French Farmers

May 5, 2011

I have dreamed from time to time about what it would be like to live on a French farm, especially one from a century ago.  Life would be harder, sure, but quality ingredients – delicious, fresh, right outside my door, from May to October – would be something to experience.


I have started to call it my WWFFD fantasy, i.e., what would French farmers do?  This has become my go-to kitchen philosophy.  When I am stumped for a meal, I ask WWFFD? And the answer is always marvelous, like a warm goat cheese salad with champagne vinegar and Dijon mixed with good olive oil for a light dressing, or warm crusty bread with a simple vegetable soup, or even just an omelet with Gruyere, tomato, and herbs.  They might not have had the internet, but all that time they did not spend checking email, they spent on figuring out how to make food taste delicious.

Their discoveries with the egg alone leave me in awe. So what did that point in time when someone discovered Mayonnaise look like?  It probably wasn’t that romantic: half-starved peasants had to eat their stores of potatoes and turnips again.  In the middle of a week-long storm when they worried that their barn roof would blow off, they had to come up with something to keep their spirit from dimming.  Behold the mixture of egg yolks and oil.  And that is just one of their egg creations – Hollandaise sauce, soufflés, custards, bread pudding, dressings, and omelettes each could have their own meditation given to them.

Then there is the chicken.  The priest who married us is of French lineage, and during dinner one night he told me that the best memory of his late twin brother was when they made roast chicken. He so struck me with his description of that meal that it had to be one of the first married meals I made.  It was a revelation, and so simple.  I followed Julia’s technique, down to massaging the bird with the butter, and it was easily one of the best meals I have ever had.  I understood why that would have been the most memorable of his last evenings with his brother. I think of French farmers, who didn’t just buy a plastic covered ball of pink flesh with an ink price tag. They no doubt raised that bird on grain that they grew and harvested. Then the bird grew and was harvested.  The night that bird was roasted had to be so joyful. The satisfaction of your mind and heart and tastebuds must be up there in the list of life’s pleasures.  We might not experience all of those aspects of a birds life, but we can at least buy organic chicken. It is amazing to me how much more flavorful organic meat is compared to its massed produced counterpart. I am pretty sure what a French farmer would not do, and it is everything the poultry feeding mills do to the growth hormone, antibiotic injected birds in their dark warehouses.

I try to make stock each time I make or buy a chicken.  I think of the farmers then, what they had in their gardens in abundance or how they tried to use up what they had so it wasn’t wasted.  The onions, carrots, and celery, making up the French mire poix flavor base.  The garlic and salt and peppercorns, thyme and rosemary and bay all grew around their home.  Then they added the time to simmer it for hours.

No doubt the allure of time is part of the French fantasy.  The time to grow and harvest your own food, and taste its freshness. But mostly it is just bringing out the delicious goodness of simple food. If we lack time in our modern lifestyle, how close can we come to capturing their way of eating?  Great products like Cheeses from Vermont, produce from local farmers, and organic meat is as close as we can come. It might take some planning, for sure, but the results are memorable.

But there is something more to it as well, something that the French Culture infuses in its habits of eating (as do the Italians, of course.  One could easily alter my French farmer fantasy to an Italian Farmer one).  It is simply the passion for its food.  One example of this is the concept of terroir, which is that the earth a plant is grown in – be it grapes for wine, coffee, even the grass that an animal eats that then flavors its milk and cheese – gives unique characteristics to the plant itself.  Since the earth can produce a special uniqueness in the fruits it bears, a sense of place takes on an even deeper dimension for those intimately involved with the quality of the food a region is producing.

(Anyone remotely interested in food or travel has probably heard of Italian families arguing over whose town produces better olive oil.)  This concept is most commonly thrown around between wine connoisseurs but it is now so broad I first learned of it from Vermont cheese makers.  It really captures me for some reason, and makes me want to take a tour around France, tasting everything.  (All I can remember from my visit there is that the yogurt and butter there are unbelievably better that ours.) Since I am not bringing my three small children there anytime soon, I’ll have to try to notice the terroir of New England instead.

The French farmer fantasy, at its heart, is just about taking the time to notice such subtle qualities in your food.  Their emphasis on good food might be more extreme then our lives allow, but it invites us to taste our food more deeply, to slow down and pay attention to it. Good food is always a map, always about a sense of place. We can use food to notice our own lives. Our own rhythms. Our own terroir.

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