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.