Sunday, April 29, 2012

Meet the farmers - and beekeepers, wine growers, goat breeders, cheese makers

This weekend France had a national initiative opening small agricultural enterprises to the public. Hundreds of smallholders, beekeepers, truffle producers, wine growers, cheesemakers, duck breeders and others opened their doors to the nosy public to show us how they do their work. De ferme en ferme it was called. From farm to farm.

Here in Provence dozens of enterprises took part and around 25 were open in the Vaucluse. My partner and I decided to go and have a look at a few. We chose 4 family concerns at Pernes-les-Fontaines - one keeping goats and producing goats cheese, then Domaine de la Camarette, which produces excellent wine and olive oil and also has a fine restaurant, then a market gardener, and a beekeeper/honey producer.

We started at the Chèvrerie des Fontaines where we were greeted by a loping sheep dog and two robust-looking hens. A shaggy dog was snoozing peacefully in the sun at the top of stone steps. We found the business owner, a young woman called Julie Christol, in the milking room, attaching the milking machine to the goats' teats.


She has several breeds of goat - the local traditional goat breed of Provence, a breed from the Alps and a couple of others. Only 35 in total. With those goats and their milk she has to make enough cheese to earn her living, selling at local markets. The milk is whisked off to a sterile room where it's agitated a bit (I didn't follow the technical stuff very closely) then it ends up on shelves where it sits for a brief or long period of time depending on whether it's to be sold frais, sec, or in-between. Flavours like shallots, herbs or peppers are added.

After meeting the bouc (do we still say billy goat in English?), a handsome animal with a long black beard, we had a look at the room where the milk is handled. Only through a glass door, though, as the hygiene regulations are fierce. Then we had a tasting, tried various textures and flavours and bought a few cheeses. Two little girls, 4 and 5, were helping their mother label little pots of faisselle, a traditional curds and whey product last eaten outside France by Little Miss Muffet. One of the girls made us laugh. My partner asked her what she was doing and she replied with a big smile that she was doing the vaisselle - washing up.

Patting the dogs, goats, chickens and children on the head, we set off to La Camarette. We know the restaurant well and it's well worth visiting - great food and great value produced by the talented chef, Hugo. (32 euros for 3 courses with the Domaine's own wine included.) But we hadn't had a look around the winery which is run by Hugo's wife who also has a small son and baby girl to look after while her husband works long days and nights in the restaurant. She showed us how the wine is produced, from pruning the vines, to harvesting the grapes, and finally bottling the wine, slapping on labels and selling it locally (and to one client in China!) Born into the third generation of a family of wine growers, Nancy Gontier's knowledge of viticulture and viniculture was impressive - the cépages from chardonnay to mourvèdre, grenache, the pinots, syrah and beyond, the machines and processes for making wine, the wine trade in France and abroad, the complex legislation governing the trade, and the protocols for achieving organic - bio - status.

I bought a few litres of red and of white and my partner bought some of the special cuvée she produced to celebrate the birth of her son. Next year, there'll be a vintage to mark her daughter's birth too. I also bought their excellent méthode champenoise which takes a full year to produce.

And off we went to the market gardener. Frederic Deloule's produce is organic and ranges from artichokes to tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, grapes and water melons. A group of a dozen of us took the tour with the farmer's tall, handsome son who smoked roll-ups as he loped about encouraging us to nose around in the rows of vegetables. The obligatory affable dogs - everywhere in Provence - strolled around with us. One looked closer to a bear than a dog but was very sociable. Like the animals, we followed our guide and heard about the irrigation afforded by the Carpentras Canal, the organic compost used to fertilise the produce and the plentiful insect life which somehow maintains a balance and seems to avoid devouring the crops. We were offered several dozen tomato plants at the end of the tour which we accepted with pleasure.

Next stop was the beekeeper and mielerie. Stepping over a large floppy dog, we shook Benoit's hand, the apiculteur, and started our tour. He showed us traditional beehives used in Provence, the Alps and the Cevennes. Some, used way back, were just old tree trunks, hollowed out and with wooden lids slapped on.


Benoit has 400 ruches or hives, which he makes and maintains himself. Each beehive is home to around 40,000 bees. (Yep, 16 million bees.) The hives have to be driven around the region, when plants are flowering, and located in lavender fields and so on. The honey is produced between June and September. We watched his sister filling pots and labelling them. She simply turned a tap on a vat to fill the pots but it's still a time-consuming, manual process, as is the labelling. And then the honey is taken to market. Benoit said his turnover is around 24,000 euros a year which means his net annual income from making honey will be considerably less. We tasted lavender honey, acacia honey and chestnut-flower honey and bought some of each.

As we drove away I reflected on the great day we'd had, courtesy of De ferme en ferme. What impressed me - apart from the beauty of the animals, processes and products - was the incredibly rich knowledge these agriculteurs have. It's the depth of knowledge which is so impressive. Knowledge of the history of making these products. Knowledge of the varieties of animals, of vines and vegetables and the nutrition which suits them and the maladies that afflict them. Of processes and subtle enhancements to them. Of local markets, overseas markets, laws, flavours... it's never-ending. Contrast their work, these small producers, with a person stuck in a shop selling tins of stuff, or someone stuck in an office rifling through files online, and the work of the beekeeper or wine grower seems rather magnificent. Their own bosses, in their own domaines, with their own plants and animals and their own rhythm of working. Each has a whole world of knowledge and expertise to revel in, as well as the beauty of nature.
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