Thursday, June 30, 2011


Bruno's and Mélanie's daughter Jeanne
We eat like royalty here
Italians believe that home-cooked food is better than just about anything else and a restaurateur would be flattered to hear that his food was almost as good as mamma cooks. In contrast, I used to think that going out to eat was really special but then I’ve also been known to buy a supermarket ready meal in times gone by. As I’ve neither moved in elevated circles, nor got deep enough pockets, I’ve been tantalised by the mystery of how good a Michelin-starred meal would taste or, for that matter a bottle of wine that only Premier League footballers, or the Queen of England, could afford.

Of course, I only have my uneducated proletarian taste buds and it would probably be a terrible waste but I no longer care. I have tasted manna and it is delicious!

Gabrielle honed her cooking skills bringing up her daughter Christina as a single parent and can whistle up a tasty chicken leftover risotto when all I can seem to find in the fridge are the makings of a cheese sandwich. We live in a country that prides itself on the quality of its food and whose citizens believe they are the best cooks in the world. And we produce our own food too.

So all the ingredients are in place and it is still, and always, a pleasure when we realise that most or all that is on the plate in front of us is food that we’ve raised and cultivated. We had one such moment last week, as Gabrielle has started digging up clean, round, Lady Crystal tatties, podding peas and pulling carrots and we garnished the plate with a pork chop from last year’s Tamworth/Bayeaux piggies: de-lish !

Mine's a Guiness
Our friend Bruno joined us for a day’s help in the barn renovation/conversion and although it was hot and muggy and not an Irishly-wet winter’s day, Gabrielle served up Irish Stew and dumplings. Bruno is a great guitarist and he and his singing wife Mélanie adore Ireland, its culture and music but, despite several visits and many pints of Guiness sunk, he had never tasted Irish stew. Gabrielle started with a neck filet of our own mutton and a Delia Smith recipe which she jazzed up, improvising—doodley-be-bop-pah—with a bit of Dijon mustard, garlic and a sprinkle of herbes-de-Provence. And he’d never heard of, nor could understand the concept of, a dumpling.

Oh the pride and pleasure in hearing a French man go ga-ga over food cooked by our fair English hands! He was in raptures and we were proud. We’ve got recipe books from all around the world on our bookshelves but English (and Irish!) cooks and cuisine have no need to be hiding their delicious light under no bushel.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Time flies !

I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read and all the friends I want to see. 
John Burroughs  (American naturalist and essayist 1837 –1921)

I write to relax; it’s a welcome change from the physicality of smallholding.  But it’s been two weeks since the last blog, which says more about how busy we are than any lack of intent.  Oh, to have a few more hours in the day or an extra day each week!  So what have we been up to?

Shearing sheep:  I might know my way about a sheep according to the Bowen method but shearing less than ten sheep a year means that I still have to remind myself what I’m doing and we start off with Gabrielle reading feet positions to me like a dance instructor, “move left foot closer to sheep’s shoulder, turn toes of left foot away from sheep, turn heel of right foot away from sheep," and so on.    I also have a habit—of which I’m aware—of putting off things that I’m apprehensive about and there has been much procrastination before I finally took the plunge once more into the woolly depths.

It was also time to refill the freezer with mutton and we slaughtered a Ouessant hogget born February last year and one of the Suffolk cross ewes we recently bought.  The meat on the Ouessant is outstanding but butchering the two, it’s clear that there’s a whole lot more meat on the bigger sheep. We’re going to let our Ouessant ram run with the remaining Suffolk ewe this year to see what we get IF our diminutive ram can rise to the challenge, so to speak.  Come to think of it, President Sarkozy is shorter than his wife  Carla Bruni, who is now pregnant, so maybe he won’t have a problem.  Note: joking aside, it wouldn’t be a good idea to mate a larger breed male with a smaller breed ewe, for fear of her bearing a large lamb she’d have difficulty giving birth to.

Barn renovating:  Work continues to create another gite for rent.  Attaching a pair of pulleys, I chainsawed through the old oak beams (excepting the three tied into the A-frames) and lowered them to the ground.  I’ve then been up on a scaffold tower with a medium breaker to release the stubs from the walls.  I’m off tomorrow morning to order some timber I-beams so that I can install a new flat, rigid floor of tongue and groove poplar.

Supervising new ducklings: The day our ducklings hatched out, there was one egg that stayed resolutely closed, even though cheeping could be heard from within.  There was a little cracked patch on the shell and I decided to help things along by opening up a hole.  I then thought better of interfering and decided to leave well alone.  Although it's usual for all the eggs to hatch out the same day, we’ve had previous experience of four eggs hatching out on four successive days and, less happily, of a mother hen eventually leaving the nest to escort her babies outside, leaving an egg, with an almost complete bird inside, to go cold.
Trapped like a Chilean miner  our last duckling emerged two days later, none the worse for its ordeal.  And, in true Ugly Duckling tradition, it’s not yellow like the others, so we’re not sure what it’ll turn into, not a swan, that’s for sure.

Writing articles:  Despite all the action, I do occasionally get time to write and have two more articles recently published: “How to turn waste wood into business” in the summer edition of Permaculture Magazine and “A quick class” in the June edition of Country Smallholding Magazine.  Both are under the rubric “Magazine Articles” on the right and, if you click on them, will open/download as PDF files.  Bonne lecture !

Sunday, June 05, 2011

things are not as they seem !

There once was an ugly duckling,
With feathers all stubby and brown ...
As far as one of our big red hens is concerned, things are not quite as they should be.  She's been sitting patiently (a little longer than usual) on a clutch of eggs.  These eggs are special, in that they need moistening on a daily basis, so we have a plant mister next to the chicken tractor for this task.

The eggs were due to hatch on Tuesday next.  Doing the morning rounds of the animals today, I lifted the hen off to spray the eggs and was surprised to see a mess of broken shells and cute baby ducklings.

The original idea it was that Gabrielle wanted to try ducks for the first time this year and thought hatching them from eggs would give us tamer (therefore easier and more pleasurable to manage) ducks than buying ducklings from the market.  We don't have a mother duck and had read that ducks can make poor mums and that a chicken will do a good, if not better, job of it.  As soon as one of our large chickens became broody, we bought eight Aylesbury duck eggs for a euro each and tucked them under her.

Why the plant mister?  A duck will leave to eat and return to the nest each day with wet feathers, so we'd read that one should moisten the eggs if they are beneath a chicken.

And what does mum think of it all?  Fiercely protective if I try to lift her off to have a look and seems to be very proud of her new offspring.  A case of instinct overcoming any poultry prejudice.  Heaven knows what she'll think when her 'chicks' head for the water.