unter den linden

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The Linden Tree

At wellside, past the ramparts, 
there stands a linden tree. 
While sleeping in its shadow, 
sweet dreams it sent to me. 

And in its bark I chiseled 
my messages of love: 
My pleasures and my sorrows 
were welcomed from above. 

Today I had to pass it, 
well in the depth of night – 
and still, in all the darkness, 
my eyes closed to its sight. 

Its branches bent and rustled, 
as if they called to me: 
Come here, come here, companion, 
your haven I shall be! 

The icy winds were blowing, 
straight in my face they ground. 
The hat tore off my forehead. 
I did not turn around. 

Away I walked for hours 
whence stands the linden tree, 
and still I hear it whisp’ring: 
You’ll find your peace with me! 

translation of Der Lindenbaum (William Muller) part of Der Wintereise (Franz Schubert)

What comes to mind when you think of tilleul?   I don’t want to call it lime, in the context of infusion rather than horticultural,   as my first thought is of citrus fruit and Linden needs Fischer Diskau to do it justice.  It is a tree which comes, as they all do, trailing clouds of myth, reluctant nymphs turned to trees in classical, the play by J B Priestly, many German and Slavic fairy tales but the infusion’s most famous literary cue in France is memories of time lost.  Waves and waves of remembering another time, simpler, calmer, with more certainty.  Smell is the greatest trigger of memories for me.  Tilleul is cool formal dining rooms in provincial France, sitting at a table on hard chairs, with a single buttery cake on a plate and fine old porcelain cups of a luminescent greeny yellow liquid which I had never seen before.  The smell, the smell, cut grass and meadow flowers on a baking day, some light pale fruit and fine subtle spice.  Imagine finding this, like Columbus, knowing only the northern oceans of PG Tips on which England sailed at the time.  My America, my Newfoundland!  Instant undying devotion.

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And so,  here we are in the epicentre, a drive over the hills, through groves of the trees, to Buis-les-Baronnies, capital of tilleul, beneath the squatting mass of Mont Ventoux.  It is a sweet little town, ancient and peaceful, with a central square of cool 16th century arcades.  The market on Wednesday is a revelation and, if you get there early enough in summer you can breakfast on fried courgettte flowers and a pot of proper tilleul.

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But now, as with so much food we did not cherish properly,  it is reduced to less than a shadow of itself.  You can find it in sachets in boxes wrapped in plastic. No matter how long you infuse it, it tastes of nothing at all.  Here of course you can pyo, and buy it easily in markets in about three weeks time.  Lucky for some.  What about the rest?

Edmond Bourny is a doctor of pharmacy who has worked for large pharmaceutical companies in Lyon and Paris.  He came originally from Buis and has now returned.  With his own money he runs a small staff in a laboratory working on saving the industry.

I ask him why this area is so perfect for lime trees.  It’s not.  Like most of us here, the trees become very stressed by the great heat and lack of water and this stress produces a higher level of anti-oxidants that is found in the trees growing in the damper cooler north, and that means that the infusions have greatly increased health benefits (tilleul actually has five times the anti-oxidants of green tea – excellent news.)  Its properties have been known since records began, it has always been used as a sedative and an anti-inflammatory.

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evolution of lime, from pre-history to present day

 

The ancient Greeks used it on ulcerated wounds.  Physicians at the court of the Sun King used it to mask the smell of more noxious preparations as well as in its own right.  In a bizarre geographical blip, it was grown extensively in the French Pyrenees, but there the tree is felled and peeled and the inner bark is dried and used as the leaves and flowers are here, obviously a much more demanding and heavy harvest, with substantial environmental impact.

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The leaves as food are nutritious, containing 15% vegetable protein, and can be eaten in salad when young.  (Do not attempt this with older leaves or you will find yourself chewing and chewing, as with gristly meat offered at corporate dinners, grinding away, seemingly for hours, desperate to find a convenient vessel for expectoration.  Finally, in despair, feign a cough and put into balled napkin which waiter then helpfully unfurls, revealing hot shame to assembled company).

