A garden in this part of France means a vegetable plot. To designate a flower-filled space you have to specify: jardin d'ornement. New houses, brashly designed suburban-style to be admired from the road by passing motorists, dazzle with large circular flower beds, set in pristine lawns, ablaze with red, pink and yellow blooms.
But for the older people in their older houses, the garden is tucked away at the side, or round the back, and you enter it through a gate, taking care to close this securely behind you to make sure the poultry don't get in.
The gardens are ferociously neat, planted in parallel rows. They are equivalent to our allotments, those triumphs of socialist ideals made material. The poorest tenant-farmer can at least eat up his greens. People plant the classic soup vegetables: potatoes, leeks, carrots and onions. Everybody here also grows haricots verts in great quantities, bottling them for the winter months ahead, and likewise beetroot. Tomatoes too, and the basic herbs for bouquet garni, and salads.
Yvette's sister grew fennel last year, as an experiment, but it didn't do well. Bolted leggily. We shook our heads over it. We all grow courgettes. I pick mine small, and deep-fry the stuffed flowers in batter, but the neighbours like their courges big and fat like giants' truncheons. We argue amiably over who's right. My method is more wasteful. But then I'm not a proper gardener, not being here all year round. I call the weeds chez moi wild flowers and we leave it at that.
People here are almost self-sufficient. They eat their own meat and vegetables and make their own booze. On the way back from market last week, I dropped in on Yvette and Eugene and was invited to stay for lunch. The menu, on an ordinary working day, was: Pineau, Yvette's home-made aperitif, followed by snails, collected and prepared by herself, sweetbreads from the last beast they had slaughtered, a slice of faux-filet ditto, salad from the garden, white cheese made by Yvette, cherries from the garden. We washed this down with a bottle of last year's cider.
Eugene wonderfully took for granted that, as a very hard-working farmer, he was being very well fed by his very hard-working wife. It's the same every day. The previous week, when they gave me lunch, they were eating lapin a la moutarde, the rabbit coming from Yvette's brother. You have to know how to kill creatures if you are to eat them. Nature, as Woody Allen once remarked, is one great restaurant. The neighbours' rabbits are fed on the dandelions proliferating in my garden, then from time to time I'm offered one. I pick it out, it is slaughtered and rapidly skinned in the shed, and I carry it home in a plastic bag.
As we all know, rural France is not a haven for vegetarians, though good vegetarian restaurants now exist in most large cities. In restaurants, you have to resign yourself to eating omelettes, which some helpful soul in the kitchen, feeling sorry for you, may have decorated with diced fried ham - or maybe a plate of steamed vegetables. I got so fed up with apologising for vegetarian friends to uncomprehending waiters that I ended up using the excuse of illness. Mon copin suffers from his foie: he must eat lightly. No meat. Then their faces would light up and they would suggest, mon Dieu, an omelette or a plate of steamed vegetables.
Years ago, I planned to write a French vegetarian cookery book for the excellent cookbook publishers Serif. I wanted to market it to the French, to point out to them the range of exquisite meatless dishes they already had: onion tart, spinach souffles, stuffed crepes, ratatouille and so on. People eat far more meat than they used to. These old-fashioned dishes rarely appear on restaurant menus any more. You have to eat in friends' houses to be offered them. I wrote short stories instead, in the end, and I'm sure by now someone else has written the book.
But to return to snails: they are predators who munch our sorrel and lettuces overnight. How to get rid of predators? We eat them.