Travelling across France by train sans langue française requires resilience because you will meet very few English speakers. And you will encounter delays, rapidly broadcasted over ancient speakers. All of which I did on my train journey across France to The Var, a department in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region of southeastern France, I soon learnt the word “en retard “.
I was heading east to spend some time with my friend Yvan. It was ten years since I last saw him. He was now living back in France with his wife Faye and their baby Rhyannon, whom I’d yet to meet. The first leg, Pau to Toulouse, was picturesque, with Yvan phoning to check on my progress.
The Toulouse station was packed, but there were no trains. The trains, it turned out, were en retard (late) due to an incident with the drawbridge at Sete. Hours later, we were all shuffled onto a train to Marseille, where at around 10pm, I boarded a bus and 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 lasagne Yvan had cooked for me. At 2.15pm, we both sat down to dinner and drank large glasses of Provencal vin rouge.
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. Unfortunately, as in Auckland, the property prices of these major cities have affected housing prices, and locals like Yvan cannot afford to purchase houses in their hometowns. 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.
After our meet and greet, we walked down a stone pathway through the hamlet and into the honey-stone countryside past Olive trees, hazelnut trees, wild herbs, grapevines and large garden patches. 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 and our destination was a small plot. It was for sale, which wanted to buy. Together we talked about owning land and the energy it took to maintain a kitchen garden. As we chatted, Faye gathered hazelnuts from the ground.
The next day we went on a road trip. We wended our way through Bragemon, a postcard village and into a large plateau. The terrain reminded me of the Desert Road, perhaps because it had also been commandeered by the Military. Our destination was a small terraced restaurant in the hamlet Bargème. It also 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. Stopping to admire the view, I noticed two types of thyme growing around the ruins. I rubbed the leaves of the pale blue-grey bushes between my fingers, releasing the unmistakable scent of tangy lemon. I picked big punches of lemon thyme to take home.
The following day was Sunday. Yvan and I had decided to cook Sunday lunch. 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.
I went out searching for wild herbs. However, the ground appeared churned up. It turns out that the local wild pigs had been partying overnight. No doubt they will become 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 from the next-door neighbour’s vines. Then, 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. Coming from the Southern Hemisphere, this conversation was new and daunting; however, Algiers is volatile and close. This region’s 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 significant military presence, including a rather fierce battalion from Wallis Islands, it may be 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 ]cook on during 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 to stroll around the beautiful village before having a beer in the main square. The local tiler joined us with his aperitif, a pale pinky-red fortified wine in a small round wine glass. He had recently shot wild boar and offered Yvan a portion of succulent meat; the trout he caught seemed to mostly get put back into the stream.
I bought a baguette and a bottle of Provencal wine; it was my final evening in the Var region. As we’d eaten 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 Limoncello.
Back in the South West
Thankfully the three train trips, ten hours travelling time, went smoothly.
The seasons had changed; it smelt and felt like autumn. Rand’s summer tomato crop had been made up into sauce and preserved in glass jars with brass seals and rings. He had bought all the ingredients for making fig conserve. 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, 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.
Garden to the table way of living
My time in Lucq de Bearn has provoked me to ponder how our food choices affect us financially and physically but, more importantly, impact our way of life. With the rising cost of food purchased from the supermarket versus the price of meals from McDonald’s or KFC, it is easy to understand why many families choose the latter. However, in the Var and the South West, I reconnected with living off the land. 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.
I realise that a sustainable lifestyle is not viable for most of us living on small city blocks. However, the kitchen garden philosophy growing harvesting preparing sharing 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 more extensive vegetable garden this year and possibly bottling my own Italian tomato sauce.