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.