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