I am grateful to say that Jillian and Patrice took a chance on me to work as their property manager at La Bergerie for the month of May in 2012. My scheduled 10-day visit transformed into a 5-week adventure when they came to my rescue after my travel plans took an unforeseen turn. I spent the spring volunteering on a handful of farms around France as part of an organization called WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms). The organization provides hands-on agricultural education and affordable sustainable tourism opportunities for people of all ages who are willing to contribute their time and effort to maintaining their hosts’ facilities – be it their home, inn, farm, or garden. WWOOFers (as we’re called) work part-time for WWOOF hosts in exchange for room and board. The national chapters of the organization assemble directories for WWOOFers to research and contact hosts, who then decide if they can accommodate the volunteers.
I mentioned my French WWOOFing plans to Jillian before I left Toronto, inquiring about the possibility of WWOOFing at La Bergerie with some friends in exchange for a home stay. They enthusiastically accepted, excited about their first experiment with WWOOFing, and I couldn’t wait to experience this special place with close friends.
I had visited the property twice before, in the summers of 2005 and 2007. The property has never failed to move me into a state of awe. It offers the snapshot perfection of Provence, from the way the light filters through the vineyard rows, to the way the coquelicots spread across the lavender field and bathe the horizon with colour, or the way the moon rises over the mountain. It seeds Proustian sense memories: my love affair with figs began when I was swimming in the pool by the olive grove and a fig seemed to fall from the sky – more factually, it fell from the tree arching over the pool terrace wall. The warm air is sweetened by scents of rose, thyme, rosemary and lavender, while you can happily lose track of your rosé wine consumption (because you can buy it in a 5-litre box with a tap). And there is a particular type of awe reserved for when the famous Mistral wind blows at 95 kilometres an hour and yet there are still seasoned locals engaging in the Olympic-worthy sport of hanging wind-whipped laundry. La Bergerie is a timeless place, worth visiting over and over again.
In return for approximately five hours per day of help with raking, weeding and other gardening tasks, all my creature comforts were catered to with things that weary WWOOFers can come to especially appreciate. Yet these comforts were not restricted to soft beds and hot showers. Provençal creature comforts extended to sirop selections for preparation of daily aperitifs and tapas bowls of olives and other local treats for snacking. While sipping our Rosé wine, we enjoyed fresh locally grown produce served up as inventive dishes like Caponata with the freshest Burrata cheese. Our frequent visits to the legendary “cheese lady” of Vaison were part of our introduction to the regional fromage debate: which reigns supreme, St. Felicien or St Marcellin? And of course, Patrice’s inventive, delicious recipes could raise pyramids. Or, at the very least, they could (and did) temporarily lure a curious vegetarian into a decadent omnivorous diet.
While the food was frequently more than I could dream up, the treats in town also served up many a pretty surprise. We went on macaron tasting frenzies on trips to Vaison and Avignon. Toasted pine nut gelato? I don’t have much to compare this flavour to, but I’m still positive it’s something the French do best. The town bustled during the Tuesday market in Vaison, which has consistently been a highlight of my trips to the region. The stacks and stacks of beautiful vibrant ceramic bowls and platters made me wish I didn’t have to pack so lightly. I rummaged through the second-hand clothes tables for hidden gems between hungry glimpses at menus and lunch stands before eventually succumbing to an overstimulated salivary gland.
Even though there is an evident food-focus in my story here, I assure you that we did more than work, cook and eat. The warm days drew us outside into the sun, and when we were finished our gardening tasks for the day, we strolled through the steep winding streets of medieval Vaison La Romaine and then spent another afternoon hiking up the Dentelles de Montmirail (a breathtaking rocky mountain that casts lace-like shadows onto its neighbouring landscape). The vantage points from the mountaintop and the warm setting sunlight made everyone’s panoramic photographs effortlessly epic. There were also bikes at our disposal, and although we had many a bike route in mind, we were just as content spending time on the property.
It was at the end of my 10-day visit and my friends had carried on to other WWOOFing journeys. I left La Bergerie and headed north to Valence to catch the bus to my next farm. However, there had been a series of miscommunications with my subsequent WWOOF host and I was in a panic about being stranded in rural France. I contacted the Brets who came to my rescue and invited me stay at La Bergerie as the property manager for an additional 3 weeks while they returned to Canada.
The disclaimer is that I am not the greenest of thumbs. However, Jillian is a fearless gardener and shared her bountiful knowledge about the plants and caring for them through on-site demonstrations. In a moment of sentimentality, Patrice revealed how he had never been as committed to a house and garden as he is to this slice of paradise. Their excitement is written across their faces as they speak about the new blossoms they find and their plans to encourage new growth. Simply put, it is inspiring to work alongside the Brets. Their care springs from a true passion to share this place with others.
I continued working on the gardens in their absence, and I grew to love the place more day by day. I had never lived on my own for such an extended period of time. It was a unique meditative opportunity that enabled me to immerse in Provencal culture. I worked on my French language skills by conversing with locals, the neighbouring farmers, and the occasional flower. The early summer crops on the property allowed me to apply the knowledge I had accumulated at my previous WWOOF assignments, using the resources on hand by foraging for wild arugula in the coquelicot field, producing thyme and rosemary infusions, and attending to Jillian and Patrice’s coquelicot liqueur experiment. The strawberry festival in Carpentras had taken place just a few weeks earlier, and so we celebrated the season by indulging in baskets of berries. In an attempt to preserve the intense sweet flavour, I prepared strawberry freezer jam so that the Brets could enjoy it later in the summer. As well, the cherished apricot tree was bearing a bumper crop of fruit, and so I was happy to provide updates about the fruits’ infant-stage progress in enthusiastic emails. It was an invigorating environment to be a part of – even though I was living alone, I could feel a great force of lively growth around me. Each time I walked to the village, I eyed the cherries at the end of the driveway, waiting for them to ripen. In the last days of my stay, Erich, the neighbouring farmer, was in the orchard picking the fruit with his family and he invited me to join. Another unforgettable sense memory was born. I called a friend immediately after eating my first cherry off one of the trees to rave about its flavour and texture, though not before taking a commemorative photograph of the ideal fruit.
What more could I hope for? La Bergerie felt like a botany lab and well-stocked kitchen rolled into one in an unforgettable landscape. I have hardly had the time to mention the neighbouring towns and regions where we could hike and bike and learn and shop. I lived there for 5 weeks and there still wasn’t enough time to fit everything in.