I visited this farm just before I left Europe last year. I only had one day to visit, had to take several hours of buses to get there and it was another few miles walk before I arrived at the gate. I saw many glass house farms as I meandered along the road. Some were empty and in between crops while others seemed to be bursting at the seams with lush and verdant growth.
The appointment at BioVerbeek was a little bit difficult to negotiate. They don’t often invite people to come, never the less once I arrived Jac treated me very warmly and we got right down to business. We had to dress in full Tyvek suits, hair nets, sanitize our shoes and wear booties before we could enter the houses. These measures are to try to limit infection or infestation. As we entered the first house, the size of the structure was overwhelming. The heat and the moisture in the air made me feel like I was walking into a warm summer day though it was October.
They nurture an incredible population of beneficial insects within the houses for pollination and pest control. Bumble bee boxes are used for pollination and there are 6 species maintained, through nurture and release, just to control aphids. There are many more that help them to control spider mites, thrips, white fly, fungus gnats and various other pests. The soil is “steam cleaned” every 2 years to keep the root knot nematode population under control.
The biome created within these enormous structures is impressive. Because each house has its own delicate balance, we had to change into a new suit before entering the next one on the tour. Workers are assigned to one house and its adjoining packing house and do not enter the others to avoid cross contamination. The produce ships out all over Europe, mostly to Germany, Finland and the UK. If they have a real glut, like they did with peppers last year, the excess will also ship to the US.
All of the houses are planted in January and the crops are harvested until the end of November. The soil is then stripped of all plant material, they go over the soil with a flame weeder, clean out the irrigation system and make any repairs that are needed before rotating the crops and planting again.
The heating system that powers these behemoth houses is also extraordinary. Gas powered generators are used to create electricity, some of which is used in day to day operation and the excess of which is sold back to the grid. Heat, one of the byproducts, is collected with water and pumped throughout the houses to maintain optimal growing temperatures. During the day, when the houses are collecting passive solar heat, the water is held in 20k gallon tanks that reach 95 ℃ (203℉) before the sun sets. That water will be cycled through pipes to heat the house for most of the night. CO2 is also produced during the generators combustion, it is filtered from the rest of the exhaust, collected and pumped through the houses to promote green growth. Tomatoes vines easily reach 10 meters in length each season and the pepper plants I saw were more than 5 meters tall!
The last bits of impressive automation were the tracks that ran down the center of each bed. There are small cars designed to be ridden to harvest, spread compost, perform pruning and plant trellising and operate flame weeders. Each type of car is stored in the front of each house.
My short visit to BioVerbeek was illuminating. Both the automation in use, and the biome they have created within these houses is remarkable. I spent most of the 2 hour tour slack jaw at what I was seeing, and most of the trip back suspended in that awe.
For more info please visit the BioVerbeek website; http://www.bioverbeek.nl/
I took an overnight bus from Paris to Amsterdam and arrived in the city early in the morning. From there I took another train and bus and walked a few kilometers to find my way to Om du Tuin, a small CSA farm near Amersfoort. The October air was crisp as I walked, the sun bright and the forests cool. The farm is about 3 acres and supports more than 30 members as well as some wholesaling to local restaurants. It’s run by a husband and wife team, Kees and Maria and they live on the property with their 2 children. The two of them split time between taking care of the farm and taking care of the kids and most evenings in the house are spent fermenting, canning and drying produce for the winter. They also participate in the WWOOF program for extra labor and when I arrived they had one WWOOFer from Italy that had been working with them for several months. WWOOF, for those of you that don’t know, stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, workers participate by working on the farm for anywhere from a few days to a few months and are provided room and board for their labors. There are farms participating in this program all over the world and it can be a great resource for folks that are interested in learning more about agriculture.
Maria started her first farm on a different property, but had to leave due to neighbor complaints about tractor noise and green house aesthetics. That farm was also a CSA with a restaurant wholesale element and Kees, a chef at the time, was one of her best customers. They fell in love and decided to go into business together. They spent a year looking for new land and settled here at Om du Tuin a few years ago. They are still waiting for their EU organic certification on the new land, a delay caused by the neighbor spraying herbicide has set them back another year. Maria loves to concentrate on “strange” vegetables and experiments with new and interesting varietals every year. I felt as if we were kindred spirits in that respect and I really enjoyed seeing all of the different fruits and vegetables, many of which I had never heard of before. There were Pichuberries, a sweet tomatillo type vegetable and Olive cucumbers, a strange looking cucumber with a spongy center and strong cucumber scent among many other extraordinary and wonderful things. Much of the work on the farm is done by hand with little tractor work besides primary cultivation and bed prep.
I stayed at the farm for about a week, harvesting for the most part. Fall bounty on the farm consisted of a plethora of different greens, winter squash, beans, root vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, flowers and potatoes. Om du Tuin doesn’t grow much in terms of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, the weather in that region being too cool to grow these crops reliably without a hoop house. However, the season, though cool is long and they are able to produce food almost year round. After work each day I went walking in the forests surrounding, looking for mushrooms and admiring the local scenery.
My vision on how we should act in the world is based on the belief that we are part of nature, and should work together with it. If you work against, you will always get troubles back, to deal with again. Our ideal system is one where we work together to achieve a resilience. None of us are able to know everything, when we try to overrule 'nature', we will always be a fighting and creating a non- resilient system. Our agricultural science and knowledge is valuable, but ultimately we need to get more insight on how to work together with nature.
