Charles de Gaulle once said « How can you run a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” There are in fact closer to 400 types of cheese. One of the reasons there are so many cheeses is because France has historically been a largely agricultural country.
53% of France is farm land, making it the leading agricultural country in the European Union. With so much farm land around, it is relatively easy to buy local and seasonal products. I’m lucky enough to live in the Nord Pas de Calais which is 75% farmland. Unfortunately, the local winter products tend to be bleak with potatoes and beets and leeks (oh my!). However, the summer products are glorious: fraise de phalempin, rhubarb, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini and all sorts of summer vegetables…
And with so many farms around, this fresh produce is easily accessible. Bienvenue à la ferme is a network of farms all over France that you can visit, stay at and even have a birthday snack at. Their website is extremely informative and their search engine is very advanced and allows you to choose clear criteria. You can find a farm near you to buy local products or just go see and even pet the animals with your kids. You can also find information on staying overnight at farms or holiday farm vacations.
In late April, open house visits are organized at participating farms. Every year, La France de Ferme en Ferme (last weekend in April) provides information on a local network of farms which open their barn doors to visitors for 2 days (only available in 8 French regions). They provide maps as well as information about the farms and the various activities offered. You can visit, learn about the animals and what they make, taste the products (we tasted raw cow milk last spring) and buy their goods. You can also find information about similar events on the Bienvenue à la Ferme site under the heading “actualités,” where they provide information about « journée portes ouvertes ».
Another good spring or summer activity for kids is picking your own fruit or vegetables, called cueillette (or self-cueillette) in French. Chapeau de Paille provides information on some “u-pick” farms all over France. Once you have selected a farm, the site provides the farm’s website where you can find out what is currently available for picking as well as other practical information. You can find out some information on the Bienvenue à la Ferme website or by simply doing a search for cueillette and the name of the town you live in.
With so many farms and such easy access to information about farms, it’s easy to show kids where their food comes from. Here in Lille, we go strawberry picking in the summer and apple picking in the fall. We have yet to glean potatoes and beets in the late fall, although I’m told it’s a very common activity…
And the best part of picking your own food? Eating it! For the gourmands, here is my favorite summer recipe : a strawberry-rhubarb crumble.
And while the crumble bakes and you’re pondering your day picking strawberries, you can always read the experience of an American mother who started a business and raised her four kids in the French countryside… Taking the French farm experience to a whole new level, in Cast Off: True Adventures and Ordeals of an American Family on a French Farm, Jan Murra recounts her trials and tribulations in renovating a dilapidated 300-year old farm and transforming it into a working dairy production. Her endeavors not only bring to life her farm in southwest France, she too undergoes a transformation as she struggles to pick herself back up after a painful divorce.
If you too have a story or an opinion to share on the french-american school system, we’ll be glad to welcome your contribution !