The first seed was planted on their honeymoon to Paris. Too occupied with university and careers to have travelled abroad before then, Jane Webster and her husband became enamoured with everything French –the food, the wine, the joie de vivre. A fascination for the country’s historic chateaux was cultivated on subsequent visits and for years the school teacher and dentist by trade, who had renovated houses in Melbourne, dreamt of restoring one of these proud-but-neglected domiciles. Ultimately, it was the fear of regret that saw their sapling fantasy nurtured to full, glorious bloom, culminating in Jane’s debut book, At My French Table.
In 2005, Jane and husband Peter downed tools and moved with their four young children to a flourishing corner of Normandy, immersing themselves in a tiny village near Rouen, where the Francophiles worked on returning ‘Chateau Bosgouet’ to its former 19th-century glory. Embracing the seasonal rhythms of rural France, the family adapted well to the gentle pace of life and a return to simple pleasures: strolling through a serene forest or bustling village market, gathering walnuts or picking blackberries and making something out of them with the kids, hosting children’s parties in the garden, and so on.
On its own, Jane imparts, the chateau was probably not reason enough to relocate their family to the other side of the world, so she mulled over ways to massage her other loves – cooking, hosting and writing – into the mix. “I was always searching for a way to combine everything I loved into a business that would also have the benefits of a lifestyle. The whole format for The French Table really came from writing down all the things that I loved and was quite good at.” The French Table is Jane’s cooking school, run from the chateau in the form of week-long culinary vacations. The itinerary is a giddy fancy for bon vivants – a glimpse at chateau living. The experience includes cooking instruction by established chefs, trips to farmers markets, dining at Michelin-star and notable local restaurants, and meals lovingly prepared using fresh, seasonal produce (including as many of the biblically plump vegetables, fruits and herbs as possible from the chateau’s cornucopian one-acre garden).
Though not a chef herself, Jane is a veritable foodie who studied French gastronomic history and ran a French cafe, La Gare, in Victoria in the early 1990s. As a child, too, she loved cooking and was given free reign of the kitchen. Fast forward to Bosgouet, where Jane set about meeting butchers, fishmongers, bakers, cheesemakers and chefs to garner regional food knowledge for use in her own kitchen. Now, every summer, guest chefs such as Marieke Brugman and Alla Wolf-Tasker (of Lake House renown in Daylesford, Victoria) help bring the flavours of Normandy – think rich cream and butter, apples and pears, pre-sale (salt meadow) lamb and succulent poultry – to Jane’s table.
While the ‘garden of France’ might seem like a natural choice of location for this type of venture, Jane admits that Normandy was chosen for its close proximity to Paris and London. But the region’s strong food tradition sits very comfortably with the thing Jane is most inspired by, what she refers to as ‘lost skills’ – the things our grandparents did that became unfashionable, such as gardening, cooking, growing your own herbs and keeping a home. In the chateau’s potager, Jane hopes to grow everything they need for not only the classes but to feed everyone under their roof, which currently includes two other Australian couples helping to caretake the property.
Now in its second season, The French Table has perpetuated another of Jane’s long-held dreams, to write a book. At My French Table is a beautiful assemblage of snippets of family life, moreish recipes grouped by season (including milk-fed veal with vermouth and tarragon, honey-and-lavender madeleine cakes and farm-fresh yoghurt) and dishy photography. When asked how she came to be living out her dreams so precisely, Jane elucidates her fear of regret.
One morning, when Jane and Peter were out walking, he said that he was sick of talking about it. So, Jane replied, “Me too. Let’s do it. I don’t want to wake up when I’m 75 and look at you and say, ‘Why didn’t we do that? That would have been a fantastic thing to do.’”– In the end, it was their fear of not doing it that gave the couple the impetus to make it happen. Auspiciously, Jane’s sister married a Belgian who was transferred to Paris, giving Jane and Peter the perfect excuse to return to France several times in the name of research before their move.
They will always love Australia, where the family now lives for half the year after two years full-time in France, but Jane says they were keen to immerse their children in another culture. “One of the biggest things was to make the kids realise that, although they live in a great part of the world, we’re just a tiny little pimple on a pumpkin.” Educationally, she believes that giving her children this challenge and putting them in French schools is the best thing they’ve ever done for them. Her eldest daughter put it most succinctly about six months in, when Jane asked how she was finding school: “Oh yeah, it’s really hard, mum, but nothing’s ever going to be hard again.”
In her own childhood, Jane’s mother was an “incredible motivator”. “She would get us three kids, whenever she saw we were upset about something or not doing our personal best, she’d make us do mad things like looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Now look at that person in the mirror – that’s a fantastic person who can do whatever she puts her mind to.’” Undoubtedly, this strong maternal voice has helped guide Jane around life’s stumbling blocks, from the sometimes-negative reception of her dreams by others around her, to the almost-preordained red tape and language barriers involved with moving to a foreign country.
Yet it didn’t take the expats long to nestle their way into the close-knit weave of the local community, as perhaps best illustrated by a poignant moment when the village’s schoolchildren sang ‘Home Among the Gumtrees’ at their end-of-year play. We’ve found the French to be terribly open and welcoming,” Jane chimes. By opening themselves and their new home to the local villagers, they’ve been greeted with a reciprocally warm welcome. The vivacious Australian has continued the tradition of hosting fireworks at Chateau Bosgouet on Bastille Day, and used to get together with other women from the village for a weekly language exchange.
The words “life’s simple pleasures” reverberate when the devoted family woman declares that none of her achievements compare to having “happy, healthy kids that give her great joy”. She elaborates, “Always in the forefront is our family life and creating a happy, healthy family that eats together every night, that communicates and respects each other’s points of view.
“Best foot forward each day.” It might be a line that receives a groan and a roll of the eyes from her kids, but it’s an attitude Jane hopes to instil in them. We’re all going to die someday and, as for what you do in between, you can make it as exciting, challenging and wonderful as you want, if you just take the first step.
Interview by Sally Brown
Photography by Nikole Ramsay