France is no doubt a foodie’s heaven. Any country that has their gastronomy declared an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO is serious about eating good food. That sits well with me.
I travelled to Europe a little later in life than most Gen Y’s. When I finally made my first trip to European territory, France was the only country I visited. It was 2012, I was 29 with almost three years of French language lessons under my belt and thought that I would travel there to practique mon francais and rendez-vous with my friend Caro- a native to the country.
Suffice to say, whilst my language skills didn’t get me through every conversation (I thank Caro for being a good translator), my love of food and the culture certainly helped the French warm to me.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, UNESCO specifies that the gastronomic meal of the French
“…emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert.”
C’est parfait, non?
One of the first things that I noticed in France was the little reliance people had on supermarkets and the sway towards local markets, bakers, butchers and other providores. Food, it’s preparation and enjoyment was a real experience. It was a social glue not just within households, but also within the community. There was also a profound connection to the origins of food and how it was grown.
I remember setting foot onto the farm of Caro’s family one balmy August afternoon. Caro, her brother Nico and I had just spent some time in Corsica hiking and sightseeing and made our way to their childhood home on the mainland, a few kilometres out of Lautrec, a medieval village in the Tarn department of south-western France. Click here to find out more about the Tarn region.
Lautrec is renowned for growing pink garlic, a variety known for its more subtle, sweet aromas and taste- a contrast to the intense penetrating flavours that you often find in other garlic varieties. This is what the family grew, harvested, prepared and sold every year and my initial visit to Lautrec (and a subsequent trip in 2014) provided me with a cultural immersion that I had never expected.
Being someone who has grown up in a city, I had led a very sheltered existence with regards farming and food literacy. Aside from a couple of plum trees in my mum’s garden in suburban Melbourne, I had never really seen how plant foods grow. Visiting Lautrec brought me in touch with the passionate foundations of our food supply and also the plight that farming communities face.
When I think about Lautrec, I can still picture the tall sunflowers swaying in the afternoon breeze, I can still smell the fresh garlic, I can still feel the soft beads of a fresh fig against my tongue (I had never tasted a fresh fig before), and I remember the meals we enjoyed with other members of the community using the fresh produce from the farm.
Photos (Left to Right): Figs, Pears, Watermelon
But a little more on garlic…
The cost of garlic is generally quite high compared to other produce but once you understand the degree of manual work that goes into its production (and that you only require small amounts within a meal) you can appreciate the slightly inflated price.
During my stays in Lautrec, I was able to experience first-hand the process and precision of growing pink garlic. Specifically, pink garlic production involves four main stages:
1. PLANTING: In Lautrec, garlic seeds are removed and planted between the 1st December and the 31st of January
2. CASTRATION: The pink garlic produces a flower stalk that takes some of the energy away from the plant and may retard the growth of the garlic bulbs. As such, the stalk needs to be broken off or ‘castrated.’ This stage occurs in early June. The last time I was in Lautrec I took part in this process. Bending down for hours to break of these stalks on rows and rows of garlic required a lot of attention-to-detail and more importantly- a robust and resilient back. This process however was often a community-based approach where neighbours and travellers (like myself) helped out on many farms during this stage.
3. HARVESTING AND DRYING: The harvest that I witnessed was by the traditional method in which the leaves are kept on and used to hang the bulbs on bars in traditional dryers.
4. PREPARATION: Once bulbs are dry, the roots are trimmed off at bulb level. The layers of the bulb are then peeled until the last layer remains – which reveal the pink tones that the garlic is well known for. The bulbs are then bunched or packed together ready for sale. This sale occurs through distributors or even by farmers travelling hundred of kilometres throughout France and Europe to sell the fruits of their labour at local markets.
The new understanding that I held of garlic production, and farming life in general, revealed the essence of a French gastronomic meal and reinforced the emphasis on “…togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature” that UNESCO celebrates.
Check out the traditional recipe for Lautrec’s Pink Garlic Soup.
Of course, I am now back in Australia and whilst Lautrec’s pink garlic is a little out of reach- the commercial production of locally grown garlic is increasing with demand. To help this emerging economy, it is important to support local producers wherever you can. At present, Australia imports approximately 95% of garlic from China, so looking out for these Australian varieties (or your own local varieties wherever you live) can help show your own appreciation for the “balance of human beings and the products of nature”.
For more of my Flashback to France check out the following pages:
– The Tarn Department