Monday, August 27, 2007

I’m politically correct and all for equal opportunities. You won’t find our permaculture lives together on our smallholding here in Brittany divided along traditional gender lines: me out doing manly jobs whilst the “little woman” irons my socks and cooks for me. Oh no! Any time I can get Gabrielle involved in hard graft, in physical tasks, and I can excuse myself from said activity under the excuse of, “I’ll go and cook lunch / dinner darling”, I’m off.

Some of my favourite blogs have recipes and I shall join them with my suggestion on what to do with your excess courgettes. “Gabrielle … carry on chopping wood, sweetheart, I’m off to cook you a lovely lunch and then blog about it.”

Courgettes are a strange plant: they start from seed as weedy little things, top heavy above the frailest of stems and terribly vulnerable to slugs and snails until they suddenly take hold and then they’re away into huge, robust plants, throwing off leaves and fruits almost by the hour, now covered in a slug-resistant prickles. You planted extras because you wanted at least some to survive and now you can’t bring yourself to thin them out and throw perfectly good plants away, thus you find yourself with an abundance of courgettes.

We give a lot to our pigs but also try to find new ways to endure (sorry, I meant “enjoy”) our bountiful excess. “And the winner is—in this year’s best-way-to-cook-a-courgette-that-I-haven’t-tried-before award –Jane Grigson and her “Courgettes with Cream and Rosemary”. [See pg 230 of her Vegetable Book. Penguin Books 1980]

3/4 kg (1.5 lb) courgettes
75g (2-3 oz) butter
100g (3-4oz) double or whipping cream (I used crème fraîche)
10 cm (4 in) sprig of rosemary (I used four times this)
salt, pepper

“Cut the unpeeled courgettes into thick diagonal slices. Blanch them in boiling salted water for about five minutes. Drain them well and put them back into the pan with the butter. Cover closely and leave to finish cooling over a gentle heat. The courgettes must not brown or stick to the pan, so shake them from time to time. When they are tender, stir in the cream and the rosemary, and leave to simmer for another five minutes. Turn the courgettes fairly often, so that they are coated with the sauce and delicately flavoured with rosemary. Fish out the sprig[s] of rosemary before serving.”

Absolutely delicious: the rosemary really does give this sometimes-a-little-bland veg a complimentary lift. And all that’s left to do, is to call the little woman in from her labours!

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Oil Drum Barbeque:
This is a simple tale of a hungry man, a cunning plan, an old oil drum, a couple of friends … and a huge steak that would sate even Desperate Dan. You might wonder what we want with a BBQ with the weather we’re having but, if the Aussies are the experts in having a BBQ on the beach in the sun, then the English are world-beaters in putting on a BBQ in the pouring rain, under an umbrella or cover of a garage door, for example.

Even fairly modest-sized BBQs are on sale locally for around €200 (£140 / $270) a good enough motivation for permacultural thinking along reduce, reuse, recycle lines. I already had an idea that one could fabricate a BBQ from an oil drum, so where better to go searching, in our technological age, than the Internet. “oil drum bbq” brought up The Original Barrel Barbeque, which gave me enough of a steer to start the ball rolling. First I needed an oil drum, for which I say a big thank you (je te remercie) to Yves, a dairy-farming friend who gave me not one but two oil drums (the larger of which is going to be converted into a charcoal burner—yet another cunning plan).

I found some odds and ends of scrap metal—left lying around the place by the previous owner of our house—and sketched a design on the back of an envelope to explain to Eric how I wanted all these bits of metal welded together. Eric (who’s yet to supply a photo, hence the odd pic here) welded another of my wacky ideas together, the washing machine drum brazier and was happy to help again, adding a couple of his own improvements as he assembled it.

And it all works surprisingly well. First on the barbie, was a huge côte de boeuf (half a cow) with the intention of cooking the steak whole, then carving it into thick slices, char-grilled on the outside and still red in the middle but it turned out cooked right through (i.e., a bit too well done) by the time the outside was ready. This is contrary to many of my BBQ cooking experiences, where I’ve produced a charcoal crust surrounding undercooked meat. I’m very happy with the BBQ, I just need a bit more practice using it.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Can you see the similarity? Marlon and his motorbike—me on my moto-mouton. Perhaps my broad grin isn’t as cool as his curled lip and some sort of hat worn at a jaunty angle might help but, hey, I reckon my pure wool seat cover is pretty special.

