Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Have you heard the joke “how do you get two whales in a Mini ?” to which the hilarious answer is “down the M4”? If you’re now staring at your computer screen with a blank, uncomprehending expression, let me help. It’s a homophonous play on words, sounding just like the question “how do you get to Wales in a Mini?” to which the response “down the M4” is now a sensible reply. [The M4 is a motorway linking London with West Wales.]

When you’ve scraped yourself off the floor from your laughing fit, let me pose you another: “how do you get two pigs in a bucket?”

And the answer is, as you can see from these photo-graphs of our pair of Berkshires, “you don’t!”

Doing the rounds this evening, I’d already anticipated that I’d need to replace their water—which they have usually dirtied with muddy snouts—and so had walked up to their paddock carrying a bucket of food and another of water, only to find that their food trough had been commandeered earlier in the day by Gabrielle to wash sheep’s wool. Rather than make yet another trip at the end of a long working day, I put down the bucket and let them sort it out themselves.

I did end up making another trip but to grab my special pig weighing tape measure as I thought the opportunity (heads stuck in a bucket) too good to miss. They both have belly circumferences of 87 centimetres, which means that they apparently weigh 52 kilograms, which means that they seem to be about right for their age and a target weight of 65 kilos kill out weight. This is of interest for two reasons: we overfed our first pigs (this is our third year raising pigs) and, secondly, we’re hoping to reduce our porkers consumption of cereal-based foods by making sure that they make the most of the seasonal excesses of plums and cherries (coming to the end now) then apples (now ripe) then acorns, feeding (with greater experience now) by eye.

To read more about our experiences raising pigs, click on the link on the right, top one under “Magazine Articles” or buy the current edition of Permaculture Magazine.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gabrielle!

It was Gabrielle’s birthday yesterday, a day off, of course… well, sort of. A few days ago, we discovered, for the first time since keeping chickens, an infestation of red mites (dermanyssus gallinae, more of which in a future blog). We’d ordered two products, one to dust onto their feathers and a liquid to clean their house. That all arrived on Thursday and we were keen to try and relieve their itchy and bloodsucking stress. After tea in bed, with cards and presents, a quick breakfast was followed by putting on wellies, sparking up the borrowed power jet cleaner and sloshing disinfectant about … I know how to treat a lady on her birthday!

We tootled up to the coast, a delightful small town called St Briac-sur-Mer, for a delicious lunch followed by les trésors du bord de mer, le temps d’une marée, a guided walk on the beach at low tide to discover “the abundant riches of a hidden world” and this is a nuance we hadn’t really taken note of, “idéal en famille”.

Our guide was a slim woman in her early 50s, with a weathered face, engaging eyes and possessing an abundance of knowledge and enthusiasm. As the group formed around her van, it was clear that we were the only couple without small children. I made her smile by asking whether having children was obligatory (it wasn’t) and, although we felt like we’d joined a littoral school trip, we passed a fascinating couple of hours, learning, amongst other things, how to sex a crab.

When we returned home, Gabrielle had received an Internet greeting card from some musician friends, Maryté and Jean Pierre, who’d risen to the occasion by writing in English: “Happy birthday Gabrielle. I hope you many years in the middle of pretties flowers all near your favorite gardener, in the violin sound. You already miss us and I hope to meet you, sooner or later, for drink some bear or wine and to have a good time. I kiss you and Stuart. See you later. Bye.

And just in case you’re thinking of coming on holiday to Brittany in August, don’t, the weather is awful and the beaches rammed full of holidaymakers, see photo below.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Monday morning, all things being equal (normalement in French) a very tall Frenchman by the name of Christophe Le Petit will turn up with a digger to finish installing our horizontal plant filter grey water treatment system. (Grey water is water from the kitchen and bathroom sinks, the shower and the washing machine but not the flush WC, which we’re replacing with a dry compost toilet.) Cleaned water from the plant filter will go into a large wildlife pond. Friends and neighbours have asked us whether we’ll put ducks in it. No. Ducks (delightful creatures that we hope to have in the future) would eat all the vegetation and make the pond very messy. Fish? Also problematic, depending what sort they are. We don’t want them eating plants or tadpoles but have been told that roach (gardon in French) would be a good fish, something to eat mosquito larvae but not otherwise affect the ecosystem. This will be a wildlife pond, a thing of beauty we hope, something to increase biodiversity, such as supporting slug-eating frogs and toads, which should benefit our adjacent vegetable patch and polytunnel.

Christophe reckons we’ll have an excess of a trailer or two of earth after the pond landscaping and asked me where we could put it. There’s a big hole in the forest ride I cut the winter before. Now, the logs from the trees I felled last winter—thinning a plot of sycamore—are still in the our wood. Can you see the first inklings of a cunning plan? Christophe takes the trailer of earth to the wood, dumps it in previously mentioned hole and levels it smooth, then uses his loading bucket to scoop up logs from the large, rough pile and bring them back in his trailer. Also, his lovely trailer has a tipping action, so loading and unloading by hand (which I’ve done for the last two years) is all done in an instant.

