Harvest, Moissons & Vendanges

Originally posted on & updated on 2nd June, 2024

Here is the latest contribution from Beth in Occitanie who’ll be very soon be preparing her secateurs for what is one of the most exciting (and tiresome) time of the year in all corners of France. We often talk about nature on our French Blog; fresh air, space and land are amongst the many reasons people are to buy property and move to this beautiful country. 

“The countryside in a temperate climate offers an ever-changing landscape. As one season evolves to the next, weather fluctuations are especially apparent in a fruit-growing area like ours in southwest France. During the winter, fragile woody fingers of snoozing fruit trees get a light dusting of frost. It’s a magical sight.

Many cereal fields lie dormant at this time, though not all. Some are covered in knobbly brassica duvets, while others are planted with winter wheat. The young crops with tufty grass-like topknots colour the landscape for ages.

In spring, just like the wildlife, orchards light up, bursting with colours and scents. Pastel blossoms with vibrant centres send pollinators crazy. I wonder whether getting tipsy on the intoxicating perfumes hanging in the air is possible. It sometimes feels that way.

The halcyon days of summer are a tough time for farmers here. They live by the seasons, the moon, too. These are the weeks where much of the harvesting is done, and it continues into the autumn. Let me explain the moon thing.

Lunar farming is about learning to farm according to the moon’s phases. Just as it influences the rise and fall of tides, the moon also has a gravitational effect on the moisture in plants, the soil and water table. These effects are magnified at different times of the month’s moon cycle.

The tides are highest, for example, during the new and full moon when lunar gravity pulls water up. At the same time, the moon causes moisture to rise in the earth. This encourages seeds to swell, burst and sprout because that’s when they absorb the most water.

After the full moon decreases, energy concentrates on plant roots. It’s when the above-ground leaf growth slows down. This is the time to plant root crops and bulbs. Fourth-quarter moons produce less gravitational pull and moonlight and are considered the best time to cultivate, harvest and prune. Our farmers know a thing or two about this stuff.

Towards the middle of July, under a waxing moon, fields of perky-eared golden wheat began to disappear. It’s harvest time. Christophe, a farmer neighbour, combines at night, a period when he’s convinced the crops are at their best. And he’s not alone. Conversely, fruit picking tends to happen at the other end of the day.

From around 5 am, orchards come alive with banter and song as teams of fruit pickers, usually from Spain and Italy, begin work. Fruit crate cadeaux from local farmers appear on our doorstep. The flavours of gifted uber-fresh plums, greengages, apples and apricots are sensational. They may be coming out of our ears by mid-August, but nothing gets wasted.

I’ll spend happy hours making chutneys, conserves, desserts, and tartes. Any leftovers are shared among friends. It’s something we all do. This is also the period where oceans of bright yellow faces light up the landscape. It’s impossible not to smile back. These are sunflowers, often destined to be used for oil, and they’re stunning.

Meanwhile, the grapes are quietly ripening. Green and purple beauties burgeoning in the sun will be harvested soon. A famous ‘eater’ here is the Moissac Chasselas, a white grape packed with sweet goodness. A bunch or two always graces our table during the season.

The grape harvest is called les vendanges in French and typically takes place between September and October, depending on the grape variety and climate. For instance, in the Beaujolais area in the north of Lyon the grapes (Gamay) are usually picked in August, allowing to produce the famous Beaujolais Nouveau in time for the third Thursday of November. All grapes in this region must be picked by hand, similarly to Champagne; hand harvesting is only mandatory in these two regions in France. The time of day for picking is also important. In warmer regions like Provence, grapes are often harvested early or late in the day. This is because the crushed fruit is stored in cellars, stabilised at lower temperatures, and reacts badly if picked during the day’s heat.

Major wine-growing areas employ pickers on temporary contracts or market the period as a working holiday. So long as participants are healthy and dead keen to experience the revered vendanges, they’re welcome. Family and close friends usually manage the smaller vineyards. It’s one of these we’re involved in.  

At some point in the autumn, we’ll be summoned with secateurs to our friends’ little vineyard. Yves and Rosie lead the way to their vines, heavy with purple grapes. Our job is to snip fat bunches and place them into buckets. As we work, an ancient tractor driven by grand-père rumbles slowly up and down the rows. It tows a trailer with an old machine on top, which looks like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. There’s nothing hi-tech with our pals’ methods; still, the process works like a dream.

We’ll exchange village gossip and learn new French words (being the token anglais, everyone feels compelled to teach us something) as the production line of filled buckets is handed to the wringer operator. He pours the gubbins into a funnel, which feeds the contents through the munching machine into large receptacles.

Cheers echo around the vineyard when the final bunch is clipped. Weary but happy, we return to the farmhouse, where more family and friends have gathered. While Yves pours the spoils into huge vats, we wash sticky purple fingers and settle down to celebrate the completed vendanges. And it always begins with a sampling session of Yves’ last year’s wine, which, by the way, is delicious.

Against a backcloth of gracefully fading crops, Rosie calls us to trestle tables stacked with food. Our traditional repas continues into the evening as the stars light up the night sky. It’s our friends’ way of thanking all those involved. Truly? Country living doesn’t get much better than this.”

Perhaps a glass of wine Beth? With the Foire des Vins period approaching, why not discover great wines from the experts at the Great Wine Co, they have a fantastic selection from France and around the world, at all prices!

For more real-life stories in rural France, check out Beth’s news and excellent books on her FatDogs X (twitter) feed. And if you and your family are aspiring for a new lifestyle why not check our French farmhouses and character countryside houses.

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