After a long and dreary winter, what better way to greet spring than with author Jane Webster and her beautiful books celebrating food, life and joie de vivre. At My French Table and its companion volume French Ties are two gorgeous volumes that contain the enchanting story of Jane Webster’s serendipitous search for and restoration of a French chateau.
Webster, a former primary school teacher and café owner in Melbourne, had a dream of opening a cooking school in France. Her approach to running this school is so unique that it blows away the competition of which there is much. Webster, well-aware of that competition, decided to run culinary tours combined with hands-on cooking and most exciting of all, the students, she decided, would spend the week at the chateau itself.
She takes you by the hand on her magical odyssey (frought with trials, travails and travel) through the most exquisite photographs detailing her quest to find the perfect chateau for her and her family, one that would contain an industrial-sized kitchen and also comfortably house her family and guests- including her students, as she was developing her plan to create a truly unique cooking school experience. You are present as the chateau is first found and then transformed, the town embraces them, the surrounding farm animals become a part of their daily lives and the locals display their seasonal harvests and generously share their techniques and Webster in turn shares them with you, the lucky reader.
On this journey you will also discover the elixir of health at Fecamp Abbey, a glass of Benedictine to be taken at dinner, visit Norman seaside resorts, be taken to the region’s finest restaurants, you will look for treasures at the local brocantes (flea markets) and delight in her find of a long sought after place setting. You will also be shown so up close you could reach out and touch them, the artworks of Rouen, dubbed by Victor Hugo as the city of a thousand spires, see children skating in front of Notre Dame and hear the monks chanting at Abbeye du Bec-Hellouin.
Never flowery in her descriptions, the story is written in her own refreshingly down-to-earth style that makes you feel as though you’ve sat down and had a long talk with a dear friend. She guides you to her outdoor table under the Linden tree, known for its healing properties, and offers you a cup of tea made from the leaves of the Linden. Here, she tells you tales of her life along with fascinating anecdotes of the house’s long and varied history.
Inside, the house beckons as Webster has waxed all of the woods with linseed oil and beeswax prior to your arrival. She has filled the halls, bedrooms and baths with the smells of French lavender and freshly baked tarts emanating from the kitchen. What makes the chateau most special of all, however, is when her four children and little dog are gracing its halls, her husband is out working in the gardens, her father fixing clocks in the barn. When you see the photos of the house lit up at night, surely you can see that it is smiling down from its perch with pride, this being its favorite incarnation.
My only complaint is that, like any good adventure, the books come to an end…but not without the sharing of cooking techniques and ingredients straight from the locals. These sensuous recipes are a lasting gift generously shared by the author from the land where food is life.
For more information on the cooking school, see website.
Interview with Jane Webster by Denise Bouchard
“Place is more important than strength” Vedic proverb
1) When speaking of your cooking school, you write “…in our first summer at Bosgouet I spent time refining my plan for The French Table. My role would be as impresario. I would play host to the groups of guests who had come to Bosgouet to get a taste of the chateaux life and learn to cook. The groups would stay for a week at a time, and I’d put together an itinerary that would take in the sights of Normandy as well as the region’s best markets and restaurants. I wanted a well-reputed chef to run daily hands-on cooking classes, using ingredients that would either come from our potager or from the local markets we visited.”
The notion of the cooking school with its approach that involves an all-encompassing induction to the tastes, sights, ways and traditions of Northern French life sounds like a unique andtransformative experience. From the freshness of local markets to the architecture to the philosophies of well-cooked meal slowly savored amidst family and friends, have any of your students been inspired toward a lifestyle change after the course? Share with us anecdotes about students’ revelations, whether some learned more than how to cook in the French tradition, whether some learned a different way to live.
