Friday, December 24, 2010

Eco-Christmas Decorations

I remember being very excited about Christmas when I was young.  Every other year, we went to Letchworth Garden City to stay with Molly and Roy, my three cousins, our shared grandparents and Aunty Jan (blind sister of my grandmother).  I in total, a happy house bursting at the seams with thirteen of us.

I must admit to having gone through a Scrooge “Bah Humbug!” stage but, after many years, I'm now reconciled to the end of the year’s celebrations.  One of the essential elements of my childhood Christmases was an LP of my parents, Christmas Wonderland by Bert Kaempfert and his Orchestra and–yet another benefit of the Internet–I’ve downloaded it to serenade us.  Gabrielle is unimpressed: for her it’s more neuralgia than nostalgia.

We’re unsure whether a real tree is more or less environmentally friendly than an artificial one.  Gabrielle’s daughter, Christina had requested a real one, so we went to IKEA, for a free one.  Free?  One buys a Christmas tree for 20€, takes it back to the store in January for a 19€ reimbursement.  The extra euro has been donated to l’Office National des Forêts.  The tree, which was labelled as being grown in France, then gets composted.  That sounds acceptably ecologic to me.  The only slight catch is that the reimbursement comes in the form of a voucher to spend in IKEA but that’s capitalism for you.

5W LED lights
As the lid came off the box of decorations, it was inevitable that a couple of bulbs in the fairy lights didn’t work and we’ve used up the last of our spares.  We couldn’t find any replacement bulbs for sale, so went shopping for a new set.  I prefer multi-coloured garlands and Gabrielle white, and while I was comparing boxes in the shop I noticed that a string of eighty LEDs were only 5W and the more conventional lights 65W.  That’s quite a saving of energy, so Gabrielle got her white lights. 

I’m not sure such energy savings were on Serge’s mind as he dressed his house with festive luminance.  I think he’s elevated the whole thing to the level of art.  For me, art has to move the emotions and I always end up smiling when I see our neighbours’ house at night!
Serge and Noëlle's house

Gabrielle and Christina have made eco-crackers.  The bangers were bought from eBay: under £2 for twelve.  The wrappers are colourful pages torn out of old magazines, around toilet roll middles.  The hats have been made out of odds and ends and cheap but useful gifts chosen for each person.  Even the jokes aren’t new, sourced from the BBC's website, promising to be groanworthy. 

 Joyeux Noël !

Our home-made Christmas crackers

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Working for someone else – Part 2

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!

When I was in the six form at school, I got a temporary job over the holidays doing the Christmas post with the Royal Mail.  After some sorting, we went out delivering and I got the plum posting as sidekick to the van driver, so got to stay in the warm cab for a large part of the day, lucky me !

Some 32 Christmases later, I again have some temporary Christmas work.  Sylvain’s free-range poultry farm in the middle of our village is working flat out to put a turkey, capon, duck, guinea fowl or chicken on all his customer’s tables and one (of two) of his ladies in the abattoir is long term sick, so he advertised for a preparateur/preparatrice de volaille.  In the spirit of helping out a friend in the village (I go to a table tennis club with Sylvain and his sons) filling a small end-of-year hole in our finances and seeing another aspect of farming life, I signed up.

Having spent what seemed like the entire night looking at the luminous hands on my alarm clock, I arrived for work at ten to six.  Seeing the light on in Sylvain’s kitchen, I wandered over.  His dog was unsure of the stranger in the dark courtyard and, after a lot of barking, decided to bite me on the back of my leg … not the most auspicious start to my new career.

Sylvain is up at four to collect the birds, breakfasts around quarter to six, works until (an often late) lunchtime without a break and even then, his working day is barely half done.  Evelyn, the stalwart préparatrice is the perfect employee.  Eight years of working in the abattoir hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm: she works like a machine.

