Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Have you ever been forced to eat rhubarb ? I’m thinking of school dinners, where many a youngster’s gastronomic education has been stunted by over-boiled, under-seasoned and often cold offerings. Now I was going to talk about rhubarb but I feel a digression coming on …

Why aren’t kids taught more about food, where it comes from, how to cook it and how wonderful fresh food actually tastes? I have just turned 48 and have had the benefit of a decent, Western education, leaving school at 18 with several exam passes, then enjoying no less than nineteen gap years (otherwise called a career!) before progressing through university. When I try to recollect some of the stuff that I might/should have learnt when I was at school I’m left with a useless blurriness that one might get trying to view the moon through an unwashed milk bottle rather than a telescope. They taught me stuff about history, geography and science which, despite the fact that I couldn’t remember it longer than it took to pass the exams, hasn’t impeded my adult life one jot. Why don’t we now expel this stuff from the curriculum and spend the time teaching children about food? Warming to the idea, I reckon we could even combine the subjects: how about teaching biology with bread making (how a yeast culture operates) for example ?

Back to the rhubarb: I was talking about forcing rhubarb (down the throats of innocent children) and I want to tell you about forcing rhubarb itself. We were given two rhubarb plants last year by our neighbours, Philippe and Maryvonne, and now that they’re established, Gabrielle has been hiding one under a large terracotta pot, with a big stone on top to block the hole and keep the pot in place. The poor plant struggles in vain to reach the non-existent light it craves, going all pasty pink in a deliciously delicate way. In the photo, the forced rhubarb has the yellow leaves. If you look carefully at the stem, you’ll see it’s white in the centre, where the un-forced rhubarb is green. This gives it a softer, sweeter flavour. It’s also a bit of a cut-and-come-again vegetable (no, it’s not a fruit in the same way that a tomato is not a vegetable) but we’ll remember to swap them over next year, so as not to exhaust the plant.

Forced rhubarb, gently poached in water with a little sugar and orange or pink grapefruit juice, for just a few minutes, then strained, gives a sumptuously rich cordial with which to make sophisticated adult cocktails, plus a residue that you can serve with ice cream or flip into double cream to make a fruity fool. First cocktail: pour an inch (2.54 cm) into the bottom of a tall champagne glass then top up with sparkling wine and gently stir. Cocktail two: two shots of rhubarb nectar, two shots of vodka, half a shot of Galliano, one shot of double cream, crushed ice, shaken vigorously but then sloooowly sipped … hmmmmm!

I’ll round this off by reverting to my digressionary topic of teaching children about food. We’ve got a young English couple staying in our holiday cottage who, despite our prohibition on children and pets, are staying here for ten days with their sweet daughter, 2-year-old Jasmine. She’s taken charge of putting the chickens away in the afternoon and picking the eggs out of their nest box, collecting dandelion flowers for Mrs Bunny and feeding the sheep at the end of the afternoon. She also joined in with the chorizo sausage-making course we gave to her parents, Meg and Ali. They’ve spent the last few years living in rural Ecuador, which has given them a wonderful perspective on life. I was impressed to hear Meg talking about pigs and making oinking noises when explaining that we were going to make sausages to eat. How nice to know, first hand, that chickens give you eggs and pigs tasty pork. This is Jasmine “helping” Meg mix the spices into the porkmeat.

Postscript : After a long day, with me on our barn roof followed by the chorizo course accompanied by a cider comparison (this one or that one … ooh, I just need to try the first one again) had left us a little late and a little tired and nothing for dinner. Until Gabrielle suggested we do a pasta something with the chorizo sausage mix leftovers and I said “lasangne”. In less that the time it takes me to type the blog—and out of nothing—she’s thrown the few available things together and rustled up an award-winning Italian / Mexican fusion dish of Chilli-con-Lasagna, with a crunchy side-salad. No TV chef cookbooks required, just an understanding of food.

Friday, March 27, 2009

How to Make Cider : Last October, in Part 1, we helped our neighbours, Paul and Christiane, pick apples. Two weeks later, in the sequel, Part 2 : The Apple Strikes Back, we helped wash, crush and then squeeze the apples, using some very authentic and ancient tools and a bale of straw (see top photo). The liquid gold that ran off from the cider press was bucketed into a seemingly decrepit wooden cask, where it was left to ferment naturally into cider. Now this exciting story storms to its mouth-watering denouement with
Part 3 : The Return of the Apple.

