The countryside in a temperate climate offers an ever-changing landscape. As one season evolves to the next, weather fluctuations are especially apparent in a fruit-growing area like ours. During the winter, fragile woody fingers of snoozing fruit trees get a light dusting of frost. It’s a magical sight.
Many cereal fields lie dormant at this time, though not all. Some are covered in knobbly brassica duvets, while others are planted with winter wheat. These young crops with tufty grass-like topknots colour the landscape for ages.
In spring, just like the wildlife, orchards light up, bursting with colours and scents. Pastel blossoms with vibrant centres send pollinators crazy. As we amble among the fruit trees on dog walks, I wonder whether it’s possible to get tipsy on those cocktails of intoxicating perfumes. It sometimes feels that way.
The halcyon days of summer bring fetes and eating al fresco, but they’re demanding for farmers in our parts. They live by the seasons, the moon, too. These are the weeks where much of the harvesting is done, and it continues into the autumn. Let me explain the moon thing.
Lunar farming (and gardening) is about learning to farm according to the moon’s phases. Just as it influences the rise and fall of tides, the moon also has a gravitational effect on the moisture in plants, the soil and water table. These effects are magnified at different times of the month’s moon cycle.
The tides are highest, for example, during the new and full moon when lunar gravity pulls water up. At the same time, the moon causes moisture to rise in the earth. This encourages seeds to swell, burst and sprout because that’s when they absorb the most water.
After the full moon decreases, energy concentrates on plant roots. It’s when the above-ground leaf growth slows down. This is the time to plant root crops and bulbs. Fourth-quarter moons produce less gravitational pull and moonlight. This is considered the best time to cultivate, harvest and prune. Our farmers know a thing or two about this stuff.
Towards the middle of July, under a waxing moon, swathes of perky-eared golden wheat began to disappear. It’s harvest time. Christophe, who farms some of our fields, often combines at night. At first, we thought it was another interesting eccentricity, but we were wrong. Christophe is convinced this is when the crops are at their best. And he’s not alone, so there must be something in it. Conversely, fruit picking tends to happen at the other end of the day.
From around 5 am, orchards come alive with banter and song as teams of fruit pickers, usually from Spain and Italy, begin work. Fruit crate cadeaux from local farmers appear on our doorstep. Notes are never left, but we know who they’re from. Our neighbours are incredibly generous. The flavours of gifted uber-fresh plums, greengages, apples and apricots are sensational. They may be coming out of our ears by mid-August, but nothing gets wasted.
I’ll spend happy hours making chutneys, conserves, desserts, and tartes. Any leftovers are shared among friends. It’s something we all do. This is also the period where oceans of bright yellow faces light up the landscape. It’s impossible not to smile back. These sunflowers, busily being harvested by pollinators, are often destined to be used for oil, and they’re stunning.
Meanwhile, the grapes are quietly ripening. Green and purple beauties burgeoning in the sun will be harvested soon. A famous ‘eater’ here is the Moissac Chasselas, a white grape packed with sweet goodness. A bunch or two always graces our table during the season.
The grape harvest is called les vendanges in French and typically takes place between September and October, depending on the grape variety and climate. The time of day for picking is also important and usually happens early or late. This is because the crushed fruit is stored in cellars, stabilised at lower temperatures, and reacts badly if picked during the day’s heat.
Major wine-growing areas employ pickers on temporary contracts or market the period as a working holiday. So long as participants are healthy and dead keen to experience the revered vendanges, they’re welcome. Family and close friends usually manage the smaller vineyards. It’s one of these we’re involved in.
At some point in the autumn, we’ll be summoned with secateurs to our friends’ little vineyard. Yves and Rosie lead the way to their vines, heavy with grapes. Our job is to snip fat bunches and place them into buckets. As we work, an ancient tractor driven by grand-père rumbles slowly up and down the rows. It tows a trailer with a rusting machine on top, which looks like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. There’s nothing hi-tech with our pals’ methods, yet the process works like a dream.
We’ll exchange village gossip and learn new French words (being the token anglais, everyone feels compelled to teach us something) as the production line of filled buckets is handed to the wringer operator. He pours the gubbins into a funnel, which feeds the contents through the munching machine into large receptacles.
Cheers echo around the vineyard when the final bunch is clipped. Weary but happy, we return to the farmhouse, where more family and friends have gathered. While Yves pours the spoils into huge vats, we wash sticky purple fingers and settle down to celebrate the completed vendanges. And it always begins with a sampling session of Yves’ last year’s wine, which, by the way, is delicious.
Against a backcloth of gracefully fading crops, Rosie calls us to trestle tables stacked with food. Our traditional French repas continues into the evening as the stars light up the night sky. It’s our friends’ way of thanking all those involved. Truly? Country living doesn’t get much better than this.