storms in the vendée

My ageing bus has chugged south from the Womad Festival to our farm in the Vendée near La Rochelle. Last week I was surrounded by tents and relentless drumming while doing cooking demos; now I am parked by our lake with dusk visits from snorting wild boar and the occasional deer thinking about melons. It should have been idyllic.

After a disastrous first cropping year, Gary, my principle partner here, has decided to return to agronomic consultancy and a salary, leaving me and Didier (who used to milk cows here before selling  a 90% share to us) to worry about the Botrytis fungi, the weeds and the Euro. This year started well with good crops of lettuce, spinach, fennel, chard and French beans filling the boxes through our ‘hungry gap’ at home, and placating the bank manager here. More recently you will have been getting early Vendéen sweetcorn and the occasional green pepper (the more misshapen ones). Things were looking good until the normally relentlessly sunny July delivered 80mm of rain and leaden skies. Brought on by the high humidity, mildew swept through the melons in one weekend, destroying 95% of the foliage. They will ripen on the dying vines, but some already have that dodgy fermented taste and, without the photosynthesising leaves supplying sugars, they’ll never be better than average, so we’ve written them off. The heavily laden pepper plants look fantastic, but as the fruits start to turn red they are also developing rots.

Doom, doom, doom. As a younger man I would have been weeping, Jean de Florette style, in the fields. At 50 I have a bit more perspective; at least there will be more time to go to the beach if it ever stops raining. Some of our troubles are down to bad luck and some to inexperience of new crops and local conditions. The local wisdom is that we should have been spraying prophylactically with copper and lime, known as Bordeaux mixture, which has been used for centuries to protect vines from mildew.

It is not all bad though; we have a small field of chillies which are looking fantastic, and I’m getting excited about the local vine peaches which seem to grow wild in the hedgerows, be bomb proof and taste great. They look a bit rough, but I’m hoping to persuade you to try them.

Guy Watson