Monday, January 28, 2008

A couple of things concerning our animals that happened today made me really smile. I was working at Paul’s and Christiane’s (industrial-scale pig farming neighbours) renovation project and nipped home at lunchtime to speak to Gabrielle and make a couple of phone calls. As I walked past, I bid “good day” to our next door neighbour, an elderly peasant lady called Solange, and then walked up to our two rabbit hutches on wheels to move them onto fresh grass. Solange, an expert in rabbit raising, walked over and complimented me on the size and quality of mummy rabbit (who’s about the size of a Labrador dog) and her eight offspring, then warned me against giving them wet grass to eat. I remembered that when we were at her house on a previous occasion, I had picked some weeds and given them to her caged rabbits who looked hungry and she said the same then: anything you give rabbits must be dry. The consequences were as follows: wet weeds or grass will give them the “gros vent” causing them to “crèvent. In English, as far as I understand what she said, after eating wet green-stuff, our rabbits will let out a huge bunny-fart and then dramatically die, rolling over on their backs with their four paws in the air, surrounded by the pervasive and fatal air of a bunny bottom burp.

We have been feeding our rabbits huge amounts of very wet green food for all their lives and never yet heard the dreaded fatal cuniculine trouser cough. Once I’d retuned from my quick visit home, I put this theory to the assembled masses around the dinner table and they all agreed. I really don’t know what to make of this, as everyone seems so sure that this is the case but that’s just not our experience. If you have any advice to pass on, please post a comment.

After the obligatorily comprehensive French lunch, Paul and I accompanied Philippe to Kysinia’s house to discuss some wood that was useful for carpentry / joinery and could be “bought” in exchange for some for some firewood. As we passed back through our property, we came across our free range flock of chickens and I tried to coax a little bantam into flying up onto my arm, as she is inclined to do. She performed to order, to everyone’s amusement, which provoked Paul into a little party trick of his own. He pickled up one of our new ladies, the New Hampshire / Leghorn crosses we recently acquired for free, and firmly tucked it’s head down, while simultaneously pulling it’s wing up to cover it. He then held it “trapped” like this for a short while rocking it back and forward, much as you might imagine rocking a baby to sleep. He got lower with each swing until he carefully laid the sleeping, or perhaps rather hypnotised, bird on the ground, where it remained, motionless for quite a few moments before coming around: weird, amazing and true! (… if a shame that I didn’t video it to show you.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Update on our straw bale house build – Part 1. With Gabrielle’s various siblings also coming to stay, there was no room at the inn during Christmas at her mum’s house and so we had to find somewhere to stay during our short UK visit. Gabrielle searched the Net and found suitable B & B accommodation less than a mile away, meaning that we could walk to and from. The hosts were charming and accepted our booking on the basis that they would supply breakfast but that we’d have to prepare it ourselves, being busy themselves on Christmas and Boxing Days. We found their rather stately home down a private road, that’s to say “not maintained at public expense”, which is also to say, “not maintained at all”, which was my impression as we bounced the van from one pothole to another. Mr Chalmers then showed us to our accommodation, a little separate square building at the boundary of their garden (see photo above).

Little, tiny, small … it was all of these yet more than adequate for what we wanted. (I’ll avoid the obvious cliché and call it “cosy” … oops, I just did or doesn’t that count?) I was interested to know the history, why was it built and for what purpose. He wasn’t sure and his best guess was that the main house was historically the farm manager’s house of a big estate and, because of the contours of the land, he couldn’t survey all of the estate from the house and needed a lookout tower cum office at the end of the garden and this was it.

The outside stairs had been replaced internally; upstairs was simply one double bedroom with windows on two sides (always an attractive feature of a room, see Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction) and downstairs comprised a shower room and toilet and, the other side of the stairwell, a galley kitchen. A conservatory (a modern addition) provided an eating area with a view.

Perhaps a little too small to live in permanently, it certainly asked questions of how much space we really need; the size of many modern houses seems sometimes to have more to do with publicly demonstrating how affluent one is rather than providing essential living space. I came across the Tiny House Company™ website on Dragonfly Jenny’s excellent Texan permaculture blog and have just read their book, A Tiny Place to Call Your Home, cover to cover today, which has given us plenty to think about as we turn our attention, once more, to the design of our proposed straw bale home. A smaller house would be less expensive to build, use fewer raw materials and be cheaper to heat, along with many other advantages (you read the book) which even includes being cosy! Gabrielle is shown in the photo above for scale purposes and she’s only 5’2”. In Part 2, I’ll tell you more about the designing and planning permission issues.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Another brief offering in the Permaculture Vision, perhaps “Permavision” series, as produced by the “Blind Leading the Blind” production company comprised completely of amateurs who only partially know what they’re talking about. Today’s offering is how to squeeze something tasty out of the centre of a rosehip, whose contents (the prickly seeds are irritatingly itchy and, more seriously, can be a dangerous internal irritant) are usually mischievously stuffed down the back of their friends’ collars by recalcitrant schoolboys.

