"If I'd known we were going camping, I'd've brought a different wardrobe."
I had rented an old stone farmhouse in south-central France for three weeks. DSL and I were pretty excited about staying there. It really sounds romantic, doesn't it? Spending weeks in the French countryside. Cows in the pastures. Hills dotted with small stone houses. But like most fuzzy, romantic idylls, this one didn't quite live up to expectations.
Limousin cows. Hardy buggers.
As most of you know, in early December of 2010, western Europe was hit with the coldest, snowiest early winter storm in recorded history.
That storm of course coincided with my and DSL's stay in the farmhouse in La Cote, France. La Cote is a blip on the map south of a slightly larger blip called Saint-Laurent-sur-Gorre.
The farmhouse? Shoddily restored, falling apart, leaky plumbing, dark, moldy, filthy from top to bottom. Oh, and unheated.
I suppose it all depends on how you define "heating." There was a fireplace. There was an electric radiator (wheels falling off) and a small electric blower, smaller than a dinner plate, with only half of the heating coils working. And that was it. DSL took the radiator into her bedroom and I took the noisy blower into my room (think hair dryer only less effective).
We spent our evenings around the fireplace and our nights buried under two layers of down duvets in our cold, dark, musty bedrooms.
We lasted ten nights in the hovel, each colder than the last. The persistent rain that followed us from Germany to France gradually turned to ice, then snow. Each morning we scrambled to bring in wood in the hopes that it would dry a little bit before we needed to start the fire in the evening. On a warm day, the temperature got up to around 2C. Our last night there, the outside temperature dropped to -6C.
We took this on our way out. We had cleaned the parts of the farmhouse that we used, cleared the snow off the car, packed it, and took a few seconds to take this last pic. Hovel in the background.
Yeah. No heat. It was a downright picnic, I'll tell you.
This is the one-lane road to the next village. I took this pic the morning we decided we'd had enough and that it was time to head north.
I braved the frigid kitchen each night to make us a nice meal and DSL braved it to do the washing up. By the time we left, it was colder in the kitchen than it was in the fridge.
DSL keeping an eye on the fire. I decided to move all of the candles in the hovel to the mantle and light them, partly for light and partly for the illusion of heat. The duvet piled on the couch to her right was one of a pair of them on bunk beds upstairs. We wrapped up in them in the evenings then carted them upstairs and put them on top of the other duvets already on our beds.
Our world collapsed further each night until by the end we were huddled in duvets in chairs positioned scant inches from the open fireplace (mentally praying that no sparks would shoot out and ignite the duvets; because we decided to keep the glass door on the fireplace open to maximize the heat we could get out of it, we totally trashed the wool rug in front of the fireplace with scorch marks from cinders popped from the fireplace). DSL worked out a system by which she positioned an array of logs all around us so we only had to dart out an arm from our blankets and select the next one for the fire.
I took this photo with a flash so the amount of light is greatly exaggerated. This room was never this well lit even during the day. By about the fourth or fifth day we had abandoned the couches for the chairs which we could pull up much closer to the fire. You can see iPads on both chairs (more on this in the next post) and two decks of Uno cards on the little table. I brought the table down from my bedroom as there was no table of any kind in the den area.
We ran out of firestarters the second or third night. We managed to get the fire started that night but the next day it rained all day and we were really struggling with the fire. I said, "We need some accelerant! Hey! There's some 2-stroke engine oil in this cabinet here!" We got the fire started with oil-soaked wads of cardboard that night but the next night they failed to do the trick; the wood was too wet even for petroleum products. Plus I was kind of worried that using the motor oil was dangerous.
So in a fit of frustration, I threw myself in to the car and drove not to St-Laurent-sur-Gorre--no, because that blip of a village wasn't large enough to have a market open after dark--and not even to the next village, Sereilhac, but all the way back to Aixe-sur-Vienne which was large enough to have a market open late (late for rural French village markets is about 8:30pm or so). I rushed into the store, went right up to a woman stocking some shelves, and in my horrible, fractured, pidgin French, said, excuse me, madam (never forget to be polite with the French), do you have "starting for the fire" which is of course total grammatical nonsense but "firestarter" wasn't in my dictionaries. She looked at me, and said, "le feu?" And I said, oui, oui, le feu! She took me right to the shelf of the things. I bought three boxes and rushed back home, hoping that DSL hadn't frozen in place in the time I was gone.
