Sunday, June 28, 2009

For something that calls itself a “permaculture blog”, I do chunter on about a lot of other stuff. So, please find below, an unashamedly, unequivocally and un-something-elsely blog about permaculture.

Permaculture very much takes natural eco-systems as example and guide. Balance and symbiosis are key words. Despite my permacultural professings, when creepy-crawly critters and bugs stop by to eat our veggies, my first reaction is to feel that I’ve just discovered burglars in my house and that I want to get rid of them immediately by reaching for some chemical mix in a spray gun. One can even justify this course of action to oneself by choosing chemicals approved for organic gardening. But, you know, organic gardening approved poisons are still poisons and very often kill insects indiscriminately, i.e., the good with the bad. (Read an earlier blog on the subject).

Permaculture rather suggests that we observe first, trying to work out why we have a problem: is it a deficiency or an excess of something that could be easily ameliorated? And then we’ll think of how to solve the problem by working towards equilibrium, a natural balance. Permaculture gardeners are therefore happy to accept a low-level infestation of bugs as bad bugs are food for good bugs (bad and good as seen from my vegetable-eating standpoint) and if there’s no food for the bug-eating bugs, then the bug-eating bugs don’t hang around and when the bad bugs arrive, you’ve got yourself a problem.

The other day, I was giving a tour of our permaculture smallholding to some English guests of our neighbours’, Paul and Christiane’s, gite and explaining to them how we did things. It turns out that Alan works in the horticulture industry and he started turning over leaves and looking at them with an expert's eye. We’ve certainly had some aphid damage but it was, and remains a low-level infestation that really isn’t hurting the plants, so we’ve done nothing. The video below shows you some of our pepper plants, which are growing healthily, in spite of some aphids on them. In our vegetable plot, saying that this was exactly what I was talking about, he pointed out a ladybird (ladybug) larva, right next to a worry of aphids (see photo at top). Lady bird/bug larvae eat aphids for breakfast, dinner and tea. As this is in the strawberry patch and the aphids were chomping in the wild chrysanthemums Gabrielle has inter-planted, rather than the strawberries and they were being followed by ravenous aphid-eaters, we can again feel happy to leave well alone.

A caveat: such equilibrium takes a while to establish itself. You’re looking for biodiversity and good soil and that takes a year or two or three to get settled, so you have to have strong nerves in the set-up stage. If you weaken and spray, you’ll be killing the good bugs, the bug-eating bugs too.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Yesterday, I was telling you that weekend newspapers were one of the things we missed about England. This afternoon, I was over at our neighbours’ gite, assisting them welcome in their first English guests (Paul and Christiane speak no English apart from Paul’s single, and rarely useful, phrase that he’s picked up, “I am goieeng to cleen ze ’ouse”). I'd spoken to Stephanie last night, to explain that I’d be there on their arrival, and cheekily asked if she’d mind bringing the Sunday Observer with her, which she did.

And what a treat it is. The supplement is the monthly food magazine. Coupled with that, I’ve just finished a superb dinner cooked by Gabrielle. Roasted coriander seeds, rosemary leaves, garlic, lemon juice salt and pepper all got mashed up in a messtle and portar, then stabbed in and smeared all over a leg of our own mutton and roasted in the oven. As were the potatoes. Vegetable-wise, she blanched our own fresh peas and served up a gaudily colourful boiled beetroot in white sauce. Stunningly rich and delicious. Awaiting us in the fridge is a home made strawberry yogurt. This combination of good food, good wine, good company, good reading and a warm sunny summer evening has made me come over all Nigel Slater-ish: I feel a recipe coming on.

This is a bargain bite, cheap chow, parsimonious provender. Inspired by the French recipes, "Petit salé aux petits pois and Saucisses aux lentilles, I give you ...

Sausage on a split pea purée with fried bread.
First off, you’ll need some bangers with a bit of character about them. We use our best barbeque sausages, made with our own free range and organic pork with breadcrumb, sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary, garlic, white and black pepper, paprika, salt and a pinch of sugar to caramelise splits in the frying pan. Be patient when you fry them, even more so if you barbeque them, as they need to be cooked right through without being cremated on the outside.

