Lambs in the City

This is a shaggy dog story.

It is Easter, which is possibly one of the loveliest times of the year. The days are lengthening, Spring flowers surprise you, birds sing again, wild garlic proliferates and every year I plan to use those delicious leaves for some kind of foraging recipe.

Easter is also when I made one of my first trips to France with my husband, Marc, when he had a business importing wine from independent vignerons or wine makers in France. We were married at Easter and all of my friends congratulated me on the coup of pulling off marrying a wine merchant. To the uninitiated, a world of wine tastings sounds glorious – surely it is hardly work at all, they said.

We began in Paris in one of the big commercial venues under the Louvre. We tasted wine all day and in the evening went to supper with friends in the 4th arrondissement. It was supercool (pronounced with French “r”s). Sophisticated people, they were all wearing leather, smoked through the meal and ate little. I had recently discovered the wonder of matching wine with food, but my palate was rather ruined on that occasion and the most I could rise to was an awareness that the red wine went surprisingly well with the salad.

I had been promised a few days in Paris in the Springtime but it was not to be. At 6.30am the following day we left the sleeping Parisians and hurtled to the Alsace  530km away. We were due for lunch and barely made it. We left the graceful elegance of an apartment in Paris for a farmhouse from Hansel and Gretel. Apologising for our tardiness, we were ushered into the barn which had been laid out for an enormous lunch. Our host’s wife was frazzled and anxious because I had missed the women’s sitting.

I joined the men who had placed their rows of wines by their plates and there was a hearty and liberal “dégustation” of both wine and the pork stew going on. I began to understand why madam felt I should have been in the earlier sitting.

The vignerons had enormous hands like vines – gnarled and whorled and they dipped their spoons into the stew with great pleasure.  Their search yielded pigs tails, trotters and ears as evidence that the division of the sexes began with lunch, where daintier pieces of meat were served to the women while the robust cuts were left for the men.

The Alsatian wines were lusciously fruity. To pronounce “fruité” in French you need to open your whole mouth – something like the experience of learning to shuffle a wine around your mouth to fully unearth its length and depth. Those Gerwurtztraminers were heavenly with the pork.

We proceeded to the tasting itself. More of those lovely, unappreciated wines – Rieslings and Pinot Noirs. Discussion about vinification processes and a quest to find words to describe what we found. For many years, while we had the wine business, I would help write the wine descriptions. Sometimes inspiration ran dry and that is when I found it helpful to explore analogies of what the wine was wearing. These wines wore jeweled garments, treasures which rarely make it to the consciousness of British people where there is still a distrust of wines which are associated with Liebfraumilch or Blue Nun.

And so we returned to the barn again where we had a different cut of pork – soft pink, almost white, glistening meat, which struck me as odd at the time. It is only now that we have awoken to the dangers of colouring our food artificially because we have views on how food must look to be palatable. This was old fashioned but delicious food and there was no gender divide at this sitting. Everyone ate heartily, although the vignerons were now drinking beer. Perhaps you can have enough of delicious wine.

The following morning we left again at 6.30am. This time we were bound east to collect Muscadet from Bruno, a wine maker who had invited us to supper. Once more we drove all day, at pace, with no time to stop but plenty of time to look at the unfolding landscape. Wine growers talk a great deal about barrels and vinification processes. Those people my husband worked with were often very small producers and so their wines would never make the shelves of the big stores. One wonderful man, who made a luscious Rosé in the Tavel region was one such.

Thierry, with his Dalmatian puppy, welcomed us when we turned up to collect just ten cases of six bottles one early summer’s day. He showed us around his very modest barn and, as vignerons do, he showed us how from grape to bottle the wine was produced. Land in Tavel is not available often, it is not cheap and he had saved up to buy a plot of land which allowed him to produce about 1,000 bottles each year. He had bought another plot which was wooded. By night he worked in a hospital, by day he cleared the forest, like a cheerful Jean de Florette. He was resourceful. We know that to stop climate change we will have to do more than recycle. Here was real recycling such as our grandparents would have known. Amongst many innovations, he had created a small engine with which to label his bottles, using a fan belt from an old 2CV.

