Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The World’s Best Spaghetti Bolognaise :

In my last blog's rather unconvincing contribution to the world of cuisine (an idea for a recipe which I then suggested that you might not want to cook) I promised something rather special, a good old kitchen standby raised to the level of the sublime. No young man should leave home, no student should arrive at college, no young woman should get married without knowing how to cook the wonderfully ubiquitous spaghetti bolognaise.

As is my previous blog, I’m not going to claim any personal credit. If you like Italian food, ask Santa for Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy, Food and Stories. So much more than a cookbook, you can read it as easily as a novel. Bolognaise is actually the French term for several dishes inspired by Italian cookery, especially that of the city of Bologna. In Italy, this becomes alla bolognese and the sauce is known as a ragù, which is itself a corruption of the French word ragoût, hence ragù alla bolognese. In fact, this version is actually ragù di maiale (pork ragù).
In place of minced beef, it uses finely diced pork.

And you don’t even get to serve it up with spaghetti: Giorgio suggests thicker pasta like pappadelle, tagliatelle or short pasta; we used radiatori (literally, ‘radiators”) which actually looked like tripe.

Why the pork version? We’ve recently slaughtered this year’s pigs and I do the butchery myself. At the rear of the animal, tucked inside the ribcage, one either side of the spine, is a long muscle called the tenderloin, filet mignon in French. With a bit of care, it’s easily separated from the carcass. We have four now sitting in labelled plastic bags in the freezer. Like its bovine equivalent, the filet steak, it’s a very tender, lean meat but with less flavour than other parts of the animal. We need to cook it carefully to avoid it drying out and flavour it. We thought that a long, slow cook in a tomatoey sauce would be just the thing and put Jane Grigson’s excellent Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery aside, turning instead to Giorgio’s book.

He gives you extra chef’s tips such as leaving your meat out of the fridge to come to room temperature, “so that it will sear, rather than ‘boil’ when it goes into the pan.” Further precise instructions are given to ensure the meat cooks correctly without burning the vegetables until it’s time to add the wine. The list of ingredients (for 8 servings) says, simply, “one bottle of red wine”: that’s my type of cooking! Having added it, it has to reduce right down before adding a litre of tomato passata: we proudly used our own delicious sauce. Can you imagine what this, plus a further hour and a half of oh-so-gentle-cooking, does to that tender filet mignon?
The sauce is richer that a Russian oligarch and the meat melts as easily as a polar icecap being globally warmed. Simply, it is divinely sublime!

We’ve got some good friends of ours, Phil, Sid and their three delightful children who’ve come from England to stay for Christmas … so that we can head the other way to spend the holiday with our parents. It’s the first time in two years that Gabrielle and I have taken a holiday together for over two years (since our honeymoon, in fact) it’s like that when you have animals!
To all our readers, we wish you Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Artichokes, f’artichokes !

A Taste of Garlic is a relatively new blog dedicated to introducing us to blogs about living in France. Keith wrote a very flattering account of our own blog (on 4th December) but did criticise us for not having many articles about cooking. Fair play to him: one of the principle rewards to a hard-working peasant-style life in rural Brittany is the pleasure taken in eating the most amazing home produce, the sort of thing that would make Michelin-stared restaurateurs weep.

We are the owners of a fair library of cookbooks, which are always useful to point us in the right direction. Although we adapt them, I’m not sure that we’ve ever invented a recipe unique enough to call our own. Rather than recipes, then, I’m going to suggest ideas. First off, a seasonal root vegetable called the Jerusalem Artichoke, topinambour in French and to anyone who’s encountered them, “F’artichokes”. Apparently, they make a tasty soup but, and this is a big BUT, they have an unenviable reputation for being wind-inducing. I was given some by Sébastien a while back and put them in the vegetable rack, mentioning them to Gabrielle. They were allowed to go rotten and were then thrown away (sorry, Séb).

