In awe of the near self-sufficiency of my gorgeous elderly neighbours, I wrote this piece whilst still living in our beautiful little hamlet in France.
I was chatting outside with the owner. We bumped into each other often as our rented wooden cottage was in her garden, which meandered out of sight past our little place, her rudimentary one-string clothesline, her large and impressive vegetable patch, her hazelnut, pear and apple trees and her collection of flowers and herbs.
On this particular day, she was bringing me a selection of the day’s vegetable offerings in a wicker basket. A week into our adventure, I felt like we had plumped straight into my idealised fresh food French lifestyle. I knew by then that she had six children. In addition to a more formal evening dinner, each day she prepared a proper, sit-down meal for her offspring and any tag-alongs that came home from school at lunchtime. As such, the garden was not just an ambling delight for my children, keen to run and play hide-and–seek, it was her larder.
Food was the topic of our conversation. I tried hard to appear at least a little bit knowledgeable in our discussion, but eventually just came out with the truth – that my husband cooked far better than me. She reacted, as have all my other French girlfriends since, with surprise and envy. I still don’t get that. In a world so dominated by male French chefs, why do women here accept the role of chief chef so naturally? Perhaps worried by what she had heard, she invited my husband and I over for dinner.
After our three-course dinner in the formal dining room, we were invited back to the lounge, where we were offered an ‘infusion’ to assist with digestion. Called verveine (verbena), the leaves had been collected from one of the bushes outside, crushed and prepared with boiling water in a pot. It tasted like a refreshing mixture of camomile and mint. Clearly, my headiness upon departure had nothing to do with the non-caffeine-based drink, but I did feel simultaneously pepped up and relaxed. One week down and we had already received our first invitation out in the Haute Savoie. More importantly, we had made it through this first social function; eating and drinking all that had been put in front of us and managing to find enough things to talk about.
I had always admired vegetable-patch owners. Yet, in Australia, years before, when we had re-done our garden, we had prioritised play areas for the children and had included a trampoline, swing area and cubby house in our plans. Unintentionally, we had fallen into a design-factor trap, which meant that the look of our garden was what had influenced our decision-making. There had been no room for an untidy scar with a few straggly vegetables in it, which would definitely have been my first attempt at a vegie patch. I knew this, as the only time previously that I had managed to grow something successfully was on my single-girl apartment balcony in a terracotta pot. Then, despite myself, hundreds of the sweetest tiny cherry tomatoes had grown ... and kept on appearing. I retain the self-satisfied memory of that period, rushing home from work to see how many more I had produced, picking them and, without a trace of guilt, popping them like red lollies straight into my mouth.
Now, several years into our French adventure, we have moved houses three times and are still in rental accommodation. We are not at liberty to dig willy-nilly into our garden. We did put in a couple of tomato bushes and raspberry plants, which produced some edible fruit and we tried planting a few bulbs, too, but the squirrels had the last word there. On the other hand, the red geraniums in the pots on our balcony are flourishing and remind me of my childhood spent growing up in Adelaide, where the geraniums were considered pretty weeds at the base of the stobie poles on the footpaths.
I know how to eat. I’ve just got to learn the rest.