French Ties: a review

Imagine, living in a restored chateau in the French countryside and indulging in daily rituals that revolve around food: collecting blackberries, bicycling to the bay tree in the grounds to collect leafy twigs and stockpiling the bike’s basket with cherries from the nearby tree. Or restoring the walled ‘potager’, or kitchen garden, and escaping to a market to gather supplies from the fromagerie, artisan baker and other producers, then returning with brimful baskets to enjoy a long Sunday lunch. Welcome to Jane Webster’s life, at least for part of the year.

Webster has mastered the art of living between two homes and two cultures: Melbourne and Normandy in France. Her husband, four children and Peppie, “a scruffy schnoodle/West Highland terrier”, are in on the act. Webster shares her enviable experiences in Family Ties: Life, Love & Recipe - her second book. Her first, At My French Table, charts the family’s restoration of the grand chateau and two year immersion in French country life. This sequel captures the maturation of the family’s cultural absorption, their seesawing between continents, and Webster’s growing understanding of Norman cuisine and French culinary etiquette.

Recipes for poached plums, onion jam, eggs en cocette with smoked trout, mint tisane, Mirabelle jam, and bircher muesli bind a narrative that offers glimpses of life as a local in a French village, explores the majestic Chateau de Bosgouet, and encapsulates one woman’s penchant for the simple pleasures of French country life.

Webster has a clever knack of bringing to life the five-storey Chateau de Bosgouet – which dates back to the Napolean III era – using personification that signifies a bond that the owner – or “guardian”, as Webster considers herself – has with this grand old dame.

“She awakens,” Webster writes of the old chateau, “her ageing bones grumbling gently”.

Webster proceeds to introduce the reader to Bosgouet’s rooms, such as an ornate duck-egg blue sitting room; furnishings like a huge, nineteenth-century hunting table; the refined plasterwork of the dining room which depicts hunting horns and wild boars; masses of “typically normand” blue hydrangeas in blue and white porcelain pots dotted around the rooms; and her distinct fragrance, “a combination of linseed oil, beeswax, freshly cut flowers and lavender”,  with a warmth and intimacy usually reserved for family members.

Special reverence is saved for Webster’s treasured copper pots that she likes “to see shine”. She even includes a recipe for a paste that makes them sparkle.

“When I’m an old woman … they’ll certainly be able to tell some stories about wonderful meals shared by friends and family,” she says of her treasured cooking utensils.

Food lovers will relish in the descriptions of the commercial kitchen, scullery, and the butler’s pantry where “white shelving units hold preserving jars filled with every conceivable pantry staple,” and “earthenware pots house dozens of wooden spoons, and … all the kitchen paraphernalia anyone could ever need to cook up a storm.”

“So, this is Bosgouet, her rooms and her soul. Every part of her oozes such a wonderfully comforting feeling …”

The recipes that Webster weaves throughout the story serve only as appetiser; the piece de resistance is the last recipe laden chapter that spans aperitifs, such as anchovy and Gruyère pinwheels; plats principaux, including chicken confit and salmon with beurre blanc sauce; salades et legumes, including an amazing looking potato and blue cheese gratin (The Food Sage is a bit of a potato fiend); and desserts such as a fine looking crème brulee.

The Food Sage put the recipe for chicken confit to the test. The dish was over 31 hours in the making. The chicken was first covered in sea salt and rested in the fridge for 24 hours, before being cooked in duck fat in a low oven for seven hours. It  was worth the wait. Chunks of kipfler potatoes, vine ripened tomatoes, and handfuls of spinach leaves were cooked in the hot duck fat and served alongside the confit chicken, which fell clean from the bones.

It’s hard not to be bewitched by Besgouet’s charm, or inspired by Webster’s warm and thoughtful depiction of French country life. If reading about it inspires your own sorjourn in regional France Webster hosts The French Table at the family chateau – an indulgent week of fine wine, local food, farmer’s markets, restaurant meals, and cooking classes. Do you think it would rude to go, and refuse to leave?

French Ties: Love, Life & Recipes
By Jane Webster
Viking: $59.95

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18 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

18 responses to “French Ties: a review

  1. I’m a big fan of Jane and loved her first book. What a beautiful life she has created for herself and her family… and we’re all lucky enough to get a look in through her writing and photography. I’ll be picking this book up next!

  2. thelittlestanchovy

    What a wonderful review! I felt like I was actually there; peering into the kitchen and witnessing these dishes being created. I would so love to be able to go to Chateau de Bosgouet and spend a week at The French Table. In the meantime I would love to buy this book and tackle that epic chicken confit! All the food described is definitely dishes that I would want to make, eat and share.

    • You certainly feel like you are there with Jane as you read the book. Beautiful descriptive writing & stunning photography throughout. I, too, would love to spend a week at The French Table at Chateau Bosgouet. I suspect i will have to live the fantasy through these pages …

  3. I was given her first book and it is really lovely! And 31 hours in the making-well done! :D How was it in the end?

    • The chicken confit was lovely Lorraine. I ended up slow cooking it for 6 hours instead of the full 7 and the flesh still melted off the bone as I lifted it from the dish, so I’d probably cut the cooking time even further next time. I think I’d also lift it out onto a dripping tray to cook for the last half hour to let the skin crisp up & also try to let more of the excess fat drip off. It was a lovely, indulgent Sunday dinner.

  4. Both books sounds wonderful – I have been looking for real Normandy recipes in English and this may do the trick.

    • There is a lovely recipe collection at the back of this gorgeous book & a smattering throughout its pages, as well as lots of references to normand cuisine. It certainly inspires you into the kitchen.

  5. What a lovely review! I have not heard of this book, nor Jane Webster’s first book, but your review has me wanting to go to the bookshop first thing tomorrow! I love French cuisine and gladly read any book I can find on it :-) Btw, the chicken confit sounds delicious!

    • It’s a very lovely & clever book – hooks in the reader with lots of romantic descriptions of the chateau & French country life. The chicken confit was damn fine, too.

  6. Rachel, thank you for sharing this beautifully worded review. You had me with the opening sentences and I can indeed image picking blackberries and cycling to the bay tree. OMG, talk about living the dream. Dare I purchase another book, it should be this one.

    • Thanks for your lovely feedback, Lizzy. I read the narrative in two sittings, it was difficult to stop reading. I’m looking forward to trying out some more of the recipes this long weekend.

  7. Noelle Schroder

    I’ve just read the second book “French Ties” and love the way Jane has captured the feeling of living in the french countryside. Having returned recently from there and still savouring the experience, I felt like hopping on the plane again and going to stay at the chateau. The recipes are good and so easy with ingredients readily availabe in New Zealand.
    A delightful publication.

  8. Robbie

    Hi from Snug in southern Tasmania. I bought ‘French Ties’ today and can hardly wait to begin. Thank you Jane for such inspiration. Like a lot of Australians I am so French inspired.

    • It’s a gorgeous book isn’t it. There is a chocolate cake recipe i’m thinking of trying this weekend. Let us know how you get on with any recipes you try from the book. Thanks for dropping by.

  9. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished
    to mention that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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