I recently interviewed American food icon Alice Waters for a story I’m working on – Alice is down on France – particularly on the way the farming industry is run – now preferring to go to Italy where they still “get it.”
She should meet Baptiste Vasseur, an organic farmer in Belle Ile’s tiny town of Kerzo. I met Vasseur, 26, while wandering the cliffs of Belle-Ile. He was out there with his friends, 100 feet above the ocean, fishing for the sea bass known as bar and “whatever else will bite” using shore casting rods to cast their bait a country mile out into the water. How they got the fish up to the top of the cliff remained a mystery.
Vasseur is in his second year of production on his farm with no name, now harvesting late-season tomatoes along with eggplant, cabbage, leeks, turnips, pumpkins and spuds.
It seems a lonely existence for a young guy (Kerzo is a tiny town on an island with a total population of only about 5,000 and mainland France is alternately known as “The Continent” or just “The Other Side”), so why here?
“I’ve got some family here, but mostly I just like it,” he explained. “I found a farm, I studied to make sure it was going to work and got a farmer’s loan. We’ve got a lot of debt, but the loan helped us get going.”
I ask the same question everyone eventually asks me as a freelance journalist: “You can make a living doing this?”
“I sell in the market in Le Palais, to restaurants, at the farm itself, and once a week a group of island farmers sells at the aerodrome. That’s it – that’s all I can grow.
What he doesn’t say (I’ll later learn this from chef Epron, who buys Vasseur’s tomatoes for his restaurant, La Table de la Desirade) is that some jerk once came by and poured pesticide in the cistern Vasseur uses to water his plants. This could strip a farmer of his organic certification in a heartbeat, but Vasseur rapidly realized the problem with a minimum of damage.
“It can get political,” he adds, “but in the end, it’s working. We work hard and believe in what we do.”
Globe travel correspondent Joe Ray writes own blog, Eating The Motherland and contributes to the English language version of Simon Says! the French food and lifestyle blog run by French food critic Francois Simon.