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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