Monday, October 30, 2006

Rabbits are seen differently here in France to how they are in England. In England, a domestic rabbit is a child’s pet and a wild rabbit, of which there are many, a pest. For everything from the ethics of eating game animals through to how to prepare the carcass to some recipes, have a read of Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s books, The River Cottage Cookbook pp 364,367 and The River Cottage Meat Book pp 150,177.

Here, rabbits are raised for meat, either farmed and sold in butchers and supermarkets or bred on a domestic scale in hutches in the garden. The meat, according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, is “highly nutritious, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat rich in proteins and certain vitamins and minerals”.
Our friends Julie (in photo above) and Samuel have recently begun their meat production line with a breeding pair kept in separate hutches. A single female can produce from 25 to 40 offspring a year. Unfortunately, their female took an extreme dislike to the male and fought with him each time they were introduced rather than going at it like … rabbits! Their solution was to eat the female and buy another. In The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, John Seymour warns that the doe (female) must always be taken to the buck’s (male’s) hutch and never the other way round, “or their will be fighting” p 124. You can perhaps guess which way round Julie and Sam were doing it … oops!

As we’re in France, it’s high time that I started some bilingual blogging, and so I’ll attempt to put a link to the French language version.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Permaculture is a design system, which implies that some sort of design process should be involved. If I was a TV presenter I would probably describe our approach to permaculture as “organic” but I’m not and so I’ll be honest and tell you that it’s haphazard, to say the least. We arrived in our new house with furniture to make and buy to make the house habitable and all manner of permaculture ambitions like raising chickens and planting a vegetable garden. Spring was well under way, and we both suffer badly from impatience, so we bought chicks and planted vegetables with permaculture ideas in mind but no formal process under way.

Patrick Whitefield says that a permaculture design is usually presented “in the form of a map or plan of the design proposals” (The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain & Other Temperate Climates see pp375-400). The design process starts in a “listening mode” with three aspects: a base map, a site survey and questionnaire. Patrick says that these three stages “can be taken in any order, but it’s often a good idea to start with a base map, because mapping a piece of land is one of the best ways to get to know it. Making a map takes you to every part of the site and requires you to look at it carefully.” A base map is therefore a representation of the current situation and the final stage in the process is the production of the design proposal map.

We’ve got three maps to make, one of our whole site, one of our woods and one of the garden of our holiday cottage as we want to present an example of small space permaculture to inspire people staying with us. My own barrier to getting started often involves the fear of the unknown or the thought that the task will prove very/too difficult. This has been true of both the barn re-roofing and the mapping. However, once I’ve plucked up the courage to get started, I usually find that the task is less daunting than first appeared and that it starts to gain momentum. A good tip with a base map, particularly of a large area, is to try and find an existing map. This can then be traced and enlarged, with information added and deleted to suit. One method of enlarging is to tape the map over a large piece of paper, decide on a centre and measure every point out from this with a straight ruler joining the centre to the point, multiplying the measurement buy the same factor (e.g. x 2) and marking the new point on the same directional line. See the photo above and Patrick’s book for a fuller explanation.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I’ve been promising a blog on willow almost since I started posting, so on a very wet Sunday afternoon, with no chance of getting any work done on the barn roof, here it is. Willow, like comfrey (see 10th August) is a wonder product, with many uses. There are a huge amount of varieties from huge trees and shrubs, down to tiny dwarf mountain shrubs. I was hooked on my permaculture design course when, one evening after dinner, we sat down to an excellent chat with slides by one of the UK’s original willow experts, Steve Pickup of The Willow Bank.

Willow is probably best known for providing rods for basketry but has numerous other uses such as making living willow structures and hurdles (fence panels) providing hedges and windbreaks, providing quick growing biomass for fuel, stabilising river banks and cleaning soil and water courses. Willow can be a permaculture solution to damp area of land. Rather than install drainage at great expense, plant a fast growing willow variety, such as salix viminalis and cut the resulting biomass to heat your house: an example of designing with existing features rather than forcing the land to your wishes. Click on the links for English and a French examples of using willow – which is hungry for the nitrates which pollute watercourses – to clean up pollution, simultaneously providing a permaculture output of fuel wood, elegant solutions!