Evelyn drawing a chicken
She’s a lovely lady but communication wasn’t easy in the beginning.  I start knowing nothing.  My teacher has the French equivalent of a strong Somerset accent, doesn’t articulate her words and all this against the roar of the mechanical plucking turbine, a noisy extractor fan and an echo.  I think my French isn’t half bad but I reckon I understood less than 10% of anything she said, so I had to watch and try to work it out.  Which would be fine, if her demonstrations weren’t conducted with lightening speed and sleight of hand becoming a professional magician.  It’s a wonder I managed to achieve anything.

The poultry are handled calmly and stunned before slaughter, so I can assure you that the path from free range bird to oven ready is  as humane as can be.  It was very hard work and I now have even more respect for Sylvain and his staff.

The ironic ending to this tale is that on Christmas Day, we’re eating vegetarian (with Gabrielle’s daughter, Christina and boyfriend Bob) and on Boxing day, vegan (an invitation to dine with friends Virginie and Éric).

Photos show me during a brief tea break and my mentor, Evelyn, the latter taken by our friend Clive Eggington when he was last here on holiday with us.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Working for someone else – Part 1

Chris, Bruin, Hubert and me
Hubert, one of our farming neighbours, has 54 cows that he milks twice a day at an impressively efficient one and a quarter hours each time.  That’s every day, seven days a week.  He also has to feed them (this time of the year, they’re off the fields), change their bedding, look after the cows that are resting prior to giving birth, the young females, new calves and during the year ploughing, sowing and harvesting forage crops and renewing pasture and … and …

Hubert is a very busy man.  This is how food production works in our modern world.  But not so busy that when Gabrielle put in a request for a trailer of fumier (manure) for her vegetable production and I asked for some hay (difficult to source this year, following a very dry spring and summer) Hubert would’ve said “non”.

Day One – logging with fearsome circular saw
His farm is on high, so we could see him coming from afar.  Hubert had a large round bale of hay on the forks of his tractor, which was towing a trailer full of cow shit.  With the bale under cover, the manure dumped, and Gabrielle away making coffee, I got my wallet out: “je vous dois combien ?  In fact, he asked tentatively, if it didn’t bother me, he’d rather that I helped him prepare some firewood as he was too busy to do it all himself.

I’d already done half a day with him, chopping long logs with a Jurassicaly fearsome-toothed, large circular saw mounted on the back of an ancient tractor and had agreed to return for another go.  This time, though, we turned up mob-handed.  Gabrielle’s brother, Bruin, had come to stay and Chris, who’d previously volunteered came back for another dose of hard-work-for-great-food.  Busy Hubert was therefore treated to a happy surprise when a van turned up and not one but three willing chaps jumped out.
4 o'clock cuppa
The Spanish are renowned for their siestas, the French for their comprehensive lunches and the British for the “tea break”.  It’s a quest of mine to convince our French friends of the emotional and cultural value of a cuppa.  

To that end, on the stroke of 4pm, Gabrielle turned up with our Kelly Kettle, teabags, milk (coals to Newcastle on a dairy farm!) sugar, mugs and a freshly-cooked cinnamon bread wreath.  The lost time was soon made up with the renewed vigour that a tea break brings.

After a guided tour of his farm, we left a smiling Hubert with a huge pile of cut and split logs, bringing home two litres of very fresh full cream milk, which Gabrielle used to make crème caramel.  Before us, we had beers and hot showers but, for Hubert, another two hours of work with his cows before the day was done.
Work in progress

Saturday, December 11, 2010

It’s a bit chilli here …

A polytunnel gives one a certain advantage in that you can get things going a little earlier within it than those planted outside but there are limits, unless you want to go to the bother of heating it.  There comes a time when it’s cold enough to have a frost inside the polytunnel.  Our last tomatoes have long since been brought inside and eaten or preserved but, alongside our winter salads (such as Green in Snow, Mizuna, Ragged Jack and some rocket and lettuce still hanging on gamely) we had one summer crop yet to harvest, our chilli plants.

The plants looked like Christmas trees, huge bushes of green hung with hot garlands of red, orange, green and yellow chillies.  We had talked about harvesting the chillies, I’d even volunteered to help out but somehow it kept getting bumped to the following day. 

