Friday, December 28, 2007

We're currently in the UK seeing family and friends and normal service will be resumed very shortly, when I'll finally get round to telling you all about "the Big Pig Day", recount the tale of a frozen water pipe the day before we were going to leave, finding and preparing "road-kill" (a pheasant, in fact) for the table (and, no, it wasn't me who hit it, officer) and talk about very small houses.

In the meantime, here's a French joke I was told recently by Henri the electrician working on neighbour Paul's renovation project: to have a good meal, a Frenchman soulève ses manches (rolls up his sleeves) but an Englishman traverse la Manche (crosses the English Channel - to France): it's wordplay on manche ... oh, how we laughed!
Enough foolishness, back soon ...

Monday, December 17, 2007

I haven’t been blogging so regularly recently as I’ve been busy working … proper work, paid work, that is. There have been some changes to the health system here in France, the effect of which, for us as “inactif" foreign jonnies, is that we are under threat of losing our little green credit card-sized carte vitales. Health care isn’t free at the point of delivery here, you pay when you see your doctor but, with a carte vitale 70% of the charge is reimbursed to your bank account within days. One thing I should just say is that the standard of healthcare is second to none, so no complaints there and, to be honest, we’re not complaining about the changes as we’ve made a choice to live here and, when in Rome (or Brittany) …

No complaints, but a problem requiring a solution and, after several phone calls to the health service helpline, we discovered that one of us needs to work for at least 60 hours in one rolling month just once a year, to qualify. Which is how I came to find myself working under a system called chèque-emploi (the person you’re working for pays you and also separately pays your tax and social charge contributions, doubling the cost: the lowest paid person in France effectively pays over 50% tax!) I must thank neighbour Gérémie for finding me the opportunity to work for the requisite hours and I intend to buy him an impressively old and expensive bottle of French wine once we regain our entitlement to our carte vitales.

Wage labour has meant that I’ve had less time to do necessary work onsite and it’s been a relief this week to get back to our own stuff and to my infamous “list of things to do”. We’ve wanted to move our small flock of Ouessant sheep for a while but they needed a shelter built before we moved them. Paul, our ever-generous pig-farming neighbour let me collect a vanload of wooden pallets for free, which I used to construct said shelter (see photo below). After pricing up corrugated iron, then plastic sheets for the roof, I settled on an unfeasibly cheap plastic tarpaulin. Thus, a sheep shelter for our small flock of five sheep has cost around 15€ (£10 / $20). In comparison, have a look at this animal shelter for no less than 560€ (£379 / $750). At 12€ per hour, chèque-emploi, I would have to work for a week and a third to earn the money to buy one. While trying to be ecologically sustainable, we've always got our eyes on how to be economically sustainable too ... and to this end, we've just laid down our pork futures, see my next blog. To read the most up to date information about the health service situation I was talking about above, look at the British Embassy website.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Meat – Part 2 We’ve had chickens almost from the moment we moved in, then came the geese and this year we added a female rabbit, five sheep and two pigs to our developing permaculture smallholding. We slaughter our own chickens and, last year, the geese (although this year they went to the local poultry farm to be slaughtered and plucked) and I’ve helped Samuel and Julie despatch and prepare rabbits. It would be fair to say that I’ve become habituated to this, so while I always concentrate and take care to do it swiftly and humanely, it doesn’t bother me on an emotional level. Now though, it’s time to slaughter our two pigs and we are both a little apprehensive. They’ve never had names, just known collectively as “the boys” but, of all the animals here, they seem to be the most intelligent, have loads of character and are very tame (apparently a trait of their race: New Zealand Kune Kunes).

As they are for our own consumption, we are allowed, in European law, to slaughter them at home, rather than take them to an abattoir. We think that this will be less stressful for them and are on the lookout for a boucher de campagne (countryside butcher) who comes to your home to slaughter and butchers the animal; some of them also then prepare various charcuterie like sausages and pâté. I’ve spoken to two and have another to contact. My own reaction to killing the chickens has always been that once dead they cease to be the bird that we’ve raised and cared for and are now a carcass to be plucked and drawn and divided up. What’s important to us is how he proposes to kill the animal and how “caring” he is with them. Perhaps a strange word to use, I can illustrate that with what happened at the poultry farm with our geese: the guy was calm and he handed the birds firmly—so they wouldn’t flap about or escape—but also carefully, so as not to hurt them.

We’ve bought a DVD from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall called A Pig in a Day which is excellent. He’s passionate about his pigs. Advice on how to rear pigs is followed by clear explanations on how to cut up the carcass and prepare charcuterie using just about everything but the oink. His step-by-step approach undoubtedly looks easier than it will be for us beginners. I’ve also done research into despatching animals and recommend the website and publications of The Humane Slaughter Association. The usual method of farm or home slaughter here is to suspend the pig by its back legs and cut the throat so it bleeds to death. We don’t want ours to know anything about it, so want the pigs to be rendered unconscious—before they’re hauled up and stuck—using a captive bolt stun gun. In Meat part 3, I’ll tell you how it went … vegetarian readers should look away now.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

As I type, the weather here is absolutely rotten and so I thought it timely to show you some holiday snaps: this is one of our rabbit, Bunny Lapine, on safari. No, I jest, she’s not in the Kenyan Masaai Mara but she’s been encased in a mosquito net ever since we heard that the viral disease myxomatosis was killing our neighbours’ rabbits (see my blog of 26th November).

