LittleField Notes: Notes from Home and Abroad
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
It’s all too easy living in America, where the supermarché was invented, to forget that food actually comes from farms, that there is a direct link from the soil to table.
I turn the horses out to graze as usual on a clear October afternoon, then go about the business of tidying up the barn, cleaning stalls, sweeping the floor, fixing a broken gate latch.
An hour and a half later, as I do every afternoon, I walk out to the field to bring the horses back to the loafing yard. On my way I notice something unusual in the distance: a dark brown object low in the field behind a small hillock. I’m pretty sure I know what it is, but check myself and don’t jump to conclusions. Getting closer, I become more sure that it is indeed the Suffolk foal that I have been expecting. Despite my nightly forays to the barn to check on the expectant mom, here he is, when I least expect it, born in the field in broad daylight. He’s just sitting there in the grass, head bobbing in bewilderment at his dramatic and rather sudden change of scenery, while April, the mare, grazes close by. He is still wet and can’t be more than a few minutes old. Mom doesn’t mind when I move in for a closer look. I see that he is indeed a he and that all is well. I step away, leaving them in peace and admire the perfect scene: on par with the great canvases of the great European masters, a perfect Madonna with Child.
I’m working Luna, a two-year-old Suffolk-fjord-cross filly in the round pen on a chilly morning the day after Christmas. We’ve taken a couple of days off on account of the holidays, and the young horse is not settling well. She is flighty and afraid and seems to have mostly forgotten the progress we made during our previous sessions. I am patient as she trots many laps in the round corral. I’m looking for little successes to build on. Finally she quiets herself and walking calmly she responds to a light touch on the bit to come haw and cut across the middle of the corral. In that moment a barrage of gunfire erupts from across the river. It is from a powerful weapon fired with incessant rapidity; clearly a machine designed for the purpose of killing a lot of human beings at once. At the first pop Luna is off like Secretariat, racing around the corral, me tracking her carefully with the lines so as not to tug on her mouth, reassuring her with soft tones. The barrage continues; the young horse stops abruptly and shakes with fear. I try to embrace this sudden calamity as a teaching moment, try to work through it. After all, an important aspect of training is the ability to teach the horse to keep a cool head despite external stimuli, even gunshots. The gunfire continues but more sporadic now. She grows somewhat accustomed to the sound and eventually gives me the moment of quiet attention that I’m waiting for and I immediately quit for the day.
We head for the barn. I am leading her now, rope in hand. Suddenly the air is ripped asunder by a thunderous boom behind and slightly up river – the same direction as the gunfire. This time Luna bolts forward and spins around sharply when she hits the end of the rope, which I hold onto with purpose, that we might at least stay together, we two. I only just avoid getting trampled into the mud of the barn yard. I turn and see a pillar of smoke ascend skyward. Dynamite maybe, for stump removal? Another colt, Frankie waits his turn, harnessed in the barn, but I decide I have had enough of horse training for today and simply pull his harness off and go about the rest of my day, more than a little annoyed at the continuous booming and pop pop popping from up river.
It is morning and after receiving nearly 3 inches of rain in two days the sky has cleared during the night leaving a thick blanket of fog in our little valley. The two cows with calves in the barn holler at me and tell me unequivocally that they would like to go out to the pasture for the day. After obliging them I lean on the gate, and admire the morning: the way the sun slowly burns off the fog, leaving tendrils of wispy cloud clinging to trees, feathery telltales of mist rising from the river. The two red calves are racing around the field now, kicking up their heels, tails sticking straight up in the air, darting this way and that. I watch for what seems like ten full minutes and they don’t stop. As I watch their frolicking I learn a bit about gratitude, about joy, and about the simple pleasure of being alive on a fine winter’s morning just after Christmas. My thoughts stray to the tiny calf pens I have seen on the big dairies, baby holsteins standing in front of little plastic shelters, motherless and alone, dreaming of a field in which to run.
Calling myself back from my reverie, I stroll back to the barn. I am startled by what, out of the corner of my eye appears to be an assortment of grey stones strewn in the duff of the barn floor just behind the big open doorway. Ah…chickens, I realize at once. They too were recently liberated after a couple of cooped up days, and there they lay, in the sun drenched doorway, covered in fine dirt, each hen splayed on her side, one leg stretched out, absolutely basking in both glory of sunshine after rain, which I keenly understand, and of the peculiar pleasures of a dirt bath, which I do not.
Again, my thoughts stray, this time to a white leghorn hen spending her brief, unhappy life in a wire cage dreaming of taking a dirt bath in a sunny barn doorway somewhere just after Christmas.
