Australian stylist, cook and journalist Sara Silm spent much of her life travelling the world before buying the dream-like Chateau Montfort in 2015. Through a lens of colour, texture and flavour, she brings us a taste of life in the French countryside in her bright new book How to French Country.
We spoke to Sara about her life of wanderlust, what readers can expect from the book and some tips on living your dream.
You grew up in Sydney, worked in the Middle East and South Africa, lived in Russia and Kazakhstan before eventually purchasing Chateau Montfort in Southwestern France. What inspired you to travel and experience the world the way you have?
I think it was my first trip overseas. My father was a great hiker and managed to organise a six-week expedition to base camp of Mount Everest (by fax) when I was just 11 years old. This was well before the internet and organised group trekking, so we did it as a family with yaks at altitude, and lower down, with porters. We eventually walked out into India and celebrated in a beautiful old British Raj hotel set amidst the tea plantations of Darjeeling. That trek opened my eyes to a world that was ripe for adventure; a fascinating temptation that demanded to be explored. There was no going back at that point, I was hooked.
I think what really intrigues me about living in other cultures, though, is the thrill of being outside of your comfort zone: of being confronted with new smells, tastes, cultures, languages, sounds and sensations, so strange and wondrous that you’re forced to engage all your senses and truly live in the moment. I think I learnt from a very early age that I wasn’t very good at existing in a predictable environment. It felt like living life in a constant circle. I’m more a linear kind of person. I’m captured by the thrill of what lies beyond the ridge or around the bend.
What do you find most rewarding: writing, cooking or styling?
It’s probably photography actually, closely followed by writing. There’s not a single day I don’t have a camera in my hand. Nothing gives me more pleasure than capturing light, colour and the beauty of everyday life in a lens, whether it’s on my big professional camera or simply an iPhone. It’s a kind of obsession if I’m honest; a bit like a mad stamp collector or an entomologist collecting insects in a net. The thrill of fishing through images at the end of the day is honestly one of my favourite things in life. You just never know what might be waiting for you. It’s those unexpected split seconds that managed to find their way into the frame: the purity of emotion captured in the that precious moment when laughter or doubt or wonder registered in the subject’s face. When light weaves itself through the grass like ribbons on a maypole or when you capture the whimsy of an everyday object that would otherwise remain unseen and unappreciated.
As for writing, it’s something I don’t ever choose to do. It just happens, daily. I can remember writing and illustrating my own little books when I was very small, and it’s continued in one form or another throughout my life. The actual typing of it at the computer is such a small part of the process. The bulk of my writing happens in my head when I’m walking the dogs, or in the garden, or in the car… which might explain why my children often complain that they need to ask me the same thing two or three times. I’m constantly in my own little world!
Tell us about a day in your life at Chateau Montfort.
I can’t pretend that life here at Chateau Montfort isn’t filled with the same all-consuming logistics that determine the routine in most family homes; there’s no escaping that. But a typical day here is very much dictated by the season; more so than in other places I’ve lived. I love to watch the sunrise which is the best way of knowing what month you’re in — it can be early or it can require a rather long wait in the dark. Most days start with a walk along the old Roman road that hugs the ridge behind Montfort. It’s a kind of mental meandering through the tasks for the day as well as through the landscape which, like us, changes in subtle ways from day to day. Some days the Pyrenees poke their snow-capped peaks through a blanket of soft cloud. Other days they stand proud in a clear blue sky. In autumn there are chestnuts to be gathered from the forest floor and roasted on the fire at night; ceps to be foraged and sauteed in butter and garlic. In summer there are fields of wild mint for making refreshing iced tea and wild blackberries — something my dogs delight in snacking on as we meander along the track. They’re truly French dogs!
Most days I’m in the garden tending to the potager, the perennial beds, the chickens and the goats (they’re always escaping) and collecting flowers, herbs & foliage for the house — there are always fresh flowers in the house, even in the depths of winter. I adore the farmer’s markets, so depending on the day (each day the market is in a different village) I’ll be sipping coffee at a little bar somewhere with the other early risers out to bag the freshest produce before the lazy ones make their way at a more respectable hour.
The AGA is generally laden with pots bubbling away with jam and chutney and inevitably a daube or casserole in the simmering oven. I’m almost always restoring a piece of furniture, and nearly six years on, the house renovations continue. I’m currently decorating both my son’s rooms. One is at university, and the other has just started at boarding school in Dublin so I’m finally reclaiming these teen-dens and making them my own, or at least more hospitable for any future girlfriends!
Your new book, How to French Country, is the ultimate guide to surrounding yourself with French country style no matter where you are in the world – a welcome delight for Australians itching to travel! What can readers expect from the book?
It’s a book that’s intended to be very much a handbook. It’s both a lifestyle and regional guide that might inspire a future trip to this beautiful but largely lesser-known part of France. If travel isn’t an option, it’s also a way of bringing home a little bit of France, be it via a recipe, colour palette or décor option, no matter where you live. I know how hard it can be to make a home feel authentic, especially if you don’t know where to start or where to find materials that express the way you want to feel, so I included a chapter that charts the course of our little stone barn. It’s essentially a mini house, so it formed a perfect vignette that allows readers to see how each room developed in real-time (it was renovated and shot by me over the course of nearly two years). Essentially, it’s a book that provides the perfect escape from the four walls that have defined our lives for these past months, and years in some cases. A way of reassessing what’s important to us and the way we want to live going forward.
It seems to us that you are living the dream – do you have any tips for readers looking to do the same?
I think the pandemic has been an incredible opportunity to refocus on dreams — both personal and those in the interest of our planet. Life is so fragile and so short, there’s no time to waste. Dreams remain just that if action isn’t taken, so my advice has always been to move ahead and make them a reality, no matter how big or small. There are always obstacles, especially when you throw in foreign countries and ancient buildings, but if you break a dream down, be realistic about your expectations and take one day at a time, you will get there. Dreams take grit and determination and sometimes many years in the making, but the reality is thrilling. Far more thrilling than the alternative of doing nothing and allowing them to simply exist in your mind.
What’s next for you?
I’m very excited about my upcoming collection of wallpapers with Sandberg, one of my favourite Swedish wallpaper companies. There’s a wonderful historical link between Sweden and the Béarn, so we’re developing some beautiful designs with this in mind. As the world gradually re-opens, I’m also starting to develop some new travel guides for my website and a wonderful series of inspiring interviews with creatives who are living their bliss. Esther, my Nubian goat doesn’t like the rain and has asked for an indoor hay manger in her maison so there’s that…and perhaps a new rose bed. You can never have enough roses!
How to French Country is available now. Text and photography by Sara Silm and design by Daniel New.
September 28, 2021