Saturday, January 30, 2010

How to Reupholster a Comfy Chair : Part 1 (of as many as it takes!)

Reupholstering = Recycling. The Brighton & Hove Wood Recycling Project used to be inside an old and mostly redundant fruit and veg market but in the gloomy and dirty interior were treasures to be found, if you had eyes to see. Lumps of dusty grey wood that had only to be de-nailed, planed then oiled or polished into some close-grained, solid beauty. There were occasionally items of furniture and I spotted an armchair with wooden arms and a threadbare faux-leather cover sitting unselfconsciously in a corner. It welcomed an arse as an old pair of slippers comfort a pair of tired feet. I snapped it up for a fiver, with the intention of having it re-upholstered, retaining its comfort while improving its tired look.

I went for a quote for the work and had to be scraped off the floor and brought back to sense with smelling salts, so shockingly expensive was it. “A house that does not have one worn, comfy chair in it is soulless”, said American poet and novelist May Sarton, so maybe I should have just installed it as it was. It ended up in the attic but then came to France with me, never posh enough to bring inside yet too comfy to throw away.

Some six years later, it somehow got mentioned in conversation with Richard and Leigh, regular holiday-makers in our gite. An intelligent and artistic chap, Richard has been known to refurbish the odd chair in his spare time. The chair left France in the back of their authentically French Citroën van, with the kindly promise that it would come back the following year as rejuvenated as an octogenarian that’s spent a fortnight in a health spa.

To show the progress he’s making, Richard has sent us a few photos. From top to bottom, they show progressive layers of déshabillement, in the last one it's dressed only in a thin coat of new oil.

I shall post updates as new photos arrive. Thanks, Richard!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sentimental, moi ?

The first time we lost a chicken, we were really upset. Out for the evening, we’d asked a neighbour to round up our flock and shut the door on the henhouse at the given time. He’d missed the precise hour and the confused chickens failed to cooperate, so after a right fuss and palaver, he’d banked what he had and shut the door one short. We didn’t know this at the time but I’d decided to check in on the roosting chooks with a torch when I came home and thus realised we were a hen down. Too late to ask our neighbour what had happened, we assumed the worst and our spirits sank. I forlornly traipsed round the house a few times and was just about to turn in when I heard a soft cluck from within a dense laurel bush. Shining the torch, I picked out a hint of orange featheriness within the dark green foliage, a good six feet off the ground. A roosting hen is sleepily compliant and she was easily grabbed and restored to the henhouse. We felt disproportionately happy.

We have since lost six chickens (to domestic dogs, rather than a fox) and have come to accept that as a downside of allowing them to free-range during the day, which they clearly enjoy. Luckily, we haven’t lost a chicken for a long while now, so it was a surprise to count one short when I closed them up one evening last week. I’m less troubled by it now, disappointed rather than upset, annoyed that my food had been nabbed by some undeserving canine, especially as we were due to take a few for the pot. We’ve experienced our hens sometimes going absent when broody, so pragmatism returned and I decided not to whistle the Last Post just yet.

Sure enough, she did return the following day. Not broody, perhaps she’d wandered a bit far and been shut up in someone else’s henhouse overnight. Happy were we that the prodigal daughter had returned and so decided to feast the event, slaughtering the wanderer and two others to put chicken on our menu.

It’s fair to say that Gabrielle does the lion’s (lioness’s?) share of the cooking but I do get inspired sometimes. I came across Nigella, while searching through our recipe books. In Feast, the raven-haired, soft-focussed cook suggests “Golden Cardamom Chicken.” Cardamom is one of my favourite spices and the busty, pouty Nigella describes it permeating the dish with its “intense musky perfume”, that’s good enough for me.

I do have a bad habit of beginning to prepare the food, following the recipe without having first read to the end and that has got me in a fluster on more than one occasion. Popping taste buds were frustrated when I reached the instruction to leave it in the marinade for two days; “chicken’s off for tonight, darling.”

And it was only at the point of starting cooking (those two days later) that Gabrielle pointed out that the pieces needed an egg and cornflower coating and then deep-frying. Top Tip: always read a recipe thoroughly before rolling up your sleeves. We decided instead to simmer it in its marinade and so have a dish with gravy instead of a crunchy coating.

Whiz, smash or finely chop, onion, garlic, seeds from 10 cardamom pods (we doubled her quantities of this) lemon zest and juice, 1/2 teaspoon of ground allspice and salt and pepper, then rub this marinade over boned chicken pieces. Put the whole lot into a glass bowl and leave in the fridge. After two days, take the chicken out of the marinade and brown the pieces in a pan with a little oil, then put the chicken and marinade in a saucepan and simmer until cooked. Serve with pulao rice.

It’s fabulously rich and spicy in a delicate and sophisticated sort of way. We want to add a tiny pinch of dried chilli flakes next time, just to give it a little heat.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Winter pruning of living willow fedges and structures :

France is an hour ahead of England but shares the same longitude, so we have the same light for a given moment but call 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock, if you see what I mean. This means, for the same amount of daylight, that while it stays light for an hour longer in the evening, mornings are uncharacteristically (for us ex-pats) dark. And it’s cold too, both of which inhibit the impetus to jump out of bed, put the kettle on and then do the morning rounds of the animals.