Then we had a hard frost.  If you’ve ever left a pepper in the very bottom of the fridge or in contact with the cooling element at the back, you’ll know that mushy squeeze that tells you it’s for the compost bin.  The freezing, expanding ice crystals do for the structure and there’s no way back.  One forgotten pepper in the fridge is one thing, but half a dozen plants that should have been stripped the day before is more than disappointing.   

Was it a greenhouse full of ruined peppers that made Thomas Jefferson expound, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” ?  All was not lost, however, and we raided books and Googled around the world of chilli preservation to find ways of rescuing our soggy hot harvest.  Here’s what we did :
  1. Chilli chutney
  2. Sweet red chilli jelly
  3. Sweet green chilli jelly
  4. Sweet yellow jilli chelly
  5. Green chilli oil
  6. Dried (in a warm oven) chillies. 

My only complaint is that Gabrielle tried to use up the spares in every meal that followed and it comes to something when even the morning’s porridge clears the sinuses and makes your eyes water!  

Gabrielle’s complaint is that all that un-gloved preparation left her hands red and burning and had her soaking them in lemon juice, then yoghurt in an effort to provide pain relief.  This is no joke, when handling large amounts of chillies, latex surgical gloves are essential.         

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Blog updates

Thank you to everyone who took the time to post a comment telling me that they could see the new layout in their browser.  Based on what you've said, I'm going to keep it as it is.

As it is very cold outside, I've been exhausting my list-of-good-excuses in order not to have to go outside and engage with my list-of-things-to-do.  One of the things I've done is to upload some articles and otherwise bring up to date, my magazine articles in the sidebar on the right.  When you click on them, they'll either open or download as a PDF file, depending how you have you computer configured.

Unfortunately, it's 4pm, which is the time to venture outdoors to shut up the chickens, feed the rabbits and make sure the sheep have got enough hay and water.  Happily, it's also the time for a cup o' tea, which will be very welcome when I come back indoors.  Keep warm !

Rosehips and rosemary in snow

All work and no play …

We’ve been on holiday. With livestock, it’s not that straightforward to take time off together, in fact, we haven’t had a proper holiday together since our honeymoon three years ago. Gabrielle took charge of the organisation, and a fine job she did too.

Merle and Darrell came last year as volunteers, became friends and have been promoted to house sitters and honorary smallholders. And so, leaving them in charge, we headed off towards Normandy, leaving the autoroute for a more cross country and coastal drive, a relaxing journey punctuated by text messages from my mother.

I must admit to being an Arsenal fan but quite how being obsessively fascinated by a bunch of petulant young millionaires kicking a football around fits with my permaculture principles, I’m at a loss to tell you. Call it an affliction.

Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger
When I’m not able to follow a match on telly, radio, or even via the Internet, my dear mum listens to her radio and texts me as the goals go in. We are trundling along the French countryside when my mobile buzzes. Gabrielle reads the message that Mum is sorry to have taken her eye off the ball but it’s half time already and we are beating Tottenham Hotspur 2 - nil: smiles all round, what a wonderful holiday this is going to be.
I receive three more texts. 2 – 1; 2 – 2; 2 – 3 … oh bugger. Thankfully my disappointment is short lived as we roll into Honfleur.

Gabrielle had booked us a room with a view: we looked out onto the beautiful old harbour. We drank, we ate, we went to the cinema, we visited the French composer Eric Satie’s house (he was clearly mad as a March hare) and, if you think November a curious time to want to take one’s annual holiday, we even had a touch of the Tropics. The movie at the top shows the room at the top of the Satie museum, and the music is the first of his Gnossiennes.

Naturospace is a tropical ecosystem in a building, home to a host of brightly coloured tropical butterflies, some as big as your hand. If you wear glasses, you’ll know what happens next. As I walk in from the cold, through the plastic screen into the Tropics, I get a white out and have to wait a couple of minutes until my specs warm up and the steam clears. There are no moats and no glass walls, they fly where they please and Gabrielle even had one alight on her hand. To keep the ants under control, Chinese quail run around the floor and finches sit in the branches: very permaculture !
Chinese quail

Do you know Magritte’s painting, Ceci n'est pas une pipe? Well, “this is not a shop”. Check out the tarpaulin covering this building under renovation in Honfleur.

