Saturday, August 30, 2008

Interlude We’ve been incredibly busy here recently, hence the reduction in my blogging output but I’ll be taking some time to bring you up to date very soon. In the meantime, a tale of an accident involving two of our holidaymakers and probably the World’s best ever thing to do with a bowl of strawberries.

The Accident: Just out the back of the private garden of our holiday gite, suspended from a sturdy horizontal branch of a venerable oak, is a swing, a large plank of sweet chestnut tied on with hemp rope, a choice we thought more environmentally-friendly than the man-made alternative. Swings are seductive, many are drawn to its pendulous charms and recent holidaymakers, Geraldine and Philip, were no exception. Unluckily for them, the natural hemp rope has not weathered well and suddenly lost its battle against gravity, plunging them earthwards at 32.2 feet per second per second: by my calculations, they hit the ground a third of a second later at just under eight miles an hour. Philip had pressed the shutter on his camera at the precise moment they fell, capturing the moment for posterity (see photo at top).

The first I knew of it was answering the door to a sheepish Geraldine apologising for “breaking” our swing. I gave her a tube of Arnica cream for a bruise on her leg and have reinstated the swing with some more durable polypropylene rope.

The World’s Best Ever Strawberry Recipe (probably): Maybe it’s a bit late in the summer to be telling you this but we’re still picking strawberries here so, hoping you have similar good fortune, here goes:
You’ll need some ripe strawberries (over-ripe are fine too) some sugar, Cointreau (an orange-flavoured liqueur) and vanilla ice cream.
Wash, de-stalk and quarter the strawberries into a bowl; sprinkle over some granulated sugar and drizzle over some Cointreau. Leave for several hours, turning the strawberries in their liquor a few times and then serve with the ice cream. The Cointreau really lifts out every scrap of flavour from the strawbs. The picture of Homer Simpson serves as a visual metaphor of how good this tastes … Bon Appétit!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Scavenging: A lot of what we do here on our permaculture smallholding is to do with the production and processing of our own food. But it can be even simpler: sometimes you just need to help yourself. No, I’m not talking about shoplifting but rather scavenging. For example, this time of year the hedgerows are full with ripening blackberries.

For her birthday, Gabrielle fancied a day at the coast and after a relaxed and comprehensive lunch, we went for a stroll on the beach … with a garden sprayer filled with saturated salt solution and a builder’s bucket (see photo at top). We were after razor clams, known here as couteaux (knives) who live in the sand. The idea is that you spray a jet of salt solution down their holes in the sand and they pop up moments later, either (we’ve read of two pro-positions) because they’ve been tricked into thinking that the tide is coming in or that the saturated solution is even saltier than seawater and thus an irritant, which they try to escape from. Whichever one you think is more plausible, it’s somewhat irrelevant, as we didn’t even get one (in the photo, I'm holding an empty shell to show what we were after). We asked fellow scavengers, variously armed with spades, rakes and riddles, and even the tractor drivers working the mussel farming nets, for advice and thus eventually found a spot with plenty of empty razor clam shells: close but no banana.

If you have any tried and tested methods for razor clam hunting, please post a comment. We didn’t leave the beach empty-handed but filled our bucket up with wild mussels and sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). Home again, with the animals fed and watered, we sat outside with a glass each of crisply-cold French organic Riesling wine scraping barnacles and beards off the mussel shells. The photo shows curried mussels, served with basmati rice and garnished with the sea lettuce.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I’m progressing backwards through my life. My career finished before I went to university, aged 38, and I am now slowly regressing into childhood. I have many fond and funny memories from uni; amongst them was one of my favourite English Literature lecturers, Dr Brian Cummings, laughing as he was relating to our seminar group the story of his young son’s first trip to the lanes and fields of the countryside from their urban home in Putney, London: “It’s so dirty, Dad. There’s shit everywhere. Why don’t they clean it up.”

