My recent time in the Var region, a department in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region in Provence in southeastern France, and my time in Lucq de Bearn, has provoked me to ponder on how our food choices effect us not only financially and physically but more importantly impact on our way of life. With the rising cost of food purchased from the supermarket versus the price of meals from McDonalds or KFC it is easy to understand why many families choose the later. What I found in the Var and also back in the South West was a way of living practiced by family and myself that I had forgotten about. It is a way of living, which gives back self-esteem, lowers the food bill and helps reduce obesity and is championed by Jamie Oliver and Stephanie Alexander.
The rugged terrain of the Var sits in behind one of the wealthiest playgrounds of the world, the Mediterranean coastline of Cote d’Azur and its beach cities of Nice, Cannes and St Tropez. As in Auckland the property prices of these major cities have affected the housing prices and locals like my “adopted” son Yvan are unable to afford to purchase house in their native cities. That said neither he nor his new wife Faye really suit city living. Fortunately they found an affordable small stone cottage seventy-five minutes from Cannes, just outside the hillside village of Seillans.
It has been ten years since Yvan and I last spent time together; and I had yet to meet Faye or their baby Rhyannon. Due to an incident with a drawbridge at Sete my nine-hour train journey from the South West to the South East of France got delayed and I finally arrived in Cannes at midnight. Following a whirlwind sightseeing drive of Cannes we headed up into the hills, finally arriving at a small hamlet 690m above sea-level and a gorgeous stone house. We were just in time to rescue the large lasgane Yvan had cooked for me. At 2.15pm we both sat down to dinner and drunk large glasses of Provencal vin rouge.
The next morning after introductions and breakfast the four of us walked down a stony pathway through the hamlet and into the countryside. Olive trees, hazlenut trees, wild herbs, grape vines and large garden patches littered the honey-stone terrain. As we walked we talked about the importance of owning land for a kitchen garden. It transpired that although they had purchased a house the surrounding land was limited to the two small terraces. Hence the importance of been taken to this piece of land. It was for sale and they had been discussing the probability of buying it. Together we talked about the commitment of owning land, and the energy it took to maintain a kitchen garden. As we talked Faye was gathering hazelnuts from the ground, they were destined for the dining room table.
The next day we drove out through the beautiful village of Bragemon and into a large plateau, which reminded me of the Desert Road and has also been commandeered by the Military. We were headed for a small terraced restaurant in the hamlet Bargème, which has its own kitchen garden and sources local ingredients. We ate pork chops (as a rule not a meat I eat) coated in melted beurre flavoured with the local thyme. After lunch we wandered up to the Castle ruins and ramparts, as we stopped to admire the view I noticed two types of thyme growing around the ruins. As I rubbed the leaves of the pale blue grey bushes between my fingers I released the unmistakable scent of tangy lemon. The dark green bush released the scent of recently mowed grass; naturally I picked big punches of lemon thyme.
The following day was Sunday. As Yvan and I had already planned to cook Sunday lunch it seemed to perfect time to request a day at home. Once again I searched for wild herbs however, the ground appeared churned up; the local wild pigs had been there overnight. Our menu was New Zealand leg of lamb skewered with garlic and rosemary from the terrace garden, sauteed potatoes with lemon thyme and steamed green haricot beans, with local Provencal vin rouge. The pigs would likely be Sunday lunch for someone else in weeks to come, as the locals supplement their self-employed income or wages with hunting, fishing and their own crops. The hunters also shoot wild boar and partridge however, the deer have been hunted into extinction.
Later in the evening we snacked on local cheeses and grapes picked from the next door neighbours carport roof. The talk changed to a different kind of survival; how would Yvan protect his family if France was invaded again. As Al Qaeda increases its spread across North Africa the French continually worry their stronghold will continue to Algiers and leave them prone to invasion. We may consider it fanciable talk however, Algiers is both volitale and close. This regions history is rich with stories about French Resistance fighters; as we drove to the different villages, while I could appreciate that the rugged terrain may make occupation difficult, the coastline was within view on a clear day. In the end we decided that given Var had a big military presence including a rather fierce battalion from Wallis Islands, it maybe the safest place to live.
Perhaps chilled by the conversation Yvan decided to light the first fire of the season. He wanted me to experience the house in winter mode. Within an hour we were stripping off our jumpers. They had an old fashioned potbelly stove which they could cook on in power-cuts, overhead hung Faye’s pride, her curved wooden clothes rail. We loaded it up with the washing that hadn’t dried due to the afternoon rainstorm. Looking at the thick stone walls, basking in the heat of the fire it was hard for me to imagine what it would have been like for locals during the occupation of World War II.
Two nights later Yvan and I drove to Bargemon for a stroll around the beautiful village, finishing with a beer in the main square. Although in 2003 the Beckhams purchased their holiday home just outside of Bargemon, the village has retained its local population. The local tiler joined us with his apertif, a pale pinky red fortified wine in a small round wine glass. He had recently shoot wild boar and offered Yvan a portion of succulent meat; the trout he caught seemed to mostly get put back into the stream.
I’d bought a baguette and a bottle of Provencal wine; it was my final evening in the Var region. As we’d had a big lunch we decided to finish the local cheeses, picked some more grapes. Once again Yvan lit a fire. We rounded off another evening of conversation and good food with a glass of Limoncella.
Back again in the South West this time after a straightforward three train/ten hour trip it smelt and felt like autumn. Rand had bought all the ingredients for making fig conserve. His summer tomato crop had been made up into sauce and preserved in glass jars with the brass seals and rings. The summer garden patch had been dug over and covered up for winter. The last summer squash, a golden yellow moon-shaped orb, sat on the kitchen bench. He said his patients had been talking about their conserves and preserves all week.
As we took the dogs out for their nightly walk, Rand spoke about the paddock on the other side of the house. It did appear to be unkempt however, on closer look I could see the small trees he’d planted. Most properties around the area, had a tree planting and cutting plan, which meant they did not have to buy wood in the winter.
I realise that for most of us living on small city blocks a sustainable life-style is not viable. However, the kitchen garden philosophy growing harvesting preparing sharing of Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation or Garden to the Table as it is called in New Zealand http://www.gardentotable.org.nz/about is one way to ensure children know how to cultivate food, cook it and share it at a table with other people. Check out what they are doing at East Tamaki school http://www.easttamaki.school.nz/Site/What_s_Happening/Garden_2_Table_Programme.ashx.
Myself, if I’ve recovered from my Camino Way injuries in time I will be digging a bigger vegetable garden this year and possibly bottling my own Italian tomato sauce.