A meal at a French ferme auberge starts with ingredients grown on the family farm, prepared according to local tradition, then presented for your enjoyment in a simple, rustic setting that perpetuates a sense of place.
The ferme auberge is a farm restaurant, and around 400 are scattered around France, including Corsica, all part of the national network Bienvenue à la Ferme (Welcome to the Farm).* Established in 1988 as an initiative of the French Chamber of Agriculture, its prime objective is to serve the interests of farmers by encouraging them to take greater control of their markets and, in particular, to add value to their produce.
In the eyes of the Chamber the interests of gastronomic tourists might have been incidental but fermes auberges offer an unparalleled opportunity to experience and learn about regional French traditions in the most pleasurable way.
As restaurants, fermes auberges are subject to the same regulations and controls as all French restaurants. What differentiates them is their supply system: almost all the ingredients that appear on the table are produced by the farm, and if not from the farm then from the immediate vicinity from another member of the network. In addition, they must be family enterprises; the farm is not allowed to lease out the space to a commercial caterer.
You won’t always find a ferme auberge within easy reach from wherever you’re based, and they’re not necessarily easy to access. You need a car plus a series of highly detailed Michelin maps, an experienced and patient navigator and at least a basic command of the French language for those occasions when, almost inevitably, you realise you’ve lost your way and have to ask directions at the local Café des Sports. Or a car with a navigational system; fortunately, most fermes auberges now include GPS coordinates on their websites.
But these minor challenges only heighten appreciation of the rewards – such as the discovery of épine, a home-made apéritif based on the spring shoots of wild sloe bushes from the nearby forest, macerated in red wine and sugar, enriched with alcohol. Or a terrine of wild boar in upper Provence, where hunting is a serious business and its trophies are carefully preserved for the table. Or, on a goat dairy where the unforgettable aroma of goat was all-pervasive, a simple but delectable entrée of lightly crumbed fresh goat cheese with a salad of bitter greens.
Gastronomic gratification aside, fermes auberges have a more serious vocation. While membership of ‘Bienvenue à la Ferme’ brings promotional benefits – guidebooks and pamphlets, distinctive logos and signage – as well as consumer recognition of, and trust in, its brand, it also entails certain obligations. The charter insists on a personal welcome, the option of a guided tour of the farm, and adherence to a prescribed set of standards: the dining room has to conform to the architectural character of the region, ingredients must be fresh (preserved and frozen foods are allowed only when they originate from the farm), and proper serviettes must be offered (no paper).
It was only natural, then, that lunch at La Ferme de Mont Saint-Jean, in the foie gras territory of south-western France, should be followed by a visit to the barns where the ducks are fed. Our €20 menu, by the way, started with Assiette de produits de la ferme – foie gras, duck rillettes, salted duck breast and confit hearts, with salad greens from the garden; then duck confit with potatoes cooked in duck fat; and a crème brûlée with raspberries and strawberries and other red fruits, all accompanied by a jug of local wine.
In late spring the weather was warming and the last of the ducks had been despatched, but Madame described to us the whole process. They buy one-day-old ducks, keep them indoors for about three weeks until the feathers have grown, then release them into small paddocks where they enjoy the open air for the next 10-11 weeks before moving to the barn. By law, gavage can only start once the birds reach 14 weeks. Madame showed how they hold the ducks between the knees to feed them corn through a funnel, morning and night, taking about a minute and a half for each bird. After two weeks, and growing from about 4 kg to 5-6 kg, the ducks go to a nearby industrial kitchen to be slaughtered, and the team from the farm, with the help of professionals, prepares all the products for sale from the farm shop or use in the restaurant.
Her explanation gave an entirely new perspective to gavage. Rather than feeding by force, it is perhaps closer to lot feeding. After a few days getting used to it, the ducks are quite willing to be fed, especially since they know and trust the farm staff. Whey they’re little they follow my husband around, added Madame.
And this is the uniqueness of the fermes auberges. Every restaurant in the region serves foie gras and confit, but none of them tells the stories that illuminate the tradition and educate the eater. Fermes auberges give the tourist an entrée into the local culture, not only its gastronomy but also its history, its politics, its sights. We would never have discovered the old baker’s oven and other relics of rural life in the Musée de la Vieillardière, in the tiny village of Leigné-sur-Usseau, had we not chosen to stay at the nearby Ferme Auberge La Blonnerie – nor would we have had the opportunity to admire Marie-France Massonet’s prize-winning flock of Dorset Down sheep.
And if you’re willing to engage with your hosts and with other guests, you can learn a lot about France and the French. At La Blonnerie’s long table we joined a group of Parisians on a cycle tour of the region and had an animated discussion about politics, rugby, the advantages of living in the capital and the benefits of bicycling as we enjoyed lapin à la moutarde, a selection of local goat cheeses and fresh cherries from the farm’s orchard.
Finally, fermes auberges offer fantastic value, given the quality and quantity of the meal – around €20-30 for a fixed menu of three or four courses, generally with wine. “On y mange bien, et pas cher” (You eat well, and it’s not expensive), confided my fireman neighbour at another ferme-auberge, Les Collines, in Charolais country. There’s also the sense of adventure in travelling to the source of the food rather than the food travelling to you.
The benefits are not simply one-way. Fermes auberges provide employment opportunities and encourage the maintenance of the family farm; they attract visitors to the countryside (mainly locals from the towns, but some tourists); and, through the insistence on authenticity – not only in the food served but in the décor, tableware and general ambience – they help maintain tradition that might otherwise vanish with the passing of a generation.
Many fermes auberges are open year-round, though usually closed one day each week, while others operate only in the tourist season, typically June to September. Most require reservations at least a day in advance. Full details are provided on the Bienvenue à la Ferme website or in the Bienvenue à la Ferme booklet for each region, usually available at tourist offices; look for the red table-setting logo that identifies the fermes auberges. At the same time, take advantage of the other forms of farm hospitality, such as a picnic lunch or a rustic apéritif at a winery.