It takes a lot to kill tradition in rural France. Despite the four-lane highways, nuclear power plants and increasingly popular fast foods, it clings to its way of doing things with admirable tenacity.
Here in the Drôme Provençale it’s not rare to meet people who have followed in their great-grandparents’ footsteps. Of four small businesses I visited, three had been started in the 1800s.
Round and Round
Take the Scourtinerie in the medieval town of Nyons, run by brother-and-sister team Arnaud Fert and Frédérique Villeneuve. They make scourtins, round woven mats once used to filter the olive residue on a manual oil press.
“Back in 1956 there were three large plants that made scourtins and ten olive oil mills here in Nyons,” said Arnaud Fert.
“But we had the great freeze and many olive trees died. After the freeze we had only one mill left.”
With most mills gone, their demand for scourtins disappeared, but grandfather Ferdinand Fert was not about to give up and go away.
“My grandfather saw that people were using scourtins to make welcome mats, so he decided to market the mats for decoration. We changed from the scourtin’s traditional beret shape to a round, flat one.”
And that’s still how they make them today.
When Arnaud and Frédérique’s great-grandparents started their business in 1882, scourtins were made from a straw-like fiber but new technology introduced powerful hydraulic presses and the old scourtins couldn’t handle the pressure.
After trying many types of rope great-grandfather Ferdinand Fert opted for the tough coconut fibers he had seen used in the port in Marseille; these fibers resisted water and could be washed and rinsed in boiling water. Come the end of the season they were reusable. So he copyrighted both the scourtin-weaving machine and this particular use of coconut fiber. A new industry was born.
Watching Frédérique weave her scourtins was not at all what I expected.
A scourtin starts off round, even if it ends up oval. First you fasten the metal needles – the aiguilles – to the core of the machine, like bicycle spokes. You weave in the fiber, which goes through a tube between the spokes from the center outwards. By the looks of it, it’s exhausting work, not to mention dangerous.
Once she finishes crocheting Frédérique will end up with a wavy scourtin so she’ll jump up on the table and stamp it down with her feet until it’s flat. This requires agility and energy and I would break my neck if I tried.
La Scourtinerie opened its doors more than 130 years ago and the miracle is that it still exists, however transformed, and that its days aren’t counted yet.
The renewed popularity of traditional oils is keeping old-fashioned mills alive and a few, in southern France and in Corsica, still use the original scourtin filters. Even wineries have started using scourtins in traditional vertical wine presses, which some believe produce better quality wine than modern presses.
The Scourtinerie isn’t the only local traditional business being managed by a fourth generation.
The Miller’s Daughter
Down the road, at the other end of the friendly town of Nyons, Nathalie Ramade is one of the few women in a world of male millers. She thinks nothing of shifting heavy tubes and concrete lid covers despite a rather obvious pregnancy.
“My grandfather was a colonial trader, especially in chocolate, and he decided to diversify by making oil. It was in the 1880s and he bought a mill, which his sons Georges and René inherited. But in 1956 the olive trees froze so the mill shut down until 1971 when my father Jacques, who was training to be a notary clerk, discovered he wasn’t made for the cubicle and decided to restart the mill.”
Jacques Ramade ran the mill until he died unexpectedly in 2000 and Nathalie, who was headed for a legal career, quit her studies and took over the mill, although she did get a bit of world travel out of her system before settling down.
“My father had never wanted me to work in the mill – he felt it was too hard for a woman, but I wanted to do it,” Nathalie said.
“There are a few more women now but it has always been a male profession. Everyone thought I’d fail and have to sell, especially since my father was secretive and didn’t really teach me about milling. I just absorbed and listened as a child.”
Nathalie loves her job, not just because of the machinery but because it puts her in touch with olive growers and with the entire olive farming world. She is becoming known beyond the region, both because of her own efforts and because of the fame of the Nyons olives and oils.
“You know, the more someone tells you shouldn’t do something the more you want to do it. This place holds all my memories of childhood. The house adjoins the mill so I grew up watching and smelling this place. I lived upstairs with my parents and my grandmother lived downstairs; now I live downstairs and my mother lives upstairs. It’s a real matriarchy here.”
A Truffle a Day
A half-hour’s drive away to the North, on the outskirts of the hill town of Grignan, Gilles Ayme tends his truffles, just as his great-grandfather Joseph-Pierre did back in 1870.
Gilles was born here, and this is where he has spent his life. With his wife Phala, he runs the Domaine Bramarel, a truffle plantation whose reputation goes far beyond the Drôme.
Each week, groups of curious truffle-lovers show up on his doorstep to learn more about this ‘Black Diamond,’ as the French black truffle is often called. They may be met by two dogs rushing madly up and down the rows of trees on the plantation.
“The dogs are hunting truffles,” said Phala, explaining the process in detail, clearly at ease with the technical jargon of the truffle world. They’ve replaced pigs, she explains. The dogs are perfectly trained to sniff out the truffles and to not eat them, quite a feat, as anyone who has dogs will understand.
The truffle holds a special place in French gastronomy and given its cost – hundreds of dollars a pound – it is worth the drive to the countryside. At that price I’d want to to inspect the produce first-hand.
In a modern world of which the Drôme is inevitably a part, the survival of businesses several generations old – however difficult or tenuous – is a welcome reminder that no, there wasn’t always a giant highway beyond those hills and yes, people once took their time making things.
Here in the heart of France, they often still do.
What you should know
- La Scourtinerie is located in Nyons, an easy walk from the center of town.
- So is the Moulin Ramade, but at the town’s other end. It takes less than 15 minutes to walk between the two.
- While at the Moulin, do cross the street to visit the Musee de l’Olivier, dedicated to olive oil. And don’t forget to buy some of those scrumptious black Nyons olives.
- For an unforgettable meal, visit Isabelle and Christophe in their cozy restaurant, Un Goût à l’Autre. They transform local delicacies – especially olives – into something very special and beautiful.
- You’ll also eat wonderfully at Une Autre Maison, a hotel-restaurant decorated with love and taste and a dose of whimsy. Great fun!