We refer often to "the magic of Bosgouet" as it seems to bring people together with a common love of great seasonal produce and finest wines to accompany... However beyond this common thread of food, francophilia and a hankering for an immersed experience in the french countryside or la vie en chateau lies something more. Many people come to The French Table looking for a new direction in their lives. It may be a major change or a simple change in mindset. One couple who have now attended three french tables with me headed off to a local real estate agent in search of their own slice of French paradise. I've had much feedback from past visitors that they have gone back to their lives in Australia, America, New Zealand, South Africa, UK, Holland...just to name a few and injected a little bit of France into their daily lives. This has included shopping daily as the french do, making a conscience decision to only eat seasonally and locally. Stopping to share an aperitif with family on a nightly basis; not necessarily alcoholic but a deeper ritual that unites a family and opens the channels of communication so important in family life. I'm convinced that people do not arrive at Bosgouet looking for a change, big or small or ready to open up, discuss openly the most raw emotions within... However, it happens again and again. Maybe it's the serenity and purity of The Bosgouet Walk that spins it's magic on everyone and brings an honesty and clarity to long conversations made with new friends, or simply being away from the every day hum drum of life in a place so real.
2) Having read At my French Table and French Ties, I feel as though I’ve come home in some regard.
My father was stationed in Normandy in WWII at about nineteen years old and he always told us that he wanted to go back there. While in La Madeleine he became very close to the townspeople and was keenly aware of their wartime needs. One of the first families that he came in contact with had the same last name as he did. My father, coming from a traditional French household, had many of the same loves that they did; particularly a love of homemade French food. He missed his mother’s cooking and the family missed having good tires for their cars. My father provided and they in turn invited him for dinners. I think that perhaps the effect that his time there had on our lives was significant, even down to my given middle name.
I listened to these stories with the rapt attention of a fascinated child hearing of far off places. If he was here now I’d hang on his every word and ask endless questions. Many of us can relate to having loved ones shaped by the experiences and travels of their youth, their histories an intricate part of who they are. We often wish we could glimpse back in time to see these formative events. In that vein, as it was Normandy that affected the successive generations of our family, I thought it would be an unusual and interesting exercise to have you fill in the blanks with facts and fiction about that time:
Where is La Madeleine located in Normandy?
La Madeleine is a hamlet situated within the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont... A village in North West France, very near to Utah beach.
What might the farmhouse of the family he visited have looked like (structure, décor)?
It may have been a typical Norman farmhouse in the half-timbered Norman style. This style of architecture has a heavy emphasis on wood, both inside and out. The style of farmhouse is often long and low with beautiful thatched roof where perennial bulbs bloom each Springtime. Colombage architecture can be seen throughout the region of Normandy in pretty Norman villages dotted throughout the region. Colombage farm houses often sit on a significant plot of land, positioned beautifully amongst ancient trees and beautifully manicured Norman gardens. These beautiful Norman structures are easily identified by their half timbered walls, filled in with local flint stone or mud panels. They are similar in style to the Tudor style of England.
Would he have been in danger leaving the base to get to this family?
The hedgerows so prominent in Normandy would have been both a danger and perhaps a safe haven for your father. These hedge structures have been planted by Norman farmers for centuries to border their fields. They typically grow to around five foot tall and often just as thick. They were used during WWII for German forces to hide and sneak up on allied forces. The hedgerows of the Norman countryside caused great distress for the allied forces during the battles on Norman soil during WWII... Your father may have found this natural fortress helpful in his journeys to visit this family or a hindrance as he would not have been able to see beyond the next hedgerow.
What might they have served him for dinner and what would the etiquette and conversation have been like?
A typical Norman meal would have started with an aperitif, perhaps a kir normand (kir topped with local cider), a Pernod or Calvados. A typical Norman meal will commence with an entree, perhaps a beautiful green salad topped with melted Camembert crouton, freshest herbs, carefully pan fried lardon with the oil and juices of the lardon serving as a succulent dressing for the salad greens. The "plat" or main course may have been perfectly sautéed milk fed veal from a local farmer, served with a creamy mushroom sauce and home grown haricot vert from the garden. Your father would then have been offered the compulsory Norman cheese platter. A variety of cheeses would have been offered including Pont L'eveque, Livarot and Camembert... I'm sure they would have been all local cheeses being war time. To finish, I imagine dessert may have been a deliciously buttery and flakey Tart Tartin made with local Norman apples and served with great dollops of purest cream fraiche!