I then saw some in a local market and bought a bag. Still no soup. More recently, we saw a recipe on TV for a winter salad using artichokes but, of course, with the usual windy caveat. This reminded me and when we were next shopping together, I came across these nobbly terrors once again and bought some more. I managed to persuade Gabrielle into using them this time, rather than her hoping I’d forget about them, so she could hustle them quietly into the compost bin. In fairness, Gabrielle’s reluctance is understandable as I am no stranger to the odd trouser-cough or botty-burp and anything with a tendency to accentuate this is clearly to be avoided. Resigned to serving them up, she came up with Carrot and Jerusalem artichoke soup in her current favourite cookbooks, Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook.

Sarah tells us that artichoke soup “is one of the most wind-producing things that you can eat.” So, far, so un-reassuring. She then goes on to suggest that, “if you mix artichokes with the same amount of carrot, you still enjoy the artichoke’s sweet flavour but without the same effect.” Gabrielle cooked it, I ate it. It’s a tasty soup but:
“Oops, I beg your pardon.”
“Excuse me” … sorry, Sarah, we don’t agree.

Click on the photo of the Jerusalem artichoke plants below for cultivation advice and interesting history of this tuber.

Next blog, something rather special, a good old kitchen standby raised to the level of the sublime: “spag bol” good enough to serve to royalty.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)

We’ve had to do a bit of sheep maintenance recently. We’ve wormed and feet-trimmed this year’s lambs, moving them onto fresh pasture a couple of days later, once any worms had been passed. Doing the same for the other group—the ram and his five ewes—was rising in priority up the “List of Things to Do”. This would involve a move onto fresh pasture after worming. The field the lambs were on was looking a bit threadbare and so they needed moving too. Added to which, I wanted to take the ram away from the ewes and put him in with his sons for the winter. A sheepy logistical conundrum.

Why move the ram? He maybe macho but he’s no gentleman and whilst he “protects” his ewes from me, he’s sure to get his nose in the feeding trough first, robustly bustling the ladies out of the way. As their sheepy pregnancy advances, I assume they become a bit more delicate, so we like to take him away. There’s also a strange thing where, when it’s raining, one ewe always gets excluded from the shelter and ends up having to hide from the worst of the weather round the leeward side. They would be better off without him.

Although we’re in our third year of keeping sheep, I’d still class us as relative beginners, and I was wary of making a mistake, being too eager to take the ram away from the ewes, i.e., before he’d put them in lamb. We phoned Renée to ask her what the gestation period of a sheep is. It’s about 5 months. She went on to say that a ewe’s menstrual cycle is 3 weeks but they’re receptive for a very short time. So I checked the birthdates of this and last year’s lambs. Around the beginning of March, which means the woolly jumping took place back at the beginning of October, which made our decision for us.

The next issue is catching them. We don’t (yet) have sheep hurdles and had an enclosure at the end of one field where we’ve managed to coax them in many times before, sneakily closing the gate while they had their noses in the sheep nuts. But they’ve been getting ever more wary of this. Gabrielle and I had tried unsuccessfully and knew we needed help. Paddy used to be a shepherd on the Cumbrian fells and his grey-whiskered mate Scruff, used to be a Cumbrian fell shepherd’s sheepdog. We called Paddy and Scruff. Now Scruff has encountered our pint-sized black Ouessant sheep before and didn’t really know what to make of them, much to Paddy’s embarrassment. Well, he’s made amends and while Paddy reckons this retired chap has lost the instinct to close in and finish the job off, he did enough to successfully round up our miniature flock of miniature sheep into their pen to allow me to deal with medicine and toenails. It was a tear-in-the-eye treat to see man and dog working together in our very own field. I’m sorry I haven’t any photos to mark the occasion as I was rather occupied in snappy gate-closing duties but we do have a pic of Scruff out for a walk when we looked after him for a weekend recently: handsome chap!

The ewes are definitely happier now in their women’s-only paddock but the same could not be said of the boys. Despite the fact that the male lambs have been veterinarily disconnected from their testicles, they retain enough masculinity to be up for a fight when a new bloke turns up on their patch (even if he is their dad). The aftermath of their initial getting-to-know-you party bore an uncanny resemblance to pub kicking out time on the Kilburn High Road on a Saturday night. I spot painted their cuts and black eyes with blue antiseptic spray and, thankfully, they seemed to have settled down nicely now (see photo below).

