Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Maurice the Farmer

I have known Maurice almost ever since I moved to this town. He's the man who delivers my firewood, and also the one who has taught me much about the French ways of life on a small French farm, food preservation, animal husbandry, and the ways they've been doing those things since forever. I have learned to raise and kill, cook and preserve, all manner of edible animal, thanks to Maurice...although I don't always do it his way, when I'm on my own.

When it comes to gardens, however, Maurice likes to think of himself as a modern farmer, and laughs and mocks my 'green' ways, while refusing to listen to my ideas as he merrily broadcasts fertilizer around his vegetables, mostly ignoring the rich cowpoop just meters away. He has never heard of Ruth Stout and her method of mulch and compost, not will he ever want to.

When I first met him, Maurice and his widowed mother were the only ones left living in the small building that serves as both house and barn. The old, old farmhouse, with its big rounded door in the center, big enough for the tractor to get into and park, had been made of stones recuperated from an ancient Protestant Temple, long crumbled to rubble and forgotten somewhere within the forest that grew around and over it. The house is named for these stones, and is called what translates into 'Saved by God'.

Through the stone-arched doorway and into the central part of the house is where the toilet and the bathroom have been built in recent times in small added-on rooms by the big white sink. The washing machine and the freezer are there, too, just underneath the hanging hams in their cheesecloth bags lined with bayleaves and the drying sausages that are cut to slice thinly and serve with bread and butter and drinks as an aperitif before a meal. The hayloft is just up an old wooden staircase, and any small stray wisps of hay that might have fallen on your way to cut off a hunk of sausage is swiftly and neatly swept up by Maurice, and the compacted dirt floor is always as clean and shiny as a new pin.

The cows are tied up in a close line in a small and dark room over to the left, which is next to the tiny door into the granary where feedcorn is taken off the cob by an old hand-cranked machine, to be fed to the animals or sold to people like me. The granary door is kept ajar for most of the spring and the summer, as there are swallows nests stuck to the low beams, and the birds fly in and out with worms and bugs for their babies to eat. Once the swllows migrate south for the winter, Maurice will close the door. This is about as human as I have ever seen him towards animals.

Next to the granary is the point in the farmhouse that's the most northernly, and therefore the coolest, being furthest from the heat of the sun...this is where the provisions are kept. It does the heart good and is always such a pleasure to go in and review the rows of canned goods, baskets of eggs, earthenware pots of confit topped with lard or of coagulating blood, potatoes, apples, and onions, perhaps a cooling and aging hare or mutton strung up by its feet, cooling beer, wine, and bottles and bottles of preserved, home-made patés and bloodpuddings, pork crackling, greenbeans, tomatoes, and piperade.

Maurice's mother, Alexis, bless her kind heart for she's dead now these past few years, never hesitated to tell me how things were done on their small farm, or in her open-fireplaced kitchen that was always a little bit smoke-filled because of the draw of the chimney. She would make me a cup of coffee, and, if the fire was lit, prop up a piece of baguette against the iron firestanchions to make toast for us both, and we'd sit and catch up on the gossip or she'd tell me about how to duplicate whatever happened to be cooking on the big stove, as one of us would almost continuously feed small bits of wood into the fire or stir the ashes.

Maurice keeps the small bits of wood for household use, and it is rare that I see a big chunk of wood in their fireplace. Maybe at night, during the coldest of winter dark nights, there might be a big log or two, to keep the cold at bay and make the fire last til morning...but I don't know, I never thought it polite to ask. He never eats his calves, either, but prefers to buy veal from the local supermarket, where it is cheaper per kilo that what he sells his baby cows for.

Sortly before Alexis died, they had put in one of those closed in fireplaces, the kind with glass on the front, where you could see the fire, and the whole place turned out warmer for it, with even a small morsel of wood lasting ages. Then Alexis spent most of her day cleaning the glass front, which wouldn't last long before it got black from the soot all over again. The room was a lot less smokey with the new fireplace insert, but Alexis and I missed our fireblackened toast.

Before the insert arrived, we'd have to crack open the door that led to the barn side of the house, in order to let in a draft so that the chimney would burn a bit better. It was a bit cold that way, plus we were in a dirct line to view the pale, big butts of the dozen or so Blonde d'Aquitaine cows that were tied up just across from the door, where they'd been brought in for the winter, into the dark corners of the interiour, to sleep on thorny bracken and have their early spring babies, which then end up being taken on the long truck journey to Italy, and being fattened as 'Baby Beef' for the plates of Italian gourmets.

The calves are taken at birth and locked into even darker corners of the barn, and when there is a newborn, both the calf and the cow moo so loudly and so often, that the door has to stay shut because of the clamour, and so Alexis and I would sit in a haze of smoke as we drank our coffee. Alexis had pores on her face that were permanently blackened by the smokey haze of the chimneyfire, little black specks on her nose where the soot had become ingrained, and her eayes were forever teary from either age of smoke, I couldn't tell.