There are some jobs that have to be done during winter, so while I’m looking forward to being warmed by the spring sun and anticipating primroses and bluebells breaking bud in our woodland, I’m also hoping it doesn’t come too soon. Woodcutting takes place in the winter, when the energy of a deciduous tree has descended into the roots and before the sap starts to rise again. Thanks to the sterling efforts of our tree surgeon volunteers last week, Paul and Liam (ably assisted by 13-year-old Chay) our tree felling is done for this winter.

Another pleasurable job is to trim the living willow fedge and arbour planted in the garden of our holiday cottage. You can see from the photo above of the “fedge” (is it a fence? is it a hedge?) that you trim the new growth right back to the structure. This is also the time for a little maintenance as you may well find some rods have died completely, or died back to a certain point

Complete rods can be replaced by cutting the ties, pulling the dead rod out, then threading a new rod in from the top, pushing it into the original hole (to a depth of 12 inches / 30 cm) and firming the soil around it. Where you have a rod that died after a certain point, trim off the dead wood and then tie in a suitable new growth to replace it. Obviously you need to choose which rods you’re going to use before you do the pruning. The first photo with the red arrows shows a rod whose top has died. I’ve trimmed the dead part off and pulled a new side shoot up and over, tying it to where the original rod was fixed.

The second photo with arrows shows several variations on that theme (from left to right) : leaving a dead rod in to act as a trainer to the new rod (i’ll cut out the dead one next winter). Pulling over a side shoot over from an adjacent rod and tying that in. And lastly, an example of just using whichever available new rod seems to make the best shape.

If they lend themselves to it, you can weave in new shoots, rather than trimming back absolutely every rod back to the original structure. This will make a denser structure, if a little less regular than the original form.

A question we’ve often been asked is, “does the structure get bigger as the willow grows?” The structure remains the same size and shape but the rods do get a little thicker. Their ability to put on lots of girth is restricted by the closeness of the rods to each other, which restricts the moisture and nutrients available to each rod, so tempering their growth. See the photo of the base of our arbour, in the third winter after planting.

If you want to do a course to learn how to create beautiful living willow structures, there’s no better people to guide you than Steve and Carine of The Willow Bank. And to warm the cockles of your heart, a photo of the same arbour in the summer.

Monday, January 11, 2010

We are, once again, privileged to be playing host to willing volunteers. Paul Johnson, a tree surgeon from Buxton, Derbyshire, his 13-year-old son, Chay and chainsaw-toting workmate Liam, saw our ad in Living Woods Magazine and asked if they could come and stay in January. Of course we said yes.

With no disrespect to our previous volunteers, whose help we’ve been so grateful for, a double chainsaw combo with strapping lad on offer made us feel like we’d pulled the handle on a one-armed bandit and watched three lemons come up. Well, perhaps not three lemons but certainly tree fellers!

The video shows Paul felling one of our Corsican pines and the pics show Liam snedding (removing the side branches) and logging a felled tree,Paul climbing a tree to throw a line around an awkward tree to be felled and Chay and Gabrielle supervising a small brash fire to clear some space and warm our toes.

If you’re in need of some tree care in the Peak District or the East Midlands, you can contact Paul at

Friday, January 08, 2010

The holiday season is behind us but not before Père Noël assiduously noted our December displacement (a trip to England to spend Christmas with my parents) and remembered to drop our presents down the appropriate chimney.

Gabrielle bought me a Kelly Kettle an Irish device to boil water with just a few twigs, so fresh tea can be made while away from home rather than have to drink the strange tasting brew that comes out of a flask. A device to fiddle with that involves fire: very “boy-sy” and a great present;thank you darling! From me, she received a hardback book, A Women’s Guide to Saving the World, its contributions from many great women edited by Karen Eberhardt Shelton. In summary then, if the presents are anything to go by, Gabrielle will be saving the world … while I’m making myself a cup of tea!

That reminds me of the apocryphal story of a radio presenter on a Caribbean island phoning round the various embassies to ask what each ambassador would like for Christmas. The British ambassador, not wanting to appear too greedy, said that he’d rather like a decent pair of socks. Come Christmas Day, the radio presenter reads out the list of presents that the various ambassadors had hoped for. The South African ambassador had chosen and end to inequality in the world; the Chinese ambassador said he wanted an end to racial discrimination; the Egyptian ambassador spoke of his desire for world peace. And the British ambassador ... had asked for a pair of socks.

The only way we could go away together for Christmas was if we had someone to come and look after the animals. We were thus invaded by our good friends from Eastbourne, Phil and Sid, accompanied by three cute monsters, Willow, Fin and Tilly. Happily they stayed on for a few days after we got back, which meant we got to try out the Kelly Kettle on a beautiful Brittany beach,explore rock pools, collect mussels for a free supper, and then beat the children at a great card game called Uno; I’m not one for letting kids win, I think losing builds character.

Over the next blogs, I promise to get back to recognisably permaculture issues, such as how to winter prune your living willow structures, how to make a glass bottle wall and our successful meeting with the official depart-mental architect, who’s given us a green thumbs up to our design for our proposed house build, involved mud, straw and sedum roofs.