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 Terri Andon from Mas de Villetelle as Ramoneta of the Month. (P.s. All pictures included are from Terri herself).
I was born in London, studied in the Midlands and moved to a small hamlet near Bath with my first husband in 1976. There, we renovated a derelict wooden bungalow from the ’20s and had our four children in an idyllic rural environment. After my husband and I separated, I taught in local village schools for a while. And then eventually co-founded a Waldorf school near Bradford-on-Avon.
A few years later, I moved to Provence with a friend and her two daughters. After only a few weeks, it was obvious that it wasn’t going to work. So I climbed into the car with my youngest daughter and all of our possessions. We spent a blissful summer camping. After which, we decided to rent a house in Puéchabon, a village I knew, in an area I loved.
I started teaching English and doing illustrations for my future husband, Bernard. For his design and communication agency, I worked on publications for CIRAD and United Nations organisations as well as other interesting NGOs. After two and a half years in France, I decided to move back to England and let my daughter finish her schooling there. However, shortly before leaving, I started going out with Bernard. A very romantic year followed, with the two of us meeting up in different countries all over Europe. Until I moved back to France again with my daughter, so that we could all live together. That was 19 years ago.
First time in the region
My first husband, our four children and I had always been camping in Cornwall, under the rain, with wellies and warm clothes. So, the following year, for a change, we visited some friends from Bath who had moved to Puéchabon a few years before. We camped near Lodève, and I couldn’t believe how relaxing it was to have the children wearing next to nothing. They loved finding crickets, salamanders and cicadas and swimming in rivers. I loved the pungent scents of the garrigue, the sound of the cicadas, the bright skies and sunshine. It was completely different to England, even though we lived in the West Country, a beautiful area which we loved.
Settling in Languedoc
I decided to sell my house near Bath and bought part of an old mas called Villetelle (1) with nearly two hectares near Gignac. We renovated what had been a small barn for animals. It had a dirt floor and you could see daylight through the gaps in the walls. It had no water or electricity. But we weren’t deterred and installed solar panels and a system so we could have water delivered from the village.
During the renovations, we rented a flat in an old mansion house in the Ecusson in Montpellier. We spent our weekends and holidays at Villetelle. A few years later there was a fire, which spread to our land. It destroyed lots of trees and left it looking very desolate. However, I’d always dreamt of planting a field of lavender, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. We decided to go for it. We cut down the burnt trees, dug up the roots, cleared the land, ploughed and planted it.
This was when we decided to move to Villetelle full time. Although we had the best of both worlds, it was hard to find the time to invest fully in Villetelle when working at the university in Montpellier and living a city life. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which hat I was meant to be wearing, teacher or farmer!
To our delight, everything grew wonderfully, so the following year we planted the second field. It sounds simple- planting a field of lavender. But planting each tiny delicate plant by hand and then watering them, using watering cans with river water poured into dustbins, was so labour intensive. Especially with several thousand plants! Sometimes I would think “What are we doing?!”. But then I would look up at the Rocher des Vierges and the setting sun, realising exactly what we were doing: living a crazy beautiful dream.
When I came to live in France, I wanted to be more in touch with nature and to live outside more. Here I was doing exactly that!
Living in the South of France
I felt a real affinity with this area, and I still do. I love to be outside surrounded by nature. Here we have the rivers, the mountains, the sea and huge wild areas of garrigue all very close to each other. This feeds my soul and is as necessary to my well being as the food I eat. One year, leaving after a camping trip with my children, I vowed that I would come back and live here. A few years later, I did!
We are certified organic and have two fields of aromatic plants. We have also planted an orchard of persimmon trees which we plan to dehydrate in the solar dehydrator (2) that Bernard built. On top of that, we have beehives on our land and in the Cevennes. We do most work by hand and are very grateful to have the help of WOOFERs (young people who help on organic farms) with the harvest and other tasks. We cut the lavender with sickles, one of the oldest tools ever used by farmers, and dry it in the sun before taking it to distil near Causse de Selle. At the moment we distil the Lavandin Grosso, Helichrysum and Lavande Maillette.