It’s spread by flying, biting insects, like rabbit fleas and mosquitoes, so the fine netting was the first line of defence. Gabrielle went to see our local vet, Dr Hamedi Mouli, to buy some vaccine and, as we’d been helpfully warned by a comment to this blog by Renée about another rabbit malady, rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease, she brought back two vaccines, some hypodermic needles and instructions. He really is a super guy and spent quite some time explaining to her exactly how to administer the injection (which involves mixing two components and delivering it subcutaneously) and, to make really sure that she understood, grabbed his own unsuspecting pet cat and gave it a vitamin injection to demonstrate the correct technique.

Our neighbours’ son, Tangui, has a work placement coming up with that same vet and so I thought it would be fun for him to take part in the inoculations. The bottles contained 10 doses, that’s nine for Bunny and her eight offspring, leaving one for neighbour Kysinia’s pet rabbit. She works during the week, so we’d agreed to do it today. Tangui enthusiastically came round this morning to ask when I was going to do it. I went round to call for him at 3pm but two rings on the doorbell failed to elicit any response and, seeing his parents’ car absent, assumed he wasn’t there and went ahead, only to discover later that he’d stayed home all day, waiting for my call and had missed the action. There might well have been ten doses of 0.5millilitres each but the smallest of errors on the first nine left me short, so I intend to buy another batch, not expensive at all, and do Kysinia’s rabbit, and the rabbits of our two elderly neighbours, Solange and Annick, and, imagining how I’d have felt in the same situation, I’ve absolutely promised Tangui not to do it without him.

I’ve never administered an injection before and had only the instructions given by a French-speaking Egyptian vet via Gabrielle and some useful stuff I’d found on the Internet. We started with the eight bundles of fun and finished with mummy. To administer an injection to a rabbit, the technique is to pull up the scruff of the neck into a “tent” and pierce one layer of skin, trying to avoid going all the way through and spearing one’s own fingers, then pull back on the plunger to make sure no blood is sucked up, thereby ensuring one is in the right place, then squeeze. None of them made any complaints and I didn’t unwittingly inoculate myself either. We’ll leave her wrapped up in her protective mosquito net for a couple of weeks until the vaccine has protected them. It’s a similar delay before we can administer the other vaccine against VHD.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The permaculture design process starts with a base map (done) and proceeds to a site survey, which includes such items as landform, climate, soil evaluation, existing plants and biodiversity, access, etc. David Holmgren, one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept (along with Bill Mollison) published an excellent case-study of his own site, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens: 10 Years of Sustainable Living, and therein explains that he studied how the land had been used historically before he embarked on a site survey, which relates to the situation at the time of the survey.

Where we live used to be part of a farm. Our next-door neighbours, Philippe and Maryvonne, with their children Tangui and Lisane, live in what used to be the farmhouse. Our house used to be a large wooden barn storing straw and hay bales and housing a rudimentary milking parlour and our holiday gîte, a cob and stone building, used to be a little stable. Kysinia, another neighbour, supplied some photos of how our property and land used to look at the point of sale by the retiring farmers, Roger (French, so pronounced “Ro-jh-ay”) and Denise. The land has served up many surprises: such as when we started work on the gite garden—having impatiently omitted the soil survey—and hit a concrete hard-standing almost with the first thrust of the spade (see my blog of 3rd February).

One of the next stages of our developing permaculture smallholding is the installation of a Solar tunnel, a brand of polytunnel, to extend our growing season and enable us to grow a greater variety of crops. Where to put it? We considered access, sun and shade, provision of water and what other purposes could make better use of the site, before choosing the spot. When we looked at the “historic” photos of the land (see second photo at top) it was evident that it used to be a driveway suitable for heavy agricultural vehicles and was thus likely to comprise lots of aggregate of differently sized stones but little soil. We re-considered the placement but felt that, for the reasons we’d originally chosen it, we should stick with it.

I then spoke to Paul, our pig-farming neighbour, and asked his advice. Both he and another neighbour, the venerable Annick, remember there being a small storage building at that site, adding further layers of historical information to the photos.
We agreed that it was worth passing Paul’s plough over it, with it’s huge tines that apparently wouldn’t be damaged if they encountered large stones and lumps of concrete. This would loosen the heavy clay soil enough for me to get in their with spade and hands and pull out the worst of it and then make a decision what further to do. Once the plough had passed, it was evident that the ground was in far better condition than we’d hoped for and it appears that the hardcore and stones were laid from the now-absent building and thus the land that it actually stood on was just compacted earth.

Paul then offered to go and change the plough for the harrow and give the earth another go over, which would level out the ground and save about a weeks digging with a garden spade or two days with a borrowed rotovator. It took him less than five minutes and I think is completely compatible with permaculture principles (thank God!) in fact, David Holmgren himself justified using large earth-moving machinery at the set-up stage of his own project. What wouldn’t be so appropriate for us is to find excuses to use the diesel-powered plough on the same bit of land every year.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Have you ever seen a grown man cry? It’s not by way of an emotional response to the first peek of our first ever baby rabbits, however cute they might be, but rather something to do with what might be the World’s hottest chilli.

I went round to see friends Jim and Rita on Saturday—principally to use some of Jim’s woodworking tools—when, passing through the kitchen, I saw a plate of bright red chillies. I asked what they were for, so Rita explained and then said I was welcome to take a few home with me. I took three of each type, planning to use some for cooking and save an example of each for their seeds. (We’ve already bought several varieties from the The Real Seed Catalogue for planting up next year in our new polytunnel). That evening, it was my turn to cook and so I turned to an Italian cookbook, choosing a dish called spaghetti con gamberetti e rucola (spaghetti with prawns and rocket). Said dish called for one chilli.

