Life at the French Château
Mon 15 Aug 2011
Not long ago I met the proprietress of our local château. Actually there are several near my house in the Bordeaux region of France, more than several. Perhaps it’s because we are so close to the famous wine village of St.-Emilion that most are wine châteaux. Thankfully, there are several French châteaux in the region that owners made into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or holiday vacation rentals. One such is Château Rigaud, from the 12th century, profiled before on these pages as a popular place to host a wedding.
I was grateful to enjoy a meal with Anna and her charming husband, Andrew, at the dependency in which they live on the château grounds, which of course was decorated in such a casual-chic modern style that I felt as if I were in some trendy loft-style restaurant in London or Paris. We shared the table with Wendy, who runs a very successful wine school, called the Wine Wise Company, in both the United Kingdom and the Languedoc region of France.
Naturally conversation turned to wine as we enjoyed a market-fresh salad, a lovely lamb dish and a gooey chocolate dessert. Wendy has made it her mission to make wine knowledge accessible and fun for women and men of all ages. She became a wine professional later in life after her kids were grown. I always love midlife transformations—they inspire me! But what I really wanted to know is what it was like to own, renovate and run a château as a business—all with two darling kids in tow.
Anna, what inspired you to buy and renovate a château in the southwest of France?
We bought the château by accident after the estate agent arranged it as a meeting point to view other properties. The agent suggested we look around since we were there anyway, and we fell in love with the opportunity of such an enormous project right away. That was on a Tuesday afternoon, and by Thursday morning we had signed for it!
That was eight years ago, when we had a high-flying London-based sales agency, plus two babies under two, which is a tricky combination. There was plenty of money, but it wasn’t making us happy. I hit on the idea of a six-month sabbatical in the country, to give us space to consider the future. We’d just spent a wonderful family holiday in southwest France, where everyone we met appeared to be more relaxed than we were, so I found us a very simple gîte rental for six months and we decamped to the vines. After a month or so we decided we should buy a holiday home in the region, and contacted an agent to show us what was on the market, and that was how we arranged to meet at the château. Do you think we were duped?
Tell us a bit about the house parties and the weddings that you host at the château.
When we first opened for business, we were still living in the château with our two children, who were then under six, which made it difficult to sustain a sophisticated atmosphere but easy to deliver a dream holiday to anyone with young children. The house parties are the perfect short break for tired parents. Arriving at a house party is exactly like staying with friends who happen to have a large and fully staffed house, plus nannies, in the French countryside. Because we’re limited to the nine bedrooms and many families might take two rooms, there are never more than five families in the house at one time, and hence the atmosphere is genuinely of a house-party nature. Child care every morning keeps the kids happy while Mum and Dad enjoy some valuable downtime. Guests share the kids’ supper table at fiveish, then the kids are off to bed and it’s cocktails and canapés in the bar before dinner together around a shared table. The formula really works and attracts a very social, happy to mix in-crowd usually from London but also from all over the world, including the States and in particular from Bermuda! About 80 percent of house-party guests are now returners and mates who often meet up for Rigaud reunions back in London.
The weddings are probably my favorite product. I feel privileged to play host to a family who has gathered together for a wedding. It’s such a happy occasion, and there appears to be something very special about a bride who chooses Rigaud for her big day. To date, and fingers crossed of course, we have not encountered the bridezilla phenomenon! We’re very lucky that our local mayor (Monsieur le Mairie) is positive about the inward investment that a wedding represents to the area, and as a result he is willing to exercise his discretion and to legally marry our guests within the commune. We have legally married couples from all over the world.
We stage a stunning celebration on the lawns in front of the château, then guests enjoy a two-hour champagne-and-canapés reception on the garden terraces before moving to the rustic barn for the evening meal and dancing. We love to hang crystal chandeliers lit with candles in the trees while the guests are eating. Their reaction to the stunning candlelit gardens is always magic.
How it is trying to raise a family at the same time as serving guests? How do you keep your area of the château separate and your homelife and work life balanced?
Three years ago we moved out of the château into our wonderful barn conversation at the end of the gardens. Having our own home, which is really spacious and private, has perfected the balance here. We still move back into the château for the family house parties, in order that we feel really a part of them, but for the rest of the year we’re entirely separate. The part of my life that I love the most is that I do the school run every day, and from 4:30 until the kids’ bedtime I’m not available to guests or the business. I have an outstanding team here at the château who understand this timetable, and it works really well.
What are your favorite things to do in our area, and why should one venture down from Paris?
