Small groups chatted while sipping artisanal beer and natural wine while enjoying the warmth of sunshine on their shoulders. I overheard bits of conversations that covered topics such as raising backyard chickens, canning, and the secret to homemade jam. Talk of the arrival of warm weather inspired the exchange of recipes that we were looking forward to making once our vegetable gardens gave us the ingredients. The scene sounds like it's from a backyard BBQ in Brooklyn or Portland, but this was actually happening at the Fête des Voisins in my tiny village of Pouillé, France.
Since moving to Pouillé almost a year ago, my days involve constant adaptations to country life. As I transition into the rhythm of rural living, I am surprised by the many ways my lifestyle has actually remained the same. Looking around at the group of gathered neighbors, I reflected that in many ways this community was strikingly different from my Paris peer group- I had gone from happy hours with friends in their 30s to garden parties with retirement age neighbors- but I was still talking about the subjects that my Paris friends are passionate about: food, cooking, living sustainably, and eating locally and in season.
I have no delusions about how some of the conversation topics listed above have become co-opted buzz words that have been repackaged as hipster scout badges, but what I was delusional about was in thinking that this knowledge was currently only being preserved by old books and blogs.
Living in Pouillé has taught me that the opposite is true- this knowledge is as accessible in the countryside as it is in urban foodie subcultures. But you won't encounter it in the library or online, you have to be more active in your research. Living in the countryside has led me to be less reliant on the internet for advice, and to learn things in the field, often literally. I get my hands dirty and experiment with new ingredients- wild mushrooms, ail des ours, foraged flowers, and stinging nettles- without asking the internet what to do with them first. Instead, I ask my neighbors.
Which brings us back to our party in Pouillé, where hostess Maire-Claude was showing off her Cabernet grapevines to a small group of neighbors. Marie-Claude and her husband Pierre-Philippe don't use any chemical treatment on the vines because they use every part of the plant and want it, and themselves, to be as healthy as possible. Marie-Claude explained to us that she waits for the leaves to become almost the size of her hand and then harvests them to make batches of stuffed grape leaves that she freezes and enjoys throughout the year. Marie-Claude also makes our favorite confiture in the village.
In addition to the culinary advice, I also have Marie-Claude to thank for introducing me to other neighbors, including Régine. Another Paris transplant (like Pierre-Philippe and Marie-Claude, Régine and her husband worked for years in Paris before settling in the countryside), Régine now lives in a charming dollhouse of a home which is rendered model size by the overgrowth in the surrounding garden. She invited me to comes see her when I told her I was on the lookout for raspberries to use in a new beer I wanted to brew. “I have raspberry bushes!” she happily announced and we agreed I would stop by to pick some raspberries the next day.
Not wanting to come empty handed to our rendez-vous, I brought two small tomato plants with me that morning. They sprouts had finally broken ground after I had planted them as seeds and this felt very successful to me. I was embarrassed by how proud I was of my green thumb when I discovered Régine's beautiful garden and her exhaustive knowledge of all things that bear fruits and flowers.
She took me on a tour of her garden, with its fig trees and tea roses and plots of land bursting with the colors of carefully chosen flowers. Each plant had a story and it quickly became clear that Régine's garden was almost exclusively sourced through begging, borrowing, or stealing. Régine asked friends and family to bring her plants, but most often she gleaned sprouts or seeds from existing plants and wasn't shy about pulling her car over while out for a drive, stopping just long enough to snip of a branch or bit that she would plant once she got home.
We arrived at the raspberry bushes to discover there were few berries to be found. “The birds are eating all the fruits this year!” Régine announced the bad news with a smile. We shrugged our shoulders and decided I'd stop by another time, before the birds could beat me to it. In the meantime, Régine assured me, I could take the raspberries she had already picked and saved in her freezer.
You never know what a year may bring- the river may flood and birds might eat your berries. Knowing how to handle whatever nature brings is key to living in the countryside, but also crucial to living in general. Régine and my neighbors taught me that summer fruits are just as valuable as the knowledge of how to preserve them- and that both are made even more precious when they're shared.