I chose the smallest one (the little ba***rd pictured) and removed the seeds but I didn’t taste it to check for heat, a significant omission. In an Indian dish, one might reasonably expect to encounter a bit of spicy heat but in an Italian recipe the chilli was there just to give the flavours a lift. Unwittingly, I was cooking fusion-style and created possibly the first ever Indo-Italian “spaghetti vindaloo”. We were tired and hungry so we had to eat it, Gabrielle adding yoghurt and me bravely carrying on without external cooling aids. I apologised profusely and, at the end, did an incredibly stupid thing. Weary, I pushed my fingertips deep into my eyes to give them a good rub—with the same fingers I’d prepared the chilli with—and then realised, microseconds later, that I had severely injured myself and needed airlifting to hospital at the very least.

I ran to the bathroom with my face on fire and only felt anywhere near comfortable with my face under cold running water. Gabrielle turned instantly, not to the First Aid box, but to Google, searching under “antidote chilli in the eye” through which she found out that adding lemon juice or vinegar to the water is helpful (and it was). Neither of us can understand why anyone would want to cultivate a chilli so hot, so we won’t be saving seeds to plant. Aged 46, I have finally learnt that one should always check the strength of the chillies one is using ... heed this advice!

Back to the bunnies, unfortunately, our excitement is tempered by the news that myxomatosis, a viral disease spread by mosquitoes and fleas, is in the area and has done for most of our neighbour Annick's rabbits. A couple of really cold nights last week might hopefully have reduced the insect population and we shall investigate getting her vaccinated, either immediately or when the young are independent of her. Have a look at Wikipedia’s entry for myxi and this link to learn more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Meat – Part 1.

Back in September, when we had our super volunteer Sam staying with us, I got a phone call from Gérémie, a neighbour, to say that our meat had arrived. Some time ago, he had asked me whether we’d be interested in sharing a veal calf. The wife of farming friend had been offered a lucrative job abroad—too good to turn down as, two years before retirement, it would favourably affect the size of her pension from then on. Somewhat reluctantly, he was closing down his farm in order to accompany his wife and thus selling all his stock, an organic dairy herd of Jersey cattle. Male calves are a by-product of milk production and, although veal has had a somewhat bad reputation in the UK due to the way the calves used to be housed in crates, changes in legislation have led to great improvements in the way they are raised.

We said “yes” to going halves on the meat yet nothing more was mentioned and I rather thought that it wasn’t going to happen until the phone call, many weeks later. I arrived at his house to find Gérémie, his farming friend and two large cardboard boxes containing our half of veal deal. Now, in a supermarket, cuts of meat come packaged with labels on and, at a butcher’s you’ll be asking for what you need and, in any case, all the cuts on display will also be labelled. We, however, were the new owners of a pile of anonymous portions and so, to try to make some sense of it all before we put it in the freezer we resorted to the bookshelf.

The photo at the top shows Gabrielle and Sam trying to identify the meat in the box with the aid of diagrams in Larousse Gastronomique, an encyclopaedia of food, and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book. French and English butchers divide up the carcass differently, which didn’t make any real difference to us as we struggled to make sense of our meaty jigsaw puzzle. It was an interesting experience as it made us look a little deeper into the components of an animal and was a world away from buying a depersonalised square of read meat packaged in a polystyrene tray from the supermarket.

One item that foxed us more than anything—unusually so as Gérémie had already told us what it was—was “ris de veau”. The French don’t sound the last consonant of most of their words, so “ris”, on Gérémie’s lips, sounded like “rie” rather than “riss”. Conventional dictionaries have one major problem: if you don’t know how to spell the word, how do you look it up? Between the three of us, we searched dictionaries, entered all manner of versions (rie, rit, etc.) into Google, and searched French cookbooks, until we identified the ris as being the thyroid gland, otherwise referred to as “throat sweetbreads”, neither sounding very appetising. The next question was what to do with them and as Sam’s half-French, he conveniently had a French grandmother, who he phoned to ask for advice and a recipe. They are a right old fuss and palaver to prepare, involving steeping in water, then blanching, then pressing as they cool, taking hours and all necessary before you even start cooking the recipe. We had them in a cream and mushroom sauce and they were the delicacy they’re claimed to be, very tasty and with an amazingly light texture and apparently frighteningly expensive at the butchers.

In Part 2, I’ll tell you more about our own meat production here on our permaculture smallholding.
(Painting of a Jersey cow is from

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I’ve never before felt a sense of community as I do here in our little hamlet. Our commune consists of around two hundred residents spread out from the centre of the village, le bourg in little clusters of houses. Our hamlet has about fifteen houses, including five holiday homes. Recently, two French families have moved in, both with children, which has injected a bit of life into our small community and given 6-year-old Camille, previously the single youngster on the block, some new friends to play with.

Paul and Christiane, our pig-farming neighbours, are currently renovating (reconstructing might be a better description) an eighteenth century cob and stone house (ruin!) on their land. With the masons’ work nearly over, the roof on and most windows and doors installed, a task force of neighbours was invited for a week’s worth of installing floorboards and plasterboard. In addition to me, were Philippe, the previous owner of our house, Gérémie, retired jockey, Céline, Paul’s and Christiane’s daughter on a week’s “holiday” from her work in Paris; Cecile, Christiane’s sister and Henri the electrician. The mason even made a cameo appearance! It was truly an affaire du coin and a very pleasant mix of hard work, laughs and food.