Next blog, a couple of recipes: a delicious soup made with carrots, potatoes and f’artichokes and a tasty Shepherd’s Pie. And with all that clashing of horned heads, I’ll let Elton John sing us out:

  Don't give us none of your aggravation
  We had it with your discipline
  Saturday night's alright for fighting
  Get a little action in …

© 1973 Dick James Music Limited

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Can We Feed Ourselves ?

I posed the question in a recent blog: could we be self-sufficient in tomatoes? The idea being that after the end-of-summer glut of tomatoes was not wasted but boiled and preserved in several Kilner jars, would that be enough to keep us from having to buy cheap canned Italian tomatoes before the first of 2010’s tomatoes ripened on the vine.

Back in 1975, the Scottish ecologist, Kenneth Mellanby, posed the question, “Can Britain Feed Itself?” He used a relatively simplistic analysis of the hectares available to agriculture and how it might be used to feed the population of Britain. 32 years later, Simon Fairlie (campaigner for “access to land for all households … through environmentally sound planning”, agricultural worker, builder, stonemason, writer, seller of Austrian scythes and all-round committed eco-activist and good egg) decided to have a go at answering the same question for a different Britain. A Britain with an extra 7.5 million people and more efficient agriculture.

He’s a humble guy—a quality I think a lot of us warm to (in this age of over-self-confidence) and writes, “I do not claim to have carried it out with either the expertise or the thoroughness that it merits. This is, at best, a back of and A4 envelope job. However since I can find no evidence that anyone with the necessary qualifications and stipend to do justice to the subject has been inclined to take it on, I hope that readers will find my offering better than nothing. The results should not be see as anything other than a rough guide, and a useful framework for thinking about such matters.

The article, published in The Land magazine and you can read or download it as a PDF. Can Britain Feed Itself? Can France Feed Itself? Should each country aim to be self-sufficient in food? Enough intro, have a read and make your own mind up. He’s not claiming to have all the answers, just posing a necessary question and opening up a large can of worms … food for thought!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

It’s all green lights, this job ! Some years back, when I had a “proper” job, I remember a colleague who used to stride meaningfully along the corridors, a couple of A4 files clamped tightly under his elbow, giving the impression of being busily efficient. If you caught his eye, he’d smile broadly and say, “it’s all green lights, this job,” as he disappeared quickly into the distance. I often pondered what he meant. Did he mean that he was perpetually busy, with ne’er a moment to take breath? or was he suggesting that it was all plain sailing, that wonderful feeling when cruising along in town at 30 mph, seemingly synchronised with the traffic lights, so gliding through each successive set on green?

Perhaps it was both. It seemed that way last week when we had the kind and industrious help of a couple of volunteers, Stuart and Debbie. They arrived Sunday evening, all the way from Holland. Monday morning Stuart and I took the pigs to the abattoir and when we got back, Gabrielle and Debbie joined us for a first look at the woods, getting down to work after lunch.

Apart from an afternoon off for good behaviour, we all worked solidly for the week, both in the wood and processing the sides of pork once we’d collected them on the Wednesday morning: slicing, sawing and parcelling up of chops and joints, making pâté, eating devilled kidneys for lunch and chilli liver for tea and making no less than 260 sausages.

There is a tremendous change to the hectare of pines that we have to clear before the end of January to qualify for our subsidy. The branches of the trees we’re keeping need to be cut off to a height of 6 metres and then several trees felled. Our next helper arrives next Tuesday, for a week. Graham is qualified to use a chainsaw and we’ll concentrate on felling. Then we have Paul and Liam (also chainsaw chappies) coming in January, who’ll hopefully mop up what’s left.

We worked so hard, I forgot to take any photos of Debbie and Stuart. These photos, taken today, show the effects of their and our efforts. The traffic light photo is of three of our chillies, taken during the summer.

We're not the only ones working hard. The last photo shows Henri (carpenter by trade) and Sébastien (electrician) perched in the loading bucket, with Irick (retired mason) behind the wheel. They're hanging up the Christmas lights in the village. Irick parks by a lamppost and lifts Henri and Séb to light-hanging height. They're all doing it for the commune in their spare time, using a Manuscope borrowed from a local farmer and with apparently no concern for health and safety considerations!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Our first winter volunteers arrived this afternoon, all the way from Holland. We’ve a busy week planed for them, which starts very early tomorrow morning when I take this year’s pigs to slaughter. I’ll pick up the carcasses on Tuesday, so Tuesday evening we’ll be eating devilled kidneys and making sausages.

