Sunday, April 20, 2014

L'agneau pascal est immolé

... and it was delicious.

I went to Easter service at the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Gurmençon, a modern building (dating only back to the mid-19th century) with a young and earnest priest with a nice chanting voice. He didn't deliver a sermon, really, just went back over the Gospel reading. I missed the talks that Rev. Dennis j. gives, which always provide food for thought. But then, I was thinking about food; I'd only had coffee with soy milk and a bowl of strawberries for breakfast, in anticipation of the Easter feast ahead, and by the end of the service I was hungry.

The extended Bergeras clan gathered from Bayonne and Tarbes and Oloron and Agnos around two long tables at Françoise's house, and I got to meet the newest member, Eliza, just a few months old. I want a pink beret now. She slept while we started nibbling on nuts and crackers while sipping sweet white Jurançon (pastis for the men at the other end of the table talking rugby) and unwrapping little squares of processed cheese food that I saw to my horror were flavored with things like pesto (somewhat acceptable) and roasted chicken (NOT AT ALL acceptable). I'm sorry, but even though fromage à pâte fondue is a recognized category of cheeses, there are limits. Florence said that the chorizo-flavored cubes weren't very good. Quelle surprise ...

But the soup was very good, a fish soup from a small company whose name I didn't note, made from a mix of Mediterranean fish and thickened with carrageenan; they also sell rouille, the saffron-and-garlic mayonnaise that's a traditional accompaniment, smeared on toasts and floated in the thick broth. Gluten-free baguettes work just fine for this, I was happy to find.

And for holding slices of foie gras as well. I will miss foie gras. I took a second helping, to compensate for the future loss, and savored the silken richness.

Les yeux de Chanteau s’allumèrent. Du foie gras! du fruit défendu! une friandise adorée que son médecin lui interdisait absolument! ... Il avait saisi la terrine, il se servait d’une main tremblante. Souvent, de terribles combats se livraient ainsi entre sa terreur d’un accès et la violence de sa gourmandise; et, presque toujours, la gourmandise était la plus forte. Tant pis! c’était trop bon, il souffrirait!
                  - Émile Zola, "La Joie de vivre" (1884)

Florence makes andouille according to her grandmother's recipe, slicing a well-washed pig stomach in a spiral pattern and coating it with salt and pepper and dried garlic, and then looping the long strip onto itself, tied with a bit of string and then stuffed into a very very well-washed section of the pig's large intestine. It's aged and dried for several months, and then wrapped up in muslin and string and boiled. It's very salty, and very rich. We ate thin-sliced ham and slices of saucisson, and opened the bottles of red wine, and realized that we probably shouldn't have spent all that time on the nibbles and drinks because there was much, much more to come.

We ate macédoine, diced vegetables (carrots, flageolets, peas, green beans, turnips maybe?) in a light mayonnaise sauce, with sliced avocados and tomatoes. We ate the Easter lamb, braised for hours in a spicy tomato sauce with carrots and potatoes until it melted in the mouth. We ate salad, which came to the table with the cheese platter - a local sheep's-milk cheese, a gruyère français (the French version has holes, the Swiss version doesn't), and some industrial Roquefort. I used the approved method and scraped off a half-teaspoonful or so of blue cheese to top my last bit of baguette, and wished for an Easter miracle that would reorganize my digestive system. But as I explained to one of my fellow students last week, who found himself baffled by the fact that I want to make cheese and yet can't eat it, when I'm making cheese I don't feel the need to eat it, really. I breathe it in, I absorb it through my skin, I immerse myself in the process, and that's enough.

Hour four of the feast, and we all sat back in our chairs, toying with half-glasses of wine. The strawberries are starting to appear in the market, the long Gariguette variety; I'm going to keep an eye out for the Mara des bois that I bought so many of in Tours, because they're absolutely incredible, though fragile, so if there isn't a local producer I might not find any here. Spanish strawberries are much cheaper, but I suspect for the same reasons that Mexican strawberries are cheaper in the US: poorly paid workers and lots of chemicals. We ate sliced strawberries tossed with sugar and topped (or not, for me) with whipped cream, as a sort of introduction to the actual dessert course.