I don’t' worry about climate change. I think there's no use in worrying. In agriculture you never know what the new season will bring, that is one of the things I like about it. I'm not too afraid for change, if things are not going ok, if we don’t manage, then we are not on the right place anymore and should find something/ somewhere else to do it. Dealing with problems is part of the game.
So, it’s been forever since I put up a blog post. Let’s just say that as my trip went on I had less and less time and less and less internet access. I’m home now and have been for a little while so let’s get this thing on track! I’d like to pick up where I left off which was in Paris France.
I spent a total of 2 weeks in and out of Paris, staying mostly in the Bastille area with some very nice friends of friends. While visiting the city I had the pleasure of meeting up with Emily Dilling of Paris Paysanne. We met for coffee in the Jardine du Palais-Royal and immediately bonded over our love for good food. Emily is originally from California and moved to France in search of a romanticized foodie lifestyle. She started a blog in 2010 highlighting her search for good food and the relationships she has built with farmers and restaurants along the way. She invited me to come and see the community garden that she belongs to and we made plans for later in the week.
Les Jardins du Ruisseau is located in the 18th arridosment, an area most known for the Sacre Coeur and Monmartre. The community garden is on an abandoned train platform that at one time hosted Le Petite Ceinture or The Little Belt, a small 20 mile ring rail line that was built in 1852. The Little ring was built as a link between all of the major rail stations within the city but has laid at least partially abandoned since the 1950’s and is almost entirely abandoned now. In 2003, the city of Paris started to get behind community gardens within the city. Les Jardins di Ruisseau was one of the first to take advantage of the program and there are now more that 70 of these community gardens throughout the city. The garden started in 2004 and now has more than 250 members supporting it. The gates are open on the weekends and people stop by to take a break from the hustle and bustle under the shade of a few fruit trees. Emily and I met at the Metro station nearby and walked down to the garden. The place is a little wild and overgrown but ultimately perfectly charming and very Parisian. There were a few people picking weeds and tending to their plants and a few lounging, eating snacks of cherry tomatoes and cheese and drinking wine. All 250 members have a small space either shared or individual within the garden but many don’t actually tend their plot, rather they use their membership fee as a form of donation. There are vegetables, flowers, fruit and even chickens on the platform, the chain-link fence is home to hundreds of small vessels and containers. It was such an inviting and lovely space.
On the other side of the tracks from the community garden is a seating area and a few goats lazily grazing on the grass. These goats and a few more chickens are owned by a new restaurant that has opened within the old rail station. The building is called La Recyclerie and at the time of my visit, it had been open about 5 months. We went in to check out the space and I was really impressed. La Recyclerie, in addition to the restaurant is a “maker” space where they teach courses on upcycling, DIY projects and home appliance repair. These courses and the people involved are pushing back against our current consumer, throw away culture and I’m all for it. La Recyclerie also hosts La Ruche Qui de Oui.
La Ruche Qui de Oui, translated; The Hive That Says Yes is a collective that began in in France in 2010. The idea was to find a better way to connect food producers and food consumers in a way that ensured fair wages for the farmers and good quality food for those that wanted it. By September 2011 the first Food Assembly was held in the South West of France and has now grown to more than 700 assemblies (or hives) in 5 countries. The Food Assembly starts with a host in one area, that host offers a space where people can congregate to make the exchange and all of the ordering happens on-line. Producers come with the food that has been ordered and local members come to pick up their food and pay. La Recyclerie was hosting a few dozen food producers on the evening we were there. There were bakers, cheese makers, mushroom and vegetable growers, potted plants, herbs and meat. It was all hustle and bustle as more and more members arrived to pick up their food. It had a feeling somewhere in between a farmers market and a CSA, everyone did a little socializing, some stayed for a glass of wine or beer and everyone seemed to go home happy.
All in all, it was a great way to spend an afternoon and I was inspired by all of these communities that have come together and made their neighborhood ultimately better.
For more information on Emily Dilling and her blog The Paris Paysanne, please visit www.parispaysanne.com
For more information in The Food Assembly; www.thefoodassembly.com/en (for the English version)
Agnes showed up mid-morning to take me to her friend Isabelle’s farm. Isabelle has another CSA down the road and needed some extra help for the day. Isabelle’s father was a tenant farmer on the land and when he wanted to retire, the tenancy was first offered up to his children before it was offered up to the public. Isabelle said that she wanted to take over the land even though her father was initially against the idea. He was against it only because she is a woman and he didn’t see farm management as women’s work. She convinced him of her strength and he was quite quickly proud of his daughter. She runs the farm organically and holds AB certification. The whole family, mother, father, brother, Isabelle and her two beautiful young daughters all live together in a large old farmhouse on the property. She has one worker who she began to employ last year. He was homeless for 20 years and in that time held no jobs. When he turned 40 he had a bit of a life epiphany and decided to get a job and try to function in society. Isabelle tentatively employed him initially but he has become a great employee and works hard often putting in longer hours than she is able to pay him for.
