Our hostess Louisa met us in the village of Mirande after a 7 hour train ride to Tarbes followed by a 40 minute bus ride through the countryside, stopping every cute town along the way as the light of day gave away to winding roads without streetlights. Louisa was waiting for us and we hopped right into her car to go to the farm, about 30 minutes away. We pass through one small village, Montesquiou. We arrive at the farm and we are greeted by the 3 dogs Hercule, Happy and Hobo. You enter the big farmhouse through a hobbit door, you have to duck to go through and it opens up to a big hall where 2 sweet puppies sleep and then down the hall to the kitchen where there is a big pot of duck stew waiting for us. We visit with our hosts Louisa and Stewart, and meet the children, Harmonie, 7 is very shy at first and hides behind her mom, but warms up when she remembers she has made cupcakes for our arrival and makes blue frosting for them and then piles on the sprinkles! Phoenix is 6 and he immediately runs to John when we come in, fast friends. Louisa and Stewart tell us about the farm, the history of the house, their lives before farming and explain some of the work we will be doing over the next couple of weeks. We are exhausted from the trip and John has had a headache all day so we are happy to see our room after dinner and settle in for sleep early since we will be up for work at 7:30.
We start when it is still dark out, it’s cold and drizzly too. We go to the grain barn and get buckets for the pigs, we carry buckets of the food to the 4 different pig enclosures. There are piglets, teenager pigs, the “thugs” adult male pigs, and the sows the adult female pigs they are the biggest of all, and are really huge! We go around feeding them all, Stewart jumps in the enclosure to feed them since they really run over and start snorting and squealing for food right away. There isn’t any real danger from the little guys or the adult female pigs, but the thugs can be rough and possibly dangerous. All of the enclosures are surrounded by low electric wire set at a pretty high voltage so we are warned about that right away. Stewart just jumps right over it and into the mud, sinking in past his ankles and speaking affectionately to all the pigs.
After the pigs it’s over to the rabbits. They are in the “rabbit high-rises” as the ground is too cold and wet for them to be in the grass where they normally hang out during the warmer months, hopping around and nibbling on the greens. They are really sweet happy guys and they come right up when we are feeding so we can give them all a pat, so super soft and cute!! Each one gets fresh food and water and clean straw to burrow under and nibble on. There are adult rabbits, a few teen bunnies and about 7 babies!
Next we go over to the chicken coop where the roosters have been making noise for hours already. It’s a really big area with 2 nesting rooms, and lot’s of space to move around under cover of a roof. During the day the chickens roam freely throughout part of the garden and an area with a pond, lots of ducks and a goose. The chickens are really fun and kinda crazy. You can figure out there is a sort of hierarchy going on in the hen house and the girls actually argue over the best nesting boxes, they all look the same to me… There are quite a lot of really beautiful chickens and roosters especially. There are lot’s of ducks, about 4 different kinds and they quack around, swim in the pond and mess with the chickens. There is one goose, he’s pretty cute and he honks a lot! He doesn’t have a name yet, so naturally, I call him “Honks”.
After all the fun with the birds we go across and down the road towards the sheep, we pass the donkeys along the way, Ned and Polo (note: In France it is illegal to name an animal Napoleon, so Polo it is!)
We go up to the sheep and they come running for their food, all except one that is… Stewart calls for him “Randy!” he doesn’t move so he then jumps in the enclosure and runs down the hill towards Randy and stands next to him, lifts his head up, nothing. Poor Randy is gone, Stewart takes a moment beside him and John and I bow our heads. Stewart comes up and explains Randy was in his prime, he was their best ram and the first animal born on the farm. He also tells us, sheep can die quick and without explanation. There is no sign of why Randy has passed, which I imagine is very frustrating. It’s a tough loss for sure.
