We knew from seeing the cover image that we would respond viscerally to Life in a French Country House: Entertaining for All Seasons by Cordelia de Castellane, which was released this month by Rizzoli New York. The publicity surrounding its debut touts her as France’s most prominent hostess, a title she illustrates as the book moves from her exploration of her roots into spring, through summer, into fall, and then winter. The backdrop for all of these seasons is a country estate about an hour north of Paris that is situated on about five acres, parts of which date back to the 15th century. Before they purchased it, the getaway was a place of refuge for her and her husband, as they rented a small cottage on the grounds from the family friends who owned the property for years.
The Exquisite Pleasure of a French Country House
Her fashion background as the artistic director for Dior Maison and Baby Dior shines through in the book. Portraits of her in couture illustrate how at home she is in her skin. But she is also down-to-earth in many of the photos, a self-professed rebel who follows a family script of being comfortable being different that was generations in the making. We’ve always responded to the ability the French have to make entertaining feel glamourous and effortless at the same time, and the surge of pleasure that took hold as the pages turned made us linger over many of them—her curiosity cabinet, Cordelia in a translucent skirt carrying a basket of luscious pink peonies, a colorful stack of vintage fabrics that light up a cupboard, and a salon-wall arrangement of her bright sketches.
The table settings range from sumptuous to intimate, each of these seasonal in design and flavor. They are intermingled with recipes, interior design vignettes, and flower arranging. We move with her from fields that peter off to surrounding forests during the spring and summer to the interiors as she stages holiday fêtes. Autumn is her favorite season and the book is brimming with ideas for entertaining during this transitional time of the year when she celebrates the colors of the foliage surrounding her château. But she also toasts the other seasons: nesting in her refuge as winter takes hold, enjoying lunch on the grass during summer, and celebrating joyful spring when tables are set with silvered vases holding pert lilies of the valley.
“In France, we celebrate lily of the valley on May 1, which is also Labor Day, a public holiday,” she writes. “On May 1, Mr. Dior would give everyone in the ateliers a lily of the valley sprig, believing that it would bring him luck. It is said he was very superstitious and often carried one in his pockets or the lapel of his jacket, or he would put some in the hems of dresses he was showing.” The exuberance with which she describes her immersion in her career peppers the narrative: “I never finished school, as apart from history and literature my work contained more drawings that words, and I started working at a very young age,” she writes. “Work is the key word in my life.”
Though she’s been a dedicated businesswoman for decades, members of her family come alive in the pages as she describes growing up between Paris and Gstaad, and spending summers in the Greek Islands. She is also a passionate mother to four children who loves to entertain. As the table settings move from fresh spring crispness to colorful summer, the vintage fabrics stacked in her cupboards become the foundations for her tableware. Recipes for Vegetable Flowers made with short-crust pastry, fresh goat cheese, and zucchini and carrots in the spring segue to luscious Gazpacho and a Lime Basil Tart in the summer.
Baskets of fresh strawberries, apples, and harvested roses and poppies bring a richness to the pages, the fruit so brilliant in the sunlight we could almost taste its juiciness. It’s during the warmest months when a particular table that was set against the old stones of the château’s walls with long flowering vines enveloping it from an arbor above that brought the season to life as it can only exist in the French countryside.
Suddenly, we turn to fall, about which she says, “Fall is my favorite season. But do we really have to pick a favorite when there is so much joy to be had in their diversity?” She admits that the season has a “tender and silent melancholy” that speaks to her: “I enter a bubble that suits me more than anything else.” She quotes the French poet Claude Roy, who wrote, “At the end of September, the stars cool down and there is, in the meadow, a smell of too ripe apples.”
Ferns and the summer’s last roses flourish on her table settings along with trinkets such as pinecones and vintage ceramic mushrooms, likely gathered at the famed Paris flea markets she frequents. Recipes for Crème Caramel, and a Red Kuri Squash and Red Lentil Soup served in a hollowed-out pumpkin shell are as rich as the floral china and as warm as the wicker chargers that grace the table.
“In winter, I let the land rest,” she writes in the last chapter honoring this season, which she has titled “Slowing Down Time.” Following the ebb and flow of nature, she says, “It is time for it to meditate and prepare for the growth it will soon need to support. I experience this season in a somewhat similar way.” Stacks of colorful sweaters, carved trays set with tea, floral-bathed bedrooms, and comfortable upholstered perches set against crimson-colored walls bring a warmth to this chapter as snow covers the grounds around the château. Potato Rösti with Salmon is a recipe that represents this season, and you can bet we will be making it ourselves as the weather grows chill and the days grow shorter. We hope you’ve enjoyed our pleasure in perusing this beautiful book that we will be pulling from the shelves in the months to come for seasonal inspiration. It is the perfect time-capsule for living vicariously in a lovely French country house. You can buy the book from Rizzoli or from bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores.