Monday, September 11, 2006

Plums

Returning to Paris after an invigorating summer season at the Normandy farm means reviewing any lessons learned during the vacation and easing back gently into the swing of things.

Out in Normandy, surprises are not rare, and this year's lot of them was no exception. The cool weather continued through the end of the month of August. Daily high temperatures were five or six degrees Celsius (say eight or ten degrees Fahrenheit !) under the norm. Evenings were chilly - sweaters were de rigueur for all - and the lengthening nights were, frankly, cold.

At intervals, the winds brought dark clouds aplenty, from which poured down chilly, oversized raindrops, drenching everything and everyone. After each rainstorm, the sky cleared rapidly to an azure blue, puffs of white scudding merrily across the heavens. Nevertheless, on the horizon could be seen approaching rain and mists, three or four hours away. From time to time a particularly strong gust would shake the trees and rattle the windows, reminding Amerloque that Norman weather has always been fickle and changeable. Traitre (traitorous) is the word the Normans use.




A particularly strong blast of wind one evening as the sun was setting in a crimson haze ("red sky at night, sailor's delight") carried away one of the farm's most venerable and much loved trees. In this case it was a plum tree, well over three quarters of a century old. Its delicious yellow fruit was always a welcome addition to the late August fare at the farm. Alas, the tree was blown down – the break is quite close to its base - just as this year's crop of plums (prunes) was ripening; only a few had been removed from the tree and eaten as a test. No more will Amerloque and the family speak of le mirabellier and its "possible fruit this year". No longer will "the prune tree" supply wondrously fresh and tasty mirabelles for the tartes and the confitures at the end of the summer season, and that is sad, indeed.

Every cloud has a silver lining, as the old saying would have everyone believe. Amerloque can testify that the maxim apparently holds in the highly arcane and very artificial subset baptized "Normandy winds and plum trees". Over ten years ago, on a stormy morning at the end of August after les grandes marées, another equally venerable plum tree on the farm was laid low by a vengeful gale. The main horizontal branch, heavily laden with ripening purple fruit and supported by an ancient Y-shaped metal bar, simply broke away from the gnarled trunk and fell to the ground. Amerloque and the family hesitated mightily about uprooting the tree entirely, since it was nicely positioned, not too far from the spot where the picturesque road enters the farm. Finally, going against the local farmer's advice, they did nothing and left it in place. The prunier stopped bearing fruit and led a merely decorative existence, relying on its ornamental attributes for survival.

Nonetheless, throughout the following years, and although he is no huge fan of gardening, Amerloque made sure that the prunier received its semi-annual quotient of natural fertilizer, obtained from a neighboring farm. Each year, the weather-beaten, distorted trunk seemed to grow a few fresh branches, with green shoots budding anew and remaining. During the past few years, the tree underwent a kind of pastoral renaissance: more and more branches appeared, while the leaves flourished, becoming larger, greener, healthier.

This year, the prunier bore fruit, for the first time in over a decade. It was delicious: far better than the plums which can be purchased in the super- and hypermarkets, and even far tastier than most plums generally available in the open-air markets. While saddened by the passing of the tired mirabellier, the members of the Amerloque family rejoiced together at the rebirth of the prunier while eating its wonderful fruit, and, just as in times gone by, putting the pits aside to plant.




Amerloque's Normandy plums remind him that, although France is a country avidly interested in food, things are changing, with the increasing constraints inherent in the French iteration of the "consumer society". Thanks to subsidies from the European Union, many seasonal fruits and vegetables offered to consumers now come from countries where labor costs are overly competitive with French ones. Not a week goes by but that one farmers' union or another is out demonstrating, complaining that French farmers cannot make financial ends meet when the price to the consumer at the hypermarket … is lower than the French farmers' production cost. In season, amazingly enough, apples from Chile and South Africa and New Zealand, are cheaper in the markets (super, hyper and farmers') than home grown apples from Normandy and the south of France, even with all that money from the European Union's Common Agricutural Policy collected by French farmers. Ca ne tourne pas rond. Nowadays, beautiful imported fruits are widely available at knockdown prices, but the tastier - and, it must be admitted, less squeaky shiny French ones - are not. Quantity and price have superseded quality, alas.

As in the USA, the small farmer in France seems to be a disappearing breed. Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that, in France "… between 1993 and 2004, the number of arable farms fell by nearly a third. Wide swaths of neglected land are now home to unsightly scrub, and the farms people see as they drive down France's immaculate highways are often parts of major business enterprises." A recent report in France stated that " … since the beginning of the XXIst century, the number of professional farms in France has been decreasing by 2.5% per year, a slight slowdown from the annual 3% observed at the close of the last century." Milk producers are hurting, too. The number of dairy farms has been halved since 1988: fully 20% of the drop has occurred in the past five years.

While the servile yet adulated "consumers" seem content to pay less for beautiful but somewhat insipid fruits and vegetables, French farmers are not happy about their lot, and are increasingly making their views known. There are more and more demonstrations, from fruitgrowers to olive oil producers, to winemakers, to French oyster farmers ( ostréiculteurs). Farmers' manifs (demos), by the way, can be somewhat violent: foreigners are generally taken by surprise when they find themselves in the midst of one. Although used to it, Amerloque was still startled when, outside a supermarket this summer, masked demonstrators converged as if from out of nowhere and overturned lines of display bins containing hundreds of kilos of Spanish and Dutch fruits and vegetables. The merchandise was trodden underfoot and crushed by the furious manifestants. A less aggressive tactic used by some farmers' unions - and frequently reported in the press - is simply selling fruits and vegetables "at cost", directly to consumers. On a given day, with the time and place announced by the media, farmers come to Paris or one of its nearby suburbs, throw open their trucks on the street or in a convenient square, and sell hundreds of kilos of merchandise - which might otherwise be thrown away. Needless to say, the general public appreciates this kind of "demonstration" and the throngs arrive early.