For anyone who has an interest in wine, the Bordeaux vines are a pilgrimage, with over 13,000 wine-producing châteaux to visit! We don’t suggest that you try them all, but we are able to arrange a trip at those we consider to be the best, along with a wide range of tasting opportunities. Rigaud is just 20 minutes from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St.-Emilion, where the hermitage, catacombs and, in particular, the monolithic church make for an unforgettable afternoon. For the more active visitor we love to arrange a gentle canoe descent on the Dordogne, which can be combined with a return cycle along the banks of the river. The local food markets are of course unmissable, as are the various brocantes (antique and flea market dealers), where it’s easy to spend an afternoon and a fortune. We’re able to arrange transport back home for purchases of wine and or antique linen and mirrors. It’s all part of the château lifestyle!
Since you are in the most famous wine country in the world, what are some of your favorite wine châteaux to visit and to drink at?
St.-Emilion, being so close, is the most obvious contender for the big-name château, and the underground caves of Château Franc Mayne or Beau Séjour Bécot are breathtaking. We also like to send our guests to the smaller, lesser-known names. Just a five-minute drive from Rigaud is the award-winning Château Cablanc, where the Secrets of the Valley walk explains the winemaker’s year and takes you through the most glorious French countryside. We can pack you a picnic for halfway around the walk, which is finished off by a trip of the chai (wine-making facility) and of course a tasting. Just a half-hour drive through the rolling hills will take you to Sauternes, and the incredible story of how this finest of all dessert wines came into being and the complexity of its annual harvest. Château Guiraud offers my absolute favorite tasting. I can’t imagine a better way to while away a morning!
Describe to us one of the most romantic and memorable weddings that you’ve hosted at the château.
All of the weddings at Rigaud are romantic and memorable! There are a few highlights that stick in the mind, though. We hit on the idea of hanging things from the tree that stands over the lawn ceremony, and for one of our brides we hung 600 large white chrysanthemums on fishing wire. It looked stunning. All the guests arrived and immediately stood under the flowers to have their pictures taken.
How often do you get up to Paris and what is your favorite thing to do while there?
Alas, I rarely make the trip to the capital. I think of Bordeaux as a small and more manageable version of Paris, albeit without the galleries! When we do hit the big city, we always take in a proper classic brasserie meal, and I love a stroll around the Place des Vosges. We’ve seen a couple of great modern exhibits at the Palais de Tokyo, where the restaurant is perfect for eating as a family.
You mentioned that you have a new chef—describe the cuisine at the château.
The food at Rigaud is in keeping with the rest of the château, being relaxed, informal and contemporary and yet of the very highest quality. To this end, we focus firmly on the produce we can grow on-site. We’re not a hotel or restaurant. The maximum number we cater for in-house is less than 20, so growing for our own table is an achievable goal. This means our menus are extremely seasonal and dependent on what is growing well that week.
When the vegetable garden was dormant, a few root vegetables remained and leeks were still plentiful in the ground. We ate an awful lot of pickles and preserves, which were bottled in the summer last year. Tomato chutney has been a massive hit, as has the leek-and-onion jam and the bottled beetroots, which are delicious on toasts with local goat cheese. With the arrival of spring, we had my absolute favorite salad of blanched garden peas, broad beans, mint and goat cheese with rocket in a lemon dressing. It’s so hard not to eat all the peas before they get in from the garden! Anything which comes to the table still warm from the summer sun is good by me, and absolutely nothing beats the taste of a Marmande tomato salad, which reaches the guest within half an hour of leaving the garden. I have high expectations of our raspberry plantation this year, which we’ve doubled in size, and we plan to quadruple the strawberry beds so we can serve mixed fresh berries at breakfasts in the château.
What was your most unusual request from a guest?
The weddings do present the odd challenge. I’ve found myself building a Jewish chuppah one week and arranging tablecloths to create a Christian altar the next. We had one bride who specified pink hydrangea flowers but didn’t make it clear that she meant fuchsia hot-pink rather than candy-floss pink. I ended up spending two days driving around the French countryside hunting down the hot-pink flowers and knocking on doors to ask if we could pick them for the bride.
What is your favorite French saying?
Both of my children are in school here in France, and it does make me laugh when they shout in French at each other. Top of the list are “Occupe-toi de tes oignons,” which means literally “to occupy yourself with your onions,” or rather “Mind your own business,” and my second favorite is “Arrête de faire ton cinema,” which I take to mean “Stop making such a fuss.” The kids seem to use both of these phrases a lot!
Château Rigaud—Tell Anna that Girls’ Guide sent you!
The Wine Wise Company
Château Franc Mayne
Château Beau Séjour Bécot
Palais de Tokyo