Outside, his garden housed his tractor, the narrow type you see all over vineyards in France which straddle the vines. Old parts of tractors littered the grass. We moved from Jean de Florette to an inversion of Proust. “Le jardin, c’est le désespoir de ma femme,” he told us with evidently no intention whatsoever of remedying the situation. It is difficult to render that statement adequately in English because to say that “the garden is the despair of my wife” doesn’t really convey the existential anguish of the French version. But he did indeed have more than enough to do and clearing the back garden was not likely to figure any time soon.  Thierry was literally uncovering the land at the back of house for his vines and for the sake of this story we will skirt over any deforestation concerns as this was small beer.

The French for land is “terroir”. Terroir is all in all in wine making. The terroir of the Loire, which was our next stop on this whistle stop tour of three points of the French compass, is responsible for the granite, minerally taste of the Muscadet we were buying. On this, my first trip, my head seemed to be filled with the whole of France.  On the Friday I had first caught the train from the Alps at the end of a school trip, speeding to the Gare du Nord, watching  mountains give way to city. From Paris we had gone to the Alsace, territory that proves that borders reflect prevailing power rather than natural human divisions. The Alsace region has moved between Germany and France so often that during the Second World War there were great tales of kinship amongst those living in the area when it was annexed by Germany.  The French living in Alsace had German relatives and worked together to protect their fine wines. Wines also transcend national boundaries – you can’t annexe the taste of a terroir. Ingenious tales of protecting the best wines in cellars across the region from the Nazis included children being sent off to find enormous cobwebs with which to deck barrels of new wine.

Bible stories are never far away when you are in agriculture. According to the parable you would not put new wine in old skins. But you might well make new wine look old to protect the finest vintages from being plundered.

Moreover, the Lent readings from John’s Gospel are littered with references to the new covenant which Christ brings. He is the true vine. Jews commemorate their release from physical slavery in the rituals of the Seder meal, drinking glasses of wine. The Last Supper institutes a new memorial, honouring the Christian belief in liberation from the slavery of sin. Vineyards, vines, wine, its storage and its drinking pervade the Gospels.

When you eat and drink with people producing wine as a small business you are privileged enough to savour the same sweetness of the harvest while honouring the back breaking work which has gone into its production. When you eat at the same table as those who have produced the wine, you begin to understand why the fruits of the earth yield not just physical but spiritual nourishment. Each meal is a chance for stories too – presumably the parable of the new skins arose because someone had been unwise enough to store their wine in the wrong way. And just as the parables raise as many questions as they do answers, so those stories around the table generate debate. “My wife thinks last year’s vintage was the best. But I disagree,” and down to the cellar our host goes to prove his point. That evening in Muscadet was a story in itself – Bruno went down to the cellar many, many times to prove his point and so we enjoyed a most unusual longitudinal tasting of a wine that is meant to be just drunk young. The night was long and we made our way back to the hotel very slowly on a footpath through the vines in the moonlight.

Eighteen years on, my husband no longer runs the wine business. We live in London now but the interest in agriculture, which was a profound part of his interest in the wine trade, has been replaced by the development of a small farm here on the site of our Ealing school.  At St Augustine’s Priory we are blessed with 13 acres of land. Two years ago, the Science department hatched chicks. We are a girls’ school and we enjoy taking risks. So when the chicks needed to be cared for over weekends and holidays we engaged families in the enterprise. The chicks soon became too big to be transported to people’s homes and so they lived during the Easter holidays in one of the science labs. Girls and parents came in over the holidays to tend to them. This attention began to take on aspects of Virgil’s Eclogues or other ancient texts identifying aspects of a return to a pre-lapsarian paradise.

In Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, he foretells the birth of a child who will herald the return of justice and peace to the world. Virgil brings together several themes, prophesying a second Golden Age. In this new era, the world of nature will cooperate in producing what is needed. Natural enemies like wolves and sheep will be reconciled and war between nations will cease. Echoes of Isaiah in this land of milk and honey show the human yearning for peace and the beauty of a country idyll, which those in the modern city are hard pressed to find. And while Virgil had saffron, purple and scarlet sheep, we had multi-coloured chicks, marked with safe and natural food colouring by the girls in different colours so that they could tell them apart. A sense that we should probably halt this grooming coupled with the growing smell and an imminent Open Day meant that we delivered them outdoors to a large chicken coop. There, T-Pex, our cockerel, upset the neighbours every morning with crowing that we thought charmingly rural.

