Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Autumn: season of searing heat and fruit mania.

The autumn croci, leafless pale purple spears, arrived early - again. This year a full month ahead of the official date of 22nd September.  Some fruit has ripened early also but most, despite storms, is still hanging on the trees in a threatening manner. 'Do something' the leaves whisper as one passes, so awakening what I think must be an atavistic urge, the need to create stores for unkind winter. Or is it just plain greed in the short lived face of mellow fruitfulness?.

Here a short, apologetic detour.   Mi bad, very bad because I have so often mocked the manic fungi gatherers of early summer and autumn with their plastic bags, sticks, short Opinel penknives and desperate grubbing under the decaying leaves.  I do not like many fungi which may be why I have failed to understand their passion. But plums, or apples even blackberries or rosehips 

Plum madness - we cannot crumble them all - and I only made 4 pots jam!

when they are numerous, there is this compelling urge to jam, puree and freeze, soak in alcohol, all possible means of conservation, including on a smaller scale, immediate consumption. Mine, mine, all mine now - and for later.

There have been a couple of times when this compulsive picking madness was made clear to me.  Once, many, many years ago when I was younger and much more agile, I found myself perilously balanced on a rotten gate post attempting to pick about 6 blackberries.   More recently, I found myself half way up a damp, mossy bank, one foot in stream,other foot slipping downwards - all in an attempt to pick ONE, I repeat ONE chanterelle.....

Now, when I remind myself, I never go down the fields with a stick (as well as the ubiquitous basket).  A stick can wedge an aging foot as firmly as a stiletto trapped in the cracks of a London pavement.  Remember,remember, goes the walking chant, those that the sheep don't eat will feed wasps, beetle or just become fertiliser.   Not stupid, the sheep,they rub their backs agains the tree trunks to shake down the ripe fruit.

fortunately, sheep love apples, too.
As we sorted our stores, prior to beginning a more nomadic life, I found myself pouring 8 litres of home made fruit liqueurs onto the compost heap.   No jams fortunately.   And I still have, somewhere, a litre jar of peaches in eau de vie dating back to about 1990 or so....

Let us forget the ancient wisdom of west country peasants, - the more fruit or berries there be, the harder will the winter.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sun baked, or soaked

It is high time the 2017 weather gods came to their collective senses. We are now in the seventh month of their year and they are still behaving as though they are in the second. They blow tempestuous short term tantrums, hot, or cold or wet, sometimes a combination of two in a 24 hour period, other times successively but with no predictable order. Behaving exactly like human two year-olds.
one storm, with lightning, blew the top off an oak tree

At this rate the Périgord will soon be short of black cockerels and residents will no longer believe in the efficacy of chicken sacrifice. No one will predict whether this will lead to extra egg production, or less. But definitely more sleep for humans.

It is worrying, here at La Chaise, because it looks as though we might have a very good plum and apple harvest this year. The trees are heavily laden with as yet small fruit. Therefore what we want is steady warmth (not heat) with occasional gentle rain for the next two months. Then a gentle dry period for harvesting from mid September to end November because this will include the walnuts.
damson jelly, anyone?

A lot of our neighbours have suffered considerable damage to their early fruits, especially the vignerons who have seen hectares of their grapes destroyed by cold and wind. The grain farmers were also badly hit in certain areas, too wet, too cold.

The wonderful cherry harvest that hung with heavy promise on the trees did not materialise. This was not because of bird damage – they had had a surfeit of cherries. Unexpected rain came, the cherries swelled more and more – then rotted on the stem.

Sudden bursts of heat this July have dried up the grapes on the vines over our terrace. The vine on the Farmhouse pool wall suffered first as it is directly hit by the sun. Nice for bathers, not good for grapes.  My herb garden has suffered also - two thyme bushes have dried up, the Moroccan mint is looking sorry, the sage leaves are drooping.

Fortunately the previous owner here was briefly a vigneron, but using the wrong grapes.   So he had built a three chamber cuve or wine reservoir holding about 200 litres (we think).  This now holds rainwater so that potager and herbs can be liberally watered.  There are vague plans to attach a pump and a long hose...very vague.

Then, mid July, temperatures dropped from around 35C to bounce around 22/24C, no wind, sun covered by clouds. The tree crickets went into a sulk and shut up. Even the birds stopped their chatter. As I write – 21/07 – they are still silent.

This erratic climate is not just bad for vegetation and animals (I include humans in the latter category), even the old chalk stone houses are beginning to suffer. They move as their stones alternate between damp and dry. When baked, they break.

