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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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

France is not for the fainthearted

OK, this is only partially about Provence. It's also about living (or trying to live) in France, when you are that dirty word: foreign.

The first round in the election has clarified several issues. The population is somewhere over 65 million. Millions of French voters abstained. Millions were too young to vote. Everyone's talking about percentages so I've seen no actual figures on voters. But let's say 35 million voted. If that's roughly correct, over 10 million of those voters rejected the two main parties. Seven million of them voted for the Front National. Millions voted for the Front de Gauche. Add those figures to the abstentions and you have a truly huge number of French voters who reject Sarkozy and Hollande too. It's a "peste on both your houses".

Marine Le Pen did particularly well in Provence-PACA, as did Carla's husband. It's quite something to walk down the streets of a pretty market town in Provence and realise that one in five of the people around you voted Front National. Fiercely patriotic, one has to assume that many detest or at least resent foreigners. As it happens, I understand why. I know several young men struggling to earn a living who would like to work hard and earn a reasonable wage and they simply can't get a break. I can see how they reason when they think about their lives in Provence. The failure of leadership at national level - and/or the crisis at international level - means they look around for solutions. And Marine Le Pen seems to offer them. What the hell are all these foreigners doing in Provence, for example? As an immigrant, albeit European, I get that. How come I bought a lovely home here while Pierre, who has a young wife and a baby on the way, can hardly afford to rent? It's not immediately apparent to him that I worked hard for 30 years to have that home. Longer than he's been alive! He would reply, no doubt, that he knows plenty of elderly Provençaux who have not been able to buy comfortable homes. I don't know what the answer is. And nor, I'm pretty sure, do any of the candidates in the presidential election.

But I was going to go on to say something about being foreign in Provence/France and it's this. Daily life, in so far as it concerns local people and nature, can be blissful. But the companies you need to deal with are like huge, grinding machines that, once they get you in their jaws, will make you feel your life is not worth living.

The first rule of Fight Club was "There are no rules". Dealing with EDF, France Telecom and others is pretty much like that. You're viewed as a tiny, miniscule, worthless cog in a gigantic machine and you are never allowed to forget it. I've had, since 2004 when I came to live in Provence, four solid years of hassle over health care ('the system' admits that as a European I have a right to a Carte Vitale - they just won't send me one); two years of hassle over internet and telephone lines (I'll spare you the detail); and getting on for 6 months of hassle over electricity supply. The lastest EDF hoo-ha is that their meter stopped working in May 2010 - it was full of ants apparently - and they "estimated" that I owed them another 2080 euros on top of what I'd already paid.

Last week, they sent me a letter saying that they'd bill me for 2011 in 2013 once they'd seen what I spent on electricity in 2012. (Yes, I know....). This week, they sent me a letter saying that since I'd failed to pay 2080 euros - Whaaaaaaa? - they were sending a man to cut off my electricity. Now, I 'm a tolerant person but I fail to see how that equates to any kind of customer service and I imagine it may even contradict laws on human rights. After all, I live in a forest and when my electricity's cut off, I lose my water too. (I have well-water, not town water.)

The casual threat to cut off my supply was pretty shocking. Complicating matters was the fact that my EDF "space online" - instead of showing their guestimate that I owed them 2080 euros - showed a facture saying they owed me 5 euros. Go figure, as the Americans say.

When I discussed this total chaos with my partner he looked thoughtful and then said he thought my problems - with RAM-GAMEX, with EDf, with France Telecom - probably are essentially related to the fact that my name is identifiably not French. Boylan is pretty clearly Irish and quintessentially non-French. In addition he said it doesn't help that I'm female and divorced. It all adds up to being not exactly displaced, but certainly mal-placed.... He was born in Provence and has lived his whole life here. I asked him: "Have you ever known anyone local, anyone Provençal, to have the same problems over such a long period of time?" And he said: "No".

My neighbour however, married to a Swiss guy, said: "Oh yes. That's normal. My husband waited 4 years too, for his Carte Vitale."

Yet during the French elections, we saw candidates addressing French voters in London. And the French in London are accepted as Europeans with the same rights as the English (and just about anyone else who washes up on England's shores.) The same cannot be said, in my experience, of non-French Europeans in France. We may have rights in Europe and the French, officially, agree that we have. They're just not always delivered. It gives a certain depth to the realisation, as I walk down the street in my adopted hometown, that one in five of the people around me voted against the idea of anyone foreign living in Provence.

********* STILL haven't read Present Tense? What? You don't have a Kindle or something? Jeez....get with the freaking programme!