During our Christmas trip to the UK, we stayed over at some friends, Jenny and Tam. As you’ll see in the little video at the top, Jenny demonstrates how to squeeze out some tasty, vitamin-C-charged (20 times that of an orange, apparently) rosehips, foraged while out walking their dog, Millie.

Jen & Tam are about to emigrate to live in Australia, where Jen’s parents live. They’re off to live in a place called “Blue Knob” ... what an address for a couple of laydees!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. William Blake English poet (1757 – 1827) investigating his notion of “Contraries” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Believe me when I tell you that if the “horses” aren’t giving me decent instructions, you’ll see my very own “tygers of wrath” … and it’s not a pretty sight. The problem with instructions, as far as I’m concerned, is that they’re usually written by people who know what they’re doing. You might think that that’s only logical, so I’ll illustrate what I mean.

Imagine a man working for a flat-pack furniture manufacturer, let’s call him Stig, and his boss, Olaf, asks him to write instructions on how to assemble say a kitchen cabinet. Stig astutely familiarises himself with the construction and, once he’s made one up several times, he begins to write. In fairness to Stig, if you’ve ever tried to put into words even the simplest instruction, you’ll know how complicated it quickly becomes. Ambiguities abound: “turn the item through 180º.” Now you and I are immediately thinking, “do they mean horizontally or vertically?” but Stig, bless him, precisely because he already knows how to assemble it, doesn’t spot the potential ambiguity and it’s left to the customer to invariably turn it the wrong way first before finally, if you’re lucky, work out how to assemble it, despite, rather than because of, the instructions.

With the aid / hindrance of the provided instructions, I’ve just assembled our, Solar Tunnel, a variation on the theme of a polytunnel. Straight away, I’ll tell you how impressed I am with the product and I think that for a first-timer, it has to be easier to construct than some other forms of polytunnel, having much of the cover actually fitted and not having to tension the cover by burying the sides in earth. The strange things with the instructions provided is that, when I read them at the kitchen table, they might as well have been written in Swahili for all the sense they made. With the components in front of me, they made slightly more sense but it was only after I’d bolted a section together, completely a**e-about-face, thus working out how I should have done it, that when I re-read the instructions, I could see what they meant, which makes it hard to be too critical. Needless to say, I made many mistakes along the way, my "tygers of wrath" being audible from miles around.

I'm going to email Andrew Blacklock of Solar Tunnel to let him know how pleased we are about the tunnel—not a single missing nut or bolt and it all works really well, including the optional extra sliding doors which will help regulate Summer heat—and suggest that he could upgrade the instructions; a bit of video on the website would be good. I’m also going to ask him about taping the framework with heat tape: this comes with some polytunnels but not the Solar Tunnel, however the Solar Tunnel does have a reinforced cover, so perhaps it’s not necessary. Fun job tomorrow is to have an audit of all the seed packets we already have and order anymore we need to get the most out of the tunnel this year.

Monday morning: Andrew has emailed me to say that "no anti-hot spot tape is needed or advised by the factory."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

In the last blog, I told you how we met Alastair and Caroline artists of repute if not always liquidity. Hard-working, talented English fine artists living in Brittany they may be but, lacking celebrity status, their income is more like that of a church mouse rather than Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Over a glass of English beer (Adnams bitter, a favourite of mine and I mean a glass each, not just one with three straws) we discussed all this and Caroline mused that Art was a luxury item—i.e., not essential to life—and so that they should not be surprised that they didn’t sell more work. I baulked at this and was sure some philosopher must have said something like “man cannot live by bread alone.” It seems that this phrase is a nineteenth century proverb with it’s roots in the Old and New Testaments and is now taken to mean that people need things such as art, music and poetry as well as food (and beer!) in order to live a full and happy life.

