Monday, August 21, 2006


Out at Amerloque's residential farm in the lush French countryside, the vacation month of August continues tranquilly. Cadenced as it is every year by several events, the period is ideal for reflection, relaxation and renewal.

To everything, there is a season, and for the farmers in Amerloque's part of Normandy, the time to reap – the harvest season - is generally drawing to a satisfactory close. Among the usual crops nowadays are hay, corn, rapeseed / colza, and sunflowers. Fields still green are being emptied of the remaining huge bales of hay (and even more massive roundballs !) left out in the sun to dry. Farmers pile their haycarts and trucks to impressive heights and then, at snaillike speeds, repatriate the precious fodder to their barns, which are frequently some distance away.

Unlike the vast agribusinesses so prevalent in the USA, the farms hereabouts are not enormous. Lower Norman holdings are far, far smaller, indeed; parcels of land used by the one given farmer might be scattered around the countryside, thanks to strict applications of French inheritance laws which, since the French Revolution, have provided for equal division of property among all the children. The size of an average dairy herd in Amerloque's region is something on the order of 30 head, for example.

In August, one is well advised to drive with extreme caution on narrow rural roads. At normal speeds, turning a blind corner – and there are many, in this verdant land, with its remaining traditional hedgerows - can be quite dangerous, since one might find oneself suddenly facing an oncoming tractor hauling a mountain of hay on a hay trailer. One must then screech to a halt and back up carefully until the farmer and his cargo are able to pass easily. It is equally dangerous to round a corner and come up behind a diesel-smoke-spewing tractor/trailer hayhauler. In the latter case, on prend son mal en patience, as the French locution would have it, making a virtue out of necessity. One should take special care at the end of the afternoon, when farmers manifestly overload the hay trailers on their last trip of the day.

Amerloque had once thought seriously about becoming an astronomer; but he realized quite early on that the enjoyment of the occupation for him risked being the pleasant solitude on the mountaintops rather than the austere beauty of the required mathematics. He nevertheless took enormous interest in the skies and in calendars; he became an enthusiast of astronomy rather than an amateur astronomer. Seasoned skywatchers – and attentive enthusiasts – look forward every August to the Perseid meteor shower, which has taken place each year for something like 2000 years, The shooting stars (étoiles filantes) are called "Perseids" simply because the point they appear to be coming from is in the constellation of Perseus. Although the meteor shower begins near the middle of July, the bulk of the celestial activity falls between August 8th and 14th. The peak is usually on August 12th, when perhaps a hundred or more meteors per hour can be observed. In olden times in France, the Perseids – which almost undoubtedly instilled fear and awe among the ignorant - were known by the reassuringly poetic larmes de Saint Laurent ("tears of St. Lawrence"). Since 1991 throughout France, on the first or second Friday in August – Perseid prime time ! - there has been an organized nuit des étoiles, designed to increase interest in astronomy among the general public.

For a number of years now Amerloque has made an effort on the farm to observe the August meteor shower, which can be quite spectacular after midnight. An outdoor barbecue of freshly-made summertime saucisses et merguez, and baguettes, accompanied by the traditional Lower Normandy cheeses camembert, livarot, and pont l'eveque; homemade cider from a local farm; comfortably padded extensible lounge chairs; several cozy blankets; and excellent company: how basic are the ingredients for a successful Norman Perseid night !

However, the weather is a crucial, inescapable component of the evening: in some years, it has been quite cooperative: balmy temperatures, a gentle breeze combining the foreground odors of the countryside with the background tang of the ocean, a scant 50 kilometers distant. In July, France was hit by a heatwave lasting several weeks, and Amerloque was counting on warm temperatures for Perseid Day. This year Zeus/Jupiter must have been either in a foul mood or simply eager to compensate for the previous hot weather, for the frankly chilly breezes and low scudding clouds on the day prevented any meteor spotting except at rare intervals. Amerloque usually observes until the constellation Orion rises – it is the only time in the year that he indulges his enthusiasm for direct astronomy, after all, unless a comet transfixes the heavens or an eclipse darkens the earth - but after a particularly brutal series of rainy gusts, he and the guests proceeded indoors, where a roaring fire - and an unopened, unplayed Trivial Pursuit boardgame - fortunately awaited.