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It’s properties were officially recognised at the end of the nineteenth century, and it was incorporated into the Pharmacy Code.  Consumption rocketed.  At its peak, during the 1950s,  500,000 tonnes were produced annually in France, most of it here. And then, the shiny new Fifth Republic, matched all over the west by the enthusiastic embracing of technology and convenience.  Why make a cake when you can buy a cake mix?   Why make coffee when you can have dissolving powder? Why make an infusion of tilleul, with the fag of all the little bits escaping all over the worktop when you can have a sachet.  Taste was a secondary consideration or, in some cases, not even a factor.  And now, predictably, the sachets come from China.  Harvesting is done manually and, in Europe, manual labour is expensive.  Wooden ladders used to be propped into branches and up you go.  Now you need a safety harness and the insurance terms mean that you cannot use the itinerant and student labour which used to do these things.  All this is for ultimate good of course, agricultural accidents are the stuff of nightmares, but safety, combined with our obsession for cheap and often unseasonal food, has extracted a very heavy price on small farmers, who possibly, in moments of dark despair, may ponder on possibly preferring a flourishing business and only three fingers on one hand.

These bags have no nutritional properties at all (Edmond was asked to analyse the contents and found that, in addition to their inertness, most of them contained no traces of tilleul flower).  The sachets are sprayed with an artificial hay smell to delude the consumer into thinking it is the real thing.  The average box of 20 sachets costs E1,50.  If you deduct from that marketing, packaging, distribution, and assorted profits added on the way, you can see that the actual value of the product is probably nothing, a fit match for its quality.

Our discussion digresses into the economic sun returning to rise in the East, which it always did until the blip of the last century or so.  Chinese lavender wiped out the provencal completely for about 10 years until it was found that it did not have many of the beneficial qualities of that grown here.  Now our hills are purple again, but hundreds lost their livelihoods.  However, it is entirely wrong (and typically eurocentric) to dismiss all Chinese produce as inferior.  Edmond has friends in the truffle business  (the Drome is the main truffle growing area of France, not Perigord, they simply get moved over the border and stamped).  They recently went on a fact-finding mission to China and reported that truffles there are much better than the French or Italian).  Excellent wine is on its way too. Where on earth can we stash our prejudice in this very confusing New World?

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Edmond has worked on this for years.  Five years labour produced the definitive encyclopaedia on the subject.  On his own land he grows many many varieties of tilleul, grafting one stock onto another, working constantly towards the best.  He also works with local growers to produce old strains of figs and grapes, he is currently growing four strains of grape which are banned by the EU for winemaking – Dattier, Concord (now grown in Canada but origninally from France), Isabelle and Noah.  The fig he is working on does not need pesticides and grows to be around the size of a baseball.  The grapes are similarly resistant –  the dattier can be eaten as well – after picking you dry on a clean sheet in the cellar – remarkably, Edmond has noted, if one goes bad, the others remain whole – there is no spread of rot, as is normal with fruit.

So, revonons a notre tilleul, what can you do?  Clearly it is not economically viable to continue to provide for a few tens of thousands of people lucky enough to be able to source the loose leaves and flowers.  All that study, research and hard physical work, for what?  Ha!  Edmond ferrets around in a cupboard and brings out the small elpis in this Pandora’s box.  With a company already working with small estate teas, he is working on a sachet of real tilleul.  When you process the harvest you lost about 30% in waste (twigs, dust, etc).  All this is included in the industrial sachet, his contains only the 70% of real tilleul.  The cost will be between E6 and E7 a box.  It does not need refrigeration, it weighs very little, so despatch costs will be low.  Marketed well and it could be the next green tea, reviving this almost vanished economy.  A big if, but as Edmond says (and any local producer of high quality here will tell you the same), the only future for European quality food production is to focus on what we do well and making it even better and moving it to markets outside the very local.

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I took this at the annual mass held by the Syndicat de Tilleul in the tiny Baronnies village of Benivay Ollon.  Edmond is second from the left.  I hesitated to show it because , while it is charming, particularly in such a picturesque area, to hark always backwards, I did not for a second want to suggest that he was of that school.  He is the quintessential modern European, an inspiring man of science, knowledge and passion.

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pour finir le fromage …..

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And so to Die to talk to Stephane and Caroline Robert, who have run La Fromagerie there for two years.  The shop comes from a mutual passion for cheese. Along with the local markets, they provide the retail outlet for many of the farms in the Vercors and Diois, but also further afield (Caroline is a normande, so obviously has staked a claim in the cabinet).  

Along with cheese, yogurt, milk and cream they have locally produced jellies, with a helpful chart to tell you what goes with which cheese.  Am currently rather fond of elderflower with a fresh sheep.