The three of us spent the day pulling shelling pea plants and her mother and father spent the day sitting in the front of the house and separating the pods from the plants. A family working together is a beautiful sight. She raises vegetables and some fruit as well as eggs, sheep, meat chickens and pintards, a type of guinea fowl. We had lunch with the girls when they got home from school and I got to try several of the local cheeses made by neighbors and friends. After our days of work, she drove me back to Montes Gardes.
The next day I was on my own. The farm was peaceful and I spent the day weeding in the vegetable patch while Mesrine grunted and pushed on the garden gate looking for belly rubs.
After work I explored around to look at some of the artistic structures Agnes’s friends have erected over the years. All of them serve some sort of function and most of them have become insect hotels. One has even been colonized by honeybees that happily buzz in and out all day. I also explored her various experiments around the property. She has built several windrows out of various materials, some with sticks, others rocks and railroad ties and others with fallen timber. These windrows are set up to be colonized by local flora and fauna. As I’ve said before, the land is barren and though she has planted hundreds of trees, there are still areas that are just a sort of scrub wasteland. The idea of the windrows is that a birds will drop seeds and they will germinate in the shelter of the material. So far the rocks and the sticks seem to be doing the best with various brambles and saplings popping up. She also experiments quite a bit with different mulches for the trees, all salvaged material of course, small stones, wood chips and piles of sticks. All of this in another effort to create something from nothing. Agnes showed up in the evening and we spent a long time talking in broken English about our broken global food system over a fantastic meal sourced from the garden and just a bit of wine.
The next day was another volunteer day and a few people came to help out. We spent the day harvesting potatoes for CSA distribution while Agnes harvested all of the other produce. She took off to Paris for distribution and I took the bike into town to attend Isabelle’s weekly CSA distribution. I got there just as Isabelle was pulling into the community center and several members were already waiting.
They helped to unload the truck, set up boxes on the tables inside and lovingly divided the harvest. Isabelle was also distributing lamb that week and several members eagerly picked up their share of one quarter animal each. We had a signup sheet for those interested in Pintards in two weeks’ time. It was great to see all of the members put in so much of the distribution work and after it was finished, they stayed behind to clean up the mess and pack all of the now empty boxes back into the truck.
On my last day at Monte Gardes, Agnes came with two more long term volunteers. They showed up with a van full of spent grain from a brewery in Paris. Agnes picks up the grain a few times a week and uses it to mulch the vegetable garden, feeds some to Mesrine and the rest goes into the compost. We spent the morning unloading the truck and spreading the material and in the afternoon it was time to take care of the 6 bee hives. We were basically just checking on health and honey production. The bees are a relatively new addition, some hives were doing better than others but all were healthy enough. That night, lucky for me, Isabelle was throwing an appreciation party for her CSA members with an open house aspect for them to explore the farm. All of us from Monte Gardes attended and a great time was had by all, lamb and pintard from the farm, heirloom tomato salads, melons, a wild hog roast and of course a fabulous cheese course for dessert. It was an amazing way to end my visit.
In the morning Agnes gave me a ride to the train station and it was back to Paris for me.
Why did you choose sustainable agriculture and what was your journey to get there?
My background is in landscaping. This profession is still young and was really only born when landscapes became ugly and standardized. That transformation has accelerated. There is a need to improve the current situation, but this type of work can only, at best hide the misery. These modern landscapes reflect our society’s choices, our short term logic and reflect our consumption and subsequent resource depletion.
Our agricultural soil is threatened by urbanization and development and it is urgent that we act now. Agriculture can contribute significantly to shape our landscapes. Farmers have an important responsibility in terms of their production choices and cultural practices. They must choose a form of agriculture that feeds everyone; humans, but also insects, birds, mammals and the soil itself. There needs to be a balance where animals, plants and fungi can all find their place in the ecosystem created.
The majority of agriculture these days (monoculture and conventional practices) creates deserts. There is no diversity in the production or the wildlife. This type of agriculture consumes too much space and energy to feed us in the long term since it starves all other living things in its path.
I started my career in farming after working with this dead space created by the train lines. I was charged with restoring this vast dead and sterilized ground. I learned the importance of plants in the cycle of soil formation and naturally both wild animals and livestock can also play a key role when combined with re-vegetation.
I am testing agro-ecological practices on restoring degraded landscapes and I believe it is a way to reconcile environmental concerns with food production issues. The more biodiversity that is integrated on the farm, the more efficient the land will be. Good ecology lays the foundation for sustainable and productive agriculture that feeds us all, produces more with less and provides landscapes in which to live.
What do you think the current food system in your country?
Keeping a budget is not a priority for the average French household. We need to feed all segments of the population and therefore food must be cheap. However the prices paid today do not reflect the true production costs. This is especially true if you take into account the environmental damage and the impact on human health that the majority of agriculture today produces both in France and abroad. These practices induce costs to be paid by future generations and seem so irresponsible it’s outrageous.
The culture of respect for food was lost with the food production companies. In rich countries more than one third of what is produced goes into the trash somewhere along the line. This makes me outraged and the ability of the modern grocery store to have all products available in every season throughout the year does not facilitate any awareness.
Processed foods do not favor any traceability or responsible production. Often, it is the brand name that counts way above the place of production or even the producer. Sometimes labels and certifications can help to solve this problem but in reality they are not always suitable and can even have negative effects; penalizing those producers that wish to work in the right direction but find the rules, made on behalf of commercial criteria, too rigid and ultimately unsuitable to their needs. If we look at the Bio French label for example we see that the definition is far from focusing on ecology and biodiversity.
