Every month, we introduce you to an interesting woman living in Languedoc. Curious as we are, we like to find out why she lives in this beautiful region, what she does for a living and some of her Languedoc favourites. This month we would like you to meet Stefanie van Haudenhove as Ramoneta of the Month. She is a versatile jill-of-all-trades who lives part-time in Olargues and Belgium. Besides being an interior designer, Stefanie runs the hotel and restaurant l’École in Olargues where she invents and cooks plant-based meals. All of her passions come together in her book ‘Our Flavours of the South of France’.
Ever since I was a child, I have had a passion for decoration. And, also from a young age, I became a vegetarian. When my partner Kenneth and I stumbled across the former boarding school of Olargues in the South of France, these two passions came together. Kenneth and I work together in Belgium, where we buy and renovate interesting real estate projects like the Borgwal castle in Vurste. And in the summer, we move to France to run the hotel and restaurant L’École in Olargues.
First time visiting the region
In the summer of 2013, Kenneth and I were on a road trip in Europe when a friend asked us to come and visit him. His father lived in a small village near Olargues (1 & 2) and described it as the most beautiful part of Europe. So, we changed our travel plans, as we didn’t need more encouragement and wanted to see for ourselves. Once we arrived in Olargues, Kenneth and I immediately felt the magic of the place.
Two years later, while having a holiday in Spain, we were still thinking about beautiful Olargues. Therefore, we decided to shorten our holiday in Spain to spend a couple of days in our dream village. And while there, maybe look at houses for sale. After all, real estate is our passion, and even on holiday we keep our eyes open. Just for fun, we didn’t intend to buy anything, of course. However, it was there and then we discovered ‘Le Sacre Coeur’, Olargues’ former boarding school with an amazing view of the village. And we couldn’t help but fall in love big time.
Settling in Languedoc
In 2015, Kenneth and I became the proud owners of the former school, initially as a holiday home. However, with its living area of 1,300m2, it was perfect to create another project. So, we had the idea of transforming the school into something more than a family home.
First, we started to renovate the ‘family’ part of the building. Once that was done, the idea arose to set up a restaurant as I always very much enjoyed cooking as well as eating. I missed having a nearby restaurant serving healthy and original dishes. In the summer of 2017, we opened the doors of our Brasserie L’École together with an art gallery. The building was big enough for a hotel though, so in 2019 we created rooms for guests. 2020 was the year we made our vegetable garden to have our own produce for the restaurant. And we’re still developing new ideas, as we have bought two more houses in the street to develop a Bed & Breakfast.
In the process of setting up a restaurant, I decided to become vegan. After two years of education and learning all there was to find about plant-based cooking, I became the chef of our restaurant Brasserie L’École. We open only during the summer months to share our magic place and offer one plant-based menu and one including fish; no meat is served. As I bring my plant-based cuisine in a natural way, people often don’t even realise they are eating vegan. Our guests are a beautiful mix between locals and French and foreign passers-by.
A logical next step was creating a book filled with two of my passions. This has become ‘Our flavours of the South of France’ (3). On the one hand, I share some of my plant-based recipes. And on the other hand, the book is also about interior design and life in rural France. I already have plans to write other books with recipes related to the seasons and interiors that reflect the same ambience.
The school building dates from the 19th century and has many cosy corners, spacious rooms and terraces-with-view. The space simply asked to be partly transformed into a boutique hotel (4). We have created seven rooms with a bathroom and three with a shared bathroom. Each room has its unique design, combining the style of the building with modern comfort and artistic details. Keep an eye on our socials to find out about our Bed & Breakfast project.
Setting up a business in France
After all these years, we naturally grew into our French project. It wasn’t a set-up plan from the beginning. We always continued our work in Belgium and live there for half of the year. But when we’re in Olargues, we go for it non-stop, seven days a week.
Starting our business in France went with ups and downs, but the most challenging part was opening a bank account. You have to have patience, as things- especially official ones- can take ages in France. It’s also important to find good staff and builders that you can rely on. In the summer, we have 15 people working with us, some of whom have been coming back for years.
Living in the South of France
By living in the South of France during the summer months and going back to Belgium in the winter, we combine the best of both worlds. The area around Olargues is amazing, surrounded by magnificent landscapes and in a wonderful climate. Kenneth and I are both nature lovers, and we still appreciate Olargues’ environment as much as we did in the beginning.
However, actually living in France for a couple of months each year made me realise the cultural differences. The hardest part for me is to create deep friendships, as I find the French more reserved, with a few exceptions. Here also, it takes time to really get to know somebody.
Best Languedoc wine
Marion Pla is a winemaker from our village who makes beautiful organic wines on the hillsides of Cessenon-sur-Orb. When her father, Jean-Pierre, decided in 2007 to leave the cooperative cellar and become an independent winemaker, she joined him. Four years later, Marion’s brother Antoine also stepped into the adventure.
This has to be one of the Village Castigno restaurants in Assignan. If I have to choose, it would be the inventive cuisine of La Table (5). Although the Thaï de Castigno does a very good job too.
Perfect day out in Languedoc
To completely unwind, I love to drive around on our bright orange Vespa (6). Thanks to its slow speed, you see the landscape so much better from a moped than from a car. On a day off, Kenneth and I would cruise to our secret swimming spot at the Source de Fréjo waterfall. Close by is a café run by two sweet madames, who’d prepare a vegan lunch with produce from their vegetable garden. To finish the day, there is no better place than to sit on one of our terraces and revel in the view of Olargues and its twinkling lights.