Despite advertising in two magazines and on the Permaculture Association website, they found us via our blog. I realised that I haven’t blogged for over a week. I’ve been even busier than normal and have also been bogged down writing a blog on a particular bugbear of mine, the (false) idea of carbon offsetting. It’s taking me longer than normal as I check my facts and learn more.

In the meantime, here is a carbon-neutral tale of another exchange of fine art for firewood (from our little wood- land). I say another, as Alastair painted us a man sharpening his scythe on the side of our house last year, for a similar barter. This year, he’s given the farmer a wife: seated and plucking a chicken. We found it remarkable to watch how he brought the bare wall to life with broad and fine brush strokes. Thanks, Alastair!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fresh wild parasol mushrooms, hand-picked, fluffed in organic flour, basted in free-range eggs, rolled in breadcrumbs and then fried until crispy, served with garlic mayonnaise.

Don’t you just love the way that restaurants and gastro-pubs big up their fodder with flowery over-the-top descriptions? But aren’t you also tempted? Have I suckered you in to parting with your cash? You’re going to order this starter, aren’t you? Here’s the good news: it’s free!

I popped round to see Sébastien and Jeanne today to pick up a couple of trugs of fallen apples to feed to our pigs and ask if Jeanne (a pig vet by trade) had organised the borrowing of an animal trailer (from a pig farmer she works with) so that we can take our own pigs to the abattoir in a weeks time (after eating those apples). Sébastien was sanding the floor in one of their children’s bedroom and asked me to shout up when I’d collected the apples, so he could descend and drink a beer with me. I said that I should return home and tell Gabrielle what I was up to (my father had terrible previous for popping out for five minutes and reappearing hours later having bumped into friends on his travels). I could also pick up a thing I have to clean his sander’s belt, reducing the need to change belts.

After I’d done the rounds of the animals, explained the beer thing, picked up the cleaning block and got back, we sat round their kitchen table talking mushrooms and drinking beer. As I came to leave, he said that he’d seen a big parasol mushroom that morning and that I should drive him up the road, past the lake to see if it was still there. It was. He picked it. I fried it. And Gabrielle and I ate it; it was huge, delicious and free!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

We will remember them :
I was back in our woods yesterday, with my super sharp Japanese pole saw carrying on with the task of taking off the side branches of a hectare of Corsican pines, part of the first thinning of this parcel, for which I’ll get an EU subsidy, that is IF I get it done by the end of January. To that end, we’ve asked for volunteers. We quickly got our first offer from a chap called Simon but rather put him on hold as we were expecting a deluge of prospective helpers once the two magazine adverts hit the newsstands and would then have a logistical exercise in dovetailing everyone’s dates. We waited and when the anticipated deluge turned into a drought, we called him back. He apologised—for that is what English people do, even when it’s not their fault—but, having not heard from us, he’d gone on and made other arrangements … bugger!

The proverb comparing birds in hands and bushes comes to mind; I think we learnt a lesson there. We hope to see Simon in the future but we have had one other enquiry from Graham, who has his chainsaw qualification and wants to come for a fortnight … phew! The more side branches I cut off before he arrives, the easier the selective felling will be, that aside from its main reason of reducing the size of knots in the timber when they are eventually felled.

As it was Remembrance Day, I kept an eye on the time and at 11am, I stood quietly with my hands clasped in front of me, bowing my head, my eyes closed for two minutes silence. It’s precisely at moments like these when you realise how noisy “silence” actually is. The raucous whine of a distant chainsaw, several reports of a hunter’s shotgun (evocative but hardly appropriate as this is the moment when the guns of WW1 when silent) and, more pleasantly, birdsong and other rustling sounds of the woodland.

For the two minutes, I thought of my maternal grandfather,Arthur Swan (pictured in his fire watchers uniform for WW2, with the medals he got in 1918) who spent just twenty days in France before being shot in the cheek, losing a couple of teeth, thereby obtaining a rather dashing scar and home leave. I brought to mind other images and pondered the words of the Ode of Remembrance.

