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.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Meat – A Benign Extravagance ?

Back in 2002, whilst discussing “the sharp rise in the number of the world’s livestock, and the connection between their consumption of grain and human malnutrition”, George Monbiot, “concluded that veganism ‘is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue.’” In his review of Simon Fairlie’s new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, he now “no longer believe[s] that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat.”

I’ve read it cover to cover and now lent it to our friend Kristen to read; I thoroughly recommend it. You’ll find Fairlie’s views honest and balanced, whether you are omnivore, vegetarian or vegan. You can get a flavour of it for free by reading online this article in the current edition of Permaculture Magazine.

For us, it’s that moment when all our year’s pork arrives in one day. This is the fourth year that we’ve kept our own pigs and we’ve grown in experience in their care and feeding and also in coping with 190 kg (420 lbs) of pork when it comes back from the abattoir. We had female pigs this year, which we now know put on proportionally less fat than the castrated males we’ve had before. That and increasing experience means that these are the first pigs we haven’t overfed (a very easy task with a pig!)

We asked Bernard (on the left) retired boucher de campagne (countryside butcher) to come and help with the butchery and Mélanie (below, on the left) to help Gabrielle with mincing and bagging. Bernard works very fast, so I had to ask him to slow down on occasions so that I could learn some of his techniques. When I asked him how it is he is so accurate with multiple blows of the cleaver, he explained that as a young apprentice, when there was a quiet moment in the butchers, his boss would mark pencil lines on a small stick of wood and get him to practice on that. I’m afraid that I usually hit a slightly different place with each blow so that by the time I’ve cut my chop free I don’t so much need a frying pan as a toast rack!

The more I read on curing pork, the more variations on a theme I find and there comes a time to stick the tail on the donkey (or should that the pig in the brine?) and work out our salty strategy. This time, we’ve bought a ready mixed salt cure with a touch of saltpetre in it and added nothing more than Demerara sugar and black pepper. We divided a whole middle into belly and loin and each of those into two. The belly had 5 days in the dry cure and the thicker loin 7. The pieces then stay in a fridge for a week to “equalise” which is (apparently) when the cure travels through the meat (so as to avoid salty edges and porky interiors, I guess) and then a further week air-drying.

At the same time, one back leg is in a brine solution to make Parma-style ham and this also needs to be maintained at fridge temperature. All very well but we don’t have a fridge big enough so I converted an old freezer that we were given into a sort-of-fridge by using a max/min thermometer and a electrical timer (the sort you use to put a light on at a certain hour). Through trial and error I got the temperature in the makeshift fridge to oscillate between 2 and 4ºC.

It’s only right that we should try and use as much of the animal as possible, so this year we’ve rendered the flare fat to make lard and done something spicily different with the heads, an item we’ve struggled with in the past.

Post Script : Click on the comments below to read some interesting stuff, links and book recommendations posted by readers and fellow bloggers.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Autumn’s definitely here …

Blogging is enough for me. I don’t really understand Twitter but if I was about to “twit” (twoo?) I would say, “grey day drizzle … blogging excuse to stay inside … cooking lunch excuse not to blog … just fried pigs’ brains with sage leaves ’n capers, served on toast rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil … broke no-alcohol-day resolution to wash it down with cold Sauvignon … reflect that life in autumnal French countryside not too bad."

The weather has taken a sudden change. After the driest of springs and summers, it’s a pleasure to see the rain again and timely after we’ve re-sown the back field. The temperature has dropped and that gave us enough of an excuse to light the first of the season’s homely fires in our wood stove, although we overdid it the other evening and ended up with windows and doors open, trying to shed a bit of excess heat. A few more warm days would be welcome to help establish the pasture seedlings before winter.

Autumn is mushroom season, and we’ve had our first meal of wild mushrooms. In Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets tells us that, “although we notice mushrooms when they pop up, their sudden appearance is the completion of cellular events largely hidden from view—until the inquisitive mycophile digs deeper.” So, if we were to probe under the old oak tree at the side of our house, we would find the mycelium of the shaggy inkcap mushroom, Coprinus comatus. When the conditions are right, it is this mushroom which pops its head above the parapet … only to suffer the indignity of being felled by my trusty (rusty?) Opinel and thrown into a frying pan with some beaten eggs. Free, wild, mushroom omelette. Left in place, these mushrooms “auto-deliquesce” into an inky mess.

It’s thus also time to take the wraps (black plastic bin liners) off the sycamore stumps in our woods that we inoculated with the spawn of oyster mushrooms last winter. As you can see, the mycelium (white fungus-y stuff) has spread throughout the stump and is ready to begin fruiting soon, supplying us with edible mushrooms while it slowly eats the stumps over the next few years. The trick is to keep the wood host from drying out—something that’s taken us a few attempts to learn—hence the bin liners. I’ll post pictures of our first crop, watch this space.