Pursuing this thought later, I came across this quote by Seneca the Younger (Roman philosopher, c. 4BC – AD 65) “As the soil, however rich it may be, cannot be productive without cultivation, so the mind without culture can never produce good fruit”, which I thought an excellent quote to link Permaculture with Culture. What provoked me to get all culturally philosophical is that I’m listening to Gabrielle practise her violin with Maryline and her accordion whilst warmed internally by another pint of Adnams (see video clip above).

My thought for this Sunday afternoon is therefore (if you have the money) to go out and support your local artists by buying art. And think on how many hours they’ve worked to produce the piece before you look at the price tag. Enjoy the music!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I recently picked up three free range, rare breed chickens at our local supermarket … for free! Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that but following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “Chicken Out! Campaign for a Free Range Future”, televised over the last three days on UK’s Channel 4, I thought my tale timely. Hugh is trying to get UK consumers to eschew the cheap factory farmed chickens from large supermarket chains and pay a bit extra to buy a free range bird for a fairer life for the chickens and a better quality meat on the plate.

For a French-based permaculture blog, this is all very Anglo-centric and I was going to compare prices, etc., of chickens available here until I realised that we haven’t bought a chicken to eat for a long time, being fortunate to have space enough for a self-regenerating flock of chickens. Our chickens are free range, so free range that our old cockerel has chicken offspring at two neighbours’ hen-houses (belonging to Celine and Michel and Alan and Carole) and has thus answered the age old question, “why did the chicken cross the road?” Evidently, for a shag.

I was in our local small supermarket, Ecomarché, just before Christmas and, when I got to the checkout, I saw two artists at work painting a large seasonal mural on the shop window, involving a Christmas tree, large snowball and a Père Noël. After I’d paid, I went up to say how good I thought it was (in French) and when they answered I detected a distinctly English accent and that’s how we came to know Alastair and Caroline, English fine artists living and working in Brittany. Some days later, over a cup of tea at our place, they mentioned that they had three “cockerels” that they’d been given by a Dutch guy as a thank you present and who were now causing a nuisance in their neighbours garden and had also outgrown their accommodation, it was time for them to go. Previously vegetarians, they wanted them slaughtered humanely and didn’t want to do the deed themselves. A deal was struck: they’d deliver the “cockerels” one evening and we’d despatch, pluck and prepare them the following morning, keeping one for ourselves for our trouble.

Just before D-Day, Caroline phoned to say that she was now unsure that they were cockerels but still wanted rid of them, so would we take them, either for eggs or meat. We delayed until we’d come back from our Christmas travels and took delivery of our three new hens(!) last Saturday evening. As you’ll see in the photos, after keeping them all locked up together for a day to habituate them to their new home and flock, they’ve settled right in and we collected our first egg today. Caroline and Alastair were told that the chickens were a Bresse / Leghorn cross but we’re not so sure. Any suggestions, please post a comment.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

How I scraped something off the road and gave it to my mother-in-law to eat, but first, a Winter’s Tale of a frozen pipe. When we watch TV programmes about building houses or relocating and starting a new life in the countryside, or even another country, Gabrielle and I get annoyed that all the presenters seem to relish in the dramatic tension of problems for their subjects. It goes something like this: a couple have moved to France to do up a chateau, the budget is already shot, they’re badly behind schedule and the first guests have arrived at the airport but the toilet in their room isn’t connected and the plumber can’t be contacted—cue dramatic music, frowning presenter and cut to adverts.

Not here, though, we always have lovely clients, who always leave our gite spotless when they go and, apart from the odd bit of maintenance, such as tightening up a loose tap and cleaning the wood stove, it all passes quite peacefully. Just before Christmas, we had a bitter cold snap. Clive and Marg, the last holidaymakers of the year, were due to leave the gite the same day as we would head for the ferry to spend Christmas in the UK with family and friends. The day before, I was up early, out feeding the animals and unfreezing their water when Clive approached me and, in a typically British “I’m terribly sorry to bother you” sort of way, told me that they didn’t have any water in the gite—obviously a frozen pipe. You might understand how my first thought was that I needed a TV camera crew in attendance. After I’d supplied a bucket to flush the toilet and water for the kettle (the British always turn to tea in a crisis) I called Philippe, the guy who used to own our house to ask him where he’d laid the pipes, so I knew where to start digging.

Annoyingly, I only got his answerphone but, bless him, he called me back within five minutes and I wandered about, mobile stuck to my ear, while we discussed where all the pipes were laid. We agreed that the most likely problem place was at the corner of our house, exposed to the cold wind, where the pipe had been encased in concrete but not insulated. It took the best part of the day to carefully—so as not to break the pipe—chip away at the concrete, warm the pipe with a borrowed hairdryer (thanks Celine) and wrap it up in insulation … and it all ended happily ever after and we took the ferry the following day as planned. (Spot the chick in the photo above).