We’ve had an incredibly full day today and so, in order to keep the blog to a readable length, I’ll keep to the sheepy bits. First off was a trip to the veterinary surgeon to have our six-month-old ram castrated before he reaches sexual maturity. He becomes a wether and, as such, we can keep him with our three ewes, including his mum, and our mature ram. Keeping animals correctly, as far as the law is concerned, is quite a complex procedure. We’ve had to register as sheep keepers, and all our sheep have uniquely-numbered ear tags. We have to fill out movement forms when we transport them and, if they’re moved over 60 km / 40 miles (I think) the driver needs to be specially licensed to transport animals. This legislation often seems to aimed at farm-scale production and I wonder that law makers haven’t forgotten that there are other people out there, raising a few animals for their own consumption, meaning that the legislation seems over bearing: a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Because our sheep are so small, and there was just one to do, the vet suggested that we bring him to the surgery rather than paying for the vet to come to our permaculture smallholding. We haven’t got a dedicated animal trailer and so, when it came to it, we had to be pragmatic and just make the best of things. We put a plastic sheet over the rear seat, where I then sat with the ram lamb on my lap, while Gabrielle drove us down to the vet’s. He quickly settled down and seemed to enjoy the scenery moving past at a quicker rate than lamb-running speed, much in the same way that many dogs enjoy a car ride. We did raise a few eyebrows as we passed a group of people, including a farmer in overalls, who saw a right-hand drive car (Gabrielle’s UK car that we’ve re-registered over here) with a blond woman driving and a man sitting in the back seat with a lamb on his lap, looking out the window.

The vet, the very calm and friendly Docteur Mouhli, applied a pair of special pliers to the lambs scrotum, leaving them clamped for a minute each side, which squashes the tubes serving the testicles, a sort of bloodless vasectomy. Dr Mouhli explained that this way he would keep his comportment of a ram (more so than with a surgical removal of the testicles) but be sterile. He assured us that, ram character largely intact, he can still live with the other ram and he may even mount the ewes but not inseminate them. The lamb was completely docile on the journey home and is running around the field again now.

Almost as soon as we got home, the phone rang, and it was our neighbours, Jeremie and Marie-Laure, asking for a coup de main (helping hand) with their own sheep, a Jacob ram, ewe and lamb. They, particularly the ram, called Balthazar, are enormous, compared to our little Ouessants. Martine had travelled up from the Mayenne, with her husband, a friend and a horsebox, to take the sheep back to her rare-breed smallholding. The size of Balthazar and his four fearsome horns, was the reason why Jeremie had called in all the help he could get, us and Paul included.

The cunning plan—which worked well, up to a point—was to shepherd the trio into the corner of the field, through a cut panel of fencing into a funnel made out of sheep netting when—and here the detail was sketchy—someone would grab hold of the ram, put a rope around him and lead him quietly into the van. Parts 1 and 2 of the plan worked well and I found myself the last one through the cut in the fence and so felt slightly frustrated that I was the opposite end from where it was all happening (I usually like to be in the thick of the action) and just holding the “gate” closed. I needn’t have worried on that score as, eluding several attempts to restrain him, Balthazar then ran straight for me, turned at the last moment and leapt the fence. With lightening reflexes, I saw my chance for glory, leaping fearlessly onto the back of the beast and plunging my hands into his deep wool to get a firm handhold. Help was immediately on hand and all three sheep were walked into the van. Time for coffee, all feeling rather pleased with ourselves.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

When you get a good roll of the dice, when Lady Luck smiles on you, takes your head in her two hands and lands a smacker of a kiss square on your chops, embrace your good fortune and make the very most of it! A few years ago, I had cancer and, in a letter of good wishes, a friend used the word “vicissitudes”—sending me scuttling for the dictionary—which well describes the realities (meaning the changing fortunes) of life. If hard times are to be endured, then, in my opinion, good times must be made the most of.

Vladimir, Parisian urban hard-case pet dog of Celine, daughter of our neighbours Paul & Christiane, had come to visit. He’d previously taken a mouthful of feathers from the rump of one of one of our hens but this time he’d managed to escape, race up the lane, kill one of our chickens and run off with it. Realising what had happened, Paul came straight round to see us but found us not at home. On our return, the guests staying in our gite relayed the tale of a Frenchman on a mountain bike with a dead chicken and we put two and two together. They were all very apologetic and Vlad now suffers the indignity of being chained up when outside.

