Sprawling oak trees dot the landscape on the road to Belle Vie Farm and Kitchen, a family farm northeast of Elgin. On this 40-acre plot of land, husband-and-wife team Aubrey and Perrine Noelke busy themselves raising free-range ducks, but at the end of their driveway, there’s also a partially constructed straw-bale house that awaits completion, and in their cozy kitchen, a baby happily cooing from her high chair.
Many people would balk at the thought of launching a business, constructing a new house and starting a family at the same time, but this adventurous couple spent years developing the necessary flexibility and resourcefulness while living and working on boats. They met at sea in 2007 when Aubrey, who hails from Texas, was working as a boat engineer on a private yacht in the Mediterranean. Perrine, a French native who was managing a restaurant in Belgium at the time, was invited to work in the boat’s kitchen by the chef. Aubrey and Perrine crossed paths on the yacht, and despite a language barrier, they connected. “It was completely love at first sight,” Perrine says.
The couple then backpacked around Mexico and Central America, and together took a job with a retired racing boat captain who needed to move his boat across the Pacific from Panama to Australia. Perrine worried about seasickness on the six-month trip, but it didn’t affect her at all. In fact, during the first big storm, she used a strap in the kitchen to keep from falling into the stove and managed to make crème caramel at the same time.
Next, the couple worked on small sailboats for four years in the Caribbean—with Aubrey as captain and Perrine as chef—taking care of the food for the guests who rented the boats. Because they loved the work but wanted to start a family, they began to imagine what their return to land would look like. “We are both outdoor people,” Perrine says, “and we became a great team after living and working together for so long. So, we figured we would start a farm. We just had to figure out what kind of farm.”
Texas called to them because Aubrey grew up in Austin and spent summers working at his family’s cattle ranches west of San Angelo. They started volunteering and interning at different farms to see what they liked. They investigated vegetable farming at Johnson’s Backyard Garden; visited a chicken, rabbit and duck farm in France; and checked out a goat dairy farm in Texas. “We heard that the best way to launch a farm is to start small, with something you really like to eat, because you might eat a lot of it,” Aubrey says. “And so we thought ducks might be a good start.”
The couple launched Belle Vie Farm and Kitchen in 2014 with the goal of creating a premium product. “When we visited a duck farm in France, we saw they were doing a number of things to make their ducks special, and we wanted to do that here,” Aubrey says. They chose French white Muscovy ducks, and they only raise a hundred ducks at a time to maintain quality and ensure that the birds can rotate around the farm to enjoy fresh pasture. The ducks eat only certified-organic, GMO-free grain, and guardian geese help protect them from predators.
The Noelkes sell their duck meat directly to Austin’s high-end restaurants, and offer fresh, unfertilized duck eggs and specialty duck delicacies at the Cedar Park and Mueller farmers markets. In their commercial-grade kitchen, Perrine whips up the savory items, such as pâtés, terrines, rillettes, duck meat sausage and bone broth, as well as sweet items, such as macarons and crème brûlée, using their duck eggs.
Farm work is hard and often all-encompassing. Daily, the couple must rotate the ducks, collect the eggs and change the birds’ bedding. Every two weeks, they welcome new ducklings and process the full-grown ones. They also recently started raising turkeys and Ossabaw Island pigs. Occasionally, though, the hardworking pair gets a chance to relax and enjoy the simple moments, such as looking at the night sky or watching their daughter, Zoe, marvel at the animals. These moments best reflect the name they chose for their farm, belle vie, which means “beautiful life” in French. “That’s what we’ve got here,” Perrine says. “That’s our dream and we are realizing our dream.” Aubrey nods and adds in his soft-spoken way, “And without getting too corny, we want the animals to have good lives, too.”
For more information, visit belleviefarm.com or call 512-574-1197.