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.