Terry Wogan column

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Our columnist Terry Wogan ponders the lengths French farmers will go to protect their land

It’s winter, and, in Gascony, the shutters in every house in every little village are firmly closed. So, what else is new? The shutters are just as tightly shut whatever the season. It’s thought that it’s a thrifty French device to keep the heat in the house when it’s cold outside, and cool when the sun is splitting the hedgerows. I’m not so sure. Just as an Englishman’s home is his castle, so it is with the Frenchman. Except that the Frenchman’s drawbridge seems to be permanently up.

In this tranquil, off the beaten tourist track, the Gascon guards his privacy, and his land, fiercely. French farm dogs are not trained to nuzzle up to the stranger affectionately. Au contraire, approach them at your peril, for preference in full body armour, and that goes double for the dog’s owner.

A few years ago, an innocent guest at my son’s wedding, which was held in our house in France, having flown into Blagnac, Toulouse’s airport, hired the car, and made his way into our environs, lost his way among the narrow country roads, and drove his car through the entrance of a farmhouse to ask directions. He didn’t have to get out of his car, indeed he had only wound down the window when the farmer who had stormed out of his door, punched him in the face. The guest eventually found our house, slightly bruised and completely bemused. He enjoyed the wedding, but I don’t think he’ll ever be a Francophile.

Out of curiosity, I walked into a field not far from my house, to have a look at a tumbledown property, and found myself shouted at, and actually threatened by a large son of the soil, who I took to be the owner, who demanded to know what I thought I was doing on his property. He calmed down when I assured him that I wasn’t trying to make off with his rusty farm implements, or the slates from the roof of his wrecked house. I suppose I was lucky to get away without a black eye.

I realised just how lucky, when, a couple of weeks later, a farmer shot dead another stranger, who, he claimed, was trying to steal his truffles.

And yet, these agricoles, the very salt of the French earth,across whose thresholds you are unlikely ever to be invited,are the very ones who will greet complete strangers with a happy “bonjour”. They’re the same cheerful hospitable people who bid the foreigner welcome at the fetes and foires that happen every week in every village and hamlet of France throughout the summer. The same good-hearted folk who press upon the stranger plates of gesiers, sardines, frogs legs, snails, moules and frites.

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While I’m on the subject of the delights of our local cuisine, these people have never been afraid to push the boundaries of gastronomy to the limit. Having imported the big river rat, the coypu, from America, to exterminate the smaller local vermin infesting the ditches, they now cull the large rodent by the simple expedient of eating it. You’ll find it on the menu in Lot et Garonne, probably with a prune accompaniment, under the romantic euphemism of “Hare of the Pond”. Bon appétit!