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80% of the cheese they sell are from raw milk, mostly cow and goat, but also some sheep (Daniele’s cheese, including her wonderful feta, is stocked).  The farmers of SW France, where most of the sheep cheese in France originates, remain resolutely pro-pasteurisation.  All cheese producers were very damaged by an outbreak of listeria some years ago which was traced to an Epoisse producer in Burgundy who was sued and nearly lost his livelihood.  (Epoisse is surely one of the most traceable cheeses.  In a fit of madness I once wrapped one in a towel and then a plastic bag in a suitcase.  Wrong.  Clouds of unspeakable odours, suggesting that I might be involved in a particular nasty plot twist in Goodfellas).  I am not a fan even when I have not been involved in its transportation, more and more I like subtle tones of flavour, rather than being smacked in the nose.  I lack the sophistication to separate taste from smell, and it smells like a fosse septique in a heatwave.

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We talk about listeria, which almost finished the raw cheese industry in Europe 30 years ago.  Robert explains that standards of hygiene were very very low, now, when the raw milk has been picked up from the farm, it is checked twice before being sold.  He adds that, if listeria is present, it is often found that the bacteria in raw milk can combat and destroy it, treated milk has no effect at all, all the microbes are dead.  Currently in France, there are more cases of listeria arising from meat processing than cheese.

I tell him about the recent announcement by the FDA in the US that they are to ban wooden shelves for storing cheese. 

http://cheeseunderground.blogspot.fr/2014/06/game-changer-fda-rules-no-wooden-boards.html?m=1

There is nothing new in cheese production – some years ago a European directive instructed the producers of Reblochon to abandon their traditional pine shelves and move to plastic, which was perceived as being easier to sterilise.  Disastro!  The cheese did not ripen, moreover, it went off by the tonne.  Back to the lab – the bacteria in pine resin are antiseptic and prevent the wrong bacteria developing in the cheese.  Now pines shelves are solidly reinstated.

A little shop, in a tiny town, in the middle of France profonde.  Will never be featured in the New York Times or The Observer.  But, in La Fromagerie is such a well of professionalism, enthusiasm and knowledge, all worn with a charm and lightness, in the best tradition of France.  Stephane went to agricultural college, Caroline was a nurse.  Together they combine the knowledge of nature and science which is the perfect combination in contemporary food production.

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avec mes remerciement sinceres a Stephane et Caroline pour leur temps et pour m’avoir dirige vers des fermes magnifiques.

 

 

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i dream of cheese, toasted mostly

Cheese brings out so miraculously the full flavour a good red wine, and red wine reciprocates so winningly by emphasising the savour of the cheese …

The Food of France: Waverley Root (1958)

Last month, the Hudson Institute’s agribusiness-funded Center for Global Food Issues launched an aggressive “Milk is Milk” campaign to assure consumers that there is no difference between natural milk and that from cows injected with Monsanto’s genetically-engineered or recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production and profitability. This campaign is also aimed at preventing organic dairy farmers and retailers from making “false or misleading claims to be hormone-free, (and) nutritional and animal welfare perceptions, such as happier cows.” Responding to Hudson’s complaints, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will take action against such misleading marketing practices. 

However, contrary to Hudson, there is a wealth of scientific information on the toxic veterinary effects of rBGH, major differences between rBGH and natural milk, and cancer risks posed by rBGH milk. Revealingly, Hudson uses the term rBST, recombinant Bovine Somatotropin, avoiding any reference to the word “Hormone” in Monsanto’s original acronym rBGH. 

Cows hyper-stimulated by repeated rBGH injections are seriously stressed. Such evidence, detailed in confidential Monsanto files submitted to the FDA in 1987, was anonymously leaked to one of us (Epstein) in November 1989. These files revealed widespread pathological lesions, infertility, and chronic mastitis, treated with illegal antibiotics. Acting on this information, in 1990 the House Committee on Government Operations charged “that Monsanto and the FDA have chosen to suppress and manipulate animal health test data-in efforts to approve commercial use” of rBGH. This charge is also consistent with the Committee’s 1986 report, “Human Food Safety and the Regulation of Animal Drugs.” This concluded that the “FDA has consistently disregarded its responsibility-has repeatedly put what it perceives are interests of veterinarians and the livestock industry ahead of its legal obligation to protect consumers-jeopardizing the health and safety of consumers of meat, milk and poultry.”

report from The Organic Consumers’ Association, Feb 2014 (US)

Let us list the pleasures of cheese (interestingly, one of the few rotten foods which we willingly eat):  little fingers of emmenthal massaged to a pulp by sticky chubby fingers, crammed into nearly toothless mouths: cream cheese sandwiches with anchovy: huge chariot de fromage wheeled within a bloated gaze after a celebratory dinner, the lovely cold damp animally smell of Neal’s Yard Dairy, just a little bit more the finish the wine ….   and here, part of life, eaten every day. We have a lot of goat, to the north we have cow, and we have a lot of sheep.

