European Times Normandy: Time casts dark shadow on fields of old France

THERE ARE two farms in our village. Within a couple of years, more is the pity, there may be none.

Our nearest neighbour, Jean-Michel, the world's most muddled dairy farmer, continues to stagger from crisis to crisis. His latest plan is to pack up his cows and his dogs and broken tractors and move to the South of France to escape the Norman rain and his debtors. Since he finds it awkward to organise two milkings a day, this may not happen soon.

The second farm resembles a scene from a children's wooden puzzle. It is the kind of farm you seldom see these days, even in France. There is a neat yard with bad-tempered chickens and wandering ducks and rabbits in hutches and countless cats and dogs. There are orderly apple trees in the fields and vegetables in the cottage garden.

Our two-year-old daughter, Grace, likes to visit this farm-yard at least twice a day. She has seen several generations of fluffy ducklings grow - in four months - to awkward, teenage duckdom and then, abruptly, disappear.

This farm belongs to Andre and Solange. Andre is a short, taciturn, humorous man, with a shapeless hat, the colour of dried cow manure. He drives his cows to milking with the words "au boulot ("get to work"). Solange is a cheerful woman in her 50s. Both were born in the commune; neither has travelled much beyond it.

Andre and Solange despair of Jean-Michel, as much as the other residents, and occasional residents, of the village (all 17 of us). In truth, they have more reason to complain than most. When Jean-Michel's cows escape, it is Andre's grass they eat; when Jean-Michel's dogs get bored, it is Andre's cows they chase and nip.

None the less, Andre remains heroically indulgent of his eccentric neighbour. He refers to him as "him there, down below, the acrobat". If Jean-Michel is an acrobat, Andre is the safety net. For months now, Jean-Michel has stayed in business only because Andre has lent him an ancient, but working, tractor.

Since the summer, Andre and Solange have employed an honorary, occasional, farm hand, our nine-year-old son, Charles. Charlie is a typically urban, late 20th-century child, fascinated by video games and television. He went along one evening to witness the milking and became as hooked on the complexities of supplementary feeding, cow management and milk temperature as he is on Batman or Super Mario.

He now claims to be able to recognise the 20 Friesian milking cows individually, without looking at the large orange number identification tags on their ears. ("Why are all these cows for sale, Daddy?" asked his five-year-old sister, Clare, as we watched the cows queuing for their turn at the milking machines one evening.)

It was on this visit that Solange told us the latest crop of ducklings was so plentiful that she had one bird left over. We snapped it up. The reputation of Solange's ducklings extends for miles around. They are promised, from hatching, to specific customers, rather like children with their names down for public school.

Another neighbour, Madeleine, a living cookbook of ancient Norman recipes, informed us how to roast the duck in the traditional, simple Norman way. Stuffing made from the gizzards and liver, with plenty of parsley, onions and breadcrumbs; served with duchesse potatoes and a "generous" wine, preferably a Bordeaux. The duck was indeed delicious, its meat as red, almost, as beef.

Leaning over a tubular fence, watching Charlie milk the cows the next day, I thanked Solange for her duck. She said, wearily: "Only two more years." Two more years of what?

"Two more years until we retire." What will they do when they retire? "We are going to travel. Andre and I have never been anywhere much. We have the cows to milk twice a day. It is expensive to get anyone to replace us. When we retire, we have always said we will travel."

Where to? I imagined that she might say to America, or Asia or Africa or even to Britain. "To France," she said. "We're going to visit the whole of France. They say that it's very beautiful." She giggled.

I knew that they were coming up to retirement but did not know it was so soon. I mentioned what Solange had said - and Jean-Michel's vague plans to emigrate to the South - to Madeleine's husband, Michel. As an authentic, farming village, our village is a local rarity. Most of the other villages near by have become retirement homes or dormitories for people working in Caen, 20 miles to the north.

If Jean-Michel goes and Andre and Solange retire, their land - both of them are tenants - will almost certainly be absorbed into one of the bigger farms. The village will become more like the picturesque, mud-free, flower-box-infested village on the next hillside, inhabited entirely by widows, save for one widower.

Michel, who works in the Citroen factory in Caen, and has lived in the village all his life, except for 10 years in the French navy, agreed that it would "change everything" if the farms disappeared. Gazing at the stream of liquid manure and mud flowing down the road from Jean-Michel's farm, he said: "It would be a shame. However, one has to admit that there would be conveniences as well as inconveniences."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick