. Luckily though, we seem to have escaped without any bursts so far this winter.

Clara & Kate

Skipper Clara & Kaptain kate!

Just a day into the refurb, disaster struck. Hannah accidently hurt her foot, but bravely carried on for a few days. Deciding that she couldn’t take the pain much longer (after three days of hobbling around) a hospital visit confirmed that she had indeed broken her foot and would be in plaster for 4-5 weeks! Oh no! Who’s going to run front of house? She couldn’t with a pot on her leg! So then the search was on for a temporary replacement. Just until her foot was mended and the pot removed! A replacement was found, while work continued, and a contract was drawn up by the notaire for the temporary help. Phew! Relief! Quite apart from the obvious physical work in turning the shell into something completely different, there were other things to consider. A name for one! What to call it? It is a diamond-shaped building – quite unique, and the former name reflected that – ‘Le Diamant’! Obviously Hannah & Steve wanted to change that, but what to? We were compiling lists of potential names for ages, nothing seemed to fit. Then one day, whilst chatting with friends at their house, I mentioned that the building had a very small window in the grenier. An ‘oeil de boeuf’ as they’re called. It’s only small, but a feature non-the-less. Our friends said “there then, that’s your name!” We thought about it, and it grew on us, and we passed the idea on to Hannah & Steve. It wasn’t decided until it’d been placed in a hat with around ten others ‘shortlisted’, and drawn out, that ‘Oeil de Boeuf’ it would be! Luck? Or fate? Then there were signs to be designed, ordered and erected, beer pumps to be changed, accounts with suppliers to be found for everything from fresh food to napkins. I offered to build a very simple website for them, they chose the domain name and we were off and running! As well as a website Steve took a hint from us here at Le Chant and created a Facebook Page for the restaurant and quickly gathered fans! So much to be done, so very little time to do it in! As Christmas drew closer, it became evident that we’d really have to push hard to have the downstairs completed, leaving the upstairs until such time that there was a steady income from the resto, and more time to work on it. With Christmas almost upon us, it was time to say goodbye to the dynamic duo of Clara & Kate! They were off exploring, leaving us to our quiet, short family Christmas celebrations. So, with a final flourish of paintbrushes, they were dropped off at the train station in Saumur to catch a train to Paris and from there….who knows? Clara & Kate contributed an amazing amount in such a short space of time. Thanks to you both if you’re reading this. It was much appreciated, please do come back and see the fruits of your labour for real soon? Anyway, we planned to have a quiet Christmas at home. Just two days off, then a final push to get finished in time for New Year’s Eve – and the grand opening. Eeeek! Two days off for the festivities went by too quickly, and we saw little of our French guests, spending their own quiet Christmas in Héron. No sooner had we finished, that we were back at the restaurant, and working harder than ever to get things done! You reach a point in these projects where you think you’re getting nowhere and it becomes dispiriting. Then, out of nowhere, a light appears at the end of the tunnel and suddenly things take shape. The place was looking less like a building site and more like a restaurant with each passing hour now. Kitchen equipment was delivered, including the heaviest fridge in France! A certain wall needed to have been completely tiled so’s the fridge could be placed, and the pressure was mounting. It took four of us to lift in the fridge, and turn it around in a pretty confined space, but it was managed with good humour and no feet were broken! The oven was delivered, along with another two fridges. Steve and his brother made numerous trips back to his parent’s place to bring all the necessary cooking implements from out of storage at their garage under the house! Food and drink was delivered, or collected. The beer pumps were working, the under-counter chillers too, and it looked like the deadline would be met! There were one or two things that, with the constraints of time, just couldn’t be realised – one wall remains untiled, and the barn floor too. Other much smaller things, possibly unnoticed by punters, but glaringly obvious to us, will need sorting as time allows. The wall lights unfortunately weren’t able to be completed – missing an electrical switch, and all the Brico stores were closed! Then, just as things were progressing smoothly – yet another catastrophe! The girl meant to be serving in Hannah’s stead called to say that she’d decided not to, that she’d found something else! Just a day or so before opening night! So then the race was on to find a replacement! One was found, but couldn’t start until New Year’s day. Steve’s brother, Kevin and his girlfriend Gwendoline graciously offered to forego their own meal in order to serve! Offer gratefully accepted. So. Paint dried, curtains were hung, tables and chairs cleaned of dust and paint, and tables were decorated! Pictures were hung on the bare cream walls, and a stereo appeared, perched on a table. We borrowed tapes of classical music from Sheila et voila – an ambiance slowly but surely rose from the ashes of ‘le Diamante’, and l’Oeil de Boeuf was born. We were literally still ‘dressing’ the place as guests arrived for the opening night – New Year’s Eve, or Réveillon as they call it here in France. We were among the first to arrive, so thankfully no-one really noticed us surreptitiously placing lamps, or decorations here and there! Steve had been preparing, and cooking for a while and the smells coming from the kitchen were just lovely. Everyone who’d booked were true to their word and turned up, even though no deposits had been taken. Even the couple that own the local chateau turned up, took their places on the table next to us and appeared to have a great time! Hannah worked the bar, creating the house cocktails to go with the amuse bouches served first of all. She ‘meeted’ & greeted, accepted compliments about the place, and passed the time taking coats, and explaining how she’d broken her foot! Kevin & Gwendoline did a fantastic job serving drinks and cocktails, and the evening came alive. Food started to appear from the kitchen, bottles of wine were ordered and the general hubbub rose over the volume of the stereo, and Beethoven’s piano concerto faded into the background, replaced by the voices, laughter and shared experience of a lovely evening. I know I may be biased, my daughter being the co-owner and all that, but I think this place will do really, really well. Steve’s a good cook. He knows what he’s doing, and Hannah’s a great waitress and perfect for FOH! Hopefully, many of you reading this will get the chance to sample their fare when you visit us, or even the area. Please do put it on your list – give it a try and help support a rare venture. Two youngsters with a dream, and the guts to realise it! You won’t be disappointed!

