Friday, November 15, 2013

Local Flavors

The sunrises are more colorful, the weather is nicer, and the food is more varied and interesting here than in and around Tours - I can see why this part of the country is a popular destination for French vacationers as well as tourists from around the world, and pilgrims headed to Spain. Over the past few weeks I've bought piment d'Espelette and black cherry jam, duck rillettes and honey from the high meadows of the Pyrénées, quince jelly and hot sauce and sweet white wine. In this half-French, half-Gascon, all-local Basque-influenced area (influenced if not actually counted as part of Basque country) there is a definitely different flavor in the mix of food served and ingredients used to prepare that food, and the mild southern climate means that palm trees and pomegranates are grown as easily as grapes. At Les Vergers de Sainte Quitterie, in Caubios-Loos, about half an hour north of Pau, there are long low orchards of kiwi fruit that you can go pick for yourself. We were there as part of a "portes ouvertes" weekend, hoping to sell pork products and get the word out in a bit of advertising for Ferme Bergeras. Florence has some jars on display in their store and had recently taken up another order, but unfortunately on Sunday everyone was focused on buying their winter's supply of apples.

There were half a dozen different apple varieties, familiar ones like Granny Smith and unfamiliar ones like Chantecler, a few bins of pears, and outside the grange where we were setting up our table, a long line of wooden crates piled with kiwis. Singles and couples and families walked by the vendor area, rarely stopping to even look at what we all had for sale, before filling their bags and boxes with fruit.

It was a cold and mostly-rainy day, and while I'd worn a long-sleeved shirt and had one of my wool scarves with me, it didn't help much after six hours. There was a wineseller by the front entrance (good location for visibility, not so much for shelter), a booth with warm hats that I seriously considered buying out by the middle of the chilly afternoon, another pork-based booth with ham and salami, two women making and selling sugared crêpes and black coffee, an older couple with a small table piled high with a range of cleaning products, and an older woman with three long tables of - and I do hope she never reads this - the most hideous variety of knitted, crocheted, and sewn things I have seen in a long month of rural Sundays. If I say that there was a GI Joe in a hand-made camouflage martial arts outfit, several moon-faced dolls with pink-orange-green smocks, thick knitted scarves in a design I can only call "all the bits no one used from other really unattractive needlework projects," and a rack of vaguely Disney-princess-shaped girl's dresses that appeared to feature tin foil as trimming, you will have a good idea of what I wanted to take a picture of but couldn't work up the courage to. It was right across the way and an interesting if chaotic display to look at while we were waiting for customers to show up. Which they mostly didn't. If we sold more than 100 euro of goods I would be surprised.

I bought something from the vendor to the left, a man from further into true Basque country, where he and his Mexican wife raise and make tasty things out of cows, including cans of chili con carne spiced with Espelette peppers and following her family recipe, adapted to local ingredients. At the Ferme Auzkia they also make things out of quinces, and after M. Setoain had contributed a jar of quince jelly to the noon meal I shared with him and several other vendors, I decided I liked it enough to buy some.

There was a man walking around with a microphone, promoting products and talking to people. The word for this activity in French is animation, which means organization and coordination and encouraging participation, more or less; a program host, you might say. "C'est parti, mon kiki!" was his catchphrase (roughly "And we're off!" or "Here we go!"), one that boomed out frequently over the loop tape of original and cover versions of 1980 American pop music. The host became increasingly animated over the course of the day, helped by liberal samplings from the wine booth and the two-hour lunch. He first came by our table as we were setting up and at a moment when I happened to be the only one there. I explained who we were and what we were selling but my accent must have been more evident than usual that morning, because he then started asking me where I was from, and what I was doing, and then telling me about his daughter in California, and so on. Every time he came by from then on he loudly announced that he was at the table with "Ferme Bergeras, et Elizabeth d'Oregon" and by the end of the afternoon I had been elevated to the status of "my good friend Elizabeth who has come all the way from Oregon (hic)" and I was telling Florence and Mikaela that I was frankly rather tired of the temporary notoriety. And it didn't even bring in any sales.

The three of us took turns warming up by walking around the grange and grounds, trying to get the blood circulating. I went through the small store a few times, twice for small cups of hot apple cider with cinnamon, and once to buy four persimmons, the firm-ripe variety, called kaki-pomme ("persimmon-apple") here, which they had sliced for tasting next to the cider. They also had small green fruits I didn't recognize, called feijoa, which I later looked up and discovered are pineapple guava. I didn't think they tasted very interesting. I was interested in the stand selling gâteau à la broche because the vendor had his portable chimney with him, and shortly before noon he built up the fire, started the parchment-paper-covered spit turning, and began pouring the batter over it. It's basically a pound cake batter flavored with rum or orange-flower water, and the cake is made by slowly pouring ladles of batter along the rotating spit so that the layers cook one at a time, and the dripping batter forms spikes all around. He shared some at lunch, but I didn't try any.

I didn't try any of the sheep's-milk cheese that was being passed around either, but I did enjoy sitting down and eating goat stew with potatoes and talking to everyone. The man to my right was there with the hat-selling woman, and had just finished an unproductive morning going out after palombe, or wood pigeon, huge flocks of which are migrating south to Africa right now, and bécasse, a bird species I didn't know. However, after he described it (shy, hard to locate, referred to as "lady of the woods") and his daughter pulled up a picture on her phone, the random access mental database popped up with the identification of woodcock, and that is indeed what he was talking about. Chantal, the woman to my left, was there with the wineseller, who herself wasn't eating with us due to overconsumption of hot pepper stew the evening before, but who was generous with her bottles. When Chantal asked what I was doing in France, I explained the current program I'm enrolled in, and then mentioned that I'd spent the last year in Tours studying cheese. "A spy, a spy!" came the response from around the table, and I was quick to reassure them that actually I'd rather stay here in France and make cheese than smuggle secrets back across the border.

We stuck it out until just before 5pm and the close of the open door event, then started packing up, trying not to knock the jars together with our shivering hands. Monsieur l'Animateur wove towards us once more and I fled out the back door through the boxes of apples and out into the mud, where I took a slow walk around the outside of the grange until I could peer around the corner and make sure that he was back in the store. Then Florence and Mikaela and I loaded all the sadly-unsold jars back into the truck and drove south through the mizzling mist, and they dropped me off back here in Gan, where I've had the heat on ever since.

The giant kiwi is at a roundabout near Bayonne, where we were a few weeks ago - there are kiwis everywhere in this region, including in the back yard here in Gan, but the kiwis in the garden are still rock-hard and Christine told me they probably won't be ripe until the end of the month.

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