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Danielle and Jean Louis Meurot have been raising ewes for nearly 30 years. They live in a commune of 40 people, all of whom work on the land using only traditional methods. She is one of a growing band of paysans militants, fighting the corner of small farmers who are refusing to toe the European line. There is currently a battle raging about the micro-chipping of animals, and one of her colleagues is facing a E12,000 fine for refusing to do this. Why should I? she asks. It is stressful for the animal, it costs me money and, after slaughter it goes back to pollute the earth (they are made of aluminium). She is part of a vociferous but growing band – independent small farmers are just 3% of the population paysanne in France (paysan does not have the same derogatory connotions as peasant does in English – it is a job to be proud of, working the land). Danielle and Jojo have about 100 ewes and four rams. The rams are from a separate stock to avoid in-breeding. The ovine pregnancy last five months and they are two impregnations, one in September for lambs for the Easter market, and one in June for Christmas. When male lambs are born they stay with their mothers for about 6 weeks and then are either sold to other farmers or go the slaughter. The ewes lactate for around 6 months, so, once the lambs have been removed, there is still 4-5 months of milk production and, in their prime, a healthy ewe will produce between 195 and 210 litres of milk per lactation. The main winter diet is rolled barley and the animals are not allowed out until summer is underway – the spring grass is too wet and rich and gives them diarrhea.

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When we visit, they have been out for a week or so and the shepherd Erwan is taking them to a hillside pasture. As the season progresses so they go further and further up the hillside, at the moment they are chomping around a low field and Erwan is taking care to ensure they don’t eat too much clover as it causes them to bloat which can, occasionally, be fatal. Like most dairy farmers in this area, the Meurots would not dream of pasteurising their milk. All the antibodies which boost immunity are removed by processing and you are left with a sterile liquid that can actually cause problems. It is interesting how we have gone full circle on this. Quite recently, one of the standard responses to presenting at the doctor with eczema, related skin conditions or asthma was, inter alia, to exclude dairy produce. Recent research has shown that raw milk is actually very beneficial to these conditions, but has also revealed that some of its champions’ claims are without foundation.  Being a solid soixante-huitard conspiricist Daniele believes that this is because the government lobbies of big pharma have an interest in keeping a sizable part of the population low-level ill. More likely, I suspect, is that much food processing introduces chemicals and/or removes beneficial bacteria. However, I think it’s important to remember the rose-tinted Lark Rise past had people dying of smallpox, and maladies from the early industrialisation of food were rife.

The Meurot’s cheese and yogurt are processed using natural fermentation which Danielle makes herself, through a gentle heat process.

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In cool vaults yogurt and cheese, fresh and aged up to six months are stored. We discuss various maladies which the sheep have suffered, including catarrhal fever. All are treated with plant remedies. Lavender and rosemary are natural antiseptics and used a lot for infections. Later in the year, when grass is less rich and the ewes are nearing the end of their lactation, rosehips provide a dose of vitamin C and boost them for the coming winter. Last year disaster struck in October when wolves attacked the flock, three sheep were killed and all the other ewes miscarried, that is the worst blow that the Meurots have ever suffered.

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They are retiring in a couple of years, having found a couple to take on the farm – two of her ex-stagiaires.  What on earth will you do with your time? Oh, I’m going to travel the world staying with all the students who have stayed with me over the years, learning how to raise sheep in the traditional way. This may take a while, her proteges now farm in Canada, Italy, Morocco and all over France. Currently Saad, a bio-engineering student from Meknes, is on an internship with her, wildly enthusiastic about returning home and implementing what he has seen.

 

Much further east, in the heart of the Vercors, is the little village of La Chapelle en Vercors. A landscape entirely different from here in northern Provence. Lush and wet, swooping pastures and high cliffs which still have snow on them. Perfect dairy country.ImageThierry Bellier is the seventh generation of his family to farm at La Jarjette. The original farm house, built around 1820 still stands, and has been added on to over the decades. He has 30 Montbeliard who are currently enjoying the as-much-as-you-can-eat buffet in a flower carpeted field. It’s pouring with rain (every time I come here it pours with rain, perhaps the gods are weeping for the hundreds of resistance fighters who were killed by the gestapo in this area).

