In Britain Chris Lacey and Jane Marks worked an exhausting 70-hour week. Owners of Café Clemence, a restaurant in Lyme Regis, Dorset, Chris was head chef while Jane was maitre d’, running a staff of six. A popular restaurant, in summer Chris cooked dishes such as baked seabass with fresh basil and white wine and creamy crème brulee for up to 120 people a day. Winter was quieter but they still went through at least six gallons of soup a week.
Despite working almost every weekend and having just one afternoon off a week, Chris and Jane both loved what they did. Chris is a self-taught cook who likes nothing better than being in a kitchen. ‘And the adrenalin rush of a Saturday night that is going well is fantastic,’ says Jane. ‘You have a full restaurant, with people telling you how much they’re enjoying themselves. It is very rewarding.’
But as the years went by, the pace and physically demanding nature of their work began to exhaust them. The crunch came three years ago when Chris started to approach his 60th birthday. ‘I didn’t want to spend more hours in the kitchen than years I had left,’ he says. Jane’s blood pressure was also hitting a dangerous level, so the couple decided it was time to fulfil a long-held dream – to live in France.
‘We’d come to the country four or five times a year to buy wine for the restaurant,’ explains Chris. ‘And we loved it. The slower pace of life, the richness of the French wine and food, and we always liked the people. We used to talk about living here all the time. It was always matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.’
Restaurants being notoriously tricky to sell, the couple put Café Clemence on the market in 2003 and over the next months toured different regions of France on the look-out for their ideal location. At first they also thought about running an auberge with accommodation on the side. ‘But we decided that was like going from the frying pan into the fire,’ says Jane. That idea ditched they decided to concentrate on finding a home.
One morning in autumn 2004, on their penultimate day of a holiday with friends in the Charente, they took a tour with an estate agent. By lunchtime they had bought a ‘charming’ house by a river for €45,000.
Two months later, just days before Christmas, they left Lyme Regis for France. The restaurant had been sold but they were yet to complete on their new home, so they rented a village cottage from English friends. They are still there today. ‘Once we arrived we decided the house we’d bought was too small so we sold it on and have now bought another house that we are currently doing up,’ says Chris, 62. Having savings, plus a pension about to kick in, the couple plan to do some light property developing to top up their spending money.
Today Chris and Jane are thoroughly enjoying their new life although they admit they found the change of pace a bit of a challenge at first. ‘We’ve had to learn how to relax after a life of pressure,’ says Jane, 57. In the beginning, Saturday nights would find them wondering about what they would be doing if they were still in the restaurant.
It didn’t help that the winter of 04/05 was a cold one. ‘It was -15 degrees celcius, the village was a ghost town and we didn’t know anyone,’ says Jane. ‘There is a real danger of being isolated and lonely because you don’t have the social contacts and life that you are used to. To be honest, it’s only in the last six months, since we’ve enlarged our circle of French friends, that we’ve developed an active social life.’
The couple have two French lessons a week, and many a night will find them practicing their new found linguistic skills in the local bar, although this has been easier for Chris than for Jane. ‘It is mainly men at the bar so it’s hard for me to just start chatting to someone I don’t know,’ she says. ‘But I have got to know Joelle, one of the bar owners, and we’ve gone shopping together.’ Adds Chris: ‘Being part of a community doesn’t just come to you – you have to work at it, so we get involved in any village activity that’s going.’
Jane has created a formidable vegetable garden and she regularly makes a present of her produce to the local restaurant. ‘When we go to eat there is always a free bottle of wine on the table,’ she says.
The veggie for wine swap is just one of their many ways of fitting in. For a rugby game between France and England, Chris made pate for the bar spectators to eat, and he regularly makes jams and chutneys for neighbours and French friends. He admits the French were initially hesitant about British cooking. ‘But once they have tasted the food, they really like it,’ says Chris. ‘They thought my onion chutney was bizarre at first but now they ask me for it They still find potatoes with mint strange, though!’
The couple’s openness has been rewarded with genuine friendship, and not long ago the couple were invited to Joelle’s raucous birthday party. ‘There were 140 guests, adults and children of all ages, all singing songs,’ says Chris. ‘That is another thing we love about France – in the UK we have lost the sense of family whereas here is it very important.’
Of course, Chris is in food heaven. His kitchen is a typical French one as he makes his own stocks and sauces. ‘I have always loved French food and here I can cook with local, seasonal food,’ he says. ‘It’s fresh and full of flavour, and the quality is excellent.’
With this first issue of Enjoying Life in France, Chris begins a regular series of recipes for Frenchentree.com – each month he will use a seasonal ingredient to create a dish that is fast and simple, and for another that is a little more time-consuming (see French Flavour of the Month). ‘They won’t be complicated or fussy, but they will taste good,’ he says. Bon Appetit!