Our farm was in the Loir-et-Cher département of the Vallée de la Loire and my grandparents were in the less than glamorous business of goats cheese. They were one of several local producers who prided themselves on their traditional method of manufacture. No selling out to a dairy for them. They were protecting a heritage, preserving an idea, commemorating a past with the sort of love and attention it probably didn’t deserve — what had it done for any of us, this past?
No, the past had simply absconded and left behind a few farmhouses which gathered together in pretence of a village, although we were lacking even the necessary church to grant us such status. We barely even had a road, just a potholed track that blew in more dust than visitors. Once upon a time — so Pépé would tell me — the aristocracy lived there at the edge of the forest but they had migrated with the kings to Amboise and Chenonceau centuries ago, abandoning their petits chateaux, which were promptly demoted to the position of farmhouse or wine cellar. Remnants of grandeur lingered in the sun-faded tapestries and carved wooden ceilings but, year after year, roofs sagged further beneath the weight of an uncertain future and buildings leaned exhausted against the air.
I only understood this later, of course, when I returned to the farm as a teenager and spent a few years there before I came back to Australia to go to university. As a child I saw little more than cuddly goats and grandparents, fresh cheese for breakfast and the space to run and run and run, a collage of pastoral moments interrupted by my mother.
I can see us now as we traipse from stone room to stone room, our similarities. Her eyes the colour of almost-night. Char-edged gold. Our smallness, a thinness that would always reveal our stress and worry, hers marked but invisible to me then. And our foreignness, a quality that never failed to betray us, not just in accent, gesture or physical features, but in carriage, word choice and demeanour, a coolness that clung to our skin and set like ice around our hearts. Learned traits. I learned them from her. From whom did she learn them?
‘Our house used to be a petit château,’ I said to my mother as we walked.
‘Really?’ she said, feigning surprise with such authenticity I did not realise it smacked of the highly practised art of a liar.