This very small-scale operation began to show us that the need to connect with animals and the earth is a profound human instinct, and in times of political nastiness and terrible human discord we began to see a way to draw together a new kind of pastoral care. We are physical beings and a proper connection with livestock as well as the earth reminds us of that. Not surprisingly research is endorsing this – twenty minutes a day weeding will reduce anxiety. The effect of simply being surrounded by green trees is increasingly proven to benefit mental health.

Micro pigs were introduced to our farm and they now rejoice in palatial quarters with a large sun roof like an EYFS covered area to protect them and girls, families and staff with their families tend both the chickens and pigs. The “black gold” which is collected from the pigs (we love a euphemism) is used to fertilise our roses and the allotment. Meanwhile, my husband brought a number of rare breed sheep to the school. The sheep are moved around the grounds and help keep awkward banks of grass under control. They provide an idyllic vision of pastoral contentment as you walk from the school car park to the reception. They are very small and so many people mistake them for goats but we won’t quibble too much about the biblical muddle of that.

The sheep are a cross of Ouissant and Soay varieties, and the Ouissant are an endangered breed from the Hebrides. When we tried to catch them for the first time we understood why every shepherd we had encountered when we lived in the West Country wouldn’t entertain having them in their flock. They might well be endangered because they are so resistant to being corralled, caught or generally attended to. This matters for our story because this Easter, the ewes were in lamb and the conundrum of outdoor lambing in the city presented a new set of challenges.

Outdoor lambing in Dorset where we lived for a long time, is very common – not all farmers can afford big sheds. There, new-born lambs are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of disease and predators in the way of rooks and other birds which attack the eyes of any lamb that looks vulnerable. In the first years of our marriage, we would often look after a sheep farm for friends and one of the daily jobs in the lambing season was to go around the fields looking for dead lambs or those that looked weak so that we could protect them. There was a grim task of collecting the trailer to put the lamb in the dead pit when required. These were big enterprises with up to 1,000 ewes and 2,000 lambs.

Our very small scale lambing began well but in the first weeks we lost two lambs to foxes. The urban predator is bold and strolls past humans at all times of the day without a care. So Marc investigated ordering a crook  – Amazon only delivered party crooks and so another site, Shearwell, sent us what he needed in a moment where the 21st century meets the biblical age. With lambs and ewes caught and fenced up in new configurations he applied spray deodorant to the surrounding area. Foxes are put off by human smell it seems. The remaining lambs were coated with tar. Our desire to protect these little lambs, who are impossible to catch and who are vulnerable but impervious to human ministrations provided, of course, a new understanding of the symbol of the lamb from Old Testament to New. In the Middle East shepherds know their sheep well, knowing if one is missing, some calling each one by name, as Jesus calls us.

In the parable, the shepherd will do anything to catch the lost lamb. Imagine experiencing that in West London. Imagine our grief for our lost lambs. Even now, every morning we are worried until we know they have survived the night. One of the parents who helps with the farm speaks of feeling about the lambs as she would a child. Love and compassion, an understanding of the food chain, fragility and a desperate desire to let our sheep safely graze has given a new grace to this Eastertide.

Listen to Bach’s beautiful cantata, ‘Sheep may safely graze’.  You will hear a poignant counterpoint to the joyful melody. The Passion of Christ, that most moving of all narratives reminds us year on year of the trials of humanity, of the agony suffered by many. But every year, Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. We hear the stories of Easter so often we might overlook their profundity. We hear the Bach so often we might miss its clever balance of joy and grief. The music mirrors our need for peace, for the lion (or the fox) to lie down with the lamb. During Eastertide we remember that the Lord has indeed visited his people and redeemed them. We are a people of hope. The music finds resolution – we just need to open our eyes and our ears like the people walking to Emmaus.