It was a small place, the one room with a fireplace being the kitchen and the dining room where any and all guests sat at the big wooden table covered with a plastic tablecloth with scenes of hunting dogs and ducks on it. There was another small room at the back where Alexis slept, with a TV and a telephone on an old, beautifully-carved dresser. Off the kitchen was a closed doorway that led to a staircase, to the added-on upstairs bedroom where Maurice slept. There had once been six children in that family, with one or two of them sleeping down the road at an aunties house, where there was more room.

Alexis had been born in the small hamlet of about a dozen farmhouses, her people had once lived in the house that now belonged to the American woman and her Spanish lawyer husband, who lived in London and came down during the childrens school holidays. Alexis has one sister that had married within the small community, and two of her daughters have married two sons of Alexis, but both of those families have since moved up to Bordeaux and now only come down during the holidays, as well.

One other son and a daughter have married and moved to other towns, one in the countryside and one over at the coast. One brother still lives in the aunties house down the road where he'd slept as a child. Maurice is the only one left at home, and the only one that had chosen, or had it chosen for him, to be a farmer. He's never been married, and has been celibate for all of his life. After Alexis died, Maurice hired a housekeeper to come in a few times a week to clean and prepare meals for him, but, as she was a married woman, he remains as celibate as ever.

I don't think it was from lack of trying, I have to fend off gropes and innuendoes each time that I go to visit. It was easier to deal with when Alexis was alive, as I would be able to put a stop to things, at least for a time, by threatening to go and tell her what a pig her son was. I've learned very quickly to not trap myself into a corner when I am alone in a room with Maurice, and also that a slap across his face sometimes does the trick. After all these years, we can, sort of, joke about it...but there have been times when I have sworn to myself that I will find another, less bothersome, supplier of firewood and feedstuff. One that I don't have to be polite to for community or mutual friends sake.

Besides the beautiful Blonde d'Aquitaine cows, Maurice raises ducks. He'll get in about forty or fifty day-old ducklings at the end of the summer, and by midwinter, those ducks will have been turned into foie gras, maigret, and confit de canard for Christmas tables. These duck products are one of the areas most productive and lucrative industries, with small farmers doing as few as a dozen, to industrial places doing thousands, and whole farmers markets devoted in the winter months to almost nothing but dead ducks hanging by their heads in rows with their bellies cut open and exposed, enlarged livers portruding and being haggled over.

Fois gras and confit are not simply expensive because they are delicious. It takes time and skill to raise a duck and force-feed it three times a day for three weeks before the slaughter date with hard feedcorn, lard, and salt, soaked and then boiled til tender. Each duck has to be taken and almost sat on or put in a special restrictive cage and then have an instrument that looks like a funnel with a coil inside and a small handle on the outside stuffed down its throat, with the hopper filled with the prepared, cooled, corn in it. Then, all the while restraining the animal, the little handle is turned, the coil turns inside, and the duck force-fed by the coil pushing the corn downwards. Sometimes the coils are turned automatically by an electric unit, but either way, one still has to be quite careful to get the funnel down the duck's neck without injury to the duck. Or to the operator.

The body of the duck reacts to this force-feeding by getting quite a lot fatter, with layers of beautiful and delicious tasting yellow coloured fat which must be the best thing in the world to fry potatoes in, and the liver of the duck gets enlarged...'foie gras' actually translates to 'fat liver' in French. After three weeks of this treatment, it can be possible for the liver of certain ducks to come out weighing more than two kilos at slaughter.

Whenever I mention foie gras to friends that don't live in France, their immediate response is 'paté do fois gras?'. Ha! Paté is for those who don't know any better, or can afford no this region of France, we eat the stuff pure. We eat it half-cooked with fried apples or blueberries or raspberries, or we slice the cooked stuff and serve it on thin slices of melba toast or plain baguettes and drink sweet white Bordeaux Sauternes wine with it, or we serve it sparkling with cubes of aspic scattered over it like jewels, or we wrap the fatted breast of the duck around the foie and roast it to rare perfection. There is no other way to eat it but pure.

And, when we can it, we don't follow the USDA rules, but simply put pieces of the previously cleaned, bilesac removed, soaked-in-salted-water-overnight foie into a small canning jar to which we then add a sprinkle of pepper, a small bayleaf, and a splash of armagnac, then close the jar and give it a 45 minute boiling-water bath in the canner. Try to not open the foie gras for a few weeks, in order to let the flavours mellow and ripen.

The lovely yellow fat will have risen to the top of the jar, and you can scrape it off or leave it on, as you wish, when you cut into the foie gras and take some of this creamy delice to spread onto your toast. Keep any uneaten jars in a cool and dark place...not that you'll have any uneaten ones. Perhaps it is best to hide them from yourself.

1 comment:

Gretchen said...

Just a quick hello from one CE'er to another. :)