In Conversation with Sara Silm

“I can’t imagine giving a square inch of space in my home to something that didn’t have meaning or that I didn’t truly love.” ~ Sara Silm

Writer, photographer, cook & stylist Sara Silm takes us on an adventure through her travels & how they have shaped her, what life is really like living in the picturesque French countryside & how she spends her days at home in her petit chateau.

Tell us a little bit about you & what roads led to where you are now.

I’ve worked as a freelance writer and stylist (travel and lifestyle magazines) for more than 20 years and taught colour theory and design at the International School of Colour and Design in Sydney. But what lead to where I am now is purely a restless spirit. I am of the belief that we're here for such a short time so I consciously pack in as much adventure as I can.

You've called many places home, from the Middle East to South Africa, Moscow & Kazakhstan, is there a particular place you lived that impacts you to this day?

I think they’ve all helped shape who I am today. I’ll never forget my time in South Africa. I had the great honour of being there for the election of Mandela. I was running a 16 bed game lodge and drove our staff into the nearest town to vote. It was a very bumpy one and a half hour trip through the reserve in an open land rover and when we arrived in the Afrikaans town of Hoedspruit you could almost hear a pin drop. Black and white lined up, one after the other in the same queue and changed the history of the nation in what seemed like just a few silent seconds. It was a day I’ll never forget.

Russia is a country I also have a huge affection for. I don’t think you can dip your toe into Russian history and not find yourself there at a defining moment. I lived through the heady times of ‘progress' when foreign investment was somewhat moving forward and life, at least for the many expats there, was one big party. I also woke up one morning and discovered that there was a war in Crimea and lived through a year of sanctions before the mass expat exodus.There’s something about Russia that gets under your skin. It’s a land of extremes and totally captivating.

And now you're the custodian of the beautiful Chateau Montfort in the Bearnaise countryside of France, how did this amazing adventure come to be?

There’s a chapter in my book about this so not wanting to give too much away, it began in an Irish bar in Almaty, Kazakhstan and ended in a whirlwind tour of the Aquitaine region of SW France that resulted in the purchase of our house.

Your stories on travel, artisans/architects, food & interiors have been featured in Vogue Living, Country Style and so many other iconic Australian & international publications; what do you think it is about the French countryside that captivates the imagination?

I think it’s how beautifully French villages have been preserved, both in terms of the architecture as well as the patrimony and seasonal traditions. It’s also the simplicity. Life is very family orientated and the pace is gentle. The daily chiming of the village church bells seem to set the same rhythm they always have. It’s charming to the very core and I think the vast majority of people these days miss that.

What does a typical day look like for you living in the French countryside?

A typical day for me is probably much the same as any other working mother of three, there’s no escaping that. Unfortunately Instagram and social media give the impression that people who live in the French countryside wander around in cross-backed linen aprons dead-heading roses and icing elaborate cakes surrounded by immaculately dressed, angelic children. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least at my house! Our digital world with its curated reality often gives the perception that moving to the French countryside magically erases those days, weeks or months when life just has a habit of ‘happening’, no matter where you are. I’ve lived in so many places and a typical day in the French countryside begins and ends with exactly the same passion for finding beauty and inspiration as it has in every place I’ve lived. 

Here in Montfort, I start my days with a walk through the countryside and end it either dancing around the kitchen cooking and listening to my favourite playlist or listening to an Audiobook, cooking dinner, just minus the dancing. I love to cook. In between, there’s sourcing produce at village markets, shopping at brocantes, writing, painting, gardening, renovating, shooting recipes or interiors and juggling all the day to day logistics of work and family.

Has your renovation of the chateau evolved your own styling sensibility in any way?

I think it’s brought a new element. There’s a lot that is simply part of the home’s intrinsic aesthetic: the stone walls, the high ceilings, the colours of the surrounding landscape that I’ve brought inside in the form of wall paints and wallpapers. But there’s quite a bit that has come with me too, so there’s a lovely melange of provenance and the new patronne. Just as we evolve and grow as individuals, so do our homes. I doubt that what I’ll be doing in 5 years time will be the same. There’s too much inspiration to get stuck in a rut.

In my foraging, I read that you committed to bringing your Australian wool shearer's table across the seas to France so you could dine al fresco on it. I love that! How important is it to you that the pieces in your home come with a story?

It’s essential! I can’t imagine giving a square inch of space in my home to something that didn’t have meaning or that I didn’t truly love. That said, there are a few white goods that are there purely for the job they do but that’s really about it.

What does creativity mean to you & how does it play out in your daily life?

I don’t think I’ve ever existed without creativity being a part of who I am. I’m always writing, I almost always have a camera in my hand, I’m constantly renovating, or restoring furniture…or cooking…or gardening, or arranging flowers. It’s not really something I’m conscious of 'doing', it’s just a constant and without it life just wouldn’t have meaning. It’s that simple.

Your first book How To French Country is in the post on it's way to me now! What can I expect on the pages behind that beautiful cover?

When I began writing it was a somewhat different book, but when the pandemic struck it became far more of a practical guide, a handbook if you will. Let's face it, we’ve all had enough time staring at four walls but what’s come out of that seems to be a newfound global obsession with making our homes more…well, homely. I’ve taught colour and design and worked as an interior designer so I know how difficult it can be for the non-professional to source materials and to flesh out what it is you want to ‘feel’ when you walk into that imagined dream house or room. How To French Country has a little bit of something for everyone.

I’ve curated colour palettes sourced from the local landscape and villages and given them international paint codes so you can literally bring a little bit of France to your home. There are seasonal recipes, local adventures and traditions and oodles of  French country deco inspiration that gives the reader a step by step guide, shot by me, in real time. It literally takes you by the hand and shows you how to create an authentic aesthetic that’s not only French inspired, but true to the individual as well.

What is your intention at this moment in your life?

I always have several plans on the go that I pursue like a dog with a bone. There’ll always be more writing, I’m working on an exciting textile art collection and collaborating with Sandberg wallpaper on a fabulous new wallpaper collection. On a smaller scale I’m redecorating three rooms in the main house and creating new garden beds in the potager and perennial boarders. Oh and I’ll be renting the barn for a select period of time next year for weekly stays. At the centre of it all is my family. Without them it would all be for naught.

You can find Sara Silm at Chateau Montfort & on Instagram.

Photo credits: All images in this entry are Sara Silm's own.