Friday, October 31, 2008

How to make cider: Part 1. Probably the simplest instructions I’ll ever post: “First, pick your apples!”

Because of the climate—which dictates what grows well—you’ll see apple orchards rather than grape vines here in the north of France. Hence Brittany is not a wine producing region but is well know for its cider. I imagine that making cider on a small scale is less complex than wine (please post a comment if you know differently). The basics are that you squash apples to get the juice, which ferments naturally, and with no added yeast, to become alcoholic cider (“hard cider”, for any American readers [for whom I also include this subliminal, political message: Vote Obama! please]). If you just want apple juice, you have to pasteurise it.

Here in the Brittany countryside, making cider on a family scale is still a common event. Paul and Christiane, our pig-farming neighbours, are no exceptions but, busy as they always are, they haven’t found the time since 2000. Cider doesn’t keep in the way wine sometimes can and perhaps it was because their 2000 bottles were tasting bitter that they decided the time, and the apples were ripe. Many hands make light work, as the saying goes, and a team of expert apple pickers was assembled: Paul and Christiane, bien sûr, Christiane’s sister, Cecile, and her husband, Bernard, and his mum and Paul’s mum, me, Gabrielle and her brother, Bruin, not forgetting Aldo the large yet amiable Labrador cross.

A physical, somewhat bent-double-back-breaking yet also very enjoyable day was pleasantly punctuated by the obligatory French lunch, consisting of aperitifs such as port (which the English tend to drink after a meal as a digestive) aniseed-flavoured pastis or even whisky, served with crisps, followed by a starter, main course (curiously referred to as the plat de resistance) accompanied by cider, cheese, accompanied by red wine, then dessert and coffee. Bruin, here to stay with us for a couple of weeks, wasn’t at all prepared for all this and thought, not unreasonably, that the entrée (starter) was it and so—being a hungry boy after a hard morning’s apple picking—he got rather tucked in, so to speak. You should have seen his face when the main course arrived. It would be fair to say that we weren’t quite so dynamic in the afternoon session and I was very pleased to see the trailer full to capacity, calling an end to proceedings. The apples were left in the trailer, exposed to the elements, for a couple of weeks to mature before turning into juice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

“A Pig in a Poke / Let the Cat out of the Bag:” Entomology is the study of insects; etymology is the study of the history and development of the meaning of words. Not to be confused then, unless you want to know how the word “insect” came into the English language!

Today’s bit of silliness is to reveal to you, if you didn’t already know, the meaning behind the two English idioms in the title above. I think it’s fair to say that letting the cat out of the bag is the more well known—meaning the disclosure of a secret—but did you know that the two phrases are related?

“Poke” is a diminutive of pocket but is also dialect for a bag or sack: so we actually have a pig in a sack. Or do we? Imagine yourself in a bustling 16th century market, vendors shouting out bargains, and you hear a pig being offered at a really low price with a wriggling sack being shoved into your face. It’s a blind bargain. Do you take it quickly or risk losing the discount of the day? You pass over your pennies and grab your bargain bag.

You know what’s going to happen now, don’t you? You get home, pleased with your purchase and then, in front of your family and wearing a proud smile, you open the sack, letting the cat out of the bag. You’ve been had: it wasn’t a porky bargain at all but rather a stray cat. I hope I’ve explained this clearly and, with the aid of one of our cats, here’s a demonstration …
(the laughter in the background is Gabrielle's brother, Bruin, who was here to stay)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

“Life and death on the Farm, Part 2.” This is the sequel to Part 1, and even Part 1 and a half: something I’ve been thinking about for some time trying to formulate what I should write.

If animals are part of your permaculture design, and one of the desired permaculture outputs is meat, then their humane slaughter is inevitably something that you are going to have to prepare for and deal with. Whether you plan to do this yourself, get a slaughterer to come to you or take them to the abattoir, this is a huge event, especially for the first time. For us, the welfare of the animal throughout its life, and its slaughter in a calm and humane manner is both paramount and incontrovertible. That way, you get another beneficial permaculture output, a happy animal, the very least you owe it if it’s going to end up on your dinner plate.

If you want to read up on the subject, there’s no better place to start than The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) which “is the only registered charity that works, in the UK and internationally, through educational, scientific and technical advances, exclusively towards the highest worldwide standards of welfare for food animals during transport, marketing and slaughter.” Their excellent publications are sold on a not-for-profit basis. Other sources on information include, for example, The Soil Association text and, for me, a very interesting telephone conversation with Muhammad Ridha Payne of the organic halal (Muslim) meat suppliers in the UK, Abraham Natural Produce. I’m not in any sense religious but I was interested to hear him explain the correct principles of “halal” (permissible for Muslims) slaughter, which includes such elements as ensuring the animal is calm and unstressed and the slaughterer is in the correct state of mind with equipment correctly prepared.