As far as we were concerned, that was the end of the matter but Christiane was determined to make amends and so, very kindly, she appeared at the door a couple of days ago with a fully grown brown cockerel she’d just bought at the poultry farm in the village. He’d been bought for us to eat: it’s a common way of buying chickens here, cheaper than oven-ready. However, we’re short of a male since we consigned our last cockerel to the pot and, seeing this chap sitting docile on the floor, his legs bound by a piece of twine, we thought we’d give him his chance.

He’s been raised in a barn and hadn’t seen the light of day prior to that morning. He’s missing his tail feathers but is otherwise a sturdy chap in good health. We wondered about the wisdom of our intentions when he didn’t seem to possess even the basics of chicken behaviour: he didn’t scratch the earth, peck at grain, or show the remotest interest in any of our hens. They’ve spent two and half days confined to the henhouse to habituate him and the photo above shows him on his very first foray out into the big wide world. Now, if he can only see his opportunity for what it is, thank Lady Luck for his blessings and start cock-a-doodle-dooing and shagging all the hens, he can stay, if not: tant pis old chap, it’s the pot for you!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Volunteers: Part 2

As with any sequel, you’ll need to have read my previous blog. “Emily-less”, that’s to say “volunteer-less” and with two deadlines approaching (the first of two operations on my wrists and our wedding, both in September) we have a huge pile of stuff to do. Every morning begins with me waking first, taking Gabrielle a cup of tea and then getting all the animals up and about and fed, during which time, she rouses herself and has breakfast ready for when I come in. Breakfast is often now followed by a “meeting”. Over a strong coffee, we plan and try to prioritise what we’re up to. We’d got carried away with what a volunteer would bring to our lives and were now just left alone with our unfeasible “list of things to do”.

“Can’t see the wood for the trees?” could apply to my inability to see the volunteers for the neighbours. Alan and Tangui to the rescue! Alan and Carole have a wood-burning stove, which obviously needs sticks for starting fires and logs for burning. They also wanted some wood chippings for the path in their vegetable garden. An elegant solution proffered itself: Alan chops, chips and removes all the prunings left by Duncan the tree surgeon (see my blog of August 7th) gaining chips, kindling and logs and our building plot gets miraculously and meticulously cleared, as if by some woodland fairy.

Meanwhile, on the other field, Gabrielle was chomping through more of Duncan’s offcuts when the affable and willing (and perhaps slightly bored at the end of the school summer holidays) Tangui offered his services. Should we be taken to task for exploiting child labour? Nah! I think the Victorians had it right: why pay good money for a sweep when you can throw a young child with a brush up the chimney!

So, with many hands making light work, we’ve caught up some time, thanks chaps!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Volunteers: Part 1

“If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.” Kofi Annan (UN Secretary-General 1997-2007).

“Approach volunteers with caution—there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Gabrielle Sanders (my better half 2004 - ?).

With her experience of building her turf-roofed, timber-framed eco-house as one of nine in a cooperative housing scheme—a magnet for eco-volunteers—Gabrielle is well placed to possess a valid opinion on the relative benefits of volunteers. So it was somewhat ironic that she was the more enthusiastic when we recently received an offer of help (via this blog) from a permaculturally-interested university student cycling through France on her summer holidays.

I warmed to the idea and we started a list of the things she could help us with. The first list might have got us in trouble, considering slavery was abolished in 1833. At the end, though, we had a balanced list of interesting things to do and were relishing the extra pair of hands. So, as the days passed, we became ever more concerned and eventually fired off an email to ask her when she was coming. Very apologetic she was but she’d run out of time and forgot to tell us. Her name was mud, into which she’d dragged all her volunteering colleagues with her: I told you so!

In fairness, Emily would win an award for the politeness and sorry-ness of her apology, thus diffusing any residual bad-feeling and she offered the possibility of a volunteering-cycling friend who’d also be interested in coming. Stop Press—we’ve had an email from her friend, Sam, and we’re going to say yes. So, watch this space (blog) for whether we’re going Kofi or Gabrielle on our view of volunteers (no pressure, Sam!)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

This is by way of an addendum to the last blog about trees. I'd gone into our local Mairie to ask permission for a bonfire (prohibited during the "summer" months) to get rid of the brash or trimmings that Duncan the tree-surgeon had recently removed. He felt unable to give me the authorisation and also expressed a concern that it was the wrong time to cut our oaks. The “proper” time to prune deciduous trees is during winter, when the leaves have fallen off and the energy of the tree has descended into the roots and it is therefore OK to lop off branches without killing the tree. It’s even possible to chop the tree down completely and new growth will emerge from the stump in spring and this is the principle behind coppicing, where a crop of wood is taken—for example, every seven years—the stump regenerating to provide further crops every so many years. (The photo shows a willow tree I cut down in the garden during the winter, which has coppiced. I want it gone, so have chopped off the new growth for the illustrative photo, then cut off the rest to exhaust and thus kill off the stump. Nice tree, wrong place; we’ll replant with something more suitable). Well-managed coppice stools can survive for hundreds of years and even outlast standard trees of the same species.