There was homemade chocolate cake, and homemade butter cake topped with pastel sprinkles, but Florence said that I needed to try at least a bite of the local specialty called le Russe, which has been made by Pâtisserie Artigarrède in Oloron-Sainte-Marie since 1925. According to the bakery's website, it's "Russian" because the almonds in the pastry layer were imported from Crimea at that time. The pastry is made from two thin sheets of an egg white/sugar/ground almond mixture (essentially a flat macaron) and inside is a crème au praliné, a buttercream mixed with more ground almonds and sugar. Very tasty.

The longer we sat at table, the more things appeared to drink and eat. I believe I overheard Françoise say that she had forgotten to bring out one of the dishes she'd prepared, but I can't imagine that we would have been able to eat it anyway. However, almost everyone had a little bit of room left for a final bit of richness, prunes in Armagnac spooned out of their tall jar. And maybe a bit of sparkling wine, just to clear the palate. Then coffee, and herb tea, and conversation, and girls running around upstairs fueled by sugar and a boy running around downstairs trying to stay ahead of his fatigue and a baby looking around with puzzled eyes, wondering why we were still all sitting at the table six hours later.

Tomorrow I need to work on my school projects. I'm determined to get my personal project written up tomorrow, if not translated (I write in English and then in French), because I need to have it done before the next classes start, and there's going to be lots going on in the next few weeks: work at the butchery for the most part, but I also have a free medical checkup and more doctor-related things that will take up an entire day the first week of May; on May 1st there's a cheese festival in Oloron and I will spend the morning there interviewing cheesemakers and handing out copies of my CV; and if the weather and all other circumstances cooperate, a two-day trip to Spain is on the schedule. It's a good thing I work better under pressure. And dark chocolate eggs sweeten the process. Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Slowly Speeding Ahead

The train ticket has been purchased, the decision made: I will be leaving France at the end of July. Which is not to say I won't come back! In fact, as part of my projet tutoré I am going to be sending out CVs this week to services de remplacement in different regions, and submitting my application on line through the national service based in Paris that matches agricultural enterprises who need temporary workers (due to accident, illness, maternity leave, planned vacations, etc.) with people like me who are willing to do that work. I'm hoping to get my student visa extended a few months so that if I'm actually offered a job it will be easier to apply for a work visa. Apparently changing from "student" to "employed" is a matter of changing the color of the label on my dossier, or the equivalent, but if I'm not still a student and have gone back to being a tourist, my dossier will be shredded (or the equivalent) and I'll have to start from the beginning with a new visa application. Which might require going back to San Francisco. In any event, much more complicated.

Only two more weeks of school left, at the end of May, which is cause for much rejoicing. And despair because YIKES I still have so much work to do on my two projects it's not even funny. Everything is in my head for my personal project (due May 15) but almost nothing is on paper; the Ferme Bergeras project (due June 15) is halfway written, at least, and will be fairly easy to finish. I hope.

The housesitting assignments are falling into place. I will be near Jonzac, north of Bordeaux, for the last two weeks of July, taking care of a house and two rental gîtes and two dogs for a UK couple who are going back to visit family. I've booked and bought my ticket from Jonzac to London on July 31st but at this point I'm not entirely sure what happens then; I've applied for another housesitting job the first week of August, and I still really, really want to go to the World Pipe Band Competition on August 16th, so I'm looking for places to stay in Glasgow - and London, I suppose, or anywhere between - between August 1st and 17th. I've applied for several housesitting jobs during the last two weeks of August, and have a job taking care of a house and two cats for three weeks in September. And whither then? I cannot say.

To dresse Snayles.

Take your Snayles (they are no way so as in Pottage) and wash them well in many waters, and when you have done put them in a white Earthen Pan, or a very wide Dish, and put as much water to them as will cover them, and then set your Dish or Pan on some coales, that it may heat by little and little, and then the Snayles will come out of the shells and so dye, and being dead, take them out, and wash them very well in Water and salt twice or thrice over; then put them in a Pipkin with Water and Salt, and let them boyle a little while in that, so take away the rude slime they have, then take them out againe and put them in a Cullender; then take excellent sallet Oyle and beat it a great while upon the fire in a frying Pan, and when it boyls very fast, slice two or three Onyons in it, and let them fry well, then put the Snayles in the Oyle and Onyons, and let them stew together a little, then put the Oyle, Onyons, and Snayles altogether in an earthen Pipkin of a fit size for your Snayles, and put as much warm water to them as will serve to boyle them, and make the Pottage and season them with Salt, and so let them boyle three or foure hours; then mingle Parsly, Pennyroyall, Fennell, Tyme, and such Herbs, and when they are minced put them in a Morter, and beat them as you doe for Green-sauce, and put in some crums of bread soaked in the Pottage of the Snayles, and then dissolve it all in the Morter with a little Saffron and Cloves well beaten, and put in as much Pottage into the Morter as will make the Spice and bread and Herbs like thickning for a pot, so put them all into the Snayles and let them stew in it, and when you serve them up, you may squeeze into the pottage a Lemon, and put in a little Vinegar, or if you put in a Clove of Garlick among the Herbs, and beat it with them in the Morter; it will not tast the worse; serve them up in a Dish with sippets of Bread in the bottom. The Pottage is very nourishing, and they use them that are apt to a Consumption.

