The magic in­gre­di­ent

The prom­ise of a lifestyle cen­tred around fam­ily and food con­vinced chef Ian Fisk and his wife Sara to set­tle in Dor­dogne, and they couldn’t be hap­pier with their choice, as Vicky Leigh finds out

Living France - - Contents -

For a Bri­tish chef with a pas­sion for lo­cal pro­duce, Dor­dogne was the per­fect place to set up home and a cook­ery school

When two peo­ple have two very dif­fer­ent ideas about some­thing as im­por­tant as a lifestyle change, it makes it all the more in­ter­est­ing to find out how they came to be where they are. And, of course, whose idea won. In this case, it turns out it was the hus­band of the cou­ple in ques­tion, but for­tu­nately his wife seems just as happy with the out­come.

Af­ter work­ing in South Amer­ica for a num­ber of years, Ian and Sara Fisk were ex­cited at the prospect of re­turn­ing to the UK to raise their son Adam, then aged two, but quickly re­alised that it wasn’t the right place to give him the up­bring­ing they had imag­ined.

“We wanted to give Adam a lot of our time, and the in­de­pen­dence and free­dom we both en­joyed as chil­dren, but soon be­came dis­il­lu­sioned as we re­alised we’d both have to stay in our cor­po­rate worlds in or­der to be able to pro­vide that for him in the UK,” says Sara, a for­mer in­sur­ance bro­ker.

As the cou­ple were no strangers to life as ex­pats, and with plenty of time to think about it be­fore Adam would need to start school, they be­gan to con­sider a move to Europe. While Spain was on the cards ini­tially they soon turned their at­ten­tion to France and when they hit upon Dor­dogne, every­thing fell into place.

“It wasn’t un­til we came to Dor­dogne in 2004 that it all came to­gether for us,” ex­plains Sara. “We’d found some­where we re­ally wanted to stay and bring up our fam­ily.” For trained chef Ian, it was the abun­dance of fresh lo­cal pro­duce in par­tic­u­lar that made a big im­pres­sion.

“With my food back­ground, the amaz­ing in­gre­di­ents and the lifestyle here, which re­volves around fam­ily and food, re­ally hit home with me, and it was the per­fect fit,” he says. “For me it was love at first sight, and if I could fall in love with the area in cold, dark Jan­uary I knew it was go­ing to be ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble in spring and sum­mer.”


So far, so good. They both talk about Dor­dogne with such en­thu­si­asm, it’s clear they were both on the same wave­length about the lo­ca­tion from the out­set, which leaves me won­der­ing where their ideas dif­fered. It soon be­comes clear when we move on to dis­cussing the house they even­tu­ally bought.

“My orig­i­nal plan was to buy a small prop­erty to ren­o­vate, learn the lan­guage, and see if it was some­thing we en­joyed do­ing,” ex­plains Sara. “My idea,” says Ian, “was to buy the big­gest prop­erty we could, sink every cent we had into it and

spend the rest of our lives mak­ing it work. I man­aged to get my way!”

Some 35 prop­erty view­ings later, the Fisks found Le Chèvrefeuille, a large, Périg­or­dian farm­stead in St-Cy­prien, which had the po­ten­tial to be the fam­ily home they wanted to cre­ate and the base for the new busi­ness ven­ture they hoped to start.

Daugh­ter Alice ar­rived dur­ing an am­bi­tious ren­o­va­tion project to trans­form the building into a home and guest house, and they now have five bed-and-break­fast rooms plus two self-cater­ing gîtes.

“It’s a big prop­erty and there was a lot to do – and 13 years later we’re still do­ing it!” laughs Sara. “We’ve done a lot of the work our­selves to keep costs down and it’s been a grad­ual process to ren­o­vate each room. There’s al­ways some­thing to do and you al­ways want to do more to make it bet­ter and bet­ter.”

Guest fa­cil­i­ties in­clude an out­door swim­ming pool with stun­ning views over the val­ley, a com­mu­nal bar­be­cue area and an hon­esty bar, and bikes are avail­able to bor­row. Ian and Sara have made sure that there’s plenty to keep chil­dren en­ter­tained, with indoor and out­door games and a TV room, not for­get­ting the Fisk fam­ily an­i­mals, which in­clude chick­ens, guinea pigs and Bella the cat. There’s a horserid­ing cen­tre next door of­fer­ing lessons and pony trekking too. The Étang du Bos wa­ter park is just a 10-minute drive away, while the Étang de Tam­niès, a man-made lake with its own sandy beach, can be reached in 20 min­utes.


Phase two of Ian and Sara’s plan in­volved the cre­ation of a cook­ery school at Le Chèvrefeuille and the cou­ple opened Cook Dor­dogne in 2012, al­low­ing Ian to re­alise yet an­other dream. In­spired by the lo­cal in­gre­di­ents that at­tracted him to this part of France in the first place, Ian teaches cour­ses based around the re­gion’s spe­cial­i­ties from the farm­house kitchen. The cour­ses are taught in English and ap­peal to a wide range of in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors, par­tic­u­larly those from Amer­ica and Aus­tralia.

