The allure of the good life in France and the charms of the beautiful town of Beziers ensnared British expat writer Mark Binmore who runs the highly successful Maison de l’Orb, a beautiful B&B…
After living in London since the early 1990s and working as a pub landlord for several breweries, we asked Mark – what is it that appealed so much to make both he and [partner Ben give up their successful and busy London lives for such a big change?
I guess it was wanting to so something different and not reaching an older age and saying “I wish I had done that when I was younger”. I loved living in London but felt the city was changing so we thought let’s rent out our houses and move abroad. It was actually that simple. We considered Gran Canaria but as we had friends living in France we chose here. It took about two years from thinking about things to actually moving boxes and crates into the house.
What was the house like when you bought it? What did you have to do to get it to the stage it is now?
The house I felt had a lot soul but lacked a touch of love. It took two years to remove dodgy carpets, unforgiving wallpaper and re-wire, re-plumb the whole house. The top floor was one huge apartment, unused and unloved so that became the five ensuite bedrooms we have now. The second floor apartment was a set of disused rooms which have now become our dining and lounge areas. Our quarters which are on two floors had a tiny kitchen you couldn’t swing a cat in but great potential. I guess we saw beyond the yellow walls and flock carpets.
The garden though was the selling point. You step outside to a view of the river and two bridges and then you realise this is what you are paying for. There is the old lavorie outside which we have started to convert into a summer kitchen, bar and function room. We still have the cellars and a huge dance studio to convert yet. It all takes time, patience and thinking.
What do you like best about where you live?
I love the fact we can be by the beach in about ten minutes or on the ski slops in two hours. Spain is an hour away by car and Italy about four hours in the other direction. Within ten minutes you are in real Languedoc country with tiny villages, quaint bars and cafes and total relaxation. But with Beziers you have the “city” feel without the crowds. There are shops, departments stores, a theatre, concert halls etc., so you have the best of both worlds. There’s always something on going.
Do you miss anything from your old life?
Not really. Friends I guess. I sometimes get a craving for something British and ridiculous like Roses Chocolates and the funny thing is I never bought them in thirty odd years of living in the UK. I do though sometimes miss Marks and Spencer and the normality of the utility companies! There is a lot more red tape here in France than people think. We are only an hour or so from London by air and many friends have popped over for long weekend and we always keep in touch through tweets and pokes on Facebook.
What top tips would you have for anyone reading this and thinking of giving it all up and running off to France to run a gite or chambre d’hote?!
Do your research. Many people think setting up and running a B & B is easy. It can be, but you have to get it right. I always say the three Bs help, a good bed, a good bathroom and a good breakfast. Although I come from a family who have owned and managed hotels and pubs, I still wanted to know what the competition was so before we opened, I took myself off for a few weeks and stayed at several local hotels, guest houses etc. to see what was on offer, and then decided we would be completely different!
You also have to realise that you can’t just simply open as a business and expect people to book; you have to do your homework, your own administration and publicity and get out there and tell people what you offer. There is of course the language barrier. People expect the French to speak English but by the large they don’t. You however, are expected to learn the language which is only fair if you are living in another country. I would also suggest involving yourself with your neighbours, local associations and not just ex-pats. We didn’t move to Beziers to become involved with coffee mornings with the English!
What is unique about Maison De L’Orb? Why do guests love it so much?
The location is one thing. It’s not “centre ville” but by the river so the views are lovely. It’s small- being only five bedrooms, so a bit more intimate than other establishments but at the same time we realise people are usually here to unwind, to relax so it’s less intrusive. There is of course the fantastic breakfast we offer which unlike some other places is included in price and is not just one pastry and one cup of café. We also have a library of books, a garden, a pool, but really, looking at our reviews many say the same thing, great hosts, lovely house, quiet, clean, great food, we now do a great four course evening dinner, and vintage heaven. The dining room especially is full of bits and bobs and something for people to look at. Guests are returning so we must be doing something right! (Ed’s note – see Mark’s recipe for slow roasted chicken and infused tea to see why guests love the Maison de l’Orb cooking).
Any fun anecdotes about guests – famous, unusual or downright weird that you can share?
We have been lucky to have many wonderful, funny, friendly guests. There have been the “odd” one or two who don’t fit into that bracket but when you work in hospitality you have to realise you cannot and will not please everyone. I like to give each guest a fun nickname. The guests love it, it’s not a malicious thing and I know this goes on elsewhere and we usually tell them what their name is, so far no one has been offended and I am sure this works both ways! We named one lady Dusty Springfield, as she was sporting a massive beehive and black eye shadow. We actually found out later she was indeed a Dusty tribute act. Another was called the Queen Mum as she spent three days in the garden ordering large gins. One guest we affectionately named Liza Minnelli. I mean, she was Liza, from the mannerism to the laugh, everything. One morning at breakfast she was wearing a fantastic t shirt which just said “I AM New York”. Her husband was named the Asian Frank Sinatra and we are looking forward to their return in August. She actually left me her t shirt and we tweet each other– amazing woman. Some guests also leave things behind, the most memorable (and laughable) was a set of teeth and it took two weeks for the said guest to email me saying “I think I left my teeth in the bedroom”. As for a few celebrity guests, well, perhaps future guests may care to read our guest book, my lips are sealed!
What do you do in your time off?
J’adore Paris. It’s a city where I can lose myself and think. It’s where I escape to my small Parisian private studio where I can write without being disturbed. I love the unwritten law in Paris whereby people sit at cafes wanting to be noticed by people walking past and equally those walking by want to be noticed by those sitting down. One of my favourite haunts is Coutume Café 7, Rue de Babylone, Siphon coffee and Patisserie des Reves pastries are all on the menu at this chic little coffee shop with an Anglo-American feel. Verjus Wine Bar 47, rue Montpensier where they serve fabulous buttermilk fried chicken and celery root dumplings. I love to walk around G.Detou 58, Rue Tiquetonne, a shop which is a treasure trove of ingredients with everything you can imagine from foie gras to 10k bags of chocolate. And for my daily fix of bread, head to Pain de Sucre 14, rue Rambuteau, part of the new breed of boutique patisserie in Paris – Pain de Sucre sells macarons and elaborate reinvented classic pastries!
If you could meet any character from French history (real or fictional) who would it be and what would you cook for them?
I’ve just finished reading Flames in the Field by Rita Kramer about the exploits of four SOE women who were parachuted into France during WW11 and were sadly caught and executed. Any of these four strong women would be welcome around my table just to thank them for their bravery. It may sound a cliché but what they did was brave and they paid with their lives for it – they should not be forgotten. For a touch of glamour and sophistication, the actress Capucine would also be very welcome and the actor Vincent Cassel, for some eye candy. Perhaps starting with a light green salad with lardons, walnuts and field mushrooms drizzled with my own ten year old garlic oil, then move on to my lovely lemon chicken dish or maybe a beef tagine with apricots, a cheeseboard for the interval and something chocolate and gorgeous to complete. Café, digestifs and cigarettes to finish in the garden.
Mark Binmore, Maison de l’Orb, Beziers, France