Sunday, February 3, 2019

spring is nearly sprung

Spring is hovering in the woods at La Chaise - also the barn.   The first of the 2019 lambs was born the day before grandson Nathan's sixth birthday - overnight that came to be January 29th...Only just back from Spain, I went down to the lambing shed to see mother and daughter, to take a photograph.   Only mother would not let me, far too protective of her new born.

Then I lent over the gate to the main barn where mothers-in-waiting were quietly eating hay, a little noisily demanding grains.    There I was allowed to take a picture.

Everyone is calmly eating, looking a me with the question: what are you doing here?   Take a good look, look to the left, against the stone wall there is one ewe sitting down, smug look on face.   She has just gave birth to twins that morning. Spring is very nearly here.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

the first of the winter marmelade

We have a wonderful range of fruit trees and bushes at La Chaise.    There are the wild cherry trees that are the star heralds of spring.  From the main road down to the Farmhouse there is an avenue of blossom. Any day I expect a group of Paris based Japanese to come into view.  

In the early years we had apple trees, pear, and plum trees, random fig trees, brambles and wild roses for rose hip jelly, elder shrubs with their shower of white flowers followed by umbrellas of small black berries. There was even a medlar that had been grafted onto a rowan (the rowan won) and a solitary, struggling quince in the orchard of peaches.

My jam making enthusiasm was eventually curbed by the fact that bread and jam did not seem to fit into the French way of feeding schoolchildren. There was a limit to the amount of bottled fruit, usually in alcohol, that two adults can consume. Then John announced that he (and other real people) only ate marmelade, bitter orange marmelade.

This was in the early Eighties when supermarkets had not really arrived in the Dordogne.   One could get oranges at Monoprix in Perigueux or in the weekly markets when the season was right.

But it all came right in the end.   First, John took me to stay at the Aiglon Hotel in Menton, deepest south of France, right on the Italian border.  One of Menton's main claims to fame, in English eyes at least, was its history as a winter refuge for  the wealthy. Queen Victoria had visited. Menton's micro-climate offered palm trees, citrus trees and exotic plants. The Empress Eugenie lived close to the town.  And some refugees from the Bolshevik revolution also made their mark on it.  There was, and still is, an elegant promenade along the sheltered sea-front.*

When we arrived the esplanade was elegantly dressed with healthy palm trees.  The grander back streets had the occasional small orange tree, some of which were showing very small oranges.So marmelade came to mind.

I went to the local greengrocer, just around the corner from the hotel, and asked for 2 kilos of  oranges ameres and got a funny look in return.  He kindly pointed out that they were bitter and so no use.  I explained about marmelade for the English.  He looked thoughtful, said he would see what he could do and to come back in two days.

The price was steep, I winced and paid.    We went home and I made marmalade the classic English way, 2 x the weight of the fruit in sugar.

boiling the peel with the sugar and some water

Then boil, boil and boil again, add the juice of a lemon, pot when the right dropping consistency has been reached - when a string of orange syrup clings to the wooden spoon in a veil that gradually becomes a thread.

Then a friend visited us at La Chaise on his way from Spain to Britain.  I was complimented on my marmelade and was promised naranjas amargas the next time we visited him.  We booked our trip for the following winter and came back with almost a boot full of the fruit - for free.

Another visiting friend commented on my marmelade whilst we were at breakfast.I related the Menton story.   She laughed.   Apparently one of the more energetic of Menton's mayors had decided to replace all the town's plane trees (English town style) with wild orange trees which did not need so much pruning and certainly did not shed their leaves every winter......It took two days for the grocer to collect two kilos of free fruit?!

Fortunately I now have a source of bitter oranges much closer than either Menton or my Javea based friend.    Saint Feliu de Guixols is only a six hour drive (all being well i.e. no road works around Perpignan) from La Chaise.  Whilst staying there one year we were persuaded to visit the Museu de la Confitura in Torrent - irresistible.  And there I found the definitive recipe for bitter orange marmelade, using one kilo of sugar to two kilos of fruit.

After asking vainly in the local shops for naranjas amargas, and getting very odd looks, I started with the local fruit vendors in the markets. Eventually I located the bio fruit and vegetable sellers but only one responded.   'Taronjas amargues' he exclaimed, drowning me in a flood of  fast Catalan.   I gathered he would have some next week. And so he did, two kilos for €2.50, a give away.

Trial and error have persuaded me to follow the Jam Museum's recipe EXACTLY, even to cooking the slivers of peel with the pith still attached until it could be separated using only finger nails.  I did wait until the mixture had cooled a little.

The pith

Bitter oranges are almost all pith and pips and very little juice, so separating them out is a little time consuming. But the actual cooking to setting time is very quick, about 80 minutes.   I did treat myself of an actual jam funnel to pot the January 2019, I did not wish to lose a sticky drop. But, as tradition demands, I did not buy new jars.

The pots


Do read Giles Waterfield's book: The Long Afternoon - very evocative of the period


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Elms recover - for good!

In a rather lost corner of La Chaise meadows, land properly titled Les Fontenelles where there are indeed a few wet weather springs, there is a curious (to me) square of land that has been defined by the fencing.   Half is grassland, half is scrub trees.   Gradually we decided that a quarter of the trees were elms that were suffering slow death - probably from Dutch Elm disease that was prevalent then, the 1980's.

