The main activity I had (and still have) planned for my four months abroad is wwoofing in France. In this post I will tell you about my experience on my first farm, Ferme d’Olivet. I milked goats by hand, produced goat cheese, kneaded sourdough bread, went on half-day bike rides to neighboring towns and participated in multiple folk festivals. Of course there were disappointments too, but those quickly turned into lost memories.
But first to wwoofing in general. I’m amazed how many people do know what wwoofing is, however I think most people still don’t know.
What is wwoofing?
Wwoofing is especially popular in New Zealand and Australia, however the acronym stands for WorldWide Organization of Organic Farms. The name says it. It is a worldwide organization and yes there are PLENTY of farms in France, more than 1500. (Because I got this question a lot.) As a wwoofer you work roughly four hours a day, five days a week. In exchange the farm gives you lodging, food (and some great experiences).
Finding a farm:
There is a wwoofing website, where you make an account and buy a membership for the country you want to wwoof in. For me that that was France. It cost 30€ and lasts a year. Then you can search through all farms, sort by your preference (time, lodging, area, farming activities) and contact the farmers directly.
I messaged four farms for my first stop and got one reply, a rejection.
Nous ne prenons que des wwoofer qui parlent français, nous sommes désolé
Norb et Marie.”
Me, with my very basic school French thought she was smart enough to understand this sentence, so didn’t google translate it. I thought it meant “Sorry, we don’t take people who don’t speak French”. So I replied saying that I only barely speak French, not really much at all, so why couldn’t they take me? (Yes I was desperate for a farm at that time.) And the next reply:
“ok tu peux venir chez nous. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .!!!”.
Some days later I thought of google translating their first reply, don’t ask me why. And sure enough I had misunderstood. That original reply meant “Sorry, we only take people who speak French”. But luckily, I kind of cheated myself in.
Ferme d’Olivet in Reparsac, Charente
Ferme d’Olivet is in Reparsac. That’s a five-street town in the mid-west of France, about two hours north of Bordeaux. The aspects of their farm, that made me want to wwoof there were:
- the production of goat cheese
- traditional sourdough bread baking
- selling veggies on the market
- that they only spoke french
Marie and Norbert, both around 50 years old were the two farmers. They were very kind and funny, although in my opinion too often on their own phone or smoking. I didn’t expect that from old organic farmers on the country side. We didn’t communicate much, but our short conversations were entertaining and cheerful. Norbert taught me the word “truc” (“thing”), to describe anything.
There was one other wwoofer, that stayed all the time I did, Frederica from the Northwest of France. She translated all my jobs into a slow and very articulated French that I could decipher. Two other French wwoofers where there part of the time, Miche from Paris, and Murielle from Brittany, France. We had our own little house, “across the courtyard”, with bathroom, kitchen, bedrooms and a living room. The farm was like one big ring of houses that included the bakery, the two homes, the cheese and goat houses, car shacks and so on.
Our working shifts were a bit wishy washy. There were a few routines, like milking the goats daily, but many other aspects changed. We got up at 8:00, and worked from 9-13:00. Lunch was at 14:00 and then we were free till 19:00 when we had to milk goats again. Lastly we ate dinner together again around 21:00. Below I will give you an example of what a day could look like. (Although to be honest, it’s probably more a mix and match of different days)
We had to be in the kitchen at 8:15 for breakfast although Marie and Norb usually weren’t even there themselves. I still don’t get why, but whatever . . . The first two days I “suffered” through our sourdough bread with tasteless margarine and homemade jam – that’s really not my thing 😉 However one day we baked 800 apple tarts for a folks festival. I crammed out my Justin’s Maple Almond Butter to top them off. Tada, my breakfasts for the next week were covered. Then we baked pain aux raisins and brioche. Those satisfied my taste buds with goat cheese and homemade jams. However all of this is not a criticism of the farm, it’s just my lifestyle. The other French wwoofers were more than happy with their tartines (toasted bread, “butter”, jam). Marie and Norb only chose a bowl of black coffee with sugar for the morning hours.