All dressed up.

All dressed up, with somewhere to go! l'Oeil de boeuf!

Until the next time, au revoir!

TBC

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2010

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The first time I met Bernard was round at my mate John’s place. He was there just on the off-chance that a bottle of decent red had been opened. Not much chance of that because John & Mary only drink rubbish…they’re from Bratferd y’see? Anyway, there was indeed a splash or two of passable vin rouge being drunk and I’d just called in to see how they were getting on with a couple of guests we’d sent their way for B&B as we were full. The two English guests were decidedly confused with the level of (loud) French being spoken by John, Mary, Bernard & myself. Bernard becomes very animated when drawn on a subject he knows lots about. Bernard is very knowledgeable about many things – hunting (naturally), local places (naturally), wine (naturally) food (naturally) and many, many other things (er, naturally). He used to be a stonemason, and a pretty good one by all accounts (naturally). I’ve seen the evidence of his work a few times and I have to say I’m extremely impressed. But, on this particular evening we were chatting about hunting. That’s Bernard’s passion in life. His home is one big trophy room with many species of stuffed animal both large and small decorating the walls and shelves wherever you look. The two English guests were fed a translation of the discussion and I knew that one of them owned a local property with a lake attached. The guy in question was stocking the lake with good quality fish and wanted measures in place to ‘detract’ the local heron population from abusing the hospitality of the English lake owners by eating the new arrivals! So, I offered Bernard’s services as their very own gamekeeper! Bernard was thrilled with the prospect of a new place to shoot and after the necessary permissions were set down in black & white, we drank to the success of the venture! (Naturally!)

Quite a few months later, and Bernard and his wife Mauricette, have become regular visitors here at Le Chant d’Oiseau, often bringing large wooden crates stuffed full of the most delicious tasting home-grown produce from their potager, a huge expanse of land behind their home given over to growing all sorts of market garden produce, and very good it is too. They take no money for their stuff, but we sit down instead, have a chat and drink some wine. We often dish up the contents of the gifts from Bernard among our guests.