My kitchen window - minus shutter

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Send for the botanist! Soon.

The wild orchids with which La Chaise is plentifully endowed are tougher than their scarcity elswhere would lead the innocent to believe.  The very earliest ones, the lazy purples that look like red clover from a distance, are trodden on and sat on by the sheep.  I expect the lambs even taste a few.   I know that Alexandre mows those few that venture onto the fairways.   But every year they come back, especially under the clump of ash trees in the first field.

These are the ones to the right of the ash trees - so not sat on by sheep.

For some years, before sheep, we could always rely on orchids to come back in the same places.  The burnt tip, the pyramid, the scented, the hanging man were always under or around the rough pasture, known as 'Greece' to us, which was heavily populated by aged juniper bushes.

The insect imitating orchids were usually in the rough grass, just above mowing level - the fly orchid, the spider and bee orchids were relatively plentiful.  They seem to have since left us in favour of the other side of the sheep fencing, into the inpenetrable wild woods. On the other hand some  colonise the edges of small rural roads, carefully on the far side of the ditch so that the cantonniers with their heavy machinery do not fauche them. Our local, recently retired, cantonnier, used to carefully mow round the ones that had not retreated.

In the past couple of years the junipers in 'Greece' have died off - but new ones are coming in strange places.   One lot has decided that fate has destined it to be a hedge and so is lined up along the sheep fencing dividing the horse fields from number four fairway. Not so much a sign of plant intelligence as the logical explanation that they get neither eaten nor mown at the foot of a fence. So far, no orchids

The first year of the juniper move the 'serapia' type orchids moved from the upper slopes of the horse fields to the safe side of number three fairway, sheltering in amongst the pine trees.
Hardly visible ...

 We fenced them round but the sheep trod down the fencing. This year one has decided to become totally sheep proof - here it is, inside a new juniper bush!

Won't someone send a botanist, soon, please.    La Chaise has just got to be interesting to people interested in plants.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Oak on the range

It is not even the end of the second week of May but April's left over rain has been teasing Dordogne folk with its comings and goings.   At present it is coming which is sad for holiday types but much needed to fill underground water reservoirs.

My problem is more domestic, more mundane - do I, or do I not relight the Rayburn range?  This is not a simple question, cooking on a solid fuel range is not the same as switching on or off gas/electric switches. And this particular range does hot water, also radiators, if properly fed.

Who would not prefer to cook on this rather than dangerous gas or boring electricity?

I confess to being besotted with my range - it cooks beautifully, keeps the kitchen warm and the house when encouraged by a slight re-arrangement of fire bricks and additional wood. Now that our wood is so dry, five year old oak and chestnut, it does not always keep in overnight but elderly persons get up in the middle of the night, so that is not a hassel.

What is a hassle is the pre-lighting cleaning of flue, cooking surface, inside the fire box and the hot-water radiator.  The flue has been cleaned because the chimney sweep came at the beginning of March but, if one does not keep the stove going for a long time, the flue will get dirty.   Worst case scenario, some of the soot might catch fire.   (I have managed to set fire to one of our open hearth chimneys - add sand and/or wet blanket and cut air supply, immediately.)
There are many such log piles in the Dordogne, more created every year.

This immense wood-pile, I know not how many metres long or high, is expected to last us, plus Alex and Audrey, and Jerome and Clea, and their respective wood burning stoves, for at least the next six years or more.    The bucheron did an excellent job of cutting down old oaks and splitting the trunks and bigger branches into metre length longs.   These Alex, or Jerome, then cut to lengths suitable for all our respective stoves or fireplaces.   'Les sanglots longues des violons de l'automne,' with all due apologies to Verlaine, are in fact the rising and falling whine of the circular saw.    It is not a particulary spring like sound, so again one hesitates to relight the range.

In case anyone thinks we are recklessly exploiting our woodlands - be reassured.   The oaks are re-seeding themselves everywhere.   The stumps of the trees we cut down to make a 'lawn' have turned into oaklet nurseries.

See how well my late parent is looking after me....

But then, very soon, this year's Saints de Glace, will arrive.    They are so named for, folklore says, on the 11th,12th,13th May a cold snap is to be expected, often with frost.    This year's saints are Estelle, Achille (male) and Rolande.