Furthermore, few people are aware of the impact their food choices have on the environment, especially when they live in the city. They don’t realize how interrelated the city and the countryside truly is, they are linked. A world where we disassociate habitat, production, recreation, agriculture and forestry into separate areas cannot lead to a balanced future.
Fortunately there are citizen movements such as AMAP (help to maintain peasant agriculture) that favors farmer independent of organic certification or not and involves the population in both food production and distribution. Agro ecology is beginning to emerge as a more comprehensive approach to agriculture which has no label as of yet but allows us to restructure for more sustainable food production methods.
What do you see as the future of food in France, do you see a change coming?
Things are definitely evolving through informed consumer networks and even chefs that put forward the idea of better products being the basis for quality gastronomy. The flavor of food is indeed related to the production methods. The difficulty lies in making these products accessible to all. Through school canteens and courses we need to teach the next generation, but it moves slowly. I am, however noticing more and more initiatives, publications and courses for people to learn about wild edible plants, how to use every part of a vegetable, how to cook and waste less and I rejoice in it.
So far I believe these practices are not yet wide spread but change is coming little by little and there is a lot of interest out there about how to gain more food independence. There is again a renewed interested in food gardens and the Minister of Agriculture is promoting agro ecology.
I believe that Permaculture offer a more comprehensive plan for the future. Some may consider this a retrograde vision but for me it is an incarnation of sustainability. It seems to me that there is a fundamental shift going in that direction. I don’t know how representative that is of enabling real change but it is what I believe and it is the path I have chosen.
Are you concerned about how climate change may affect your farm in the future?
Issues related to climate change are very worrying. It is vital that agriculture admits less CO2 and that it traps more than it does currently. We can limit emissions with less tillage and integrating trees into the farms. Stopping plowing and keeping plant cover will have beneficial effects on the climate. Agroforestry and permaculture cannot solve everything but it is urgent to develop new production models that will at least limit the damage.
Who do you hope will inherit your enterprise?
I believe agricultural land is an asset to the common good, a heritage that should benefit the greatest number of people possible. What matters to me is that somebody makes use of it.
The land I cultivate belongs to the French Rail Network. I do not want to own it and I have no descendants I could leave it to. I have set up an association and I hope it will survive me and continue my work. However, my situation remains precarious, the owner of the land will commit to nothing long term and may take the land back at any time. This does not prevent me from cultivating the land. It may seem counterintuitive to set up a sustainable agricultural system under these precarious conditions but I am taking a stand. It is a way for me to break free of the current principals which have no concern for future generations. This farm has more legitimacy every day as more and more volunteers take part in the process. I hope that if the state ever does take back the land that an association like Earth Links can acquire it since they work to preserve land that is in agricultural production.
After my time in Brittany I headed back to Paris, this time to stay for a bit. My first contact there was with Agnes Sourisseau, the “owner” of Monts Gardes in Mitre Clay, just an hour’s train journey from the city limits. I say “owner” because she has no ownership of the land on which she farms, no ownership and no formal long term lease. The land is owned by SNCF, one of the largest train companies in France. The land itself comprises 35 hectares surrounded by 3 sets of train tracks and a major 8 lane highway. The next door neighbor is France’s largest landfill, covering more than 250 hectares that takes all of the trash from Paris and beyond. In telling Monts Gardes situation, it may sound like a terrible place. The reality is an unexpected oasis.
Agnes has a landscape design and installation business in Paris and this is the full time work that earns her daily bread, cheese and wine, the staple diet of any good Parisian. Monts Gardes is her passion project and makes enough money to run itself with some profit. She was hired 10 years ago by SNCF to install some trees on the property. The land was an eyesore for the daily country to city commuters. It was overgrown by tall grasses and covered in stones and dead soil, essentially abandoned but uninhabited by wildlife other than the thousands of rabbits that had made it through the fence and established residency.
Agnes fulfilled her obligations in about 3 years, rehabbing the soil and planting a series of oak and fruit trees. During this time she was also becoming more and more interested in sustainable agriculture and specifically agroforestry. Agroforestry is the integration of forestry into your agricultural land-use. This combination can in turn create more diversity and productivity. Trees are managed along with both crops and animals ultimately resulting in heathier and more sustainable farms.
As she planted these oak trees, she dreamed of what the land could become. During this time she had been living part time on the property in a gypsy caravan that she bought for herself. That caravan would, in the years to come, be her only luxury. After the planting was finished, she got permission from SNCF to stay on the property part time and build a farm. That was 7 years ago. This agreement is tenuous, she could potentially be told to leave the property at any time, though right now she isn’t too worried about it. Due to the circumstances, she made herself a promise that she wouldn’t invest money in the farm and this promise has resulted in something remarkable.
Agnes picked me and a few other volunteers up from the train station in Mitre Clay on my first visit to the farm. The 4 of us crammed into the front of her old and dingy van and set off along the highway until turning off on a funny little access road. After unlocking and opening a huge gate in the 15 foot tall fence that surrounds the property we were in and the world changed. The highway is a constant rumble in the background, the frequent trains an unwelcome reminder of the world outside and the intermittent trash turnover produces a sickly sweet, rotten smell that breezes through the air. All of it can be overlooked for the beauty of what she and her volunteers have created in this otherwise “useless” and forgotten space.