- The Compleat Cook (1658)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Have Gone Astray

I am not where I thought I would be at this point, nor am I doing exactly what I had planned to be doing when I moved over here in 2012. Of course, since those thoughts and plans involved a good bit of dream projection and counted on me being a lot more proactive and productive than I know I generally am, they weren't very realistic. Or perhaps they were realistic, and would have become reality if I had done the work and put in the time to make them so. That's the annoying thing about dreams - they don't usually just translate fully-fleshed into the real world at the wave of a hand by the genie of the magic lamp. Sometimes they do, but not often. And not this time. On the other hand, I've come close in many ways, and while certain unpaved roads have come to dead ends I think the main highway is still leading in the same direction:

I'm not cruising around France staying in hotels and interviewing cheesemakers, on a budget funded by several high-end magazines who have added me to their payroll ... but I do have the possibility of writing an article for one magazine soon.

I haven't written any books based on my wacky adventures in France, nor have publishers been beating down my door to offer me contracts based on this oh-so-amusing blog ... but I am slowly putting things into place for self-publishing a cookbook this fall.

I haven't been making my way around Europe trading dairy work for room and board ... but I did do my stage in Séchilienne last year under that arrangement, and it worked out well.

I haven't become an expert on cheese ... but I've learned about a lot of other things that I hadn't known before, and now have a much more well-rounded set of skills to bring with me to dairies and other small agricultural businesses here and - why not? - around the world.

With the last twenty months to look back over, it's time to weigh my options and consider what works and what doesn't work about each aspect of this vagabond lifestyle.

Freelance Work

WHAT WORKS: Being able to earn money in odd corners of the day and in odd corners of the globe. Having a variety of projects, from ones that I can do in a few minutes to those that take a few weeks, which makes the work interesting. Enjoying what I do - I like writing, and I like editing. Earning at least the minimum needed to pay for living expenses.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The fact that "the minimum needed" in that last statement involves an average over time, not necessarily any specific month. For example, I'd be hard pressed to pay rent and groceries on what I'm currently bringing in. I don't have time to look for more work, though I'm hugely grateful to the one steady client I do have. What's more, I need internet access, and that's not always practical, especially if I'm on the move. There could be a problem as well if one of those big weeks-long projects comes up and I'm working at a dairy; if I've promised to do a certain amount of work per day for my keep, I can't suddenly say "sorry, I'll be in my room for the next two weeks" - but I can't afford to turn down big projects. Finally, none of the things that I write for hire are being published under my name, which means I'm not building a portfolio.

Work/Stay Arrangements

WHAT WORKS: Being on site so I don't have to try to commute to a dairy for 6am milking with a nonexistent car. Getting to know people and how they live and what they like, learning from them and sharing with them and enjoying a temporary family so I don't miss my own family so much all the time. Seeing new places and eating new food.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The fact that I sometimes don't have a choice about the food, which can complicate things. In general, everyone's been helpful, sometimes even buying things they wouldn't normally, like quinoa or soy milk, to stock the pantry for me. But when the family is used to eating cheesy pasta four times a week and the person in charge of cooking is already busy, it's something that they may see as too much trouble. Yet I can't not mention my food allergies up front - I can't arrive on their doorstep and move in and then say, "Oh, by the way ..." Privacy is another issue, or lack of it. I need privacy for the freelance work, but also for my peace of mind, and that means a room to myself. Not everyone has a spare bedroom they want to give up for the duration, much less a spare house. But I don't think I could spend more than a week or two sharing a room with someone. The fact that I don't have a car means that I'm pretty well stuck on site; your average dairy is not found in the middle of a bustling city, of course, but neither is it usually on a public transport route. Or if it is, it's one of the ones where the bus comes by once a day, or once a week. That means unless my hosts are willing to let me borrow a vehicle, or take me out sightseeing, the "new places" will be limited to pasture, barn, and cheeseroom.


