Rumour has it that the day of the humble turnip is over. What has appeared in its place is a cornucopia of exotic vegetables which the average Indian farmer would have trouble pronouncing. Bell peppers – red, yellow and purple, mangetout, shitake mushrooms, escarole, endives, celery and baby carrots are all snapped up by executive chefs in deluxe hotels throughout the country, as well as discerning restaurateurs. As for gherkins and romaine lettuce, many farms are contracted to sell whatever they produce to multi-national fast food chains.
Roger Langbour of the French Farm in Bilaspur on the Delhi-Jaipur highway is sitting amidst chicken droppings. That the smell is overpowering seems not to affect him. For poultry wastes represent precious nutrients for his soil. “Look at my soil,” says he, eyes aglow as he digs a muddy boot into a black and squelching mass. “It means I never have to buy fertilizer.” As a matter of fact he does, and it’s just being delivered to the French Farm – a cartload of cow manure from the dairy farmer next door. Far from being perturbed about mere aesthetics, Langbour’s day is made.
The story started around 1979 when Langbour, then posted in the French Embassy at New Delhi, scouted around for the possibility of work which would keep him travelling between India and France. “I was due to retire. In fact, Delhi was my last posting, and I like India so I wanted to be here, at least part of the time,” he explains. Two years later, his marriage to an Indian made the idea of remaining in the country not merely attractive but desirable as well. Several dalliances with handicrafts ensued, except that an office bound job suited Langbour not at all.
In the meantime, he began to mull over food and its production increasingly. In the western world, particularly in his native France, the quality of raw ingredients is considered paramount. “No cook, however brilliant, can create wonders with herbs that have no flavour and vegetables that are grown with chemical fertilizer. Western Europe acknowledges the enormous part that nature plays in farming by according certain ingredients the status of appelation de origine control.” Langbour realizes that Indian cuisine pays much more importance to spicing which masks the taste of the meats and vegetables. “In France, it is the other way round. The cook highlights the natural taste so that the quality of your ingredients need to be superior.”
Starting a farm was a natural corollary. But first, to do so, he went back to France to learn farming. His own background, in Loraine near the German border, owed nothing to farming the fruits of the earth. “I was lucky to have thrown in my lot with the largest family of farmers in Brittany. One brother produced only geese, another only hens while a third kept only pigs and so on. Between all of them, I managed to pack in as much knowledge as I needed to run my own farm.”
The French Farm in its present avatar, was set up in 1994. Think of any exotic vegetable or herb, and Langbour’s growing it. Even the humble potato is represented here, except that with seeds imported all the way from France – just like everything else – the potato is anything but humble. “Every chef in the hotels I supply to, rings me up every other day asking when my potatoes are going to be ready.”
Being taken around the farm means constant references to “my mangetout and my batavia from Grenoble”. The farm hands, mostly lads from Nepal, work out of necessity, but Langbour’s laborious hours are the result of love. With his weather-beaten face and strictly utility clothes, he’s as much a part of the landscape as the mulberry trees which punctuate the farm. “I cook, so I know how important quality ingredients are,” he shrugs.
Ask Langbour what aspect of farming he enjoys most and he’ll say a diplomatic “everything”. Ask any discerning gourmet in Delhi about Roger Langbour and they’re most likely to answer “the geese man”. For, it’s poultry and pigs that The French Farm is best known for. Hailing from the land of foie gras and poulet de Bresse as he does, Langbour is happiest in the vast netted enclosures where rainbow chickens, capons, Muscovy and Peking ducks and turkeys grow fat on carefully formulated feed. “I give the recipe to the neighbouring miller and he makes it up for me,” says he as if speaking of a recipe for coq au vin instead of a coarsely ground grain that goes to feed the birds.
It’s this painstaking approach to everything he does which makes him so sought after by chefs, diplomats and foodies all over Delhi. All the initial stock was imported from France; travels around India have provided him with highly prized indigenous breeds to indulge his passion for cross-breeding. “Look at his feathers,” he’ll say fondly of a rooster who’s troubling the hens. “Isn’t he a beauty?” Or, expertly catching a goose in the crook of his arm, he’ll examine the toe-nails. “She will scratch you if you’re not careful.” Naturally, the sex of a bird is immediately apparent to him, though to the casual observer, one feathered friend looks just like another.
The life of a pig in the French Farm is utopian. Not only do they all have names and distinct personalities, they are fed the choicest morsels. Any time the prices of broccoli crash, entire crops of the vegetables are fed to them. As are the mulberries that grow plentifully at the farm. Pigs, like turkeys, are pre-sold to customers. And despite being sold at significantly higher prices than the prevailing market rate, there are always more buyers than livestock.
What’s next on the agenda for Langbour? A restaurant at the farm featuring chacuterie, a shop – probably in Khan Market, and the beautifying of the farm, to appeal to visitors who are beginning to visit in ever greater numbers. And maybe someone at the gate selling perfumed hankies?