The unseasonably low temperatures - still continuing - reminded Amerloque that the third annual August event – after the harvests and the Perseids – is the change in the weather, which invariably seems to take place on or about August 15th. In Amerloque's experience, the weather changes somewhat abruptly but almost like clockwork around Assumption, the traditional August 15th national holiday. The local farmers have informed Amerloque that the colder, cloudier weather is somehow linked (!) to the grandes marées, the "big tides" - what is called in English the "spring tide".

Of course, it's not the exact calendar date, stricto sensu, that determines the size of the spring tide; August 15th is just a convenient, coincidental touchstone, easy to remember and pass along as folk wisdom. Around new and full moon when the sun, moon and earth form a line (called "syzygy"), the sun's tidal forces bolster the moon's. Hence the range of the tides is then at its maximum, causing the "spring tide", les grandes marées. The biggest spring tides take place shortly after the new and full Moon closest to the equinoxes – about the 21st of March and the 23rd of September. They are called the "Equinoctial Spring Tides". Whether or not the weather is influenced by the tides is another story, naturally: it is clear, though, that weather does have an influence on the tides !

In France, tides are rated on a scale from 20 to 120, and any tide with a coefficient over 100 is considered to be a grande marée; August, September and October are months when the tides are grandes. The French – especially those in the countryside and on the seacoasts – pay careful attention to the dates, which are even published and broadcast by the media. For during the grandes marées, French people love going to the seaside and, at low tide, harvesting shellfish, notably mussels and clams, but also cockles, shrimp; prawns, and crabs. Thousands upon thousands of fishermen-for-a-day, cityfolk included, throng the beaches, striding out beyond the usual limits, sometimes several kilometers from land. The experienced old-timers help out the green firstimers – quite easy to spot because they are carrying inappropriate implements or tools. All that is required are buckets and nets, as well as a prying tool or two. A modicum of wet weather apparel is needed, too high gumboots, a rainslicker, and a waterproof hat are de rigueur.

Amerloque never goes on a shellfish gathering expedition during the August spring tides (far too many people !), and he made no exception this year. The grandes marées were August 11, 12 and 13 (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, with tidal coefficients of 105, 106 and 102 respectively). Not only was this the vacation month of August … but the tides fell right in the middle of the four-day long Assumption Holiday weekend. (Yes, it was another long weekend !) The traffic in France on such an August weekend is unbearable: tanned vacationers heading back to Paris after having taken the month off between Bastille Day and l'Assomption; other people enjoying the four-day weekend as, perhaps, their only vacation at all; yet others driving to the coasts to hunt for shellfish …Amerloque stays off the roads at such times.

This year, as every year during August, a local farmer did bring liters of freshly harvested mussels, from his big tidal adventure, over to Amerloque. Mrs A applied her inimitable recipe for moules au bouchot marinées à la façon du Pays d'Auge to transform them into an exquisite delight - which, of course, was shared with the farmer: cela va de soi. Basically, cider and a slice of apple (as well as usual onions, pepper and sundry seasonings) are added to the water the moules are cooked in. The mussels are then taken out of the shells and chilled in a white sauce (with a chouia of Normandy cream, tout naturellement) containing a few slices of Normandy apple from Amerloque's farm and other seasonings. It is served chilled, not hot.

On vacation in Normandy, the Amerloque family eats more fish than during the year in Paris. One reason is that local farmers – or their spouses - . seem constantly to be trundling off to the seacoast for some agricultural reason. For example, the farmer up the road from Amerloque sells quantities of his butter and cheeses on the open-air markets in Caen and Bayeux. He drives up there three or four times a week … and usually manages to bring back fresh fish, landed that very morning. Amerloque has a kind of standing order with him during August, for fish and real scallops – the latter generally frozen, alas, since the season in France is only about seven months long, from October to April. Fresh unfrozen scallops found on the summertime markets in Brittany and Normandy are generally from the Isle of Jersey.

"What does Amerloque mean by 'real scallops' ?", the attentive reader may ask. "When is a scallop not 'real' ?"