After dropping Gabrielle off at her mother’s house on Christmas Eve, I headed into town to buy some cough mixture and on the return journey, saw a dead pheasant in the road.
Perhaps because of all our new experiences on our permaculture smallholding over the last couple of years, my first thought was “food” and looked for a suitable place to park the van. “Road-kill” as it’s termed, can be a useful and free addition to the diet. I picked it up and squeezed its breast to see whether it had been badly squashed (no) and found it still warm. To further impress my mother-in-law, I walked nonchalantly into her kitchen carrying cough mixture and pheasant, which provoked the desired humorous effect. Terry, her husband, told me that pheasants have to be “hung” from their necks, guts in, for a minimum of a couple of days. After further research in recipe books and on the Internet, I skinned it, rather than a more time-consuming plucking, cut off the damaged bits, and was able to get two good breast portions and two good legs off it. Shelagh casseroled it with apples and cream a few days later and said it was delicious.

I was particularly proud as I thought that I’d legally appropriated a luxury food item for free until I passed a butcher and saw pheasants for sale as cheap as a supermarket chicken.
From what I’ve read, so many birds are shot for sport that they can’t give the carcasses away and end up disposing of loads by burying them. I’ve changed my opinion over the years and I think that shooting a bird—that’s lived freely out in the open air—to eat, is OK but just for sport and then burying the carcasses seems all wrong to me.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A mini-blog during half-time of the FA Cup football game between Burnley and Arsenal. We (Arsenal, and amusing that can I say “we” without embarrassment as I was always crap at football myself) are currently leading 1 : 0.

Gabrielle made a great birdfeeder today, from a pine cone, here called a pomme de pin (literally, an apple of a pine) into which she pressed a mixture of fat she trimmed off a couple of pork chops yesterday evening, then rendered, and some peanuts ground (in a food processor) into a flour, which was the consistency of hard butter. She suspended it from a piece of string and no less than five minutes later, the first blue tit (mésange) arrived for a snack. Pretty to look at and only cost the peanuts … have a look at the price of stuff like this in a garden centre!

And a silly game to be played at this time of year, involving a chocolate and mint cream wafer called an After Eight. Our friend Sid demonstrates … and succeeds at the second attempt.

Friday, January 04, 2008

France, our home of choice, has a really bad reputation for bureaucracy, both amongst the French as well as us etrangers. (By the way, this story has a happy ending, so do read to the end). In fact, recently, we’ve come to the opinion that the law and regulations are actually too complicated even for the fonctionnaires (civil servants) themselves. A couple of examples for you:

In my blog of Monday, December 17th, I told you about the recent changes to the French health system that would affect us. I did loads of research, aided by the website of the British Embassy in Paris and another and I found a solution that works for us. On the last day of 2007, I went to the health system office, together with a disarming smile and a folder bursting with my tax situation since I’ve been in France, every scrap of paper relating to my membership of the health system so far, and printouts of info that I’d gleaned from the Internet, including from the French health system’s own website.

Would you Adam-and-Eve it, I was hugely more well-informed than the guy in the office who showed me a photocopy of a press article from October that another British person had given him, seemingly the most up-to-date information he had to work on. He took photocopies of the stuff I’d got from the French health system website and promised to look into it!

The second example concerns me asking for permission to cut trees in our wood to remove unhealthy trees, replant with more suitable species and set up a coppicing cycle according to the permaculture woodland management plan that I’ve drawn up. Our French neighbours raised their French eyebrows that we were actually asking for permission (a legal requirement) as it makes things so complicated, much better, in their opinion, just to get on with it and leave the local administration in blissful ignorance. When I went to the local mairie (different from the village where we live) to ask what to do, I caused the system to grind to a complete halt because, apparently it was the first he’d ever dealt with (note advice from French neighbours). He spent some time searching the French government website for instructions, giving me various photocopies and advice. I thus wrote a detailed letter to the maire and received, some weeks later, permission to cut a forest ride and for the first thinning of a plantation of pines. For the permission to cut the two coupes I’d requested, I needed to return to the mairie and fill out the form in quadruplicate. No sooner had I returned home than a phonecall summoned me back to the mairie. The forms had changed in October, added to which, the secretary had phoned up for guidance and received conflicting advice. His sensible solution was to fill in both alternatives (in quadruplicate) so that at least one would be correct and had already filled in the second form for me, just requiring a signature, definitely no “jobsworth” but rather someone seemingly on my side fighting the confusions of the state behemoth.