The English can be so prim and proper and are generally uncomfortable talking about toilet stuff. We go to the “loo” or the “little room”, we “pay a call”. Well, I shall confound all that and dedicate the rest of this blog to subject of shit. Living in Brighton, England, once I’d flushed the toilet the “problem” was no more: I was left with clean white porcelain and my shit was whooshed away in a network of new pipes and old Victorian sewers until it arrived at a sewage treatment plant for someone else to deal with. Par contre, here in rural France, it’s usual for each house to have its own mini sewage treatment system, most often, the ubiquitous fosse septique (septic tank).

It is, in effect, a settlement tank, so solids both sink to the bottom and rise to the top, breaking down by bacterial action to some extent, with the clearer water passing out and then, via a sand filter, into the rainwater ditch. It doesn’t totally process the sewage, so every four years or so, you pay to have it pumped out and the residue is driven off in a tanker lorry to a larger sewage treatment plant. If your system blocks up, not unusual on older installations, it’s your responsibility to sort it out and, for the braver or desperate, that means getting very smelly and dirty. This intimacy does have some positive benefits however, breaking down some taboos and allowing some decent debates and reflections on the subject of shit; oh how those long winter evenings just fly by.

We’ve decided to take a different route for our straw bale house and install a horizontal plant filter (see photo at bottom) and pond and asked Eléonore Clessin of the company Aquatiris to conduct a study of our situation. She arrived with an auger, tape measure, electronic (!) water level, and water in containers to conduct site and soil surveys and water infiltration tests. She then supplied a detailed dossier which we have submitted to the mairie for approval. Being in charge of a commune of only 206 people, they hand this responsibility on to the communauté de communes (French communes are grouped into cantons.) They, in turn, hand in onto the technicians of Service d'Assistance Technique aux Exploitants de Stations d'Epuration (SATESE) who come round to review our application and, after installation, verify it’s been done properly.

The situation in our département (Côtes d’Armor) is that it isn’t within the regulations but they will give us a lettre de dérogation which will effectively allow us to install our system. A condition is that we have a composting toilet. In the adjoining département, Illes et Villaines (both in Brittany) they do allow “black water” from the toilet to pass into the plant filter system. Before we get hung up on the glorious Frenchness of two départements in the same region being different when I thought that legislation such as this was meant to comply with Europe-encompassing norms, the dry compost toilet is considerably more ecological as the flush toilet is a huge waste of potable water.

We must get the OK for our proposed sewage system before we can apply for planning permission. All the indications are that it will be a “yes”. I shall keep you posted on the progress of our house designing and planning permission as it happens.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rude Vegetables : I shall briefly suspend my more intellectual blogging to post you a picture of a rude carrot Gabrielle picked from the potager the other day. The thing with carrots is that they are delicate creatures and whenever their descending roots encounter an obstruction in the soil (a stone, for example) they are easily diverted or bifurcated. That’s no good if you want to sell them to a supermarket, where they all have to conform to the standard length and straightness coefficient, but great fun if you want to have a schoolboy-ish snigger.

Hats off to The Vegetarian Society who have gone further with a hilarious rude food video. (And just to restablish my omnivorous credentials, I quote American writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz, who apparently said, “Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat.”)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

“Life and Death on the Farm, Part 1” I have to start this blog with an apology, an unpromising beginning, I grant you. I’ve started and stared at it for a few days and it hasn’t really gelled as a piece of writing but, as I promised “Life and Death on the Farm” at the end of the last blog, far be it for me to change subject. Anyway, such as it is, here goes, my sub-standard existential blog …

YIN : A particularly urgent commotion from the chickens was followed by a tomcat running past with one of our young chicks in its mouth. I gave chase but was well and truly outrun. It was sad to see. I suppose it’s inevitable that if we keep as many animals as we do, we’re going to lose some from time to time but, when it happens, it always leaves me with a heavy heart. No, it wasn’t the pain of losing some old retainer of a family Labrador or a tragedy in terms of any number of more serious problems people encounter in life but it was sad to see such a young thing prematurely taken. I do become a bit reflective whenever we lose an animal, which is rarely, thankfully.

