All around the world, people laugh at the foibles of their neighbours. It happens between neighbouring families, neighbouring villages and neighbouring countries. Often the objects of humour are the same, mirrored across national borders. What is called French leave in Britain is known as English leave in France. What used to be called a French letter is a capote anglaise here. A generation ago the British treasured the notion that water could be drunk at home straight from the tap, and even more the idea that on the other side of the channel people had to buy water in bottles. Now the French smile at the amount of money Britons and others spend on importing bottled spring water from France. People throughout Europe pay good money for the water that pours free from our local spring.
Another happy contrast that used to warm the heart of John Bull was that while peasants had disappeared from English society after the Industrial Revolution, they had continued in France into modern times. Part of the reason for this idea was that the French themselves often referred, and still refer, to their paysans. In England it was assumed that French paysans were peasants. In fact the word paysan would translate better as small farmer or countryman. One doesn't find so many people boasting that small farmers disappeared from Britain generations ago. Nor countrymen.
As English farming becomes ever more industrial, and it simultaneously becomes ever more difficult to find local produce in the shops, an increasing number of professional people are taking to the Good Life, and growing their own organic food. They argue that their produce may not be as perfectly shaped as one can buy from the supermarket, nor as uniformly coloured, nor will it keep as long as food packed with preservatives, but it certainly tastes better. It is true that they can eat only what is in season, but they will tell you that turns out to be a blessing. Instead of the same tasteless fruit and vegetables all year round, organic converts look forward to an ever changing diet matching the passing seasons.
These converts are choosing to become paysans - as the ones who move to France will happily tell you. It's not the idyll that many imagine, especially if their objective is to become self-sufficient, as it often is. To become self-sufficient takes a lot of hard work. A lifetime's expertise helps. Our neighbours qualify as hard working experts. Their families have been doing it for centuries. They grow all their own nuts, fruit, vegetables and herbs, but that is just the start. They keep cows, and sheep, and raise a pig each year for slaughter in the winter. They breed rabbits for the table. They keep their own geese, turkeys, ducks and chickens, providing eggs and meat. In winter, the men shoot partridge and hare, and bring wild boar home from the hunt. In spring and autumn the family will be out before dawn in the forests collecting a harvest of over twenty types of edible fungus, including truffles. They come back with large sacks full of mushrooms each day in a good season. We don't know how many truffles they find because that sort of information is Top Secret here. Everyone knows of special locations in the forest. People sneak of to them to find the elusive truffles, making sure that they are not being followed. They take dogs, sticks and mirrors with them. No one seems to use pigs - but then again perhaps even the pigs are secret.
Driving home late one rainy night we saw our neighbours stalking the village streets. What could they be doing at two o'clock in the morning, carrying buckets in the drizzle? It turned out that they were collecting snails. They had three buckets full already. They took them home and fed them flour, thyme and garlic for a few days before eating them a la Catalan - with a tomato sauce. Not the dozen or so you might get in a restaurant, but plates full at a time. Not so long ago this family cultivated vines and made their own wine. They also made their own cheese and baked their own bread. But life is short. Good wine is cheap. No one can make 365 different cheeses for themselves. And a local man sells exceptionally good bread that he bakes himself. He also mills the flower himself, from organic wheat that he has grown himself. Multinationals who do much the same thing on a larger scale call it vertical integration.
But back to our neighbours. Their work is not finished yet. They keep bees for honey. Mother makes her own delicious preserves and pickles, and dries herbs in the kitchen. Father makes his own liqueurs. In all this nothing is wasted. Pig's blood makes black pudding, called boudin here, Old grubbed up vines are used for cooking because of the aroma they impart when burned. Goose wings make ideal dusters. Herbal mixtures keep insects at bay. Bees' wax makes superior wood polish. Still it's not over. The son is building a house - not having it built by someone else, but building it with his own hands. The family grows trees for various purposes, including the wood for building roofs, generally needed for farm buildings and now for the new house. They grow their own Christmas trees too. Other trees are cropped for winter heating. There's no danger of deforestation here - like everyone else, they plant more than they burn each year.
It's not an easy life, but there are compensations. Our neighbours know more about wildlife than you will find in any book. They are all strong and healthy, without ever having been inside a gym in their lives. Every day they eat tastier and healthier food than most city dwellers will ever see. If you refer to them as real paysans they will take it as a complement. Few of those hopeful British city professionals escaping to the Good Life will ever achieve that accolade.
JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
Open the home page of The Languedoc - www.midi-france.info/ in a new window.