All that, and we haven’t even had breakfast yet! We go in for some food and tea and then it’s back out to the grain barn to mill more grain. This past summer the family grew fields of grain for their feed, they store it in a big silo and they have a mill that we use every couple of days to prepare the grain for the pigs, sheep, rabbits and chickens. Some animals feed is supplemented by beans or chicken feed but it’s pretty cool that they supply their own grain for the animals when they can’t graze due to cold weather. While the grain grinds we fill the truck bed and trailer with wood and then stack it near the furnace.
After Louisa has taken the kids to school, Stewart goes indoors to work, he works from home. John and I go up to the chicken coop to muck out the hen houses with Louisa. It’s tough, smelly work, but it’s pretty satisfying to lay down clean straw for the chickens. We muck until 12:30 and then go in for lunch. The work day is done and we sit down for a hot meal! John is feeling sick and has had a headache since our train ride so he goes up and sleeps the rest of the day while I play in the sunny kitchen with 2 puppies, I write the post about Paris and organize our travel photos, catch up on facebook etc.! I visit with the hosts and the kids and we have a great dinner together. I think I went to bed earlier than the kids that night, I was soooo tired!
John is just too sick to get out of bed this morning, he has a terrible headache, he’s freezing but has a fever and is dizzy all the bad stuff! My poor guy, I insist he stays in and our hosts are very understanding. I follow Stewart around with the buckets, feeling like a little kid as we work in the rain, me in a borrowed large waxed canvas coat, big work gloves and rain boots. Sloshing around carrying these heavy buckets, all out of sorts trying to remember everything I had learned from the day before and worrying about John the whole time… plus it’s early and I haven’t had coffee… I must have looked really silly, but whatever, I carried on, trying to be helpful and not be in the way. I feel more comfortable when I am sent to feed the rabbits and I can pet them and baby talk them! When Louisa comes out to help she explains we will hold off feeding the birds as we will need to catch some of them for “the pot”, I’m super nervous about this task, I expected it might happen, but I didn’t think it would happen on our second day!
Ok, I love to eat chicken, and that duck soup we had for dinner was amazing, but those animals are right over there, living, hanging out with other ducks and chickens and we will somehow get them from that point to looking like they do when I buy one at the market, in the next couple of hours? I know this is going to be a big step for me! I love food and it is important to me to know where my food comes from, but this is the next level!
Warning!! Graphic content ahead, not that graphic, no photos or anything, just in-detail explanation… if you are uncomfortable with it just scroll down and keep on reading after the italics to hear more about our first days on the farm!
Louisa and Stewart explain we will be catching the ducks first, 4 of them and the hosts point them out to me. We need to guide them into a corner and then they will catch them and we will take them out of the area as quick and calm as possible. We want them and the other animals to stay calm. As we approach, it’s as if all the animals know which ones are about to go, the ones that are not being chosen waddle off and the 4 we have our sights on begin to go towards the corner, my emotions are reaching out to them, it almost looks as if they are saying goodbye to each other as they open their beaks for a quak but no sound is made, then, ok I may be crazy, but it looks like they are kissing each other goodbye! But no time to get emotional, on the count of 3, 2, 1… Louisa and Stewart each catch one, the other two escape and jump into the pond. In my head I am thinking “Yes!! Fly away my friends, quick! Go while you can!!” but, I know we will still need to catch them. We take the 2 on duck death row out and put them in the barn, then back up to the coop. Stewart and Louisa go into one of the hen houses where they have the 3 roosters waiting, the door is closed and I hear so much commotion from the chickens, flapping and crowing and then they emerge with the 3 roosters. They are taken to the barn and then we go back up for the ducks. They are swimming around in the pond, looking nervous, surrounded by the other smaller ducks, trying to blend in I suppose… then it’s like they give up and they come up to the bank of the pond and pretty much surrender to being caught without a fight.
Back in the barn there is a room that once held a large bread oven they suppose, or maybe it was a cold storage, it’s not really clear. But these days it is used as the butchery room and it is soon to be tiled and turned into an extra kitchen. There is a big pot steaming in there and all the tools needed are passed through a steel door from the farmhouse kitchen. Louisa and Stewart explain to me how the animals lives will end and that Stewart will do that. They explain that I can stay for that, I can give it a go myself or I can wait until it is done and then come back and help Louisa pluck and butcher the birds. I give the ducks and chickens a nod goodbye and go in to have some breakfast as I assume I will not be hungry after all this.
