TO KNOW | LA RAMONETA OF THE MONTH
Every month, we introduce you to an interesting woman living in Languedoc. Curious as we are, we like to find out why they are living in this beautiful region, what they do for a living and some of their Languedoc favourites. This month we would like you to meet Petra Carter from Le Pistou Cooking School as Ramoneta of the Month. (P.s. All pictures included are from Petra herself).
Brought up in Baarn in the Netherlands, I left for Paris at the age of 16 to study French Literature and Psychology. I tried settling down back in Amsterdam for a year or two, but the big wide world beckoned… And besides, who could refuse an offer of running a tented safari camp (1) at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro?
In no time I spoke Swahili, was taught how to use CB radios and fix Landrovers, generators and paraffin-run fridges. I learned the names of all East African animals and birds in four languages and was taught how to spot them from a distance and their behaviour patterns. I looked after guests of all nationalities and started making changes in the kitchen (where they still boiled the bejaysus out of superb pieces of meat!). Life was one big adventure in one of the most beautiful places on earth. It wasn’t always without danger though. For example, when my Landrover broke down at dusk, I had to walk back in the dark, sharing my path with hyenas and snakes. Or when a rhino attacked my car. Everything I learned there was about how to survive. And it taught me practical skills I was to use for the rest of my life.
I married a bush pilot in Kenya and when we expected our first child, we decided to move back to Ireland – which brought new learning opportunities. I trained as a chef and worked both in restaurants and privately for the rich and famous. Then I turned to food-writing during my last 20 years there – at the same time returning to college to do a degree in Fine Art.
But with the kids in university, I became restless again: I needed a change, a new environment. My plan was to buy a large rambling house in the sun, from where I would run food- and art-weeks.
First time in the region
After searching for a suitable property in Catalunya, Spain, for many years, I joined friends, who also wanted to leave Ireland. We crossed the border to have a look in France where houses were much better value in the early 2000s.
We were surprised to see that most people lived behind closed shutters during the summer – obviously to avert the glare of the sun and therefore to avoid overheating – but why would I leave Dublin to live in semi-darkness?
Settling in Languedoc
Not so easy to find a north-facing house anywhere in the northern hemisphere. But I hit upon a find – an old ruin of a 4-story house with 13 north- and 7 south-facing windows in a small village called Mirepeisset, near Narbonne. I moved lock, stock and barrel in 2003 and commenced the renovations; you can read my renovation story here. I started with the roof, then the rooms on the first and second floors, and finally the painting studio on the top floor and the teaching kitchen/breakfast room in the basement. Living quarters and rooms were planned northside, bathrooms and utility rooms south. So I had it my way in the end, and never had to close a shutter against the sun’s glare!
Running a B&B
But it all cost so much more than I had foreseen. Not least because of an unanticipated and time-consuming, environmentally-friendly termite treatment. By the time the renovations were finished, I had spent a colossal amount. Although, thanks to my financial advisor back in Dublin, there was no reason to panic yet. He had insisted on me factoring in 3-years of living expenses in case of set-backs. However, I did realise that with my savings spent, those foodie and art weeks would not pay the bills. I had to reinvent myself yet again… I scoured the vide-greniers to create a pretty, shabby-chic ambience and opened a B&B (2) ‘with a foodie and artistic edge’.
It worked – within two years my B&B was one of the top destinations near the Canal du Midi. I enjoyed meeting and looking after people – the only problem was, there was no time left for moi. My breakfasts were obviously not just coffee and a croissant. There were bread-and-butter puddings made with yesterday’s leftover croissants; there were homemade preserves served with yoghurt, and sweet and savoury tarts, homemade pastries and platters of charcuterie and cheeses. And while guests were eating, I advised them about the best places to visit in the region. Our breakfasts lasted until midday. Meanwhile, the rooms needed changing; bathrooms needed cleaning; sheets and towels had to be washed and hung out to dry, then ironed. By the time I was finished, it was time to welcome the new guests. I would eventually fall into bed exhausted only to restart all over again at 6 am.
