Continuing coverage of this week-long trip to the rural heart of France, here’s what makes the area so special both for gourmets and nature lovers.
Astute observers will note the reversal to my original title idea, “Terroir photography” rather than the “Epicurious Photography” title that made the cut in episode one. Regular contributor Boris Buschardt made the point that Terroir, although a French word, better convey the sense of what is good about a territory, a land. And he’s right. And it’s always better to use more accurate words and terminology than to swing invented terms for the fun of it. So Terroir Photography it is. You read it here first 😉
And I’ve figured out how to present the vast variety of observations made on location in order to make some sense without boring the reader senseless. There again, back to basics. Causality is what lets us understand the world. So I will take a causal approach to describing the ecosystem that the Aubrac cattle industry is built upon and the outer ecosystem that revolves, in turn, around it.
So, let me begin with the land itself. We’ll dive into the companies and culture that revolve around it later.
A terroir is roughly defined as a natural area with consistent resources and produce.
The Aubrac region is a plateau located at an altitude of 1 300 meters (about 4500 ft) composed of a layer of basalt over granite, resulting from volcanic activity in the area, 6 to 9 million years ago, later eroded by glacial activity. A few deep cuts and rifts result in gorges covered in thick forests. The contrast between the two could not be more striking as the plateau itslef is quite baren.
The brac suffix stems from the word mud in old local dialect. And the area is indeed quite marshy in places, dotted with a few lovely lakes, known for their rich animal life (otters, fowl …) and the occasional adjacent woodland.
And the volcanic origins are still faintly visible in many locations such as river beds, waterfalls and large road-side stone bubbles that failed to explode and must contain interesting geology.
But, generally speaking, most of Aubrac is one big, baren, and gently hilly plateau covered in short grasses, wild flowers, rocky outcrops and the occasional hedge. In its own way, it is very beautiful and profoundly soothing.
None of this beauty can mask the very harsh conditions that locals have to face, in the form of near constant wind that can blow at gale force and the bitterly cold winter months. In spite of this, it’s hard not to fall in love with the Shire-like appeal of the area. We met no hobbits, but if I was going to dig a hole in a hill, this would be my chosen spot for it.
This is also a paradise for birders. On this trip, I had left my binoculars at home, silly me. But with the naked eye, and over a single day of hiking, I was able to bag with certainty :
The concept of Terroir is very often associated with agricultural production. Here, the stars of the show are cows. They’re literally everywhere to be seen, but in small herds here in there, never in large industrial numbers.
If they appear to live a very peacefull and natural life, it’s because they do. By law, they do. I’ll come back to this in a little while.
Cows, here, come in two flavours, if you’ll pardon the awful pun. The Aubrac race is beige with lovely dark lining around the eye, that makes them look so cute to tourists 😉 The cuteness stops here, however, as they are destined to the butchers and to end up in someone’s plate. Locals rate their meat very highly, as they feed outdoors, mostly on wildflowers – the cows, that is, not the locals – and no silage is allowed. Hence, Aubrac meat is favoured (by some) to Angus or Hyuga steak. Not being much of a meat easter myself, I wouldn’t be able to comment on this.
The other race, Simmental, we saw far less of. It is used exclusively for cheese as its milk has a much higher protein content than Aubrac cows. For Simmental as well, the rules of farming dictate quasi-exclusive reliance on grass and flowers, and forbids silage. You can easily imagine how that impacts the taste of the cheese produced, and that much I can testify to. It is superb.
This land has been forged by lava and glaciers long long ago, it has witnessed the coming and going of dinosaurs, it has seen religions pass, and wars rage. It is old and it feels old.
And yet, it is a land of innovation.
Not fake social network and advertising a-gogo type innovation, but real social network and technological innovation.
In the 1970s (aaahhh, 1970s France …) the Aubrac race almost disappeared, as well as its farming. Industrial practises flooded the land, leading to the largely sterile immense fields we see in the North of the country and which require constant addition of chemicals, and young people left Aubrac farms to find “better” jobs the cities.