It is early November in Paris. Autumn is still very much in the air with colorful leaves still clinging stubbornly to the trees. Couples walking along the Seine have donned scarves and sweaters, but winter still feels like a distant rumor. And walking the tree-lined rues through this celebrated city, one wonders if winter ever really does come to this “City of Light.” It seems so startlingly alive that one wonders if it wards off the winter chill by its own inner warmth, by its own obvious passion for life, for romance, for history and culture, for art and architecture, music and cuisine. Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce found inspiration in the same cafés where today smartly dressed young people sit outside in all kinds of weather, sipping a glass of something, perhaps penning the first draft of the next A Farewell to Arms, or Ulysses.
Liz and I are in France to visit our son Brendan, who is studying here for a semester. I have not come to visit small farms in the countryside. I have not come to seek out those who use horses in the fields, woods and vineyards, to ask after their tillage methods, or to see the nine different French draft horse breeds, nor to find an example of the Néo-Bucher, an impressive new French horse drawn tool carrier. Though this is a trip I would very much like to make, it is not for now. For that trip I will need much more planning. I will need to seek out and contact fellow French horse farmers, hoping they will be interested in a cross cultural agricultural dialogue. For that trip I’ll also need my French to have developed enough to get by in the countryside. English is not as commonly spoken in the country as it is in the cities of France. At this point mine is such that I can buy a baguette, a bit of cheese and a bottle of wine, but I would be at a loss to discuss the finer points of tillage or angle of draft on a plow hitch.
If this trip was not an agricultural one, then what could I possibly note that would be of interest to the readership of this magazine? In order to answer that question I am compelled to once again quote that most famous line from Wendell Berry that “eating is an agricultural act.” If this be true, and if French cuisine really is the finest in the world, and considering that it felt like all I did was eat in France, then this was an agricultural trip from beginning to end.
Liz and I love good food. I have dedicated my life to the raising of healthful and delicious crops and livestock and she is a true artist in the kitchen. Her medium is the meat and produce of the farm. Give her two shallots and an odd cut of beef and in 30 minutes she’ll make you a dish you won’t soon forget, sans recipe – farm to table. Good farming should inspire good eating. We were duly impressed by the elevated place food holds in French society.
It’s all too easy living in America, where the supermarché was invented, to forget that food actually comes from farms, that there is a direct link from the soil to table. Jesus’ last earthly act was to break bread and share wine with his friends. Even at that famous last supper the bread and wine did not appear miraculously. The bread and wine were indeed the “work of human hands.” Just eating for basic nourishment, or survival is one thing, but if one cares about the quality of the food one eats, then it follows that good eating requires good farming. Elliot Coleman, in advocating for small farms in his New Organic Grower, takes his inspiration from the European model. He notes that Europeans have “a love of good food,” and that “the connection between the quality of the produce and the careful attention of the farmer to the land has always been recognized and practiced in Europe.” I was thinking in this vein when I took special note of these words found on the menu of a Paris restaurant:
I was born on a Breton farm near Fougères. I come from a modest family background and we always found a way to live self sufficiently: my parents had their own vegetable garden, bred pigs, cows, hens and a few goats. As a child I enjoyed fresh healthy food from the region. Not only did it make me insist on top quality products but it made me respect the men and women that produce them. From an early age, I was convinced that their work was a lesson in humility since without them first rate cuisine would not exist.
Consider scenes of two disparate food cultures:
I am in line at a local convenience store and a few people are in front of me buying lottery tickets, cigarettes, cases of beer and perhaps something to eat. I glance over at the deli case to see what is on offer. Every item in the case is brown: the brown of deep fried, pre-prepared frozen food. There are wings, corndogs, chicken tenders, jalapeño poppers. Other than opening the package, the bored and slightly annoyed, heavily tattooed cashier knows nothing of the food behind his counter. Nor does he particularly care. It could be any counter, any gas station, in any town in America: nothing of substance, nothing of tradition, nothing the slightest bit memorable.
Bells tinkle as we push open the door of a petite fromagerie tucked down a side street of a well preserved medieval village in Normandy. I am taken aback by the resplendent scene laid out before me: cheeses of every shape and size: square, round, conical, large, small, blue mold and orange, cheese in little wooden boxes, cheeses that look like they could have been aging for 20 years. We are greeted from behind the counter by a sincere “Bonjour Monsieur, Madame,” the last sounding more like one word – monsieurmadame. The pleasant greeting hails from a young man of maybe thirty, sporting a tie under a light grey sweater. He clasps his hands together and cocks his head slightly, watching with genuine interest as we browse the riches laid out before us. We make our selections, a soft mold ripened round cheese, banded in a wood frame, and a real camembert, a cheese which, according to legend was invented in Normandy, by une fermière, a female farmer, by the name of Marie Harel in 1791. The shopkeeper does not ask if we want paper or plastic. Instead he takes out a sheet of butcher paper and with great care wraps our cheeses into a tidy parcel. He hands over the packages, I hand over a few coins, and with a hearty “Bon Journée!” he sends us on our way.