Culture lesson: Your typical English builder arrives on site at 8am and starts the day with a cup of tea. He may disappear around ten for a fry-up of bacon and eggs in a nearby café but will only pass an hour, if that, for lunch, eating sandwiches while sat in his van reading a newspaper. Mugs of tea are welcome anytime and by 4pm, he’ll be packing up his van to head home. Your typical French builder arrives on site at 9am and starts the day with a black coffee. He’ll work straight through to midday, perhaps even 12.30, then it’s down tools for aperitifs (an aniseed pastis with water or a glass of port, perhaps) followed by a starter (entrée) main course (plat de resistance) followed by cheese with salad and bread, with wine and cider on the table, then dessert and coffee. That’s one and a half hours minimum. They then work the afternoon through, finishing around six o’clock. I successfully introduced the concept of the English tea break to this French building site but it was Thursday before I was actually served tea, rather than coffee.

The type of humour was certainly similar though. Gérémie had me howling when he was hammering away and Paul asked him if he could stop as Philippe was on the phone to the builders’ merchants and Gérémie’s instant retort was “C’est un chantier, ce n’est pas une cabine téléphonique” (“It’s a building site, not a telephone kiosk”) while carrying on hammering. Some more humour, at least to me, was to hear an outbreak of French swearing halfway up the tower where the stairs will be. Gérémie and I downed tools to investigate and found Paul holding a small window against a large hole. The error turned out to be that of the mason, hence his cameo appearance to make the hole a little smaller.

I was very happy to be able to return the favour for all the things Paul’s done for me. However, tongue-in-cheek, I did question the tariff of exchange. When Paul does things for me, it often involves a huge tractor. He ploughed a bit of field intended for our vegetable plot back in March, a task taking him no longer than ten minutes. Had I double-dug it all with a spade, it would have taken me at least a month. We agreed that a fair exchange lay somewhere between ten minutes and four weeks worth of labour on site.

Enough work, it’s the weekend, and tonight, we’re off to a meal at the Salle de Fêtes (village hall) for a fund-raising meal for the school (see photo above). Tomorrow, all the inhabitants of our hamlet have been invited around for midday aperos by the latest arrivals, Serge, Noëlle and their daughter Morgane. I like the “idea” of cohousing and ecovillages. People live in their own house but share communal space, buildings and facilities. Gabrielle is not so sure, having spent many years in two different communal living situations and having experienced the difficulties (as well as the benefits) first hand. Luckily, we seem to have a lot of the features of those styles of living which I find so attractive, occurring naturally.

Friday, November 16, 2007

We are (vicariously) parents again! Bunny Lapine, our resident permaculture doe rabbit, had been put to the same buck twice but “Pan Pan” (a pet rabbit belonging to 6 year old neighbour Camille) though very energetic in executing his duty … is firing blanks. Rabbit gestation is a month and so several weeks passed while we fruitlessly looked for signs of pregnancy. Trying to dig holes in her run and pulling out her own hair to line the nest are guides but what we now know is that we should have put her back with the buck a week later and if she again accepts the amorous advances of bunny lurve then she’s not pregnant but if she wants nothing to do with the buck she’s probably is. Solange, an elderly neighbour, offered us the opportunity to try her buck, which we took. We decided not to return bunny to him a week later (as described) as, with winter approaching, if she wasn't pregnant, we would leave it until next spring to try again.

Giving bunny her greens and hard food yesterday, Gabrielle thought to look in her nest to see if it needed anything (a clean, more hay, etc.) And, deep in a round nest of hay, is a ball of fluff that’s moving. We’re not sure how many there are as they will be blind and hairless and are better left wrapped up warm in their mother’s hairball. We also shouldn’t leave our smell on the babies, which could apparently provoke the doe to eat her own young. It’s exciting but we shall refrain from looking again and just make sure she has plenty of water, food and fresh hay. The photo of the day old rabbit is from the Internet and the one at the top, is of our bunny (the brown one on the left) as a youngster.

Your Comments: we really enjoy receiving your comments, which range widely from, Manderine’s “Your blog is a great source of inspiration, as I am contemplating a leap of faith not unlike yours (in southwest Aveyron) starting right now …” through Renée’s comparing of homemade hayracks for small sheep, to Monica’s expert advice from the USA on how to gain experience in monitoring the size of sheep through their thick coats. Please feel free to post a comment by clicking on “_comments” below each post and follow the instructions and a big thank you to everyone who already has.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Val, our Somerset sheep farming friend came to stay the night recently, bringing a spinning wheel as a present and a hand-powered roller wool carding machine to try out. Before it turned dark, we asked her to cast her expert eyes over our various animals. Tout de suite she pronounced our pigs too fat and our sheep too thin but we scored well with our four geese, just as well as they were due for slaughter that Friday. When I showed her what we fed our two pigs on, she just laughed. She has three similar pigs, also born in March, which she reckons are half the size. But ours our bigger all round, not just fatter, so perhaps they are well nourished, if a bit overenthusiastically.

