At first glance, this Currier & Ives colonial seems too buttoned-up for a joie d’vivre holiday. But owners Arnaud and Barbara Bourgeois know how to blend French style with New England tradition. For years, they imported French antiques and lived in several vintage homes before they came across the 18th-century historic home in Woodbury more than 12 years ago.
Built by Rev. Noah Benedict in 1795, the 3,500-square-foot house is a town landmark that retains many of its original features, including a tin roof; a wide porch; spacious rooms with high ceilings; wide-plank, pine and chestnut flooring; and vintage, handcrafted woodwork and paneling. It was also in a perfect location within Woodbury’s historic district on Main Street, where Arnaud, a corporate pilot, also sells antique lighting (by appointment only). But what sealed the deal for the couple had little to do with the house’s architectural charm or location. “I was away on a trip, and Barbara called to tell me she had found the perfect house,” Arnaud says. “When I came back and walked into the kitchen and saw the stove, that was it.”
The commercial-grade stove in the kitchen is the best stove that Arnaud, who has a passion for cooking, ever had. So cook he does. Last year, his culinary acumen earned him a chance to compete on the televised reality show “Master Chefs” (he was a finalist). “The dish I prepared was scallops wrapped in filo. But then the judges took a break before trying it, and the scallops got overcooked,” he says, shrugging it off. “But it is a very good dish; it’s from a very nice restaurant in France,” says Arnaud, who grew up in the rural French countryside.
He has just returned from a trip and is in the kitchen chopping vegetables, pulling together a simple butternut soup. The sweet aroma of garlic, olive oil, and roasting squash infuses this warm country kitchen accented by sky-blue cupboards, rustic farm table and chairs, and hardwood floors.
Arnaud is the chef of the family. Since he’s been gone, “we’ve been eating out for a month,” chimes Sophia, the couple’s daughter, who attends Westover School. “I’m learning how to reheat,” jokes Barbara, who was born in Litchfield County. She is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Woodbury. But at Christmas she is a dessert maven, baking dozens of cookies from her mother and grandmother’s recipes. “Indian pudding is my favorite holiday dessert. But I really count on my mother-in-law for French desserts; she makes a wonderful chocolate mousse.” A bûche de Noël, the French version of the Yule log, is central to the dessert table. Arnaud harvests honey from his bees, which Barbara bottles and decorates with ribbons and tags illustrated by her sister to give as Christmas gifts.
Leading up to Christmas, the kitchen is the hub of the house, with friends dropping by to help prepare food and to share informal meals. “It’s all about the food,” Arnaud says, who makes sure there are plenty of oysters as well as salmon, foie gras (based on Arnaud’s family recipe), and wine to go around.
Both Sophia and her brother, Maxime, a freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology, have a cavalcade of friends coming and going. Everyone joins in making raclette, a French dish intended for sharing. Sliced cheese is melted and poured over plates of boiled potatoes, other vegetables, and charcuterie. “It’s not traditional French Christmas dinner. It’s our own,” Barbara says. “And it’s fun and easy.”
After dinner, friends and relatives filter into the adjoining formal rooms and settle into overstuffed chairs next to a blazing fire. The house, which served as a parsonage for 175 years, is known for its exceptional woodwork—detailed molding; interior window shutters that fold back into the living room’s thick walls; and fine, original corner cupboards and cabinetry above and around the dining-room fireplace.
“It’s not a typical early-American Colonial,” Barbara says, noting the structure’s more spacious rooms. “The nine-foot ceilings allow for commanding pieces,” such as a huge marriage armoire, given to Barbara by her parents, and the beautiful French antiques and antique lighting fixtures. Most of the wooden pieces are French, purchased when the couple actively imported antiques.
In the dining room, a sideboard is actually a 19th-century, French, store counter from Bordeaux, and nearby old hand-blown wine bottles and baskets are both decorative and functional. Ditto for the vintage chandeliers, imported from France. “They are all for sale, but I’m enjoying them until they go,” says Barbara.
A child’s bed from France, purchased while Barbara was pregnant with Sophia, serves as additional seating in the living room next to the fireplace—although the family dog, Beau, a Dogue de Bordeaux, seems to have claimed it as his permanent place.
“Most of my artwork comes from auctions and flea markets,” Barbara says, “and I buy what pleases my eye, not necessarily what is ‘valuable’ in the art world. I am attracted by color and texture, and my taste is definitely eclectic. It’s just a feeling I get when I see something that feels like it belongs in our house.”
Outside, the house naturally lends itself to holiday décor. Fresh evergreens are entwined around the light post and columns and finished off with red bows. A Christmas tree aglow with lights brightens the entrance. “The iron lantern and white-picket fence completes the Currier and Ives Christmas card,” she says.
Decorating the tree is another time-honored tradition. “I have ornaments from when I was a child and my children have ornaments. So we take time doing that. In France, unwrapping the presents takes, like, 90 seconds. Here, it’s a process, a savored experience.”
The blazing fire in one or more of the three hearths adds to the holiday warmth. “We try to have them burning whenever possible in winter,” Barbara says. When the in-laws are visiting, she adds, “You can be sure we are in front of that fire playing Scrabble every night”—in French of course. n