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Road to an idyllic life in Brittany

A five-day getaway in the French countryside proved to be the balm to the harried spirits of my Singaporean family of six

Suzanne Sng on 12 May 2019

The Straits Times


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Shrill shrieks pierce the night air, jolting me from deep sleep.


Even in the bedroom, I choke on the acrid fumes of burning wood and my eyes instantly start watering.


My first thought is: "Oh god, we've set the tent on fire."


I stumble into the main living area, where my parents are squatting in front of the wood-fired stove, poking at the logs and bickering in whispers over the best way to get the smouldering wood to burn.


Meanwhile, the canvas lodge - which is about the size of a two-room Housing Board flat - is filling up rapidly with thick puffs of smoke.


As it is early June and the nights are nippy - hence the need for a fire - we had sealed up the tent before going to bed that first night.


Now, the air-tight space is going to be the death of us.


Despite the single-digit temperatures outside, I bravely unlace the tent flaps to let in some fresh air before the entire clan - my parents, my younger sister and her two toddlers - perishes from smoke inhalation.


This was not how I had envisioned our glamping trip when I booked it.


When our family of six had arrived from Paris the evening before at the Penquelen Huella farm in the heart of Brittany, we were in high spirits, eager to take a break from the bustle of the city.


A five-day getaway on an organic dairy farm in a well-equipped tent - complete with beds, flushing toilet and hot shower - would allow us to experience the countryside without having to rough it out.


Or so I thought.


I had romantic notions of bonding over a blazing bonfire under a starry night, milking placid cows and breathing fresh country air, not dying from lack of oxygen in a smoke-filled tent.


The next morning, our host Cyrille Giroux, who runs the farm with his wife Clara Rome, inquires bemusedly if we had trouble with the stove, as he had heard our smoke detector go off in the night.


Sheepishly, we city folks have to ask for a lesson on how to properly light a fire. Even with their pointers, cooking a hot meal is a struggle every lunch and dinner, though we are just boiling pasta, frying an egg or throwing everything into a pot for a simple stew.


And without fail, we will inadvertently trigger the smoke detector daily, either by not introducing enough oxygen or stuffing too many logs in at a time.


As my mum slaves over the blazing stove to feed us, I can hear her grumbling: "Thanks for bringing us here ah. What kind of holiday is this?"


Dad, too, has his own daily chores, such as getting firewood, which involves trundling a wheelbarrow across the meadow, past some curious cud-chewing cows, to the woodshed. At least we do not need to chop the wood ourselves.


After all that hard work to put food on the table, we relish every morsel of it. It does not hurt that all the produce is fresh off the farms around us, including delectable cheeses and sausages.


Eating under the trees at the picnic table outside the tent makes every bite tastier, especially as we have the entire meadow to ourselves. There are four other tents on site but, as it is right at the start of the summer season, no one else is there yet.


Despite our unfamiliarity with farm life, we quickly settle into a daily routine. In the morning, someone will be dispatched to the quaintly named Honesty Store - a pantry by the main house stocked with milk, cheese, eggs, bread, vegetables and other staples, where you can help yourself and jot down what you took in a notebook for payment at the end of the stay.


After a breakfast of fresh-from-the-boulangerie croissants or baguette with cheese, it is time for the kids' favourite activity - feeding the chickens, which are reared for eggs, and an assortment of pets, including rabbits, guinea pigs and an enormous black pig the size of a wine barrel.


The simple joy of scattering handfuls of grain all over the pen and watching the chickens peck at the ground amuses my two-year-old nephew Ian and four-year-old niece Zoe so much, they refuse to leave even when all the feed is gone.


Old MacDonald has come to life for the kiddos and here are all the animals they had previously only sung about.


They are also thrilled to be entrusted to collect the freshly laid eggs, marvelling at the different colours they come in, not just the same shade of supermarket beige. And there is nothing like eating eggs still warm from free-range chickens - the yolks are a deep rich yellow and the taste is almost creamy.


As there is no Wi-Fi, devices and TV to distract us, we venture on long walks in the surrounding verdant countryside, with the farmer's happy-go-lucky black dog Maya bounding ahead of us.


On a spur of the moment, based on vague directions from our hosts - "just follow the path and you will see the big stone" - we take the kids on the first nature hike of their young lives and found a menhir straight out of an Asterix comic. Towering at about 8m tall, the Mine Saint-Jean is one of the 10 tallest such monoliths in the world and dates back to the 7th century.


Other days, we just follow random paths, getting a little lost in the woods, picking wild flowers and trampling over trails without caring if our sneakers end up caked with fresh cow dung.


Every evening, there is a stately procession of all the cows on the farm as they are herded to be milked.


It is quite a sight - and smell - when they are all queued up in the barn, patiently awaiting their turn. As the farm is a one-man operation run by Mr Giroux, whose father was also a farmer, he does not have time to milk all 30 of them by hand and instead relies on machines.


Of course, we lap up this freshest possible organic milk. What is amazing to us "suakus", who had only ever drunk pasteurised milk, is the thick layer of pure cream that naturally rises to the top after the milk has been left standing for a while. It is like drinking liquid velvet.


These long summer days, with the sun still out past 10pm, go by in a flurry of activities - animals to be fed, meals to be prepared, fires to be stoked, nature trails to be explored and very crucial afternoon naps to be taken.


However, when night comes, darkness falls quickly like a thick blanket. It makes simple tasks more arduous, such as ensuring all the shampoo has been rinsed from your hair and trying to dress a fidgety child by the light of a single flickering candle.


Kids being kids, they both clamour to sleep on the upper bunk of the rustic double-decker in the smaller room, even though there is an extremely comfy fluffy double bed in the main bedroom.


Our humble abode, which can sleep five adults and one child, also has a "cupboard bed" in the living area. A sort of cubbyhole with holes in the doors for ventilation, it is not too big, not too small and just nice for two toddlers.


When we ask the kids about their favourite part of the farmstay, they rave about all the farm animals, but also the simple things, like playing on the swings, sitting in a tractor and running amok in the meadow.


The adults, too, grow to appreciate going back to basics, as well as the much-needed digital detox.


Instead of being glued to our devices, we work - and squabble - to keep the place running like a team. And if a zombie apocalypse ever happens, we now know how to light a proper fire and our family will survive.


After five idyllic days, it is time to return to Paris, relaxed with ample sleep, fresh air and exercise, tummies full of country fare, the scent of wood smoke lingering in every single item of clothing - and the sound of the blasted smoke alarm still ringing faintly in our ears.


• Suzanne Sng is a former Straits Times journalist based in Paris as an independent editorial consultant.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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