As for the thin sheep, it’s not so easy to notice, as their woolly coats are growing ever thicker, but she advised that we worm them and start feeding hay. We change their paddock every month, which should reduce the level of intestinal worms and we’re interested to learn more about maintaining animal health without routinely dosing with drugs (see my blog of 15th September) but, for this year, I was happy to take Val’s advice and administer the worming medicine. The weather has been bad for hay this year, so we stocked up with four huge round bales of hay cut back in May; we just needed a device to keep it dry in the field for them to nibble on demand. On the scale that we’re doing things here, it’s neither appropriate nor affordable to run down to the agricultural suppliers every time we need something. The sheep went hungry for a few more nights while I slept with my thinking cap on. I ended up looking at agricultural suppliers on the Internet and copying designs and dimensions down into my notebook, helpfully even getting the bar spacing for small sheep like our Ouessants. All of the wood was recycled and the only things I paid for were one panel of corrugated fibreglass for the roof and two bungee straps to hold it down.

Knowing that Val was coming, Gabrielle had carefully (so as not to prematurely produce felt) washed a fleece using a solution made with soda crystals first, then soap twice and rinsed several times. Dried in the sun, this was ready for a trial of Val’s carding machine. Once she’d “tried” it, Gabrielle didn’t stop and, before Val left after breakfast the following day, the entire fleece had been turned into sweet-smelling, soft “rollogs” of wool. She plans to turn these into felt and the felt into clothes. It’s our first time for any of this and the fleece was the result of our first attempt at sheep shearing, all very satisfying.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Permaculture vision.

How hard can it be to work on TV? I’m sure it must be money for old rope. One of the blogs we like to keep tabs on is Nick’s and Kirsten’s Milkwood permaculture project in New South Wales, Australia. They’re artists and use their talents to good use on their site, including some great little videos. Blogger have recently added a video facility and, for my first attempt, I uploaded a little video for my blog on our permaculture pigs.

I was making some seed pellets to sow clover and thought it would be a great subject for a short “how to” film. It’s an idea I’ve read about in Masanobu Fukuoka’s books, The One Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming. Seeds are encased in a clay / soil ball and then sown. The clay prevents the seeds being eaten by birds or rodents and, when the rain falls, the pellets moisten and the seeds start to germinate, already surrounded by earth.

The field that we bought last year had neither been grazed or worked for a year or two and was a jungle of grass and weeds. We’ve only really been able to get to grips with it this summer, when I first cut the waist high grass with our farmer neighbour Paul’s old Massey Ferguson, fitted with a hay-cutting implement. The grass was left to rot on the floor, not being good enough to bale for hay and us not knowing what else to do with it. I then enclosed the field in stock fencing, finishing just as some neighbours of ours, Marie Laure and Jéremie, had an urgent need for grazing for some ponies. The ponies have nibbled the whole lot to the ground, leaving most of the thistles remaining as tall sentinels and thus easy to dig out with a fork, long tap root included. There are bare patches, patches of weeds like creeping buttercup and the field needs some help. By sowing white clover we hope to improve the pasture: the clover, a leguminous plant, will fix nitrogen in the soil and, if it gets away strongly, will also mulch out other, less-desirable weeds.

That’s the theory; all we need now is a short instructional video. I’ve named our production company The Blind Leading the Blind to try to convey our relative inexperience in permaculture. If you fancy a laugh, watch all three in order, if you just want to know how we made our clay seed pellets, look at the last one. And there are several other ways of making these seed pellets; have a look, for instance, at this article from Tilth Producers Quarterly. Oh, and as regards a career in television, I’m thinking that I shouldn’t give up my day job just yet.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Houston, we’ve had a problem."

With these immortal words, the astronaut Jack Swigert announced a catastrophic technical failure on the Apollo 13 spacecraft. Not quite the same magnitude of disaster but these are the words that came to mind when I opened the front door early one morning last week, to be confronted by a hungry pig. You might have read in my blog of 14th October of the great permaculture idea of letting our pigs out of their enclosure to forage for acorns. Now pigs, if they’re anything, are both intelligent and hungry, probably in equal measure … and pigs really like acorns!

They have spent months inside their large square of pasture, kept in by a barrier, which is visual, electric (painful) and psychological. I’d unwittingly removed the psychological barrier so the pigs were left to weigh up the pain / pleasure equation and work out whether it was worth the effort and suffering to get to an unlimited supply of tasty food. The smaller pig (they’re brothers from the same litter but one is notably larger than the other) is the braver, or more foolhardy, and it was he outside the front door!

Getting him back—having moved the electric fence bands—with a shaken bucket of pig nuts, was easy. I thought the lowest band low enough and spent over half an hour raising the upper band a peg and tightening the whole thing up, then turning the electricity up to the top of the scale. No sooner I had done this, than the little pig put his very bristly (perhaps therefore insulated?) nose under the lower band and ran for it. The large pig, seeing this, just ploughed through the central gap, now made bigger as I’d moved the top line up … “bo****ks!”

Gabrielle usually prepares breakfast for us both while I get the animals up each morning and breakfast was ready. We sat downstairs on the picnic table so as to keep an eye on the free-roaming pigs while we ate. I was considerably perturbed as we had to find a solution and it wasn’t yet obvious what that might be. So, after breakfast and over a coffee, still at the picnic table keeping an eye on the acorn-grazing porcine escapologists, we had a meeting to look at all our options, assess their relative strengths and weaknesses, settle on our vision of a pig-secure future and roll out a raft of changes. OK, I’m jesting, we haven’t turned into a pair of business consultants but we DID have a meeting and, when I realised what we were doing, it made me think of some grizzled, weather-beaten, old and wise Welsh sheep farmer faced with an escaped livestock problem and just fetching a roll of sheep netting, some fencing pliers and a rather large hammer and getting on with it, rather than holding a “meeting”.