For the purée, this is straight from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book but no quantities here, you decide how much you want and how strong you want the flavours. Soak some dried split peas overnight, then drain, rinse and add fresh water then onion, carrot, celery (dried celery powder or leaf celery apium graveolens secalinum will do just as well) leek (lacking a leek, I chopped up a shallot) thyme, a bay leaf and butter. Simmer until tender then whiz out the bay leaf and thyme stalks then mush the mix with a kitchen mushing device (a mouli légumes if you’re exotically posh, else use a food processor, a soup blender or scrape it though a steel sieve with the back of a wooden spoon). Add salt to taste and give the peas back some of their original sweetness with some sugar (or honey).

For the fried bread, what do you need to know? Ageing bread, olive oil and unsalted butter, keep frying and turning until it’s golden and crispy. Dob the pea mush on the plate, pose the porky sizzlers on top and go all arty around the sides with the fried bread. Drink it with a robust red wine, which—I choose to believe—is good for your heart, counteracting all that tasty but naughty grease … yum!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Whilst I feel at home here in Brittany, north-west France, I’m also stranger in a strange land and I feel that I will always have that ambiguity as long as I live here, even after another thirty years. In fact, I am becoming a cultural fossil. What do I mean by that? I’ll always remember the England that I left five years ago and not be so aware of how English life and culture evolves. Memory is also tricked by that wonderful psychological self-defence, where one increasingly only remembers the good bits and the bad bits often fade to grey. The net effect of these two phenomena can be an excess of nostalgia (not to be confused with neuralgia).

So, what do we miss about “Home”? Breakfast back bacon rashers, cheddar cheese, weekend broadsheet newspapers with all their accompanying supplements and brown English beer, served at room temperature in a pint glass. In French supermarkets can often be found a little section or end of aisle marked with Union Jack flags, stacked with things specifically for British residents or holidaymakers. Things like Jacobs Cream Crackers or Carr’s water biscuits: both of these are for cheese (the French always eat cheese—third of a four course meal—with bread). Marmalade, chutney and piccalilli, the list goes on: how the French see their neighbours. Interestingly, marmalade came to us from Portugal, and chutney and piccalilli both came into the English diet from our Indian colonial past.

So how have we adapted to French habits and tastes? In England, cheese would be eaten after dessert but we follow the French now, more logically finishing with dessert, the sweetness killing the last of one’s appetite … and we eat it with bread, not dry biscuits. Charles de Gaulle once asked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” So, with such a large choice, why do we want another? Habit, taste, and cheddar is very versatile in the kitchen. Not far from us, an Australian woman buys in milk and makes her own, organic-ally certified, cheddar cheese and our local supermarket also now imports and sells English cheddar, so we can cross that one off the list.

I stock up with beer on occasional trips to England and, alleluia ! bottles have also appeared in the aforementioned Johnny Foreigner section of another local supermarket. It's at a decent price too, as tax on alcohol is much lower in France. Cross that one off too. We’ve got into the habit of asking holidaymakers coming to stay in our gite to bring a Saturday Guardian or Sunday Observer. Which only leaves bacon.

We’ve kept pigs for two years now and have made streaky belly bacon before. Our first pigs were small Kune Kunes (originally from New Zealand) and the loin muscle, which reduces in size as it dries out in the cure, was too small for back bacon. Last year, we had Gloucester Old Spots that killed out at a huge 230 lbs (105 kilos). Just a few weeks ago, we took a portion out of the freezer, removed the loin bones and trimmed off some fat, the put them in the same cure we use for the belly: salt, sugar, black pepper, chopped bay leaves and crushed juniper berries. After a few days, we removed it washed and dried it and then left it in the fridge (in the winter we’d hang cured meat to air outside) for a few days, before borrowing a slicing machine off a neighbour. The result is very tasty if a touch too salty (we’ll knock of a day or so for the next cure).

So we can enjoy our French lives with our English quirks: long live multiculturalism. If you like, you can read an article I wrote for Country Smallholding Magazine about our first year with pigs. Click on the first link under “Magazine Articles” on the right of this web page. My article will open or download (depending how you have your computer configured) as a PDF file.

(This blog was first posted on Not dabbling in Normal, an American blog that I contribute to once a month.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Permaculture, it’s hardly rocket science; or is it? Kristen, a good friend of our ours is, by trade, an engineer. A very special type of engineer, in fact. He spends his days in the exosphere (spatially, perhaps even space-ially and certainly intellectually) modelling the mathematics that keeps things like satellites in the right place and pointing in the right direction. Clever chap. He also has a young family and is passionate about permaculture.

