France

Florette

The voluptuous Florette was so generously endowed that she was renowned as the beauty queen in the area, especially at the end of her pregnancies. Old farmers would drive for miles to come and gawk at her, or, to be more accurate, at her udder. No one had ever seen a larger bag on a cow. And that was exactly why we got her. Her udder was too big and hung too low to be practical on a commercial dairy farm. In what used to be called the milking parlour, now referred to as the ‘unit’, where milking time is money, an udder that differs from the norm represents precious seconds lost at every milking while the operator struggles to place the machine milking cups on teats hanging in an unfamiliar location. In the past, dairymen and maids who milked by hand were perfectly able to adapt to the peculiarities of individual animals, smoothly proceeding from cow to cow, not phased by any lack of uniformity in size or shape. So Florette was looking for a home. And we, as we didn’t know nor care about the ‘norm’ were looking for Florette (a cow, at least).

She had to be a Jersey

As soon as we read the wonderful original edition of The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour, we knew that we had to have a cow. And I knew that it had to be a Jersey cow. I had spent the happiest times in my childhood in the barn at my uncle’s dairy farm or in the fields behind it, with his Jersey herd. These gentle, productive creatures represented a calm and peace that I found nowhere else as a child.

Florette - photo by Steven Kennard
Florette – photo by Steven Kennard

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Tout Compris

Tout compris roughly translated from the French means Everything is included, but The spoken word can also sound like  Everything is understood. 

This piece, a mini story was written on the back of an envelope, scribbled down feverishly, almost illegibly, while I was sitting on the train. This was a trip I took every Monday and Friday while I commuted to Montmorillon, in France, for my year at the Agricultural college there. I have always loved travelling by train and these words came to me, suddenly crystallizing of the reasons that I do.

Come with me on this short train ride. Don’t bring a book!

Photo by Ellie Kennard 2013
Train tracks in the fall, Photo by Ellie Kennard 2013

TOUT COMPRIS

Inside the moving train the patrons overlook the bonus on their ticket – theirs for the taking. Theirs is the world of the between the covers magazines, the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ of fashion makeovers and other modern fables. Before their unseeing eyes the world awakens beyond the train’s cinema windows and the sun tries to distract them, but they close the curtains.

The pages of my book cannot hold me. I try to focus my attention – I have seen this same scene every week, so often, and the writing on the page is new to me and should captivate me into its world – but the flashing pictures beyond the glass draw me, and I am once again mesmerised before the unfolding story. I feel a slight shame, that of the addict or the lover who hopes his passion is not nakedly exposed for the world to see, then I abandon myself completely to this panoramic moving landscape fusing the fact of vision with the fiction of a fired and active imagination. I press myself shamelessly to the glass, then strain to look across through the other side – so much to miss!

Leaving the grey and black tunnel city, the strip of film unrolls along the track, interrupted by tunnels allowing for a few brief moments of reflection in the dark. I feel certain that this secret world does not exist except as seen from the moving train – could not be found on ordnance survey or tourist guide – and hesitates, breath held, to live again, twice each day as the train passes for the next performance. The fleeting moments glimpsed in flash of sun or gloom of rain are ever changing, though always constant. The torrents of spring running beneath the dripping winter moss trees become a gentle stream, twisting and turning lazily in the heat beneath the hanging leaves of summer; a rusting wreck undergoes an unseen and patient transformation; in a stretch of field, surprised in the late spring sun’s warmth, fleeing young lambs betray their youth near their calm mothers – last year’s frightened babies – heads bowed, intent on the evening browse, hungrily oblivious, their memories of indoor winter hay too fresh.

Black plastic covered heaps, rusted fence and end of track to the side and then we slide into the little country station for a pause in the unfolding drama.

On again, through shameful flooded stretches, sodden and weary of all the rain. I see the red brown dead bracken, fallen protectively in one last brave act, to cover the secret curled unfurling green, pushing insistently, stiffly through the smothering embrace. Wet black trunks and branches pass, some with new pale green – spring promise of summer’s welcome shade – others dark and still. Winter is a great equalizer for the woods. Which trees are sleeping, waiting? Which are dead? Those who watch behind glass windows will see when it’s time.

Pick-up sticks railway sleepers tumbled down the bank by some careless giant hand are gently being covered by secret tangles of brambles and riotous hawthorn blossom. Rutted tracks appear suddenly, take me to a dark plough-furrowed field, then twist and run off where I can no longer follow, first leaving me a glimpse, in a flash of sun, of the misty haze of bluebells. On a hillside, older lambs with their numbers in black on their backs, horizontal ears curious, are familiar, emboldened by their few weeks experience. These are my crowd scenes and walk-on parts in this unfolding life, briefly glimpsed, week after week, from the train.

On each journey these scenes hold my attention, silently insisting. In my carriage there is only me watching, searching, seeing, eyes wide, drinking in all this mystery, this dream of possibilities that is this unreachable, unreal world of scene from the train – and all for the price of the ticket from Limoges to Poitiers.

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Does Your Chicken Have a Pépie?

Listen: “Does Your Chicken Have a Pépie” read by the author is also available to download from the Podcast page

I leaned on the fence feeling utterly defeated. The factory hum of bees in the Linden blossoms, the loudest interruption of the peaceful afternoon, went completely unnoticed. I wasn’t taking in any of the pastoral beauty spread out before me, as I watched my little flock of hens in the yard, lying in the shade of the walnut trees, or under the hydrangeas. Occasionally one would stagger to her feet, and peck half-heartedly at the grain on the ground, before sinking unsteadily back onto her breast.