WHAT WORKS: I'm not sure, yet, because I haven't written anything under my own name or tried to publish it. I'm getting there, though. Theoretically, this could be at least a small trickle of money, if not a major income stream (at first, she says in hopes of future publishing fame).

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: That's easy, because one of the reasons I haven't written anything for publication is that I haven't had time, being busy with either school or working for room and board or freelancing. And the other reason - let it not be said that I can't be honest with myself - is because I've been lazy. I have had a lot of free time that could have been spent NOT playing Lexulous or reading silly books or surfing the internet, and instead in at the very least organizing my book notes and doing online research. And of course, there's the time spent blogging - I'm not getting paid for this writing, but it's one way of keeping notes for that hypothetical wacky-adventures book, and I want to be sharing my adventures with you all anyway. Whether I can turn all of the poetry I've been translating into a book for publication is something to consider, but I do really enjoy doing those translations. The two major issues here are time, and the willpower and dedication to use that time productively.


WHAT WORKS: Travel! Change! New vistas and new discoveries! I've had so much fun taking photos and meeting people and learning about the history of each place I've been.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: All that moving around gets pretty tiring, actually. That's why I'm looking for longer-term placements, within the limits of visa-free stay requirements (i.e. generally up to three months, or six months in the UK and Ireland). I'd rather settle in for a month or two than bip around every week. More travel means more cost, as well, not to mention shoving everything into and out of suitcases all the time. And I don't really enjoy traveling alone all the time, though sometimes I prefer it. It's more fun to share the travels and discoveries with people, something I try to compensate for on this blog. And I really, really miss my family these days.

Laying out all of this information in a format that I can look back on later is useful, and it would also be useful to me to get input from the outside as well. Can you help me, please? If you see possible negatives I haven't listed, or options I haven't thought of, or just want to play devil's advocate for a while, it will keep me thinking and give me new perspectives, and possibly answers I wouldn't have arrived at on my own. Or you can just keep scrolling down - or clicking to a new page because I'm getting boring, nattering on about myself all the time, sheesh, is this a travel blog or a therapy session?

There's no denying that the outcome will be determined in part by the amount of work I'm willing to put into the process, and that's something I really need to focus on as my time at school and at the pig farm are drawing to a close. I won't have an excuse then, will I? Or rather I will probably come up with excuses, but they won't be nearly as valid.

And since part of the "what doesn't work" aspect of each of the above involves time and money and internet access, I have decided to add yet another option and have signed up with a housesitting-for-hire service. I already have a three-week gig lined up in September, in fact, and am hoping that I can find more for July and August and October and on. I know it's not dairies, but it's work for room if not board - I don't get paid, but I don't have to pay anything either. I'm focusing on the UK for now, but there are gigs all over the world, so eventually I may end up in Australia or Canada.

Plus, kitties! The September job has two of them, and I'm hoping there will be more cats (and maybe chickens) with others, though I'm not ruling out dogs. Small yappy dogs aren't my cup of tea to say the least, but I've applied for one job with a greyhound that needs walking. I like big dogs, actually, as long as they're well-behaved and don't bark all the time. Hence the greyhound. But I'm focusing on cat-sitting.

Which means that I'm obviously not planning on going back to the States for a while, am I? Even though I miss you all, I'm still in adventure mode, and not quite out of money yet. And if I get my act together on the writing part, maybe I won't run out of money at all. I'm still a work in progress, but in general I like the way I'm turning out.

Cultivez votre âme aussi consciencieusement que vous soignez aujourd'hui votre corps.
(Take care of your soul as carefully as you're taking care of your body.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Promenade: Agnos to Saint-Pée d'en Bas

One advantage of staying in a place for any length of time is that you get used to your surroundings, can find your way around, feel comfortable in your routine. One disadvantage of staying in a place for any length of time is that you get used to your surroundings, and you don't see them any more, don't appreciate their beauty and uniqueness. You can find your way around, so you don't stumble upon new places that introduce you to new people and scenery. You feel comfortable in your routine, and are tempted to stay in it, or gradually find yourself unable to leave it, the ruts in your daily road so deep that it takes a major effort to turn the wheels in another direction.

