Monday, September 28, 2009

Self-sufficiency … in tomatoes ?
A chap from Brighton (where we used to live) got in touch recently, asking if, on a forthcoming house-hunting trip to Brittany, he could come to see us for a cup of tea and a chat about our permaculture smallholding. He and his wife are considering a move to France, hoping to reduce their outgoings by producing [some of] their own food. He mentioned the phrase “self-sufficiency”, which has got us thinking. It’s never been a goal of ours to be totally autonomous. For sure, we’ve got a well-thumbed copy of John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency and I’ve read and been inspired by his autobiographical Fat of the Land but we’ve never aspired to produce all that we eat, just proportionally much more than we ever used to.

Why not self-sufficiency then? We drink milk but, for about a pint a day, do we need to add a cow to our already populous menagerie with all the fuss and palaver of providing it with adequate pasture, getting it in calf, milking it every day, etc? Bread then? Yes, homemade bread is wonderful stuff and, during the baking, makes a house smell so dough-licious but we have our own village bakery. And a village baker needs to sell bread or shut up shop, leading to a very quiet village. Cheese? With such an amazing variety of cheeses produced all over France, why would I want to restrict our larder to just one type of amateurish homemade cheese?

Not totally self-reliant then but certainly producing fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, firewood for all our heating needs and extras such as a very warm but incredibly rustic Russian hat made by the omni-competent Gabrielle from our own rabbit skins and felt from wool off the backs of our own sheep. It did get us thinking though and, as Gabrielle has this week been mainly preserving tomatoes, we wondered what would be involved in making ourselves self-sufficient in just this one commodity: only eating our own preserved tomatoes, running out of jars on the day we started to harvest the first fresh toms of next year.

A self-sufficiency trial, tomato-stylie, would involve an audit of how many tomatoes we eat and how we use them throughout the year. Somewhat conveniently, I have no problem buying fresh toms in December, even if I find it strange to see strawberries for sale then, both being equally unseasonal. Summer afflictions of warm, overcast humid days lead quickly to blight and so we’ve moved the bulk part of our tomato cultivation into our single polytunnel. How many plants, how much covered growing area would we need to provide a year’s worth of Gardeners’ Delight, Brandy Wine, Sungold and other favourite varieties? And then there’d be a cost comparison as supermarkets in England used to sell (perhaps still do?) “budget” tins of plum tomatoes for an unfeasibly small price. Being self-sufficient in toms might actually end up costing more, which sort of defeats the idea that “self-sufficiency” means you spend less. It’d take a huge quantity of tomatoes to pay back the cost of a polytunnel. (Don’t shout at me, I accept that cost isn’t the only thing to consider, we’re producing tastier and probably healthier crops.)

And so to preservation: We have previously frozen passata but that takes up valuable, energy-consuming freezer space. This year, following instructions from Katerine, the chicken farmer’s wife and one of Gabrielle’s favourite books, Preserving by Oded Schwartz, Gabrielle’s been harvesting, chopping, simmering, sieving and bottling in Kilner jars, then heat processing them by boiling the sealed jars for twenty minutes. The high pressure forces bubbles past the rubber sealing ring, so when the jars cool down, they become vacuum sealed.

There are just a few more weeks of fresh tomatoes left this season before we’ll have to open the first of those jars of passata. Will we be self-sufficient in toms? I very much doubt we’ll be able to resist buying fresh toms before next years plants start producing but it will be interesting to see how long our stored passata lasts. (The photo below proudly shows off one of our own delicious Cuore di Bue.)

To follow: red mites in the henhouse and our new, beautiful grey water treatment system.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eco-Building Part 2:

The roof for the new gite is, at long last, finished. A dodgy roof allows the weather in and will ultimately do for a building. We had to replace the roof, to protect the building and, even if we would only ever use the barn for storage, the floor needed replacing. With all the hard work done, and the biggest cheques written, it seemed sensible to go a little further and create another gite. The oak carpentry of the roof was basically sound but the soffits and rafters got replaced. Over them was laid a breathable, yet waterproof sarking board made by Pavatex. Our friend Jim planed down some old oak timbers I’d acquired from the demolition of a neighbours old stone pigsty, and built a beautiful frame for a dormer window, here called une lucarne or un chien-assis (lit: sitting dog).

