The Terrasses du Larzac hospitality empire

by Tom Fiorina on May 18, 2009

Bridget and David Pugh at the Restaurant Le Mimosa.

Bridget and David Pugh at the Restaurant Le Mimosa.

For over a thousand years pilgrims have made the small villages that dot the foothills of France’s Massif Central, where the plateau of Larzac drops down to the Mediterranean, a stopping point on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Whereas pilgrims in medieval times were seeking absolution from their sins, my wife and I decided to visit this region for more earthly delights. Several of the area’s vineyards produce some of the best wine in the Languedoc, and I had read several favorable reviews about a small hospitality empire (hotel, restaurant-wine bar, and wine restaurant) that an English couple, David and Bridget Pugh, had created. We decided to combine our vineyard visits with a stay in their hotel, a casual dinner in the restaurant-wine bar and a romantic dinner, to celebrate our wedding anniversary, in their restaurant. Here are our impressions, in the form of a Q&A with the Pughs, of that experience.

Q: You have created a classic French hôtel de charme, with seven simply, but tastefully decorated unique rooms, a restaurant-wine bar featuring simple food in a relaxed atmosphere, along with a large selection of wines from the surrounding vineyards, and a fine-dining restaurant with a creative menu that features the finest local products and a unique wine tasting experience. Why three businesses in three different villages?

A: Simply no choice. When buildings or businesses became available that were suitable and at the right price, we acted. It is not every day that chances arise in the same village to coincide with your ability to invest. It works out quite well since the hotel is in the central village.

Q: Perhaps more importantly, why in the Languedoc? What first brought you to this part of France?

A: During the seventies we regularly spent our holidays near the town of Uzès in the Gard. It was where the seed for settling here was sown. We’ve always interpreted entertaining as more than just pleasure but as a type of holistic restoration, and so having bought a house in a small village near Lodève, and during a sabbatical year from our professions, we made the decision to change our lives and open the sort of restaurant that we dreamed of enjoying as clients.

Q: David, you were a musician previously, and Bridget, you were a Prima ballerina. How did you get from your previous careers to owning and running your restaurants and a hotel, and how did these creative occupations prepare you for your current work?

A: Interestingly the change was less dramatic than one would imagine. Both of us saw great similarities between the two lives. For a long time we described a service as a performance, unable to leave the concept of the theater behind us. However, having previously been a small cog in a large company with little ability to influence artistic policy, we were now working for ourselves, responsible for the destiny of our own project. We were no longer salaried and we had no experience of employing staff; difficult hurdles to surmount. We learnt our trade in front of our clients, but since as artists we were used to criticism, we benefited from every experience, good and bad. We are great believers in motivation and its ability to communicate itself to others. In doubt we’ve always asked ourselves the question “If I was the client, how would I like it to be?”

Q: The evening before we dined in the Restaurant Le Mimosa, you celebrated the restaurant’s 25th Anniversary with a special dinner with some of the winemakers whose wines you feature in your Degustation de Vin menu. Other than the proximity of the vineyards to your restaurants, why does wine play such an important part in the dining experience at Restaurant Le Mimosa and in your restaurant-wine bar, La Terrasse du Mimosa?

A: We had been developing a love of wine during our years in the theater. It had become an essential part of a meal and the pleasure of the table — we spend hours at the table. I did have a fair knowledge of wine when we started but my eyes were opened wide when I began to enter the world of the winemaker and discover about wine from the vine to the glass. Bridget always claims that she has learnt so much about the balance and seasoning of cooking from tasting wines with the winemakers during the “vinification” and the “élevage”.

Q: What criteria, David, do you use to select a wine for your Degustation de Vin menu?

A: First and foremost the dishes on the menu, closely followed by the order of the wines — it’s very important that they don’t compete with each other. Then there is the client — I like to react instinctively to each table. It’s far more interesting and motivating for me. I rarely decide in advance what I’m going to serve on the tasting but wait for the first table to say “We’d like the wine tasting.” There is nothing like necessity for decision making! I suppose if I’m honest, I serve what I feel like tasting and drinking (since I’m very happy to finish the bottles). It’s a case of selfishness being in the best interest of the client. The beauty of wine is that it is to be shared.

Q: During the 25 years of its existence, what has been the biggest change in the wines that are served in the Restaurant Le Mimosa?

A: Our first wine list had a very small number of local wines which were largely overshadowed by the more famous wine appellations. Today about 80 percent of the wines we serve are not just from the Languedoc but within a radius of about ten kilometers from the restaurant. We had no idea that we were creating a restaurant at the center of what was to become one of the most interesting wine “terroir” in the south of France. On the negative side, by gaining popularity, wine like most commodities has become speculation, investment and business with a consequent loss of idealism and unpretentious pleasure.

Q: The Menu Capricieux created by Bridget, with dishes such as Ravioles de brousse de brebis du Larzac, Roquette sauvage et pignons, huile d’olive de Picholine et Lucques, Croustillante d’asperges à la maltaise, and Filet de bœuf de La Ferme Puech Séranne au basilic, is as delicious as it sounds. What is her inspiration for creating such creative cuisine?

A: Inspiration comes from here, there and elsewhere but motivation is fueled by the small producers of exceptional ingredients surrounding us. It is creativity by lateral thinking as opposed to fusion.

Q: The most amazing thing about your hotel and restaurants is that everything works together and seems to have been designed as part of larger scheme–the whole is greater than the sum of all of the individual elements. How did this synergistic vision evolve?

A: The theater was our world and from it we learned to balance the individual elements with the overall concept. Returning to the world of wine or cooking, the end product will be far more complex than the individual components or vats. The art is to balance them in a way that they express their maximum potential.

Q: Not many couples could work together for 25 years. What is your secret?

A: We are both very different but share the same vision. We have at times experienced serious disagreements but we have luckily also had the will to repair and to build.

Q: How do you spend your time during the off-season?

A: Sleeping, reading, talking, walking, listening to music, eating, drinking and laughing (to name but a few).

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