The first work for the day was unloading her latest “trash” haul from the city. A mish mash of pallets, scrap wood, burlap sacks from a local coffee roaster, bailing twine from opened straw bales and some tarp like plastic banners all collected from roadsides and various companies with which she has cultivated relationships. All of these bits and pieces had to be organized into their various piles among all of the other piles of material discarded by the city dwellers. As I looked around the farm and took inventory of the buildings and animal sheds, I could see what all of these elements had created. A large barn structure artfully put together from bent pipe, pallets and plastic banners.
An old yurt someone didn’t want lovingly repaired and insulated with layers and layers of burlap sacks. A chicken coop made of old doors, burlap hammocks and old wooden wine crate nesting boxes. A higgledy piggledy mish mash of discarded, overlooked parts, lovingly cobbled together to make a beautiful farm. Not always beautiful in the sense aesthetics but beautiful in its invention and utility. I was truly astounded at what she has created with no funds, just pure dedication, ingenuity and the ability to see something useful in everything. We spent the day working on various projects, had a delicious lunch made from vegetables and herbs from the garden and at the end of the day all piled back into the van for the trip back to Paris.
Agnes had offered to drive us all back into the city since she was going to spend the night in her apartment there. On the way, we were passed by a truck full to the gills with refuse. Agnes had seen something she wanted and we rushed through the Paris traffic to make sure that we could pull alongside the truck at the next stop light. She hopped out as the light turned red to speak with the driver and then ran back behind the wheel just as the light turned green again. She is a beautiful woman with an easy smile, a charmer for sure.
She negotiated the traffic for the next few lights finally following the truck into a small alley way. We all hopped out of the van and jumped into action unloading a bathtubs, several sinks and a few other bits and pieces out of the trash truck and into the van. Agnes spends her life like this, always on the lookout for things that people don’t want but that in her eyes have not outrun their usefulness. It’s her life philosophy, forgotten places, forgotten items; remade, reused and reborn. I was the last to get dropped off and as I was getting out of the van, Agnes asked if I would like to come out to the farm and spend a few days and I happily accepted the invitation. I had a few things to take care of in Paris and we planned to meet up at the end of the week.
A few days later we met again at the train station at Mitre Clay, Agnes was in a rush and needed to drop off that days harvest to her 35 CSA members in Paris. I was going to spend my first night at the farm alone. She dropped me off beyond the gate and said “have fun! Don’t forget to put away the chickens and feed Mesrine!” Over the years, along with all of her building materials, Agnes has also collected various abandoned farm animals. She has built a flock of about 50 sheep, she has 20 chickens for eggs that roam the entire property by day, a horse, a donkey, a cat and one very special pig. Mesrine was given to her almost dead. A young piglet that had gotten too close to the donkey paddock and almost had her head bitten off. Agnes nursed her back to health and as a result she has become a very loving pig. Mesrine follows you around the farm looking for belly rubs and she quickly became my constant farm companion.
Mesrine is the beginning of a long time dream to have pigs that feed off of the acorns in the orchard. She will be Agnes’s first breeder. The sheep are raised for meat, all besides the breeding herd, slaughtered once a year and sold through a meat share type CSA. She does a massive wild rabbit cull four times a year. Volunteers come out to set up nets and then chase them out of the scrub and brush on the outskirts of the farm. All of the rabbit meat is turned into a rustic rabbit rillettes with foraged herbs canned with a top of lardo and sold in Paris.
I set up residence in the yurt for the week and spent the next morning taking care of the animals and doing some weeding in the garden. It was a blessing to unplug for a bit. There is no electricity on the farm and no running water. Agnes collects rain water for the animals, the washing up, showers and cooking and brings water from her home in Paris for her drinking water. She has a composting toilet, a solar heated shower and a little “restaurant” for cooking and alfresco dining. She has a little battery operated radio that picks up a few stations and goes to the local McDonalds to charge her phone and laptop and use their free Wi-Fi. She doesn’t buy anything because she, like me, doesn’t want to support them, but just sits in a back booth and nobody seems to say anything.
Stay tuned for Part 2; more about Agnes and her farm as well as her neighbor's CSA.
After my brief visit with Cap’Helix Escargot Farm, I made my way up to the north of Brittany. I spent the night just outside of Cancale and headed to the coast in the morning. Cancale is a perfect, provincial seacoast town, seemingly locked in time with seafood hawkers, old boats and ancient stone buildings marching up the hills and away from the sea. I went to visit Les Parcs Saint Kerber, a sustainable oyster farm and one of their best customers, Chef Olivier Roellinger.
