Writer, cook, and stylist Sara Silm has traveled the world from Asia and North Africa, to South America and Europe before settling down with her family in the Béarnaise village of Montfort, located in the Aquitaine region of France, in 2015.
The chateau which Sara describes as more storybook than Walt Disney, has embraced the country charm of her adopted home, spending her days going between the ongoing renovation project, looking after her three children, creating delicious dishes with local produce in the chateau’s kitchen and writing her first book which will be coming out in April 2021.
You grew up in Sydney and worked in the Middle East, South Africa and after returning to Australia you moved with your husband to Russia and Kazakhstan. How has traveling the world inspired you personally and what is one of your most memorable experiences prior to moving to France?
I think the greatest thing about being a true seeker of wanderlust and adventure is never reaching your destination. For me at least, life is the greatest adventure of all. From my earliest memories I’ve always felt like the path before me was one of fascinating twists and turns; to be discovered and set upon; never a straight one where I could see what lay ahead.
I’m also very much a global citizen. I’ve never seen the world in a very nationalistic way, divided by arbitrary man-made lines but I do think luck has a huge role to play in terms of where you’re born and the consequent opportunities we as individuals are able access. Sadly, our ability to travel and see the world at liberty is not always a given. Travel has taught me that.
One of my most memorable travel experiences? Gosh… there’s so many but I think witnessing the election of Nelson Mandela when I was running a remote game lodge in the Northern Transvaal of South Africa would be one. I drove the staff in an open game drive vehicle for an hour and a half to vote for the first time that day. It was in a very tight-knit conservative white town. The tension was almost electric; there was a sense of deep foreboding mixed with nervous euphoria and a silence so thick and still you felt like the world had been placed on mute and set in aspic.I remember making them all stand together afterwards and took a photograph ‘for your grandchildren and their grandchildren’, I said. They all laughed and said I had a photo for every day of the week so they’d add it to the top of the pile (I’ve always had a camera in my hand). It was a day I really felt like I was living history as the ink dried on the page; a memory I’ll treasure forever.
In 2015, you and your husband bought Chateau Montfort named after the Béarnaise village of Montfort that is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Was the Chateau the first one you and your family looked at when you decided to move to France, or did you look at other chateaux?
Actually we looked at quite a few, many of which were incredibly grand and far bigger than anything we’d ever imagined but we’d built and renovated a lot of homes and knew what things cost. We figured it would be better to buy something smaller that we could renovate, finish and enjoy than something we would be enslaved to forevermore.
Can you recall what went through your mind the moment you saw the Chateau you would call home for the first time?
I just felt like I’d known it in some strange way, or perhaps it had known me and sought me out because it needed to be loved again. It was far bigger and more imposing than any house I’d ever lived in, but it wasn’t boastful or proud. It revealed its self slowly and seemed to take you by the hand; whispering and sharing it’s secrets along the way with a soft gentle voice.
I loved reading on your Instagram about when you bought the house you had a key for two of the rooms with a handwritten tag Maman and another Papa. What are some of the finds you’ve made in the Chateau during the restoration process?
Like so many old country homes in France, they’re often second homes and sold with their contents, or at least what’s left behind. Ours was no exception, there were old beds, linen, books, crockery and boxes of letters and photo albums, many from the original owners, so it’s been quite a puzzle to piece together the storyline.
How long did it take for your family to adjust to life in France (language, customs etc)?
One things for sure, foreigners are never ever REALLY considered a local in this part of rural France. The families in our village have been here for centuries so at best we’ll only ever be ‘les étrangers’ no matter how hard we try to adopt the culture and speak the language but that’s often the reality for first generation immigrants. I think it’s vital to learn as much as possible, particularly to learn the language, study history, and ask lots of questions. I’ve never been afraid of making a complete fool of myself which helps… a lot!
As a family we’re quite used to being in other cultures so perhaps it didn’t take as long to settle as it would otherwise. I think the key to settling quickly is never to arrive with an expectation that you can bring what you knew before. Each cultural experience is unique, replete with its own unique challenges and rewards. You can never put your foot in the same river twice. You just have to go with the flow.
Where are some of the places in your local village and the surrounding area that you like to frequent?
I love to walk with the dogs along what was once an old Roman road on the ridge behind our village. It’s like a bookend to my day. I don’t think I’d sleep quite as well if I hadn’t filled my lungs with beautiful mountain air and looked out across the valley at sunset each day.
I also love to shop for fresh produce at the village markets that are each held at a different village on a different day of the week.
In summer we often hike the various local paths along the GR10- the trail that follows the Pyrenees between the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. There’s also regular day trips to the beaches of Biarritz, Hossigor and Saint-Jean-de-luz as well as San Sebastián in Spain (all approx a 1 hour drive) .
In winter, we ski most weekends which is wonderful.
What are some of the recipes that you’ve made recently?
I tend not to follow recipes unless I have a huge glut of something and need inspiration for something completely new. That said, I have a vast library of cookbooks and my greatest pleasure is to sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and earmark recipes, so I suppose there’s a good mix overall.
I generally buy locally and seasonally so this simplifies things somewhat. Lately we’ve had lots of beautiful white asparagus which I’ve steamed and served with a simple Hollandaise sauce. The trout and salmon are running in the river just below our house at the moment so again, I’ve cooked them quite simply in a nutty brown butter with toasted almonds alongside a green salad picked from the potager. Dessert lately has tended to be delicious old variety local strawberries with chantilly cream or a wedge of our local brebis cheese (made with sheep’s milk) bought from the shepherd just down the road and served with a little Basque sour cherry jam; a local specialty.
As a freelance writer and stylist you’ve been published by some of Australia’s most well-known interiors magazines such as Inside Out, Australian House & Garden and Australian Country Style and now you’re working on your first book that will be released in April 2021. What have you enjoyed the most about the experience of writing your first book?
It’s been quite a process because the writing has been alongside the photography, and in real time over four seasons.
It’s not quite finished so perhaps I’ll have more to add at a later date, but so far it’s been an absolute joy to write to the page; to talk to the images I’ve taken and bring them to life for the reader. I think there’s something very special about being given the opportunity to weave a wonderful tale both with your own images and words.
How do you hope that the book will serve as an inspiration to others?
I hope that it’s a very generous book. I’ve tried to show how living the dream of French country life as a foreigner plays out: from tips and advice on how to renovate and decorate, how to restore and expand an old garden, to what life in the French countryside is like throughout the changing seasons. It’s a rare glimpse into an otherwise quite undiscovered part of rural France, full of fabulous artisans, traditions and exquisite natural beauty. I’m very excited to share it.
Once the chateau is restored (and it’s safe to travel) you hope to host workshops for creatives. What are some of the workshops you hope to host?
I’d like to follow on from the book and do a combination of styling, colour theory and sourcing workshops; mixing some practical theory with some fun outings to my favourite brocantes and artisans. There will also be lots a fabulous French food and wine as well as some guest workshops with other creatives I know and admire.
Keep up with the renovations to Chateau Montfort via the website and @chateaumontfort on Instagram.
All images in this post via Sara Silm.