9:00 Milking the Goats, in the Chevrerie (at 19:00 a second time)
Every day, we milked the goats at 9 o’clock. We first had six milking goats. Then one caught her head and strangled herself in the field . . . I’m not joking. So in the second week we only had five left. We milked them all by hand. At first that was kind of gross and very difficult. I was convinced there was no milk in the goat, but my practiced fellow wwoofers proved me wrong. Sure enough after two weeks my hand and lower arm muscles were much stronger and I was a pro of squeezing every last drop out. At the end I loved this job. I would even make sure to be awake in time on the weekends to help.
9:15 Bring Goats out to the Field
After milking the goats we brought them onto the field. It wasn’t easy to get them into their right fencing, but important, because fall is dating season. So Leon and Ïami, the two bucks had to be in two different fields, each with some datable female goats. Komalik, the grand mother, Biscotte and Ida, the two kids went in a seperate third field. Despite the order, it didn’t seem like everyone knew who was supposed to date who. One day Komalik started hopping on top of the two young ones.
9:45 Preparing Goat Cheese, in the Fromagerie
I was really excited about this part. If you know me well, you’ll know that I love to eat vegan, but am just as enthusiastic about any strong farm cheeses. Making goat cheeses ended up being much simpler than I thought, but the outcome was as delicious as I hoped. This was the process:
- 1st day: add fermentation liquid (2 drops per one liter) and whey (two ladles per liter) to the goat milk
- 2nd day: scoop the thick, pudding textured goat “milk” into plastic pots (about 10cm high)
- 3rd day: salt from the top (let’s call this side A and the other side, side B )
- 4th day: salt side A again, flip the (now 3 cm high) block of goat cheese onto your hand, and drop it into the plastic pot from the other side, salt side B
- 5th day: salt side B, flip onto your hand and put it onto the metal grid the other side around again, salt side A
- 6th day: salt side A, flip the other side around, salt side B
- 7th day: salt side B again and transfer into the fridge1
After transferring them into the fridge we could wait however long we wanted for an either “plus fraîche” (younger) or “plus vieux” (older) goat cheese. I liked them in all stages of ripening. The fresh ones, after seven days, were like the perfect cream cheese. The smaller, old ones were great for salads or by themself. There was also another Tomme de Chevre that Marie made, but we weren’t part of that process. The fermentation process was done on the stove with warmer temperatures. This made the final cheese a bit more spongy-dense, not so soft and creamy.
1Back to part about putting them in the fridge after 7 days of salting and flipping. To be honest, I don’t think the fridge was any colder than the rest of the room. Maybe it was just a way of organizing. The fromagerie was so chilly that I always ran to put on all layers I had, plus a vest, scarf, and hat before we came to work there. Marie and Frederica made fun of me asking where I had forgotten my skis, haha 😉
10:00 Coffee Break
I had explained to the other wwoofers, what I was doing typing on my computer all of the first afternoons. I was working on my Specialty Coffee Guide for Bordeaux, on European Coffee Trip. So in our coffee break, they at first didn’t quite make sense of why I didn’t want to drink any of their black coffee 😉 However now they know what specialty coffee is too!
What I made instead was my FALL SPICED-GOATIE LATTE. I’m just trying to make it sound fancy. All it was, was about 2/3 cup of boiling water mixed with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger plus 1/3 cup of fresh goat milk.
10:30 Cleaning the goat house
This could range anywhere from 15 min to a few hours. Some days we just swiped the floor and filled up the drinking buckets. Other days we had to remove all the stinky, dense hay-poop layers that where pounded onto the floor by the goats. Boy, when I lifted those stacks with the pitchfork, it was literally steaming from below. Luckily I know how to not breath through my nose for some hours, to just ignore the smell. It was quite disgusting and strenuous. Still I had fun, because you could really feel the success. I like that kind of work (where you feel like you have done something I mean, not the stink 😉 ).
