Halfway around the world…and still on a farm
Good Food Health blogger and writer Sarah Betts had the unique opportunity to travel to Europe for the month of August. We look forward to her continued posts and stories from across the pond. Check back each week on Monday and Thursday to read about other farms, food and fun from our blogger on the road! – Full Circle
The butter is thick and soft; earthy and satisfying. It spreads across the crusty edge of the homemade bread easily, leaving a pale yellow hue in its wake. I want to use it like I would cream cheese, lathered on in a thick coat that is tangible with every bite. I could very well do so too, with the amount sitting in front of me. A pillowy mound of butter sitting here, freshly made, should be enough to last a week back home, but not here it seems.
I am sitting at the end of a weathered farmhouse table that has seen many, many meals before, with my bare feet digging into the warm rich soil beneath me and rolling green hills stretching to the horizon; patch-worked with apple and pear orchards, rows of purple cabbage heads, squash vines bigger than my wingspan, and happy grazing animals lazing in the morning sun. And here, at the table with me, the farmers, guests and myself, are enjoying some butter, with a bit of bread, and a small cup of coffee.
For the next few weeks I have been given the fortunate opportunity to travel through Europe, from the farmlands at the base of the French alps to the hub of organic agriculture in Germany, and what better way to experience it all than through the food, the people, the culture and the earth that sustains it?
The historical sights will, of course, be visited and appreciated but, as I sit here now, with Anne and Margarette, the sheep farming-master gardeners and generous hosts of the farm-stay where I will be for the next few days of my trip, I know that the thorough appreciation I will come away from this trip with, will be from the interaction with the people of the land and the practices that have been in place here for thousands of years, nourishing people through wars, hardship, luxury and expansion.
Breakfast came to an end as the sun warmed and the lambs, born just 3 days prior, began to baaaa as their mothers yearned for grass and no longer put up with their constant urge to feed. The first project of the day was to let the sheep out on the lush green clover pasture. At night, the mothers and new babies are brought into the old stone barn, where the walls evoke images of renaissance farmers cobbling together magnificent buildings for their time. The wooden feed racks on each side of the barn are original, worn shiny by thousands of eager animals nuzzling their edges for access to hay.
Elise, the resident farm dog, doesn’t need to be told what to do. Before we reach the pasture she has all the sheep in a huddle ready to push through the gate. Only one stray baby has escaped Elise’s herd; the one who lost her mother during birth a few days ago and is looking desperately for food. As she sees us coming, she jumps, like a kernel of con on a hot stove, and squirms through the fence in excitement. The bottle we have brought for her is sucked down in minutes as her sunken belly expands with nourishment.
The small lamb’s long tail wriggles uncontrollably every few seconds as she eats. Unlike the wag of dog’s tail, the lamb’s shakes furiously and in short bursts that send the whole tail into a convulsing expression of pure happiness. As I hold the bottle upside down for her to suckle as she would her mother’s teet, I hate to think about her fate eight months later, but that is the way the cycle works around here.
Anne and Margarette make their living doing this, and if they got attached to every baby they hand fed, they would be in quite a bit of debt by now. As the lambs reach maturity and an acceptable weight for slaughter, they are taken down the road where a neighbor slaughters and butchers them for sale. Each sheep is sold by the half and Anne and Margarette have never slaughtered one of their herd before having already sold it. Sales take place right at the farm, where neighbors, community members and loyal customers, continue to support the business. Each sheep travels less than 10 kilometers in its life, and hardly ever leaves the small farming community before reaching a table of appreciative people.
The farm, Margarette explained, is not certified organic, but she is confident that her practices exceed what the regulations would ensure anyway. Her family has been in this business for generations and she knows how to produce healthy sheep on good grass that will feed people well. Her neighbor, a vegetable farmer, had the same response when I asked about his experience with the organic movement. While he appreciates the change it has made here in France, he prefers to use Biodynamic methods that help further improve the land and produce good food, completely naturally.
While I am still set out to learn more about the regulations on organic labeling here, it is interesting to hear these two lifelong farmers discuss the difficulties they have had with regulations. Hormones, antibiotics, fertilizers and chemical sprays are not, nor have they ever been used in this area, Margarette explained, so why should they change their ways and pay extra money for a label?
A moment of thought and pause of appreciation for this opportunity before drifting off to sleep in my room above the farmhouse is only interrupted by the faint purr-like sound the sheep make in their sleep. Check back Thursday for more stories and, of course, good food!