What makes a house “ecologically-friendly” and what might “green building” materials and methods be? Lots of things, is the short answer but if you care, I think one has to be honest and make fair comparisons. The Pavatex board, for example, is just wood fibres, compressed together : no nasty formaldehyde-containing glues and it acts as an insulating layer, a waterproof yet breathable layer beneath the slates and reduces sound transmission. This natural product is manufactured in Switzerland, so that’s a lot of transport miles / kilometres to add to its embodied energy. And, I guess, it takes a fair amount of energy to reduce solid wood to the fibres from which the boards are made. I’m on safer ground with the dormer wood frame, as the old oak beams would have gone on the fire or down the tip and only travelled here from next door and had a short journey to and from Jim’s workshop. Jim’s skills and machinery, have turned this characterful wood—which has already had one life as lintels in a stone pig sty—into a thing of art and beauty: carpentry to the standard of cabinet making.

We discovered that Gabrielle has a natural talent for lead work. To explain: in buildings, there are many edges, where one surface in one material, meets another surface of, perhaps, a different construction. The detailing of such a joint is important for keeping water out and heat in. Our long barn actually consists of two barns joined together, with a slight change in ridge height where they meet: and so the need for some lead flashing.

I am constantly afflicted by having extremely high standards that are awkwardly matched to a lack of competence or even complete lack of knowing what I’m meant to be doing. Oh, and an uncomfortable lack of patience! I knew the I had to fit a piece of lead around the last ridge tile and onto the wall of the higher barn. This involves forming a flat piece of metal into a three-dimensional affair that has to snugly fit the semicircle of the tile then fold flat at right angles. The only way to achieve this is by stretching the metal. I fabricated a wooden tool to do this and roughly knew what I was meant to be doing. Why do I (repeatedly) think that I can achieve a perfect job at the first attempt, without having been shown how to do it or completed a course, let alone a full apprenticeship? It took about 30 seconds before my patience gave out at my inability to hammer the flat lead into the perfect form and I went in search of Gabrielle for moral support. She offered more than a “there, there” and set about with the wooden tool, tap-tapping the lead, gently persuading it to wilt to her will and assume the impossible shape. See for yourself and remember that this started out as a flat piece of thick lead … and at her first attempt.

Many people have contributed to elevating this building work into the realms of fine art! With memories of help from David for helping me strip the roof, Samuel for helping me replace all the rafters and repair the tops of the walls,Gabrielle for her lead work, Jim for his carpentry/joinery skills and teaching me how to slate, Jacques’ for the special stuff with slate and zinc around the dormer and you can see why (photo at top) I’m so happy to drizzle a drop of bubbly on the completed roof : the topping off ceremony.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

My blogging is desperately lagging behind real life, which I guess is how it should be. I have loads to tell you : a whole series on installing our horizontal plant filter and beautiful wildlife pond system of treating our grey water; our forthcoming VIP dry toilet to complement it; a distressing infestation of red mites in the henhouse; preserving this year’s tomatoes by bottling and boiling, as opposed to the more energy-intensive freezing, which is what we’ve done to date; making cider vinegar for the first time; various cream’s made from marigold petals, shea butter and other stuff by Gabrielle with successful medical trials (well, a thumbs up from a couple of mates whose skin didn’t peel off) green building; our village baker’s 40th birthday party and so much more.

Firstly, I would like to thank Stonehead,Valand Albert for their helpful advice about the size and shape of our two Berkshire piggies/hogs (see my two previous blogs).
Secondly, a tale of a long and busy day on a surprisingly hot and sunny September Brittany day, with frustrations and delays, heavy stones and a squashed left little finger, an all-day-English-Breakfast (at lunchtime) the stonemason decamping immediately afterwards, then a wash-up, change of clothes and a drive to the supermarket to buy beer and then a relaxing hour in a French bar in Dinan called “The Tally Ho Pub”, run by a Frenchman and selling real English bitter (albeit out of a bottle).

The grey water treatment system installers, Christophe and Sylvain, have scaringly left us. Whilst the plant filter is now operational, the wildlife pond has plenty of work still to do on it. We need our friend Paddy to finish the capping stones on the “dam” before we fill the pond up to verify that the levels of all the earthworks are correct. There are some subtleties, such as the bog garden being just higher than the pond overflow, so as not to empty the pond, but to be able to be watered by the pond in a controlled way if we plug the overflow when it’s raining. I’ll explain more in subsequent blogs, suffice to say is enough to make me pass several of the small hours looking at the ceiling of our bedroom with m mind spinning. Paddy is at least as busy as us. We’d fixed the RDV for yesterday morning at 8.30, so I had set the alarm, the animals had been launched into the new day and the concrete mixer set up in time for his arrival.