And yet, a bunch of irreductible and passionate farmers decided to save both. Through very stringent selection and mixing of what was left of the herds, they regenerated the race, know for its excellent robustness and other qualities.
And a cooperative was formed to reinvent the job. The founders convinced old farmers to train non-specialists and help them through their initial years. Young couples with no farming experience or background were brought in from the cities and given proper tuition and financial help to settle and pick up the job where others had left it.
As profits rose, through a pursuit of quality, money was invested in better equipment and in redundant employees so that all the young farmers could be replaced at any time in case of illness, or simply to let them get as many vacation days off as other jobs offered (well, most other jobs, some people in France seem to be more often on holiday that at work … 😉 ) It only took a decade to get the local farming economy back on its new profitable and sustainable rails! No one in the cooperative can get rich on it. Farmers leaving it sell back their shares at the price they paid initially (plus inflation) and no speculation is possible. Only sustainable quality is the goal. Now that is innovation.
Even local trees are getting the 1970’s detox treatment.
Back in those days, rows of trees were planted along walls and roads to shelter fields from the howling winds and winter blizzards. This being the 70s, ecology was completely ignored and the trees selected for the job were the fastest-growing species that would survive the conditions.
Now though, a terroir wind is blowing over the Aubrac again, and environmentalists have “discovered” that local species, which don’t grow as fast, provide very valuable nutrients when the leaves and little branches fall to the ground. So the 70’s blitz-trees are being uprooted and local varieties put in their place.
This full-circle approach to treating the ecosystem well to get the best out of it is what I feel best describes a terroir. That, and the culture that develops around it.
Of course, this can’t serve as a general model for an over-populated planet. For all its marvelous dedication to product quality, social quality and the environment, the cooperative only feeds 300 families over a vast area. Still, many of the principles applied here can be translated elsewhere. It’s question of mindset. It’s about replacing the single metric of money in the pockets of a few by general wellbeing, which transcends borders and industries.
And, around this farming, a whole slew of other quality enterprises has seen the light of day. From knife making, to restaurants and arts, there’s a lot much to Aubrac than grass and cows. All that, in part 3 🙂
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Well your description would scarcely encourage the “cow” n me to apply for a job here.
But the “frog” inside me is jumping with excitement – better meat (yes, I’m an unapologetic omnivore) – and WAUOH! better cheese (when I’m not explaining away to other “skippies” that I’m a “frog”, I tell them all that I’m a “fromage”).
The soil might be overly moist in parts – but it’s the soil itself that’s interesting. It seems from your description that it’s mostly rich loam, formed by the breakdown of volcanic matter. Deep dark brown soil. Stuff you can grown anything in. Highly sort after, anywhere it occurs.
Modern “farming methods” – “intensive agriculture” and the horde of industrial companies pouring “agricultural chemicals” onto the land – pollution or the waterways – cruel and unnatural treatment of the animals – a lot of it is highly suspect. Short term gains, for long term pains, most of it. A lot of the “chemicals”, in particular.
And a lot of what it produces isn’t just less flavoursome – it’s less “everything”. Quantity, not quality – poor nutritional value in many instances, and – anyway – less nutrition, in most cases. Filling – but not “feeding”. Customers become “victims” too – not just the animals and the land. Health declines – medical costs over a lifetime rise. But the companies get richer, and that’s the main thing.
Eventually these “farming practices” start to take their toll. Large areas of former “agricultural land” eventually become sterile and stunned or disappointed farmers simply walk off their lands. Domestic production starts to fall, and imports start to rise. Great for global trade – but shipping disputes occasionally disrupt the traffic and the food rots on board vessels that haven’t been unloaded because of “wharfie” disputes.
There are occasional stories of a total rethink. A global food shortage – rich nations feeding themselves, poor ones starving, children that look like a collection of broomsticks stuck together with the rags they’re wearing. But occasionally, the pursuit of “ethical coffee beans” and “ethical cocoa beans”. Occasionally, new/old methods of farming, increasing output dramatically – but not relying on chemicals to do it.
