Tag Archives France

More little things I’ve learnt on this French farm

champignions (mushrooms)


Yesterday morning, we got took out our secateurs (delightfully un sécateur en français) and chopped down the raspberry canes. You do this to promote new growth in the new year. As I chopped, I ignorantly didn’t know you used the word ‘cane’ to describe the plant, but the Father kindly corrected me when I told him about my gardening exploits later in the evening.

We dug up the canes which had failed to produce fruit this year and weeded around those that had. Now, unless there is some great technique that I’m oblivious to, the work has taught me that I am considerably physically weaker than Grand-mère. That’s with the fork, shovel or pick axe.

Je bêche avec une bêche.

One particularly long and stringy weed seemed to have grown everywhere. It winds around the plants and suffocates them. I could pull it off in large handfuls but it would snap from the roots. If the roots remain it will grow again.  Once we’d removed as much as possible we threw wood chip down on the ground around the plants to protect them.


We set out on an adventure into the forest for mushrooms. So far this year, the mushroom harvest has been rather pathetic. There has simply not been enough rain. Although it’s now October, it rarely rains. The fields still have huge cracks in them from where they were toasted by the summer sun.

There were however some mushrooms in the forest. When we returned to the farmhouse we lay our small collection on the kitchen table for inspection. Grand-mère found her champignion book to help us analyse what we’d found. Luckily it contained many pictures as well as French text to help us identify our mushrooms.

With a quick glance at the table Grand-mère knew we didn’t have the best autumn mushroom in the collection. She hopes it will turn up next week.

We did have one particularly worrying looking mushroom, the closest image we found to it in the book had a rating of two skull and cross bones. Luckily, we  also had some edible (comestible) mushrooms. However, the book described the taste of some as sour, and others as unpleasant. They smelt bad too.  Fortunately, the very smallest, with stalks like straw and tops not much bigger than the tip of my thumb, smelt sweet. Grand-mère declared them to be very good. We have three of these tiny mushrooms.


Sometime last week, I finally woke up early enough to catch Grand-mere skimming the cream. Grand-père laughed at me wanting to see something so simple, but he eventually admitted he hadn’t ever skimmed the milk. Getting up early was well worth it though. My imagination had failed to consider that there would be a crisp layer of fat, translucent and a little yellow in colour, laying on the top of the milk. For some reason I can’t explain, being surprised by the cream delighted me.

What’s surprised you this last week?

On French aristocratic seating arrangements

The French aristocratic seating procedure is something I find quite bewildering.

Inevitably I am the youngest adult, and of course neither a priest nor a member of the military. Therefore I often sit at the head of the table. From the middle of the table Grand-père and Grand-mère conduct the proceedings. To Grand-père’s right sits the highest ranking woman (after Grand-mère) and to his left the second highest ranking woman. When there are only three women for dinner this is me. If there are only two women then we sit at the kitchen table.

The highest ranking man (ignoring Grand-père) sits to Grand-mère’s right. To her left sits the second highest. The pattern continues until everyone has sat down, following rank order, alternating between man and woman.

Everyone but me has an innate understanding of this order. I just know I’m at the bottom.

Grand-père serves the woman to his right first, then the woman to his left. He serves me before passing the plate to Grand-mère but after all other women. I’m not allowed to eat until Grand-mère had begun. I’m given a piece of bread at the beginning of my meal to use at the end to mop up the sauce. Inevitably I eat it first and then spend a while wondering whom I can interrupt to ask for the bread basket. The seven year old informed me that you must never take two pieces of bread at a time. Even if they are very small pieces. It’s rude. Furthermore, I find I drink my wine too slowly in comparison to everyone else, this vexes Grand-père and his smooth, wine pouring routine and therefore disrupts his own meal.

Otherwise it’s seamless.

Grand-mère says that it’s not just her who can make cooking and serving roast dinner for twenty-five look effortless. Her mother, her mother in law, her sister-in-law, all these people know, or knew, how to really enjoy a grand family meal. What’s more, she’s an outstanding cook. The meat is from the field and the vegetables from the garden. I’m in awe.

In comparison, I can cook roast dinner. I could even cook roast dinner for twenty-five, or at least I could if I had somewhere to seat everyone. But mid-meal you’d be unable to engage me in a meaningful and considered conversation, I’d be worrying about the gravy. Afterwards I’d sneak out from the washing up for a nap. I’d look like a wreak.

So I think Grand-mère’s magical. Her secret weapon though, is that everyone around her knows exactly which way to pass what plate when.

That’s something to ponder.

It’s the sheep’s fault – accidentally working on my day off.


The wood was in the wrong place. Not that we urgently need it, but should the heating system fail again, we’ll want it. Someone therefore had to fill up the empty wood shelter close by the wood burner.