By the end of the first week, my eyes were gritty and red and I could hardly breathe from the smoke that filled the house every night. The smell of wood smoke and mold permeated everything in my suitcase. I am still washing some items in attempts to get the smells out.
I was talking to my mother a few days ago and told her that I was ready to walk out the first night we arrived. The place was that dirty and cold. At any point, if DSL had thrown up her hands and said, "I can't take another minute of this squalor!" I would have had the bags packed and in the car before you could blink. But she never did that! And I figured we weren't going to freeze to death as long as we could get the fire started every night.
[Note added 12/25: DSL reminded me on the phone last night that while we didn't have heat, we did have plenty of very hot water. We could take parboiling showers each morning--even if we did step out into a bathroom that was colder than your refrigerator when we finished. There's no way we would have lasted as long as we did without hot water.]
Yeah, it's a bit staged, but this is me enjoying a brief post-prandial stupor in front of the fire. I am utterly thrilled that I tossed my favorite fleece hat in my suitcase at the last minute. I don't think I could have braved the freezing kitchen every night without it.
What went wrong, you might ask? Well, in the first place, even though the absentee landlord of the hovel, a silly British woman, was a total ditz, it's still a case of caveat emptor. Lessons learned: cheaper is not always better, and if the ad says the place is "heated," you would be advised for winter rentals to ask how.
Cooking Under Duress
I've had plenty of experience cooking on whitewater rafting and backpacking trips so I know how to make good use of limited materials and equipment. But what I dealt with in the farmhouse was a challenge even beyond that. The food wasn't the problem, of course. I planned every menu and we shopped for fresh ingredients each day during our regular sightseeing trips out of the hovel. We ate very well indeed (and polished off by my count around 20 bottles of wine in 11 days, the evidence of which we dutifully recycled like good citizens).
Fresh field mushrooms that we bought at a "salon gourmand" in Sereilhac from the local boys who probably collected them.
The only knives that had an edge were two 2-inch paring knives. All of the glasses had greasy finger- and lip-prints on them. The pots were blackened lumps, none with lids. There were no staples in the kitchen, not even salt and pepper. We had to buy all of that--even a wine opener (I continued to use this handy device during the rest of my own trip so it wasn't a bad investment).
DSL with a container of local greens.
For our first night (of which I will tell more in another post), we had bread and sausage and cheese and wine. But after that, I pulled out all the stops. Here are most of our menus (we had leftovers a couple of nights):
- Potato and leek soup with crusty bread and butter
- White bean soup with carrots, onions, garlic and Cranberry-Orange "muffin tops" (I'll explain)
- Sauteed blood sausage and spinach on pasta (not one of my better efforts)
- Pork chops (not just any old chops but meat from free-range noirs cochons, the big black pigs they raise in France, bought from the guy who raised and butchered those very pigs) with field mushrooms sauteed in butter (bought from a couple of French Jim Bobs who very likely picked the darned things) and green salad with homemade dressing
The chop and 'shroom dinner. This photo was a bit staged as of course we never ate at the table in the kitchen. Far too cold in there. We ate in front of the fire every night.
- Daubiere paysanne a la Denise (baked pasta and goat cheese) and green salad with cranberries
- Baked chicken and haricots verts with crusty bread
- Cheese omelettes (another failed effort, I'm sad to say)
- Pasta with melange of cheese (all the remaining bits of the half dozen cheeses we'd purchased over the previous 10 days, to be exact), sauteed onion, and the remnants of the baked chicken
DSL looking forward to dinner.
The cheeses were of course fabulous and I had quite a good time buying all sorts of crazy kinds just because I liked the way they looked. I have decided that Morbier is my favorite. That bit of mold running down the center gives it a nice bite.
We'd come in after a day of sightseeing of one sort or another, change clothes, and DSL would start the fire. I'd lay out the ingredients for dinner and pop open our wine (white for DSL, red for me). I learned that it was best to begin dinner right away because if I sat in front of the warm fireplace for even just a few minutes, the prospect of that frigid kitchen became more and more depressing.
DSL with a glass of wine in front of a warm fire.
Bad decisions make good stories.