In typical impatient-and-also-underestimating-what’s-involved way, I assumed it’d be all done by lunchtime, after which he would have to return home to look after baby Florence and be available to collect Lola from school so Kay would go off and teach business English. A precise job like good stonemasonry by an ex-Fell farmer needs quite a bit of contemplation before action and after much muttering and wandering around with a tape measure, he pronounced that the stones that I’d left in the field next to the sheep were ideal and not the heavy stones that I had moved, with great difficulty next to the pond … ho hum. Then there was the matter of the flat stone for the overflow, which turned out to be ever-so-slightly convex, needing much reflection, then lots of work with angle grinder and toothed chisel. Then a wonderfully flat stone donated by neighbour Serge turned out (turned over?) to have a very uneven bottom, needing another half an hour with angle grinder and chisel. To cut a long story short, we laid two stones in half a day (and squashed my little finger) before a late “lunch” of an “All-Day-English-Breakfast” of our own home-produced bacon, sausage, egg, tomatoes and (supermarket, oven-ready) chips and a very English mug of tea.

It was a fiercely hot and sunny day so, after the evening rounds of the animals, I cleaned up and put the tools away before heading off to a local supermarket (the Intermarché at Taden) to stock up with English bitter, one of the few things I really miss about England. Amusingly, due to the heavier tax on alcohol in England, it’s actually cheaper here! On the way home, I felt obliged to investigate the newly opened “Tally Ho Pub”. Bonjour. I then asked the French bar owner if he had English beer and he pointed to three pumps : Murphy’s stout (which I pointed out was actually Irish) Heineken (no English connection other than one can buy it in England) and Strongbow (English but cider).
As my smile dropped and my bottom lip began to quiver, he said that he had got bottles of Spitfire (genuine English bitter from the Shepherd Neame brewery). Compared to the bargain at the supermarket, it was exorbitant at 5€, nevertheless the ambience was good and I found it very relaxing being away from the distractions of things to do at home, with just a pint and a magazine : simple pleasures ... Cheers!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Portly Porkers or Svelte Swine ?

A postscript to my how do you get two pigs in a bucket blog. Val, our good friend and Somerset smallholding expert read the blog and posted a comment to say, “They still look a bit portly to me!”

During the first year we had pigs and sheep, Val came for lunch one day and did a pre-prandial tour of our permaculture smallholding, pronouncing our pigs to be too fat and our sheep too thin. As beginners in animal husbandry, her expert opinion was helpful and we wormed our sheep and put them on better rations and made an unsuccessful attempt to thin down our portly porkers. Now in our third year of pig keeping, we still value her advice but was not so sure that we are that far from where our pigs need to be, diet-wise and felt rather that the piggie pics were unflattering in a sort of “does this dress make my bum look big” sort of way. The last photo (reproduced here) shows one pig sat down, head scrunched up in the bucket, appearing to be a touch more tubby than in reality.

I have therefore set myself the task of taking a more honest, flattering and stretched-out portrait to email to Val to ask her to review her opinion. The problem is that our pigs have been (unwittingly) conditioned to associate my presence with food, so they follow me closely with a certain loyalty/friendship/attentiveness meaning that I can’t easily get the side-on, stretched out shot I’m after.

The dustbin containing their feed bucket was coming to the end and I had asked Paul, our neighbouring pig farmer for a refill. (I help him out with some occasional tractor driving and handle the English-speaking bookings for their gite; in return, Paul gives us all the grain we need for our animals.) When I went to collect the sacks, Paul told me that he’d been thinking about our pigs nutritional needs, as his are raised in concrete barns yet ours walk around on pasture, with access to plums, then apples and soon acorns. His has thus given us a “finishing” mix, less rich in nitrogen and protein but with more minerals. Paul has never kept Berkshires before but reckoned that they look about right; Val has.

So, Val, and anybody else that has experience keeping Berkshires, please post a comment and tell us what you think of their shape. They are sixteen weeks old and, according to my pig tape, and weigh around 50 kilograms (110 lbs).

STOP PRESS : Have a look at the comments on my "how do you get two pigs in a bucket" blog to read some helpful expert advice from Stonehead, a breeder of Berkshires.