My doctor upped my dose of life-saving heart drugs when I told him we would be in the southwest of France for six weeks. He also gave me the address of a place to get a haircut. "They'll make a real fuss of you," he said, jotting down the address in perfectly legible handwriting. Say what you like about the Cartwright inquiry, I do like the frank exchange between doctor and patient you get in the modern era. My one even likes to do a bit of cussing from time to time.
Our holiday home set us in the heart of Gascony. The Gascons were fattening geese and duck and grapes long before anyone was fretting about cholesterol, and the French still scoff down the foie gras and the confit de canard and draw your attenion to the reassuring statistics of the French paradox.
We think perhaps the secret to the paradox might be portion control.
Night after night, we dined on their wonderful food and the duck carcasses mounted. I did not do a lipid test, so I can't tell you what adverse consequences I may have brought upon myself. I can tell you that the foie gras, even the one with armagnac, still seemed a bit much. Thank you, but no.
Every French market is a delight. We brought home apples and grapes and artisan bread and dried ham and sausages and most memorably of all, the duck dishes from la ferme d'Enjacquet; proprietors: Patrick et Maguy Bécoye. Such choices. Albondegas - a form of spanish meatball; daube of canard; choux farci; duck breasts as big as you'll find on your turkey this christmas; pure duck sausages; 99 ways to eat a canard. We also ate elsewhere and well, but this was truly our kitchen away from home for six weeks. If you find yourself in the southwest of France, look in the markets for a friendly, smiling, Spanish-looking woman with trays full of duck. Or go to her website.
We became friends. "Would you like to come to see the farm," she asked. Well, of course we would. Down the road we went, from St Lary, through Barrane and on to St-Medard, second road on the right after the cafe. We found two houses, a large shed at the rear, some horses grazing and a chill in the November afternoon. Saturday had begun at minus 8. Today was a toasty 4 above, but already droppping.
We sat down to coffee and talked about the farming life in France. They like the countryside. They have had their taste of the city and this is their preference, but none of their grown children have had the same interest, and they work in town.
We finished our coffee and went out to see some ducks. These are not the slight things that drop out of the sky into New Zealand dams on the first Saturday in May. These are birds as big as geese, brought in at a few weeks old and fattened on maize, for your table. Skip your eyes forward now if you are either vegetarian or the kind of carnivore who likes to overlook any bloodshed that precedes the arrival of your dinner. In the space of a just a few thousand square metres, a few hundred birds at a time are held here, prepared for the table and then quickly and humanely stunned, killed, plucked, eviscerated, chilled, cut, packaged and prepared for sale either as raw pieces or cooked items of the type we carted home from the Auch market twice each week. The facilities are efficient, compact, gleaming. The ducks look content, if a little over-alert, necks rising and falling like waves of corn as you walk by. For foie gras, there is the force feeding, which is to say: each gets a hose full of maize offered to them which they gladly chug down. Patrick has a kind of milking stool at which he will sit for two and a half hours each day, working his way one by one through the flock. Mary-Margaret was wide-eyed. She told us later that she felt a bit bad when she heard the ripping sound of the poor ducky as the pieces were being cut up but, trouper that she is, she said not a word at the time.
This is value-added farming, to be sure. Each week, 200 ducks go out the door, many worth substantially more euros per kilogram than a bare carcass might fetch. The Becoyes take great pride in the quality of their ducks and their produce, and deservedly so. Inevitably, the usual rules of modern agriculture apply. If you have a big enough operation, you'll be doing well, and able to show a profit, even at the tight margins the hypermarkets chains will be trying to squeeze. But if you're not big enough, you'll have it all against you.
You just hope that it remains viable for the people who are doing it well.
The hairdressing business, by contrast, remains wide open for the small enterprise. Down we go, one sunny morning, towards the Pyrenees, in search of snow and a haircut. Bagneres de Luchon is a ski resort town. Steep alpine roofs, a long row of hotels, friendly cafes, pretty trees. You can drive up the hill to the south of the town, and in fewer than five minutes, rise 2000 metres, hit snow and the Spanish border. Naturally, you biff snowballs while you wait for Coiffure Evelyn to reopen after lunch. Yes, they can offer a cut in ten minutes' time. I explain that my doctor in New Zealand has prescribed this. Which one was he? I offer a few details. "Oh," they say, "the Australians who were here for the bicycling." Six, sex, sux. None of those distinctions in pronunciation are distinguishable to people who speak mostly in southern French. My doctor was right, though; they did make a fuss. I also got possibly the briskest haircut I have had in some time. This may be because in Takapuna I get very careful attention from Monique who gamely does her best to arrange a thinning pate to its most flattering advantage. I came out of Coiffure Evelyn looking pretty bare on top.
Thanks to the previously mentioned server crash, I have also ended up a little thinner all over, notwithstanding all the food. By remaining well, I have not yet been able to fill my doctor's other prescription. "Take advantage of the French medical system. It's wonderful."
Poor Mary-Margaret, however, was able this weekend to satisfy the requirements thanks to a wave of gastroenteritis which has apparently been washing around the town of St Valery on the Somme, which has been our home for the past few days. We started with the chemist who looked at our pale, trembling, little girl and suggested we go to the doctor just down the street. We established, by degrees, that we were in fact bound for the town hospital, which has two huge cranes currently building a new facility. Inevitably, the existing facilities can become hard to find while such work is going on, but before long we were being greeted by an amiable, competent doctor of about our own age, with a bandage on his right hand. I am forever shaking hands too vigorously. It was to his credit that he appeared not to bear a grudge.
He diagnosed gastroenteritis, prescribed flat coca cola, anti nausea tablets and a diarrhoea treatment, not just for the little one, but the adults as well. Just in case. It was all efficiency, scarcely any paper work, and he was quickly done, taking time to chat briefly about our holiday. I told him our doctor had prescribed a visit to the medical system that was the envy of the world. "Indeed it is," he said, "but it's terribly expensive." Our bill was 22 Euro. What he meant was that it's terribly expensive for the French state, and that's true.
As you might imagine, the French have made much of the Michael Moore film, but not entirely in terms that endorse his assessment. Yes, the system is better than the American one, but you will hear misgivings expressed in similar terms to those of the doctor - it's terribly expensive. France is reportedly spending something north of half its GDP on debt servicing. You look for savings wherever you can.The French/ American comparison is most telling when you line up the efficacy of the two systems. This, of course, is a measurement which can be enormously problematic. The numbers do seem to favour the French in the few reports I've seen. The recurring theme seems to be that the US spends more, but gets less for its money. You may have seen different ones. Do feel free to compare them.
Don't forget to factor in the consumption of duck fat.