Amerloque's summertime experiences with the prunes on his farm (he has apple trees, too, but that's another story entirely ...) only reinforced his conviction that local French fruits are better than imported tasteless and watery ones. It is clear to him – and Amerloque far from being alone in this - that one of the ways for high quality to be maintained is for small farmholdings to continue to operate successfully. They should not be disappearing into the dustbin of history, as has been happening all too frequently in the USA, Great Britain - and France.

Amerloque has been mulling all of this over for some time: after all, he came to France to enjoy the quality of life. Hence during August, Amerloque joined an Association pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne, known here by its acronym, AMAP. In the USA, the phenomenon is called "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA). Allegedly founded during the 1960s in Japan, a CSA organization is a contractual partnership of mutual commitment between a given farm and a stable community of supporters. Simply summarized, the members of a CSA community – usually in a city - cover a portion of a country farm's annual or semi-annual operating budget by purchasing a share of the season's harvest in advance. In return for the supporters' financing, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season. CSA group members receive a weekly or monthly basket of produce, flowers, fruits, eggs, milk, cheese, or even a selection of different farm products.

During the first two weeks of his membership in an AMAP specialized in fruit-and-veg (an association 1901), Amerloque received two different baskets containing strawberries, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, early squash, shallots, various heads of lettuce and chou chinois, a variety of cabbage. All of them were very high quality; some were 100 "bio"; the cost per kilo was about the same as in a top-flight stall in a Parisian open-air market. For the moment, Amerloque is pleased, and is now seeking an AMAP whose specialty is meat and poultry.

Note to expats living in Paris who are interested in excellent food and might be reluctant to join an AMAP: Amerloque recommends a visit to a pick-your-own farm (une ferme-cueillette). There are many to be found in the Paris region; they offer quality at competitive prices. If the weather is nice, a day outing can be a lot of fun, especially with children who are apt to find gathering vegetables enthralling and exhilarating, rather than grueling - if out outright backbreaking – labor as so many adults do.

Ah, yes, Paris … the restaurant world in Paris has changed exceedingly over the past several years, and it's not just all the fault of McDo and KFC. With all the private capital groups gobbling up the choicest plums, i.e. the "name" restaurants, Amerloque, in self defense, has been following the continual shakeout in Paris for quite a while. He simply does not feel that "chain restaurants" run by hedgefunds and private equity groups – whether in the USA or in France – can be considered in any way as the epitome of gastronomy. He is of the opinion that the concepts "chain food" and "excellent dining" are mutually exclusive; he is frankly astonished to see so many of the chain establishments being fulsomely recommended in allegedly "independent" guidebooks and on many gushy "oh-isn't-Paris-great !" blogs and websites.

During the summer, Amerloque's favorite French morning daily, Le Parisien published a revealing "who owns which restaurant" article. When one sees that a single company owns: Au Pied de Cochon, Le Grand Café, L'Alsace, Charlot, Le Procope, La Fermette Marbeuf, La Taverne, L'Arbuci, La Lorraine, Le Petit Zinc, Chez Jenny and L'Appart, and that a second company's portfolio contains Bofinger, La Brasserie Flo, Julien, La Coupole, Le Bœuf sur le Toit, Les Grandes Marches, Le Vaudeville, Les Beaux Arts, 80 Hippopotamus restaurants, 40 Bistrot Romain restaurants, and 6 La Table à Pizza restaurants, one is entitled to ask oneself in all seriousness if traditional Parisian dining has not been thrown into the trashcan of history, preceding the traditional small French farmer, perhaps, by only a few years.



L'Amerloque



Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright by Amerloque

4 Comments:

Blogger Silver said...

I lost a plum tree many years ago. I’d come in my gate after a late-night autumn walk and be greeted by ripe plums cooled to the perfect temperature by night air. I’d pick one, rub it on my sleeve and dive in. As I ate the first one, I’d slip back to a moment before agriculture cursed Man by stripping him of his ability to wander. Then I’d eat my fill. After a blizzard split it fatally, I cut it up and stacked everything – even the twigs – in a shed.

Once it dries for a few months, a stick slightly larger than a man’s finger lends the most exquisite flavor to grilled meat, fish or fruit.

So with a little more work on your part, your plum tree can continue to nourish the soul for several more years. But you still have my deepest condolences.


Silver

1:08 PM  
Blogger Flocon said...

Each time I read the "Ca ne tourne pas rond" line, it reminds me of Les Mots by Sartre where he uses this expression to describe how the screws were loose when he was a child.

Flocon

1:07 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello silver !

Amerloque thanks silver for the encouragement ! He has set aside some of the wood for carving, and will put some twigs to good use, as silver suggests !

Thanks for stopping by !

Best,
L'Amerloque

7:42 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Flocon !

Ah, Amerloque loves the expression Ca ne tourne pas rond. (smile) in his view, it sums up the essence of French society where, in a word, things are designed to tourner rond, expected to tourner rond ... and do.

Best,
L'Amerloque

7:46 AM  

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