On the more recreational side, you can make beautiful garden structures from both living and dried willow. We did both of Steve’s courses, which were great fun and you can see one of the structures we’ve built here in Brittany for our friend Caroline and her children at their family holiday gites. The first pic shows it under construction and the second is just six months later. We’re hoping to build some willow fedges (is it a fence or a hedge?) and structures at our home this winter.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Preserving: If only fruit trees operated like chickens do; each morning a fresh apple to eat and for almost all the year round. Unfortunately they don’t and as it gets to the end of the season we have excess, which is rotting on the ground and the last tomatoes have stubbornly refused to turn red. One of the ways of making use of the fruit, enabling us to eat it throughout the year is preserving. Our neighbour Carol (previously referred to on this blog as the “Delia Smith” of St Maden) has been giving us pots of jams and chutneys for some time and recently lent Gabrielle the book she uses, Preserving by Oded Schwartz. Unfortunately, this superb book is out of print and the second-hand ones are going for silly prices on Amazon UK but we did find a copy in the US at a sensible price on

Inspired by the book, she’s gone on to make peach jam, peach chutney, fig chutney, orange marmalade with coriander seed and Triple Sec, marron glacé (chestnut purée) green tomato chutney and lastly, pink grapefruit marmalade. She’s also promised to try onion marmalade, which apparently doesn’t taste of onion! The peach jam didn’t work for a couple of reasons: she didn’t use a heavy-bottomed preserving pan, and hadn’t added additional pectin (peach is low in pectin, apparently). More by luck than design, we found we already had a preserving pan, which came in a set of saucepans we bought to kit out our holiday gite .

With marmalade, for example, the first stage is a long, slow cook to get all the fruit to soften and then, once the sugar is added, it’s a hard, fast boil to reach the setting point. One determines the setting point by talking a teaspoonful of the mixture and putting it on a very cold saucer and, as it cools, you push it around to see if a skin forms and goes wrinkly. Pectin can most easily be added by adding a chopped up cooking apple, core, pips and all, wrapped up in a muslin bag, and left in the mixture during the first stage of cooking, then squeezed thoroughly before removing. You can also buy special preserving sugar, which comes with added pectin. Boiling the peach jam in the vain hope of it setting, in the wrong saucepan, lead to a smell of burning and the whole lot going to the chickens. Gabrielle’s top tip is that you must stay next to the pan and concentrate during the second, hard boiling stage. If you come and stay in our holiday cottage you will have the opportunity of doing a half day preserve making course with the expert herself, Carol.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A general update on some of our permaculturing: for the last three weeks, we’ve combined the two 50 metre electric poultry fences that we have into one, giving four times the area (think about it!) which the geese have really enjoyed. I was moving their patch every three days and the thought of moving 100m of fencing every few days put me off but, helped by the recent rain making the grass grow, and the quadrupled extra area, it’s become a once-a-week job. They have become as noisy as they’re reputed to be and can sit quietly, munch grass contentedly or have a funny five minutes and race around their much larger protected area flapping their wings and making a right old hullabaloo. Their reputation that they’re as good as guard dogs is rubbish, as they make huge amounts of noise at the slightest disturbance, often of their own making, so that one gets to ignore it.

My report of the snails’ Great Escape was slightly erroneous as we only ever accounted for 19 of a total of 20, so one is still at large and we’re awaiting a postcard from Switzerland for news that he’s made it to safety! (WW2 filmic reference for anyone wondering what on earth I’m talking about, hence the pic above). For the other n-n-n-nineteen, Gabrielle combined them with some field mushrooms I found and some Shiitake mushrooms we’d cultivated ourselves, in a mushroom and snail risotto, one of Hugh’s recipes from The River Cottage Cookbook; which was delicious!

Gabrielle has been making preserves for the first time in her life: a fig chutney and a peach chutney, both with free fruit from our neighbours and an orange marmalade, which included coriander and Triple Sec. The key factor is having time available for these things and we feel immensely privileged to have both the time and space to do all this. Before, we would have both have been spending huge amounts of wasted time commuting to work in busy traffic, working to pay taxes and other people to do jobs we could probably do ourselves … and to buy things like chutney and marmalade. So, our food production, fun as it is, must reduce our food bill to make up for lost earnings. And my never-ending barn re-roof is saving us thousands, whilst proving both interesting and satisfying (and ongoing .... aaaaargh!)