I thought about all of that as I drove the family car to and from work between Agnos and the pig farm, so familiar with the route Florence and I had driven daily since October that I made the turns automatically, circling the roundabouts along the two long legs of the triangle of roads that link them. And I thought about how much I'll miss the big stone buildings, and the wooden shutters over the windows, and the fragrant (in a good way most of the time, except when they've been spreading manure) corn fields everywhere. Jeannette needed the car on Sunday, so Monday I walked the short leg of the triangle, skirting the hill between the Vert and the Mielle.

The biggest building in Agnos is not far from the church, and to me it looks as if the rest of the buildings in town grew up around it. Instead of a huge grange for animals with a small house tacked on, it's a huge house that connects to the grange via a covered gallery. It faces an open field, and I imagine that the fields went out even further, and that this was where the local gentry lived once upon a time, within easy walking distance of the church and with a view south over their lands towards the mountains. There are usually a few cows in the field, whose once-shiny gate is now tied closed with a twist of wire. The elementary school to one side of the field houses herds of children, and there's a largish industrial zone at the far end.

So much stone in these buildings, and so much work to stack them one over the other to build the thick walls. Huge wooden beams support the lofts, and the window openings are often formed by balancing two large flat rocks on end on top of another large flat rock, and topping the whole with a fourth. There's been a town here since at least the 14th century, and some of these buildings may date back nearly as far.

Other buildings, not nearly as attractive (to me) are springing up like mushrooms on the edge of town. I was told that the new mayor wants to attract people to the area, and doesn't care as much about the farming fields currently surrounding the town. Since I started work here in October, at least a dozen homes have been built on the road leading towards Oloron-Sainte-Marie, and in the last month or so the families have started moving in.

The children will go to primary school in town, but there's no secondary school. Every morning a big Greyhound-size bus drives through the center of town, picking up the teenagers waiting on the steps of the church. It barely fits between the houses on either side of the narrow street, built when the only traffic went by on two feet or four.

There's another large building just outside of town, on the banks of the Mielle, that's for rent. It's also a big many-roomed house, with a large barn and grange in back, and what looks like a place that would be just perfect for a dairy between them. Plenty of water coming from the Mielle - more than plenty, according to Florence, who says that the road is often closed by spring floods. A few small pastures that could hold a herd of goats big enough for a decent batch of cheese every few days, and a view of the mountains that would be beautiful at any time of year. Time to buy a lottery ticket ...

But no, I don't want my own business. I think I need to learn more about goat husbandry in order to be most useful to the dairies to whom I am writing, but that's something I can pick up (I hope) on the job. Although I've considered looking for yet another school program, one focused on the care and feeding of goats, I believe I'm done with school for now. I've been copying out cheese recipes lately, the ones I looked up last year at the library in Tours, and am constantly seeing myself sharing those recipes with cheesemakers, working with them to try to decipher the sometimes vague directions. Playing around with cheese, with the exact proportions and timings and temperature-and-humidity settings in the aging rooms, trying to replicate a cheese or, even more fun, creating a new one.

Tristan Derème is the poet who used to live on this road, in his mother's house where he went home to die. I walked this road from the other direction back in December, following a herd of sheep. At this end, it was cows; they ambled over curiously when I stopped to take a picture, but I wasn't as interesting as the new green grass. There were daffodils blooming in the yards I walked by, and the wisteria was just starting to flower. The cherry and apple trees were covered with blossoms and the piercing yellow of forsythia replaced the sunshine that I'd left behind in Agnos, as I finished the last few hundred metres in the rain.

Tu parus. Mais les doigts posés sur le loquet,
Tu t’arrêtas avec un air interloqué.
Puis devant les papiers qui encombraient la table,
Tu dis. « Cette maison devient inhabitable ! »
Et ton sautoir frémit dans ses cent trois maillons.
Voici bientôt deux mois que nous nous chamaillons,
Voici deux mois bientôt que je t’ai rencontrée
Et que je sais ton goût natif pour l’eau sucrée,
Les pommes vertes, les promenades, les sous-
Bois en octobre et les romans à quatre sous.
Tu grondes, mais je sens, dans nos pires querelles,
Quand bondissent les mots comme des sauterelles,
Que tu n’es que tendresse et qu’au fond tu souris
En ton cœur plus léger qu’une dent de souris.

