How they do it has always been a mystery. We have every tool, fertiliser and deterrent known to man and yet are unable to produce more than three sunburnt tomatoes and a few sticks of rhubarb. Mr Nextdoor only used three things – an ancient hoe, a handful of fertilizer pellets, and a watering can. As well as his vines, fruit trees and strawberries, onions, garlic, varieties of lettuce, berms of asparagus, peas, beans, broccoli, tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, aubergines, cabbages, leeks, spinach, potatoes and carrots all grew obediently, in perfect rows and uniform height. Never was there a weed to be seen or a vegetable out of line, except for the coloquintes rambling over the fence, laden with their colourful decorative gourds.
Lastly, there was the vibrant row of chrysanthemums in shades of yellow, purple, rust and white, ready to be potted up and taken to the cemetery to decorate the resting places of departed family on Toussaint – All Hallows, the Day of the Dead in France. Which happens to be today. Chrysanthemums are almost exclusively used in France to celebrate this day – never offer them as a gift!
Mr Nextdoor had been the man of the family since his father died when he was 8 years old. His mother scraped a living dressmaking, and he went off to the fields at daybreak and worked until dusk on the family farm to grow the food to feed her, his two younger sisters, and himself. So he had all the experience he needed to defeat the forces of nature – disease, insects, drought and flood and apparently did so effortlessly. In a strange twist, Mr Nextdoor didn’t actually like or eat vegetables. He was an unusual Frenchman in that he had no interest in food, nor in wine, although he produced sufficient of both to supply a small town. His wife lamented the fact that he was impossible to feed as there was nothing he enjoyed eating. Given that he was as thin as a straw, active 7 days a week during every daylight hour, and had never smoked, it was unjust that his heart let him down. He had to have a 5-way bypass, and although it kept him going for a few years his health was never satisfactory after that.
To return to the enigma of the vanishing vegetables. While Mr Nextdoor was in some ways untypically French, he was far from unique in his vegetable growing. Every garden around (apart from ours) boasts similarly regimented and abundant vegetables, year after year. If all the locally-grown produce was put into a heap, it would probably smother the Eiffel Tower.
Why do they grow all these vegetables? Presumably to eat. So presumably they like eating them. Which leads to the enigma.
Why don’t the restaurants serve vegetables? With rare exceptions, main courses are accompanied by a small castle of white rice and a sad floppy dollop of once-green beans reduced by a process, it appears, of flagellation to within a millimetre of their lives followed by lengthy boiling to death until they assume a cadaverous greyness. A rare fragment of potato, a sliver of courgette, julienne of half a carrot, or a cherry tomato are a sight to make the heart leap with excitement.
It may not be a region famed for its food, but the Poitou-Charentes region has plenty of superb restaurants. Particular favourites of ours are the Lion d’Or in Chauvigny, the Charlemagne in Charroux, both of which have retained their high standard over the 20 years we have eaten there, and Bistrot du Boucher in Poitiers is where we always take guests, certain that the quality and service will be faultless. We have never had a meal at any of those establishments that was less than excellent. There are mediocre restaurants, and bad restaurants, just as there are anywhere in the world, but this is a region where you can eat really well, in a bistro, an unassuming restaurant or an elegant château.
One thing they tend to have in common, though, is the dearth of vegetables served. Maybe it’s our English upbringing, where a proper meal was considered to be meat and three vegetables, potatoes being compulsory, whether mashed, roasted, fried or baked, no meal is complete without the faithful spud. Yet servings of vegetables are almost as rare as hen’s teeth when we dine out, either in restaurants or French friends’ homes. And if any are served, they’re usually in minute quantities. Why? If the French grow vegetables because they enjoy them, don’t they want them when they go out to eat? Or do they just grow them to show they can? Or because it is traditional? What do they do with them?