Chickens and ducklings - photo Steven Kennard
Chickens and ducklings – photo Steven Kennard

My neighbour, Henri Roy, strolled up the lane, walking-stick in hand. He was a gnarled and stooped old farmer, of few words, who usually barely squeezed out the obligatory ‘Bonjour Madame’ before continuing on his way. This time, however, he stopped, lifted his stick, and aimed it at one of the ailing pullets. She’s not well, “Ça ‘ va pas, avec elle,” he said, rather unnecessarily, I thought. I agreed that no, she was not looking good.
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Maggots and Gourmet Cheeses

We lived for a number of years in the Perigord Noir, a region of France renowned for its gastronomy. The residents pride themselves on eating pretty much everything that can be made vaguely edible, even if at times the results defy both good taste and common sense, at least from an outsider’s perspective.

Gourmet Cheese - photo by NJGJ
Gourmet Cheese – photo by NJGJ

From the time we first moved to France we had heard about older country people who would enjoy a special delicacy with their camembert, brie or similar soft rind cheeses. We heard how they would leave the cheese on the window ledge in the sun so that the flies were attracted to it and would lay eggs on it. With time the eggs would produce maggots and shortly after that the cheese was considered good to eat. The maggots were considered to be quite clean, as all they had eaten was cheese. The best way to enjoy this delicacy was to put it on your bread and dip the lot into your bowl of coffee, eating the whole dripping mess for breakfast. Of course some of the maggots would fall off into the coffee so they would then be scooped up with a spoon and eaten at the end of the meal as a special treat.

Although we lived in a very rural area of France, this story did appear to be anecdotal as for many years we never actually met anyone who enjoyed their cheese ‘ripened’ in this unique fashion. Everyone who told of it knew of an old friend of a family member who….

French Squatter toilet as in Claude's house
French Squatter toilet as in Claude’s house

One evening we had been invited to dinner at the home of an older bachelor friend, Claude who was not regarded as a gifted housekeeper. He had restored the old property himself with extraordinary patience and skill, incorporating such features as a beautiful enormous carved sandstone scallop shell forming part of an exterior wall – the interior portion was an alcove type seat in the main room and on the other side it was a fountain in the courtyard. He had also installed a shiny new porcelain footprint type squatter toilet because he preferred them. The interior of the home was dark (which was probably a good thing in view of the rudimentary cleaning that had taken place before our arrival) but had a comfortable timelessness about it. As in so many French homes there was no living room. The main room was the room where you ate and socialized around the table for hours before, during and after a good meal, taken at a leisurely pace.

Old Mimolette cheese whose rind is pocked by cheese mites photo by Jastrow
Old Mimolette cheese whose rind is pocked by cheese mites photo by Jastrow

Claude raised and grew his own food and so we were looking forward to a good evening. It was a meal lacking pretension, beginning with a plate of his own foie gras de canard (not a paté as some think, but the actual livers, preserved) as an appetizer with white French bread. This was followed by roasted chickens from his flock accompanied by fried potatoes and a bowl of lettuce leaves as a concession to those with health concerns. He served this with a good local red wine. It was simple but delicious. We sat around the solid table made from Perigord walnut on traditional wooden upright high backed chairs with woven rush seats. The floors were the original flagstones worn smooth over centuries of use.

As in so many French meals, we finished with a cheese selection. When the board of cheeses arrived it was passed to me and I was absolutely delighted to see large plump white maggots crawling across the board from one of them. We had heard about this for so many years but I had given up hoping to see the real thing. It was just the sort of local delicacy I would have expected to find being served at the table of our host. Intrigued as I was by the thought of the experience – the flavour, the texture, the sensation – I lacked the necessary spirit of adventure and contented myself with more commonplace varieties without livestock in residence.

Casu Marzu cheese with maggots photo by Shardan
Casu Marzu cheese with maggots photo by Shardan

I was very impressed with Steven who reached across the table to help himself to a healthy serving, maggots dripping off his knife onto the table as he did so. As he was about to start eating however he glanced down at the plate and suddenly one of the other guests began to shriek and jumped up from the table. My husband had, at that instant realized what I thought he had known all along, which was that part of his meal was beginning to make its way across the table in the form of the maggots. He didn’t know what to do. He hesitated just long enough for our host to see the cause of the commotion at that same moment and to snatch up the squirming plateful. He ran quickly to the door, opened it and threw the cheese, maggots and all outside into the courtyard. He then rushed back to the table, seized the cheese board and deftly disposed of the maggoty remains in the same way.

When he came back to the table he was absolutely mortified at what had happened. He assured us that he had bought the cheese in the market only that very morning and it had appeared to be completely normal – that is to say without maggots. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to hear that.

As we left to go home that night and turned to say a final goodbye to Claude, we felt a strange softly crunching sensation under our feet on the flagstones. It was the maggots that had spread all over the courtyard as they moved off in search of new adventures.

I like to think that  somewhere in country kitchens in rural France there are lone camemberts ripening on sunny windowsills, creamy nurseries for delectable maggots destined to be savoured with morning coffee.

*There are cheeses that incorporate maggots and mites in their manufacture as can be seen in the images above.

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