You stopped on your way out, your fingers on the latch, and looked around aghast. Standing before the table covered in piles of paper you said, "This house is becoming uninhabitable!" with such force that the hundreds of links in your golden necklace shivered and trembled. It'll be two months soon that we've been bickering, two months since I met you, since I learned that you like sweetened water, and green apples, and walks; that you like the woodlands in October and dime-store novels. You scold, but I can tell even in our worst quarrels, when words are bouncing back and forth like grasshoppers, that you are nothing but tenderness; you're smiling underneath, your heart light as a mouse's tooth.

- Tristan Derème, La Verdure dorée XII (1922)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Basque Duckherders

One of the things I enjoy about this school program is the opportunity for field trips, where we get to see different farm-based businesses in the region and meet people who have succeeded in starting or continuing family-run operations. We've visited a winery, a pig farm, a dairy, and a brewery (I missed that visit), and two duck farms, the second of which is located just outside the small town of Domezain-Berraute on the border between the Basque and Béarn regions. It's about an hour east of where we were studying at Hasparren, but only four minutes away from Etcharry, where we'll be for the last two school sessions. The town center is at the top of one of the many rolling hills spilling north from the Pyrénées towards the Adour river and the flatter lands of the Landes; the two essential elements of a Basque community are there: the church, and the fronton, the wall used to play Euskal pilota, the Basque version of pelote, or handball. Or chistera-ball, I suppose, if you use the wicker basket-like scoop on one hand; you can also play it with small rackets. I've seen people practicing, but haven't attended a game.

The first duck farm we visited last fall only did the gavage and transformation into yummy bits, buying their ducks prêt-à-gaver from a Basque farmer. At Ferme Eyhartzea, Jean Michel Berho decided that he wanted control over the whole process, or almost all of it; he buys the ducklings from a local breeder and raises them himself, in outdoor pens with access to a stream that runs through the middle of the farm. They graze on the grass and herbs, and are fed on the corn that he grows in the fields between the duck pastures. Once the corn is high enough that the ducks can't harm it, they get access to those fields as well - the stalks provide shade for the ducks in the summer heat, and I assume they help keep down weeds and bugs and such, as well as fertilizing efficiently. Unlike many of the other foie gras farmers (an image springs to mind of a cowboy herding a flock of pale engorged livers) he's chosen to use a cross-bred duck with local roots, the Kriaxera breed. The female Kriaxera is mated to a male Barbary duck, and the sterile offspring are fattened for slaughter. Most producers use a hybrid of Pekin and Muscovy breeds, or Pekin and Barbary, both of which are faster growing but not as suited to outdoor life. Using the Kriaxera breed has linked Berho with the Slow Food movement, and he's also one of the founding members of the IDOKI group, the Association des Producteurs Fermiers du Pays Basque, devoted to promoting and maintaining small family farms and traditional agricultural methods and products.
Many things were named after me here, too.

The ducks are guarded by attack geese and electric fences, and taken down to the stream every day. Unlike sheep or cows, who know the routine and head willingly between pasture and barn and back again, tiny duck brains don't appear to hold any memory of the day before, and it took many patient minutes for the assistant to move the flock from one end of the field to the other. There was a herd dog, or a dog, anyway, but it wasn't providing any help.

Yet even for these free-ranging, grass-nibbling, sunshine-basking ducks, the end is the same: the cage, and the tube down the throat, and the darkness. Still, they have a better life than many, and their livers and thighs, hearts and gizzards, wings and fat are all used and sold and appreciated by customers all over France. The argument continues over the "cruelty" of force-feeding, but especially when compared to the things that are done to animals (pigs, cows, chickens) in industrial meat and egg production in the USA and elsewhere, I can't say that these small-scale hands-on operations are particularly heinous. I'd rather support a small sustainable farm with the occasional purchase of a jar of duck confit than promote the forced growth of antibiotic-poisoned cattle crammed in stinking mud-filled corrals in vast feedlots by buying fast-food burgers. I'd rather give my money to the Berho and Bergeras families than to Cargill or Tyson. I'd rather we all ate less meat in general, and learned to appreciate the complete process and to be conscious of the time, resources, and lives (both animal and human) that are involved before we do choose to purchase and eat meat, but that's an individual choice, and all I can do is post my thoughts and photos.

