I first heard about Jamie Schler a few years ago from culinary colleagues. They spoke of her with a sense of awe — come on, run off to France, fall in love, open a hotel? Who gets to do that? Even her blog Life’s a Feast bespeaks a charmed life. Then this summer, I got to meet Jamie in person and stay at Hotel Diderot, the historic Chinon inn she owns and runs with husband Jean-Pierre Dagneaux.
Here’s the two of us outside the hotel entranceway. We’d never met in person before, but we look like we’re related. And so, in a sense, we are — fellow Floridians, kindred spirits and kitchen sisters. She just has way cooler digs. Life’s a feast, all right, complete with artisanal homemade jam. So what’s Jamie’s secret?
“Stumbling along.” Jamie laughs. After feeling “stuck in a city that wan’t right for me, in a job that wasn’t right for me, I thought, There’s gotta be something else out there. I need to go see.”
You’ve probably wanted to run away and start a new life, too. The difference is, Jamie did it. She shrugs. “You figure out your life and make it work. But know if you want to do something, to change your life, you can do it.”
She’s done a good job of it. In addition to running a hotel in the heart of the Loire, she’s the mother of two grown sons, writes for numerous outlets, conducts food writing workshops, and in addition to her sweet blogposts, maintains an active Twitter feed offering a tart assessment of America’s current political situation. Oh, and she makes jam.
Offering homemade jam to guests had been a point of honor for the inn’s previous owners, and Jamie gamely took up the mantle. Dozens of jewel-like pots of all different flavors adorn the breakfast tables. Hotel Diderot breakfasts starting with coffee, baguettes and jam often “end up with guests talking about jam — what they’re doing in their homes or jam-making learned from mothers and grandmothers,” says Jamie. “I’m lucky to meet some really interesting people. It’s the best part of the job really.”
Part of Hotel Diderot’s appeal is its location, in the heart of the Loire, one of France’s premier winemaking regions. Women of strength, including Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine have walked Chinon’s ancient cobblestone streets. But much of the draw is the inn itself, combining old-world elegance, coziness, and Jean-Pierre and Jamie’s welcoming vibe.
France has been Jamie’s home for over three decades now, and over time, she says, “We have taken on more of a French rhythm and approach to food and mealtimes.” In France, even as daily life becomes more frenetic, taking time to eat together —- “groups, families, co-workers” — is the tradition, the norm — and the pleasure.
Family meals weren’t part of Jamie’s life, growing up on Florida’s space coast. “Oranges were. They were part of my culture. They stayed with me.” With her all-orange cookbook, Orange Appeal, Jamie has introduced a tradition and pleasure of her own. “To me, the orange is incredible, exciting, versatile.” Her recipe testers — family, friends and colleagues — came to feel the same way. “They loved the orange desserts but were so taken by the savory recipes. Those are the recipes that they continue to make for their families over and over again. Which makes me very happy.”
Coming up — Jamie’s workshop with photographer/friend Ilva Beretta. It goes beyond writing and photography techniques to tap into the creative process itself. Instead of feeling stuck, “we give people the tools to break down barriers, give permission to dive into your own creative vision. What comes out of people is astounding. It surprises even them.”
Surprise yourself. Slots are still available. You, too, can run away to France, and taste Jamie’s orange marmalade in the process. Life’s a feast, after all.
Savory Orange, Onion, and Olive Focaccia
- 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 2 1/2 teaspoons 1/4 ounce / 7 g active dry yeast
- 1 1/4 cups 315 ml warm water, divided
- 4 cups 19 ounces / 540 g all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for kneading
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 oranges finely zested, about 1 1/2 tablespoons
- 4 tablespoons olive oil divided
- 1 to 2 oranges
- 1 to 1 1/2 yellow or red onions
- 1 cup 100 g cured black, green, or purple olives
- Sea salt flakes preferably smoked, coarse salt, or Orange Salt (page 22)
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Fresh oregano or thyme leaves optional
- Place 3 3/4 cups (500 g) of the flour, salt, and zest in a large mixing bowl and rub together with your fingers until blended and there are no clumps of zest; make a well in the center of the flour. Pour 2 tablespoons oil, the yeast mixture, and remaining water into the well and stir with a wooden spoon until a rough dough forms; if there are any pockets of flour that won’t blend in, add 1–2 tablespoons more warm water at a time, only as needed.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead in the remaining 1/4 cup (40 g) flour. Knead the dough for 6 minutes, dusting both the dough and the work surface lightly with more flour to keep the dough from sticking. The dough should be soft, smooth, and elastic.
- Oil a large, clean mixing bowl with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Place the ball of dough in the bowl, turning to coat the surface of the dough with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise for 1 hour until double in size.
- Prepare the toppings by peeling the oranges, cutting away all the white pith, and slicing across the core into 1/4-inch (1/2 cm) slices, about 6 slices per orange. If you prefer, slice each round into 4 triangles. Peel and trim the onion and slice as thinly as possible—cut the onion in half if easier—separating the slices into rings.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
- Scrape the risen dough onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out into a 10 x 14-inch (25 x 35 cm) rectangle. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and roll and press back into shape. If you like, use wet fingertips to make indentations across the surface of the dough where a little oil can pool. Brush dough with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and arrange the oranges on the surface; pressing gently into the dough. Spread the onions evenly over the focaccia. Dot with the olives, pressing firmly into the dough, and dust with salt, pepper, and oregano. Bake for 30–40 minutes until risen and golden.