The first time Bernard & Mauricette came bearing gifts was to present us with the very first duck shot on his new playground! It was beautifully presented fresh for the oven. We accepted this gorgeous gift with saliva glands on overtime. A few days later, while Syb & I were on our way back from an outing, we asked Niall (by telephone) to pop it into the oven for tea. When we arrived home the smell of freshly cooked duck emanating from the farmhouse was delicious! I carved and portioned it out. Niall declined, insisting he wasn’t that hungry. Now, that’s akin to asking what religion the Pope is, or where bears go to the toilet… Niall is ALWAYS hungry. He used to eat for England until we swopped shirts at half-time. He can now eat for France! His appetite is legendary among those that know us well. The lad can’t take a 5 minute car journey to the supermarket without taking along a snack for the journey! he’s always been the same, ever since he was small. He’s no longer small, he’s HUGE, which brings us back to the duck. After reminding him a few more times of the reputation as France’s answer to Desperate Dan, he finally came clean. He couldn’t eat it, as he’d seen the bullet hole when he put the duck in the oven! Bless! So, due homage was paid to Bernard, and his skill with his fusil, and we toasted the poor birds demise with a bottle of red. A fit and proper send off we thought.

We’ve made some good friends here. Both French & English. All of our near neighbours are French, and they’ve been nothing short of welcoming with us. We’ve already told you about the invitation last Easter round at Gérard & Sylviane’s? We’ve also made friends with David Chevallier, the vigneron (very handy, knowing a vigneron) and his brother, Pascal the roofer (not quite as handy as we drink more wine than we build roofs, but still handy all the same…). Nelly et Bruno from the village boulangerie also. They’re lovely, and we’ve looked forward to their visits each morning with the daily delivery of fresh bread. Not just because their bread and pastries are fantastic, but also because they have a real zest for life, they’re what we call ‘Super Sympa’ too. They like the English, especially those that make an effort to chat and build a life here, the same as they do. There’s a few characters that we’ve become friends with in the local bar too. Alain and his wife took over from Miriam at the Café de la Poste after she sold up. The name had to be changed of course as the Post Office moved to the other end of the village, and the old one’s now the creperie. Keep up….the post office isn’t a post office anymore, it’s a restaurant and they’re tired of being asked by little old ladies how much a parcel to Marcel will cost. So, the Café de la Poste is now ‘Le Manureva’. Alain has come to know John & I quite well, as we spend a bit of time in there lately, after working on some project or other. They have opened up a little restaurant to the rear and it’s brilliant! Alain is the most genial bar owner I’ve ever met, and we often can’t get away from the place because he’s insisting on buying another drink for us. I haven’t a clue how he manages to earn a living, because he loses count after a few beers…
I took my Dad, my eldest son and my two brothers in law there a few weeks back and they were stunned! Because Alain was very chatty (although they understood little), and because he kept sending his little son out with plates full of goodies for us. My family couldn’t believe this sort of kindness, so Alain & I explained ‘C’est normale’. When he bought us all a drink after we’d spent quite a few euro with him, my poor old Dad was almost moved to tears! He’d never been bought a pint by a landlord in the Uk in all his years of drinking!

The village has certainly been brought back to life since we’ve been here. The creperie, Alain’s bar, Nathalie & Gilles taking over the small village store have all helped. Even ‘Rocky’ at Le Bar Centrale has smartened up his act and has opened up a small ‘Bistro’ in the back room of his bar. We’re building up to trying it out one of these days. Rocky isn’t really his name, it’s just what we’ve christened him since we heard he was a rock star in a previous life! He’s taken on the role of village entertainments officer where live music’s concerned and he seems to know his stuff! It’s a strange little bar though, and Rocky’s usually to be found asleep in the back. We’ve had to wake him up to be served before. It’s still a fairly friendly place for a beer, even though he & his wife (we think, though no evidence of a ring) seem to be completely bemused by the English, but don’t mind pouring the 1664! There used to be a fairly large restaurant at the end of the village, opposite Rocky’s place called Le Cheval Blanc. It closed down shortly before we came here in August 2005. The good news is though that it’s now up for sale, hopefully with a view to turning it back into a working restaurant/bar again. There’s always room for one more eaterie, after all – this IS France!

Until next time,

Au Revoir.

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2007

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