The fishing village of Port-en Bessin is famed throughout France for its Coquilles Saint Jacques – aka the "scallop". This is the renowned pecten maximus, which is really the only true French variety. Several years ago (1996) the World Trade Organization bureaucrats shamefully decreed that a number of varieties of "scallops" can also bear the name Coquilles Saint Jacques as long as the proper Latin name(s) appeared as well. So nowadays in France one can encounter all kinds of processed and unprocessed "scallops" from all over the world, including but not limited to the following varieties (Amerloque keeps his hit list updated):

pecten novazaelandia
placopecten magellanicus
argopecten purpuratus
chlamys islandica
chlamys nobilis
zygochlamys patagonica
patinopecten yessoensis

Nowadays, in season, if one requests Coquilles Saint-Jacques at the open air markets inland, one might receive any or all of the above, or one might receive a real French scallop, a pecten maximus. Amerloque offers this trip to travelers, a tip not found in the guidebooks: to be certain of obtaining the real French scallop, ask for pecten maximus and accept no substitutes. If one is lucky, the fishmonger's face will light up and an impassioned conversation will begin. Usually s/he will throw in copious advice concerning a suitable recipe, en plus.

In Normandy, in August, it is indeed "A time to gain, a time to lose". In one quiet month, one is able to gain perspective, peace and repose, while at the same time to lose the stress, tension and anxiety accumulated throughout the year.

In addition, one is able to prepare for what might be termed the French annual rebirth in September: la rentrée.


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

Monday, August 07, 2006


Amerloque is enjoying his annual quality time in the country. As every year, Amerloque has migrated with the family to Normandy for the summer and is living at the farm.

It didn't take Amerloque long to discover several decades ago that the quality of life in rural France in the summer season is incomparably better than it is in the cities. Back then, in the late 1960s, small French villages and towns were venues unto themselves, with closely-knit populations and a full range of shops and services. Each town had its own medecin, its pharmacie, its PTT and perhaps more than one banque. Wearing their inevitable bleu de travail, local farmers would come into town on tractors for the once or twice weekly outdoor markets. Priorities were different. People took their time.

A lot has changed since then, of course: what passes nowadays for modernity has struck with a vengeance. There are far fewer shops and schools, for example. Populations have aged and become more heterogeneous. There are fewer farms – and farmers now come into towns in their cars. They don't wear bleu de travail anymore, either, and they do their shopping at the local super- or hypermarket. People are more rushed.

Still, compared to Paris and its suburbs (and to the larger French cities) the advantages of the French summertime countryside are absolutely undeniable: no major traffic; no parking problems; no squawking car alarms at any hour of the day and night; no street people extorting supposedly spare change from passerby; no slow-moving lines at supermarket checkout counters or at La Poste. Less air pollution, less noise, less crime, less hassle. Too, out in the country, the food seems fresher. The bread seems more flavorsome, the coffee more pungent, the produce more tasteful, the meats more succulent, the wines more flavorful. Not heaven on earth culinarily speaking, by any means … but not far off, in Amerloque's view.

Amerloque's farm is at the end of a road that he and his family surfaced themselves, not with some sweat and toil. Many years ago, for the sum of 1000 francs or so (at the time about US$100), Amerloque purchased 10,000 old bricks that had once formed the walls of a local pressoir, the Norman building in which apples were crushed to make cider. Amerloque and the family summarily cleaned the bricks and laid them out onto the roadway, in the long, narrow furrows that wheels had previously made. A mixture of sand, lime and ground mollusk shells was scattered for strength as necessary. Hedges using local flora were planted on each side of the "paved" road. Room was left for wild blackberry brambles (mures), which were carefully transplanted at regular intervals from neighboring farms.

Now, at the end of each summer, kilos and kilos of wild blackberries are there for the gathering; to add to pancakes, muffins, and cakes, and to make jams and jellies. Neither signpost nor placard indicate that the road leads to an inhabited farm: passerby are none the wiser. Pour vivre heureux, vivons caché ("To live happily, live out of sight."), goes the old French proverb, and Amerloque has made it his own.

In addition to reading, writing, cooking, motoring and picnicking in the countryside and general pottering about, Amerloque is relaxing in his usual way. For some years now he and his family have been repairing and restoring the woodframed walls of the house and outbuildings. This must done during sunny weather. The torchis, mixed in the spring, can now be adroitly stuffed into the prepared recesses in the walls and covered with a thin layer of lime based plaster. This type of ecologically sound construction is traditional in Normandy and in other parts of France (notably Alsace). It's even coming back into style, as a matter of fact. It is low tech, though labor intensive: ideal for the vacationtime dog days. Progress in building is not measured in meters, but rather in centimeters, from day to day, from week to week, and from season to season.

