February 3, 2012 9:51 pm

Expat lives: Laidback in Tuscany

American Renée Elliott founded the UK’s largest chain of organic supermarkets before trading London for Italy

Living in the tranquil Tuscan countryside with her husband and three young children, Renée Elliott is founder director of the UK’s largest chain of organic supermarkets, Planet Organic, with a turnover of £15m.

It was a circuitous route that brought her to Italy. Born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Elliott spent much of her childhood moving around the US due to her father’s work as an electrical engineer. “I didn’t like moving. I wanted to stay put,” she says.

Nonetheless at the age of 22 she moved again to London to be with Brian Elliott, a man she had met on a night bus while taking a student tour of Europe. “I had no clue what I wanted to do for my career,” she says. “I thought I would move to Britain for two years and date.” However, her inability to get a work permit prompted a marriage of convenience. “We got married again four years later in 1990,” she says. “We count that date as our wedding anniversary.”

In London Elliott stumbled into the wine trade but soon realised it wasn’t the career for her. Ultimately she wanted to feel passionate about her work and to be self-employed. “I hate being told what to do,” she says. “I am the youngest of four kids and was bossed around all the time.”

So in 1990 Elliott quit her job and travelled to the east coast in the US, where she came across Bread and Circus, a 30,000 sq ft organic supermarket. “I said to Brian, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” While supportive of her ambitions, Brian advised her to get some experience in the sector first. For the next two years she worked in a health food store learning the trade.

In 1995 at the age of 30 she set up Planet Organic in the only area she could afford: Bayswater Road in west London, then a scruffy street that is now home to high-end boutiques and restaurants. The next few years were frenetic as Elliott tried to expand the business. Brian came on board as managing director in 1999 and the following year she had her first child. “I took her everywhere with me, I was breastfeeding in front of shareholders,” she says.

While on holiday in Seggiano in 2001 the couple fell in love with the Tuscan countryside. By the end of the week they had made an offer on a dilapidated farmhouse in Montegiovi, around 40 miles south of Siena, to use as a holiday home. “It was pretty horrible,” says Elliott. “It was basically a step up from camping. But the view was stunning.” For the next few years they visited Italy as much as they could and slowly restored the rundown retreat.

In 2009, exhausted by three young children and the toll of setting up a business, the couple decided to take a year out and move to Italy. Brian stepped down from his role at Planet Organic while Renée decided to take a back seat, continuing to blog and source new products. “After six months we couldn’t imagine leaving Italy again.”

“It’s pretty much paradise. It’s incredibly peaceful. There is no city commercialism. The little local school is very relaxed. I see kids who are stressed out in London schools which are very competitive. My kids are really innocent by comparison – they can be proper kids,” says Elliott. The children’s school in Monticello has only 30 pupils.

When the Elliotts bought their property, it was a small farmhouse with two bedrooms above a large kitchen and big storeroom. It took three years to obtain planning permission, a fairly difficult process in Tuscany, where authorities are keen to keep the countryside unspoilt.

They are still completing work on the third bedroom but have converted the storeroom into a living room and installed floor heating. They have also created a large terrace, where they often eat, using handmade tiles.

The new lifestyle has required downsizing, although they have held on to a property in central London. Elliott sees it as a natural embodiment of sustainable living, helped by her husband’s new vocation – farming their seven acres of olive groves, fruit and nut trees, vineyards and vegetables.

“It’s cheaper to live here,” says Elliott. “We don’t pay for school fees, we grow a lot of our own food.” The country life has even slowed her down. “I’m high energy and want to do lots of stuff at the same time. If I’m [around] the energy of London I’m in constant stress whereas here I’m calmer.”

Elliott is happiest at home where she can focus on her family. “We’re always eating together now,” she says. “You compromise your income and status but it’s very easy here. Italians are very welcoming and embracing.” She relishes the Italian way of life – “the focus on family, socialising and food.”

Nonetheless the language is still a problem. “I can do conversational Italian for about an hour,” she says. Helping with her children’s homework is also challenging. “I can do it with my six-year-old – it’s just about my level.” So she has pledged to put some effort into studying the language.

Elliott doesn’t have any desire to return to England, her home for 22 years. “I don’t think we’ll move,” she says. “We’re half an hour from the mountains and the kids are learning to ski.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● The culture, which celebrates family and food

● An escape from the rat race and consumerism

● The opportunity to learn about another way of living by downshifting and to live close to nature

Cons

● It can be difficult to find certain foods

● The bureaucracy surrounding planning permission

What you can buy for ...

€100,000 A 100 sq m apartment in the historical centre of Castel del Piano

€1m An old 570 sq m country house and buildings in the Seggiano countryside with four hectares of land with olive trees and a vineyard

Contact

● Tuscanary Real Estate Agency www.tuscanary.it

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