11:00 Picking Veggies in the Garden
Marie’s garden wasn’t on the actual Ferme d’Olivet. It was about 500 meters away, in the town of Reparsac. Here she grew apples, pears, peaches, quinces and the whole array of ground veggies. The only ones we picked were tomatoes, green beans and zucchini. One day we also did a big garden clean that took a few hours. We dug new rows and planted seeds for the next season.
12:00 Peel Tomatoes & Co.
After picking the veggies, we sometimes had to process them too. Working with the tomatoes was definitely my least favoured job. I seriously detest fresh tomatoes, the stench makes me feel sick. Picking them was doable, but peeling them for an hour was the opposite of pleasant. We dropped them into boiling water, then peeled off the skin, cut off all the moldy spots (of which there were a lot) and cut them into large chunks for making jars and jars of tomato sauce or ratatouille, that Marie then sterilized to keep for the winter. She did the same with lots of her fresh veggies.
So so, that might have been an average weekly morning on the farm. Around 13:00 we were pretty much finished for the day. However some days were special, like Wednesday. Wednesday was market day.
The Bakery & Market Day
One reason why I chose this farm to wwoof was the “selling at the market” aspect. It turns out that the market was their bakery room. We sold our veggies (along with some from neighboring farms), the goat cheese, sourdough bread and sometimes pastries. About ten to fifteen people came. It wasn’t the same as selling on a real French market, but this was lots of fun too.
yes, that was "the market"
baking Brioche's in the wood fire oven
making pain aux raisins
pain aux raisin with goat milk – perfect!
That means Wednesday’s work looked quite different. After taking care of the goats and cheese Marie didn’t really give us any obligatory jobs. But technically they never said we were off for the day, so we hung around the kitchen waiting if we could help. I was interested in how Marie made the sourdough bread, so I asked and one Wednesday I got to be part of the whole process. She let me weigh and kneed all the breads. Another Wednesday Norb made brioche and pain aux raisins. He didn’t really need much of help though, but just watching, taking pictures and eating the results was nice too 🙂
My daily afternoons:
At first the afternoons were kind of boring. Once I had finished my article for European Coffee Trip one run didn’t entertain me the whole afternoon. Luckily, soon enough I discovered a sound bike in their collection of about 30 rusty ones. The next afternoons I started biking to neighboring towns, like Jarnac and Cognac. It was 8-12 12 each way, and the scenery was beautiful. I passed through vineyards, little pine forests and rode over bridges and hills, all whilst staring at the spectacular clouds in the sky. When I arrived I treated myself with a local patisserie, walked through the old alleways and took pictures. That’s all it needs to make me happy.
I went to Jarnac three times. It was the home town of François Mitterand, France’s president from 1981-1995. One day I went there with Frederica, my fellow wwoofer. We checked out the whole town, bought pastries and I found a little bio store with Karma Kombucha and fresh carrots (I was missing some fresh, raw veggies on the farm). The second time I went by myself. It was beautifully sunny, so I tried the bakery’s homemade ice cream – “fait à la maison”, like almost everything in France. I obviously took the local flavor cognac-raisin. It was awesome, as well as the pistachio, my new ice cream favorite.
This was also the first chance I had, since arriving on the farm, to take pictures of an instagrammable treat 😉 So it was time to make this ice cream into a french styled, dainty sundae. I chose a chocolate praline and cookie (all homemade by the bakery too) to top the scoops off – tada!
Yes, Cognac is the town where Cognac is made. But I didn’t come here for the Cognac. I actually rode here on a Saturday morning and spent the day. This town is a bit larger than Jarnac and had some nice old buildings, but again not too much too offer. My day started at the local market. I bought fruit for the next farm breakfasts some oysters to snack on immediately.
