There comes a time in every man’s life when he must buy some chickens. Especially in France, where the national symbol is a puffed-up rooster, and every shop in town sells great sacks of chicken-feed. Never mind, having grown up in suburbia, that the sum total of my chicken knowledge comes from Chicken Run on video. I once knew a lady who kept budgerigars, and they can’t be all that different.
On the first Saturday of every month, Jolibois hosts a market. And this, a neighbouring farmer tells me, is the time to buy one’s chickens. It’s a fine, frosty morning, and two lorries have already set up in the town square, with chickens, ducks and geese packed so tightly into cages that their down squeezes out between the bars like fat thighs in fishnets. My heart fluttering with excitement, I do my best to look expert as I approach one of the big moustaches who is busy stacking cages.
“Elles pondent bien?”, I murmur, kicking an imaginary stone. Do they lay well? I’m not sure what I’m expecting him to say, but from the way he waves his arms around and mimes an excited squatting action, I take it that either his chickens are indeed splendid layers, or else he’s been overdoing the dried apricots.
The hens cost a few euros each, with some smart white poulets de Bresse for a tad more. These look huge and heraldic: more like albino vultures than hens. I gesture that I’d like a couple of these, on the expert basis that if they cost more, they must be good. Then I point to a couple of medium-size black ones, and a couple of little brown ones.
“C’est bien de les mélanger?”, I ask, doubtfully. Is it okay to mix them?
“Ah oui, bien sûr, monsieur.” The two little brown hens, eyeing the white vultures, don’t look quite so sure. I wince as the man grabs all six birds by the feet and stuffs them into two cardboard boxes like dirty laundry.
Back at La Folie, I release my chickens into their new life. I’ve converted the pig-sty into a makeshift hen-house, with two home-made nesting-boxes and a perch made out of an old fence-post. But there’s a problem. Not one of the girls shows the slightest inclination to lay any eggs. Instead, they all simply run and huddle in the corner, visibly shaking. Strange. An hour later, and it’s the same story: still pas d’oeufs.
Next morning, I skip down to the nesting-boxes, armed with a large basket to collect all my eggs. Rien. Not a saucisson. But the girls do at least come scuttling out to scratch and peck at the weeds in their yard. And it’s hilarious.
Day three: ay, caramba! My heart swells with pride when I spy a tiny brown egg nestling in the straw. Granted, this egg is some distance from my luxury nesting boxes, but greater accuracy will, I assume, come with time. And it’s an egg. A proper, egg-shaped egg. It even has a shell and everything. Since all the chickens make defiant clucking noises when I remove the precious artefact, I assume it must have been a joint effort.
Never mind that this first egg, ceremonially boiled, yields a yolk approximately the size and colour of a lemon bon-bon, and tastes like polenta. Never mind that, if I had the right kind of bread to make soldiers, they’d have to be dwarf cadets. I am already beginning to feel like Tom in the Good Life. Now, if I can just find a nice French Barbara, my scrambled existence will truly be sunny-side up.
“Twice the size of my smallest hens, and resplendent in his golden breeches, Titus is a dead ringer for Holbein’s Henry VIII. He arrives that evening, upside-down, legs strapped together with a length of bandage, swinging like a nightwatchman’s lantern from Gilles’s outstretched arm. It’s not the most dignified entrance, but – wincing – I take comfort from the thought of the dishy harem that awaits him.”
C’est La Folie, p145