When they call me back in Louisa already has a duck half plucked, she takes another and dips it in the large hot water pot to make the feathers loosen and then she shows me how to remove the feathers. I feel ill and grossed out but keep calm and give gratitude and respect to the animals to counter the feeling of ick. These ducks just gave their lives and for me to be grossed out seems, well, just gross on my part. This is a life that has been taken to enrich our lives so respect and carful attention needs to be given. I focus on the task and take in all that Louisa is telling me. She knows so much and is a great guide, she is so giving with information about the process. She also knows I am way out of my comfort zone, so with each step she is checking in to make sure that I am ok. The process goes along with me going out for fresh air when Stewart comes in to prepare the next bird. After the 4 ducks are plucked we begin with the 4 roosters, 3 were caught and the other was from a friend of theirs and he wasn’t doing well, attempts to nurse him back to health had failed and so the plan was to prepare him for the dogs to eat. Plucking the roosters is so much easier, their feathers are not as thick, their skin is thinner plus they are smaller than the ducks so they are plucked clean really quickly.
Next step is to butcher the animals. The ducks are first and Louisa explains with each cut of the knife what she is doing, she removes the head and the feet and then she moves on to the innards, she explains what each part is, it’s purpose in the animals body and what will be done with it now. Some parts are inedible and will be thrown away, some given to the dogs, some made into pate or other charcuterie. Very little is waste. She asks me if I am comfortable removing the heads and feet on the remaining birds so she can keep butchering. I have done this before, at home with chickens I have gotten straight from the farmer, at home I usually use a kitchen knife and it is a really difficult thing to do. She offers garden shears to remove the heads and feet and it is so much easier. I remove the necks as well and we save those for stock. She works her way through butchering each bird and when they are done we take them to the big fridge where they will rest for a few days before being made into delicious meals. The end of this task is the end of this work day and I am so happy about that! I am proud of myself and I feel like I learned more in a few hours than I have in a while. A mix of cooking skills and farm skills were involved and the words “Farm to table” became a reality! Looking back, this was by far the most emotionally taxing day on the farm for me, but also the day I learned the most.
Louisa is off for the weekend, home to London for a few days. Stewart is leaving early for a meeting so he feeds the pigs and then he takes Harmonie to school on his way out of town. I am left in charge of getting Phoenix up and ready for the school bus… I am not used to being around little ones so I am nervous but it’s fine of course, he is up and ready before I am haha and has already had his pancakes before his dad left, so he plays while I get ready for my day and then we walk to the mailbox to wait for the school bus. Once Phoenix is off to school John and I get started with the farm chores. The day is pretty chill since we are feeling more comfortable with each task and working faster through each. I clean the rabbit enclosures and John moves wood and stacks it for the kitchen supply. I spend the rest of the day in the kitchen looking through the great cookbooks, I prepare a pumpkin and a chicken for dinner and then make chicken pumpkin curry for our dinner.
We meet in the kitchen in the morning and now that John is feeling better Stewart is sick. So John and I are in charge of morning chores again and then we work on some other things around the farm… I can’t remember ha!
Since Stewart is still feeling awful and the weather is bad, the day is short. John and I fix a few things in the chicken coop and then we are inside most of the afternoon.
This is the relaxing day so after morning chores Stewart makes a big brunch and we have pancakes (pretty much crepes) with a poached egg, homemade blood sausage, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms, potatoes and then more pancakes, sweet ones with nutella this time! John and I take a walk with the dogs and when it starts raining on us we head back home. We read the news from the US and watch youtube for a while. In the evening Stewart prepares an amazing dinner, roast duck, the most amazing potatoes ever, ever!! They are boiled then put into a roasting pan with hot duck fat and then oven roasted, incredible! Also, celariac, green beans and cabbage. The power flickers on and off because of a storm and we have this glorious dinner by candle light. The power comes back on just in time for us to clean up. I have really been enjoying cleaning up at the end of the day, something so satisfying about leaving a clean kitchen behind when you go to bed. Especially in this kitchen because it is amazing!! Louisa arrives back home late Sunday night.
