Two years ago Andrew and Caroline Carver gave up their jobs in banking to open Le Vieux Chien Noir, a pub, restaurant and two-bedroom B&B in the village of Evran, Brittany. The forty-something couple bought a former bar and epicerie that had been closed for many years for €136,000 and spent another €80,000 on renovations. This is Caroline’s diary of a typical week.
Today, like most days, starts at 6.30am. We have guests in the B&B and they want breakfast at 8am so I have a couple of hours to get everything ready. It’s too dark to clean the place properly the night before – we have low lighting and at midnight the streetlights go off! – so before I do breakfast I have to sweep and mop. Although we have a drinks licence that ends at 1am (2am in the summer) we try and close up at about midnight otherwise we would really be burning the candle at both ends!
After breakfast I tidy the bedrooms and then it’s time to get ready for lunch. This involves re-stocking the bar, re-setting the tables (we have 34 inside and eight outside), writing up the menu blackboards and refreshing the buffet. Lunch ends at about 3pm and we get a couple of hours break before we have to start getting ready to open up again at 6pm – you’ll usually find us catching up on our sleep!
Andrew also gets going early – at this time of year he goes to the wholesalers in St Malo to stock up on provisions about three times a week. During the summer, though, it’s daily as we get through a huge amount of food – think 15 kilos of mussels a day. There is a port at St Malo so all the fish is fresh. Andrew has to be careful how he puts the fresh provisions in the car. They have to be packed with enough ice to keep them cold and there are spot inspections to make sure it’s done correctly. The health rules are very stringent. In the restaurant, we have four fridges – a different one for dairy, meat, fish and vegetables.
Beer is a lot easier! We get between 3-6 barrels a week delivered from a brewery in Rennes. It also has some English beers so we stock Strongbow and Beamish Red. The latter is most popular with our French customers, both men and women. Who’d have thought it?!
Usually our day off (although in July and August this year we worked seven days a week). This is the only time I have to think and do all those things I have forgotten to do, like send a birthday card or buy a present.
Then there’s the paperwork – the French do like their paperwork! It was quite difficult in the beginning because there was so much of it and it was quite complicated, but we got help from a local lady who is a translator. Now I can usually manage on my own. But there are forms for everything – this year we received some coasters from the local tourist office but that too meant filling out a detailed questionnaire. If we have the time, Andrew and I go out to lunch so we can be waited on for a change! I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t really like fish so it can be tricky to find a restaurant I can eat in. We have a couple of friends who have restaurants so we’ll often go to one of them so I can ask for a personal favourite, mushroom risotto!
Today two French couples, of about retirement age, came in for a drink but after watching a number of plates of fish n’ chips going past them decided to have some too. They really tucked in and enjoyed it.
We serve a mix of cuisine but with an English feel – Andrew cooks the fish n’ chips in a batter done with Beamish beer, and we also do a Sunday roast, plus Tex Mex and steaks done with tomatoes, onions, peas as well as fries. We also have a good vegetarian menu, of course!
About 70% of our clients are French, although during the summer tourist season we have a lot of Brits as well as people from Jersey and Guernsey. When we decided to do this we wondered how the French would feel but they’ve welcomed us with open arms. There are a couple of older people who won’t speak to us, but we’ve learned to ignore them.
As it’s the beginning of the month, it’s a busy Friday. The French unlike the British don’t live on credit so they only spend money when they have it. This means that at the end of the month or when it’s time for tax bills to be paid, it gets quieter. But the village still has three bars plus another place that is like us – and a population of just 1,500!
We’ve noticed that the British and French have different drinking habits too. The Brits will come out for the evening a buy half a pint of beer every 20 minutes or so. The French, though, will come for a shorter time, about an hour, and have just one drink in that time!
And while we’ll get British women coming in together or occasionally by themselves, that’s not the case with the French. Women will only come in as a couple or as part of a larger mixed party.
As usual our black Labrador, called Theakston after the beer, greets all our guests with a toy in his mouth! Despite his colour, we didn’t name the place after him. Some friends of ours had a dream that we had a place called the Old Black Dog so we simply translated this into French.
We show the football so Saturdays are often full of people watching the games. We have two TVs and once we had all the English watching an English premiership game in one corner, and in the other all the French watching a game in their league. It made for a very lively atmosphere!
I took a lot of French lessons before I arrived in France but I’m still learning. We have a Citroen car and early on I described it as a ‘citron’ that of course means lemon. I totally got the Mickey taken out of me for that, and I’m still teased about it! I have also made countless faux pas – asking for someone’s husband instead of his wife – but I don’t have a problem chatting. During the summer we have a local French girl into help. She speaks some English but wants to know more so I help her with her English and she teaches me French – she has taught me a lot of words you wouldn’t learn at school!
Evran has three football teams in different leagues and during the playing season, they come in for a drink every Sunday evening after their games. They are quite young, and don’t want to drink and drive so the most popular drink is a ‘diablo’ – a mix of lemonade and a syrup, often menthe. We like to get involved in the community as much as possible so we provide the ball for each of the three teams.
We’ve also held a lot of charity events, such as a quiz night and bingo, which are done in French and English. Bingo was quite easy because the French are familiar with it, but the quiz night was more difficult. We only got the French entries the night before which meant that some of the questions were a little difficult for them. They didn’t have a clue who Paul O’ Grady was, so I quietly went around giving them the answer! It’s all in the service!
Le Vieux Chien Noir; 02 96 27 44 58; www.levieuxchiennoir.com