On my way out, I checked a stump of a sycamore tree I felled a couple of winters ago and inoculated with pearl oyster mushrooms. It’s already given us its first flush of succulent champignons and I’m happy to report that it’s started to fruit again, see photo. The round things in the top of the cut surface are the tops of the pre-inoculated carpenter's dowels that I hammered in soon after felling. I shall keep an eye on it over the next few days, hoping to catch it when ready and ripe and before either a the maggots or a Frenchman with a keen eye and a wicker basket does.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Neighbours : On Halloween we had some small neighbours come knocking, dressed as witches. We hadn’t quite understood “Trick or Treat”, so Gabrielle’s idea was to dress us as a bigger and scarier witch and give the children "Tricks and Treats", i.e., scare them, then give them sweets! Camille seemed to warm to the idea but poor old Tess (on the left) was left very bemused, grappling for Camille’s hand for reassurance.

Our immediate neighbours have done us proud today. I’m being slightly disingenuous as I’m referring to the current holidaymakers staying in our gite. Soon after arriving and looking around our permaculture smallholding, Carolyn and Kent offered to help. With a break in the clouds and a hint of blue sky today suggesting a break in the weather, we spent the day working together in our woodland. They were a real help and even professed to having really enjoyed it.

As we emerged from the wood at lunchtime, I was hailed by David (French, so read it as “Dahveed”) who lives in an old presbytery at the entrance to the wood. Some time back he’d come round to our house to ask for my help navigating some Anglophone pages on the Internet and making a few phone calls in English to sort out a technical problem on a depth sounder on his sailboat. He insisted on buying me a bottle of wine to say thanks and very kindly presented me with a 2000 bottle of Cotes de Bourg today. Cheers, chum!

And that’s not the first bottle of wine I’ve been given this week. Marie Laure’s parakeet escaped last week as she opened the cage to feed it. The shape of a parakeet in flight and its call are very distinctive, oh, and it’s bright green too, certainly not your average wild French bird. It stayed around the area until, after three days, it dropped down into our willow bed. (The photo shows it in the new rods of a coppiced sweet chestnut.) I ran round to M-L’s to get its feeding tray and a cupful of grain and Gabrielle went for the fish landing net. Katerine from the local chicken farm turned up with her two boys, Eduard and Paul, out together for a cycle ride. The five of us spent a good hour trying to coo the recalcitrant bird down, including an interlude when I knocked the grain out of my hand when swatting the net and had to run down the road to get some more. At the fifth attempt, I had the beast in the back of the net and returned him home. One bottle of 2003 Margaux from a grateful Marie Laure.

Christiane was next with a 2001 bottle of St Emilion to thank me for my help in dealing with any English people who book there own 6-person gite and to celebrate their first such booking of 2010. And when I turned up at 10am last Saturday to translate at the checking out of their English guests, it was the holidaymakers themselves who had a bottle each of Moulin-à-Vent for both Paul and me as they’d had such a good stay. Perhaps there’s a worrying trend with the choice of cadeaux, they must think me a right old souse.

Postscript: if you fancy booking a holiday in our gite, please note that volunteering to help out isn’t obligatory! However, if you do fancy volunteering over the winter in exchange for cosy accommodation and meals, please have a look at our volunteer page. And if I do you a favour, I won’t be expecting a bottle of wine in return … but it’s always very much appreciated !

Sunday, November 01, 2009

After all that backbreaking work, I can now bask on the glory of the (almost) finished article. Almost finished is overstating the fact: after the mini-digger left the rest of the landscaping takes place just with the pair of us and some hand tools, i.e., slowly.

So here are the photos (top to bottom): an overall photo of how it is now, one of the waterfall and a close-up showing the overflow and how clean the water has become.

I’ve tried to reduce the landscaping to individual components rather than a scary whole and so I’d started yesterday morning with an idea that I was going to finish the pathway linking the house to the polytunnel, passing between the plant filter and the pond. Over breakfast, Gabrielle asked whether we should bury the hose linking the rainwater collection system and the polytunnel: “Yes, she had a point”. But if I was to do that, then I might as well dig the trench to bury the electric cable to the pump at the same time. A 90º turn and I’m absorbed by a completely different task to the one I envisaged: 30 metres of trenches to be dug half a metre deep in heavy clay soil with loads of stones.

