Lunch with Elise Pioch Balzac

  1. At her converted riverside hideaway, this French tastemaker has created an arcadia worthy of a true Balzac heroine. Better yet, her lunchtime menu provides the perfect inspiration for mother's day

  3. Photographs by Rene Vaile | Sittings editor:  Meg Gray
  4. Words Natasha Inchley
  6. With her wild marcel waves and gamine elegance, Elise Pioch Balzac, the French tastemaker and founder of Maison Balzac, has the look of a 1930s Man Ray muse. Yet her piquant beauty belies a steely determination that has helped her to command projects as ambitious as the launch of her own candle business and the hands-on renovation of her family’s riverside hideaway, a weatherboard church located in Lower Portland, New South Wales, two hours drive from Sydney. 


  8. “This place inspires love,” Pioch Balzac says of the picturesque scene she shares with her husband Pablo Chappell, the custom bicycle and industrial designer, and their one-year-old daughter, Loulou. “So many of our friends have become engaged here, it is so pure and serene, the perfect place to raise a family.” It’s also the ultimate setting in which to disconnect: “Pablo and I have new ideas every morning because we have the time and space to think, our minds are clear – yet when I remember our first night here, I hid a torch under my pillow,” she says with a laugh. “I was so sure I would see ghosts or God! But actually it was the best sleep I ever had.”


Field of dreams: main picture top, Pioch Balzac entertains at her home in Portland, wearing a Marni top and necklace. Above, the tastemaker with her daughter, in Erdem from Belinda.

The couple converted the property when Pioch Balzac was nine months pregnant; the duo spent every weekend reconfiguring the church’s interior and its tangled garden, dotting its borders with protea trees and bushes of thyme. “The house was almost a greater commitment than getting married!” Pioch Balzac laughs. Back then, the French beauty was working as a buyer for Belinda boutique, regularly flying out to attend shows in Paris and Milan. “I had a moment when I was in New York in my hotel room Skyping Pablo and the chicken, and it made me realise how much I longed to be at the house full time.” Then and there, she made the decision to start planning her own business, Maison Balzac, a name that links back to her great grandfather, the famous French playwright and novelist Honoré de Balzac. Her candles were a way of reconnecting with her youth and all its nostalgia: “I wanted to tell a story through scent, for people to be able to discover the fragrances that I associated with a typical Sunday.” Pioch Balzac describes charming childhood rituals in which her grandmother would give her baths scented with lavender (hence the candle, Le Sud), the breakfasts her mother would prepare with orange juice infused with blossom (Le Soleil) and the long walks her family would take through the forest after lunch (Le Bois).

The great outdoors: above, scenes from Pioch Balzac's tranquil setting including the reconverted church and the couple's river boat, and below, Pioch Balzac wearing Christopher Kane from Belinda.

Strike a posie: below, Pioch Balzac rescued and replanted around 40 Protea trees, lovingly salvaged from a nearby property which was undergoing works; hat from Maison Michel and Isabel Marant top from Belinda.

As Pioch Balzac tells it, food was a wonderful obsession for her family in France. “My childhood is filled with memories of whole weekends that revolved around the dinner table. We would wake up, go to the market and prepare the day’s meal based on what was in season – I want Loulou to understand the same and know how pleasurable food can be.” She encourages her daughter to collect freshly laid eggs (“We’ve had a few accidents,”) and to pick asparagus and herbs from the bottom of the garden. “Loulou is not a hectic child, she’s been surrounded by nature from birth and I believe the trees, the space, the animals have all had an impact on her sense of being.” 

It’s then, right on cue, that baby Loulou appears, pointing to a white chicken, “Poulet, poulet!” she says as her mother scoops her up into her arms. Pioch Balzac says her foray into motherhood has been an ongoing journey of discovery. “From the very beginning, I trusted my instincts. I tried not to read the books but rather follow my gut feeling – we really believe that if you welcome things as they happen, then life is so much easier, happy and uncomplicated.” 

“Loulou is not a hectic child, she’s been surrounded by nature from birth and I believe the trees, the space, the animals have all had an impact on her sense of being.”

– on living in the country

Belle of the boudoir: above, baby Loulou presents Pioch Balzac's new mohair blankets in liquorice allsorts shades. Below, the toddler is a constant companion in the kitchen, which is filled with the couple's homegrown rewards.

When it comes to striking a work-life balance, Pioch Balzac is pragmatic: “My office is in the back garden so I can very quickly go from work to the kitchen if I want to, and I never feel frustrated to leave one for the other. When Loulou naps, I achieve the most and I’m lucky to have a husband as involved as he is, Pablo is incredibly hands on and supportive.”

Indeed, Pioch Balzac’s ideas have extended not just to candles but also honey, a delightful children’s book and more recently a small line of divine mohair blankets produced by the same small atelier in the south of France that weaves for Hermès and Sonia Rykiel. Pioch Balzac says, “I wanted the blankets to shake up the traditional notion of mohair – everybody has them in cream and black, I wanted brights.”

Much like her personality, Pioch Balzac’s style is upbeat and elegant. “I’m not actually trying to have a style, but rather the way I dress is very spontaneous – perhaps, too, it has something to do with my upbringing, I was the middle daughter surrounded by brothers and so there is androgyny in my look. I’m not a sexy feminine person,” she explains. "I still love beautiful clothes, but it's like anything, you adapt to suit your life – and this is something I'm so very passionate about.” 

Read below for Pioch Balzac's favourite lunchtime recipe: a delicious savoury onion tart and fragrant country salad that combines black rice and freshly picked garden herbs.

“There is androgyny in my look, I’m not a sexy feminine person. I still love beautiful clothes, but it's like anything, you adapt to suit your life – and this is something I'm so very passionate about.”

– on HER sartorial style

This thin onion tart is such a delicious sunday treat

Puff pastry sheets
3 fresh eggs
200ml creme fraiche
2 big onions or 5 shallots
Grated gruyere cheese
Fresh thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C. Caramelise the thinly sliced onions in a non-stick pan with olive oil. Add thyme, salt and pepper, and season to taste. While this is cooking, prepare the cream sauce – mix the eggs, cream, nutmeg, salt, pepper in a bowl and set aside. 
When the onions are soft and golden, add three pinches of sugar. Pour the onions into the bowl with the cream sauce and mix well. Line the tart dish with pastry sheets, pour in the cream sauce and cover with grated cheese, a pinch of salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden.

Pioch Balzac's black rice salad: this is a fragrant rice that is more nutritious than white and it's also spectacular. Cook it for 40 minutes in a vegetable broth, then strain and set aside to cool. Add all the ingredients such as sweet corn, cherry tomatoes, sliced avocados, tuna flakes, grapes. The dressing will lift the taste of the salad: mine is made with olive oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, pepper, caramelised balsamic and lemon juice.