A day at the Comice Agricole, Courtomer

“Le Jour de batteuse”

“They’re playing the horns,” reported the fellow dressed in “bleu de travail” – traditional French work clothing – and a slouched cap. The hand that held his cell phone was attached to a brawny arm. A thick leather belt circled his burly waist. He cocked his head toward the “salle de fêtes”. The bellowing melody of hunting horns wafted out the half-open door.

“Heh! They must be at the dessert!” Still talking on his phone, he hurried off in the direction of a huge wooden contraption surrounded by a growing crowd. Small boys could be seen darting around the edges of the group. A tractor started up and black diesel smoke billowed up in a cloud.

It was Sunday, at the annual Fête du Comice Agricole at Courtomer. In a field beyond the big bales of hay at the entrance to the fairground, a cow was being carefully washed and sponged clean. Her recalcitrant sister was being tactfully urged into the show ring. Two little boys tried to tug a hot and tired calf to its feet. 

“Papa! Papa!” Their father bounded over to help them untangle its halter. 

A pair of stout and hearty Percheron horses, manes and tails combed and braided with colored ribbons, waited under shady trees for their chance to parade before the judges. Our stout and hearty tractor dealer was there, too, brandishing a whip to distract his handsome grey stallion from a couple of ribbon-bedecked mares and their little foals. He makes a living selling the latest farm machinery, but his heart belongs to the workhorse of yore! 

There was a demonstration of rope-making, and cheeses, jams, honey and soap made with mare’s milk were on display and for sale.

Later, there would be a “bal dansant” and fairground rides.

But meanwhile, back inside the Salle de Fêtes, the mayor and her committee, representatives of the regional Chamber of Agriculture, and various Courtomerois were finishing up a hearty lunch. A local “fanfare” -- 8 huntsmen, dressed in red coats and black and gold waistcoats -- played the traditional “cors de chasse” as platters of fruit tarts were carried to the tables by a team of ladies and young girls. 

The “cor de chasse” -- a large horn just like one you might see in an archeological museum – is mostly heard as wild boar and deer are hunted on foot or horseback through the French woodlands and fields of corn. The distinctive fanfares, or melodies, tell listening hunters that the prey has been sighted, that the hounds are on its trail, that it has jumped into the water or hidden in the brush...or that it has met its fate. Later, when it has been skinned and butchered, a final fanfare sounds in tribute to the noble beast.  

Making music to celebrate the hunt is an ancient tradition--undoubtedly even more ancient than those surrounding the harvesting of grain! But today, we were celebrating “le battage,” threshing the grain after harvest.

We turned for the fairground as the traditional refrain of “battre, battre, battre,” with accompanying fist banging, filled the Salle. It was time to see the “battage” – not just sing about it!

The “batteuse” stood in glory in the middle of a field, surrounded by her admirers and a golden heap of unthreshed wheat. Twelve men were in their positions: two atop the machine where the wheat would be pushed down into its entrails, five on the side to watch over the multitude of wheels and straps, two more – twin brothers, it appeared – by the chute where the bales would be pushed out, another at the end where the bales would appear, and two more at the grain producing end of the beast. Two more men were on the tractor – one controlling the power and the other monitoring the thick leather strap that connected the tractor’s motor and the batteuse.

With a deafening roar, the batteuse came to life. Wheels and gears whirred, belts creaked, the heavy wooden frame rocked back and forth as it threshed the wheat. Grain poured out the front into burlap sacks; straw bales churned out the back. The twins fed wire into the chute, pulled it tight around the bales, knotted it, and snipped it off. The young fellow, now wearing a burlap sack like a cape over his head and back, hoisted a bale onto his shoulders. Having carried straw bales ourselves, we immediately understood his curious dress. 

Everyone but the lads toting the bales and hauling the sacks of grain must have been born just before tractors first made their appearance in the French countryside – in the late 1950s. They had known the transition from Percheron horse power to a 30-HP Deere. They knew how to manage this wooden monster and the old tractor that powered its machinery. Looming in the distance was its modern-day equivalent – an immense machine that can operate with just one solitary driver.

But although the new-fangled harvester is undoubtedly more efficient, the old camaraderie of the “jour de batteuse” still draws together the farming community of Courtomer. As we, like the rest of the crowd, gazed with fascination at the gyrating batteuse and its intently focused servants, our farmer stopped to chat. He remembered the old days. He still had his father’s first tractor, a “Pony” purchased in 1956. He’d brought it along to the Comice. He pointed to where it stood, in the company of other venerable tractors, recalling the glory of France’s 20th-century agricultural revolution.

The young fellow carrying the bales paused for a moment; he was checking his phone.

-- Elisabeth de Courtomer, September 2018


Elisabeth with the 1950’s “Pony”.

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