Thankfully, we had a “and everyone lived happily ever after” end to our story as we tried one last time with the electric fence, lowering the first line and adding a third line, then turning the voltage (or amps?) up to maximum. The Status Quo (see photo for all you rockers!) has now returned and we are again on our hands and knees, manually collecting acorns to feed to our once-more obedient piggies.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A writing friend of ours, Mark Sampson (who achieved fame when his straw-bale house build was featured on UK TV Channel 4’s Grand Designs Abroad programme) wrote an article about us, “Tilling a Foreign Soil”, in October’s edition of Country Smallholding. The second part of his article, called “Making Hay on French Soil” has just been published in the November edition. Quite the media sluts we are; move over Posh & Becks!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Eighteen months in and I still see us very much in the “start up” phase of our permaculture project here in Brittany. That means that we are relentlessly pushing forwards with an ever imposing list of “things to do”, seemingly leaving us next to no time to look over our shoulders. We’d like to find an equilibrium where we’d plan to have a day a week in our woods a day in the vegetable patch and so on but other stuff, the occasional emergency (see my next blog!) and the speed with which time rushes by, mean that this is still a great idea, rather than how we manage our weeks.

We’ve realised a few times that maintenance of existing elements is at least as important as starting new ones, the latest example being our vegetable patch. We’d been saying for over a week that we needed to spend a day there working together before we finally found time. While there was an impressive amount of produce, especially as this is its first year, most of the pathways were overgrown with grass and weeds and there was so much to do that I stood there with shoulders drooping, not knowing where to start. I started ranting to Gabrielle about how we clearly needed to do more work to knock the patch into the low-maintenance permaculture ideal we hoped for until she pointed out how long it was since we’d last done anything more than cut vegetables or salad to eat: with the wedding, honeymoon and an operation each, it was well over a month. Even low-maintenance systems need some maintenance!

And it’s not just maintenance; this time of year is harvest time for many crops. Tidying up the vegetable patch involved harvesting a fifth of a tonne of pumpkin, with the biggest weighing in at 40 kg (88 lbs). We also picked some later-planted sweet corn that we’d left as it hadn’t ripened but was now ready to eat. The perpetual spinach has won our own “permaculture plant of the year award” as being a summer-long cut-and-come-again crop of a really useful vegetable. Also known as spinach beet, it’s actually from a different species than spinach, related rather to chard and sea beet, but can be cooked and eaten in the same way, is easier to grow than spinach and probably has less oxalic acid. (Oxalic acid—if eaten in excess!—interferes with the body’s uptake of iron and calcium.)

To the other extreme, we’ve been harvesting thousands of tiny seeds from our Love-in-a-mist plants. Why? To save and use as a spice which often features in Indian food recipes. Hold the front page though. I’ve just been doing some research as I type this blog (I actually learn quite a bit as I check my details when blogging) and we’ve made a mistake. The Latin name of Love-in-a-mist is Nigella damascena but Wikipedia tells me that “the related Nigella sativa (and not N. damascena) is the source of the spice variously known as Nigella, Kalonji or Black Cumin” … oops! The Plants for a Future database and book reckon that the Love-in-a-mist seeds are also edible as a condiment, with the flavour of nutmeg. That said, it isn’t the same as the seeds we thought we were saving, also known as black cumin, which is the aromatic spice used in Mediterranean and Indian cooking. These seeds (sativa) can also be sprinkled in airing cupboards to repel moths and there is a belief that eating the seed will make a woman's breasts plumper. One last bit of info from PFAF, Love-in-a-mist plants are “said to be a poor companion in the garden, in particular it seems to inhibit the growth of legumes.” Oops again!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Shocking News! … part 2. Thanks to Melanie and Val for their comments on Part 1; it seems I’m not the only one to accidentally shock myself with electric stock fencing. Melanie’s been advised by an electrician “that the physiological effects of a shock, a racing heart for example, are similar to the physiological effects of embarrassment and so a lot of people think they feel embarrassed when they've been shocked.” And Val has sat on an electric fence and says that also hurts! It’s probably happened to everyone who’s ever used electric fencing and so, perhaps I should run a competition for the “most stupid” shock, the “most volts” or even the “I didn’t learn last time and have just shocked myself again” award.

One of our near neighbours, an Englishman called Douglas, who has a holiday home just down the road, has previous smallholding experience and is never short of a word of advice. Urbane, is the perfect word to describe Douglas: courteous, suave, elegant and refined in manner. A perfect visual metaphor, in my opinion—and hoping rather to flatter than to offend Douglas—is the actor Leslie Phillips (see photo) … “well, hellooooo!” His advice to me, after I’d related being shocked when using the electric fence tester, was to use a blade of grass to touch the electric fence. The resistance in the grass is meant to reduce the current passed, so one can feel a tingle, APPARENTLY without the full shock, so verifying that the fence is working, without pain. ALLEGEDLY! I tried it, dtssssstdt, “OUCH!” thanks Douglas. Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive.

Last year, some friends of ours came to visit, with their lovely children. Max, aged about 9, was able to hold onto the goose fencing, pronouncing a “tingling feeling” that made him laugh. I thus assumed that, as a mere child and therefore softer, more vulnerable and sensitive to worldly stimuli, if he could touch it, then the voltage must be really low, not working properly to protect our geese and in imminent need of recharging, so I touched the fence to check myself: dtssssstdt, “OUCH!” thanks Max. As you can see from the photo, Max is just a normal boy, completely unaffected by the electricity.