Part 1 and then Part 2 of our experience digging a perma-culture swale got his grey cells tingling. Specifically, it was my question: “In all the information I read through in books and on the Internet, I couldn’t find any calculation or other guidance to size our single swale.” This is his clear, helpful and precise response:

For a full explanation, have a look at his own blog on the subject of swales. It’s in French but, if maths isn’t your strong subject, it might as well be in Double Dutch!

So now you know how to dimension a swale and, in answer to the question, “is permaculture rocket science”, the answer is “sometimes, yes”.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Today has been voting day in the European elections. We have the right to vote in local and European elections but not the national ones (despite us having the “right” to pay national taxes). On my way back from the bakery (one pain au chocolat, one baguette avec éclats de céréales and one fraisier (a delightful combination of light sponge, fresh strawberries and a sickly-sweet and gaudily colourful pâtissier’s goo, which can’t be good for you)) I stopped off at the school where we were to cast our votes. As you walk into the courtyard, the single classroom is ahead (where the local elections took place) and the canteen to the left. I walked towards the apparently lifeless classroom before a huge “OY” (or the French equivalent thereof) drew me into the canteen. There was Jean-Luc, the maire (part-time mayor and otherwise farmer) Éric, long-distance lorry driver and the “oy” shouter and a lady whom I’ve never met before: Salut, Salut, Bonjour Madame.

It was all very early in the day and I could see that there were only two votes cast before me in the transparent ballot box. I handed over my card and received a small brown envelope. As I headed for the single voting booth (there are only about 160 registered to vote in our commune, so you can see that everything is on a very modest scale) Jean-Luc asked me if I had everything I needed. Of course, I’d made my choice already. I pulled back the curtains, entered and found it surprisingly bare of pens and voting slips. I re-emerged: “désolée, je ne comprends pas ce que je dois faire". Apparently I had to pick up an A5 flyer of my chosen party from the table laid out in full view, then enter the booth, fold said paper and tuck it in the envelope. I scoured the table for my choice. Hooray for advanced European democracies: about half of the available choices had a notice saying that no forms had been received at the mairie. Fortunately, I found mine—a stack of at least 200 forms (I’m probably the only person in our commune who’ll vote for them) took one, and, somewhat theatrically, I have to admit, like some ham magician, I put my hands behind the curtain to put the flyer—which they’d all seen me take—in the anonymous envelope. Éric, ever the comedian, told me that I had to have my whole body in the booth. When I pointed out that he’d seen which slip I’d taken, he replied that it didn’t matter, as they’d take my vote out when I’d gone and change it anyway.

So whom did I vote for? The green vote has been split between the Green Party and the Independent Ecologists and some young eco-minded and politically aware French friends of mine had expressed their disquiet at what the Green Party and Daniel Cohn-Bendit were saying. This was reinforced by Sébastien (father of four) who wanted to vote Green but wouldn’t now. Another friend had spoken highly of the Nouveau Party Anticapitalist and it is they that got my vote. In my opinion, the current financial crisis is dwarfed by the ecological troubles we are storing up for ourselves and it is precisely this crisis which could provide the opportunity for us all to reflect on how capitalism works, or rather doesn’t, and see if we can’t find a fairer and more sustainable future. Whether the NPA are up to the job, I’m not sure we’ll find out as I don’t think they’ll get too many votes; I’ll report back with our communes voting breakdown and the overall result.

Olivier Besancenot, who has put his name to this party, is a right old lefty, perhaps even—shock horror—a communist. Now, as an alternative to capitalism, communism didn’t quite work out, and I think I know why! Friedrich Engels, one half of the authorial team of The Communist Manifesto, once wrote to his friend, Karl Marx (the other): “It is absolutely essential that you get out of boring Brussels for once and come to Paris, and I for my part have a great desire to go carousing with you… If I had an income of 5000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces. If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes [prostitutes], well and good!” Quelle hypocrisie, this is the same socialist who condemned the use of prostitutes as “the most tangible exploitation—one directly attacking the physical body—of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie”, but then regularly enjoyed their services. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that politicians had more integrity nowadays? Alas, British politicians have been found out, gorging themselves on outlandish expenses.