After four days we headed back via Bayeux, where we saw the tapestry, had a very English afternoon tea in a very French patisserie and visited the D-Day landings museum before heading home through the sleet.
Thanks once more to Merle and Darrell for making it possible.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Are you having problems with my new blog format ?

Regular readers will see that I've changed the template of the blog, with a picture of our pond behind the blog and a slightly wider page, which I think makes it prettier and easier to read. 

However, it's a new fangled thing, Blogger-in-Draft, and Tim has reported problems seeing it.

If you are using Internet Explorer 6, why?  If using Firefox, make sure that you have the latest version.  For me, it works in Firefox and Safari but I'll think about changing back if it's a big problem, please let me know.

Timber extraction using heavy horses.

As owners of a little bit of French woodland (11 acres / 4.5 hectares, to be precise) we are signed up to the Centre Régional de la Propriété Forestière, a wonderful organisation who help, support and advise owners of private woodlands.

They also organise free educational visits and I’ve already been on three this year, learning how to recognise soil types and so chose appropriate trees to plant; how to manage the relationship between woodlands and wildlife such as deer and wild boar; and how to recognise plants that indicate the soil and conditions where they grow.
They run over twenty of these each year but we had just one more marked up on the calendar: débardage à cheval, timber extraction using a heavy horse.

Gabrielle joined me this time, finding the subject matter a touch more interesting than soil analysis. A week or so before, the CRPF send through details of the meeting and directions of how to get there. We met up at 2pm, the hour when France officially re-starts the working day after lunch and then drove in convoy a short way to the wood.

Upon his retirement from farming, the owner had planted up 30 hectares of fields where he’d previously cultivated cereals with 70% sweet chestnut along with American red oak and some local oak and, in a wetter patch, 1 ha of poplar.
The 17 year-old trees were already impressively stocky and due their third thinning. The expert from the CRPF explained that this ambitious plan was made possible by fertile soil and good management. When thinning on an industrial scale, a whole line of trees might be taken out, which allows the large machinery to accomplish the task. Ideally though, the best trees are selected as “keepers”, then the tree nearest to it which is its main competition for nutrients and light is removed, then the next keeper 6 metres away is chosen and the procedure repeated. With this more random pattern of felling, the trees now too large to carry out as poles and the use of vehicles both difficult and undesirable (they compact the soil) the owner turns to one man and his horse.

In our post-modern age, I find it greatly pleasing that there is a real will to retain old country crafts and skills and, more than that, that we are turning to them once more, and for being really useful rather than just nostalgic whimsy.  One modern touch: the collar plate is made of carbon fibre, the stuff they build Formula 1 racing cars out of.

After a too-long introduction and a badly-managed question session (“don’t feel obliged to ask yet another inane question, in fact, could everyone please shut up so we can watch the horse go to work”) Loïc Lejosne, aided by trainee Jérémie, attached a tree trunk to Shere Khan’s harness and, with a word of command and a flick of the reins, the tree was dragged away. Only four year’s old, Shere Khan is still a youngster learning the trade and so most of Loïc’s efforts were to try and slow him down so as to pace him for a day’s work.

Everyone loves a horse and it was difficult not to be inspired by such a solidly handsome beast and the fact that Loïc seemed unable to keep a smile off his face as he proudly explained his job, no complaints of burnout, boredom or blues at his workplace! 

Gabrielle has told me that the Christmas present she’d like from me is a day’s course learning how to drive a heavy horse and cart

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Winter volunteering.

Last winter, we had a very successful season working with some great volunteers which has encouraged us to do it all again. We’re offering free accommodation in our cosy cob holiday cottage and hot tasty meals on workdays in exchange for enthusiastic help from couples or single people.

By way of introduction, here is a guest blog, written by Russell and Laura, who visited us last February, deciding to do a hybrid week as volunteers/paying guests to give them more time to explore beautiful Brittany.