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The animals stand calmly under the trees. As we approach they don’t run away but remain, politely staring. They are extraordinarily calm – perhaps they are on some sort of bovine yoga programme. They are also spotless, not a speck of mud or anything else on their legs or haunches. Thierry embraces his favourite, who doesn’t bother to get up. The oldest cow is 12 and still yielding as much milk as ever. The oldest he’s ever had was 16, and she departed last year.

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A mature cow gives between 20 and 25 litres a day, those less than 3 years old, about 10. The cows give him around 110,000 litres of milk a year all of which goes to cheese, apart from that drunk by his family. His mother is 80 and drinks a litre a day. I very much wanted to photograph her – she looks a sprightly 68, but when we got back to the farm house she’d gone sprinting up the mountain to get the other herd. The cows become fertile around the age of two. Thierry used to have a bull who clearly didn’t know how to behave himself, so was despatched. Cows are now impregnated artificially, which has a lower success rate. He’s decided to get another young bull and rear it himself. Pregnancy lasts nine months. The calves are removed soon afterwards and fed by hand. The males are sold as veal or to be reared as beef cattle. The cows give milk for 300 days (so exact!). And so to the cheese, the source of the Bellier’s living. They make Saint-Marcellin and Saint-Felicien, and little tommes, eaten from fresh to a few weeks.

Thierry very generously gives us two – one is two days old and the other a week, and you can clearly see how the brown wrinkling has . Image

begun on the oder one.  Like all the other farmers I have met, the Bellier family have no truck with pasteurised milk – it’s just a dead liquid, full of dead things. Where possible, like Danielle, Thierry treats his animals with natural remedies. He successfully treats foot-rot with lavender but an outbreak of lungworm disease last year needed anti-biotics. Regarding the other threat to grazing animals in this area, he is currently ahead – Famille Bellier 30: wolves 0, This area of France has the highest percentage of biodynamic farming and farms using traditional methods. The town of Die has a wonderful market on Wednesdays and almost every stall is local producers, cheese, charcuterie, fruit and vegetables, oils, nuts and honeys. Around 30% of Thierry’s customers are small local independents, but the bulk of his cheese goes to a cooperative in Grenoble for distribution all over France. It is a precarious life but he seems to have achieved a successful marriage of vastly differing scales. Hard to predict the future – of course it is wonderful being able to walk around a market and buy only local fresh food, ethically sourced and raised. The challenge is to extend that philosophy to feed the world.

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if you are interested in raw milk production, and raising cattle naturally, do seek out The Moo Man about a British dairy farmer in Sussex who turned around a failing business and now sells only raw milk products.  It is a delight:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2433336

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the dream of postman cheval

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“One minute. You know nothing about him. He probably has his own joys and interests- wife, children, snug little home. That’s where we practical fellows’- he smiled-‘are more tolerant than you intellectuals. We live and let live, and assume that things are jogging on fairly well elsewhere, and that the ordinary plain man may be trusted to look after his own affairs.” 

Mr Willcox – Howard’s End (E M Forster)

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Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 in Hauterives, a small town in the Vercors, now a National Park, a remote area north of Valence.  He worked as a postman, walking 30km a day.  An ordinary humdrum sort of life.  One day he spotted a strange shaped stone which reanimated a long-held dream, to build a fairy castle.  Every day, for the next 33 years, he worked tirelessly after his round, creating this extraordinary building.  It is very ugly, a dull cement colour, and shows little artistic or architectural skill and yet, little by little, you are drawn in.

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It is clearly a labour of love, but has none of the pomposity of the creations in sea-shells which used to adorn suburban gardens on the south coast of England.  Everywhere in this structure is evidence of that very nineteenth century auto-didacticism.  Cheval was a humble man, poorly educated, but he clearly read voraciously, and, of course, the nineteenth century was the heyday of the picture postcard – perhaps he found inspiration from the images he delivered to the good folk of the town.   Mosques, Egyptian temples, classical gods and exotic animals lunge at you from every promontory.  There is no sense of irony or self-parody.  Little maxims, exorting humility during the short space of time allocated to us abound.

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There is no record of the reaction of the community to his herculean labours.  He was not offered any financial support, but clearly neither was he regarded as ridiculous.  A photograph of him and his family show his wife smiling happily, clearly at ease with her husband, though their child has something of the night about him.

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And so, he worked, he built, he died.  A life unremarked but for this.  He is said to have inspired Breton and Picasso and Gaudi and there is certainly something of Barcelona about the palais,  but made of sand and left out in the rain.