I worked two hours on Tuesday and three hours on Wednesday moving wood from one pile to the other pile with the help of the digger and my little electric car. No surprise my arms and back ached afterwards. Logs are heavy. However, there’s something intrinsically rewarding about building a log pile. You start with a few logs on the ground, and slowly it takes form until you end up with a neatly stacked pile. It’s taller than me.

As Grand-mère and Grand-père were very grateful for all my hard work, today was pronounced as a day off (with the sole exception of feeding the animals, a task which Grand-père offered to help out with).

Because everything I own is already covered in sawdust, I was wearing a skirt and leggings.

It was raining. And due to a mixture of laziness and stupidity, half the sheep escaped into the neighbouring field. Whilst counting the sheep that remained, Grand-père realised that he was standing over one young boy and I was standing over the other. This was a great opportunity to separate the young boys from the herd. Five minutes later I’m hauling a wet, heavy lamb across the field by its forelegs.

The escapee herd wandered of their own accord through the gate of the next field which is prepared for sheep. So we followed with the two young boys in the trailer, Grand-père in the tractor and me riding cross-legged perched on the tractor wheel as if going side-saddle with my foot out of the door. We pulled close the gate.

Life here never fails to entertain.

Harvesting potatoes

potato harvest

Grand-père worries about me. He worried about me damaging my clothes, or my shoes, or that I’d get dirt under my nails. I try to explain that my clothes are not so precious, especially those already with holes in. I tell him that I’ve had the same shoes for years and I’d much prefer to be wearing something I’m comfortable in. And as for the nails, I just looked at him in despair.

Often it’s my hair he worries about, as if washing out the twigs, dirt and dust is somehow a challenge for me. He’s particularly concerned about me getting dust in my hair. Maybe he doesn’t realise that having my hair in a chaotic and dusty state gives me an extra excuse for standing in the hot shower. It’s a gift to my aching muscles.

The concern bemuses me. Perhaps he thinks that I take ages to shove my hair in a bun, pony-tail or loosely plait it. I won’t deny that there’s a lot of hair to manage. I’m blessed with a surplus of long thick hair. But I’m not the sort of person to spend hours in front of the mirror.

His delusion reminds me of the Japanese lady I met outside Tutmosis III’s tomb in the valley of the kings, who was horrified when, after plucking up the courage to ask how I managed to make my hair look like a rose, I yanked out my bobble to demonstrate.

It’s genetics not skill.

For unknown reason, the potato harvest caused a sudden worry about the dirt and my nails. There’s dirt involved whatever you’re doing on a farm, not just the potato harvest. Oil and dirt covered my hands when I was cleaning the plough. We pulled out the twigs, grass and wire that the mechanism had caught, using knives from the 1800s because apparently such knives are better. When watering the poly-tunnel I pick up the yellow pollen which makes everything you touch yellow, which to me is much worse than simple dirt.

Anyway, to the important activity of harvesting potatoes. It’s quite a self-explanatory activity.  Potatoes live in the ground and you have to dig through the earth until you find them all. We used a digger to break up the earth. Then we picked up the potatoes with our hands getting dirt under our nails.

Potatoes are special though. You can’t just chuck them in a basket though. Before storing the potatoes, you have to lay them in the dirt for a few hours so that any insects go down into the earth rather than finding a home in the potato store. With three of us working together the harvest didn’t take too long. It wasn’t a big harvest, but it was sufficient to please Grand-mère. The local potato harvest hasn’t been great and she knows people who haven’t got any potatoes this year.

When we were done, I magically (with the aid of a nailbrush) managed to remove the dirt from my face and hands. Grand-père inspected my clean nails and seemed pleased no damage was done.

On a night so clear you could see the milky way


It was a clear night. The dusty track of the milky way swept across the sky, making me grateful for the quiet that comes from living deep in a national park. The stars never fail to make me believe in magic. They glittered, entrancing me to such a degree that I didn’t care that I was sitting on the cold stone slabs that pave the path by the vegetable garden. My camera taunted me. Could I remember how to take pictures in the dark?

Eventually I walked back to my bedroom, climbed between the sheets and fell asleep.

In the morning, after a breakfast of coffee and toast, I asked Grand-père for the morning’s agenda. He wanted to work a little on his cello, and so suggested, to my joy, that I could tend to the animals. It delights me every morning when I take the little electric car out, load it with the animals’ breakfast and drive out through the fields to have them gallop towards me with an enthusiasm that’s rarely matched in human kind.

Yet, not all rural farm life is so idyllic. Grand-père didn’t look up at me when he mentioned we’d also need to collect her body. He knew I was apprehensive.

He said, if I wanted, he would do that, because he knew I didn’t want to.

“I’ll go,” I said, not knowing where the sudden determination to be the one to bring her home to be buried came from.

He repeated that I didn’t have to. I said nothing.

Sheep, are fragile creatures; lambs especially so. We’d moved her two days before to a quiet, sheltered spot to die when Grand-père had said the end was inevitable.

