In my last blog I described how in, May 2011, the MDM (Maître de Maison) and I moved from big city Toulouse to a four-house hamlet in rural Tarn, where a nightingale inspired us to turn a wasteland into a Mediterranean paradise. In October the same year, we found more garden inspiration during a stay at a B and B not far away: Cuq en Terrasses, in the village of Cuq Toulza.
We picked up lots of brilliant ideas for plants and landscaping while we were there but apart from horticultural enrichment the whole experience was so special we vowed to return as soon as possible.
Ten years later, in August 2021, we finally made it! It was everything we remembered, and more…..
Below is the story of that first visit to Cuq, taken from my current Work In Progress, From Nettles to Nightingales, The Story of a French Garden.
CHAPTER 5 October 2011
After a summer of intensive DIY, the MDM was still having problems with his swollen knee. In October he had an appointment with a specialist.
‘Do you want me to come with you?’ I asked.
I was just back from a trip to Yorkshire, feeling a bit tired after a 6 a.m. Ryanair flight.
‘No, no, you stay here, it’s just a consultation to see about treatment options’ (he’d been having massages) ‘he’ll probably prescribe more X-rays or something.’
Off he went, whistling.
He returned with a very pale face and a very thin knee.
The Doc had told him ‘It’s an ‘épanchement de synovie’, stop all massages’ before whipping out a giant horse-syringe, plunging it into the swollen joint and draining off several pints of brake-fluid. Before the stunned patient could stagger up from the table, the Doc whipped out a second horse-syringe: ‘This,’ he said ‘is hyaluronic acid -magic!’ Plunge!
When the MDM got home, he said:
‘We need a holiday.’
We took a look on Trip Advisor to see if there was a ‘hôtel de charme’ not too far away where we could recuperate and forget about the nettles and brambles outside. There was; and that is how we found ourselves at Cuq en Terrasses, recent winner of the award for France’s best B and B.
When we arrived we understood why.
Perched on top of a steep hillside, with dramatic views across the open countryside (more vistas!), this former 18th C presbytery has 6 acres of gardens featuring 300 different species of plants and shrubs. The website invites guests ‘to sit and contemplate the serenity of nature and discover its scents.’ Perfect. We had packed the camera, hoping to get a few ideas for our own scents and serenity in the future Mediterranean paradise.
Situated at the rear of the hotel, the gardens spread out down a vertiginous slope, which made the slope at The Cowshed look like a molehill. They ‘may not be accessible to persons with limited mobility,’ warned the website. The MDM took one look and declared he’d be lounging on the sybaritic bed in our room with a book while I carried out botanical explorations. I made my way downwards towards an orchard and vegetable plot, along winding rustic paths with rest areas to the side, arbours shaded by grapevines, secluded benches for sunset-watchers and all around the resinous smell of pines.
Who was the perfect gardener in charge of this slice of heaven? In a conversation with Philippe, one of our hosts, I discovered the ‘jardinier’ was in fact a ‘jardinière’ – a lady with green fingers and an eye for beauty.
Gardens aside, the rest of our experience at Cuq was just what we needed thanks to the passion and commitment of the two owners, the afore-mentioned Philippe – the wine expert – and Andonis – the inspiration behind the delicious and creative meals based on fresh ingredients from their garden and local producers. As well as running the B and B, they’re closely involved with the local community and organize an annual festival of classical music in the village church. In spite of their busy schedule they were welcoming, relaxed and at the service of their guests (some of whom had a lot of questions…).
Indoors the ambiance was just as magical as outdoors. The five bedrooms and two appartments have been lovingly furnished and decorated so as to give each one a unique character and style. We fell instantly in love with the elegant drawing room, dotted with easy chairs and sofas, full of books, paintings and flower arrangements. It had a strangely English feel to it, reminiscent of those aristocratic country manors of the 1920s where the Bloomsbury set would gather for a weekend of literary conversation and mah jong. You could easily imagine Lady Ottoline Morell swanning through the doorway wearing a Turkish robe and an ostrich plume, followed by Noel Coward waving an ebony cigarette holder (though I’m not sure what either of them would have made of the impressive collection of ‘bandes dessinées’ -classic comic strip albums- in one of the bookcases…)
In warm weather, guests dine outside on the terrace with panoramic views across the hills and valley, but as this was the end of the season, dinner was served indoors. Enticing smells wafted from the kitchen as we entered the dining room, noticing on our way an unusual item of furniture, one of those ancient pianolas you see in black and white westerns, the sort that’s playing merrily in the background when the hero kicks open the saloon doors and makes an entrance. Just as we were finishing our dessert we got a Cuq-style variation on this wild west theme: the kitchen door was flung open and Andonis, whipping off his chef’s toque, strode across to the pianola and launched into an astonishing one-man Julie Andrews fest, belting out all the old favourites -A Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee, Doe a Deer et al- with tremendous gusto.
Needless to say, everyone was delighted.
The French have a word for it ‘dépaysement’ – a change of scene so radical it’s like a dose of pure oxygen. We returned to The Cowshed enchanted, refreshed, and with 150 inspirational photos.
August 9th 2021
As we approached the top of the steep hill of Cuq Toulza it seemed as though nothing had changed since our visit ten years previously, except that this time it was full summer and boiling hot . As the MDM was backing the elderly Clio into the shade of a tree, the engine cut out and obstinately refused to start again. It was then we discovered that our hosts, in spite of their growing fame (the restaurant is now open to the public and has a Michelin award for excellence), were still the same old charmers. Seeing what was happening, Andonis left his saucepans and came to help us push the car off the road.
We soothed our frazzled nerves by plunging into the aquamarine pool in its pine- scented gardens before whiling away the afternoon on sunbeds, lulled by the song of the crickets. We were looking forward to dining al fresco this time, as well as discovering new delights in the highly-acclaimed restaurant.
The setting is dreamlike: tables were laid along the terrace which runs along the back of the hotel then meanders into a little glade where a series of secluded dining areas were lit by flickering candles. It was a perfect ending to the day, one in which to enjoy those two eminently French notions – le temps de vivre – time to savour the moment, to let the eye travel down past the cascade of greenery and linger on the sunset -and l’art de vivre – to partake of beautifully cooked and presented dishes served in an atmosphere of harmony and conviviality.
Merci Philippe, Andonis and the team! We will be back, hopefully before 2031…
The photos I took that October of 2011 would inspire us when we stood in front of our mini slope in the spring of 2012, newly cleared and forbiddingly bare. Two hundred and fifty baby plants went into the earth and seven trees were planted in a couple of months, the first steps towards the realization of our dream.
Book news! Book news! Congratulations to Paulette Mahurin on the publication of her latest historical novel Over The Hedge. 25 five-star reviews already 😉 More than 70 years after ‘the dark curse of Hitler’, this is ‘a story that needs to be told…’ and needs to be read, lest we should forget.