He’s a mix of Gaston (à la Beauty and the Beast) and one of the burliest fishermen on Deadliest Catch. He must weigh 200 pounds (mostly muscle) and his long curly hair reaches all the way down his neck. He once played bass for a local French band, but now, Baptiste, a 38-year-old Belgian native, runs his family’s organic vegetable farm in the Norman region of France. He has a reputation for growing the best produce in the region (he’s been written up in the New York Times), and he supplies légumes to at least nine restaurants, some with Michelin stars. I am going to spend the week with Baptiste harvesting vegetables and selling them in local markets.
He picks me up at Susan’s house at 6:30 a.m., when it’s still fairly dark. As we drive down narrow, rocky roads in his dirty pickup, he explains (in French) the 28-day moon cycle: When the moon is waxing, plants with flowers above the earth are stimulated; when it is waning, plants with edible roots get an extra boost. Then we stop, and he hands me a pair of rubber boots about four sizes too big; it’s time to get to work.
Our first task is to sort colored plastic bins, load them into the truck, and then head out to harvest the crops. First, it’s zucchini. Zucchini have very prickly leaves and grow close to the ground. In 100-degree heat -- my arms covered in scratches, and my back crooked into an acute angle – I remember the artificial light of my air-conditioned office and it doesn’t sound half bad.
We fill up the bins with enough zucchini for tomorrow’s market, then head off to do the same with eggplant, bell peppers, radishes, potatoes and broccoli. We tie the onions and shallots in little bunches, and after Baptiste unties my first three attempts (too many onions, pull off the roots, don’t tie so close to the bulb), I get the hang of it.
It’s the 14th of July – Bastille Day, a French national holiday -- so Baptiste is obligated to let his workers go. Otherwise, he would have to pay them overtime – two-and-a-half times their normal wages. But these rules don’t apply to American girls working for free, so I stick around to ensure everything is ready for the marché.
Baptiste and I go into one of his greenhouses and walk through the rows of tomatoes. My job is to remove all the “gourmand” stems (similar to a weed) from the vine while he ties the top of the bent stalks upright with twine. But I can’t tell the difference between the invasive weed and the vine, so Baptiste makes up a little song to help. There is a gourmand growing at the top of the vine that I can’t quite reach. Baptiste takes my knife and exclaims with a huge grin, “I’m Yorge Cloo-nay! ‘and me the sca-pehl!” (ER reference circa ‘95) and whacks it down.
The muddy flatbed truck is parked nearby; the keys are in the ignition and the windows are rolled down so we can listen to the radio while we work. Baptiste starts singing to a popular American ‘80s pop song, bopping his head to the beat. He explains it’s his favorite American song, but he doesn’t know what it’s about. It was once one of my favorite songs, too… but I was 11 and going to slumber parties. The song? Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun."
After our jam session, covered in dirt, we head into the farmhouse for lunch. Baptiste’s uncle, who goes by “Coco,” is waiting for us. Coco is a tall man and has been wearing the same jeans, gray t-shirt and suspenders for several days, maybe even weeks. His hands are stained black from decades of working the land, his Christmas wish must be to get back his three front teeth, and his thick beard looks as if it could be made of steel wool. I start to swat a fly from his thin, wiry hair, but realize it’s not the only one, and he probably doesn’t notice it anyway. Despite his exterior, I’m convinced he is an agricultural savant.
The dining room, too, is buzzing with flies, yet there’s an overwhelming smell of antibacterial cleaner. Wallpaper is peeling away from the walls, and a plastic tablecloth with a vegetable pattern covers the dining table. Neither of the two clocks on the wall still tick, but the TV is blaring international news. Amidst this bachelor-esque farmhouse, I’m served the most beautiful, French lunch. We begin with a big wedge of farm-grown melon followed by a green bean and tomato salad with chopped onion (which Baptiste dices perfectly in his hand, sans cutting board) and vinaigrette. Next, grilled meat is served, then cheese as our fourth course. To top it off, we’re drinking red wine out of Baptiste’s great grandmother’s crystal goblets. And finally, dessert: crème brûlée with a burnt-sugar crust.
After lunch, we head back into the fields to plant rows and rows of lettuce seedlings. This is truly backbreaking work, even after a few glasses o’vino. In about six weeks, the seedlings will have grown into full heads of lettuce, ready for harvesting. As Baptiste and I plant side by side, I ask what he’d be doing if he weren’t in charge of the farm. Without taking a breath, he smiles and replies, “selling women’s lingerie!” After one day with him, I’m not at all surprised. Tomorrow at our first marché of the week, we will sell the produce we loaded into the truck this morning. Despite five years of corporate sales experience, I have no doubt the French locals will vigilantly test my légume savoir-faire.