We saw countless such shops on our stay in France. And whether they were selling cheese, meats, pastries or shoes, we always had the feeling that the people behind the counter genuinely cared about the work they were doing. They were clearly pursuing a vocation, not simply holding down a job. Such cheerful care and attention to detail was a wonder to behold.
We have such shops in America of course, but they are the exception, not the rule, found more commonly in higher end districts in big cities, or in college or tourist towns. In France though, you can stop in a village barely big enough to make it onto a map, step into the warmth of the local patisserie and for a euro or two buy a croissant so buttery and flaky that you might have a religious experience as you eat it right then and there, standing on the cobblestone street where French people have been eating their daily bread for a thousand years.
(I’m perhaps painting too bleak a picture here. Liz just brought home an amazing smoked farmstead cheese produced on a farm not far from us. Great things are happening in our country food-wise, and I don’t want to diminish that…but looking at the big picture, i.e. the culture writ large, we have a long way to go.)
It is a crisp, clear and nearly perfect November day as we drive our rental car through the gentle rolling farm country of Normandy in far western France. The car is a red Fiat, smaller than an Amish buggy and not much faster. We are traveling from the town of Bayeux near where the allied D-Day invasion took place in 1944, to the medieval island monastery of Mont Saint Michel. Hoping to see the unvarnished countryside, we choose a circuitous route, avoiding main highways. We wind along one lane roads through a beautiful wooded hill country peppered with dairies and orchards: holstein cows and apple trees as far as the eye can see. It reminds me very much of Holmes County, Ohio. Although instead of the tidy whitewashed barns of the Amish people, these are of cut stone, grey and brown, older than memory. Julius Caesar conquered what was then known as Gaul in 52 BC, and people have been farming here ever since. There is an impressive settled permanence to the landscape that is somehow comforting.
The very identity of Normandy is inseparable from its agriculture. With its proximity to the chilly winds off the English channel, the place is not suited to viticulture as is Burgundy or Bordeaux, and as such, is not known for its wine, but rather for its cheese, hard apple cider and calvados, the distinctive distilled cousin of apple cider.
As a cider maker myself, I am keen to sample the local wares, and especially to find a bottle of calvados, of which I was ignorant of before this trip. We continue to wend our way along narrow country lanes passing through fields and villages and at last I spot, high on the side of an old stone barn a sign that says simply “Calvados.” By the time I realize what it is, we have passed it. I turn the tiny car around in the narrow road and drive slowly back and find there’s nowhere to park other than on the sidewalk, which I do, with a tinge of trepidation. We get out and walk up to the sizable wooden doors with huge hand forged hardware and find that they are locked. Just as we turn to leave, a middle aged woman comes out of the door from a building across the street, walks over and greets us with a smile and a pleasant “Bonjour.” She leads us into the tasting room. It is dark, timeless; rough hewn beams cross the ceiling and massive oaken barrels line the back wall in front of which is a high counter upon which we lean. Our host asks if we would like a taste. We are a good way off from the sophisticated multi-cultural city of Paris, and not surprisingly she speaks no English. With my limited French we get on okay, and I understand that she and her husband make their products from field to finish, and would I like to try the calvados aged ten-years, or that of fifteen? We try both and naturally, the fifteen is smoother and more developed in flavor. We spring for it. After all, it is the taste of Normandy, the taste of a tradition that goes back far into the mists of time. A flavor utterly born of its place, with a terroir not only of soil and salt air, but also of culture and history. Standing in this dark cidery at this moment is no less impressive to me than climbing to the heights of the Eiffel Tower, or seeing the paintings of Van Gogh, or hearing the resplendent organ at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Clutching our bottle we step outside and are nearly blinded by the brilliant sunshine. We insert ourselves back into the tiny red car and drive slowly off. Before us, lies a field of cows and beyond, a vast tidal flat, and yet further, rising from the plain, that ancient mythic fortress, Mont-Saint-Michel, our destination for the night. Up on the heights of that storm tossed rock, as darkness falls, as they have done for 1200 years, the monks will once again intone the psalms of vespers:
The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing.