I returned to the United States early this week, jet lagged and haggard. Billy picked me up in Miami and we went directly to the Calle Ocho–which is where the best Cuban food in America is made. We then drove back to Orlando where another plane would take us back to San Francisco. Our bellies full of Chicken with Yellow Rice and Cubano sandwiches, we cruised down the highway in a Lincoln Continental (the car of Bill’s mom). As we drove, the band Denegue Fever rocked our world, and a lightening storm started. I’ll admit it: I always feel relieved when I return to the United States. Everything feels so ad hoc and jumbled, for good and bad, I suppose.
But: France. And the untrammeled loveliness that is the Corbieres region where my sister lives. That is something. I could brag about the amazing farmers markets, the bread, and the wine that I had the chance to experience. What really moved me, this trip, was the natural abundance found in the hills around their tiny village.
My sister, of the blog These Days in French Life, documents the bounty of this place very well. To experience it firsthand is another thing entirely. I came during the vendange when all the tractors are rolling through the villages, carts stacked with grapes going to press. The workers (who are paid about 10 euros an hour) become dusty and covered with grape juice. One day, we ventured out to pick grapes in a field long abandoned, so the grapes had gone wild. Oh, their sweet dusky fruit! Along the way, we stopped at almond trees and picked the nuts. Later, we went to the Med and trolled for clams, which Riana then made into an amazing dinner, cooking them with wine and cream. I started to have delusions that I could just move to France and wander, gypsy-like from harvest to harvest, living off the land. Bill and I might just do that next September, on bikes.
Being an ever-alert farmer, I did want to learn a few tricks, that’s one of the greatest things about traveling. I learned the following:
-At the honey shop where they had a bee demonstration and this foxy French beekeeper explained how bees make honey and how they then harvest it, I finally figured out how a professional cuts the cappings off a frame of honey. Instead of laying it facedown on a flat surface (like I’ve been doing for years), they have an anchored metal tip where they balance the frame while decapping. Genius!
-At the farmer’s market (where I bought some amazing saucissons and some of that pink rose garlic (Rose du Tarn)–do they sell that in the States?), there were vendors selling vegetable starts. No big deal, but it was how they sold them that I liked. Instead of using 6 packs like here, they simply had an entire tray of seedlings, and you would buy how many you wanted. Like 20 lettuce plants. They would then cut them out of the soil, count them and put them in a bag. Or, there was a lady selling leeks–50 for 3 euros. She would pluck them directly out of the plug trays, then bundle them for you to take home. So elegant and efficient!
-Riana and I went to visit a rabbit farmer, and I was really psyched about her rabbit feeding procedure and fattening runs. Since this farmer lady and her husband grow all their own food, including the animal feed, they didn’t ever buy pellets for the bunnies (which has been bothering me lately about my operation). Instead, they fed them on dried alfalfa (lovely green, leafy stuff), wild fennel, and a grain ration which was barley and oats. That’s it! The rabbits were healthy and large. The baby rabbits were left with their mothers until two months, when they were moved to giant runs–12 feet by 4 feet–a litter in each run where they fattened and got some exercise.
We took a rabbit home from the farmer lady, and that next morning I showed Riana and her neighbor my fail-proof method for killing, skinning, and cleaning a rabbit. It was very cyclical, because I first was inspired to keep rabbits because my sister lives in France, and now I was passing on what I had learned a few years later.
Now that I’m back in the States, although the general vibe is so different from France, the principles are the same: find the bounty, savor it, learn from it, and share it.