It was a beautiful morning, clear and crisp with a sweet ocean scent on the wind. Cancale has long been world famous for their oysters. In fact King Louis XIV would have them shipped daily to Versailles, an enormous feat in those days and King Henry IV would eat more than 20 dozen in a sitting. Marie Antoinette also had them shipped to Versailles by the ton and Napoleon was known to eat several dozen before every battle to increase vigor and strength. The setting is perfect for their cultivation with cold clean water and the largest tide in Europe with variations in water level up to 15 meters. When the tide is out in full, the water pulls back to reveal the multitude of oyster gardens as far as the eye can see and the crystal blue water is a small sliver on the horizon.The history of the oysters of Cancale is a long one. From the time these tasty mollusks were discovered here until the 18th century, they were harvested with from the sea floor with no regard for the preservation of the population or the environment. From 10,000 to 20,000 tons of the local flat oyster were taken per year and the beds were turning to ruin. In 1759 there was given a royal decree that no oyster could be harvested from the 1st of April until the 31st of October, thus giving rise to the month of R rule that you still hear about today. This is the time of year when the oysters turn “milky” and breed. Most oyster farmers these days grow triploid or hybrid oysters that do not breed and do not go through this milky period so that they can be harvested year round. It wasn’t until 1858 that oysters were farmed rather than just harvested from the ocean floor. It was then that the first wooden “beds” were built and the structures used haven’t changed that much till this day. The materials to create the beds however have gone through many transitions from ceramic tile to metal and now most oysters are raised on cylindrical pieces of plastic known as “Chinese hats”
When I arrived in the morning the tide was high and the water clear. I was greeted by Stephan Alleaume who runs the business with his brother in law. I started my visit in the cleaning and sorting area where the oysters are checked for blemishes and imperfections and sorted by weight. They are first checked by hand and then fed into a centrifuge like machine that pops them out into different baskets depending on the weight. They are then cleaned and put into a large holding tank. During this time they are trained to stay closed. The oysters are pulled from the tanks and left in to the open air, then plunged again into the water. The oysters naturally open to study their environment and look for food, but if they open during the shipping process, they are likely to dry out and die. “Some take longer to learn the lesson than others” said Stephan so some stay in training or go back to sea. They are removed from the tank and each one is knocked against another to determine whether or not they are still alive. It’s an amazingly fast process and though it was demonstrated to me, there was not much distinction in the noises made. “It takes some practice, and a good ear” I was told. The oysters, finally are packed in wooden crates with a seaweed lining that is harvested locally. The oysters from here are shipped all over the world.
Saint Kerber sells up to five varieties of oysters of differing size and quality as well as importing sustainably caught seafood, which they then wholesale to their many customers. The types of oyster available varies by the seasons, there were three in season when I arrived and I got to taste them all, lucky me. The first variety is a more typical oyster known as the deep oyster, these are known for their deep shells and superior flavor, nutty and smooth and everything you want an oyster to be.
The next is a flat oyster, totally different in looks with a round, flat shell, beige in color. They are the variety that has made Cancale famous. They can grow to enormous size, it’s possible even for them to grow up to 1 kilo in weight, though you wouldn’t want to eat one at that size. The flavor is very strong, high in iodine and more acidic than your typical oyster, though prized for these flavors, I personally found it to be a bit too much. The last I tried was the Tsarskaya and these were truly incredible. Saint Kerber has won several awards for the Tsarskaya. The flavor began like a typical oyster then bust with sugar and a milky almond flavor and the flesh was more toothsome than the others. It was by far my favorite and of course the most expensive. Most of the Tsarskaya are shipped fresh to Russia.
I will say again that it was truly an honor to meet a man so passionate and dedicated to his craft and to food. Chef Roellinger is also famous for his spice shops throughout France, though since this visit I have had the opportunity to visit one of the farms that he works with, so we can catch up on that another time.
After our time, I made my way back to the sea and rolled up my pants to explore the gardens. The tide was coming back and the sea bed was muddy, but I got to see quite a bit of what I had been hearing about all day. As I made my way back to shore, so did the tractors, workers and flat bottom boats. The boats were full to the brim with freshly harvested oysters and hawkers on the shore were opening the shells by the hundreds for hungry tourists yearning to taste the famous mollusks. I stayed until the sun went down and gazed at Mont Saint Michele in the distance. A perfect close to a day I will not soon forget.
Up next is my visit to Paris! Just a little side note; I apologize again for the infrequency of my posts here, my access to a good internet connection in combination with my time spent traveling and working with farmers, makes it difficult to post as much as I would like. Rest assured however that the story will be told in full.
To learn more about Olivier Roellinger please visit http://www.maisons-de-bricourt.com
and Saint Kerber Oysters please visit http://www.saintkerber.com/
After visiting the Bresse region, I took a train across the country to Brittany. After the train track ran out, I was forced to rent a car for the last part of my journey. Luckily France has a wonderful ride sharing website called Blah Blah car where I was able to pick up a few passengers, help cover the cost of fuel and have some company to boot.
My first stop in Brittany was in Goulien near the coastal town of Cap’Sizun. I arrived in the region in the evening and enjoyed a classic galette, the savory buckwheat crepe famous in the Brittany region, accompanied by a small bowl of the local cider by the crystal blue seaside. I spent that night in a lovely bed and breakfast in the process of being taken over by some new owners. We got to talking and I found out that they are also planning to homestead on the property and had already begun to prep a vegetable garden and restore the small fruit orchard that was there. We spent a lovely evening discussing farming and sustainability over some wine and it was a wonderful chance meeting.
