At my French Table by Australian expat Jane Webster »

Food, family and joie de vivre in a corner of Normandy

By Robyn Lewis
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At my French Table by Jane Webster

At my French Table by Jane Webster [©Penguin Books]


For any Francophile or foodie – and the two often go together – this book is a must. Filled with evocative photographs, nurturing recipes and stories of an Australian family's experiences as they adjust to living in another country and culture, At my French Table captures the simple pleasures of daily life in this beautiful corner of rural France.

It was lent to me by a friend, and I read it over two hours. But I keep going back to it, to delight in the photographs, to try out some of the forty recipes, to marvel at the resourcefulness and energy of the author – who with her family bought and renovated a neglected chateau, turned it into a cooking school with accommodation, and then hosted international cooking groups – and to savour the flavours of France which waft invitingly from every page.

It's rare to find a book published in Australia that so readily captures the essence of another country, least of all France, about which so much has been written. No cliched photographs here however; talented photographer Nikole Ramsay's eye is unerring in seeking out the detail that separates the charming from the banal, and transforms this book from a travelogue to a journey.

The story begins – of course – in Paris. Jane and Peter are on their honeymoon, and were capitvated by almost everything they saw, and the reverence with which the French treat food. Returning to their hometown Melbourne, Jane immediately signed on to a number of French cooking classes at Daylesford.  Et voila: undeterred by lack of commercial experience, an Armadale cafe was born, with Jane creating French  patisseries on the other side of the globe. Four children follow – and in a twist of fate, her sister marries a Belgian and moves to a village just outside Paris. The family go to visit, return again, and again....

Trips became longer and more frequent. Jane's acquisitive eye turned from the odd piece of French provincial furniture to the French  countryside, and its neglected chateaux. The idea of taking her family to France and immersing them in its culture grew in appeal. And why not? Multilingual children are the norm in Europe, but lagging in Australia. But how to do it? Taking tours would not be enough – but culinary tours with hands-on cooking classes might justify the next step.

Fortunately, Jane's ever-supportive husband Peter was equally smitten. And so businesses were sold or put on hold, furniture packed, French property laws negotiated, children removed from schools, and the Webster family found themselves in the village of Bosgouet, population 480, twenty-five kilometres from the capital of Normandy, Rouen.

What follows is a tale of transformation, sheer energy and determination as the overrun chateau becomes firstly a home and then almost a hotel. Oak floorboards are hand-sanded and waxed, furniture sourced from antique markets, the kitchen salvaged and brought to life, the chateau decorated. I could not resist a moment of wondering how on earth they paid for it all, but it was Bosgouet's good fortune that they did. Gradually too they became accepted by the locals, as the Webster children picked up French at school and made friends with neighbours' children.

It's a dream, really – pack up the urban house and family, move to the country, pick up a photogenic piece of real estate, embrace rural life, expose your children to new experiences. Only this is across continents. Far more than the expat life, however, this is immersion to the full.

Anyone who has ever harboured the germ of such a dream, or feels the pangs of a mid-life crisis coming on, will enjoy this book. Here is someone who has had the courage of her convictions – and the good fortune to back the vision – and done it. Life is not a dress rehearsal. For those of us anchored in the reality of jobs, childcare and mortgages, escape for a few hours, dream of what is possible or might have been – but most of all, enjoy a genuine taste of this part of rural France.


At my French Table by Jane Webster is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books (Australia, sc; 2008). RRP A$39.95 (hardcover 1st edition was A$59.95) subscribers can purchase the softcover version via Booko here »

Visit Jane Webster's website


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June 20th, 2009
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