Over to Russell …

As we only had a week’s break and wanted to explore the region, we decided to volunteer for just three days. On the first day, we visited Erquy and Cap Ferrel to discover the spectacular rocky coastline and bays, take a walk around Sable d’Or and eat a variety of cheeses, coming back to a cosy evening in front of the woodstove.

Next morning we were up bright and early to harvest woodfuel from Gabrielle's and Stuart's 11 acre woodland. Laura and I collected the logs from where they had been felled, taking them to the track, where Paul, a neighbouring farmer could reverse in his tractor and trailer. With Laura and I working in the wood and Paul and Stuart transporting and off loading at the other end we soon had it all shifted; Gabrielle and Stuart will certainly be warm enough next winter. Our reward that evening was delicious home-reared roast lamb.

The following day we stayed closer to their permaculture smallholding and Stuart and I went off to slash and burn some bramble around the site of their proposed new house. With Stuart using a traditional scythe and me raking it clear we soon amassed a sizable amount for a good bonfire. After half an hour blowing my guts out and Stuart telling me I need more fuel I managed a modest fire that sparked and crackled away. It was only then when I looked over my shoulder to see that I wasn’t the only firestarter in the village. Plumes of smoke rose behind the chicken shed. I ran over only to see my sweet girlfriend standing over a blazing strawberry bed with matches in hand and pyromania in her eyes; I’d been out done. The short of it was that Laura and Gabrielle were burning the leaves off the plants which removes any diseased leaves and kills pests, all without harming the plant itself. I went back to my smouldering pile of embarrassment, dumped all the brambles on and finally got a blaze to be proud of.

Stuart wanted to superimpose a CAD image of their future hemp and lime house over a photo of the site for the planning application. To do this we had to mark a level height on the 4 canes that stuck in the ground, marking the 4 corners of the house. The technique used was rather intriguing and a very exciting opportunity for Laura and I to learn about using a bunyip level, a long piece of transparent tubing filled with water which is a very easy method of finding similar levels over ground. We were amazed how simple and effective it was [see here and here for the what, how and why of bunyip levels].

Our final day volunteering was a bit wetter than most, but Stuart must have realised the affect of the weather on a man’s soul and spent no time at all getting me to erect some stock fencing, getting me warm and spirited. Anyone who tells me that permaculture with animals is low labour needs to come and try putting a hundred odd posts into the ground to keep their livestock in! Stuart has done for all three of his sheep fields. It was quite a work out knocking just 10 in, but it was a great thing to do; I’ll never look at stock fencing again without feeling some of the pain. Later that day we finished constructing a sheep shelter made from reclaimed materials for the sheep to gather in during harsher weather.

The experience was uplifting and we want to thank Gabrielle and Stuart again for a wonderful time. It has inspired us to consider further volunteering and to start to think seriously about the way we want to live in the future.

Photos show Russell banging in a fencepost; creating a datum point to superimpose an image of our house on this plot; Stuart and Russell standing proudly by a finished sheep shelter and Laura serving up a rice timballo (cooked for us following several phone calls to "Mama" in Italy to get the recipe right).

Follow this link if you fancy volunteering yourself.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Pork Vindaloo and lard are good for you !

Continuing my tale of how we’re learning, year-on-year, to process more and more of our pigs, which is how it should be. Because we are overwhelmed in porkiness when the carcasses come back from the abattoir we have been happy to pass on the bits we don’t know what to do with to our neighbour, the venerable Annick and her posse of cats plus scrappy dog Hugo.

Little by little though, we are reclaiming the bits we couldn’t cope with (I’m talking metaphorically, don’t think I’m knocking on her door asking for our scraps back!) and learning what to do with trotters, heads and the fat.

The lard has been a revelation. It seems that this rendered pig fat is having a renaissance. Try Googling “is lard good for you?” or, for the glass-half-empty pessimists amongst you, “is lard bad for you?”, to find out the new truth. From a sustainability point of view—both ecologic and economic—why buy vegetable oil produced far away, when we can use our very own pig fat, especially now that it’s not so very bad for you? And there is nothing better for flaky, tasty piecrusts!