During the intervening time, Paul had completed a process called sous tirage, where the nascent cider is drawn off into another (this time, plastic) barrel, the pipe going beneath the surface of the liquid but not right to the bottom, in order to reduce the sediment content. For the first time, Paul wanted to filter the cider before bottling and so, at the beginning of February, he phoned me to see if I was interested in helping him. We drove down to the local agricultural college to hire a filter for 50 € plus the cost of the cardboard filters. The lady in charge of the college’s own production of cider for sale gave us the full rundown of how we should connect up all the pipes and insert the filters and I made copious notes in a curious mixture of French and English.

The combined pump and filter is the stainless steel and white plastic device in the bottom of the photo and the filters are seventeen squares of a very refined thick cardboard, the idea being that when one becomes blocked with sediment, the next one takes over, and so on. Due to the sous tirage, the cider was in the plastic barrel, so we filtered it as we pumped it into the wooden barrel and then changed the filters to a finer grade before pumping it back into the plastic vat, where it would stay until it was bottled. When I popped round the following morning for something, Paul was sporting an expression which was somewhere between sheepish and relieved: they’d suffered “une petite catastrophe", he told me. “Little catastrophe” seemed to be a contradiction in terms until he explained. That morning, he’d detected a distinct whiff of cider in the air as he walked in the farm courtyard. At first, he dismissed it as due to the inevitable spillage from yesterday’s efforts until, impressed with how strong the smell was, he opened the door to the storage room where the vat was, to find over 200 litres of cider on the floor … oops! He explained that the plastic barrel has a drain plug and, over years of use, being dragged this way and that, it had become worn. Presumably, before filtering, the sediment had soon blocked the slight leak but having filtered the cider so that it was purer and cleaner than a very pure and clean thing, the thin liquid had continued to leak all night. A catastrophe, yes but at least he hadn’t lost all 800 litres.

Last week, we were invited to join Paul, his 85-year-old mother Simone, Christiane, and her sister, Cecile, to help bottle the cider into over 650 bottles. With much discussion, we formed into a production line of bottle washing and rinsing, filling the bottles from the vat, metal capping and then ranging the full bottles on dusty, creaking shelves. They are overly generous at times and I eventually had to lock my van once they’d put in sixty bottles in thanks for our help. We must wait for a further month before uncapping the first one to taste as it apparently develops a little further in the bottle. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me when I say that we’ve already drunk two bottles … it’s rather nice, actually.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Knit one, pearl one … One of the permacultural outputs of our pleasant experience of keeping a small flock of small sheep is wool. Following our attempts to shear a pretend sheep fabricated from soft furnishings followed by the real thing, you, me and especially our sheep, will be very happy to hear that I’ve enrolled on a two-day sheep-shearing course at Moulton Agricultural College in Northampton. Why Northampton, England? A touch of nostalgia (not to be confused with neuralgia) as it’s where I was born and grew up, so I can combine the course with a visit to my parents.

There’s a lot of things that you can do with wool, from spinning the fleece into skeins of knitting wool to felting it into batts to insulate your house and these require various levels of skill, equipment and preparation of the shorn wool. Washing the wool is a job in itself. Gabrielle uses soda crystals then Marseille soap then lots of rinsing. Be careful not to over agitate the wool as you’ll end up with a sodden lump of felt and definitely don’t think of saving labour with a washing machine, as you will end up with a useless matted lump. Once the wool has been gently dried on a rack, it must be carded (using two hand paddles or a hand-powered drum carder) where the fibres of the wool are teased out, giving you a lovely cloud of candyfloss. This can then be spun into wool, requiring skill, experience and a spinning wheel, or felted.

Felting meshes the wool fibres together in a controlled way. Here’s Gabrielle’s beginners’ guide to felting. An even easier way of felting, and great fun too, is needle felting. All you need is a handful of carded wool, a felting needle and an idea. The felting needle is a needle with very fine barbs, which grab the wool fibres and weaves them together as you jab the needle into your carded wool. The short video at the top shows you how it’s done. Happy felting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Trying to understand the current world financial crisis:
Part 1.

Especially since the effects of the current meltdown of the global financial system filled the news and began to pinch at our own modest lives, I’ve been reflecting on how the whole pack of cards is actually meant to function. As a (mature) student at university, some ten years ago I learnt about the époques of feudalism, mercantilism and capitalism and, although the passage of time might have clouded my memory, I’m not so sure I really understood the fundamentals even then. What would be useful is some sort of illustrative story, or allegory, to explain quite what happened. (I was sent this in an email and have since seen it reproduced in various forms on the Internet, so wouldn’t know who to credit anyone in particular but it’s certainly not mine.)