As a half-way measure I think I shall scrape down the cast iron cooking plate, rusty toast is not good, not even with salt butter and home made marmelade.   Then I must oil it,as one does to season cast iron or steel cooking pots.   And scrape the mixture of rust off the top of the oven underneath the hot place.  Also clean between the boiler alveoles with a wire brush....and find a place to empty the ash pan where the grand-children cannot play with the ashes or the chickens deflea themselves....or possibly not.

You see, the problem is not a simple one.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Tree story

The storms and rains of January through to March have brought dramas to the Perigord. Most were about trees nearly missing ....(enter your favourite target here) as they fell, occasionally not missing.   There was also heavy grumbling about the inevitable power cuts though they were mostly of short duration. The local population is often well equipped with generators, candles and oil lamps.

An old walnut  was uprooted but the split twin oaks in the back ground, held together three-quarters
of the way towards the top by a powerful band, resisted well

Drama came to La Chaise as well.   One storm arrived only a few days after Simeon had replaced the damaged keystones of the Shepherd's Cottage.  The elderly acacia in the garden was slowly uprooting itself with the intention to rest its weary head on the cottage roof.  Alex and Audrey promptly lassoed it and attached it to our trusty John Deere.

Wood cutter half way up tree, stabilised by red and blue ties. Note new corner to  house

The bucheron had already been signed up to do some pruning and general tree trimming but could not get started because of the rains. This time he had little choice.  The tree had to be lightened of its branches before being cut down.   One priceless skill of the bucheron is his ability to cut branches so that they fall down cut end first - impressive to watch.

It is always sad to lose a tree, but in this case sorrow is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the acacia is a type of arboreal weed.   If the ground surrounding it is not kept very clean, there would soon be an acacia forest. This assertion is supported by a local legend:  

There was once an old man who left his forest to his sons. His sons cut down his beloved deciduous trees and decided to plant fast growing pines.   The old man was often seen walking with his cane in the new plantation, occasionally stopping to grieve.  The sons never visited their pines.  Some years later the old man died.  When his sons came to bury him they found themselves with a flourishing acacia plantation. The old man had pushed the acacia seeds in, one by one, with his cane.Rain did the rest.

And rain it has too -  the wood cutter has been asked to prune the walnuts on the edge of the lake so that a digger could get near the edge to remove the gunge from the bottom.  And here is the lake with overflow full open....

Friday, January 27, 2017

21-01-17: The OTHER important event

    The First Born of 2017!!


This is the Firstborn of  the 2017 millesime, my fourth year at La Chaise.  It is a boy, a very large, very active boy.   I am well pleased as is his mother, one of my senior women. A good beginning to the Chinese year of The Rooster. (That little pest wakes us too early - hardworking, resourceful, courageous,  my four feet!) But that Saturday morning I took his crowing as a salute to this Firstborn.

The First was born in a shed on straw, then confined with his mother in a small pen.  My memory is that I was born in the open, some five years ago, on a moutainside in the Pyrenees, There might have been a roof over our heads,  I do not remember. But my liking for unfettered space, varied grazing, is obviously due to the surroundings of my youth which nurtured my intrepid, exploring character.

Not long after my first anniversary, along with a couple of brothers, I was bundled into a very confined space on wheels, unloaded into another small space, given rather poor hay and some warmish water. Various people poked and prodded me, especially on the rump - tiresome. Then I was pushed into another closed vehicle for another long ride.  Eventually I was pushed out into a field where I faced this:

Not seemingly a welcome committee. But, ever reckless, I charged forward and presented myself. All went well that late summer, the autumn that followed, I did what I had to do. There were just a few snags, like fences.   I was not used to fences. I do not approve of being confined to a certain grazing ground.  I like to choose my own grazing territory and company. 'Autre pays, autre moeurs'  I thought to myself, reserving judgment.

Then, horrors!   I was taken away from the flock and shut into a small space, stone walls, a drinking fountain, a sky light and a half door, barred and bolted.    Food came twice a day, green hay, lucerne and a good mixture of ground cereals.   But I was shut in.  I did not approve and bellowed my rage.
I gave a few tentative taps with a foot where the bolt slid into the wall.   I just knew that, with a good head butt, I could break it and get out.  Out was where I wanted to be.

Ram in pen.
Then, suddenly, a younger ram was shut in with me.   Two rams in one shed, especially if one is younger and slighter, is not normally a good idea - but my shed was so small I could not get far back enough to take a good run for a hefty head butt. Also I am basically good natured.   I noticed that the poor thing limped, back leg did not function properly. Poor little chap.   Not good enough for breeding, not acceptable to commercial butchers.   I adopted him as my own. His name was Tripatte.