I’ve got a list of other updates to write up very soon, including news about our woods and our attempts to start constructing some “base maps”, allegedly the first thing one should do in any permaculture design.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Egg-citing news, so we’re in cel-egg-breatory mood! Our harem of hens have not, until Thursday, produced any eggs. As I’ve said many times before on this blog: we are absolute beginners in just about every aspect of our permaculture project here in Brittany. We’ve received loads of advice, much of it conflicting: everything from how old they are before they start laying, that they need some pretend plastic eggs placed in the henhouse to encourage them (which we bought) that they may be too fat, that they’re already laying and hiding their eggs from us while free-ranging. Reading that chickens usually lay in the morning, we’ve been keeping ours in until midday, still without success, just bemusement from chickens that normally get let out when we get up. But the waiting is over!

We’ve been told that the first egg is often undersize and with the shell only partially formed so we were astonished to see that our first was huge, as you can see from the photo above, placed next to a standard egg. No surprise then that, when cracked open, it had two yolks. The hugeness of it, and it being her first an’ all, probably explains the huge amount of fuss and palaver that preceded it. The chickens had been let out at midday, Gabrielle was out and I was on the barn roof (the never-ending job) when I heard the chicken egg-laying noise, a sort of boc-boc-boc-boc-bocaaargh-boc-boc-boc-boc-bocaaargh. I came down from the roof and had a good look around for an egg, then kept a close eye on the chicken in-case it was yet to be laid.

When Gabrielle came home, we went upstairs for lunch, hearing, from time-to-time, banging and clattering from below, by the front door. A brown chicken was on her own and turning and scratching around but not for food. When we went down after lunch, we discovered the egg just by the front door: doorstep delivery indeed! The following day we got a standard-sized egg but without a proper shell, like a raw egg in a plastic bag. We've also been told that it is normal for chickens to lay strange eggs before they get into their new rhythm. We shall leave the chickens in all day tomorrow (Sunday) as the hunters—chasseurs—will be out and our neighbour lost two chickens to a hunter’s dog last week, so much for their help in reducing the fox population.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

We have a snail problem again … but in our lounge! I haven’t blogged for a few days as we’ve been really busy. I’m still on the barn roof every dry day, learning as I’m going how to re-roof it. And we spent this weekend just gone at a garden show with our yurt parked up next to a living willow structure we’d built earlier in the year to promote a possible business enterprise. (More on our willow soon). Gabrielle did face-painting for the kids again (see our blog of June 20th) and had some pine cones, sprayed silver or red and mounted on willow sticks for sale and my offering was a couple of dozen potted twisted willow plants and two panels with photos and words explaining the living willow and the yurt. We made our pitch fee back and the same again but the greater gain was all the people we met and spoke to and contacts and friendships made.

So, to the snail problem: perhaps inspired by my own brave tale of eating snails from my garden when living in Brighton, and getting evermore into permaculture and the idea of turning outputs of one part of the system into inputs for another, Gabrielle saved some snails she’d removed from the vegetable patch with the intention of eating them. I ate mine during winter, when the snails that I’d found in my garden were hibernating and were therefore empty. At any other time of the year, they need purging to empty their guts of undesirables. Our source of advice is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Cookbook. Gabrielle had hers on a regime of several days eating only lettuce, prior to 48 hours with no food at all.

She kept them in the kitchen, so as to remember to change the lettuce and clean them every day. She started off with a tight fitting lid on the plastic tub punctured with lots of breathing holes, then changed to a piece of netting, which seemed to be nicer for the snails! I got up early this morning, around 7.30am, when it’s still dark here, and went into the kitchen, somewhat bleary-eyed, to made a pot of tea, to be met with the great escape. I can now see the funny side, but wasn’t so understanding first thing! When Gabrielle came through to investigate my cursing, she counted 14, then informed me that she’d had 20 originally. We quickly found one in the sink—the one that first alerted me to the situation—one by the compost bin, one behind the fridge, one on the draining board, one under the sofa and, just as we sat down to eat this evening, one inside one of Gabrielle's shoes, which she discovered when putting the shoe on. All safely back inside their tub with the netting more firmly secured. Gabrielle will post a blog once we’ve eaten them … watch this space!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger…” (Leviticus 23:22, The Bible [KJV]) The verb “to glean” appropriately (for we are in Brittany!) comes from the Old French glener and means, in our country context, to gather grain left by the harvesters and, as shown by the quote above, it’s usually been associated with poverty. Patrick Whitefield, in suggesting a permaculture link suggests that if chickens are “let into the wheat field after harvest they will eat up the ears and grains that are missed in harvesting. We humans are not going to pick them up unless we go back to the drudgery of former years, when country people were so poor they were glad of the “gleanings”. Here the chickens are making use of a resource that would otherwise go to waste." Permaculture in a Nutshell pp10-11.