I didn’t go to her straight away. Instead, first I filled my buckets and ventured out to the herd. The sheep were their usual crazy selves, focused only on the grain, seemingly oblivious of our loss. As usual, I shouted and pushed in order not to have my toes crushed by their stiletto like hooves. The smaller sheep scattered over the trough, whilst fearless others launched themselves at my knees. The donkeys watched on wearily as they always do. The goats had wandered off and I had to search through the woodland and grassland and rocky caves. I found them ravaging a sapling.

Then I drove the little electric car back up the driveway, and across into the field beyond.

“Fear of death is fear of what we might experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Translated by Gregory Hays)

She lay on her side with the eye that faced up to me half open. I wanted to close it, but I didn’t want to touch her face. I took my time, first to gaze upon her, second to touch my hand to her curly wool and feel the residual warmth within her, and then to wrap my hands around her legs, rigid and cold, and haul her up into the air.

She was much heavier than I’d expected, and her head hit against the car as I struggled to lift her inside.


A countryside breakfast: Mon petit déjeuner avec du lait

Milk from French dairy cows

I drank coffee with milk at breakfast.

Perhaps, this seems like a small and unimportant fact to you. But for me it was a big deal.

I’m lactose intolerant. This isn’t a disaster, but means that if I want to drink coffee with milk I need to first take a lactase tablet. Lactase is the enzyme which my body no longer naturally produces. On a typical morning, I drink my coffee black and eat my toast without butter. I save my lactase tablets for occasionally eating bread and cheese, which, as this is France, accompanies both lunch and supper, or for eating any other food involving milk, such as a creamy coffee éclair from the bakery. For me, drinking coffee with milk for breakfast is a special treat.

Just before dinner, the night before, we went to the dairy farm. I said ‘hello’ to the cows and ‘bonjour’ to the dairy farmer, a friendly young man with a dark green apron. It was milking hour so the farmer was already quite busy. He took our milk pails and tapped off the fresh milk which was coming straight from the cows.

I was as excited as the three year old grandson who saw a red tractor. He really likes tractors.

When we arrived home, Grand-mère poured the milk into a huge saucepan and slowly heated it to the point where it expands to fill the pan. Very nervously, I watched over it. My instruction to shout when something happened. Just as it hit boiling, Grand-mère switched off the heat, put on the lid, and left it overnight to cool – this was my brief lesson in pasteurisation. By morning, the cream had risen to the top, ready to be scooped off into a separate jug.

And so I chose to drink milk with my coffee for breakfast, and it was heavenly.

Like Elizabeth Bennet, walking through the gates of Pemberley for the first time

Dordogne grape vine


The room I live in was once an outbuilding, but is now my bedroom and en-suite. You can sit on the windowsill and look beyond the warped wooden shutters out over the vegetable garden. Usually you’ll find a kitten climbing a washing line pole, a chicken scratching at the dirt, or the dog wagging his tail. Small arched holes remain in the thick stone walls where birds entered, before they were sealed with clear plastic. They let the morning light in. I wake at dawn and step out of bed onto a floor of hard, cold tiles.

There’s something reassuring about the room. I’m surprisingly comfortable, despite the lack of curtains or decoration. It’s a plain room, but practical. It’s not overstated, which matters because the house to which this outbuilding/farmhouse belongs is a statement – the sort of elegant house that one might slow down as one passed to take a better look. Un Chateau.

It’s not the size of the house which makes me so much in awe of it. There are larger and more elaborate properties in the world, but this one is temporarily part of my life. Amazingly, right now, it’s where I call home.

There’s an unexpected joy to finding myself with such a privilege. It reminds me being invited for lunch in a converted monastery in Italy. A tipsy gentleman pointed out the original Napoleonic frescos with great pride as he poured me a drink. I ate the dinner, drank the prosecco, and temporarily touched that pride. Later, when I thought about it, I struggled to integrate the experience with the normal day to day of my life – which often, at that time, involved sleeping in a tent and driving down bumpy Italian lanes in an old green Rover. There was something beautiful about the experience, but at the same time, it was like peeping through the window into someone else’s life. I can’t help contrasting the rich food of the monastery dinner to the simple cuisine of its previous inhabitants.

Twice this weekend have I ‘dropped in’ on relations of my French family. The first was a castle. The sort with spiral staircases, turrets and holes in the walls through which an archer could shoot down the enemy. It had a trampoline upstairs in one of the barns and a big view from the terrace of the French countryside. The second was a chateau. A huge house. I strolled through the vegetable gardens, along the walkway where the grapes hung and counted the swimming pools. The children played with a go-kart, but in the yard which was so far away I could rarely hear them. I felt like Elizabeth Bennet, walking through the gates of Pemberley for the first time. Une bière?

Until, sitting beside the sink in the kitchen, I saw a plastic bottle of LIDL washing-up liquid. The twin of the one which sat by the sink in my hovel.