Pays de Caux

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For the first time in months, it was a gloriously sunny Saturday in upper Normandy. I had spent the first part of the day feverishly preparing beds in the potager and planting strawberries, peas–both edible and flowering, and a multitude of lettuces, roquette, carrots, beets, and minor salad plants. Now here was Denis, sitting on the bench at the head of the garden, telling me that if we were ever going to go for a drive today, we’d better depart. Reluctantly, I changed out of my muddy jeans, ran a brush through my hair, and climbed in the car. Denis was already at the wheel. We hadn’t gone more than a mile in the direction of the lovely valley of the Sâane River when we passed a car pulling a trailer with three goats peering over its top. The vehicle, an aging Volkswagen, was in fact stopped in the lane of traffic, and as we peered in the rear-view mirrors, we saw the driver, an elderly man, get out of the car. We pulled to the edge of our lane of traffic and got out of the car to see if we could help. The trailer, a ramshackle affair that was pieced together from pieces of plywood with bits of baling wire, fragments of chain, and lengths of rope, stood just a bit more than waist-high and had only two wheels, one of which was emphatically flat. The old man had begun fumbling with it while the three goats peered at him calmly from within the open trailer. We asked him if we could help. He allowed as a coup de main (a helping hand) would be welcome. I proposed that he unload the goats and that I would hold them to make the job easier. Pretty soon Denis and I were goatherds, holding the neck ropes of the three goats while they eagerly nibbled the fresh grass on the verge of the road. When the gentleman opened his trunk, I nudged Denis. In it was a cage holding several querulous hens and a rooster. We exchanged incredulous, grinning glances. This fellow was travelling with this entire barnyard! In the front passenger seat was another cage, this one holding an adorable kid goat, no more than a few days old and no bigger than a puppy (which at first glance I thought it was). The mystery was solved when the old fellow explained he was on his way to the Concours Agricole at the village of Fauville, about 6 miles away. Such a concours is in fact a sort of animal fair, with anyone eligible to participate, and all classes of agricultural animals shown and judged, and of course, prizes awarded. These fairs have been held for hundreds of years, and are still a favorite country get-together in rural France. When we eventually made our way to Fauville, we saw on display a poster for the same fair in the year 1923 (see left), with monetary prize amounts posted for each class of beast. Eventually, after much huffing and puffing, the trailer tire was successfully changed (thank goodness its owner had the prescience to bring along a spare!). The goats were reloaded into their caravan, ready for transport to the fair. We exchanged names, and then told M Créant that we would see him again at the fair. He thanked us, and then rummaged in his car, emerging with a bottle of his own homemade hard cider, which he insisted we accept for our trouble. His wife had homemade jams for sale, and he sometimes sold his cider, he told us, writing down his name, address and phone number on a scrap of paper for our future reference. We watched that he took off safely, and then did a U-turn, heading back to the house to pick up our camera before heading on to the fair. Once we arrived in the village, it wasn’t difficult to figure out where the action was. Parked cars and crowds of people pointed the way. Draft horses were in the ring when we arrived–awesomely huge, muscled, and just as remarkably calm and kind-natured. They were combed and polished, their tails braided and adorned and hooves blacked for the show. Next up were donkeys. You can’t imagine the extent to which the French love these beasts. More than 30 breeds of donkeys are bred in France, of which two–the âne Normande and the âne de Cotentin are specific to Normandy. When you come to know rural France, you realize that local breeds of farm animals are very much a part of the region’s identity and pride. And talk about thinking locally! Normans refer to localities 5 kilometers distant from each other as different pays (countries). Our part of Normandy is known as the Pays de Caux (country of chalk), due to the thick stratum of calcium underlying the topsoil. Since Roman times, this chalk has been mined for spreading on fields as agricultural lime. (Sometimes whole houses slump into giant holes caused by the subsidence of these ancient mines.) French for chalk is ‘chaux’, and over time, this became corrupted to ‘caux’. However, the important thing to realize is that, from a local’s point of view, the Pays de Caux comprises 40 or 50 pays, or localities. As an elderly gentleman once told me, “I married a girl from another country.” The “other country” was 4 kilometers away. These are folks who live 2 hours from Paris, but many of whom have never in their lives been there. At the fair this afternoon, horses, donkeys, ponies, sheep, goats, and all manner of barnyard fowl and rabbits were on display. The boy in the photo is feeding a prize rooster. Many kids were showing animals, but all this happens without any organization such as 4-H in the U.S. Love and husbandry of animals is inculcated in youngsters as a natural part of growing up in rural France, where almost every home boasts a basse cours (“lower courtyard” where small animals and fowl are kept) and at least a pony or two for the children’s enjoyment. We spotted M Créant with his granddaughter and entourage of goats (see main photo). He proudly showed off the plaque he’d been given for them. Unfortunately, we had missed the cattle show, which had taken place earlier that morning (it was now late afternoon). Not only are the cattle…
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