I posted earlier that my travels through France had reminded me what an agricultural country it is still. One of my regular blog commenters responded that I was perhaps romanticizing French farm life, given how much it is being eroded by global agro-business and the younger generation’s disinterest in the hard labour entailed.
It’s true that a phenomenol number of the farms I see seem to be trying to maintain themselves by diversifying. They sell their fruit or their wine or their lavender from the farm. They put on little soirees to attract more people to their wine-tastings. Or they rent out rooms and they run little restaurants on the side.
We — oh, okay, it was just me — decided to stay at an organic farm we’d seen highly promoted in Lonely Planet to get a taste of some of this back-to-the-land stuff. The Ferme de la Borie, near Florac in the Haut Languedoc, was a lovely thing in my imagination before I got there.
I saw us sitting out at picnic tables covered with checked tablecloths near a field of wheat while we were served a delicious chicken stew and umpteen bottles of wine. There would be sunshine and butterflies and also some oleander bushes nearby. The farmer, Jean-Christophe, would be a jolly rotund fellow in overalls who would tell us about the pleasures of organic farming and the history of the land.
We turned off the main highway and made our way up and up and up and up the mountain, three kilometres almost straight up actually on what could best be described as a paved goat track. When we were almost at the ridge, we arrived at the farm, which looked exactly like what it was — a fifteenth century stone farmhouse built into the rock on the side of the hill that had fallen almost to pieces and then been rebuilt, bit by bit, without the benefit of adherence to any kind of building codes. There were a lot of spare machine parts and building materials around. An incredibly skinny and manic young man with beyond-shoulder-length dark hair was running around watering the plants. Jean-Christophe. We never saw him again.
Instead, Mireille was our hostess for the evening. Imagine the kind of woman who could survive a siege or pick the rocks out of 20 acres of mountainside fields. That was Mireille. She led us into the farmhouse, which was pretty much like doing a Star Trek-like time travel straight back to the 16th century.
We clambered up the giant stone steps of the interior courtyard, went into an “entry hall” that was like an unlit cave, up some more stone steps, and into a “dining room” that was missing only a few hunting dogs and torches on the side of the wall. It had an enormous fireplace you could roast a hog in and was so dark that it was a shock to go out onto the terrace and see the sun was shining.
We all ate around an enormous table — salad with bits of cheese made at the farm, a green bean stew with some kind of meat that I assume was also made at the farm, eggs (from the farm) in bechamel sauce, many more cheeses after the main course, and a plain cake that we smeared with chestnut butter at the end. The flies, which not even two giant fly-friers working full time could keep up with, had a feast.
There was an American family there from Knoxville, Tennessee, a young couple from the Alps with their baby on a three-day hiking vacation, a woman from Paris on her way to Montpellier, and another 30-something couple who looked like urban bohemian types from I don’t know where. So one end of the table talked about how awful George Bush was and the other end talked about Sarkozy’s new ministers and sometimes the two conversations mixed.
Mireille reminded us of the wars between the Protestants and the Catholics, which was particularly fierce in that area. All the Protestant men ended up being sent off to row in the galleys, according to her, and the women were sent to the prison in Montpellier.
The next morning, the man from the 30-something couple pulled out an accordion and played traditional folk music on the terrace after breakfast (bread, jam, chestnut butter, cake and many more flies), his notes trilling off to the far ridge (where I could see another ancient farmhouse). The hardy ones amongst us went off to help make cheese, which entailed scooping up curds from the big vat and pressing them into round molds, while picking out, in the process, one snail and, yes, one fly.
It certainly gave me a new appreciation for the tommes (big round cheeses that are made with pasteurized milk) and the pelardons (smaller ones made from unpasteurized milk, which develop an ash-coloured mold as they age) that we’d eaten the night before.
And then we were off.
If anyone wants to get completely away from the sanitized globalized world, I highly recommend it. We’ve certainly never had an experience like that before. And may never again.