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One French farm: a unique time-travelling experience

June 26th, 2009 · 6 Comments

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.

Well.

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.

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  • Liz

    It is lovely but it doesn’t come cheap. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Agricultural_Policy

  • My dear North Vancouver friends have been visiting their Provence vine yards for some thirty years now.

    They tell me Peter Mayle’s 1991 “A Year in Provence” enticed the fish-and-chop crowd and spoilt it all for every one . . . Dordogne, the whole of the Romanesque south . . .

    You may have noticed . . .

  • gmgw

    Frances, it’s a bit difficult for me to determine whether you actually *enjoyed* your experience. Either way, I hope that you found it worthwhile. At least you can comfort yourself with the thought that those were *French* flies (no pun intended).

    Me, I’d especially love to have heard that guy play the accordion in such a setting… Even though I’d heard a good deal of Cajun music, I never fell head-over-heels in love with the accordion until I discovered Parisian *Musette*– some of the most gorgeous music ever created (and its roots in the Auvergne give Musette impeccable rural credentials, as well– just to add an on-topic note). If you’re near a good record store (if there are any left in France), pick up some CDs by some of the old-timers, like Jo Privat, Gus Viseur and Emile Vacher– they’re hard to find over here. Brilliant stuff.
    gmgw

  • Quiere te musica Zydeco señor gmfw . . . yo tambien . . .

  • Frances Bula

    GMGW

    I did end up liking it, once I recovered from the surprise. The accordion music definitely was the high point. Thanks for the tips on the old-timers. I thought I knew a lot of them, but those are all new names to me.

  • gmgw

    You’re welcome, Frances; but be warned that those I’ve named– and you can add Tony Murena and Charles Peguri to that short list– really were old-timers; Peguri, who more or less founded modern musette as we know it, died in 1930(!) at the age of 51; and Vacher (1883-1969) and Viseur (1915-1974, composer of the famous “Flambée Montalbanaise”) were in their prime in the 30s and 40s. Their recordings tend, as result, to be a bit… lo-fi (but if you’re an enthusiast, it won’t matter one whit). The somewhat younger Privat (who recorded one of the best Gypsy Swing albums ever, “Manouche Party” in 1960, with the great Gypsy guitarist Matelot Ferret) was active well into the 70s (unfortunately he recorded some pretty dodgy stuff late in his career, experimenting with rock and so forth).

    And of course, don’t miss the fantastic 3-volume series, “Paris Musette”– volumes 1, 2, & 3– recordings of musette and swing-waltz classics made in Paris in the early 90s by an assemblage of brilliant younger musicians under the direction of Didi Duprat and Didier Roussin, both, sadly, now deceased. They’ve been re-released several times on different labels and are still widely available. The very first track on disc #1, a radiant performance of Gus Viseur’s classic waltz “Douce Joie”, will, within seconds, have you melting into the floor with overwhelming nostalgia for Paris. And that’s just the first track!

    There’s very little written material available on Musette in English (excluding the Web), but Michael Dregni’s superb book, “Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing”, while mainly guitar-oriented, touches on it. Most of the CDs, and recordings by the artists I’ve referred to, can be found on Amazon or on specialty websites. (We hope to be in Paris ourselves this fall; if so, I’ll be stocking up.)

    I should point out in closing that the Musette music I’ve been speaking of is very much an *urban* music– the music your erstwhile housemate was playing may have been more rustic and less sophisticated; I have no way of knowing. There’s a far greater breadth (and depth) to French traditional music than most people realize, with a lot of regional variations, and I don’t know what you’re familiar with.

    Man, I would *so* much rather be talking about stuff like this (and listening to the music) than contemplating bloody old Vancouver politics….

    Happy hunting, Frances.
    gmgw