Once upon a time in a village, perhaps in India, a man announced to the locals that he would buy monkeys for €10. The villagers seeing there were many monkeys around, went out to the forest and started catching them. The man bought thousands at €10 but, as the supply started to diminish, the villagers stopped their efforts.

The man then announced that he would now pay €20 each. The villagers renewed their efforts and they started catching monkeys again. Soon the supply diminished even further and people started going back to their farms. The offer rate was increased again to €25 but the supply of monkeys became so little that monkeys were rarely seen, let alone caught.

Now pay attention, for this is where is gets interesting: the man now announced that he would buy monkeys at €50, however, since he had to go to the city on some business, his assistant would now act as buyer, on his behalf. In the absence of the big man, the assistant told the villagers: “Look at all these monkeys in the big cage that the man has collected. I will sell them to you at €35 and, when he returns from the city, you can sell them back to him for €50.” The villagers gathered together all their savings and bought all the monkeys for €35 each.

They never saw the man, his assistant or their money ever again ... only monkeys, everywhere. Welcome to capitalism!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spring is definitely in the air. Not only are the primroses popping out all over, we've had a flush of babies too. First off, Amandine (and Gerald) had a little boy, called Lubin (at right, with dad). Amandine is the granddaughter of our neighbour, the venerable Annick, thus making Annick a arrière grand mère (great grandmonther). Then friends Kay and Paddy had their second daughter, Florence. And Paul's and Christiane's eldest daughter Céline (and Antoine) have had their first child, Hermine. Thanks to Antoine for the photo of mum and daughter.

Hermine is a very Breton name as it is the heraldic flag of Brittany, representing the colours on the tail of the furry animal of the same name.

For our part, we’ve had two more lambs born since our last blog, making a total of three boys, all under a week old. Now just before you click on the video below to see one of the new chaps in action, I want to tell you about a little girl called Énna. She is the daughter of Solenn and Rémi (I met Rémi on a straw bale building site three years ago) and we recently travelled out to central Brittany to have lunch with them. When we last saw them, she was just a babe in arms (click here to see her being serenaded by the guitars of Nick and Tab) but she has grown into a bonny lass. Don’t be deceived by that charming smile though, she has just entered the “terrible twos”, that period of a child’s development when they experiment with being independent and contrary and throw tantrums.

So, while we can sympathise with the toils of being a mother—whether a demanding babe in arms needing everything done for it, or an argumentative two-year old who always wants the opposite—imagine how difficult life would be if human babies, within three days of birth, were as energetic as this little bundle of fun. Click on the video and keep an eye on the ewe’s attempt to keep up with her charge.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Has your blood ever run cold as you realise what could have happened? Although you turn it over and over in your horrified mind, it really doesn’t bear too much analysis, as the logic reduces to—and I apologise to Her Royal Highness, Her Majesty the Queen for this irreverent metaphor—“if the Queen had bollocks, she’d be the King.” What I mean to say is that, on this occasion, it didn’t happen, so don’t beat yourself up too much … just don’t ever let it happen again.

So this is what happened—and what almost happened this morning. With spring approaching, we’re feverishly busy here and today was no exception. The pregnant ewes have been moved to the paddock with their super new shelter, which is next to the just-completed paddock with the best grass we currently have but no shelter. Thus, they’ve been spending their days munching on that scrummy grass and their nights in the paddock with the shelter necessitating two moves a day. No trained collie dog for us, they move between the two adjacent enclosures following a shaken bucket with the promise of some sheepy snacks.

As I was saying, I was busy this morning and, while making the morning rounds of our animals, three of the ewes did as required, leaving one obstinate girl strangely stuck by the shelter. I succeeded in shooing her out of that paddock but, before I could entice her into the other, she’d gone back. You might imagine my frustration as I was in a rush to get on. I shooed her out again and closed the gate behind her and got her in with the others. I did the rabbits and saw that she was apart from the other ewes and had her nose to the shelter, the other side of the fence.

It was then that I became suspicious. Something was up. I walked into the now vacant paddock and looked into the shelter to see a newborn lamb, about the size of a kitten (the Ouessant breed are amongst the smallest sheep in the world). I quickly opened the two gates, whistled, and all four ewes returned tout-de-suite. I called Gabrielle and we caught mum, unceremoniously upending her and squeezing her teats to ensure she had milk; then upending her lamb to see … it’s a boy.

My happiness at seeing this year’s first lamb safely born was somewhat tempered by the “what-if” thoughts of me leaving mum and son separated as I rushed off to do other things. Thank goodness I realised something was up.