I’d hoped to have this section of landscaping finished by close of play today but rain intervened and so I stayed mostly in the dry and have wired up the pond pump through a timer with the cable safely buried underground. I hope to finish the path this week, one side of which will be some broken concrete drain pipe that was dug up when I installed a French drain along our barn. The permaculture part of this is to try and reuse stuff onsite rather than taking down the tip to become somebody else’s disposal problem. We’re going to chop the bits of pipe up with an angle grinder and place then side by side like a church organ’s pipes, filling them with earth and planting pretty sedums therein.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Permaculture Design – Wildlife Pond : dirty “grey” water from our house goes into our new horizontal plant filter and the cleaner water that comes out runs into a wildlife pond. I must admit to not having understood the purpose of the pond when Eléonore came to do the étude (study) of our proposed installation, digging holes and pouring water into them. She was seeing how the water would infiltrate the land, i.e., how our treated water would soak into the landscape, whereas I thought that she was working out whether or not we needed a pond liner. We were therefore happily anticipating a beautiful wildlife pond to go with our “reed bed”.

Aquatiris, the company who are supplying our system, are modifying and improving their systems as they go, working in association with SATESE, the people who authorise and regulate individual sewage installations, here in Brittany.
The size of filter, for example, has changed and the regulators have been testing water as it leaves the plant filter, meaning that the wildlife pond seems to be superfluous now and we could simply drain our water into the large ditches that habitually run alongside French country roads.

But we had our hearts set on a wildlife pond so we decided to make the investment in something beautiful and go for it. Our references were books and the Internet, bien sûr, and our top book recommendation to help you design a wildlife pond is the refreshingly small and slim volume Ponds and Water Features published by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Permaculture is all about design and although I can do it, measuring, surveying, drawing, thinking, I’m not sure I always have the patience for it. I’m one for grabbing the spade and plugging the power tools in straight away. I also find that however much planning and reflection we do before we get started, there are possible improvements that only come to light after the experience of doing it. Anyway, we did the planning and the pics (from top to bottom) show the pond it was before we moved in, section drawings of how the land was to better imagine how we should approach the landscaping, a sunpath diagram (one of several we did) to work out where best to place the plant filter (“reed bed”) a cross section, long section and plan of our proposal, building the plant filter, landscaping the pond (showing my concrete dam hidden behind Paddy’s beautiful stonework) and then me getting cold and wet placing the pump. The central rectangle of concrete is an old slurry pit from when this used to be a farm. Too big to remove, we made it the centre of our pond.

In my next blog, I show you photos of how it all looks now.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Seedy Sunday : (Gabrielle at the keyboard today)
The best things in life may, or may not be free, but it always feels great to get something for nothing. Today, having “passé à l’heure d’hiver”, I went to the plant and seed exchange that’s held near Dinan. It’s a fabulous little community event that takes place twice a year, in spring and autumn, on the day the clocks change. People take any plants and seeds that they’ve got in abundance and exchange them for others or just give them away to people who’ve come to see what’s going on. No one sees the colour of money and that’s the simple beauty of it.

The first time I participated, as opposed to just being there for a look round, I took some little painted signs to hook over the door that said “Je suis au jardin” (I’m in the garden). These went down so well I earned myself a bit of an instant reputation and I’ve really enjoyed going and meeting up with the regulars ever since. I always seem to come away with a wonderful mix of local plants, some of which I’ve no idea what they are till they flower!

Coincidentally the oldest seed swap event in the UK is held in the town I used to live in, Brighton. Seedy Sunday has more of a political element to it, as at the heart of the event is campaign to protect biodiversity and protest against the increasing control of seed supply by a just handful of large companies. The control of seed and the creation of hybrids which don’t produce seed is annoying for growers in the western world, as it creates an expensive dependency, but its disastrous for subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world, as poor farmers who’ve traditionally saved seed increasingly have to pay for new seed every year.

I love the fact that this global campaign to protect local varieties of seeds stretches around the world, but that it has its roots in our own gardens. By growing open-pollinated varieties, then saving and swapping the seeds, growers can keep alive “outlawed” varieties, conserve biodiversity and limit corporate control of the basis of life.

