As Lydie Marshall prepares to celebrate Christmas in Provence, she makes the argument that her life in a feudal château is very similar to the life she led for 35 years in New York City. What's strange is that she's actually convincing. "I lived in a house in the Village," she says, "and I had my shops, like Balducci's. And here in Nyons, I live right in town and it's like a village. The only difference is that the shopkeepers are nicer." The French-born author of several cookbooks, including A Passion for Provence and the forthcoming Soup of the Day (HarperCollins), Marshall is a persuasive woman. So when she says, of herself and her American husband,Wayne, a retired professor, "We're not château people," you almost believe that you, too, could have visited a château that was on the market, decided within ten minutes that you simply had to have it and then transformed it into a cooking school.
The Marshalls' unlikely conversion into château people evolved in much the same way that a desire to touch up a spot of peeling paint on a ceiling snowballs into a gut renovation. "In New York, my husband used to make vinegar for my cooking classes in a 30-gallon barrel," Marshall says. "But it became very expensive—the wine alone cost $5 a bottle. So we decided it would be nice to buy a barn in Côtes-du-Rhône so we could buy bulk wine and sell vinegar on a larger scale. We started looking for a barn, and then we realized we wanted a house with it. Pretty soon we decided to forget about the barn and look only at old houses." Which eventually led to the trip they made in 1989 to Château Féodal, with no intention whatsoever of buying it. As the Marshalls approach their 11th Christmas there, they're still renovating, one room at a time.
"In 1992, my husband had the brilliant idea of cooking classes, with people staying in our rooms," Marshall says. Since then her schedule has grown from two weeks of classes a year to six five-day sessions. The days are generally spent shopping (for pottery and food) and visiting local producers. Nyons, 45 minutes from Avignon, is an olive-oil capital, and there are goat-cheese farms in the area. In the evenings, the Marshalls dine with their guests, with much of the conversation branching out from the food they've all prepared: dishes like rabbit Ali Baba (nothing Arabian about this one; it's a Tuscan recipe) and seared duck breasts marinated in soy, orange juice and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, a sweet white wine produced in a nearby village.
The meals the Marshalls prefer for holiday entertaining, mostly simple regional dishes, allow the cook to enjoy the festivities along with the guests. Despite their relative simplicity, though, these dishes—along with some Côtes-du-Rhône—will induce a dreamy sense of well-being that will somehow leave you convinced that you and your tablemates are, inarguably, château people.