In the morning, I woke up early and made my way down the road to the Cap’Helix Escargot Farm, owned by Didier and Jeannick Bonis. The morning was quite rainy and I found the two farmers elbow deep in the kitchens. Jeannick took me out for a tour of the shade houses and the rest of the farm. The snails were very active due to the cloudy conditions, sliming around their lush carpet of emerald green clover. We had to be careful not to step on the little creatures, moving them from underfoot to navigate around the house. It was a pretty incredible sight to see all of the snails happily going about their morning business in the drizzle.
Didier and Jeannick started their farm in 1993 and became the first certified escargot farm in France. They then went on to write the guidelines for organic production of snails. Over 25,000 tons of snails are consumed annually in France but less than 5 % of those are actually produced in the country. Most of the world’s snails are produced in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Rather than the delicate species preferred for consumption, these farms raise large, hardy, fast growing species such as the African land snail that can grow larger than an adult man’s fist! The large snails are then cut up to better resemble the smaller varieties though the meat is much coarser.
Cap’Helix raise petite gris snails, one of the smaller and most delicate varieties. The raising of these creatures is quite labor intensive, especially organically. Each snail is required to have 35 square centimeters, live on pesticide free soil and consume a natural and organic diet. In addition most snail farms use electric shock to keep the snails from escaping or climbing the walls. The snails here are free to roam inside their enclosures with no fear of electrocution.
The season really begins in August when the adult breeding snails are chosen from the farm’s population and moved into a cold hibernation room. During this time the snails do not eat and they barely move. In February the adults are moved into the breeding room which is quite hot and has a humidity level over 90%. The snails quickly wake up from their long slumber and almost immediately begin to copulate. Copulation can last between 12 and 24 hours during which DNA is exchanged and each snail becomes “pregnant”. Snails are neither male nor female so both will lay eggs. About three weeks later small planter pots filled with soil are added into the room. Each snail chooses a pot, makes a nest and lays an average of 100 eggs. The eggs are then removed from the pots and placed inside sterile petri dishes and put inside an incubation chamber where they will remain until they hatch. This is a difficult step in the process and the farmers expect to lose about 10% of the population between egg laying and hatching.
While all of this is taking place inside, outside preparations are being made as well. Cap’Helix has 4 large shade structures where the snails are raised. Each structure has net to keep out predators such as rodents, lizards and local species of snails and slugs. These nets are inspected and repaired each season. After that hedgehogs are released inside the structures to get rid of any snails or slugs that may have found their way inside during the winter. Once the coast is clear, the hedgehogs are removed, radish and clover seeds are put down in a thick carpet and the growing structures are installed. These structures consist of wooden boards that the snails can hide under during the sunny summer days. The untreated boards also hold moisture which makes the surface easier for the snails to navigate. The top of the structures serve as the daily buffet for the supplemental organic cereals and grains as well as pulverized marine limestone. Once the baby snails are released, it will take between 4 and 6 months for them to reach a harvestable size. Starting in July the largest snails are harvested, each has to be chosen and collected by hand for consistent size. The snails are then moved into crates indoors where they must spend 2 weeks without eating to remove all food and feces from their digestive system.
Some of the 250,000 snails raised here at Cap’Helix are wholesaled to restaurants but the majority are sold either frozen or canned. Since the harvest period is so short, just a few months a year, the vast majority must be preserved for later sale. The Bonises are talented cooks and spend many rainy days in the kitchen whipping up everything from au naturale snails in the shells to spicy snail soups in a can.
Cooking and preserving the snails is also quite a tedious project. Each snail is parboiled inside the shell. The meat is removed from the shell and the part of the body that holds it to the shell is cut away. The meat is then put back into the water for further cooking and the shell is cleaned by hand. It’s a lot to go through for a little snail and I for one had no idea it was so involved.
After my tour of the small family farm and some time spent in the kitchen, we had lunch. The main feature was of course snails and I had the pleasure of trying several of the products that Cap’Helix has on offer, all of which were delicious. I have always loved escargot and after watching all of the work that goes into raising and preparing them, I appreciated them even more. After lunch, my new found respect in tow, I went back out to the shade structures to say goodbye to the now dozing snails. This journey really has been an incredible introduction to how food is grown around the world. Meeting the Bonises and seeing their beautiful farm was truly a treat. If any of you are interested in visiting, they have a campground on the property where you can spend the night.
Please visit http://escargots.caphelix.pagesperso-orange.fr/caphelixescargots_005.htm for more information about the farm and their products.
Up next; a sustainable oyster farm in Cancale and a visit with a truly inspiring chef.
After stopping to see my extended family for a few days in the south of England, I took an overnight bus from London to Paris. Overall, the bus was a good experience and going through the Chunnel was pretty incredible. Before I left I had no idea that they would actually load this huge bus inside a train to cross the channel. I got to Paris at about 6 am and made way to the train station to catch my train down to Louhans near Bourg en Bresse finally arriving around 2 in the afternoon. I spent the rest of the afternoon napping and wandering around the town, finally stopping into a local charcuterie to grab an evening meal. It may have been the best quiche I've ever tasted and paired perfectly with a wedge of local cheese and a few small, sweet peaches. My first meal in France.