The French event isn’t so overtly political, but it could be, as I have never known a French person who isn’t willing to talk about ideas. I’m thinking that it would be a good idea for me to do some translation study of the excellent information from Seedy Sunday’s website and then share the ideas at the next event in spring. Today I wasn’t so well prepared and I didn’t have much of interest to swap, or so I thought, but it all went, including some horseradish root—the essential ingredient for the traditional English sauce eaten with roast beef. I’ll make up for it next time by painting some more of those popular “I’m in the garden” signs.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Appel aux bénévoles :Camille, Gabrielle’s last violin student this afternoon, having just left, runs back and shouts through the open front door, “Gabrielle viens voir, il y a deux arcs de ciel dessus ta maison.” We run outside, me carrying my camera.

Imagine your house apparently at the end of a rainbow, with the promise of a pot of gold, “you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya?” (apologies to Clint Eastwood). I take the photo above, then run round the building. It’s not our house at all but rather Patrick and Chrystèle’s dairy farm in the distance … bugger!

So, it seems we’re not about to be lucky in the pot of gold department but we are rather hoping to strike it rich in winter volunteers. The first of our adverts has been published today on the Permaculture Association’s (Britain) latest e-bulletin. It’s also making an appearance in the upcoming winter edition of Permaculture Magazine and the November/December edition of the excellent new Living Woods magazine.

As the leaves begin to fall from the trees, were approaching the time of year when we should be working in our 11 acres (4.5 hectares) of mixed woodland. Weighed down by our “list of things to do” and restricted in what just the two of us can achieve, we’re hoping to invite some volunteers to come and give us a hand in exchange for some cosy accommodation and great home cooking.

If you’re interested, visit our dedicated webpage for more details and how to contact us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Stop the car … or the kitty gets it. Gabrielle has started teaching violin, at a newly-formed musical association in a nearby village. Each Tuesday afternoon, she drives to the pôle culturelle at Plouasne to teach four French children. Coming home this week, she drove round a corner to find three tiny kittens sitting right in the middle of the road, looking very out of context. It seems that just seconds before, someone had stopped, opened their car door and unceremoniously chucked out the three unwanted tots and driven off : shameful.

So Gabrielle arrived home with rather more than she had left with. Our neighbours rallied round and the venerable Annick was consulted to see if they were old enough to survive away from their mother. She reckoned that they were, just, and we should feed them cat biscuits soaked in milk. Kysinia kindly provided a clean cage and a furry cat bed. Probably only used to suckling from their mother, they made rather a mess of drinking warmed milk out of a bowl, standing in it and putting their whole face in. Evidently they got something down as they survived the night.

The following morning we tried to work out what to do with them. We contacted the SPA (Société Protectrice Animaux) who wouldn’t take them because they were so young (pas viable) and suggested that we contact a fourrière, which translates as a pound. After numerous phone conversations, we discovered that we needed to speak to the maire of our commune, who would have an engagement with a particular fourrière and the commune would pay. I caught up with our maire, Jean-Luc when he was sat in a combine harvester, bringing in the maize. He was in an especially good humour, as the yield this year has been excellent, a grand improvement on the last couple of years. He promised to find out who our local fourrière was but also explained that the end result would be that the kittens would be put down. Putting them to sleep humanely would be preferable to them starving or freezing to death after being dumped in the middle of the road but we thought we would try and home them.

The thing is, you can’t give them away. As we put the word around we were met with many broad grins and quickly realised that with so many un-sterilised cats (especially at our neighbour, Annick’s!) around there is a plethora of cute kittens, so anyone who wants a cat usually has one. We put an ad on a site for English residents of Brittany, AngloInfo, which was swiftly and perfunctorily removed because “the cat’s microchip number wasn’t shown”. A second ad disappered just as quickly until Gabrielle had the cunning idea of placing a third ad, asking for “advice” and definitely NOT offering the cats for sale but inviting email contact. Which is how we met up with Martin, who’s taken the male. Gabrielle phone her coiffeuse, Mandy, who already has a young rescued cat called Millie, and who chose one of the female tabbies, who is now inevitably called Molly. That leaves one, who appears also to have a new home, although we have the pleasure of looking after her for a few more days.