We’ve slaughtered chickens, geese and rabbits here ourselves. For our pigs last year—the first time with a larger animal—Bernard, an itinerant slaughterer called a boucher de campagne (lit: country butcher) came to our smallholding to help us. Home slaughter is allowed under European rules, if the meat is for personal consumption only (i.e., you can’t sell it or even give it away). The local method involves suspending a live animal by a hind leg, cutting its throat, so it bleeds to death: definitely not what we wanted to do. François, a young local farmer kindly lent us his captive bolt humane killer and I used this according to HSA instructions. Once an animal is stunned unconscious, it’s suspended and stuck (bled) immediately. We’ve since slaughtered two kid goats, a hogget (lamb over a year old but not yet mutton) and the first of this year’s pigs using the same technique and with Bernard’s help.

Home slaughter obviously avoids any need to transport the animal. It’s in its own environment and our animals are used to being petted and having our hands around their heads. I can honestly tell you that they are not at all aware of what’s about to happen and, when I pull the trigger on the stunner, they drop immediately; there is no apparent distress at all to the animal. With our two remaining pigs well over 100 kg each, we decided it too great a task and that it’d be better to take them to an abattoir. Our friends, Sébastien and Jan helped in many ways, Sébastien borrowing a purpose-built animal trailer from the maire of the adjacent commune and Jan—who is coincidentally a veterinarian surgeon specialising in pigs—sorted things out with the abattoir, even trying to arrange a visit for me so I could see what went on there (politely refused). It’s a relatively small-scale abattoir who are very used to private people bringing one or two animals as well as lorries coming from farms.

With some food, we coaxed the pigs into the trailer early Thursday morning last week. We arrived at the abattoir while it was still relatively dark, and I reversed the trailer up to the loading ramp. The pigs seemed unperturbed by their 15-minute journey and were led into an individual holding pen. The slaughter would take place that morning, the pigs being electrically stunned. We returned Friday afternoon to recover the carcasses.

Taking an animal’s life is quite an event, emotionally speaking. For me, once the slaughter has taken place, there is a great sense of relief that it’s passed without causing the animal any suffering then the animal that we reared becomes a carcass to process. Gabrielle did shed a tear when we slaughtered the pigs last year but I must admit to being more affected this year, using the abattoir. I found the whole experience quite poignant, saying goodbye to the pigs and leaving them in someone else’s “care”. When I’d cleaned and returned the trailer and had a coffee with Sébastien, I walked up to the pig paddock; the emptiness overwhelmed me and I found myself with a lump in my throat and tears rolling down my cheeks. We were certainly much closer to the pigs last year, so it must have been something else. I rather think it was the stillness of the once-lively paddock, a metaphor for the cycle of life.

I’m proud of how we treat our animals and I feel, for me, it’s only right that I take full responsibility for their humane slaughter. I’m not advocating that every meat eater should kill their own meat but I do think one should understand what goes on to put meat on the plate and to undertake to buy meat from non-factory-farmed animals that have had a life outdoors and been raised with care. If that choice appears to cost too much, then think of eating better meat, but less often, and learning how to make use of every ounce of goodness out of the meat you do buy, finishing off with boiling the bones for stock. We will take delivery of two new weaners next February.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tinker’s Bubble, Fossil Fuel Use and Permaculture:
Could you live like this? “Tinker's Bubble is an intentional community located near Yeovil in south Somerset, England. It was established in 1994 on forty acres of land consisting of about 20 acres of woodland as well as orchards and pasture.” (I quote from this page from Wikipedia and Economads, as they don’t have their own website.) “Low-impact living is the major idea of this community … For one, they have strict principals of not using fossil fuels.” So, how do they get by without petrol, diesel and gas? Apparently, they cook on a wood stove or over an open fire and use wind and solar energy for light. They cut hay using wonderfully light and sharp Austrian Scythes and sell timber which is felled by hand, logged by a Shire horse called Samson and then sawn up by a wood-fired steam-engine driven sawmill.

I'm not sure I could but I do think it’s really important that we have such principled pioneers to show us how we might return to life without oil as the supply diminishes I'd be as shocked as the next wo/man, if liquid fuel suddenly wasn’t available tomorrow. Rather than use it all up, then have none, I’d prefer to prioritise it, so that we’d eschew unnecessary flights for summer holidays, to save fuel to power ambulances, for example, and, as someone who processes a lot of wood, chainsaws (I shudder to think what it’s be like to cut and split our wood by hand.)

Call me hypocritical but whilst one should use less fuel where possible, there are moments when I celebrate the power of the internal combustion engine. Neighbour Serge had a huge pile of stone that he was willing to donate to us for our impending straw-bale house build project. Pig-farming neighbour Paul has a huge, powerful John Deere tractor. He agreed to help me move the stones 50 yards / metres from Serge’s house to our building plot, a task that took myself, Paul, his tractor and Gabrielle’s brother Bruin (here to stay for a of couple of weeks) just over an hour. Difficult, this carbon debt stuff!