The next morning I was picked up by Marie-Paule Meunier, the PR and marketing lead for Bresse Poultry. As we drove to the first farm I couldn’t help but admire the countryside we passed. I was exactly what I had expected from rural France. The region is an agricultural jewel with rolling fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers in every direction. Many of the houses and barns are very old and built with raw timber, mud, clay and stone, topped off with thatch roof. All of the Bresse Poultry sold in the world is raised in the Bresse region. Much like Champagne, the Bresse Poultry has a Protected Designation of Origin. Also known as an A.O.C (Guaranteed Origin Appellation) this means that even if someone outside of the region raises a bird of the exact same variety, they cannot sell it as Bresse. The qualification denotes not only the region and the breed but also the manner in which it is raised. I saw Bresse chickens for sale in almost every charcuterie shop I entered in that area. The locals are very proud of the heritage of these birds and I saw an uncountable number of chicken statues displayed prominently along with chicken souvenirs. Bresse chickens are easily distinguished by their muscular, lean bodies and bright blue feet. The white feathers when plucked leave a completely unblemished surface behind. If that isn’t enough, each bird is fitted with a ring denoting its farm of origin and certification. There are a little over 1 million birds raised per season that are shipped to many parts of the world, however most of it is consumed in France. About 30% of the birds produced are sold in Paris, while 65% goes to the rest of France, the remaining 5% goes overseas (the largest overseas buyer is Japan) most of the meat is sold through butcher shops for people to prepare at home. All of the birds are sold whole with the gizzards and entire body intact (including the signature bright blue feet) with various recipes and cooking instructions included. As a side note; Bresse poultry is not exported to the United States because the USDA has said that they would require the birds to be "washed" with bleach once imported. The Bresse Poultry association will not allow that to happen so for the foreseeable future you won't find them in the US.
The first farm I went to is owned and run by Michele. He inherited his property from his father who had used the land to raise cattle. Michele had no interest in raising cattle and his father hadn’t made much money at it. Michele came back to the farm at the age of 35 and decided to join the other 150 farmers who rear Bresse poultry. He says that he is happy with the work and successful beyond what he believes he would have been raising cattle. His farm was beautiful and he had thousands of happy chickens running everywhere.
These chickens have a lot more room to roam than most free range birds I have seen. As I said, the methods for rearing these birds is totally regulated. The chicks are all bred at the same breeding facility (which I did not see) for consistency. They are moved to the farms and onto pasture when they are just 1 day old. The farmers are required to designate 10 square meters for each bird. They allow no more than 500 birds per flock and they are required to have a large building for the birds as well that are used to protect them at night. On several of the farms I saw that they were being raised along with guinea fowl. The guinea fowl are paranoid by nature and set off an alarm call at the slightest hint of a predator. Fox, weasels, local dogs and predatory birds are prominent in the area and have been known to steal a bird or two when given the opportunity. Most farmers expect to lose about 10% of their flock to predation. The chickens learn the alarm call of the fowl and duck for cover. I got to see this first hand as a stranger on the property. These chickens are built to run and look nothing like the bumbling chickens I have been used to. They have long sleek legs and a graceful gait.
Feed for the birds is also strictly regulated. They are only fed about 30% of the total feed that they need and are expected to forage for the rest. They eat insects and seeds, grubs, worms and whatever they can find in the pasture. The feed that they are given is a mix of corn, wheat and dry milk powder that must also be raised within the region and cannot contain any GMO’s. The use of antibiotics is also strictly forbidden.
There are 3 different types of birds sold. The breed is all the same, only the manner in which it is raised changes. The chicken is just that a normal chicken that is raised for a minimum of 4 months, the pollard is a female chicken that is raised until it produces its first egg and finally a capon which is a rooster that has been castrated at 8 weeks of age and then raised for an additional 9 months (these are generally only eaten at Christmas).
Now for the tough part; the end of life care. I’m not referring to the slaughter; each bird is handled according to humane slaughter practices. However, each bird is required to spend a designated amount of time in confinement before slaughter. For chickens it is 10 days and up to 1 month for the pollards and capons. The confinement consists of a large wooden crate (a lot more room per bird that typical battery hens and shipping crates) in a darkened room. The birds are fed dry milk and powdered corn during this time. There are a lot of reports on the internet stating that Bresse poultry are force-fed while in confinement but I saw no evidence of it and got an incredulous look when I inquired. “of course not” was the reply ”we see this confinement stage as a time for the birds to relax. They have been working hard all of this time, running through the pastures, dodging predators and scraping together their foraged meals. This is a break for them and we make them as comfortable as possible.” The birds I saw looked calm and there was no evidence of stress. The breeders insist that this time is required to make the meat tender, because the chickens have spent so much time running and foraging, their muscles becoming tough with the exertion.
I admit I found this last portion of their lives to be a bit of a moral quandary. On the one hand, I don’t like to see any animal confined. On the other; these birds are on pasture from 1 day old, they have a longer life and more room to roam than most free range birds and are fed a mostly natural diet. I am not trying to make a case either way, merely reporting truthfully on what I found.
At the end of my tour of the region I took a day to trip Vonnas, a charming little town almost entirely taken over by George Blanc’s three Michelin star restaurant. The town is incredibly charming with flowers dripping from every overhang and an idyllic river running through the center. The chef himself was out of town during my short day trip but I did get to tour some of the property and I was given a warm welcome. Bresse poultry is featured prominently on the menu and is the key component of many of Chef Blanc’s signature dishes.
Next up is the region of Brittany France where I visited an escargot farm and a sustainable oyster farm.