Our fermette was build in 1870 using “wattle and daub”; a building material used for making walls, in which a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. In fact, the highest price per kilogram ever for animal dung, is paid by foreigners buying a quaint property in France. Wattle and daub has been used for at least 6,000 years, and is still an important construction material in many parts of the world. Wattle and daub is a composed material that was in those days very common and not too expensive. It allows for air circulation and makes the walls breathe yet it has high insulation values. The wooden understructures of the old houses in our region are covered by wattle and daub and a finish of thickly layered snowy white lime that is commonly used and found in abundance on either side of the Channel, the cliffs of Dover as well as the Cap Blanc Nez are icons for this great material. The technique is becoming popular again with ecological intellectuals as a low-impact sustainable building technique.
Not so in the north of France. Even though a vast majority of all houses in this region were once build with wattle and daub the technique is now rapidly declining and the craftsmanship is in acute danger of becoming extinct. An explanation of this loss of skill and technology was given to us by the owner of a large building supply store. He explained that during WW2 the German army build many cement factories to create the bunkers for the Atlantic wall which is most fortified in the Nord-Pas de Calais region. After the war, after the retreat of the German armies, the cement factories were still in place. As obnoxiously as these factories might scar the landscape, for the local French population they were a useful inheritance from their former occupiers. The enormous production capacity allowed them to rebuild their vastly destroyed cities such as Abbeville, Calais, and Boulogne-sur-Mer. In the eyes of the local French population, concrete and cement was great stuff to build their houses, buildings and bridges with. Unfortunately, this post-war inheritance made an end to the era of wattle and daub and the characteristic building style of the old houses of the coastal areas of northern France.
It is not uncommon for wattle and daub walls to need some maintenance. After a year or ten the walls tend to pick up the dirt and mud projected by scary modern farm vehicles driven by young farm hands that mistake the winding roads next to our house to Le Mans racetrack. As a result of the splashing and dashing dirt and rainwater, plentiful in the rural north of France, the pristine walls tend to lose their chalk white appearances. In fact the lime can occasionally comes off leaving the wattle and daub vulnerable and naked not only to the inquiring eyes of the unwarned passersby but also to the harsh climatologically weather conditions in northern France.
Hence, a call for action. What else does one do during a two week holiday, n’est-ce-pas?
The first step, of course, is to visit the local DIY, 25 miles away in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Surely they have all the answers, tools and materials to turn this little chore into a relaxing and fulfilling day of thankful labor. Finally, after ten years of home ownership we also get to taste of the wonderful experience that we have so often heard about, elated tales from Englishmen, Germans and Dutch owners of second homes in France.
We get to the shop, hidden away in a windy, backward and isolated ‘zone industrielle’ at 12:25, just in time to be informed by the plump cassiére that it will reopen after the lunch break at 14:30. So, why not, we decide to get lunch nearby and stop at a most unattractive looking road side restaurant. Each table is ornamented with a dusty bouquet of plastic flowers and some, if not most, of the fluorescent lights are either broken or flickering. We decide on the menu of the day for €11,50; soupe de Poison to start of with, cuise de canard, plateau de fromage and tarte tatin. To our surprise the plump cassiére and some young men and women, that seem to be her colleagues at the DIY shop, are in a corner of the restaurant ordering the same menu du jour. Like our co-guests we each order a pichet of red wine with our meal and make an attempt to chase the impending drowsiness with a strong grand café. When leaving the restaurant the cassiére nods friendly at muttering ; “a toute-a-l’heure”. The idea of going back home and enjoying a long siesta is tempting but our determination to do good work on the house is stronger so we purposefully go back and re-enter the DIY shop or more appropriate , an incredulous ‘hypermarché’ the size of a small town. Dressed in our workers outfit for the occasion; our oldest jeans and t-shirts and well prepared with a list of questions and requirements that seem obvious to us to complete the task at hand we start our inquest. After a good fitheen
minutes we find a sales person, one of the young men sitting in the restaurant, and ask him to point us to the appropriate section and isles. He doesn’t seem to grasp our question, in fact, he seems slightly young and inexperienced but he friendly points us to the “Centre d’acceuil de clients”. Here a stern looking very senior gentleman, obviously in charge, is on the phone for at least 15 minutes before hanging up and turning a dismaying look at us only to pick up the phone again for another elaborating verbal exchange of technical jargon used only in the world of French handymen. Another 5 minutes go by before he puts down the phone and he seemingly has all ears for us. In our best French, we explain that we want to repair the walls of our old ‘fermette’. How does ‘wattle and daub’ translate in French? Torchi! it is uttered like a swearing word by the senior assistant at the client welcoming counter. Torchis? We are extremely grateful to have found an ally that knows the word in French. “Torchi”, not to be pronounced with soft vowels and consonants but with a deep and profound conviction, from the deepest of the vocal chords and emphasizing each of the six letters with utmost conviction, TORCHI!!!