Parc François 1er
Then I took a long stroll through the parks, and came back for an afternoon hot chocolate and fondant au chocolat in a little café. This was my first fondant au chocolat in France. It definitely wasn’t the best, but not knowing exactly what to expect, I loved it. It was like a brownie, filled with brownie batter.
This same Saturday evening, it turned out that the farmers went out for dinner. So Frederica and I would have dinner to ourselves. We were a bit fed up of eating the same cold cucumber-tuna-orzo every day and looked forward to our chance of a change. However I imagined home cooking, while she wanted to go to a cute little “Epicerie” that she spontaneously spotted earlier that day. First I only wanted to spend money on my instagrammble ice cream treats, and not on eating dinner out at “any random place”. Still I came, and it was great! This cute little “Epicerie” ended up being in Cognac. I had actually even spied it out for lunch that day, but it was closed at that hour. We had a fine French dinner. It cost 35€ but was a full spectacular menu with four courses and wine.
Three different “Folk” Festivals
“12KM EVENING MARCH”
⇒ The first “folk festival” I participated in was a 12km evening march through the neighborhood towns of my farm. It started at 19:30 and included five stops for the dinner courses. First came an aperitif, then the appetizer, next the main meal (steak & fries, yay!), then French pre-dessert, cheese, and lastly dessert. The food was quite French, meaning every meal had cheese or meat. Nothing really tasted great. Still I enjoyed it all. From the way the people acted around me to the dancing locals with live folk music it all felt very French. Marching through the vineyards and marshes in the dark, late at night was fun too. Yes, we arrived at the last stop shortly before midnight. This last stop wasn’t just any stop though, it was my farm! We wwoofers actually made the roughly 800 apple tarts with Marie and Norb, since 7am in the morning. So luckily the long meal ended with a good treat!
FESTIVAL DES ARTS ET JEUX
⇒ Another event, on a neighboring farm, was called Festival des Arts et Jeux. It had some boutique stands, other ones to inform and teach, and more with activities and games. My farm helped out by baking patisseries, sourdough bread and pizza, (with mustard instead of tomato sauce, mushrooms, trout, olives and goat cheese) for their food area. Marie also had her own both, where she sold goat cheese. I didn’t have to help, so I benefited from being a free guest here.
First I went to the “My Secret Garden” stand. Here I had to write down 26 personal words, from A to Z, of my “secret inner garden”. Afterwards everybody painted their favorite on the concrete – I chose my “g” word, which was gourmande. Short anecdote:
Three people, independently from one another, called me a “gourmande” here on the country side in France. I guess its similar as if people in the US would call me a foodie. However in the US I feel like it is in relationship with blogs and instagram, whereas “gourmande” in France is a more sophisticated long-existing version. In Germany, I don’t think people have an adequate adjective like this. It’s just not part of the culture. I think, only because the French are traditionally gourmandes themselves, they have the awareness of this property and used that adjective on me. But I like it 🙂
Back to the Festival des Arts et Jeux. The next booth I visited taught about waste in the modern world. An average French wastes 63€ yearly, on bread they throw away. So at the end the two ladies shared their pudding recipes for stale bread with me. Then us wwoofers relaxed in the sun before heading back to milk the goats. We came back afterwards, in time for me to try a farm-veggie galette while listening to the local French band singing American folk music.
⇒ One further “event” I went to was in a large community garden from the non-profit environmental association called Jardin Respectueux. It’s like a local jungle in the town of Cognac. Art and nature are combined to guide and teach visitors how to live consciously with the environment today. Every Thursday, all summer long they had a pizza party. For that, my farm brought the goat cheese. Thus, the connection how I ended up being incorporated in their last, special pizza night.