According to the media, this year the French people in general have decided overwhelmingly to take their summer holidays in France rather than travelling abroad. It's quite clear to Amerloque that this is indeed the case, at least in his part of Normandy. There are more French estivants in the towns and on the beaches, more bicycles in the country lanes, more hikers on the footpaths. The somewhat lemminglike rush to holiday in the countryside (les vacances vertes) is said to have three causes.

The first in the economy. With the rise in the cost of crude oil, the price of gasoline has hit new highs. One liter of 95-octane gas now costs a whopping 1.43 euros. That makes 5.41 euros per gallon … or US$6.97 at current exchange rates. Naturally airplane tickets to foreign parts are more expensive, too, thanks to oil prices - and to the Chirac Tax on tickets, applicable in France and in some other countries starting on July 1st.. In spite of the government announcements that unemployment is dropping, there just doesn't seem to be a commensurate uptick in business: people are incessantly mentioning that they just don't see any jobs being created around them. They are worried about the future in a general way - and hence are sticking closer to home this vacationtime.

Another reason is that apparently the popularity of the films Les Bronzés III (after a 27-year hiatus, the actors reunited to make a third film in the somewhat slapstick comedy saga) and
has spilled over into real life. The latter film, directed by Fabien Onteniente, has already had more than 5 million paying spectators, a huge figure here. This year reservations are mandatory if one wants to obtain a space in a given campground. Youths, oldsters, families, pets: in a word, camping is in, this summer.

Finally, RVs (known as camping-cars here) are à la mode, too: sales this year have increased by something like 40% over 2005. Though not strictly speaking authentic Geritol Gypsies, many of the drivers and passengers that Amerloque has seen are nearing or have passed retirement age; there seem to be few young people involved. RV campgrounds and assembly points are seemingly full – to the surprise of foreign tourists who, until recently, were the major users of such facilities.

As to the weather … once again this year, there is a severe drought (secheresse) in most parts of France. Only three of the 96 départements in metropolitan France are untouched by the phenomenon; while 54 have seen the authorities impose drastic restrictions on water use. The rest of the départements are ranked as "worrying" or "under observation". Apparently water tables in 2006 are low; the rains in the winter season were allegedly not enough to counteract the dry summers of the past three years. The July heatwave which hit Europe with record high temperatures, from Warsaw to London, aggravated the situation; authorities are concerned indeed. In some circles the drought this year is said to be as bad as the ones of 1996 and 1999, and some observers - notably the farmers out in Amerloque's neck of the woods - are unhesitatingly comparing it to the legendary one of 1976, known in the French collective memory as la Grande Secheresse de 1976.

Amerloque remembers 1976 well: days and days of sunshine and heat, nary a cloud in the sky, hardly a breath of wind. In the countryside to the south, crops withered in the fields. Prices for produce - fruits and vegetables – skyrocketed due to scarcity. Grazing land and pastures turned brown overnight. Streams dried up, while major river levels fell to historic lows. Meat and poultry farmers were forced to cull their herds in order to survive (but the price of fresh red meat and chickens never really dropped as much as it should have, Amerloque recalls …). Dairy herds suffered, too. Norman farmers, not as affected because of the naturally high underground water tables, suffered a bit less than their counterparts in the south of France. In solidarity, the Normans sent truckload after truckload of feed south, for the livestock. Solidarity is a leitmotiv, in France, et tant mieux.

The 1976 drought was so severe and caused so much grief that the French government even imposed what has since been called the "drought tax" (its real name was l'impôt solidarité secheresse). It wasn't really a tax at all, of course, but a mandatory loan decreed by the government. Each taxpayer was billed for 1% over and above the year's income tax due. The monies raised were used to assist farmers who had suffered severely from the drought. Several years afterwards, the so-called "tax" was repaid to the bemused taxpayers, along with (very) nominal, and taxable, interest.

In summertime Normandy, whatever the weather, Amerloque has a standing daily order for one liter of fresh unpasteurized milk at a neighboring dairy farm. Both freshly churned farm butter (nature and demi-sel) and properly cured cheeses are available at another farm nearby, while yet a third provides newly laid eggs and homemade cider.

Vacationing well means eating well too, in Amerloque's world. He wouldn't have it any other way.


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