There’s a stunning example of this in Victoria – where a farmer who took over shortly after the end of World War 2 changed his farm fundamentally – increasing the workable area by 33% by turning swamp areas back into land areas – in turn deepening a lake to provide a stable water supply and a site for adding fish farming to the “business” – planting part of the land with trees (one planted, they grow themselves – no more work to do, and later on, a steady source of additional income) to reduce wind problems. “Vertical farming” methods imported from Scandinavia – rows of plants the sheep can feed on, growing on “vertical” frames, with a stupendous increase in productivity from the same area of land. Re-introducing agri-cycles of crop rotation, so that some years are spent planting things that grow deep into the soil, taking the depth of “real” or “live” soil from (perhaps) 6 inches (old measures)/15 cm (new ones) to around 3 feet/1 metre! With a staggering increase in fertility/productivity.
People from all over the world have been visiting it, to see what CAN be done. With “better” farming methods. Instead of pandering to companies seeking a market for their chemicals.
You can probably detect that I come from farming stock. And that we loved the animals we had. My great uncle abandoned the only tractor that ever ventured onto our farm, and brought back a team of Clydesdales – a brilliantly happy childhood memory, those horses are amongst the prettiest quadrupeds you’ll ever see, and a team of them is an unbeatable image to see! Daisy (who provided the raw material for our butter, our cream and our milk) was allowed to graze in the kitchen garden. My mother bought a 24 inch/60 cm plant – under her care it grew to a staggering height and we had to chop it down, when it got tangled in the power lines from the mains to the house.
And I fell in love with nature. I’m in trouble right now, for growing three plant in the kitchen – why acan’t you put them in the garden where they belong, she says!
Your photos are brilliant. The co-op is only one possible solution. I hope it’s a bridge, to better things. We all need to eat – and “they” need jobs, a sustainable solution, one that encourages stability in the community, and profits for a reward for effort.
And I know it sounds disgusting – but I’ve fallen in love with one of the cows. The one you suggest produces great cheese – is it her cheese, or those beautiful big brown eyes? I’m undecided – at a guess it’s both – but it’s probably illegal to have a love affair with a cow.
There’s a famous old French film (La vache et le prisonnier) describing a close relationship between a soldier and a cow 🙂 It’s all above board, no one will frown at your comment here!
I think solutions to most our problems are not only available but also very easy. The main difficulty is the illness that is the selfishness and greed of so many humans … Your examples of innovative farming inspire hope.
Ah – I see – that’s my problem! I just don’t “do” selfish or greed.
My head is full of thoughts, and one of them is that a “problem” is something you can only do one of two things with – either you solve it – or you keep having it.
With the climate crisis, option B is simply not an option at all.
As on satirist suggested, commenting on the views of the clowns who run our Federal Parliament – looking beyond 2050, WITHOUT solving the problem, we will eventually reach the point when the global temperature averages 1,000 degrees and the average lifespan of a human being will be measured in nano-seconds.
I have always found this kind of landscape photography utterly difficult.
How to give this sort of pictures some kind of pizzazz so that they do not appear bland?
Well, here you go again and show us how it has to be done. Thank you and congratulations!
I also love the transition from color to b&w, masterful, Pascal.
On substance, my kids would tell you that there is a lot to say about cows, methane producing animals, and all this sort of things as to what to put in your plate, but lets keep it at that and just enjoy your superb shots ;-). Cheers
Thank you very much, Pascal 🙂 🙂 It’s very kind of you to say.
I think your children are right. If we all ate a lot less meat, we could probably feed the whole world. We could and should keep meat-eating a quality over frequency event. In these days where asking someone to protect others from a deadly disease by wearing a simple mask, is perceived as a violation of liberty, I don’t see that happening, however …
Like Pascal O, I too find this sort of landscape beyond my ken. So it is with unadulterated pleasure that I can bask in the beauty of your lovely images….. kudos!
Lovely, unassuming images. But I do miss a map of there: where in France does this lie, that I desire to know.
google could help, but a more detailed map of the specific locations would be helpful, DearSusan …
Thank you, Frank. You’re right, a map could help here. I’ll try to add one to the next instalment. In the mean time, you can find one here 🙂 https://peyreenaubrac.fr/decouvrir-visiter/carte-acces/