It’s a stereotype that the French talk about food like the Brits talk about weather, but in this house it’s true.
This house revolves around food, and the labour required to produce it. Hugues stays out fishing for most of the week, dropping back into the harbor to unload the catch and leave whatever he can save for Dominique in the back of his van, for her to pick up. We work in the garden 4 hours each morning. Dominique cooks and preserves in the kitchen, emerging to weed and plant in the afternoon if the weather is good.
Memorable meals have involved home-bottled beef bourgignon, locally hunted roast wild boar, and roast chicken from the deep frozen stack of last years’ birds. Add to that various hauls from Hugue’s trawler: scallops, Dover sole, needlefish with their spooky green bones. Once a huge turbot, usually fetching 70 EUR wholesale, that was too damaged to sell but delicious enough to eat.
In the longer term, ethics aside, we may all be obliged to eat more locally as ‘just in time’ supply chains falter and fail. Climate, fuel prices and supply shocks could all cause supermarket shortages more serious than those we saw within days during the fuel strikes. Eating more locally will require more of us learning the skills of preserving food that previous generations abandoned in favour of relying on industry. Getting through the winter with your health intact is easier if you’ve got the bottled nutrients of jam, sauerkraut, tomato sauce, dried pulses and a cellarful of apples, carrots and potatoes. All the links in this post lead to useful resources for these techniques.
Dominique is well versed in these skills. Later in the season fresh veg will form a bigger part of the meals on the table, but right now we’re entering the ‘hungry gap’ and most of it is coming out of the bank of huge freezers or from jars. The various cupboards and pantries are full of mason jars containing pate from pork bought in bulk, onion jam from homegrown onions, pickles, bottled soup and apple compote. An entire cupboard in the B&B dining room is stacked with a rainbow of homemade jams– fig, blackberry, raspberry and rhubarb, apple jelly and strawberry and plum. If staples like bread, sugar and coffee suddenly became scarce you wouldn’t starve, and you could enjoy yourself for quite some time on what’s stored here.
“If I didn’t have the freezers or any electricity for the ovens, my cooking would be very different. Less desserts, less complicated meals because of the lack of fresh ingredients. Probably simpler food. I’d spend less time cooking because so much time would be spent preserving, drying, smoking and bottling. I have the capacity here to try it if I needed to.”
One morning Hugues arrived with an immense tray of fish. Dominique spent the next eight hours dealing with it, and her usual calm competence was getting frayed by the end.
“He brings me too much sometimes, he doesn’t think of how much work it is. You want to know about self-sufficiency? It’s like this, you work with what is there and use it as well as you can. Sometimes it means many hours in the kitchen so the fish is not wasted. Sometimes I just call people and give away what I cannot use.”
Treats like the wild boar are given by friends in the knowledge that Dominique is generous herself with any surplus they generate at Le Chateau.
“Often, you give a friend a bag of carrots and some eggs and it’s somebody else who gives you a cut of meat. This is how it works. You give, and you get back.”
This time, she found a use for all of it. The pollock was filleted and fried for lunch. The needlefish were made into a huge vat of soup, simmered for 2 hours then bottled in ten 2l mason jars and sterilised in a large pan that looked like a metal bin. The mackerel were boiled in white wine and vinegar with cloves, onions and carrots until the fishbones made a preservative jelly around them. The haddock were gutted and salted and put in the pantry until Hugues had time to smoke them.
Even outside this super-local way of life, I’ve noticed that in France, it’s very, very easy to eat food produced here. As the second largest agricultural nation in the world, with such a strong culinary tradition, that shouldn’t be surprising. But it’s a huge change from the UK, with its lack of diversity in climate and farming and tiny overpopulated landmass.
Long term, our plan is to use the proceeds of our house sale to buy some land, and start learning to feed ourselves. Even eating food grown long before we arrived, I’m struck by how good it feels to be so intimately aware of the footprint and the work involved in your food. I’m looking forward to that being part of my own life.
One memorable meal was Dominique’s homemade pork pate and onion jam, followed by potato omelette with foraged woodland mushrooms and new salad leaves from the polytunnel. Pudding was the world’s most appley apple tart, made with a buttery pastry and filled with orchard apples, laid on a base of homemade apple compote, and glazed with clear homemade apple jelly.
Feeling gratitude for the people around the table who caught, fed, planted, harvested and processed the food on your plate, and a small sliver of pride that later this year somebody will eat the beans I planted that day makes the meal taste better.
All the butter and cream doesn’t hurt either.