Provence has long had a much-deserved poetic image. The sun. The stunning natural beauty of the countryside. The coastline. The glamour. The richness of rural life. The heritage and culture. Provence is widely seen as a great place to live or take holidays, infused with joie de vivre and a lighthearted approach to life. Author Marcel Pagnol did a lot to reflect the beauty and poetry of Provence in his writing. But he hardly shied away from the tougher rural aspects of this terrain.
There is no doubt that Provence is seductive but it has plenty of darker, tougher aspects to its character than visitors may suspect. I've lived here now for six and a half years, discovering significantly more about life here every year. There's certainly a simplicity about life in Provence, but it's a complex simplicity, if that makes sense. Or you might say there's a complexity about life here, but it's a simple complexity. It's hard to convey. I'll write about some of these darker aspects of Provence in future posts.
For the moment I just want to make an observation about raising rabbits.
Lots of Provencal paysans - small producers - raise rabbits. (Saying you're a "peasant" here has no negative connotations, by the way. It just means you live mostly off the land. You grow fruit and veg or raise animals.) Pagnol wrote about Jean de Florette's project of raising rabbits to make a living. Anyone who's read the novel or seen the film knows how badly rabbit rearing worked out for the would-be farmer.
Still, raising rabbits in the Provencal countryside seems like a gentle rural occupation. The sun, the open air, the floppy ears, the furry bunnies...
I overheard a conversation about raising rabbits the other day. I was in Isle sur Sorgue in my local café, the Café de France, and a young American woman was telling her husband how wonderful she thought it would be to raise rabbits here. The picture she painted was of bunnies hopping around enjoying their freedom in the sunshine.
It's perfectly true that there's more poetry and more beauty in handling rabbits in the open air than in handling widgets or computer programs (just my opinion.) But the reality is, of course, more complex for the paysans here who breed rabbits for sale or to put on their dinner table.
My neighbour's mother bred rabbits. He still has the large rabbit cages they were kept in, piled in an old hen house. His sister-in-law breeds them too. Our local kiné and another neighbour both exchange their rabbits for litres of olive oil that several of us produce co-operatively. I eat rabbit but I must say I find the sight of a dead, skinned rabbit quite poignant.
Local people who keep rabbits (or pigeons or chickens or pigs...) say it's important to love your rabbits and feed them well. And then they'll make a good meal. That's not cynicism - it's just rural tradition. I know very kind-hearted and sensitive women here who think nothing of killing animals they've raised from birth. One friend told me his mother would bring a live pigeon into the kitchen under her arm and before she reached the kitchen worktop she killed the bird with a swift twist to its neck. He said it happened so rapidly you hardly saw the movement. Provence is not all lavender, honey and pink wine. There's plenty of muscle, sinew and death in the background too.
A housewife here who raises rabbits, or whose husband raises rabbits, will choose a rabbit for lunch or dinner and dispatch it rapidly. She holds it upside down by its feet, strokes its fur several times, (sometimes telling it gently that it was well loved and cared for) and then hits it abruptly on the back of the head. Those who are practised will kill the animal outright every time. Others may give a couple of extra whacks. The dead rabbit is then hung up. The owner puts a bowl or other recipient beneath it, takes out one of its eyes and collects the blood which flows. Once the animal is skinned it can be cooked with or without the blood added in various ways.
Raising rabbits in Provence may sound poetic and undoubtedly much of the work is. Still, it's not an occupation for sensitive souls.