I’ve just been reading about Keith Floyd in an old copy of Fire & Knives. The writer, Cai Ross, was saying that part of the beauty of his seminal ‘Floyd on France’ series was the way the producers ‘begged borrowed and conned their way into various French kitchens, domestic and professional.’ Unplanned, these moments required everyone involved to be on their mettle and step up, react well to whatever happened. The result was sometimes chaos, but often magic.
I am just back from visiting Paris, Amiens and Brussels. It was the first leg of a summer-long project which will see me and my lovely/annoying friend Mark Diacono take in nearly 40 amazing allotments and edible gardens, for a book to be published next spring. He’s on pictures, I’m on writing. He wrote about it here (all sorted now, btw, so no more entries please. Unless it’s really, really, REALLY good).
Most of the trip was perfectly planned in advance. Through French friends, google translate and luck we had managed to communicate with the gardeners in Paris and Brussels. Amiens had proved more tricky. We knew there were beautiful, floating market gardens there, but couldn’t find a way in: emails went unanswered, and after a hugely painful telephone conversation in my school-girl French failed to produce any leads, we decided we either give it up or just turn up and chance it. We went for chancing it.
On the map it didn’t look far, and in fact we reached the entrance to the ‘hortillages’ relatively quickly. ‘Phew’ I thought, having worn really stupid shoes, like a girl. But alas, this was just the gateway to the hortillages, which stretched for miles. The path gave glimpses into gorgeous waterside gardens, all reached via little bridges, each one with a locked gate, surrounded by spikes, with perhaps a soupcon of barbed wire for good measure. ‘Take pictures of that one, that’ll do’ I started to say, pointing at vaguely edible stuff far across the water, feeling the blisters form. I was mocked and we walked on, and on.
After that I decided to make like an arctic explorer, pushing through the pain bravely, with a noble look on my face. We started to find little alleyways between houses which led tantalisingly down to open water, close to the bit marked ‘potager’ we had seen on a glimpsed map. We could now reach where we needed to be if we had a boat. We don’t have a boat. Keep walking.
And then finally, joyously, we came upon a hut to hire boats. I arranged the hire, we popped our life jackets on (here I would have inserted a picture of Mark D in a bright orange life jacket for you, laydeez, had he not threatened to also take one of me for similar purposes, and thus stalemate been reached), and puttered out across the water to the area marked ‘potager’. It was nice, very neat, with sweet willow hurdles enclosing weed-free vegetable beds, a little like a museum recreation of the historic market gardens. We were pleased. Mark had already started snapping away when, through a hole in the thick hedge, I spotted a man, perhaps in his 60s, leaning on his fork, once-seriously-good-looking face tanned and lined, eyes twinkly: essentially, everything you want in your French rustic gardener. I took a good five minutes standing by the hole in the hedge to compose my approach, which I believe eventually went [brightly] ‘Bonjour monsieur! Nous prenez les photographs pour un livre…’ [increasingly less sure] ‘um….about… des jardins. C’est possible pour…er…mon ami…um…prenez les photograph a…er…tu – no – vous?’ A gallic shrug, an eye twinkle, a grin and we were around the compost bins at the end of the garden and in.
Jean’s floating market garden was the real deal – weeds, bits of junk and all – as was Jean, a market gardener who has worked this strange, semi-floating patch of earth tous les jours for dix ans. Somehow I managed to conduct a kind of an interview in French (with a few stumbling blocks: if anyone knows why French gardeners might paint the trunks of their fruit trees white, please enlighten me, it was something to do with them getting chaud maybe and…well, I have no idea, though he really, really tried to explain). Jean was relaxed and uncomplaining while having his photo taken, though he must have been puzzled at the whole thing. He was patient and sweet with my rubbish questions, and a bit of a gentle charmer too: when he cut a beautiful soft pink and yellow rose I pretty much knew it wasnt to take to market. It was late in the day after all that walking so the light was soft, with a sort of underwater quality itself, making for some fairly special photos. It was a mixture of tenacity (more Mark’s than mine, admittedly) serendipity, and somehow scraping together the necessary French, and it made for a magic moment. In the book it will seem like it was all planned and sorted beforehand, a fait accomplis (get me. I can’t stop now) but it wasn’t, and I think it will be all the better for it.