Putting down roots
Preparing for the busy summer season at a Tarn-et-garonne B&B
Guests love homemade jams and the French view fait maison as a badge of honour to be worn with pride
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” wrote the poet Shelley. Spring comes early in south-west France. You notice the changes around Valentine’s Day. Trees depleted of their foliage over winter begin to bud giving an expanding green tinge to the wooded hills and valleys, the promise of a bigger transformation to come.
Temperatures begin to pick up as March progresses and as the trees bounce back to life; so does the birdsong that accompanies the return of colour to the countryside.
Here in St-antonin-noble-val, Valentine’s Day acts as a starting pistol setting off a frenzy of activity as shops, restaurants, cafés and B&BS throw open their windows and discard any winter blues in anticipation of another busy holiday season, welcoming visitors from all over the world to our idyllic little corner of la France profonde.
St-antonin’s weekly market (every Sunday of the year including Christmas Day) grows as stallholders return from their winter retreats and the first of the new season’s produce tempts shoppers from near and far.
The French show far more respect to the seasonality of fruit and veg than the British and early spring means the reappearance of asparagus, radishes, rhubarb, new potatoes and salad greens. Towards the middle of May, the sweetest of strawberries from Lot make a triumphant return which is great news for us jam makers.
Since moving to France and opening Maison Belmont we have been able to create our own version of The Good Life as our wonderful garden has made us virtually self-sufficient in vegetables and soft fruits. We grow our own tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, peppers and potatoes. We also have a plentiful crop of raspberries and figs each summer as well as herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley and mint.
I make all my own jam for guests at Maison Belmont – a skill only recently acquired – and spring brings an abundance not just of strawberries but plump sweet apricots and cherries as well. Guests love homemade jams and the French view fait maison as a badge of honour to be worn with pride by any host. Homemade jam is also a useful income stream as we sell to guests who want to take a little of their holiday away with them when they leave.
Apricot, strawberry and fig jams are a staple of any good B&B breakfast. I also use spring as an opportunity to try out new breakfast treats from home-baked breads to muffins, brownies and oatcakes. Once we are busier, time to think, plan and experiment becomes limited. Although not entirely self-sufficient in baked goods (there is a wonderful boulangerie in St-antonin) we always top up with some of our own homemade favourites.
At Maison Belmont, we are lucky to have a well-established, large and beautiful garden, and spring with its longer and warmer days means hours spent planting and preparing for the coming season. Regular trips to markets and garden centres become part of our routine from March until mid-may. Late frosts, even as far south as Tarn-et-garonne, can be a problem so we have learned to do as the locals do and don’t start planting out until 15 May.
Our garden is a very special place. In the summer, it provides an oasis of calm and shade for our guests but spring is when the hard work needs to be done to ensure it is at its best in high season. We have over 20 varieties of rose bushes, all needing pruning and tending, as well as pots and containers to plant and water through the spring.
Ready for summer?
Maison Belmont is a year-round B&B. However, with early spring being a relatively quiet period we have the time to deep-clean our guest rooms and complete any maintenance or decoration before the summer season starts in earnest. It is also a great time to update our website, ensure our publicity material such as flyers and business cards are all up to date and in stock, and review pricing and any offers we may be making in the main tourist season.
Every room has a folder full of information for guests that needs updating. We need to revise details on restaurants and local attractions to ensure they are all correct and current. Our library of books and DVDS is under constant review – all available for guests to borrow during their stay.
We also increase our presence on social media making sure our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles are up to date and that we post regularly, driving business towards our website. For us it is important not to wait for guests to book but to be proactive and ensure potential guests become real ones through active marketing.
We make time in the spring to contact the local Office de Tourisme and update them on any changes we have made since last season. Recommendations from the Tourist Office are a great way to plug any gaps in bookings. Even in a world of smartphones and websites it is surprising how many people ring the doorbell at 6pm asking if a room is available for one or two nights, often sent by the Tourist Office.
St-antonin has over 15 restaurants and we use the spring to familiarise ourselves with their menus and prices, ensuring that our recommendations are valid and up to date. We will offer to book tables for our guests; getting a couple or a group into a popular restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night is a great way to impress and will often pay dividends in a positive Tripadvisor review.
While spring does see the return of significant numbers of visitors, it is also a great time to visit other B&BS on short breaks in other parts of France. This has the double purpose of giving yourself time and space to relax and unwind as well as checking out how other people operate their businesses; great ideas are always best shared.
Spring is the season when life beyond the confines of our home resumes. Outdoor cafés quickly fill with people energised by the return of the warm sun and the prospect of a glorious summer ahead. As Victor Hugo once wrote: “Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart”. maisonbelmont.com