From the essential oil, we make a lovely lavender room spray. This spray can be used in the bathroom, bedroom, even on your body; it’s our most popular product. As well as floral waters and the essential oils, we create cold process soaps (3) and lip balm based on our lavender oil and beeswax. I’m developing some great beeswax food wraps, which will be on sale soon. I love the local ceramics in this area and have commissioned a local potter to make essential oil diffusers to use with the lavender oil.
Each year, when the lavender is at its peak, we have a lavender festival where people can come and enjoy the scents and beauty of the lavender fields. We serve homemade refreshments including lavender cookies, lavender and lemon cordial and vegan lavender ‘cheesecake’.
I’ve never used chemicals when gardening and never would. The basis of organic farming is to work with nature, not against it. We have to observe and learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s always a balance to see what to keep wild on the land and what to trim and clear. I think the more I work with the land, the more I realise how the wild and the tame can live in harmony but need to be tended to with sensitivity. When we harvest the lavender, we come upon such a rich diversity of insect life. Praying mantis, brightly coloured spiders, butterflies and carpenter bees all living alongside. These insects are not threatening our crop, but playing their role in the ecosystem.
Our drying building, which is also for extracting honey and bottling oils, is built out of Douglas pine. This type of wood doesn’t need to be treated against insects, which makes it a clean and beautiful material.
I believe that if you have a heart connection with the land, you wouldn’t dream of poisoning it.
The French dream
Setting up a business in France is hard work, challenging and brings enormous satisfaction. When people rent our gîte, we explain to them that it really is ‘off-grid’ and they need to be careful with how they use water and electricity. As a result, we usually have lovely guests who are environmentally aware. We have met some delightful people who often come back. Including young families who want to know how much water they’ve used during the week. They take it as a challenge and an education!
We let the house from Easter to September. During that time, we live on the land, sleeping in a treehouse and cooking in an outside kitchen, both built by my amazing Robinson Crusoe husband, Bernard. Sometimes tenants ask how much we let the treehouse for, but that is our special little haven and not to rent!
Someone said to me recently “You must be so chilled working with lavender all the time”. The reality is that any farming is hard physical work and is at the mercy of the Gods – drought, heatwaves etc. This year we had half the amount of lavender oil as last year and NO lavender honey. Although the poor bees tired themselves out visiting the lavender searching for nectar that wasn’t there due to the extreme weather. We are learning to be philosophical and accept things we can’t control.
One week after our ‘Fête de la Lavande’ this year, we hosted 100 guests for a meal in the lavender field the day after my son’s wedding. A good friend, my daughters and I cooked the meal. I saw everyone delighted, watching the sunset, eating local organic food made with love, and my heart swelled. I realised this is why we’re doing what we’re doing – to create something beautiful and to share it.
Best Languedoc wine
In summer the Domaine de Pelican, our neighbours, host ‘Les Lundis Vignerons’. This is a convivial, relaxed evening, where you can taste local wines and sample Isabelle’s delicious cooking. There are more and more organic and natural wines being produced. My favourite is Clos de l’Aven from Fabrice in Montpeyroux. He has a small vineyard which he tends with so much love and attention and his wines are outstanding.
A new restaurant opened this year in Aniane called Souka (4). They use all local producers, mostly organic and have a very interesting approach. The ‘menu’ is a list of ingredients they have and where they are from (all local and therefore seasonal). They ask you if there is anything you don’t eat and then they surprise you. Definitely worth a visit!
Perfect day out in the Languedoc
A picnic with friends and family at the Sitting King river beach about 3 km above Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Swimming, watching the sunset over the water and drinking local wines in good company. What more do you need? Traditionally that’s what I always do for my birthday on 5th September.