Saturday, May 19, 2007

A different kind of farmer

Every Saturday I look forward to visiting Pierre's stand at the Cours Saleya market. Pierre is one of several small producers who come to the market only on weekends. His products are all organic and he describes them with boundless enthusiasm. Pierre is never more passionate about his vegetables than in the summer, when he grows up to 100 different tomato varieties, from the stripy green zebra to a sweet, deep orange tomato with the texture of a mango. He lays them out in a multicolored array and happily expounds on the qualities of each one.
I've learned to start asking Pierre for tomatoes towards the end of June, when they haven't yet appeared on his stall. Since the early harvest is small he keeps it under the table for his most dedicated customers, those of us who show up by 8am on a Saturday. In winter Pierre turns his attention to citrus fruit, producing such rarities as the knobbly, lemon-like cedrat and a mutant-looking citrus fruit known as Buddha's Fingers because of its segmented shape. Nadim, my friend at Oliviera, buys up as much of Pierre's citrus fruit as he can and turns it into an exquisite mixed fruit marmalade.
Pierre has been inviting me to see his farm for a while now and I finally took him up on it this week, making the most of one of the many statutory holidays in May. His farm is in the hills of Bellet, a tiny wine region within the city of Nice that's thought to be one of the oldest in France. Only about a 15-minute drive from the center of Nice, it's a different world altogether, with a jagged mountain rising up on one side. Only the most dedicated farmers and winemakers continue to work in this area, whose steep, terraced slopes make the labor particularly exhausting. Pierre gets help from his wife Anne, one full-time worker and students from all over the world who exchange labor on organic farms for room and board through an association called Wwoof (they are housed in beautiful little chalets that Pierre constructed from discarded building materials). His parents, who live on the property, also pitch in - his elderly mother weeds tirelessly by hand using a tiny hoe.

Greeting us cheerfully in a T-shirt and torn army fatigues, Pierre took us on a tour of his property. Sam, having bonded instantly with the big black dog, Bali, ran off with Pierre's two sons to gorge on strawberries straight off the plants. Pierre is currently battling a pest attack on his strawberries by launching a counter-attack with insects that he orders from England. He resorts to using organic insecticides only when all other means have failed. (As for offensives on his strawberry plants by children, he said there is nothing that can be done.) He grows only Mara des Bois strawberries, a small, deep red domestic variety that tastes amazingly like a wild strawberry. Though I've tasted Mara des Bois at the market many times, there is nothing like picking them straight from the plants, while they are still warm from the sun.

Pierre's land is the antithesis of the perfectly controlled modern farm. There are harmless weeds between the lettuces and artichokes grow around the borders. He plants sunflowers at the end of rows to keep an eye on the insects that might be present - the pests will attack the flowers before they move on to the vegetables. Squash plants climb up trellises, partly to hide the sight of the shopping mall down below.
As we walk through his land, which has been recently extended, it becomes clear that Pierre is no ordinary farmer. He plans to build a greenhouse that will be used partly for farming and partly for events such as exhibitions, tastings and concerts. On the forested part of his land, he wants to construct a treehouse where visitors can sip a glass of wine or stretch out for a nap. In early July he is planning an open house to celebrate the first tomatoes with a poetry reading among the trees.
Farming the old-fashioned way might seem romantic, but it's also full of perils. Because Pierre avoids chemical products he sometimes loses entire crops to pests or disease. Besides selling at the market in Nice he takes part in an organic basket scheme, but his clients need to be convinced to take what's available instead of choosing only the most familiar vegetables and fruit. Fortunately, he works with chefs who are thrilled to cook with heirloom vegetables such as kohlrabi, butter beans and chicory.

After touring Pierre's farm we sat on his terrace sipping chilled white wine from neighboring vineyard Clot dou Baile, whose female winemaker is equally passionate about what she does. As the children frolicked among the fruit trees Pierre's life seemed idyllic, but he has not chosen the easy path. From now on, when I make a salad of his Japanese greens or bite into a slim banana tomato from his farm, I'll think about how much imagination and effort were involved in getting these to my table.
If the idea of meeting people like Pierre while discovering the little-known arrière-pays behind Nice appeals to you, then my "Meet the producers" tours could be for you. With Philippe as the driver, we spend the day visiting vegetable, fruit, olive oil and wine producers, with lunch in a beautiful hilltop village. Visit my Petits Farcis website for more information.

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