Rural Living in France - an essential read first

Happiness is in the fields

Well, so goes the French saying but the countryside can be an uncomfortable place for an ignorant newcomer - or if you've recently arrived. Here's a look at exactly the book you should read before settling in the sticks.

There are a lot of books around about living in the French countryside, often written by refugees from Highgate and such places and pretty useless, too, full of anecdotal and frequently misleading advice and twee tales about French neighbours and other expats. J.C. Jeremy Hobson, a qualified estate manager and veteran journalist with many years experience in France, has produced with his Rural Living in France (UK: Survival Books) something very different, an outstanding addition to his publisher's list which I would say was indispensable reading for anyone settling in a rural area with a property of any size.

Thorough-going realism

Hobson begins, and this is sadly necessary, with a warning against “a holiday romance” with la France profonde which leads to painful disillusion when a settler discovers “that weather can be cold and wet and winters can be long and lonely” and that's as true here as in more northerly areas. He then offers a systematic and detailed treatment of his themes from choosing a property, moving in and using the land (whether a normal garden or a working farm or smallholding). He goes on to survey in impressive detail the range of flowers, plants, fruit and vegetables and then livestock that rural dwellers, at every level of activity, may deal with. The appealing notion of being “self-sufficient” is examined with thorough-going realism: “There are no short cuts and quick fixes when it comes to vegetable production.”

The technical and administrative problems of keeping dairy animals are spelled out clearly. Typically, the reader is taken through the steps of milking a goat and indeed is told how to choose a nanny: “Seen from the side she should have a level back and very little slope at the tail; a steep slope can mean a poor milker.” Hobson doesn't avoid the grimmer aspects of rural working life. Geese are recommended as “watchdogs” but if one of them falls sick we learn how to break its neck - painlessly - with a broomstick; those who keep pigs or sheep are advised to do their own slaughtering - something Highgate Man may blench at - rather than sending their beasts to the local abattoir “since this reduces stress which can make meat less tender”.

One absolute commandment

Hobson writes in detail about buying, hiring and using tools and machines and offers a clear and concise account of wild life and rural pursuits. In the former section I was made uneasy to learn that France's tarantula (lycosa narbonensis) which can extend its legs to a width of 25 centimetres (ugh!) is native to “southern regions”. Amid this book's wealth of practical advice for a country dweller there's one absolute commandment: “The first rule of living in France is to visit your local maire to ensure that your ideas won't cause problems with the neighbours and that through ignorance you won't break the law.” We know of readers who've not observed this golden rule ... and paid a heavy penalty. Hobson suggests that on a first visit a bottle of whisky is an acceptable offering ... single malt, not blended.

From Riviera Reporter issue 120

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