Moving to Uzès
Once I realised that running a B&B was too much for one person, I thought about an alternative. It had to be a cooking school without accommodation in a place with a foodie reputation… So this is how I wound up in Uzès (3) – the medieval market town with Roman roots, and twice-weekly food markets and passionate local artisan producers.
I first bought an apartment overlooking the very sought-after Place aux Herbes, then set about finding a location for the school. Again, I chose premises that needed complete restoration. But with beautiful architecture that often dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, it was all very exciting.
Living in the South of France
The best part of living in the South of France is the sunshine of course, great friends with similar interests and a never-ending array of beautiful places to discover. And of course the opportunity to do a job that remains a passion. But I also love the winters which allow a slower pace, reflection and time for art.
Le Pistou Cooking School (4) is located in a small, 17th-century house with ancient vaulted ceilings, just around the corner from the Tourist Information Office. We designed the ground floor to accommodate the cooking school and upstairs, a small apartment where I could live during the summer while I’d rent out my apartment.
As I work mostly with tourists who want to learn all about local cuisine (5), Provençal and Classic French Bistro classes form the core of my repertoire. But recently, to my utter delight, I’ve tapped into another source of potential clients: a local, English-speaking population that, like me, wants to occasionally eat and cook foods from different parts of the world. Food that is generally not easy to find in the Languedoc – like Iranian/Lebanese, Indian, North-African, Indonesian, Mexican etc. In the last few months, I have filled 7 or 8 classes alone on the vibrant food from the Middle East, and it was all done by word-of-mouth! Above all, it not only provides a welcome change in diversity, but they give focus to the quieter winter months – both for the locals as well as me. A huge amount of research and testing goes into these courses, but that is exactly what I love about cooking. And obviously, there is never a problem finding Guinea pigs to try out the dishes!
Setting up business in France
The number one requirement is to speak the language – it makes daily life not only less frustrating, but so much more fun. It’s invaluable to be able to talk to builders and planning authorities, notaries and medics, and deal with French officialdom in general. And it’s an essential tool in integrating and make friends – which is after all, the most important part of living in a foreign country.
Second tip is to thoroughly research the marketing potential of your business idea. Your project must offer something original to attract attention if you want it to succeed. If it doesn’t propose something novel or ingenious, then it must bring an expertise and/or quality that cannot be found in competing businesses.
Always be flexible, resourceful and open to new ideas. It’s essential to be able to adapt and revise as your project develops. Getting stuck on one single idea stagnates plans and hampers progress.
Grant yourself a comfortable 2-3 years of revenue while you’re setting up your business, and allow 20% more money than you think it’s going to cost. Set-backs happen, and projects always take longer and cost more money than planned initially.
Living the French Dream
It’s all very well to have a dream, but dreams are often unrealistic. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and like to plan things meticulously. But I’m also a pragmatist, and for me it all depends on the possibilities and realities of market. Having said this, I consider myself very fortunate to have had both the time and the finances to research and establish businesses.
As for farms… I’ve never owned or worked on one, but I’ve always been interested in self-sufficiency. Today, with climate changes, I think it’s even more important to adapt to conditions and circumstances for survival. Maybe something for the future… I would begin by exploring subjects like perma-culture and plants that are adapted to less water and hotter climes. There’s an amazing guy called Pascal Poot who, by necessity, has been experimenting with growing vegetables without fertilisers or water. I’ve been following him for years, and he lives in Olmet-et-Villecun near Lodeve, he’s an inspiration.
Best Languedoc wine
Too many to mention. Besides, I like to try new wines all the time. Reliable but affordable favourites remain Terrasses du Larzac, La Clape, Larzac, Pic Saint-Loup, and many small producers of Minervois.
Perfect day out in Languedoc
My perfect Sundays consist of visiting a vide-greniers or an art exhibition with a friend. Or perhaps a walk in the garrigue or on the beach… Then we’d try out a new recommended restaurant for lunch and then a siesta afterwards. Simple, relaxing and always enjoyable.