It’s Not Just Pretty Pictures—Mimi Thorisson Teaches Us the Art of French Country Cooking

December 13, 2016

Mimi Thorisson’s life in southwest France isn’t staged; things are just that good. Photos: Oddur Thorisson

When I first call Mimi Thorisson for an interview, she’s walking through the forest of her tiny village of Saint-Yzans-de-Médoc in Bordeaux, France. She’s foraging for mushrooms and collecting leaves with several of her (eight) children and (10) dogs. The next time we talk, Thorisson is busy cooking in the kitchen of her historic “little chateau,” as she calls it, while two of her younger daughters color nearby, next to the hearth of the fire. As I get to know the cookbook author, I find out that the curated images we see in the media and on her Instagram (238,000 followers strong)—cooking, gardening, tending to her brood—are, well, not really curated. This is just Mimi Thorisson’s life.

I ask her about this, this air of effortless chic she exudes. “I don’t know, I guess maybe others view it as glamorous, but for me…’country chic’ is the word,” she says with a modest laugh. “It all comes down to simplicity, minimalism, and having exactly the right mixture of nature and nice things.”

Thorisson’s taste for country life began six years ago when her family left Paris and moved into a farmhouse in Médoc, located in the country’s southwest. Thorisson gave up her career in journalism and launched a food and lifestyle blog, Manger, with her husband, Oddur, serving as the photographer. The site became a smash hit, leading Thorisson to land her first cookbook in 2014, A Kitchen in France (Clarkson Potter), which established her as an authority in the field. Quite literally.

“The first farmhouse was a new adventure,” she recalls, “because we had moved from Paris and we didn’t know anything. We were just transported into the nature, into the farmhouse, and then we just became locals.” But Thorisson’s dream was only beginning. Soon enough her family was ready for an upgrade, and after stumbling on an impressive yet crumbling chateau in Médoc, their fate was sealed. “I wanted to plant my roots here,” she says, remembering the moment she first saw the estate. “I always dreamed of having a house like this, and I found it.”

The 15-bedroom chateau dates back to 1880 and was once the home of Plantia Pautard. “Plantia was a very inspiring woman,” Thorisson says. “She was a legendary cook here. Her husband was the local baker; she was also the mayor’s mistress. He actually gave her this beautiful house, and her dream was to have a restaurant and a hotel.” Pautard ran the hotel until 1957. “She lived here until the end of her days,” Thorisson explains, adding that Pautard’s daughter and her family lived with her during her lifetime and then after. “We bought it just after death of her granddaughter. The house was always filled with life!”

Mimi Thorisson in her kitchen.

Thorisson in the kitchen of her remodeled 1880s “little chateau,” in Bordeaux, France.

Once renovations began, Thorisson started to find Pautard’s old pots and pans, menus, and even her clothes. Together the stories and personal artifacts revealed charming coincidences the two women, separated by almost a century, had in common: perpetually clad in black, filled with energy, and, Thorisson adds with a laugh, always talking. Pautard, like Thorisson, was also a self-taught cook who preferred simple classic dishes. “Plantia’s favorite dishes were blanquette de veau and fava bean soup—two of my favorite recipes in my first cookbook,” she says. With every item she discovered, Pautard became more of a muse to Thorisson.

Inspired by Pautard’s legacy as a cook and hostess, and eager for her next project, Thorisson decided to open her chateau to the community, starting with cooking workshops in 2014 and then a series of pop-up dinners in the summer of 2015. All of which—the food, the people, the experiences—were rolled up together to form her second cookbook, French Country Cooking (Clarkson Potter), which was released in October. The book is filled with classic French recipes and entertaining-ready dishes, like pot-au-fe, tatins, and seasonal ingredients wrapped in pastry. “It is magical to come into this house and feel like I was just carrying on the legacy,” Thorisson says. “It’s cooking but also arte de vivre (the art of living).”

Preparing Bone Marrow

“We cook together on a big rustic table, and we prepare everything together,” says Thorisson.

It’s a very different life from the one she had as an only child growing up in Hong Kong with a Chinese father and a French mother. Thorisson says she finds joy in hosting huge gatherings. “I cook so much for so many people!… My philosophy is to be generous. I like cooking for a big table and full-bodied cooking. I give all my time to it,” she says.

Poulet Chasseur

Thorisson shows off her poulet chasseur, which is a French take on Hunter’s chicken featured in “French Country Cooking.”

Her success has brought much-needed attention to Médoc and its forgotten treasures, like St. Yzans. “The problem with all these little villages is that they are so beautiful, but like little villages in Italy, they are just completely dead. They are deserted,” she says. “We are starting from scratch again. Creating a community and inspiring people to come to be bakers and whatnot.” Just as her revival of the chateau is proving successful, it seems her aspirations for the town are, too. Since her family moved in, nine houses have been purchased in the surrounding area.

Thorisson is clearly on to something, in her signature way of crafting a life that others are drawn to. “I think that the secret is to enjoy yourself and be calm in the kitchen,” she says, before adding: “And really dedicate yourself.”

Try a recipe from the book: POULET CHASSEUR

Ajiri Aki is the coauthor of Where’s Karl? (Clarkson Potter, 2015) with Stacey Caldwell and recently launched MANNA Paris, a website for English-speaking mothers in Paris. You can follow her family’s travels and food explorations at @manna_paris.

Chicken RecipesFeatureFrench RecipesMimi Thorisson
French Country Cooking

A captivating journey to off-the-beaten-path French wine country with 100 simple yet exquisite recipes, 150 sumptuous photographs, and stories inspired by life in a… Read more »

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