On a lighter note, I was impressed and amused by the power of Paul's diesel-driven tractor to conveniently reposition these huge stones. Impressed by the raw, testosterone-charged, mechanical power, Bruin commented, "this tractor has balls", a statement we can now confirm. French nouns are divided into masculine and feminine—le orla, un orune, which is confusingly to do with how the word’s spelt, rather than bearing any relation to the meaning of the word, hence the “masculine” army and police are both “feminine”: une armée and la police. Seeing the brute force of the tractor shrugging off the challenge posed by these huge stones, how reassuring to find that it is “un tracteur”, i.e., unequivocally masculine. The proof: checkout these large pair of metal, tractor testicles and see if you agree.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

How fat is your pig? Modern, factory-farm produced bacon is lean: that’s, apparently, what the customer wants. It wasn’t always so. In his Cottage Economy (published, as a series of pamphlets, 1821-20) William Cobbett wrote of the cottagers’ pig:
Make him quite fat by all means. The last bushel, even if he sit as he eat, is the most profitable. If he can walk two hundred yards at a time, he is not well fatted. Lean bacon is the most wasteful thing that any family can use. In short, it is uneatable, except by drunkards, who want something to stimulate their sickly appetite. The man who cannot live on solid fat bacon, well fed and well cured, wants the sweet sauce of labour, or is fit for the hospital.” (p 109).
Wow! Strong words indeed.

Last year, we overfed our pigs, a pair of New Zealand Kune Kunes, and Bernard, the boucher de campagne (itinerant slaughterman and butcher) who helped us out, called them “boules de graisse (balls of fat); well, at least William Cobbet would have approved. Kune Kunes are notorious for putting on fat, which was used by the Maoris to preserve food. Similarly, other old breeds of pig will run to fat and so we’ve followed a regime this year, weighing out the food we give them each day; regularly prodding and poking and feeling for any sign of ribs, to try and remain in control of their size. The day is approaching and it’s time to have an idea of what weight they will “kill out” at (carcass weight), but how?

Last year, wanting to know the weight of our pigs to work out how much medicine I needed to administer to worm them, I ended up standing on the bathroom scales holding a squealing pig, then subtracting my own weight. Gabrielle, more sensible and less foolhardy and always keen to avoid my back pinging out and rendering me immobile and bad-tempered for a few days, did some research and came up with a special pig tape. You measure them around their bellies and then read off the scale. See photo at top—though perhaps I should have asked Gabrielle to take a video to show you how I had to follow our pigs around as they grazed on apples, slightly annoyed, or perhaps just tickled, by my attempts. Good thing I didn’t try to pick them up, they’re supposedly 120 kgs (265 lbs) each!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Teaching and Learning Permaculture: Surfing around the Internet the other day, Gabrielle chanced upon this debate on permaculture education, including such topics as “What should a PDC [permaculture design course] cover?” and “Who can teach a PDC?” which got us both thinking and talking. As far as I could see, the issues were about restricting who’s “allowed” to teach a PDC, which—although I can see merits in maintaining standards—made me very wary.

Why? Last year, a good friend of ours, and very experienced farmer, went on a PDC (in England) with some well-known permaculture teachers. The three teachers were either vegetarian or vegan and, as such, our friend told us, didn’t want to admit “meat” as a permaculture output of keeping chickens, so imposing their views on accepted permaculture practice / teachings. This made me think of how Christian mass, when held in Latin, had to be explained to the English-speaking congregations via a priest, who therefore became gatekeeper to the knowledge and could interpret “The Book” according to his own views, rather than allowing individual believers to interpret it themselves. If you think my religious analogy a mite strange, this is what the same friend said of her impression of a subsequent permaculture teachers course she recently attended—an experience that had apparently left her “sad, disillusioned and angry”—
The thing was that it felt to me as if permaculture was a religious order! Holmgren’s Principles = the Ten Commandments,
Meditation to me equates with prayers,
a mandela / altar,
songs of permaculture = hymns,
closing ritual ceremony = eeeek I want to get out of here and now!

To that, I could add Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual as The Bible; goodness, Bill’s even got a white beard and hair!

I’ve learnt a tremendous amount, specifically about stuff you’d recognise as permaculture, from some neighbours of ours—such as the venerable Annick and pig-farmer Paul—who’d never even heard of the word before we arrived in the hamlet. I've also been listening to podcasts from The Land Stewardship Project and hearing Minnesota farmers talking very clearly about what we'd recognise as permacultural principles, without once mentioned the word (we don't have a monopoly on these ideas, you know). I really like Patrick Whitefield’s invitation at the start of his excellent The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Manual for Britain and Other Temperate Climates: “Welcome to the experiment”. For me, a Permaculture Design Course, an Introduction to Permaculture course, or any permaculture course for that matter, is more about inspiring people to get involved rather than filling them with a prescribed amount of information written down in a heavy book. Even more so, as some of the stuff written down is more theory than practice and can be improved upon, even refuted. I’m beginning to think that permaculture should be ”open source”. More on that later, including some disturbing information I’ve discovered about that oft recommended permaculture panacea plant, the black locust tree (false acacia, robinia).