Our intelligent pigs have shocked themselves several times, accompanied by a shrill piggy shriek, and learnt the limits of their domain. The blue tape carrying the charge, is supported by white plastic posts, and the first time I removed the tape, to mow underneath (the grass earths out the fence, running the battery down and reducing efficiency) the pigs refused to pass the line of white posts and needed a hefty shove from behind. I reckon they’ve shocked themselves less than I have and our pigs must therefore be more intelligent than me … whoah, spooky or what!

Stop Press!. Gabrielle has just received a loyalty card from the shop where she bought her make-up for our wedding. We howled with laughter when we saw it and thought of Gabrielle asking our neighbour for concessions: “well, hellooooo!”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Permaculture Pigs. Permaculture is a design system and one of its main ideas, I think, is to use brain to reduce the necessity of brawn. We want to design systems, like natural ecosystems, that look after themselves, with very little effort to maintain them. So we look to create beneficial relationships between different aspects of our project. One theoretical idea (apparently, with few actual working examples) is a chicken forage system, a fenced in area which one plants up with edible vegetation and trees, which will drop fruit and seeds, for them to eat.

Two years ago, we went to visit the organic sheep farm of Catherine and Charles Guillot, in the Sarthe region, to learn how to make a sheep’s wool duvet (click on the link “Read our first article in Permaculture Magazine” on the right, to read all about it). We noticed all manner of chickens, cockerels and chicks roaming about the place. Catherine told us that they were completely free range and roosted wherever they wanted to, nested in some pretty unusual places, and generally got on with the business of being chickens without any human intervention. Not without its own problems—it made collecting fresh eggs to eat a bit of a task—it did illustrate how one can unnecessarily complicate the simplest of things, as they had their own chicken forage system without application of permaculture design.

The idea remains seductive though and I’ve been thinking about a pig forage system. Since we took delivery of our two Kune Kune pigs, the damsons have come into fruit, then the apple trees and now acorns are everywhere. I stripped the branches of the damsons and, when I pruned them (a summer job, to prevent silver leaf disease) I threw the fruit-laden branches in whole, which the pigs had great fun foraging through. As that crop came to an end, apples started falling and we’ve been all over the place with wheelbarrows and buckets, picking them up to bring to the pigs. They are coming to an end as well now, to be succeeded by a huge crop of acorns (we have several venerable oaks on our smallholding).

Harvesting them is a more tricky task. Plan A: I’ve tried sweeping and raking, without much success. Plan B: during our wedding weekend, I tried to get several small children involved in picking up acorns for the hungry cute pigs but their interest waned remarkably quickly. Plan C: take the piggies to the acorns. They are sufficiently docile and tame to turn out of their enclosure if we are in attendance, and with the grey damp start turning into warm autumn sun by early afternoon, we put a couple of chairs out and fetched a book each to read and then tried to get the piggies out.

Intelligent beasts are pigs and they’ve long learnt that the blue tape gives them an electric shock when they touch it. They even associate the white plastic poles (which support the blue tape) as boundary limits and wouldn’t cross it without a hefty shove when we once took the tape down. It’s a devil of a job to take down and replace, so I switched off the electricity, hooked the tape on the top rung of the support and tried to coax them out, towards the land of plenty. I put apples the other side of the fence to create a healthy interest, then got behind the smaller one and successfully pushed him squealing through his psychological barrier. The bigger pig was too strong for me and even the site of his brother contentedly munching on unlimited acorns wasn’t enough. In a “light-bulb” moment of inspiration, I fetched a huge sheet of cardboard (no permaculturalist should be without a store of corrugated cardboard) and created a tunnel. Unable to see the electric fence, and with Gabrielle rattling a bucket of pigs nuts, he popped out like a cork out of a champagne bottle.

We spent a very pleasant hour of so reading in the sun, with two greedy pigs grazing next to us. They never looked up, never stopped eating and it was an altogether different task to get them back through the fence, whilst walking away from the food! The idea of pig forage, would be to plant up a paddock with a variety of pig foodstuffs, to provide a succession of free food, vastly reducing, but not eliminating, the need to give them additional nourishment … watch this space.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Shocking News! … part 1 Back in 1998, after 19 “gap years”, I went to Sussex University to study English Literature and Third World Development, which is where I met my good friend David, also studying English and something else. Since then, we have had an ongoing discussion about metaphors and similes— my, how the long winter evenings just fly by! My contention is that one should use one of these devices to describe to a reader something strange, unknown or previously not encountered in terms of something common or well known, so that the reader can than thus easily imagine the thing or situation better. I find a lot of modern fiction writing is sloppy: as if—with their creative writing teachers’ words ringing in their ears—authors feel the need to liken absolutely everything to something else … tedious.

When done badly, the effect is to read about something that one can easily bring to mind described as “like” something that you really have to work hard to imagine. The BBC TV comedy series of Blackadder are a lesson in simile / metaphor. There’s a scene where Baldrick, the servant, tries to describe something to his master, Blackadder. As I recall, it goes like this:

Baldrick, “The princess’s eyes are bluer than sapphires”.
Blackadder, “Baldrick, have you ever seen the princess?”
Baldrick, “No, milord.”
Blackadder, “Baldrick, have you ever seen a sapphire?”
Baldrick, “No, milord.”
Blackadder, “So, what you’re saying is, that something you’ve never seen, is slightly bluer than something else you’ve never seen?”
Baldrick, “Yes, milord.”