“I’m very hands-on with the cook­ery school and I re­ally en­joy the teach­ing as­pect,” says Ian. “We of­fer fam­ily cour­ses too and that’s my real pas­sion – en­cour­ag­ing chil­dren to try duck or even just a sim­ple tomato, and get­ting them in­volved and ex­cited about food and cook­ing.”

With his menus re­volv­ing around the Périg­ord Noir sta­ples of duck, foie gras, truf­fles and wal­nuts, Ian takes a lot of his inspiration from his 95-year-old French neigh­bour, who is al­ways happy to an­swer any ques­tions he has about pre­par­ing tra­di­tional dishes.

“She is in­spi­ra­tional in her sim­plic­ity and the sea­son­al­ity of her food, which is some­thing I think has been for­got­ten in the UK,” says Ian. “When as­para­gus sea­son starts here we eat it pretty much every day, and once it’s fin­ished we move on to the next thing. What a fab­u­lous way that is to shop. You

know where you are in the year by the veg­etable, and you have to fit in with the sea­sons. We re­ally want to do that.”

Ian also gives food demon­stra­tions and the cook­ery school’s of­fer­ing has evolved to in­clude mar­ket tours too. Ian ac­com­pa­nies his stu­dents to the mar­ket in nearby Le Bugue and St-Cy­prien so that they can see first-hand the vast ar­ray of colour­ful pro­duce avail­able in this part of the coun­try, and ex­plains some of the more mys­te­ri­ous in­gre­di­ents. Tour par­tic­i­pants can en­joy sam­ples from var­i­ous stalls, meet the farm­ers and learn how to choose the best sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents with which to cre­ate a range of French dishes.

“Our guests would of­ten come back from the mar­ket con­fused and un­sure what to do with some of the pro­duce they’d seen, which gave us the idea for the tours,” he ex­plains. “We re­alised peo­ple wanted some­one to go with them and hold their hand a bit, and I’ve built up a good re­la­tion­ship with the stall­hold­ers as a re­sult as well.”


The con­nec­tion with lo­cal pro­duc­ers and their shared pas­sion for the food of the re­gion has helped Ian and Sara to in­te­grate into their new com­mu­nity, as have the chil­dren and their school-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties. The cou­ple have picked up French as they’ve gone along, while Adam and Alice are both bilin­gual.

“See­ing how they switch be­tween French and English is in­cred­i­ble, they don’t even think about it now,” says Ian. “I’m so en­vi­ous. I re­mem­ber say­ing to my French teacher at school, ‘what is the point of learn­ing French? I’m never go­ing to live in France so I’m never go­ing to need to speak it’. What a mis­take that was!”

Ian en­thuses about the “bril­liant en­vi­ron­ment” they have brought their chil­dren up in, and it cer­tainly seems as though the move to France has al­lowed Ian and Sara to give Adam and Alice the sort of up­bring­ing they had in their minds. Nei­ther of them can imag­ine re­turn­ing to a life in the UK and they have no plans to leave France, es­pe­cially while Alice, now 10, is still at school.

“Our chil­dren are to­tally in­de­pen­dent – they wan­der off and they come back when they’re hun­gry, and that’s ex­actly how we grew up,” says Sara. “The busi­ness has taught them to be po­lite, open-minded and so­cially aware; they have great so­cial skills and they’re bilin­gual – what more could you want?”

Sara and Ian are thor­oughly en­joy­ing the ben­e­fits of their life in France too, and have no re­grets about their de­ci­sion to move to Dor­dogne.

“It’s def­i­nitely met our ex­pec­ta­tions,” says Sara. “We don’t com­mute to work and we’re here all the time with the kids. Ian is re­ally into cy­cling and he’s able to go out and do that every day. He’s de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in for­ag­ing too and wants to de­vote time to learn­ing more about it.”

Ian is equally en­thu­si­as­tic. “For me, it’s like hit­ting the jack­pot,” he says. “The first few years were tough but the last three to four years have been in­cred­i­bly good. We’re more es­tab­lished now and know what we’re do­ing, and I’ve learnt that you have to do things in life to please your­self. At 4pm in an af­ter­noon I go out on my bike and have an hour of cy­cling be­cause it’s so im­por­tant to me that I do that. It takes a while to get to the point where you can re­ally en­joy it, but we’re all very much at that stage now, and we want to be here for a long time.”

That sounds like a recipe for suc­cess that many oth­ers would hap­pily fol­low.

“Our chil­dren are to­tally in­de­pen­dent – they wan­der off and come back when they’re hun­gry, and that’s how we grew up”

Left: Stu­dents en­joy a cook­ing course with Ian

Right: The cou­ple trans­formed the prop­erty into a home and a busi­ness

Ian and Sara Fisk

The re­sults of a pro­duc­tive day in the kitchen

Ian ex­plains some of the more mys­te­ri­ous in­gre­di­ents on of­fer at the mar­ket

Above: Ian makes the most of the fresh lo­cal pro­duce in Dor­dogne

Left: Mar­ket tours are now part of the cook­ery school’s of­fer­ing

When Ian and Sara dis­cov­ered Dor­dogne, they knew they’d found the right place

Eat­ing the fruits of their labour!

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