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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 magnificent to see, but it’s traditional at these fairs to set
up a huge wood-fired grill and serve up the region’s finest beef free
to the crowd, while the beasts themselves on are parade. The best beef
Denis and I ever ate was at just such a grill at another local fair
handsome Norman bull (above right) was being paraded around the ring by
his handler so that the crowd could purchase tickets for a chance to
guess his weight. The prize? Well, apparently it hadn’t been decided
yet, but the announcer assured the onlookers that it would be
great–probably a superb piece of meat. He admonished the crowd to
admire the bull’s well-rounded culottes (literally, underpants, but in
this sense, his rear-end). In the photo, you might wonder just whose
“culottes” he was referring to…
I really admired the
announcer’s skill in maintaining enthusiasm and sincerity at all stages
of the day-long competitions. He commented unceasingly and admiringly
on even the humblest beast. When the donkeys were shown, he announced
that we would see the Cotentin and Norman breeds. When only two
Cotentins showed, trailed by a motley assemblage of hybrids of doubtful
parentage, he gamely amended his announcement to ânes de Cotentin et
ânes assorties” (assorted donkeys).
he segued gracefully into a humorous discussion of mules and jennies
and so-called accidents de pâturage–pasture accidents where males and
females get together without the knowledge or consent of their owners.
He asked each exhibitor the name of his or her animal, and discussed
genially with one and all. When the exhibitor was a child, he made sure
to get the audience to clap.
a couple of greatly entertaining hours, which included sampling the
wares at the baked goods stand, we set off homeward in the slanting
rays of the early evening sun. Since we were passing nearby, we decided
to stop at an organic goat farm which makes some of the best goat
cheese I’ve ever tasted. Run single-handedly by Babeth Anthore at
Sasseville, the Chevrerie du Vieux Manoir is a fantastic visit.
you can walk in and see the “nursery” of irresistibly cute goat
kids–each wearing a collar consisting of a canning jar rubber band
with its name written on it–anytime, you can only buy the delicious
cheeses at milking hours (early in the morning and early evening). You
can watch Babeth lovingly milk her herd of 60 (in shifts) in her
spotless milking parlour. When she is finished, she’ll join you in the
cheese room, where behind floor to ceiling glass, you can see hundreds
of goat cheeses in various stages of affinage (ripening). Two euros (!)
buys you a round of fresh cheese, with or without woodash, pepper or
herbs. Aged cheeses cost slightly more. They are so delicious that
wealways break one into chunks and devour it right in the car. Its
perfect fresh milkiness needs no bread or further adornment.
finished the ride home in great spirits, marvelling once again at the
perfection of Babeth’s cheese. “Didn’t we get a great reward for our
good deed?” asked Denis (for we wouldn’t have known about the animal
fair if we hadn’t run into M Créant). I agreed with a full heart. I
couldn’t help but contrast the bucolic peace and simple, innocent joys
of the afternoon with the threatening cloud of war hanging over the
world. And I mused about the similarities between the folks I’d seen
today and those I grew up among in rural Indiana. Although our
countries are thousands of miles apart, don’t we have a lot in common?
Right down to our national colors: red-white-and-blue/bleu-blanc-rouge.
Even a horse’s ass can tell there’s not much difference.