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Ferdinand’s dream was forgotten for much of the twentieth century, but, while Minister of Culture,  Andre Malraux made it a monument historique in 1969 – a blow for the efforts of the common man amid the florid pontifications of the Academie and the self-absorption of the boul’ Miche at the time.

‘In a world in which everything is subject to the passing of time, art alone is both subject to time and yet victorious over it’. 

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lots of piggies leading piggy lives

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Joel Morin has been raising pigs and cattle in the tiny hamlet of Pommerol since 1990.  Pommerol really needs Ansel Adams to convey its extraordinary landscape – massive heavy folds of drapery, strange pillars and tunnels.  Waterfalls pour into rock basins which are smooth through millennia of scouring.  In summer it is wonderful to picnic in the shade of these strange walls and walkways, tempering the boiling heat of July and August with a swim in clear green water so cold that it shocks all the breath from you.  

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His pigs are a Large White/Landrace cross.  They are small by the standards of pigs raised in barns, and have that lovely hard muscly feel of happy porker, spending their days snuffling around the farm, their diet beets, clover and orge aplatie (this means flattened barley, which I’m sure is not the correct English term, I am no farmer). 

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They are outside all year, even in the depths of winter when it can go to -15.   They overnight in the shed, though in summer this is barred to them as the combination of the provencal summer and their body heat is not a happy one.  I have visions of some chaotic post porcine sleepover.  The younger pigs have just had a visit from the vet to take blood, and they are all jammed together in a pen, year 10 desperate to get out.  I struggle with anthropomorphism, really succeeding only with scaled things.  One of the teenagers squeals with delight when she sees Joel, and bounces around his legs like a dog.  She looks exactly like Babe but sentiment is fatal in such matters.  The pigs are killed when they are about a year old.  “It is very hard” says Joel, “I feel I have betrayed them.  When it is done I spend the day alone and feeling terrible.”  When they have been slaughtered Joel butchers them himself and sells the meat locally.

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We walk up the hillside to his cattle – he has a small herd of Aubrac.  This is a very old French breed which, if the air is dry, sails through the winter.  They have the most beautiful faces, highlighted in cream, with endless eyelashes.  The flesh is old-fashioned.

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There is a high bone to meat ratio, which means it is perfect for slow cooking, rather than a quick flash fry of a filet.  It’s marbled with fat so soft and tender with a deep flavour, a product of surviving extreme cold and, of course, grazing on rich grass in the summer and its hay in the winter.

Joel keeps one bull, which he has for its functional life.  Left to its own devices, a bull will continue to service cows for 7-8 years. There is no artificial insemination here, or visits from a large beast who has to perform for an audience of anxious humans.  He is kept apart from the cows for the first three months of the year as it is important that calves are born in January (gestation is 9 months).  In the depths of winter there are no flies which carry the diseases which kill the calves. The Only Boy in the Herd is currently politely sniffing a cow’s bottom.  We withdraw to the farm for coffee.

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Wolves are becoming a big problem here.  It presents the classic town and country dilemma.  Joel has not had any attacks, which he puts down only to good fortune.  He has no patou (the huge dogs which farmers use to see off wolves – unfortunately they often see off domestic dogs and selected parts of their owners).  “What’s the point – either the dog is so vicious I can’t risk having it wandering around, or it’s domesticated and the wolf will kill it with one swipe of his paw.”   If the attacks start then I would have to keep my animals inside and I would never do that, so I will just stop farming”.  

It is a moderately embarrassing fact that there are over 6000 wolf attacks in France per year, here and in the Pyrenees.  This is matched by a hunting quota in double figures.  Canada geese in the village pond, parakeets screaming round Hyde Park, grey squirrels everywhere, everyone needs a natural predator: the wolf has none.  I hate the way some of the hunting is done around here – drunken oafish men with huge rifles in 4 x 4s blasting away with a repulsive swagger, screeching back at the end of the day with a corpse tied triumphantly to the bars, but if the result of these increasing wolf attacks is that people cease to farm on the hillsides and husbandry becomes just another industrial process, who has won?

Joel does not complain – we drink coffee and look at the view from his kitchen.  

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A way of life modelled on ancient tradition, massively improved with modern science and now under threat, not from the cherished villains of  farming, Monsanto or Dow, nor indeed from canis lupus lupus, but from a terrible confusion about what we are actually wanting to preserve when we romanticise nature.  The wolf is not a Renaissance chateau, preserved for the future, it is a wild animal which needs to live like one, with all that that suggests.  Let us hope it does not blow down the entire house.

