Reading About Peasant Gardening and Cooking

I’ve been reading a few books on French cooking. Not, cordon bleu, or bistonomy, but old peasant recipes for home-grown, self-reliant peasants cooking of the South West of France in the Perigord and Gascon regions.

I’m interested in how people manage their vegetable gardens to keep a steady flow of food coming all through the year. How they preserve their excess and particularly, just how inventive they were at creating wonderful and delicious recipes from some quite un-promising ingrediants.

I was introduced to organic back-yard vegetable gardening by my grandfather and mother. But didn’t take sufficient interest in the details of it all at the time, as I was quite young, and kicking a ball around the yard was more fun.

When Janine and I moved into our first own rental property in 1975. One of the first things that I did was to dig up the back yard, start to plant veggies and build a compost heap. It seemed so natural to me. It was just what you did if you wanted to live cheaply and frugally. Planting vegetables went hand in hand with building the first little kiln, both equally important.

A year or so later, after we were burnt out in the first of 3 bush fires that we have lost potteries to, we bought the Old School building here in Balmoral Village, we started a vegetable garden as soon as we got the key, even before we had the title deeds. Long before we moved in. We would come down on weekends and plant and then water the seedlings, so that there would be food for us when we arrived permanently.

We were lucky to meet and become very close to a couple of the local residents, John Meredith the writer, musician and folklorist, and Dot and Roger Brown, who were the village’s longest residents. Dot’s mother was still alive then, she lived till she was 103 years old. Both of these older residents had extensive vegetable gardens and small household mixed orchards. They were a great inspiration to us and were so supportive in each passing on either chickens or ducks in breeding trios to get us up and running. We set up a pottery throwing room in the front room of the 2 room school classroom. We also cleared the land, fenced off the area for the stone fruit orchard, all in the first few months and had 30 fruit trees planted that first winter.

A few years later Sally Seymour came to visit us from Wales. She and her husband John Seymour wrote books about their life of living off the land in a small scale, self-sufficient way. She was so knowledgeable about everything that we needed to know. She was also a potter. Sally returned a couple of years later and lived here with Janine for a few months, while I was away in Japan studying.

We had already bought and read both of their earlier books before we met Sally. Sally is still alive and living in Wales with her daughter and son-in-law. You can check out how they still live and work creatively and sustainably at their web site. <https://www.pantryfields.com/sally-seymour>

‘The Fat of the Land’ is still in print and available from their website.

I enjoyed reading about Kate Hill’s life and travels on a barge boat in Gascony. I didn’t learn very much that I hadn’t already read elsewhere, or already learnt to cook myself, but it was a good read. 

I picked up this book for $2 in a 2nd hand book shop, an interesting read by an American food writer about his one year sabbatical spent in Gascony learning to cook.

Peter Graham was a professional writer who lived in France for 40 years. He died recently. He was ‘The Guardian’ newspaper’s food and restaurant critic for 20 years. The book is a list of recipes linked by anecdotes, and has less story line to support it, more in the vein of Patience Gray’s ‘Honey from a weed’. However, I actually preferred the book ‘Extra Virgin’ by Annie Hawes, which is all amusing story and no recipes, but she has humorous descriptions of the local wives preparing food and cooking. All described in a very lighthearted manner.

Jeanne Strang’s book was interesting mix of personal story line and recipe book. I learnt a few things that I have incorporated in to my cooking. On and Off.

None of these books are your typical recipe books. None of them have full page glossy photos of luscious food. You’ll need Jamie Oliver or the English food porn lady for those. These are all black and white, text based books, printed on cheap, pulp, paper by people who love cooking, and living in France. They have all lived and worked in Gascony and collected their anecdotes and recipes over extended periods of time living the life in amongst the locals.

Having digested all that these other books had to offer, I tempered my appetite for goose fat and foie gras, by reading Norman Swan’s latest on how to live a healthy life for longer. 

Basically his recommendation is not to eat all those fatty, rich, calorie loaded foods, instead he recommends to intensionally starve yourself – albeit with moderation. He recommends following the ‘Mediterranean diet’, based on pulses, vegetables, a little lean meat or fish and to avoid preservatives, salt and smoked or saltpetre treated meats. He also says to put in at least one hour of vigorous exercise each day. YES, one hour vigorously, each day! To stimulate metabolism and burn off calories to keep your weight down. 

I think that I might probably be OK, even better off,  to just eat those French cooking books listed above. Paper is fat free, high in ruffage and low in calories, just right. 

Normal would approve.