Two weeks ago I left the beautiful and lively city of Bordeaux for the Landes region in south western France. I was starting the next chapter of aventure française: WWOOFing. Worldwide opportunities on organic farms. This is a volunteer program, of sorts: for a few weeks you work on an organic farm in exchange for lodging and meals. It is a wonderful opportunity to speak French and discover a new region of France.
I was to be living with Marie Hélène and her partner, Christoph, on the outskirts of a tiny village called Pissos. For two weeks I was very much part of their lives. During the day I would work with Marie Hélène in her organic market garden and at night I would help around the house: feeding the chickens and the pigeons, taking care of the horse and doing the cooking.
I enjoyed working in the garden. There is something very liberating in being able to get absolutely filthy without a care in the world. I would return home each day with dirt under my nails and a mud streaked face from wiping away perspiration. The garden is hard work but the rewards are tangible and, tasty too. Radishes as an apéro with fresh bread, butter and salt; salads for lunch with lettuce picked less than an hour before; new season potatoes sautéed in olive oil and peas eaten straight from the pods. In the coming months Marie Hélène and Christoph will have tomatoes of every variety, courgettes, cucumbers, rhubarb, beetroot, green beans and artichokes.
Like so many of my French experiences, my time with Marie and Christoph will be remembered by the food that we ate. My first night we had spaghetti with beautifully tender and rare entrecôte steak. The next night we sat down late, at 10.30p.m, to a succulent piece of black Gascogne pork that had been roasted in the coals of the original 180 year old fireplace. A friend of Marie and Christoph farm the black pigs, organically, of course.
Every morning for breakfast there was hot coffee, served in cereal bowl sized, hand-made ceramic mugs. Croissants, pain au chocolat or baguette, warmed and slathered with butter and honey. (Honey, from their friend the apiculteur who collects the honey from the beehives in Marie’s garden and, who also happens to be a dab hand at irrigation systems.) For midday apéro hour we ate whole anchovies which had been marinated for a few days in olive oil, vinegar, salt and garlic. We pulled the little fish, dripping and glistening, from the bowl with toothpicks and ate them with crusty bread. A friend had kindly given Marie and Christoph a big white bucket of crabs he had caught the day before. In the evening, the crabs still scuttling in their bucket, we made crab soup.
The next day for lunch, despite not arriving back at the house until 1.30, Marie roasted a whole chicken from a friend’s farm. Whole is not an exaggeration: the head, the stomach, the liver, the intestines, even the reproductive organs. We ate the chicken with fries which had been cooked in duck fat. Friday night dinner was take away pizza from the local pizzeria. Pizza with fresh duck liver, magret de canard fumé, mushrooms and foie gras, or, pizza with white asparagus, sun dried tomatoes, Serrano ham and poached egg.
Saturday afternoon, after a very successful morning selling at the market, Marie and I returned home with boxes of fresh meat, fish, cheese, bread and yoghurt. That night for apéro hour we shelled prawns and broad beans.
Sunday in Pissos is a day of rest and cooking. I helped Marie prepare the vegetables: aubergines, tomatoes, mushrooms, fennel, onions, fresh garlic and broad beans. They were cooked on the stove top with cumin and chili until wonderfully translucent and caramelised. Christoph prepared the outdoor brick fire place where we roasted a whole fish. We ate at the outdoor table in the shadow of 100 year old plane trees, discussing politics and the “fin d’une era.” It all felt so very French.
Sunday evening a friend of Marie and Christoph was cooking for us. On the menu: rognons d’agneau, lamb testicules. I was nervous about trying this particular cut of meat. The rognons were prepared simply with olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and then grilled in the fireplace. I was given the first taste, and in front of an audience. I didn’t dislike the taste or the texture: slightly creamy like pâté, but I don’t think they will be going on the weekly grocery list.
Monday lunch was another meal of no mean proportions. A friend of Marie and Christoph roasted a salmon fillet and brought it the house in a beautiful green Le Creuset dish. The salmon had been cooked with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and generous quantities of olive oil. We ate it with boiled potatoes, a salad from the garden and an herbed crème fraiche sauce. The crème fraiche, from the milk of Jersey cows, is made by a friend. It is soft, almost whipped and butter mellow yellow. I could have eaten it with a spoon. In fact, that’s exactly what we did.
Lunch the following day we ate a lentil salad with tomatoes, feta, onions and garlic. In the evening, after planting 200 tomato plants, we had fat andouillette sausages with sautéed new potatoes. Our attempt at eating light.
I cooked the next day, a soup or stew, I do not know. Carrots, mushrooms and sausages cooked in a spicy tomato broth. Apple and wild blackberry crumble for dessert. Last minute on Thursday night Marie decided to make a cheese soufflé. She gave me the pot of béchamel sauce to lick, I felt at home. The soufflé was golden topped, puffed and smooth.
Lunch on Friday, after standard apéro hour, we ate grilled pork steaks and fries cooked in duck fat. Saturday lunch was another meal of “firsts” for me. Our friend at the market hadn’t sold all the veal liver he expected, and for fear of wasting it, he generously gave us five or six veal livers. And hearts, and heads, and feet. The head and feet were destined for the dogs, for which I was secretly glad. I think my two week experience of nose to tail eating had already been quite comprehensive. The veal liver, though, was yet another interesting meal. Cooked in the fry pan with only salt and pepper for seasoning and served with a tomato salad and a slice of veal heart, just for good measure. Nose to tail eating, I feel, is an acquired taste.
That evening we went to a friend’s fête. On the lawn in front of a beautiful old stone house with a grape vine arching across the façade, we danced until the wee hours of the morning. We ate barbequed wild boar and Spanish Merguez sausages and warmed our hands over the barrel drum fire.
Sunday was my final day with Marie and Christoph and we enjoyed another wonderful meal. We tasted regional charcuterie: smoked garlic sausage and delicious salted pork wrapped in a pâté. The second course was fried trout and eel which Christoph had caught in the river that runs next to the house. Marie cooked roast pork with carrots, mushrooms and new potatoes. A slice of cheese, apple crumble and coffee to finish.
Oh, and the wine; one or two bottles with nearly every meal. Mojitos in the middle of day, floc de Gascogne and porto blanco. We drank beautiful Bordeaux reds, and always organic. There is less guilt in pouring a second or a third glass. Two weeks of wonderful meals and new delicacies to try.
But, please, feed me fruit and water for the next week.
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