Even tiny duck brains deserve respect.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Walking Away From School

And walking back again - don't worry, I haven't dropped out. There are only four weeks of class left, two starting on Monday and then two more mid-May; my apprenticeship contract has me working at the butchery the other weeks until mid-June, and the program officially ends with the presentation of our projects to the jury the last week of June. I am hoping for at least a "good enough" this time, so that I end up getting the official licence professionnelle. But I will be glad when this program is over, though I have learned a lot, and even occasionally enjoyed myself.

Yet there have been many times when I have not enjoyed myself. When I've been tired and frustrated, annoyed by the antics of some of my fellow students, exhausted from thinking and speaking and writing in another language, or exasperated by the (to me) fairly useless nature of several of the classes we spent hours and hours attending. This is a program that is theoretically designed to help young adults start their own small agriculture-related business, whether that's joining the family farm and moving it into the next generation, opening up a store to sell local produce and cheese and wine, or starting a goat dairy or chicken farm. An in-depth philosophical analysis of the impact of Clovis and Charlemagne on the historical background to current global pricing of wheat, with long side trips into politics, the connection between Henri IV and grain embargoes after World War I, and why Germany's lack of parental leave affects their minimum wage rate might all be interesting, but will it really help in any practical sense? And yet these economics classes occupied many, many days. And the score on the exam is weighted twice that of other classes like the one on environmental regulations or the one on product labeling, both of which have immediate impact on anyone thinking of raising pigs, say, and turning them into pork pâté. And don't even get me started on the days and days we spent on marketing theory, where we heard about Kant's system of structuring social classes, and how many people prefer the color blue over the color red, and why it's a good idea to hire George Clooney, and all the ways people can see sexual innuendo in advertisements. For a startup handmade yogurt business on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, almost nothing from that class will help. Yes, there was good information about customer communication and things like that, but 90% of the material would only help if you wanted to be employed by a high-class ad agency, which I strongly suspect is the instructor's fondest (and as yet unrealized) dream.

The fact that I expressed these sentiments only slightly more diplomatically on the feedback form at the end of the first semester is, perhaps, one of the reasons why I got my first non-passing grade on one of the final exams on economics. Perhaps. We haven't gotten the results back from the other economics exam, or the marketing one.

In general, I don't like working on teams in classes, because YOU'RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT. Up until the last week, I'd been able to pick the group I could work with, one that included the other adults in the class, or the students that pay attention and don't spend their time chatting to each other or watching YouTube videos on their smartphones. But one of the teachers assigned groups by proximity, and two of the chattiest were in my group, and I nearly lost it. One student immediately went off in a direction that was not at all following the teacher's instructions, and then got angry when I called him on it. The others weren't paying much attention to my suggestions, perhaps thinking that because I don't have the farming background they do, I didn't know what I was talking about. We were supposed to be analyzing the strong and weak points of a duck farm we'd visited, and I said that to me one of the weak points was that the owner was the only one who currently knew how to do the gavage step, the force-feeding of corn to fatten the livers. In fact, our farm trip had been delayed because the farm assistant was sick the day of our planned visit, so the owner was too busy to show us around. So wouldn't it be a good idea, I said, if the owner trained the other people to do the feeding? Oh, no no no no no, they said. It's a delicate step and it's best if only one person does it so that the amounts of corn are the same each time, and because the ducks get freaked out if it's a different person all the time, and traditionally it's a one-person job. Well, that might work in the ideal world, I pointed out, but look at what happened the week before, when the assistant was sick - what would happen if the owner got sick and couldn't do it? The whole business would come to a halt. They waved that off and didn't even write it down.

And then as our team spokesperson presented what had been written down, the teacher interrupted and said, "Wait, what about the fact that the owner is the only one who knows how to do the gavage? What if he breaks his leg?" But tradition and freaked-out ducks and equal quantities! spluttered the other three. "In an ideal world," the teacher pointed out, "yes, that's true. But this is reality."


