Monday, April 20, 2009

Real France

Colette took us up to her friends' goat farm last weekend. It's a few miles outside a village, down a series of roads that get smaller with each turn. The farm--house, dairy, barns, sheds--sits on a plateau that backs up against the mountains.

We are on a perpetual quest for authenticity, C and I, for evidence of human endeavor and dignity and creativity. I think it's part of what we were looking for when we came to France: small shopkeepers, local produce, people whose profession was book selling or bread making or flower selling, and who were not just passing the time behind the cash register. It's a hopelessly romantic notion, no doubt, and a naive one--France has more big box stores than any other country in Europe, I've heard--but, nevertheless, it's our notion.

And so it was with great anticipation that we drove up the series of smaller and rougher roads to the goat farm. Local farmers, local goats, and, Colette had assured us, we would be able to buy some local cheese. It was all too authentic for words.

Madame la fermière answered the door to her farmhouse and one of the first words out of her mouth was merde: she had meant to ask Colette to bring a book up to her from the village. Ah, yes, we thought, French people cuss much less self-consciously than we Americans do. (I have a theory about that being tied to Catholic culture and the sacrament of confession--cuss a blue streak all week, confess on Saturday, start over with a clean slate on Sunday--but I'll spare you the details for now.) But points to madame la fermière for authenticity.

Our first step was the dairy, where the farmer explained how they made goat cheese--milk, enzymes, rinsing, molding, not necessarily in that order--and showed us the room where they age the cheese. Wooden shelves laden with tiny rounds of cheese covered in various shades of mold. Then to the goat barn: dozens of brown and black goats shouldering each other aside for a better place at the trough. Goats, who look so clean and smell so bad. We walked up and down among them, pointing out the kids.

Then the sheep: even more, less clean and smellier. Madame la fermière and her husband sell the lambs for meat, meat that is sold in Italy. Why Italy, we asked. The French don't care about local foods; they'd rather go to a grands surfaces and buy cheaper lamb from New Zealand than support local farmers, was the response. We nodded sagely. We knew about the grands surfaces stores; we come from the place that invented them.

As we came out of the sheep barn, madame put out a warning hand to stop us. Shhh, be still, she said. Down the lane were coming hundreds of sheep--400 or so, she told us--herded by dogs and followed, several minutes of sheep later, by their shepherd.

We were thrilled. Dairy, goats, sheep barn, and now an authentic troupeau returning from a day in the mountains, and with their own shepherd en plus.

Once the dogs had herded the sheep into their paddock, the shepherd stopped to talk with us. He was in full shepherd gear: old baggy camouflage painter's pants, worn boots, multiple layers of sweaters and vests. A bamboo staff. A canvas messenger bag slung over his shoulder. He could have been anywhere from 40 to 70: his face was tanned into crevices. And he wore a navy beret at a rakish angle. The only way he could have looked more French is if he had had a baguette and a tricolor hanging out of his satchel. It was, for us, the icing on the cake.

He cast an appraising look over C and me. Alors, vous êtes des vrais américains? he asked. So are you real Americans?

We are, we assured him. Real Americans.

The shepherd cleared his throat. Well, it's a good thing I wore my beret this morning, he said slyly. I didn't know I was going to be meeting real Americans.

Ah, authenticity. Apparently it cuts both ways.

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