Pollarding is coppicing but at a different height. The crown of the coppiced tree is not at ground level but higher up. Trees in urban/suburban streets are often pollarded over winter, to keep their size and shape in check. Pollarded willows by riverbanks are also a common site (see photo © Natural England). Pollards can raise the tasty new shoots above grazing height—natural protection from rabbits and deer—or just to allow animals to graze underneath, so getting multiple outputs (a very permaculture concept) out of one piece of land.

Here in Brittany, they practice a different form of coppicing, the English term for which is “shredding”. This involves cutting all the side branches and sometimes the top as well to leave a bare telegraph-pole of a trunk (see top photo, taken last winter). Side shoots re-grow and one new branch at the top will assume “apical dominance” to continue upward growth to the trunk. I used to think that, in the early stages, at least, the trees had lost their shape and were not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as a coppiced or pollarded tree. However, Ben Law argues (in The Woodland Way: A Permaculture Approach to Sustainable Woodland Management) that shredding “offers one of the most productive uses of trees, especially in the farm situation where fodder is needed for livestock.” I’ve been unable to find out exactly why they do this locally, or what they now do with the trimmings. In the old days, the smaller trimmings were bound together in bundles—called faggots—and sold to the boulangerie where they’d fuel the bread oven. I’ve been told that oak leaves have too much tannin in them to be useful as animal fodder but I don’t know that for sure. Maybe they continue to shred the trees out of tradition yet I’ve also been told that it’s to reduce the shadow cast over crop-growing fields … as I say, it remains a mystery to me. I have, however, come to accept their shape as part of the worked countryside.

I think that this was why the Maire (mayor: for us a sheep farmer, Jean Luc, who is in the Mairie just two afternoons per week) was concerned that our trees would die, perhaps another example of the English newcomers to the countryside not really knowing their ar—s from their elbows! But no: Duncan hadn't shredded the trees, rather just removed deadwood and judiously pruned out some other branches to let more light in. The amount of growth he removed won’t harm the tree. On the contrary, they are all now in better health. A deciduous tree that is actually best cut in the height of the summer is the cherry (or plum) in order to avoid silver leaf disease getting into the tree through the cuts, and so I’ve given all ours a trim recently, a process (tree pruning, that it) that I find very meditative and relaxing, ahhhhh!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Brittany Tree Surgeon

What’s the connection between the grunting tennis star Monica Seles and English rugby team lock forward and captain (c.1978) Bill Beaumont? The answer is: Duncan Smith the tree surgeon! I’ve used a local French bûcheron to help out in our woods before. A bûcheron is a woodcutter or lumberjack but what we were after recently was rather a tree surgeon, translated literally as “un chirugien des arbres”, which is likely to get you only an uncomprehending raised eyebrow from a Frenchman, so arboriculteur will have to do but still doesn’t do justice to either what Duncan can do or the range of his expertise.

We have several large trees on the building plot for our planned straw bale house-build: two huge macrocarpa cypress trees to the north and four old oaks marking the boundary to the west. The view to the northwest is stunning but from where the house has to be, the low-hung branches of the cypress trees all but conceal it. Our first thought had been to chop the trees down, the wrong tree in the wrong place but, on reflection, we thought that the trees have an architectural grandeur that will take years to replace. So, plan B was to give them a haircut and see how that worked, aesthetically and for the view and we could always chop them down subsequently. Oak trees are frequently used to demark boundaries round here and are often very long-lived, so they seem to have a lot of history wrapped up in their gnarled trunks and are definitely worth looking after. The other side of the boundary is a farm track where the passage of farm machinery along with the farmer’s attempts to keep the branches (roughly) trimmed back to allow him by, has hacked the oaks about a bit. We were interested in pruning the trees to improve their health, cutting out dead wood, letting some light in and neatly trimming off the “farmerized” branches: branches cut off neatly close to the trunk heal up well, branches roughly cut off leaving a stob can rot back and then into the tree itself.

