Eight children, nine dogs, one incredible 19th century house: at home in France with the food writer Mimi Thorisson

Home is everything to the cook and cookery writer Mimi Thorisson. Her nineteenth-century house, at the heart of a small and charming village in the Médoc, is the focal point of both her family life and her working day. It is also home to her photographer husband Oddur, their seven children (with one more due this summer) and nine dogs – mostly terriers but also a German shorthaired pointer. In addition, it is often featured in her blog, Manger, and the television programme La Table de Mimi, shown on the French channel Canal+. Full of character, history and life, the house has also influenced her cookbooks.

‘I knew right away that this was a house in which I could get inspired,’ says Mimi. ‘When we first saw it, it reminded me of a Marcel Proust novel; a few minutes after we walked in, we were running from room to room and fell in love with it. I really believe in love at first sight. And then, strangely enough, I found out that the house came complete with a story about a legendary chef and a hotel and restaurant. It gave me goosebumps.’

The house, in Saint-Yzans-de-Médoc, dates back to the 1870s, and was once owned by a baker’s wife who had a passionate affair with the local mayor. He gave her the house as a gift. She took the opportunity to realise her dreams and opened a hotel and restaurant here, which became renowned in the region. It was especially popular with wine merchants, who stayed in the hotel while visiting the vineyards of Saint-Estèphe and Pauillac nearby. The hotel and restaurant lasted until the late Fifties, while the house itself passed down through the family, before it was finally bought by the Thorissons in the summer of 2014.

‘The family always lived in the house and it was never empty,’ Mimi says. ‘So when we moved in, it was in a good condition. We managed to keep as much as we possibly could during the restoration – including the fitted cupboards, floors and chimneypieces – because we wanted to preserve the character of the place. But we do still have things to do and rooms to finish. It will take us some time, but that’s the fun of it.’

The house represents the latest stage in a unique journey that has always revolved around food, family and dogs. Mimi was born and grew up in Hong Kong, with a Chinese father and a French mother; her parents met in Paris where he was studying medicine and she was a nurse. Her father always had a passion for food and would make sure that the family ate in the most interesting restaurants both in Hong Kong and on their many travels. Summers were spent in Moissac, in the Tarn-et-Garonne region of France, where Mimi was introduced to a different world of cuisine and spent time with her aunt and grandmother, who were both great cooks and generously passed on their knowledge.

After school in Hong Kong, Mimi studied business and languages in London and Paris. Her first job was with CNN, as a television producer and presenter in Hong Kong and Paris. She met Oddur – who comes from Iceland – in France in 2005, and they lived between Paris and Reykjavik, collaborating on travel stories for magazines, combining Mimi’s words with Oddur’s pictures.

‘That led on to food reportage, because that’s what we both love to do,’ says Mimi. ‘We share a passion for food, so it was just a matter of time before we got involved in food projects. We worked for a lot of magazines and food guides; we spent the two years before we moved to the Médoc eating in all the best restaurants and spending time with some wonderful chefs in their kitchens, writing about them and photographing their work. It was so interesting meeting them and we made a lot of friends.’

As the Thorisson family had begun to grow, so too had the pressure to find an alternative to their apartment in Paris, where the children and the dogs could have more space and freedom. They started looking in Normandy and Burgundy and then, one day, Oddur found a house for rent in the Médoc. ‘At first I wasn’t keen, because I thought it was too remote and too much of a challenge, having been a city person all my life,’ says Mimi. ‘But our kids were small and at the right age to make a change, so we felt as though it was a now or never moment. After two days of thinking, I said, “Let’s do it.” ‘

They rented the house Oddur had found to begin with, just in case the adventure was not a success, moving in in 2011. Mimi admits the first six months were a challenge. She was pregnant with their daughter Gaia, who was born there in Lesparre, and there was a long winter to get through. But gradually the whole family settled in, with the children at local schools and the collection of dogs gradually growing too. Three years on, they made the decision to buy their current house.

‘It took some time to adapt to it all, but then I started to enjoy myself,’ says Mimi. ‘Every day brought a new discovery. To begin with, I thought of it as a break from work and that Oddur would continue with his projects and photography. I had this luxury of time and started going to the markets, meeting farmers, hunting for mushrooms. Our table was filled with so much goodness and I just had to write about it.’

‘Oddur and I know this world and we know how to put stories and recipes together, so it worked well for us,’ says Mimi. ‘Whenever we had an outing as a family, we would create a story around it and everything – the television show, the book, the blog – is done from home. I really wanted to blend my love of food with my love of home and family and the kids love being part of it. It’s now a way of life for all of us.’

A busy work and family diary has become even busier with cookery workshops, plus a pop-up restaurant for the summer months – also at the house – which echoes the heritage of the building and helps to provide recipes and pictures for the new book. There’s also Mimi’s own wine, Humfri, named after one of the dogs and created in collaboration with Viniv – a company that enables individuals and businesses to create their own Bordeaux wines – and the Cazes family. They are great friends who own the vineyards and restaurant at Château Lynch-Bages, as well as the neighbouring hotel, Château Cordeillan-Bages, which has two Michelin stars.

The family has made the Médoc their own, gathering friends and food aficionados around them. ‘We always had this dream of a large family,’ Mimi says. ‘As an only child, you do dream of having an idyllic family life, and Oddur and I shared those same thoughts. We are so happy to have a huge table with all of our children around it and these big family meals. And then there’s the dogs…’

Author: Rakesh Sasmal