Once the people had seen we got on well together we were allowed out.   But, doubtless mistrusting me, the people put us in the woods.   Even if I had wanted to, there was no clear way to get a good run up behind a head butt.  There's good eating in the woods, nicely varied, young ivy leaves, chestnuts, the leaves on low branches of the woodland trees, the odd spot of very tough grass.
Tripatte and self in the woods - notice respectul distance.

Eventually the people decided that I was to be trusted with Tripatte and we were allowed into the fields together.  Again they were fenced off fields which was extremely annoying, especially when the women and children were outside also, although a distance away.  This was soon sorted.  A study of the fencing, its weak points - where people went through on the tractor, where the fencing was no longer under tension, where there were one step stiles.  A few sharp taps with feet, a head butt if necessary - or we simply jumped up and over.  We were often found out and all of us were persuaded back into the main barn. There is no resisting the pan of grain in front and the persuasion of the dog behind.   Once inside Tripatte and I were taken to our pen, confined for a couple of days.

And so the last three years have passed comfortably.   Tripatte no longer limps.    The people insinuate that I may have dated one of my last year's daughters.    Myself, I think it was Tripatte who dated one of his half sisters.  There is no way of knowing. Tripatte - triplets....ovine genealogy is much more complicated than human.

Here's Tripatte and me.   Handsome fellers, aren't we?

Friday, November 4, 2016

When standing stones don't stay still

It is an unspoken truth in the Dordogne that its country dwelling places are biodegradable. This applies to farmhouses, the attendant barns, pig sheds and workers’ cottages. Obviously it is not true of chateaux, maisons de maître and the little shrines over springs and holy places. But it is true of the rest, hence, until very recently, any man who was a man had to be able to pop up on his roof and fix any leaks immediately.

there is actually a professional roofer up there somewhere

The original manner of construction began with a pile of chalk stones gathered from the fields. These were put into shallow channels anywhere between 40 cms and 50 cms wide. As they rose to become walls the outer sides were sealed with a form of mortar and the inner with mud.(We know this because we found rat carcasses inside our walls.) The corners, window and door frames were created and supported by solid chalk keystones.

The walls of the building were often not set equally deep into the ground, especially when the site was a slope. This would lead to an imperceptible pull on the walls – our house is 10 cm wider at roof level then at the ground leaning outwards on the downward slope.

To create the Shepherd’s Cottage inside the sheep barn we first had to dig out the beaten earth floor so that people could stand upright everywhere. The nearside (to our house) wall immediately started to collapse inside. An appalling noise ensued. Not to worry said the then mason cheerfully. He ‘propped up’ the ceiling beams with scaffolding and rebuilt the bottom of the wall. Then cement jointed all the stones.
But we have suddenly discovered a second weakness in our wonderful, hand-built, gobbed-up stone houses. The corner stones can also be fragile, they are after all only a form of highly compressed chalk. They don’t take kindly to any form of cement as witness our terrace stairs.

A few years ago, Edward Le Prince Noir de La Chaise, (labrador, see above) was terrified by a sudden clap of thunder. He had been comfortably hiding under the lunch table. Linked to the table by his ed scarf, he launched himself down the stairs and towards the woods – the table, a stone geranium pot and part of the balustrade and ramparts went with him. Last summer the tractor just touched the bottom pillar and pulled the whole of the other side over. We vaguely tried to get it repaired but stone experts signally failed to supply cement to stick the pieces together again. Too porous for cement they said.

This is what a bump from the tractor did....

Then, at the end of this past winter we discovered that either the nearside end of the sheep barn wall, or roof, had moved. This was visible because the joints between the plaster board ceilings and walls had cracked open. Visions of 12 metre long wrought iron ties hold the two barn ends together, or external pattes d’elephant - solid concrete triangles to prop the moving wall, haunted our dreams. Either solution would cause great difficulties for holiday makers as well as ourselves.

Fortunately the A² (Alex & Audrey) grapevine dug up a stone mason of their own generation who lived nearby. He was not impressed. Pointing to a corner stone half-way up the kitchen door frame he said: there is the problem. Indeed, this stone had a triangular wedge taken our where some beam had been wedged in, presumably to make a lean-to, long since gone. His solution?: to prop up the first floor along the length of the wall with scaffolding inside, remove the defective stone and slide in a new one. Simple really.