The photos show the three the day they were found, then the male kitten with his new playmate, then Molly with Milly and finally, Billy-no-mates.

If you need to sex kittens, have a look at this website, which is how we worked it out, their bits being very small at the moment.

Friday, October 09, 2009

If you go down to the woods today,
You’re sure of a big surprise …

We have indeed been down to our woods to collect the last of the logs that I cut last winter. They should have long been brought back to our permaculture smallholding, split and stacked to season a long time ago but, as always, it’s a question of available time versus jobs that need doing. It was as much as I could do to get all the trees I wanted down—so thinning a parcel of sycamores—before the sap began to rise, heralding the start of spring and marking the end of the cutting season. I’d started better than our previous two winters and I suppose I got lulled into a false sense of security. At the end, with primroses popping out earlier than expected, Paddy came to help for two days, swapping his time for firewood for his Raeburn cooker and water heater. Once the trees were down and logged, they were left while I attended to other pressing jobs back at our smallholding.

When we bought the wood, there was no access at all and for the first year I had to ask a couple of farmers if I could drive my borrowed tractor over their fields after their cereals were harvested to collect the wood. The second winter, I cut a forest ride down the middle, giving tractor access right to the back of the wood. The parcel of sycamores cut last winter adjoins the ride but I still have to collect the logs in a barrow and wheel them to the ride. Back in May, volunteer John helped me collect about half but a few days here and there since still left a good third getting increasingly hidden in the undergrowth. Help turned up this week in a large red hippy-style van: Nick, a long-standing guitar-playing mate of Gabrielle’s, with his daughter Jess with partner Rich.

Tuesday afternoon, Jess and Rich came down the woods with me, leaving Nick to play music with Gabrielle, preparing for a gig at our bar, which I’d arranged without first telling them (photo taken that evening: Nick on the left). Jess and Rich live at Coed Hills Rural Artspace, a sustain-able living community in Wales, and are into a whole lot of permaculture stuff. We returned the following day, with tractor and trailer borrowed from neighbour Paul, and with their help had the whole lot back at our place in three trailer loads.

Piles of logs are great wildlife habitat—Permaculture Zone 5—and we un/dis-covered a day-glo fire salamander (Latin name salamandra salamandra and salamandre tachetée in French. See photo at top). We carefully relocated this into some suitable undergrowth nearby and carried on loading logs, disturbing a tiny grey frog, which scuttled off on its own, then a nest of baby mice (we think) which we recovered in situ, leaving the last few logs in place; I’m sure mum wasn’t far away and would soon return after we left.

I was also happy to see that one of the sycamore stumps, that I had previously inoculated with pearl oyster mushroom spawn, fruiting (Lat. Pleurotus ostreatus, Fr. Pleurote en forme d’huître). The mushrooms were in perfect condition for harvesting and eating. Back at home, I showed him an oak stump, which I had also inoculated but which hadn’t taken. Surprise, surprise, the reason was nestling inside the hollow stump : a large fresh specimen of Beefsteak fungus (Lat. Fistulina hepatica, Fr. Fistuline hépatique or langue de boeuf (beef tongue)). A first for me, it was interesting to see how Rich confirmed its identity, confidently enough to consign it to the cooking pot. The context was important, this fungus the cause of brown rot in oak and chestnut and it fruits in autumn. You can see from the earlier photograph, taken when (futilely!) inoculating the stump with oyster mushroom, that the tree had been partially hollowed out and the heartwood left stained red, both signs of beefsteak fungus behaviour. The dark, liver-coloured and rubbery flesh was red and marbled with white veins, just like a piece of meat marbled with fat and, when cut, exuded a watery, blood-coloured liquid. All of these details taken together make it a beefsteak fungus.

Prior to cooking, it was soaked in water for 24 hours to remove a bitter acidity and then dried with kitchen towel before braising, together with the oyster mushrooms and herbs, in goose stock and red wine, and served on a bed of pearl barley, also cooked with the goose stock. Delicious! (Recipe inspiration from The River Cottage Mushroom Handbook by John Wright.)