“When all this is over,” said the swineherd,

“I mean to retire, where

Nobody will have heard about my special skills

And conversation is mainly about the weather.

 

I intend to learn how to make coffee, at least as well

As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen

And polish the brass fenders every day.

I want to lie awake at night

Listening to the cream crawling to the top of the jug

And the water lying soft in the cistern.

 

I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines

And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,

Where it gets dark early in summer

And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.”

Eilean ni Chulleanian

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In the summer, you can camp on the slopes around Joel’s farm, un petit paradis:

http://www.fermedepommerol.com

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mushrooming hope

Dear bookings.com, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Two nadirs remain forever in the soul – firstly a “hotel” in an industrial estate just outside Lyon. The building was made entirely of moulded plastic, rather like a cheap swimming pool. I seemed to be the only female guest, or at least the only one who was staying more than an hour.  Visions of a restoring evening evaporated.  I ate my salade forestiere sitting cross legged on the bed (the floor seemed to have a lively independent existence) and left at dawn.

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Greater by far was the trauma in the Florida Keys. I had become over-excited by a guest house “run by a famous actress” . Images showed bougainvillea-draped gazebos, a glittering pool, perfect. The actress had been famous in the 1980s in a soap which had not crossed the Atlantic – the house was festooned with pictures of her, lifted features hidden in a forest of hair and shoulder-pads. She had suffered a terrible stroke and was bedridden, cared for by Ed Gein’s baby brother and his sister who lived in a trailer park across the freeway. Every day they would come over and “care” for their charge and her clients. There were lots of loose bowelled little dogs and the rooms were all dirty and painted aubergine and everything sweated unbecomingly in the terrible humidity. “Arr hyav always prarded marself ahn ma coolinerry skirls” Norman announced enticingly when we arrived, leering at something over my left shoulder, while his sister giggled flirtatiously at him. All highly diverting watched on a screen with a glass of wine and pizza on Friday night, less attractive when living through it. We moved the chest of drawers against the door overnight. Next morning, skittering between piles of poo we sat by the algaed pool, Norm hove damply into view, large towel over his arm which, obvs, could only conceal a chainsaw. False alarm, it was breakfast for two – “Arr niew you Yurropeens hyav sophisticated tyastes, thuz eyiz from Payris” – ten sausages sitting on a blend of tinned peaches and cornflakes.

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So, searches are now tempered with much lowered expectations. We need somewhere to stay outside Lyon. Condrieu is lovely, there is a beautiful hotel on the banks of the Rhone, but when you’ve been confined for 10 hours in a cramped space with a flatulent terrier  you don’t really want to get dressed up and be fussed over. b.c suggests the Chateau de Volan, a beautiful old mas. It has been in the family of Valerie Seneclauze

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for 200 years, but she and her husband moved in only a few years ago. It sits on the highest point of the ridge above the vineyards. So far, so familiar. But look closely, absolutely beautiful house, charming host, but the jam is not just fruit – we have sage, elderberry, wisteria, forgotten old fragrances and tastes which slide perfectly into the seat next to the cheese,  as if they were born there.

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But there is more.  “Do you know about the mushrooms?”. In addition to her small-holding, Valerie cultivates shitake mushrooms in two of the chateau’s cellars. Shitake have long been used for medicinal purposes in the east and are known to boost the immune system and help to lower blood cholesterol. But never mind that, they’re delicious.  We dine on many fungal forms, tarts, cakes, fritters, and mountains of fresh vegetables.  Forgotten pleasures in French restaurants where a request for vegetables is still often greeted with arched eyebrows and a pained cry of “mais c’est deja garni”, a defeated hand indicates a small pile of canned green beans, which clearly have emerged from a terrible time in the tin only to receive a further harsh drubbing from chef.Image

In areas which once held racks of wine Valerie assembles logs (“substrats”) which are composed of 80% straw and 20% oak sawdust. The logs are pasteurised then sown with spores. Valerie matches her sowing to the rhythms of the moon, and the results are extraordinary. Having served dinner and fed her animals she went to the cellar and, in one cull, picked 44kg.

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When you drive south from the Channel coast you seem to spend most of the journey in Champagne, a wasteland without birds, flowers or trees, where farmers live in towns and analyse their soil every morning on their laptop screen. France voted to ban Monsanto from its fields but almost two years ago the EU overrode the decision. But by any other name. …  Huge grain hoppers which look like cathedrals crest on what was once undulating pasture but which is now a stagnant ocean of of modified wheat. We could actually still be in Kansas Dorothy. But, away from the vast agribusinesses of central France there is a little breeze of change. Valerie, who uses no chemicals on any of her fruit, flowers or mushrooms, supplies local restaurants and markets.