All this was brought to mind as I started typing this blog, as I wanted to tell you all about my shocking experiences with electric stock fencing. I’ve inadvertently shocked myself many times since we began using electric fencing to keep our various animals where we want them and foxes out; the first shock received when I was actually trying to use the testing device to see if both the fence and the testing device itself worked: “ouch! that’d be a ‘yes’ then!” I recently managed, for the first (and hopefully the last) time, to give myself a shock on the forehead. The pig fencing needed unhooking for me to mow beneath it (else it earths out on the grass) and I had the goose fencing right next to it and hadn’t switched that off. As I bent down (it’s low fencing as pigs don’t currently fly) to unhook it, concentrating on the job in hand, my forehead came into contact with he adjacent metre (3 feet) high goose fencing, which was live.

I can only describe the event as like being hit hard, square on the forehead, with a cricket bat. Now, if you’ve never received an electric shock through your forehead, neither been struck there with a cricket bat (American readers can imagine a baseball bat, the effect would largely be the same) you can see my problem. Please submit any better idea of how to describe to my blog readers what an electrical shock on the forehead feels like by posting a comment. In Part 2, I’ll tell you more about how I've managed to give myself numerous electric shocks!

Friday, October 05, 2007

We’re back from a very happy honeymoon in Barcelona. We took the overnight train between Paris and Barcelona because we thought it would be romantic and also because we’ve sort of made a no-fly pact due to all the atmospheric carbon produced by the aviation industry. I recently read a news article on the Web, which asked if flying had been unfairly demonised. Would you believe it, flying could actually be more efficient than using my diesel van. The point is the distances travelled: i.e., one wouldn’t drive the distances that one might consider flying for a summer holiday. It did make me smile though, at the thought of parking my private jet outside the village boulangerie and walk in, past startled locals to buy my baguette, all in the name of being super-eco-friendly (I’m not sure that there’d be enough distance to take off and land again though!) As English friends both drove and flew to come to our wedding, I do wonder who was most carbon-friendly over the same distance? Anyone who’s really up on carbon footprints and suchlike, please post a comment.

Anyway, back to the romance of Barcelona. The train was indeed romantic. It was no Orient Express: the cabin-ette allowed sleeping or standing but not both opportunities simultaneously and sitting on the toilet left an impression of the showerhead on one’s forehead but the restaurant car was fun and felt like real luxury. We realised the benefit of getting an early seat (photo shows the return journey, when the train hadn’t even left the station). And so to Barcelona and breakfast in the famous market off Las Ramblas: the French call breakfast le petit dejeuner but there was nothing small (petit) about ours. We picked up a (same day) English newspaper as a rare treat and then sat down in a colourful and delicious setting—a bar right in the middle of the most picturesque food market you could imagine—to a plate of Spanish fried tapas, looking greasily appetising and unhealthy in equal measures, and it would’ve been rude, as seemingly everyone else had an alcoholic drink, not to order two tall glasses of cold sparkling cava to wash it all down (see pic at top). On the first morning, while still laughing at what a treat all this was, a slim young Catalan businesswoman sat down next to us and ordered up a fish the size of a plate, without accompaniment, and a glass of rosé wine—for breakfast! I’ll never look at a bowl of muesli in quite the same way again.

And so to a gentle walking tour of the curvaceous architecture of Antonio Gaudi. We found Casa Batlló particularly inspirational: it’s pulled our thoughts round firmly towards getting on with the design of our proposed straw-bale house. The photos show a ceiling and internal window in that building. Park Guëll is also impressive, with palm trees and Gaudi’s mosaics looking down over a more prosaic modern city skyline. He claims to have been inspired by Nature’s forms but I couldn’t help wondering, when looking at the over-exaggerated fairytale rooftops at the entrance, whether consumption of LSD might not also have been involved (remember, just say “no” kids).

Monday, September 24, 2007

We are all a little weird and life's a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.

After months of preparation and piles of paperwork (it’s France, remember) we got hitched at the local mairie on Saturday. In a year of the weirdest, wettest weather, would it have been too much to ask for a dry day? Especially as we had invited the traditional Breton dance troupe (that Gabrielle plays violin with) to serenade us down the road, all in costume, during the quarter of an hour walk between our house and the mairie . Dry? We had blazing sunshine, as you can see in the photos.

We asked several friends to bring plates of canapés for the vin d’honneur, two hours of drinks to precede the wedding meal for family, close friends and neighbours. We had the archetypically French chef—huge beer belly, huge moustache, huge laugh—turn up with a refrigerated lorry and cooking trailer to roast a pig, along with a couple of helpers to keep everyone fed and watered all day and late into the evening. The wedding “cake” was the traditional pièce montée —a pyramid of filled profiteroles, glued together with a hard toffee (made at our local boulangerie) served with more fizz, during which time I delivered my speech in two languages (to laughter and several corrections by the French half of my audience).

We continued on into the evening, with many of the people who were at the mairie and vin d’honneur coming back and others joining us, including Les Gourganes —the other group Gabrielle plays violin with—to serenade us again, this time with bawdy French sea-shanties. We had bonfire (not strictly legal until the 1st October) and a few fireworks and stayed up ’till the early hours, sitting on straw bales in a circle around the fire, with friends Nick and Tab playing their guitars, leaving a few of us quite exhausted the following day (see pic of little Tilly below).

We’re off on the overnight train to Barcelona tomorrow for our honeymoon or lune de miel, where we intend to lose ourselves in great tapas, classy Rioja, Antonio Gaudi’s curvy architecture and lurve! Back soon …