Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spring flowers

“Relentless” is a word I find myself overusing at the moment but thus seems our pace of life and my blogging is weeks behind what’s now happening. I’ve been wanting for a while to publish some photos of flowers in our woodland. This year's widening carpet of bluebells need no introduction.

Next up is the primrose, the prima rosa, meaning first flower of the year. It’s a bright and reassuring sign that spring has arrived and the sap is rising once more in the deciduous trees. It was Disraeli’s favourite flower; 19th April has become Primrose Day, when primrose flowers are placed on Disraeli’s statue and grave. Hmmm … which flower would we use to remember Thatcher? or the new double act of Cameron and Clegg?

Violets: I think these ones are Common dog-violet, a reasonable guess as V. riviniana is one of the commonest and widespread of the many species in the violet family. The “dog” bit of its name tells us that the flowers are unscented. I think this is overly mean as an unscented flower is one thing but an unwashed dog is in a different league entirely odour-wise.

Next photo: Cuckooflower or Lady’s Smock, whose flowers can vary from pale pink to mauve. Its flowering is meant to herald the arrival of the cuckoo but this means that it shares this name, at least at a local level, with many other spring flowers.

Whilst the plants so far are as common as a very common thing, the wood anemone, whilst not rare is interesting as it’s apparently “one of the most faithful indicators or ancient woodland.” It tends not to spread by seed in Great Britain (I wonder if this also applies to Little Britain (Brittany) ?) and so it tends to spread very slowly by its roots. I’ll be a bit more attentive next spring to see how and where it grows in our woodland.

A little later to flower than the others, here’s the wisteria climbing up the red earth cob walls of our holiday gite. It’s certainly not a wild plant but rather a native of the USA, Korea, China and Japan.

And lastly, a flower that’s completely stumped us on the identification front. Three local farmers haven’t been able to help either. We’ve got clumps of it in the pasture (next two pics) of three of our paddocks and I’d like to find out what it is so I know what I’m up against. The sheep and pigs steer clear of it, so I peened my blade, wiped it with a whetstone and scythed it today, which should teach it a lesson. Please post a comment if you know what it is.

Favourite flower books: Marjorie Blamey’s Wild Flowers by Colour (easiest and most logical field guide you could hope for, flowers are grouped by colour) and Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica (using their proper English names and delving into the folklore that surrounds the plants).

Next blog: an answer to a question posed by Naiad.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Grey water treatment and straw bale houses

How to meet new friends: talk s**t ! I’ll explain: we’re getting to meet new people thanks to our grey water treatment system! Sophie Langlais, who is locally responsible for supervising autonomous sewage installations locally, has been sending people to have a look at our horizontal plant filter. As has Christophe Le Petit, the proud installateur of our system.

And so we met Bruno and Mélanie, who are building a straw bale house just a cycle ride away from us. They bought a plot of land with another couple, Samuel and Clarice, who are also building a straw bale house on their half. They’re apparently employing slightly different techniques. Quelle chance for us ! We’ll be able to follow both builds closely and so learn loads, which will help us with our own build.

When I say “follow both builds closely”, I mean very closely indeed. After a thorough look at our grey-water system and a walk around the rest of our permaculture smallholding, we retired to our house for apéros of white wine and slices of homemade chorizo. Before they left, we’d signed up to help. I’ve since spent a day helping Bruno, Bruno’s dad and a team of friends to mix and lay the floor slab. Within more traditional concrete stem walls, a precise mix of pouzzolane (crushed volcanic rock) sand and lime was tamped level.

The team of carpenters, comprising a couple of professionals and three volunteers, have arrived onsite to erect the Douglas fir load-bearing framework. Mélanie’s and Bruno’s (real!) work schedules leave a couple of holes requiring external catering help; cue Gabrielle. Yesterday, after a self-deprecatory apology to the cold and hungry workers that they’d have to put up with English cooking, she served up soup, beef bourguignon, locally produced organic cheddar cheese and pear and almond tart to compliments that it was the best meal they’d had onsite and when was she coming back.

With our plans now ready, Bruno is going to help me fill out the planning application for our own straw bale house, which will save me a lot of time fretting over the complicated five-page form with otherwise only our well-thumbed French-English dictionary for company.

The photos show: Bruno’s and Mélanie’s building site the day we laid the floor slab and the lunch that accompanied it and our plant filter as it looks today.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

101 ways to enjoy fresh asparagus

Following a study a while back, researchers from Yale University concluded that delayed gratification is linked to intelligence. It’s been over two years since we planted our asparagus and this, their third season, is the the first time that we can harvest all spears. If the scientists at Yale are right, then all that patient waiting must make us very clever vegetable eaters indeed.

You can’t do much better than simply steam them for a couple of minutes, then serving them with a large knob of salted butter—the type with salt crystals in the butter is particularly decadent.

Gabrielle’s vegetarian and very “foody” daughter, Christina, is with us for a few days, so mum and daughter have since served up some more sophisticated and equally delicious asparagus dishes.

Starting by steaming the asparagus again, then remove and set aside the tips. Blitz the stalks in a food processor, along with fresh cloves of garlic, crème fraîche, salt and pepper. Stir this scrummy goo into tagliatelle and then place the tips on top along with a grating of cheddar.

A variation on that theme: the blitzed goo, this time including the tips, is the filling for homemade ravioli. This gets boiled for a couple of minutes and served with fresh garden herbs and extra virginal olive oil.

A topping on a veggie pizza (and also one incorporating some of our own chilli and fennel flavoured chorizo for the two carnivores).

And for the last one—one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had served up to me—words almost fail me: epicurean, ambrosial and nectareous, don’t fully convey the savoury scrumptiousness of this dish. It’s a variation on eggs Florentine.

Eggs Florentine is itself a variation on eggs Benedict (ham, poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce on a lightly toasted English muffin). The ham is replaced by spinach. In our version, “eggs Madennaise”, the spinach makes ways for steamed asparagus and, in the absence of English muffins, a slice of our local baker’s organic bread, toasted.

… and whichever way you cook it, it does make your wee smell !