Ken Hom has turned his ancient tower in southwest France into a retreat for relaxing, entertaining and writing cookbooks, he tells Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times
In Ken Hom’s wine cellar there is an oversized bottle of Cristal champagne. It is too large to cool in the fridge but Hom says he will drink it one winter, maybe after chilling it in the snow for a few hours. There will be no shortage of guests to drink it.
In his medieval home in the middle of the pretty village of Catus, close to Cahors in southwest France, they flow as freely as the wine. The Blairs (who are both duck lovers and adore his Peking duck) have been to stay several times. Tina Turner (a Buddhist and mad about vegetables) is a regular guest, as are Jancis Robinson (who likes matching wines from Hom’s wine cellar with his food), Angus Deayton and the former France rugby captain Fabien Galthie (who loves spicy food).
“This is such an easy place to entertain in,” says Hom. “I find myself giving lunch or dinner parties most days.” As you might expect from one of the world’s most successful chefs, Hom has a pretty good kitchen. He cooks on a Bonnet Maestro — no, it’s nothing to do with that awful car that Leyland used to make — which was designed for him. Apparently, if you are a three-star Michelin cook, the makers engrave your name on a brass plaque.
Other features include a plancha hotplate and vast oven.
“You could roast a small pig in there, no problem,” says Hom. “In fact I have, several times.” It took 12 men to carry the cooker into the house and assemble it. It is an essential part of his everyday life and the only practical part of the kitchen that is visible. The sink, dishwasher, fridge and so on are all either built behind the oversized cupboard that holds the crockery and also partitions the room, or behind one of the old doors that are no longer used.
“This was originally three rooms,” says Hom. “The doors were so beautiful that instead of ripping them out, I decided to use them in the new space. The cooker is in the main area where we sit and eat because I see it as more of a beautiful piece of furniture than the fridge — it’s my equivalent of a piano.”
Hom’s house, situated in the middle of the picturesque high street, dates in part from 1185. It is visible for miles around due to its medieval tower, known by the locals as le tour Anglais. “The tower was built in 1340 to scan the countryside for invaders during the Hundred Years War,” says Hom. “At one stage it was captured and apparently the Black Prince spent a night here on his way back home.”
Now the tower is home to what must be one of the most comprehensive cookbook libraries in the world. Hom often spends July and August in Catus, and uses the holiday to write books.
“It’s a wonderful place to research recipes and ingredients,” he says. “All the shelves were made by a local artisan who has become a friend. The columns are originally from India; I found them in an antique shop and they give the room an Oriental feel.” Hom says that if he ever sells the house he will donate the books to a local lycée. That should improve the quality of its school dinners.
The phrase “where East meets West” is very much associated with Hom’s cooking, and he has also managed to marry the two cultures in his home. There are Buddhas on the staircase, as well as elephants, which in Eastern culture symbolise wisdom. Neither looks out of place in this French country house. They seem to add a Zen-like quality to a property that is extremely tranquil despite its location in the middle of the village. Hom’s design philosophy, rather like his cooking, is to keep it simple and to use the best ingredients.
Sitting in Hom’s garden, the only sound you can hear is that of the birds singing. “It’s like being in a village but also in the middle of nowhere,” he says. Hom is very fond of English horticulture and commissioned an English landscape gardener to design his garden.
“I don’t like the French formal gardens. I like the borders to be colourful and bursting with life.”
There is an extremely chic swimming pool at the top of the garden, with a black lining. “It is not a large pool,” says Hom. “But it would have taken up too much of the garden if we’d made it any bigger. This was so we have somewhere to plunge into as well as enough room for an aperitif area and dining area. At night the house and garden are lovely. The tower is lit up, as is the pool.”
Hom chose the small village of Catus because it is relatively isolated and unspoilt. There is no TGV to the region and the trip from Hom’s house in Paris takes him about five hours.
“But that is partly its charm,” he says. “It wouldn’t be so rural and beautiful if it were easy to get to.” In addition to the countryside, the local cuisine attracted Hom. “This is a land of truffles, confit, foie gras and wonderful local produce,” he says. “You learn to live by the seasons here. We eat whatever friends bring me from their gardens, or whatever the wonderful greengrocer next door has in. I’ll sometimes pop in and she ‘ll just have got some fresh rocket in from a local market or some beautiful asparagus.”
But the deciding factor that swayed Hom when he first saw the house in 1991 was the wine cellar. He has been collecting wine for more than 30 years and has one of the most impressive private collections in the world. Among the 6,000 bottles he has are Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, Cheval Blanc, Latour and Pétrus. “They are all very rare and priceless,” says Hom, “usually the object of major wine collectors.” Every bottle is labelled and stored according to region and age. There are vaulted ceilings, and the moist air keeps the temperature even throughout the seasons.
“The minute I saw the cellar I knew I had to have the house,” Hom says. “My personal favourite is claret, but I have wines here from all over the world. When I have some great friends over there’s nothing more fun than opening a magnum of something really nice.”
When Hom bought the Tour Hugues de Cabanac for about £100,000, from a French friend who is also a chef, it was in a state of disrepair. The previous owner, whose wife didn’t like the region, had renovated the outside but then run out of money. Hom spent seven years doing the rest of it up. There are now three bedrooms, each one different, including an attic room where guests sleep underneath a dozen petrified beams. The room has a freestanding sink and sunken bath at one end. In keeping with the rest of the house, the decor is extremely minimalist.
Hom has built an office with a glass wall that looks out over the main staircase. This is where he wrote bestsellers including Quick Wok and Foolproof Chinese Cookery. Next to the office is a small dining room, which is home to a second library, as well as a Louis XIV fireplace that Hom found in a local antiques shop. “One of the most wonderful things about living in France is that you can furnish a whole house for a fraction of what it would cost in London,” he says.
Among the house’s unusual features is a small interior courtyard. Hom has surrounded it with glass walls, which means you can enjoy it as much in winter as in summer. It is filled with rocks and statues, with green plants growing around them.
Hom originally hired a designer to carry out all the renovation work. “But I found things just weren’t moving along quickly enough,” he says. “So I took over. It was difficult to do from a distance and it wasn’t until I came down and spent a long stretch of time here that things really started to happen.”
Although he loves the property and is extremely pleased with the way it has turned out, he says he has no intention of repeating the experience. “Never again will I redo somewhere from scratch,” he says. “Once was enough.”
Beside the doorbell on his front door there is a small typed notice advising tradesmen either to ring the bell, or to leave goods next door with the greengrocer. It also warns them under no circumstances to ring the bell between 1pm and 3pm. Hom and his guests do not want to be disturbed over lunch. And who can blame them?
Ken Hom’s Top 100 Stir-Fry Recipes, BBC Books, £12.99
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
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So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
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To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
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Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019