The head has always been problematic; we tried making brawn one time and didn’t like the result. French, English and American butchers have different ways of dividing the carcass and the French cut off the gorge, everything below the jaw. Bernard, our boucher de campagne told us that we shouldn’t add it to the sausage meat because of all the (lymph) glands but didn’t explain why, nor suggest what we could do with it otherwise. Rather than go in the bucket for Annick’s cats and dog, Gabrielle patiently got to work with a sharp butcher’s knife and removed the glands and a lot of fat to leave an impressive amount of still quite fatty pork. A slow cook would render more of the fat off.

We’ve found Anjum Anand cookbooks to be very reliable, i.e., you follow her recipes and end up with something that you’d be pleased to be served in a restaurant. Her Pork Vindaloo (from Anjum’s New Indian) is a world away from the macho too-hot curries served up in British restaurants. Apparently, the colonising Portuguese introduced their Goan subjects to Carne de Vinha d’Alhos, a dish of meat with wine and garlic. The Goans adapted this, adding loads of spices and using vinegar instead of wine to create vindaloo. For the Portuguese and then the Goans, pork would be traditional and it was the perfect way to use our reclaimed meat. The vinegar and spice mix gives a distinctive flavour and, if you fancy making one, don’t feel at all obliged to go too hot with the chillies.

Another change this year, was the treatment of the leg we’re hoping to turn into Parma-style ham. We’ve tried both dry salt and brine and this year, we used a cleansing brine before immersing the pieces in the curing brine. (Photo shows a floating brine meter indicating the saltiness.) We also tried injecting (a slightly weaker) brine into the femoral artery, to get the cure right into the centre of the leg so making the flavour more even (this is called brine pumping). As usual, the instructions were either vague or ambiguous and I ended up on the phone to our expert physiotherapist friend Alan to get some guidance as to identify the artery from the vein. It seems logical now that he’s explained it: blood is pumped round the body under pressure, so the artery is the more rigid tube of the two. From our animal first aid box I took a new syringe, the end of which was a tight fit into the artery.

After three weeks in the brine, a day drying off in the breeze, then a week in the fridge to equalise and another day drying off in the breeze, it is now hanging up in our neighbours chimney for a smoke, another first for us. It’ll be several months before I can report on the result but hopefully it’ll be an improvement on last year’s attempt.

Soon: a call for winter volunteers and the start of the permaculture design plan for our forest garden.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A long day when just about everything went wrong …

Mélanie and Bruno are autoconstructeurs, they have decided to build their own house, which takes a lot of courage, a lot of effort and a lot of learning and organisation. They’ve designed their own house along “bio-climatique" lines, so that its compact design and orientation towards the sun, along with high levels of insulation and good internal mass, means that its heating needs will be minimal. And it has a toiture végétale, a turf, green or living roof.

A lot of this stuff is relatively new to the building industry, thus they’re pioneers, often having to work out how to bolt it all together as they build it. Bruno and I have the same book Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls / Toits et murs végétaux but, in either language, whilst being long on general principles and lovely photos it is frustratingly (and litigation-avoidingly ?) short of accurate construction detail.

From the inside out, their roof has Fermacell boards nailed onto joists deep enough to slot in a straw-bale as insulation, with a breathable sarking board, then an air gap to allow moisture that escapes this breathing roof to exit below the waterproof layer. On top of wooden spacers are nailed sheets of OSB/Stirling board, which provides a structural surface over which is laid a geotextile then the EPDM “pond liner” membrane, then substrate and finally, beautiful, drought-resistant sedum plants.

No sooner had Bruno fixed the Stirling board with a “why-use-only-one-nail-when-it’s-this-easy” nail gun, than a chap who’s built straw houses and green roofs took a look at it, sucked through his teeth and pronounced the air gap insufficient. Bruno had decided to saw through the well-fixed boards, to add some more wooden spacers and refit 950 €uros’ worth of new board. I’m a man that easily panics when faced with this sort of crisis, unless the crisis belongs to somebody else. I can then become usefully calm and supportive. I also think that I project my fears onto such a situation (i.e., imagining how it would be if I woke up to discover that it was actually my problem) which is further incentive to get involved. Don’t worry, I said, between us, and using my British-made nail puller, we can remove the boards, add the spacer and nail them back on again. It took a fair amount of time and a lot of effort but that is what we did. Wouldn’t you think, after such a victory, that they deserved a break?