Proud and fond as we are of our charming old fermette in the quietest valley of France, we may have missed the dismay in the pronunciation and maybe even mistaken it for local pride. Anyway, soon afterwards it became clear that ‘torchi’ was not a material, technique or even an subject that our newly found friend was very impressed with. In fact, his facial expression was somewhat like you might expect to get when asking for Tip-ex at the Apple store. Cimenté! Was his staccato advise. Cementing. It seemed an unavoidable, logical and only solution. Something that needed no more questions or explanations. The phone rang again and he looked defiantly at us as if we were from another planet.
So what does one do? Cimenté? This involves little more than to put cement in the vulnerable cracks and weak spots of the old 150 year old wattle and daub walls. Hence, to take out the wattle and daub and to replace it by cement from cement factories build by German occupiers during WW2? We decide to consider other options.
Our first day of good intentions ended, quit frustrating, by searching endlessly and without result for appropriate solutions on the internet, the only sites that come close are ecological forums where highly experienced DIY-ers quarrel about whether or not to add dung to the otherwise unspecified recipes for torchi.
The next day we decide to give it a new and invigorated try. First we talk to jean Claude, the owner of Café de la Poste. JC is definitely the French version of John Cleese, not in looks but in drama and expression. We have been long time regulars at his café. Miriam usually orders a croque monsieur, Anton a croque madame which is usually served with only one fried egg but when ‘the gesture’ is made (two hands scooping about 30 centimeters in front of the chest) JC will put an additional fried egg on top of the rich melted cheese. JC definitely serves the best Croques in the north of France and loves to be complimented on that fact.
Anyway, we explain our ‘issue’ to JC and he makes a serious attempt to understand us. Even though JC is a master in the area of building layered sandwiches with tasty melted cheese as wonderful adhesive, he seems somewhat less familiar with mixing dung, sand and clay, which, thinking about it, is maybe a good feature for a French cuisinier. But he does have a great idea; “go to Biopale in Collembert, next to Boursin”. ‘Biopale is an ecolocical and environment friendly outlet for ‘responsible building materials’ JC explains, standing next to our table, with dramatic gestures and theatrical poses. The owner is un maitre de batiments passionée, according to JC, “a man who could singlehandedly rebuild medieval villages”. “The trip there will only take you about an hour and a half”. We finish our early brunch and set off to Collembert. A village in the middle of vast forest landscape. Upon arrival we see large signs for ‘Biopale’ and our confidence is growing rapidly. This must, at last, be the epic centre of wattle, daub and whitewash.
The signs to the store are a lot more impressive than the store itself. We enter a container size cabin with an array of displays, some empty, randomly scattered across the ample space. A timid man in his thirties looks puzzled and seems surprised that two people actually enter his cabin. We tell him that we have come from far and that we need some advise. Looking at the license plates on our Toyota Landcruiser he asks us incredulously if we came all the way from Holland to talk to him. Without waiting for our answer he goes on to tell us that his brother lives in Holland. In a town called Tilburg. He continuous to tell us that is brother works in a very big company were the make car transmission systems. This is of course an opening that every foreigner dreams of when he comes into a French store with a very complex question. So we tell him that we live in Eindhoven in a tall building on the 24th floor and that we can see Tilburg from our windows on a clear day. We also ask him if his brother works at Van Doorne Transmissions, a company that we happen to know, which he acknowledges with a big smile. He introduces himself; “je m’appele Philippe” and goes on to tell us that his brother will be visiting him in two weeks time, during the holiday period.
We could have continued this conservation for many more hours, Phillipe was babbling on like he had not seen people for at least 5 months, which, looking at his store, would not have surprised us. So we turn the conservation to the issue at hand; wattle, daub and whitewash. The appreciation and sheer happiness was now beaming of his face as if we had told him that he had won the lottery. This was obviously his thing. He jumps to his feet and shows us a couple 20 KG bags of white stuff of a sort that you don’t want to be seen with crossing the Belgium / French border with Dutch license plates. Whitewash! The real thing. Not polluted with chemicals and adhesive additives. Real whitewash from Saint Astier; “Decorchaux de Saint Astier”. This would create the finishing touch on our wattle and daub walls. We were forever grateful for Phillipe and his knowledge one of the three major ingredients for a wattle and daub wall; withewash.
Looking around the store / cabin we can’t find anything that might be wattle and daub so we ask Philippe the obvious question where he has stored the torchi. Here Philippe’s face turns somewhat grim. Torchi, he explains, is difficult to get and tells us that there is a forester in the next village, Boursin, that knows how to make torchi and would possible be able to explain to us how to use it or even make it ourselves. He also points out that there is an old gentleman in the nord-pas-de-Calais and Picardie region, about the size of the Belgium and the Netherlands combined, who is renowned to be the absolute authority in wattle and daub; “Gilles Bay”. He does however offer to give us the private mobile phone number of the commercial director of Chaux de Saint Astier who might help us to find Gilles Bay, monsieur Barret.
We decide that the next step of our adventurous journey would have to be the forester. Phillipe loads the heavy bags with whitewash in the car and waves us goodbye as if we were old friends. We set off to find the forester getting increasingly worried that our shopping adventure is going to take a second precious day of our short holiday that was meant to be laborious and productive.
To be cont’d