So today, I phoned the Établissement d’Élevage (who register animals such as sheep, pigs, goats and cows) to ask for some ear tags to replace some that had fallen out of our sheep and for our expected lambs; an animal lacking identification is a serious business. As I wanted a different type of ear tag to the small metal ones that fall out easily, I couldn’t have replacements with the same number but was simply told to put new ones in and note the new number against the original number they relate to in a notebook. My next question was more complicated and I already thought I knew the (negative) answer, as I’d read through the guide before phoning. We have been offered an unregistered goat by a French friend for free. I advised him to get himself registered (it’s the law) but, after finding out that it would cost him some money, he decided not to. Could I take the animal and put my number on it.
“Yes” … I drew her attention to advice in their guide against it.
“Yes, under your circumstances, it’s not a problem at all, one more animal in the system.”
Now go and compare that with our Somerset sheep smallholding friend Val’s problems with the UK equivalent text displayed, DEFRA (starting on her blog of December 7th … and ongoing!)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Meat – Part 3: The Big Pig Day In the last part I was still on the lookout for a suitable boucher de campagne to help us slaughter and butcher our two pigs. Jean-Yves, one of the veritable Annick’s sons, suggested a neighbour of his, Bernard, now “retired” from the job he’s been doing since he was fourteen. Apparently, after six weeks of doing painting around the house, he was bored with retirement and has continued with his work the only difference being that he now works only the morning or the afternoon of any one day. He was short and slight and had the air of a village parson. I was relieved to find that he was familiar with a captive bolt stun gun, having worked in an abattoir, and was happy for me to use one to render the animals unconscious before he hauled them up and bled them. He was also happy to help us with these different pigs—another boucher had been to visit and declined to get involved with our Kune Kunes—and we fixed a date.

I spent more than one sleepless night in the lead-up, not helped by the non-arrival of the captive bolt gun that I’d ordered from the UK. I turned out that it had been addressed with the wrong postcode and was somewhere in a sorting office in the Midi-Pyrenees. With a day to go, I was ready to cancel the whole thing until I had another of my rare “light bulb” moments of inspiration and went scuttling off to another pig farm in the village (neighbour Paul doesn’t have a humane killer) and explained to the farmer my predicament. He had the device, called a Matador here in France, which he lent to me, what a relief!

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Pig in a Day
DVD was our guide throughout and we can’t recommend it enough. We also referred to Larousse Gastronomic (an encyclopaedia of food), which shows the differences between the English and French way of dividing up the carcass. In my slightly anal way, I typed up seven pages of notes to guide us through the whole complicated process. Bernard arrived promptly at 2pm and neighbour Alan came over to lend us a helping hand. While Gabrielle occupied the other pig with a bucket of acorns out of sight, I despatched the first pig with not so much as a squeal. After it had been hoisted up on a pulley and bled, we placed the carcass in the van and followed the same procedure for the second pig. I was apprehensive about the whole affair and concentrating fiercely to make sure I did it correctly and was very glad when they were both humanely despatched. Gabrielle did shed a few tears immediately afterwards but was soon back to normal, aided by the kind, and very British, offer of a cup of tea at Alan’s and Carole’s house.

We then took the carcasses to Paul’s and Christiane’s farm, where Christiane had been heating up a massive cast-iron cauldron of water over a fire for two hours, which was needed to scrape the bristles off the pigs. Once they’d been eviscerated, they were returned to our house and were suspended outside overnight to dry out and for rigor mortis to pass. Bernard returned just before 7am the following morning to divide up the carcasses. With the aid of Hugh’s DVD, Gabrielle and I prepared black pudding (blood sausage), sausages, chorizo, liver pâté, brawn, dry-cured bacon and we put a leg in salt to make Prosciutto-style air-dried ham. We also cooked fresh liver, braised the hearts, devilled the kidneys and even had a recipe for the ears.

It was a full four days work for the two of us and we now feel immensely proud to have raised two happy pigs in the open air over the summer and autumn and then taken full responsibility for their humane slaughter and preparation for the table, using just about everything but the “oink”, as the saying goes. We’ve already made some enquiries about buying some new weaners and are very interested in some Gloucester Old Spots that will be ready at the end of February.