With sunlight now allowed in, the ride has grown a green carpet of nettles, brambles and other assorted plants, shrubs and saplings. I’ve been scything this over the last few days, an hour or two at a time, a job made all the more fun by the new bar that’s opened at the top of the lane leading to our woodland: what luck!

On a visit to the woods a few months ago, seeing that there was work being done to a building that had been deserted as long as we’ve known it, Gabrielle went over to say hello. In fact, it’s not so much new as an old bar reopened. Michel’s parents and grandparents ran the bar, which has been closed for quite a few years. They asked if she and Alastair (guitar-playing artist friend) would play on their opening night.

It was a happy evening under a deep blue dusk sky, with loads of dancing, chatting, eating and (moderate) drinking. Caroline, artist Al’s artist partner, got her ever-present sketchbook out and captured the personalities and the movement of the evening in a few deft strokes of her black pen, which fascinated the children.
Sensibly keeping on their day jobs, he and his wife Isabelle (in photo below) are open every day in August, then just weekends thereafter. It’s great for our working visits to the wood: a coffee to get us warmed up for work, and a cold beer at the end of the day. Weekdays during August, they’re also doing food at midday, really tasty home cooking, grilling chops on a wood barbecue outside the front door, for example and the most sumptious of chocolate gateaux, served with crème anglaise (literally, “English cream”, custard by another name).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

In clover /'kləʊvə/ n. : “in ease and luxury”.

After moaning about the weather in my last blog, we had glorious sunshine yesterday and a blue sky sunny start to today. And to prove it, a couple of photos of Bunny Lapine, up bright and early with her latest five bundles of fun and one of our cats seeking somewhere to hide from the heat of the afternoon sun (the grey one seemingly unbothered by the smell of recently harvested onions drying) .

Friday, August 07, 2009

What have Thirteen Moons and a BBQ got to do with each other ?”

5.30 pm Thursday evening : Having just done the evening round of the animals, we’re now making the final preparations for a barbecue, with our guests arriving around 7. What a delightful image I evoke, friends gathered together, home-made sausages grilling over a charcoal fire, balmy Brittany summer weather. Except that it should read “barmy”, not balmy! It’s been raining solidly all day and even the skies have darkened but, as we have just reassured Edith and Olivier on the phone, fear not, when it comes to running a barbecue in the pouring rain, the English are expert. And so it is, with a certain Dunkirk spirit, we soldier on trying not to let our spirits get dampened even though I’m currently soaked to the skin.

One of the very reasons that we chose to move to Brittany was the climate. The south of France can get too hot to do anything other than read a paperback next to a swimming pool during the summer and we wanted somewhere that had a pleasant climate along with enough rain, evenly distributed throughout the year, to grow something more than just grape vines. The average rainfall here in August is apparently 39 mm, temperatures agreeably reaching 22ºC, and no less than 170 hours of sunshine. But not this year.

The word on the street is that it’s got something to do with 2009 having thirteen moons and as soon as we get back to a year of twelve moons, all will be well again.

I’ve been asking neighbours and digging around on the Internet to try to get to the bottom on this. Our neighbour Christiane’s sister Cécile had heard of the phenomenon but when pressed as to whether it was thirteen full moons, or thirteen new moons, she didn’t know. In fact there will, more often than not, be an extra moon, either full or new, as the lunar year is around 11 days less than a solar year (the year we base our 12 month calendar on). Unsurprisingly French weather scientists tend not to hold anything by this but, just in case the weather doesn’t behave according to the rule, I found a variation with one old guy reckoning that in a year with thirteen moons, only the months commencing with “A” will be beautiful.” Well, there may be thirteen full moons this year but this month begins with an “A” … and it’s till tipping down outside”.

Post barbecue update : We had 18 mm of rain yesterday, taking our monthly total so far to 45 mm in only the first 6 days of August; the monthly average is only 39. We also had a superb barbecue. With uncanny timing, the weather broke five minutes before the first guests turned up: the rain stopped and it brightened up. With the barbecue and our washing-machine drum brazier, we felt warm, our home made rosemary and sun-dried tomato pork sausages were delicious, the kids toasted marshmallows and the grownups desserted on fresh strawberries and blackberries, marinated in Cointreau and sugar. We finished up musically with Gabrielle and her violin, Pascal on an African wooden box with snares inside that serves both as seat and percussion instrument and Anne-Cécile flexing her accordion.

The thirteen moons theory? I think it’s about as useful as the British proverb of St Swithun’s Day, which says that if it rains on Saint Swithun's day (15th) July, then it will rain for the next 40 days (or stay dry if dry). And have a heart for our local farmers who are waiting for their turn on the combine harvester to bring in the wheat harvest and hoping for a couple of sunny days so the grain is dry.