Garlic of the bears

Our hosts spent this last week off skiing in the French Alps, and they were glad to ask us to take care of the chateau and the gardens in their absence. They generously provided us with a larder well-stocked à la française, with ample options of charcuterie, cheeses, and fresh bread. We were also given directions to Barbara's favorite wild garlic patch l'ail des ours (literally, garlic of the bears). We have been eating well!

We settled in and made ourselves at home, taking care of the farm chores left to us but also making time for bike rides and walks in the area. Our hosts left us a car to use, and we took an afternoon trip to the nearby “big” city, Poitiers, an hour’s drive away with a population of 90,000. The trip reminded us how relatively remote our location here is, deep in rural France. 

Barbara arranged for us to spend a morning at a neighboring goat-cheese farm during their time away. The chateau’s housekeeper, Isabelle, works at the cheese farm and offered us a tour of the operations. We got to the cheese parlor at 8 am sharp, and Isabelle immediately gave us stark-white lab coats to don over our farm clothes and put us to work. We loved the experience! 

The milk sets for 24 hours and then the water is skimmed off before the cheese is packed into 150g molds.

Et voilà. The chèvre rests for a few weeks before heading to market. Through our (very) broken French and much patience and pantomiming by the non-English speaking Isabelle, we got a step-by-step crash course on cheese making. We helped her pack the famous pyramid-shaped goat’s cheeses whose dimensions and ingredients are regulated by the French government, and were given our choice of one to take home for lunch. 

The farmer later walked us through the barn where the goats were busy eating breakfast after the morning’s milking. This morning was perhaps our single most educational experience at Domaine du Verger, and got us excited for the farm stays we have ahead of us. 

As far as farm work goes, we have spent much of our time on the springtime tasks mentioned in our last post. Patrick has spent many hours astride the riding mower, and Heide has weeded some of the most remote corners of the walled garden.  We also prepared the ground for and planted a number of crops, including peas, potatoes, carrots, beets, etc. 

While much of the work here has been pretty straightforward, we are also learning some interesting techniques and gardening tips. One project we had was to make a nettle leaf fertilizer for the garden, a liquid fertilizer rich in nitrogen, iron, magnesium, and sulfur. 

It is a simple recipe: tightly pack nettles into a container and then cover them with rainwater, at a proportion of roughly 1 kilo nettle leaves to 1 liter water. Ensure that the leaves are fully submersed in water by covering with a flat stone or other heavy object, because exposed leaves will rot. Then let the mixture stand, uncovered, for 10-14 days, mixing every so often. Finally, strain this mixture and for application dilute it 1:10 with rainwater. Barbara, our host, swears by this for her tomatoes!

We also had a few small building projects, and Patrick worked on a rough-hewn timber gate while Heide constructed a pair of compost bins.  A regular task since our arrival has also been stocking firewood and keeping a fire burning day and night in the large living room fireplace. As the weather warms, this task has diminished. 

Indeed, spring has come early to this part of Europe, and it seems like the entire landscape has blossomed in the three weeks since our arrival. The rapeseed fields are in full bloom and much of the area near the farm lies under their iridescent, surreal yellow blanket. 

The weather is looking great for this next week, which will be the start of our next bike ride. We are both looking forward to getting back on the trail! We have decided to leave our first host farm, Domaine du Verger about a week earlier than originally planned, which will give us more time for biking and sightseeing. While the experience here has been sometimes lacking in educational tasks, we have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in a French family’s life, and remain grateful to their hospitality. We have particularly enjoyed working in the garden in the company of the lovely and generous Barbara, whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of plants is an inspiration to us both. Thank you Jean and Barbara!