After an unfeasibly dry summer, autumn weather rained off the first two attempts to fix a date. Having left the tarp off for a day to allow the boards to dry, a heavy dew left them worryingly damp. But then the expert help (Jerome, the supplier of the materials) was late to arrive and it was very blowy, neither good for the nerves but nevertheless helping to dry the roof.

When we rolled the membrane out to cut it to size, we realised that Jerome had only ordered half the EPDM we needed … oops. Then there was an issue with the height of the flue pipe from their woodstove, with more delays, measuring, negotiation and worrying, during which, I drove Jerome to the tractor dealers who were going to rent us a fork-lift to lift the heavy roll of membrane onto the roof.

After finishing a very long phone conversation, Mr Hervé apologised that he had had to lend it out to a farmer whose own had broken down and was sorry that he hadn’t informed Bruno as he didn’t have his phone number. As we returned, the stove guy was leaving. That was before we’d discovered that the junction between two pipes meant that the collar didn’t fit and the stove guy had to be called up again, reluctantly agreeing to reappear after lunch. It was fast becoming one of those days when you want to return to bed, roll up into the foetal position, pull the covers over your head and hope it all goes away.

Perhaps I exaggerate. The day finished late with one (of two) roofs watertight—a significant step forward—but leaving Bruno physically and emotionally exhausted. Where do we find our hero at the end of such a testing day? Howling at the moon? kicking empty boxes around the worksite in frustration? drowning his sorrows with cold bottles of Stella Artois? None of these: I returned having popped home to do the evening rounds of our animals to find him reading a bedtime story to Liam and Jeanne. I think some sort of medal is in order!

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Feast of Mushrooms …

I promised a mushroom recipe last blog and, as if to order, our sycamore stumps have given us first fruit, over a kilo (2 lbs) of oyster mushrooms.

In addition, our six-year-old neighbour Camille has been excitedly keeping us up to date with fungal developments on the field that adjoins her garden, a reliable source of field, fairy ring and parasol mushrooms (lucky us!) The thing is: what to do with them all. Frying them in butter and serving them on a slice of toast is always delicious but I wanted to explore other possibilities.

What better guide than Jane Grigson’s The Mushroom Feast with over 250 recipes? And what better person to buy me the book than my vegetarian stepdaughter, Christina? all the more fun as she’s not actually that keen on mushrooms. The book was bought as a challenge to see if I could convince her that mushrooms can be palatable, perhaps even tasty.

With cultivated oyster mushrooms and a handful of field mushrooms at my disposal, I poured a glass of vin blanc as aperitif and perused Grigson’s book.
Mushroom paste:
You’ll need some chopped onion, butter and oil, chopped bacon/lardons, chopped tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, a beaten egg, salt and cayenne pepper.
The method:
Brown the onion in butter, then add the bacon, toms and mushrooms. Once well cooked, liquidise. Mix in the egg and cook over a low heat until the mixture thickens (don’t let it boil). Season with salt and cayenne, tasting as you go.
To serve:
Spread generously on a slice of toast, or slice a baguette on the slant and dob a bit on each piece. Somewhat overwhelmed with the amount we produced, Gabrielle has also used it as a layer in the vegetarian lasagne we’re going to eat tonight.

In the hope of encouraging edible mushrooms, I’ve been collecting both field and parasol mushrooms and them chopping up and liquidising them with some water, then pouring this around the smallholding. (Just use one type of mushroom at each attempt). It’ll be a while but I’ll tell you if it works.

Photos top to bottom: fungus as food, oyster mushrooms cultivated on a sycamore stump, a baby, then adult, then chopped, then liquidised parasol mushroom.

Soon … more recipes with a porky vindaloo and the tale of a long day when everything went wrong for poor Bruno and Mélanie when trying to install their green roof.