3) You write so beautifully; like an artist with a brush, you use your pen to paint a picture of a different culture so that we can feel, smell and taste the foods, experience the atmosphere and know the people.
When did you find the time to create these gorgeous books and what went into their formation (finding the right photographer, assembly of ideas, etc…)?
I worked on At my French Table over a two year period when we first went to live in France. My writing tends to fit in between all the other hats I wear and while children were at school or sleeping!
What led you to your decision to share your brave story of transition with the world?
I had always had a hankering to write. Even today I can close my eyes and I am back on my childhood bed, legs crossed with a notebook perched on my lap as I chew on a pencil, contemplating the next line of my poems. I dreamt of one day writing a book and of course to seven-year-old Jane the ultimate prize would be to be published.
What does your writing space look like at the chateau? What are your culinary muses when you write to create a sensory experience as you enter the writing mode (with a cup of tea and pain du chocolat, fresh regional fruit, etc…)?
My French oak desk sits snugly in the corner of one of the sitting rooms on the main reception level of the chateau. It's a smallish desk with three drawers for all my paraphernalia and a beautiful blue and white china lamp base... Topped with a pleated clotted cream shade. I love ths space as I sit and look out the floor to ceiling French window that flanks my right side. It's an incredibly easy place to sit and wile away the hours. Often accompanying me at my desk is a huge pot of English breakfast tea, my favorite china mug and slices of hot toast smoothered in the best Norman butter... Perfect writing partners!!
I've also been known to write a huge amount with a flute of champagne at my side... I've often said "champagne is my writing muse."
4) On the note of serendipity which we often encounter at our publication, do you think that the universe enters in to help us when we begin to move ahead with plans that align with our dreams (our purpose or what we’re meant to do)? For example, the chateau you found fits your lifestyle so perfectly in that the school for your children was right near you, your father found a close friend in a neighbor (sharing a love of antiquing), the kitchen in the basement and every room in the house satisfies the needs not only of your family but your dream of a cooking school. On a smaller scale, the vintage Villeroy and Boch place setting that you had wanted since you were sixteen was discovered at one of those wonderful flea markets (foire auxpuces); by the time your father, daughter and husband told you that they had found the setting, you’d purchased it. On your morning walks, the cows surrounding your neighbor’s property entice your darling little dog Peppie to run with them.
It seems as though the universe is saying, ‘We love your idea for this life and you’ve worked so hard and loved it into being so well that we are coming in to help fulfill different facets along the way.’
I'm a huge believer that the universe reaches out to us if we are open to opening our hearts, dreams and desires to her. I often think its all a matter of taking the tiniest first step when it comes to making your dreams a reality. I know it's been said time and time again however we all do have one life to live and making the most of our time on this incredible earth and experiencing all she has to offer is all we can ask for. We have always wanted to be good role models to our kids and encourage them to also follow their dreams in whatever direction they may take them... 'No regrets' is the motto of the Webster house and an underlying understanding that we will all make mistakes along the way and it's more important to learn from those mistakes and pick yourself up after the negative ones than to dwell on them... To also realise that some mistakes can take us on the most enchanting wonderful adventures and this can be frightening but life changing and exhilarating as well.
5) Doing what you did, going to Normandy from Melbourne with your family and purchasing the chateau to embark on this project, was a major life change and the fact that it was done so as to affect the lives of all around you in such a positive way has been deeply touching and inspirational to me. What personal qualities, strengths, beliefs did you draw upon that gave you a level of comfort that it would all work out for the best? Even when it wasn’t certain that the house would come through, even when there were no guarantees of friendships to be had once you got there, even when the fireplaces where torn from the walls and stolen, you still steadily moved forward.