Will the NPA get voted in (unlikely). And if they do, will they work to make the world a better place or just race off to Paris to enjoy the pleasures of the ladies of the night, à la Engels? Don’t hold your breath.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Fecundity is the word of the month here: grass and weeds waist high if we so much as turn our backs, lettuce’s the size of a very big thing and various babies all over the place.

The little fella at the top is a Berkshire piglet, one of a litter we went to see the other day. They’ll be weaned at eight weeks, when we’ll be bringing two castrated boys home to install in the paddock at the top of the field, where they'll run around under the summer sun eating grass, plums, cherries, apples and finally acorns (along with some cereals). We happened to turn up at Jan’s at the same time as her vet, who’d come to castrate the boys. Gabrielle went for a little walk. On a recent English TV programme about the way pigs are raised, there was mention made of the apparent lack of necessity of castration as they go for slaughter before it really gets to matter and the fact that they are castrated without anaesthetic. Having now seen the vet do it, I reckon it’s the right thing to do. We’ve seen ourselves that too much testosterone isn’t especially helpful on our permaculture smallholding so, unless you want a male to breed from, it’s best for everyone if one’s males are separated from their testicles.

The young French vet, Florent, who spoke impeccable English with a German accent (his mother is German) explained that it was the speed that mattered. He tucked a piglet, head down between his legs, pushed a testicle in position with his thumb and made a horizontal cut in the scrotum with a scalpel, popped out the testicle, then pressing hard with his thumb to hold the tubes in place, he pulled and the testicle came away. Same again for the other side, then a good coating of antiseptic/antibiotic powder and the piglet was put back in the pen with his mother. Most of the piglets made not a squeal and they were all sleeping soundly within about ten minutes. Jan tells us that they heal very quickly and after a couple of days, you can't see any sign of this intervention.

We have six chicks by four hens at the moment, with another two hens broody, leaving just one hen actually laying eggs and a housing problem as I try to accommodate all their different needs, whilst leaving the nesting box free for our lone egg layer’s daily visit. So far, in three years living here, we don’t have a problem with foxes, nor rats, so they free-range during the day, which is a delight to see: the various mum’s showing their offspring how to scratch about, what to eat, and get into fiercely protective mode if I come too near.

Bunny Lapine, our enormous rabbit has had her third litter. Eight the first time, no less than eleven last year and then … one. The received wisdom in the village is that she is “trop graisse (too fat) that we’ve overfed her. Nevertheless, it’s good news for her sole kit, as s/he has all the mother’s milk to itself and—I’m not exaggerating—gets noticeably bigger as each day passes. We’ve been told to put the rabbit to the buck again very soon, after several sessions of WeightWatchers, perhaps.

Our edible plants (Gabrielle’s department) are growing well but then so is the grass and weeds. It’s like some chlorophyllic version of Grandmother’s Footsteps: I turn my back, then when I look behind me again, everything’s grown by six inches. Still occupied with barn re-roofing and a host of other priorities in the “List of Things to Do”, it’s quite a problem, as if the grass gets too tall, I have to scythe it before I can run the mower over it. That’s already happened in the pig paddock, so I’m slowly working my way across with my scythe (scraping up the cut grass and creating a huge pile, mixed with straw, to turn into compost) then passing the mower and trying to knock it back into shape before our piglets arrive.

Something else that’s drifted off the radar recently, is our woodland. I pencilled in a day for the woods last week, planning to take a good look at what was going on, then maybe carry on collecting logs I’d cut over winter, piling them up for collection by (borrowed) tractor and trailer. I arrived to waist-high nettles and brambles. The ride that I’d cut last year had created a gap in the canopy, allowing nourishing sunlight through and so helping these weeds to thrive. I set about them with my razor-sharp Austrian scythe and had, in a satisfyingly short amount of time, cut a walkway right to the back of the wood. Physically tough, there are however lots of benefits to using a scythe, in comparison with a petrol-driven strimmer. When correctly sharpened and used correctly, it’s very efficient and I wouldn’t mind challenging someone with a strimmer to a “race”. Along with the workout, I also find it meditative, as one has to concentrate on each swing and you also get to hear the birdsong while you work.