So we needed a tree expert with a soul and Duncan came by way of personal recommendation. Duncan is a large man: think of an English rugby union forward topped off with a surfer’s mop of blond hair. Wearing a mountain climber’s harness and with coils of rope and the chainsaw hanging from a short length of rope from his harness, he starts his climb on a pair of step ladders to reach the first branches and then he hauls himself up, branch-by-branch, occasionally grunting with the effort: think Monica Seles with a deep voice. He then ties himself off at the top and having chopped of several feet of the top of the tree (I can’t explain how he did that as I don’t understand myself) he descends by rope, cutting off what he needs to on the way. (Spot Duncan: look carefully at the top of the second photo). The macrocarpas look so much better now and the view is revealed (see photo at the top) and the oaks are looking a lot happier in themselves. He also gave a couple of old oaks next to our current house the once-over. One had a branch that overhung our roof and he removed that, a log at a time, cutting almost all the way through, then letting his chainsaw hang from a rope from his harness whiles he snapped off the log and threw it clear of the roof. A painstaking and exhausting process, no wonder he emits the occasional grunt.

If you have a home, or perhaps just a tree-house, in Brittany and need a professional, registered, expert tree surgeon, you can go to his website or telephone him on (landline) or (mobile). And as for the (perhaps a little unfair) comparison at the start of this blog, I couldn’t help pass on the news story that, back in 2005, tennis champion Maria Sharapova broke her own record with the loudest 'grunt' on court. “An unofficial 'gruntometer', belonging to a newspaper, recorded her noise at 101.2 decibels - that's almost as loud as a police siren!” And on that grunty note, I must tell you about our two piggies in my next blog.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Boys and their toys… I’ve again been driving a large tractor today and, even larger and more exciting: a combine-harvester! However, I have to admit that I’m less of an expert in driving these modern agricultural behemoths than Tristan, 13-year-old nephew of our pig farming neighbours Paul and Christiane. As you can see by the width of his smile in the photo above, Tristan is happy.

Paul and I started just after lunch, after he’d sent an unnecessarily wordy text, “c’est sec”, which was to say that the sun had burnt the dew off and thus the wheat was ready to harvest and would I join him. I’d borrowed Paul’s trailer to collect another two Ouessant ewes yesterday and, when returning it today, I picked up a couple of sacks of mixed cereal feed (which we give to our chickens, geese and pigs) so I was happy to return the favour and spend the afternoon helping to bring in the harvest. Tristan’s mum, Valerie, had dropped him off halfway through the afternoon, and when I returned to the field, having unloaded a trailer-load of wheat back at the farm, I found not Paul but Tristan in the driving seat of the combine harvester. Paul explained the French expression, “Le roi n'est pas son cousin”, which took a couple of goes before I understood it to mean that Tristan was happier or prouder than a King. I then explained what I thought was an appropriate English version to describe Tristan’s emotions: “he’s as happy (or happier) than a pig in shit” or “aussi heureux qu’un cochon dans la merde”, which raised a big smile from Paul, him being a pig farmer and all that!

Maybe 13 is a little old to be still playing with toy tractors but it’s years away from playing with the real thing for most boys. I’m really impressed with Tristan, who seems very mature for his age, whilst still possessing the charm of a happy kid. It seems that precisely because he’s given responsibility that he can cope with that he rises to the challenge. He is not yet old enough to be allowed to drive the tractor on the road but he drives it better than I do on the field! And yesterday, so Paul recounted, he used a tractor and machinery to bale cut straw and stack it in the barn at home (his parents Loïc and Valerie are dairy farmers) all on is own.

Perhaps because he is given these responsibilities, he has to reflect on things and thus enjoys participating in adult conversation. It just makes me wonder how many more boys and girls could have their surprising potential unlocked given supportive parents and the right opportunities.
So I say “chapeau” to Tristan, which is to say, “I take my hat off to him”.

Away from industrial farming and without me distracting her, Gabrielle spent the day planting out coriander, basil, pak choi and parsley; cutting nettles to make nettle tea (turning “weeds” into plant fertiliser) not forgetting to call her mum to wish her happy anniversary; dealing with enquiries for our gite; making some papier maché puppets on a Breton theme AND had a lovely meal of herb-stuffed fresh mackerel and a bottle of fridge-cold French Sauvignon ready for when I rolled in at about 8pm this evening: little surprise that I'm marrying this woman in September!.