Increasingly the small farms around my village are run, not by the nth generation of farming families, but by people who have studied agriculture and actively chosen to farm. An era is passing. I know people who still describe themselves as “paysan” but their numbers are dwindling. The passing of an era is often bittersweet – the picturesqueness of the run-down farm in our peerless light does not show terrible poverty, maiming injuries from poor safety practices with farm equipment, and the defeat of the soul which often comes with economic hardship. But there is a new spirit abroad, informed by environmental concerns and modern technology and a positive choice to do it, wine, vegetables, fruit, animals, mushrooms. Down the road,  Sylvia has studied wine-growing for seven years and has returned to the family vineyard to make award winning wine (https://pinkhousefoods.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/large-and-white-clean-and-bright).

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David, who, with his wife Josephine,  raises goats, left a factory job in the north to come here and follow his dream.  My friend who farms cattle on a local mountainside (whose house is below) said to me “At three o’clock on a January morning when I have to get up and go out in -20 to tend to a sick cow, I think WTF, but then I look at where I am, and what I am doing, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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if you are in the area (Haute Saone) do visit Valerie.  She has a gite as well as chambres d’hotes, but it is her husbandry which should be celebrated.  Honest food from an honest clean source, it sounds so simple.  We owe it to ourselves and to our planet.

http://www.chateaudevolan.fr

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lingua franca

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Aladärum M cape. Linguas exsecxa et sepone.  Alaudis abice.  Lingas mite in sartaginem cum paulo olei et frige cito.  Eas traice ad patellam calida.  Quattuor sufficit.

Get 1,000 larks. Remove their tongues and set aside. Discard the larks.
Put the tongues in a pan with a little oil and saute quickly.
Transfer to a hot platter.    Serves four.

Recipe from Pompeii Food and Drink

We trudge on, like loyal centurions, through this endless winter.  There is little delight to be had, impecunious and endlessly grey.  The consolation of cake has taken its toll, and so there is the rather unbecoming pneu de rechange to contend with, as if the prospect were not already bleak enough.

But today the sun is shining.  Hyde Park is populated by well insulated moles, blinking in the unaccustomed brightness.  The wind whips hard around  women, shrouded in black, bound hard in latex, swaddled in down, a bullet point presentation on London 2014.  Oddly there are few children and almost no men, and so we ping around the park, in the face of a hard cold wind, no common language, no common culture, strangely dispiriting.

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The butcher has smoked ox tongues.  They are £6 each and will feed at least five.  An ox tongue, detached from its owner, is not a lovely thing, and its prep requires a stomach stronger than mine at the moment.  However, all the hard work has been done, it just need to be poached slowly for about 2 hours.  It then peels very easily.   We chat about the tongue thing – needless to say, hardly eaten now.  Many butchers in England now report that customers want fillet steak and chicken breast.  The waste is shocking, entire chicken carcasses, minus the breasts are discarded, calves liver, kidneys all bound for pet food.  I’m not sure if the Roman larks tongue thing is a myth – how can a culture, even one as robust about life as Rome, destroy such a beautiful thing only to yield a morsel the size of a child’s tooth?  Perhaps that was the whole point, how ineptly we fumble around trying to understand the past,   The dish has come to symbolise everything that is spoiled and decadent about the last days of an empire, but at least one could argue that they knew no better.  What is our excuse?

Anyway, the tongue is delightful.  I usually do it with a caper and cornichon sauce, but thought this looked rather interesting, and it works very well.  It is from Poland:

60g butter                                                                                                            30g flour

12.5cl red wine                                                                                          60g almonds

1/2 lemon, 1 strip of zest, juice set aside

5 sugar cubes water

45cl meat stock

from The Good Cook (Offal) ed Richard Olney (1981)

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add flour.  Cook till lightly browned.  Add stock, wine, almonds, lemon juice.

In a frying pan, melt the sugar with a few drops of water.  When it begins to caramelise remove it from the heat and gradually stir it into the sauce.  Simmer for about five minutes and put the slices of tongue in it.  Arrange on a dish.

Unfortunately, this is called Grey Sauce which is about as appetising as the tongue waiting to be cooked.  But persevere, out of ugliness comes beauty.  It is delicious, economic, and absolutely in keeping with the Zeitgeist.

In my heart, like the centurion crunching up the Fosse Way, I dream of the South.

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