Reading over that last bit, I realize that I sound rather a bitch, and I expect that's the impression I'm leaving with several - or many - of my fellow students. But you know what? I don't really care. I have made friends among them, or at least there are students that I spend more time interacting with, but I've never gone out on any of the drinking evenings, and never have wanted to. The culture gap is there, of course, but it's more an age gap; I just don't have very much in common with students half my age or younger (!!). And I'm better with one-on-one conversations, or in small groups, because it's hard for me to untangle the threads of sentences when they've been knotted together by people talking all at once. And as I have mentioned before, I have always been a bit of a loner. So this is nothing new, but sometimes when I'm reliving my high school years and hovering on the edges of conversational groups, not precisely excluded but not actively welcomed either, even though my attitudes and actions inform the situation at least as much as anything, I still feel a little left out. Et donc pour les étudiants de la formation qui pourraient être en train de lire ce blog, s'il vous plaît comprendre que je suis une personne agréable quand vous arrivez à me connaître, juste comme vous êtes des gens sympas dont ma réticence innée m'empêche de faire connaissance. That being said, there were times those two weeks in Hasparren, as there were at Montardon, when I just could not bear to be in class any longer. I took advantage of a sunny evening at the end of the first week, and an overcast morning the second week, to walk into the town and walk off my frustrations.

The church in the center of town, the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste d'Hasparren, was originally built in the 16th century, enlarged in the middle of the 17th century, and then completely redone in the 19th century, so the current interior dates to around 1860. According to the local tourist office, this gallery-style seating is traditional in the Basque country; the women and children would be seated on the ground floor, and the men would occupy the upper stories. It's all done in carved wood, with spiral staircases leading up between the levels.

When the workers were expanding the church in 1665, they found an engraved stone plaque and an old stone altar buried under the chancel that date back to the 3rd century, one of the legacies of Roman occupation. Aquitaine was once known as Novempopulania, the "land of nine peoples" who lived between the Garonne River and the Pyrénées with their own traditions and language. The Gallia Aquitania was one of the famous three divided parts of Gaul, along with Gallia Celtica and Gallia Belgica.

Flamen item dumvir questor pagiq magister Verus ad August um legato munere functus pro novem optinuit populis se iungere Gallos Urbe redux genio pagi hanc dedicat aram.

I did do some school-related things in the middle of being a tourist, and it was much nicer sitting at a table on the square sipping a café déca with an Armagnac chaser while talking to the man in charge of the local service de remplacement about the general need for skilled short-term agricultural workers and the specific chances of my finding work in the cheesemaking field as a temporary employee replacing people who are out due to illness or vacations or maternity leave and such than it would have been sitting in the classroom getting annoyed at chattering students. I'll be writing up all of the notes from that conversation for my personal project over the next two weeks, and pulling my rapport de stage together with all of my findings about and recommendations for Ferme Bergeras.

There were several signs pointing to places that started with "Eliza" like the older section of town called Elizaberri, and I was feeling quite at home, until the woman at the tourist office informed me that eliza means "church" in the Basque language, and that it wasn't ALWAYS about me. (She didn't actually say that last bit.) I wish I'd had the time to visit the Chapelle de la Sainte Trinité there, a small stone structure essentially unchanged since it was built in 1687.

And I wish I'd had the time, and a car, and the ability to stay a few days longer for the opening date of the caves a few kilometres away, the Grottes d'Isturitz et d'Oxocelhaya that are filled with stalactites and remnants of prehistoric artworks. It's not at the scale of the now-closed Lascaux site, which I'd also like to visit (or at least its new replica), but it would have been an interesting side trip. One more item for the "next time" list!

On one of the final evenings, I walked up the hill behind the school to watch the sun go down. As I was puffing my way up the slope (really must start getting some aerobic exercise one of these days) I heard a chorus of baaing from a large grange to my left, and stopped to stick my head in the door. "Il y a quelqu'un?" I enquired, and when a dusty man emerged from the back I explained that I was a student taking a walk and taking photos and because of my interest in cheesemaking had wondered if this was a sheep dairy. "I'm in the middle of milking," he said, "and I'll have to ask my mother about the cheese, because she's the one that does it."

Hélène Etchegaray makes cheese for the family from some of the milk from their flock of Lacaune sheep, but most of it gets trucked to one of the sites belonging to the Fromagerie des Chaumes between Gan and Pau. The Etchegaray's milk goes to the plant at Mauléon-Licharre every two days, where it's turned into Etorki cheese under the auspices of the French multinational Bongrain, the second-largest dairy industrial in France (Lactalis is the biggest). They produce dozens of different cheeses that might be hard to find outside of France, but Alouette and Chavrie and Caprice des Dieux are sold in the United States. Probably more, as well, and of course you'll find many of them in cheese shops. I enjoyed talking with Hélène about cheesemaking techniques, and walked back down the hill to my dairy-free dinner in the student cafeteria with a smile on my face.

I will make cheese again, someday soon.