You’ll see from my blog of 25th September that I helped one of our neighbours out with the maize harvest. For the cows, the maize is chopped up—stalks, leaves and all—and they eat the lot. Paul’s a pig farmer, and for them, just the cobs are harvested, the stalks and leaves being shredded and ejected out the back of the combine harvester. Despite the computer age technology, many corn cobs are left on the field and, due to the scale of the operation (29 hectares [71 acres] in two days) there’s no way that the farmer can clean up afterwards, so they’ll just rot in the field. Knowing we keep chickens, Paul suggested that we could spend some time “gleaning” in his fields. Gabrielle went one time and came back all enthused. She took some help along next time, neighbour Carol, who’s also (just) got chickens, Carol’s daughter Emily and her friend Ann. They came back with a boot-load; Ann took to it so well, she said, “I love doing this” and then suggested that she could see herself marrying a farmer.

Permaculture is about inputs and outputs: making sure that the outputs of one part of a designed system become the inputs of another. Our gleaning is just using somebody else’s outputs as an input into our chicken enterprise. And far from the drudgery suggested by Patrick, it’s been, for us, a pleasant excuse to leave other tasks and go for a walk in a field in the sun with friends. Gabrielle made several forays and took Annike, our seventy-something old neighbour and her dog, Hugo, on one trip: Annike has an uncertain quantity of chickens, bantams and rabbits to feed. So, if, as Mark Twain once claimed, “Golf is a good walk spoiled”, might gleaning be having a renaissance as “an excuse for a good walk”? As part of my research for this blog, I came across a French film by Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I [Les Glaneurs] which is described as a “marvellous film about gleaning as a philosophy - [which] is surprisingly beautiful and uplifting”, which we’ve ordered and are looking forward to viewing soon.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Autumn is mushroom season and it’s a common site here to see people with their baskets out early in the morning by the side of the road searching for fungal food. I think that, in general, the English have been scared off picking mushrooms by stories of deaths caused by eating wild mushrooms. It’s true, the most poisonous are absolutely deadly—the only cure seemingly a complete liver and kidney transplant—and there are cases of mushroom mortality in France each year: justification enough for leaving wild mushrooms well alone? In France, one can take any mushroom into a pharmacy for advice. For me, this has been a great example of theory versus the reality, as we’ve tried three times now, in different pharmacies, to identify fungi we’ve found on our land. In every case they’ve enthusiastically tried to help yet been unable to firmly identify the mushrooms (including, in my estimation, one wrong diagnosis) but have “failed safe” by advising us not to eat them. This is a sensible attitude to take but we are still hopefully searching for a pharmacy with a mushroom expert, and we’d love to do a guided mushroom walk.

It’s also possible to cultivate mushrooms. I did a two-day course with Bill Knight at the Sustainability Centre, East Meon a couple of years or so ago, where we learnt how to inoculate freshly-cut oak logs with the spawn of the shiitake mushroom and a wet soggy mass of straw and toilet rolls with oyster mushrooms. For the shiitake, holes are drilled in the logs, which are packed with the spawn and then protected with a painted on seal of food quality wax (the stuff some cheeses are coated with) then left for 18 months by which time the mycelium has colonised the entire log. The log is then shocked by submerging it in water for 24 hours to encourage fruiting and a few days later the mushrooms start to appear. In England, you can buy already-inoculated logs from Ragmans Lane Farm.

We recently bought some organic field mushroom spawn and followed the indoor growing regime to the letter. We could see that the mycelium had permeated throughout the compost and then had to “case” it: cover it with a 25 mm (1 inch) layer of half soil, half peat with a couple of handfuls of lime. It’s been a complete no show, and when we gave up and emptied the whole lot over our compost heap, the white fungal threads we’d seen before were absent, so somehow, we’ve managed to kill it all off. We’ll try again in the Spring and follow the planting outdoors instructions to see how that goes. In the meantime, we’ll be eating shiitake mushrooms!