I was incredibly fortunate to meet and marry Peter who was as passionate...if not more [so] than I was about this whole adventure. I'm a homebody and many times could have fallen into a funk and thought 'Oh it's all too much. Let's just stay in Melbourne and forget this fanciful idea.' [Yet] whenever I ventured into this territory, there he was my rock, supporting, coaxing, encouraging me out of my comfort zone to move forward and make this dream a reality for our family. Determination plays an enormous role in our lives and a sense of fun and adventure keeps us going when things get tough. We have often talked about why we did what we did and apart from not wanting to live with regret had we not gone ahead with our French plans we truly wanted to make an impact on the lives of our children. We wanted them to gain the qualities, strengths and beliefs that they could do and be anything they liked in the world. We wanted them to gain and understand another language and culture and become citizens of the the world that embraced the differences of any land they might find themselves in. We believe our initial two year stint in France also made them kind, patient people that have great tolerance for those around them. They face difficult situations with a sense of calm and maturity that I could only have dreamt of at the same age... Being thrown into a foreign school with no language skills will do that to you!
6) “A story is not like a road to follow…it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you"- Alice Munro, award-winning Canadian short-story writer
In the reading of your books, one soon sees that they’re far more than lifestyle tomes or simply recipe books; instead, one enters a beautiful story where you’re home is featured as one of its characters with a personality of its own, an old soul with its own history. The house and the land and the people seem to have embraced all of you, loving you right back. You learned much of the house’s history and it truly is a character that has seen much, from the Nazi occupation to the gambling Duchesse and an impressionist painter. What do you think the house, in its current incarnation, would like to say? What might be said of this gorgeous home that just wanted to be loved?
When we first started to inspect chateaux back in 1998 we were told by an eccentric English Chatelaines that were in the business of selling these grand old estates that: "You will not find the chateau... The chateau will find you." Of course I immediately fell under this spell and was convinced that indeed the chateau would find us and Pete rolled his eyes with a sly smile and made noises like a witch brewing her latest spell al the while rotating his imaginary ladle in the cast iron pot. Many laughs and taunts later we were no longer laughing... Or should I say Pete was no longer laughing as Bosgouet was indeed calling us to make her our home. The pull to fill this gorgeous old house with laughter, love and family was so incredibly strong and all encompassing. I'd hope Bosgouet sees the Webster Family, her current custodians, as an important part of her history. We saved her from rack and ruin or from becoming a reality TV show. We've filled her with friends and family, strangers and events bringing a wonderful mix of true old fashioned "home" and a lovely understated commercial side that keeps her ticking along without compromising her soul.
7) Family is what it’s all about and yours is a beautiful example with a loving, supportive husband, four beautiful children and a very involved father. I know that you’re juggling two big lives and in doing so you make it look easy, though I know it can’t be. Yet as Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Talk to us about the importance of taking risks, trying radically new/different things to pursue our happiness.
Firstly, thank you so much Denise. Your feedback and understanding of my story has blown me away. You have been so incredibly generous with your thoughts on my books and my life. Family to me is everything, it's what my first breath each morning is centered on. My husband and my children are my very being and this adventure has taken us as individuals but also as a family to a very special, secure place where we all love to come and gather around a table, talk, eat, share and reflect. I remember my son, aged 17 at the time, coming into the kitchen at Bosgouet a few weeks before Xmas and popping his arm around me, gently leading me to the french windows. The Xmas music was playing in the background, I was baking shortbread and mince tarts in my ideal Xmas world of my own and my adolescent son, with his arm wrapped around me, staring out the window at the softly falling snow says, "There's nothing better than this Mum... Is there?" It's these wonderful moments in life that make all the risks so worth it.