they dressed up as part of the social play
The members of the Jardin Respectueux organized a social play that was supposed to portray our society today. Every guest had their own little hollow pumpkin with “money” (pumpkin seeds). On the “auction”, that was organized before dinner, one could buy “words” with the pumpkin seeds. If another person said the word that somebody bought, he would have to give them some of their money . . . At the end a “revolt” was planned were the guests were supposed to overthrow the “banks” of the “capitalist rulers” (those were the members of the Jardin Respectueux who organized this). – Again, the whole evening was quite an exciting French experience. Even though my mom’s pizza tastes worlds better, I couldn’t have eaten it in this environment with drunk French wine drinkers dancing Cancan. 😉
Two Day Excursion to Aurelie’s vineyard
The Jardin Respectueux is also where I met Aurelie. Her family owns the organic GUY Pinard vineyard, along with the little, organic La Goule brewery. She offered me to stay at her place a few nights to get to know another “farm” life. Marie and Norb were totally fine with it. So “Pourquoi pas? ” I’m really glad I went. It was a great change of food, people and atmosphere.
The mornings I had to myself. Here is the first time where I got to try oil pulling, an ayuverdic detoxification procedure, where you swirl oil through your mouth 15min in the morning after getting up. I had just read on the gratitude daily blog the day before. (This has nothing to do with the vineyard though, incase I’m confusing you. Just a side comment on my mornings.) After a sanitized mouth I peacefully ate breakfast. Those included fresh pastries from the local bakery with figs and pears from the garden.
Whenever I was ready I went to help the brother on the vineyard, and the grandma prepare lunch for all. The lunches were great. The whole group of around 10 winemakers and beer brewers came together at 12:30 for a social feast. Our home-cooked multi course lunches awaited them. The first day it was melon, wrapped in Serrano, baguettes with great butter and salt, then ratatouille with grilled sausages, next a green salad with vinagirette, second to last the platter of cheeses and for dessert a fluffy apple cake. That recipe was surprisingly easy, and the outcome was a simple but seriously delicious. Something that “plain cake” eaters and crazy pastry fans like me both enjoy.
In the afternoons I was allowed to help however much I wanted, and chose that timing by when I wanted to escape for a run. Aurelie and her daughter were back home in the evening. That is when I spent time with them in their adorable pink-yellow-blue kitchen. We had home-baked tartiflette with simple French salads for dinner. Afterwards I played dolls with the daughter and read night-time stories (although she was the one who read, my French wasn’t sufficient 😉 ).
Those two days gave me a great to insight into how a vineyard works. I got to see all I needed, helped a bit, and learned some great dishes that I want to recook when I’m back home. Still, when I came back to Ferme d’Olivet, I felt like I had arrived at home again.
emptying expired Raisin Bulle
in the brewery
Conclusion of my first time wwoofing in France:
My first wwoofing farm wasn’t perfect, but thinking back to it makes me smile. I felt welcomed like at home, and got to experience a great array of different things. Nothing is perfect, so I should maybe stop complaining about the cold cucumber-orzo salad and only name the wonderful parts:
• • •
The way Norb and Marie lit up when I wanted to learn more things.
The way they smirked when they told me a bunch of stuff and I understood nothing.
Literally getting stronger in milking goats every daily.
Savouring every different version of our goat cheese at different ripening levels.
Eating real, multi-course lunches (instead of brunch and linner, which is my usual lifestyle).
Kneading bread with Marie on Wednesday for the market.
Participating in the “folk-festivals” and encountering other French people.
Beautiful bike rides to Jarnac and Cognac.
The pink-yellow-light blue kitchen in Aurelie’s home on the vineyard.
Evening runs through the rolling wine hills.
Living a French life . . .
. . . and not being able to escape it any more than with my almond butter, was great. I love to admire different cultures, and am happy that they still exist in this globalized world. The French one includes people dancing Cancan to folk-music. I thought that only existed in movies. Secondly, living here and not acting like a tourist, is where I started to realize the French gourmandise. Although not all gourmandes favor the same foods as me, all French are gourmandes at heart. That is enough to fascinate me.
Picture Creds: Miche, the other wwoofer (and me)