YANG : Perhaps, precisely because we are exposed to the shadow of death (oops, a bit over-dramatic) our animals engender within us such a happy feeling of life. Seeing how far a chicken will range and what interests them. Watching a sheep licking clean its fully-wooled newborn lamb. Having Alpine goatlings climbing all over our backs when trying to bottle-feed them. And the difference in our cat, who arrived as a bag of bones of a barn cat only interested in finding something edible but is now a well-fed cat who plays, hunting shadows and patting inert objects around just so she can chase them.

I sympathise with farmers who lose larger animals, as it must be so much harder to see it suffering and come to terms with such a loss. Our dairy-farming friend Yves, with a herd of forty huge Holsteins, has inevitably lost cows and he is always really upset about it. And how much worse to have your farm hit by an epidemic.

At the time of the last foot-and-mouth epidemic in England, I remember hearing on the TV news a comment from a naïve vegetarian who was dismissing the suggestion that farmers might be suffering emotionally from losing their animals because, “they’re all going for slaughter anyway”. That really is missing the point by a country mile but serves as a good introduction to “Life and Death on the Farm, Part 2” where I’ll explain our about approach to humanely slaughtering animals for food.

Picture credit for foot-and-mouth pics, Cumbria 2001

Sunday, August 03, 2008

“...know languages, know countries, know people.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Russian writer and historian).

We choose to live in a foreign country and feel very strongly that we therefore have an obligation to make as much effort as possible to learn the language and so integrate fully into the community. If “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” then our road to fluency is paved with cock-ups, some pretty spectacular ones too.

Some examples:
1.) Pondering the difficulties of finding the house of our dreams, Gabrielle wished to convey the need for persistence in our quest and chose to illustrate this with (in her best French) “if you want to find a prince, you have to kiss a lot of frogs.” The French verb baiser confusingly means both to kiss and to f**k and I still am not sure how to differentiate their use. [The mind really boggles how the French negotiate the early stages of a relationship!] Judging by the facial expressions of the two estate agents, what Gabrielle said was badly misconstrued, probably made worse by their undoubted knowledge that the term “Frog” is offensive slang for a Frenchman.
2.) Gabrielle once told our French neighbours that “Stuart a coupé la grande pine.”[Stuart has cut down a large pine.] Gabrielle didn’t know the French for a pine tree was, so did what we often do and use the English word but with a French accent. This is a surprisingly effective tool as half of English is French anyway, as a result of their Norman Invasion. Georges Clemenceau (French Prime minister 1906-1909 and 1917-1920) said, “l’anglais? Ce ne’est jamais du français mal prononcé.” [English is nothing but French badly pronouced.] The correct word for a pine tree is pin or sapin, pronounced “PAHn”. Pine, pronounced, “peen” is French slang for “dick” … oops!
3.)At a musical practice for the Breton Danse Group Gabrielle plays violin with, she asked her friend and fellow musician, Michelle, whether she was going to play her flute, “Est-ce que tu va faire la pipe?” Unequivocally, in French that means, “are you going to give a blowjob?”
You can see the difficulties (and did you notice a certain theme running through those examples?

It might be our duty to learn French but our friends and neighbours make their own attempts in English. We recently received an email from our good, French vegetarian friends Éric and Virginie. It made me laugh out loud as it made me wonder whether we sound like that to them, in French.
  “Good evening Stuart and Gabrielle xxx,
 We are sorry to answer you with long time. Heu..... You can come to visit us when you want. It will be better que nous soyons là chez nous [if we are there].
 Heu.... pfffffff dur-dur [hard hard] write english.
Donc vous êtes les [therefore, you are] welcome at home !
 See you letter

 we kiss you.
 Rico and Ninie"

Sweet, eh? And if you need any other persuasion to learn French, watch this … (Next blog, “Life and Death on the Farm, Part 1”)