We are up earlier than usual so that we can be ready to go to the market with Louisa. She sells eggs, sausage, chutney, treats and pate at the Mirande Marché (farmer’s market) each week. Doesn’t matter that it is storming, we are so excited to go to town!! After dropping Harmonie off at school we go over to the market building, some of the market is outside (the vendors selling things grown or made by other people) and some inside (the artisans and people that grow their own) We help Louisa load in the things she will sell and then we are set loose on the little village!
First stop is a little blue van Louisa told me about when I told her I miss coffee. The little van is converted into a cafe and creperié, a sweet German couple greets us “Bonjour” and with our reply they immediately figure we speak english… and start asking us where we are from, what we are doing here and what will we have for breakfast. First things first, let’s have some coffee and then mmmm a crepé with apples and cinnamon to share, merci! They are so nice and when we tell them we are from California they say they are going to California, Palm Desert, tomorrow. We talk for a while as we eat the delicious crepe and drink our amazing coffees! Samples of yummy cakes are out and we ask for one for the road, will be nice to snack on while we look around the village. When we ask how much, the man smiles and says “Nothing!” oh come on, that’s so nice, but really? How much? “No, nothing!” He shrugs and smiles again, we go back and forth and yep, no, he is not letting us pay. He is laughing and smiling the whole time and it is just so cool to meet nice people, it was a perfect way to start the day!
Off we go into the village and over to the square, where there is a dry goods market, pretty much just clothes and housewares. Then we see the tourist office. The woman running the office gives a very warm welcome and loads us up with information and brochures for the town and the region. She recommends we begin at St. Mary’s Cathedral, which sounds especially nice because it is raining like crazy!
The entrance to the catedral is around the side and when we go in it is silent, I set my coffee cup down on a table and the echo is loud and long. We whisper and walk around, admiring the soaring ceilings and stained glass backlit by the brightening skys.
After a few moments a woman enters the church and we become even more silent than before as she stops and kneels at each station and alter. Stopping at the bullatin board on the way out. She probably does that everyday and it feels a bit awkward to be a tourist in that situation, so I hold off on the camera clicks until she leaves. There is some beautiful mosaic work , stained glass and painted walls inside the cathedral…
…back out into the medieval world, we turn around the corner and begin to wander, the houses are so sweet and the streets are on a grid so it’s easy to get around with the map given at the tourist office. We take our time to stop and take photos and talk about the homes and architecture. We walk down a lane that follows a creek behind some of the homes and we get a peek into some backyards, most have flowers, veggie gardens and chickens. When we reach the edge of town there is a park that goes along another edge, passing by the Country Club and then into a park that leads back to the market.
When we reach the market we have time for one more crepe, a coffee and more conversation with Hans the crepe man. Hans tells us about some great local places to visit and when his sister and brother in law come over to the stand they have even more suggestions. Hans’ wife takes a crepe and coffee over to Louisa at her stall while we are chatting (they are just so nice!) and finally we are able to leave some euros for them but only if we take an entire spice cake with us! Deal. At noon we help Louisa pack up her stand. On the way back to the farm we talk about visiting a thermal spa in the mountains with Louisa and the kids when they have a school break in a fortnight (I got too excited thinking a fortnight meant day after tomorrow… nope, means 2 weeks) and John and I asked a lot of questions about the area for suggestions for where we might visit on our upcoming day off. We choose Thursday as our day off, which also happened to be Valentine’s day, and we decide we will go to Auch, a large city about an hours journey away… On the next post I will share our trip to Auch and also talk a little more about week 2 on the farm. Thanks for reading! This was a really long post!