After spending many years as a farmer in England, John Lewis-Stempel took the plunge and bought a farmhouse in the French countryside. He shares a day in the life of a French peasant farmer
My peasant life on a spring morning: I drive the Citroen Berlingo van up to the 5,000 acre forest, my Hugo French course playing on the cassette player (yes, I am learning French, and yes, the van is that old), and spend an hour scavenging wood for the fires, preferably as much dry oak as I can find, throwing it in the back of the van, a collection of timber prosthetics.
Bright, blaring tannoys of yellow cowslips announce the route; over a ploughed field a stunting kestrel, and on the awkward bend of the track, where rainwater stays for disconcerting days, the puddles lie like bronze shields from a battle long ago. This limestone soil, when pounded for roads, sets like white concrete.
"When will spring finally break free of winter’s grip?"
There are still ice-birds here. Fieldfares squabble noisily, like shoppers in the sales, in Madame Giraud’s walnut orchard next door. When will spring finally break free of winter’s grip? The price of Charente’s clear skies is frost which alchemizes plant and soil into cast iron. This morning, I tapped the white protective shroud we put over the orange tree in the front garden with a hammer; the dome donged.
Anyway, back home and to work. With a peasant’s eye for economy of effort, I have a raised bed next to the muck heap (thus easy to fork manure into), and this year I am building three more.
John Lewis-Stempel traded in farming in Britain for the beautiful French countryside
So a morning of pounding the ubiquitous green metal piquets from Bricomarché with a sledgehammer; the walls of the beds are composed of tree planks we discovered in the depths of the woodshed, doubtless from a tree cut down on the premises. There is something eternally satisfying about eternal recycling, of making do.
By midday, I am straining, not just because of the sleeves-rolled-up effort of knocking metal pickets into the chalky ground (I sent a photo to a friend who replied, “That’s not a farm, that’s a quarry”), but because of the heat of the rising sun. In the Charente you can get winter and summer in a single day. But I am not complaining, absolutely not: There are skylarks galore above the greening wheat of our neighbours, the Robans, and they are singing a canopy of music over me.
A hard day's work
Afternoon: Obviously, one expects a peasant to be a horny-handed son or daughter of toil. Sometimes, however, I really do feel like Marie Antoinette on her miniature model farm, Le Petit Trianon. Once upon a time I had one hundred and twenty sheep, now I have five. These are Serge, Sacha, Johnny, Max and Mini, all Ouessants, a heritage breed originally from the island of Ouessant in Brittany; black, hardy sheep, adapted to survive poor grazing. To them, the sparse field beneath their hooves matters not, whether blasted by Atlantic wind or Charente sun. So far, so rufty-tufty.
However, the Ouessant is also the smallest recognized breed of sheep in the world; comically, when we went to collect Max and Mini the van failed to start, so we brought Max and Mini home in the boot of the family German hot hatch.
"Once upon a time I had one hundred and twenty sheep, now I have five"
Aside from the 200 euros the five Ouessants provide from their fleeces each year, they are my four-legged farm assistants; this afternoon I have put them to work in the potager (the kitchen garden). They are so small they can simply be lifted over the potager fence from their paddock. In the potager, they eat the weeds, and manure the ground, saving me work and fertilising the soil. Win, win. Anyway, I like them. I talk to them. In French.
An evening immersed in nature
Late afternoon: Our little Reinette apple tree on the front lawn is in blossom, and in the evening I go out to inspect it. One has an almost parental feeling towards any trees one has planted on one’s own patch. I am just in time to catch a shower. Taking refuge in the door of the stone summer house I watch the rain fall on the floral kaleidoscope of the lawn, and drip on the periwinkle under the wall.
"One has an almost parental feeling towards any trees one has planted on one’s own patch"
Beside me a swallowtail butterfly, a snip of canvas, flutters about high in the lime tree, among the emergent leaves; swallowtails are strong flyers. A blackbird somewhere in the ash trees tunes up (rather off-key: blackbirds sound either sublime or like Punch and Judy). In the door of the summer house I just watch the rain, enjoying doing nothing but watching, listening and inhaling a French country garden.
Dusk: Walking around our mini-vineyard, the vines finally coming into leaf after the cold and frosts of winter. The sun is low and brilliant red; bush crickets are singing in the paddock; down by the mairie, a dog barks; behind the wood on the hill, a single Mobylette moped buzzes.
La Vie by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Doubleday on 18th May
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