Anne-France de Castelbajac-Anderson talks to Janine Marsh about her historic French family which can trace its history back to the days of the crusades, chateaux, cuisine and life growing up in beautiful Gascony in the south of France…
Anne-France de Castelbajac-Anderson lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband Matthew and daughter Charlotte but spends much of her time in Gascony where she was born and enjoyed “an idyllic childhood” and where her French family remain.
Growing up as a child in the town of Auch, in the Gers, a department of Gascony with her three sisters and brother Anne-France told me “Life was simple and happy! We were always playing outside; my grandparents, who all lived locally, had farm animals and big houses we could explore. We would always disappear into the woods to make up adventure stories, build tree houses, look for eggs and secretly eat some dark chocolate on baguettes, the best French ‘gouter’…”
Gascony is often referred to as the ‘French Tuscany’, with its rolling hills and warm and vibrant colours. There are gentle rolling fields of sunflowers and conifer trees, stunning views onto the Pyrénées, peaceful villages and a beautiful, natural landscape. The region is one of the most sparsely populated areas in mainland Europe and Anne-France says “you certainly feel like you have enough space to enjoy the atmosphere!”
Most of Anne-France’s family remain in Gascony though she herself left to study in Paris and then to work in London and Scotland, she says:
“Both sides of my family are old Gascon families. The Castelbajac go back to the Crusades (we celebrated the 1000th anniversary of the family when I was 13!), ironically one of our ancestors was aide de camp to Richard “Lionheart”, a 12th century King of England, on the third crusade; we have always stayed around the Pyrénées region. We have a lot of cousins and relatives who live here, most famously the Château de Caumont that is open to visitors, as well as the Château de Loubersan where my uncle Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, a famous fashion designer, lives, just 3km away.
My grandmother’s maiden name was St John de Crèvecoeur, her ancestor was a famous French man who moved to America, New York actually, in the 18th Century and wrote a famous book called ‘The American Farmer’ (Hector St John de Crèvecoeur); one of the first accounts of European settlers in North America. It was a bit of a Pocahontas story really, as he married a beautiful Native American girl. My mother’s side of the family is also an old local family, the d’Argaignon, one of my ancestor was a Cadet de Gascogne, the real name for the Musketeers, just like d’Artagnan! So we feel very much part of the fabric of the region and deeply attached to it.”
It is this deep attachment that has bought Anne-France back so regularly – that and a desire to share her expertise of Gascony with others.
Anne-France’s mother Maylis de Castelbajac is the owner of the Château and Gîtes de Beaulieu and has been welcoming families and friends to the gîtes which are in the renovated stables of the chateau, for the past 9 years. Anne-France wanted to help her mother with the business and says that she “realised that our non-French guests, particularly British, were thoroughly taken aback by the flavours and culture of the region – quite unique compared to the rest of France. They would ask for our advice and about the local culture, wanting the very best experiences and places to eat and visit”. This gave Anne-France an idea to make her mother’s holiday gites into a unique holiday destination and “Gascony a la Carte” was born.
The concept of a bespoke holiday where guests have the options to choose the activities they would like to do – from cooking lessons, cultural visits, wine and Armagnac tasting, golf, spa and many more options. It is all organised for them by Anne-France and her mother and it is a superbly authentic experience for individuals, couples and groups of up to 8 people.
Cuisine in Gascony is a very important part of the culture and traditions of the region, local produce, the farm, the land and the traditional skills. Anne-France enthuses “our days pretty much revolve around food and the preparation of delicious meals… Our most famous dishes are based on duck: confit, cassoulet, magret, foie gras. All delicious and prepared the same way for the past centuries. But we also have some scrumptious beef, poultry, and traditional recipes we share with pride.”
The local wine is also a big part of the gastronomy: the Madiran with its strong and confident flavour, the Cotes de Gascogne, the Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, the Buzet. Travelling around the Madiran area, which is quite compact, you can go from one producer to another, and you will hear that most of them have been proud winemakers throughout the generations “that part of the country is so beautiful; like a dreamland for wine makers and enthusiasts” says Anne-France.
At the heart of Gascony is the precious Armagnac. Anne-France laughs when she says that “In Gascony, every good meal deserves a glass of this precious ‘digestif’. My grandfather drinks it after his coffee, using the same cup so it’s already warm and reveals all the flavour of this delicious brandy. It is also used in the traditional desserts such as ‘Prune and Armagnac ice cream’, ‘Apple croustade’ and other patisseries. It’s delicious, just ask my husband; it’s his party-piece for dinner parties in Edinburgh”.
This is the perfect holiday destination for those who want to experience the French life style, good food and wine. A place of beautiful old villages, where you will find an ancient church to visit, a bistrot on the village square and a hidden Château with a great history. Lavardens and its 12th century castle, The Cathedral in Auch, Bassoues and its 14th century tower, l’Abbaye de Flaran (12th century), many Châteaux Gascons and unique medieval churches – you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Anne-France loves to share her Gascony with guests and offer a French life style experience that will never be forgotten.