Fortunately for the trees they were far enough from the house, not an important area for the future golf course and of no interest to the sheep.  Every year the spindly elms would put out a few leaves,then die back. Every year one thought: should do something about the trees and each year it was unimportant.
Lo!  We flourish - or nearly

Occasionally I wondered Why so many young trees in one corner, Why the square patch of rather poor grass. Never came up with an answer.   Sometimes masterly inaction is the best solution. This year, nearly forty years later,  perhaps the elms have outlived the disease.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The short life of a small oak

Obsessive, compulsive gardeners have many enemies - grass is a major one as it persists in growing everywhere it is not wanted for ornamental purposes whether in gravel-strewn paved or cemented walks. Those who are trying, sporadically, to 'garden' in what used to be woodland, also have to cope with tree saplings.    These are much harder to pull up, their roots seem deeper, tougher, not even killed off by mole tunnels.  The back 'lawn' at La Chaise is a field of two/three leaved oak saplings that have been mowed.

Some trees are nourished by the parents even - or especially - after death.   Here an oak sapling cannibal nursery.

A couple of years ago an oak sapling installed itself in the chicken house wall. Its first year I thought 'how photogenic, how cute'.   The second year I began to imagine what oak tree roots could do to a rough stone wall barely held together by ancient mortar.  The third year I would tentatively pull at it to see if it would let go. A trickle of dried mortar said not. Ever courageous, ever busy - the decision was postponed.

Look at me!   About to be a tree in the wrong place.
 Instead I pondered how on earth an acorn could have got into a crack, any crack, never mind that particular one, in a stone wall.   Chickens could not have done it, the beaks are too small to keep acorns whole.    Perhaps one of our many red squirrels (yes, please note boast, we have several pairs of red squirrels insofar as we can tell one from another) decided it would be a good hiding place.  And, since the sapling already showed about ten leaves, it must have been there some time, at least three years. So no traces of rodent scratches left after the torrential rains.

It might have been the grandchildren - but I have never seen the boys show any interest in acorns.   Sometimes they post them down mole holes and jump the mole hills flat.  The rain storms had considerably curtailed their outside fun anyway.   When the rain stopped, the sun and warmth returned and their attention turned to the pool.

The warmth gradually became excessive and pool time was postponed until later and later in the day. Even the chickens started to sulk and hide under bushes. Egg laying was definitely off.

This is what the sun did.

It solved my problem but I was still a little sad.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

My house has new corners.....

- new corners has my house.    

In all truth I should not use the plural because my house is only supposed to have one new corner. But that would not scan.  Indeed, I do not know in reality whether the house has its new corner yet.  It was supposed too be put in this September.  We thought it better to be elsewhere whilst the work was done. As the above picture shows:  it is work on a new corner of the Shepherd's Cottage - there only one corner stone had to be replaced.

This is the split in our wall which demands new corner stones - due to age and weather damage, not least the iron gate catch that heated and cooled at a different rate to the stones. Spot the invading, wall eating ivy...

As far as we know this is the first time since its building some 200 years or so ago that stonework has had to be replaced.  The reasons why one corner only (that is written in hope) has to be replaced are multiple but come down basically to the nature of the site and the type of construction.  Add in recent weather extremes

La Chaise new house, as it was in 18 whenever,  was built on a clay soil slope, probably with stones from the fields though the corners would have been made of quarried stone as were the door and window openings. There is a an old quarry at La Tour Blanche which is not very far away and which is purported to date back to Roman occupation times. But I suspect/know the new stone will come from a truly local quarry much nearer, it was not specified on the estimate.
This is the terrace we had built to try and anchor the base of the house - only it is the upper part of the walls that is heading down the hill

The forty centimetre +/-  field stone walls were/are held together by a mixture of clay, mortar and prayer. A previous owner added a fine outer layer of cement, we added an inner layer of 'crepi', a style of cement. Then added paint.

The fact that clay swells with rain and dries with heat, that the house had a very heavy Roman style red pottery tiled roof, did not help the stability of the construction.  We have made the roof lighter by successive re-tiling efforts but the house is still 10 centimetres wider at the top of the original walls than at the the bottom, all ten on the downward slope side.    It is held together by massive iron ties running through the attic and attached to an S in iron on the outside.  We added a massive triple T to hold the old and newer (relatively) downside walls together.

And this is what happens when the small tractor backs into the terrace...our first meetings with new stonemasons.

We have found a new stonemason to do the work on our house, and the others at La Chaise.   He says since the weather fluctuations, heat/wet/cold he is overworked.   His name?   Simeon Pierre - honest - a very local artisan.   His son is at school with our grandsons....

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

return of the wild orchids

It is wonderful to come back to the Dordogne in May after a long wet and cold winter.  Spring was suddenly unusually warm and now everything is in flower - roses, roses everywhere. There is a two foot high wild sage stem on the slope up to no: 8 green.

But the greatest news is that the wild orchids are back, the first wave of lazy purples, pyramid and scented orchids deep in the long grass near juniper bushes. The small meadow blue and brown butterflies, the occasional large white, hover around.

For some time now, ever since the juniper bushes on that rocky slope of land we refer to as 'Greece', started to die we saw less and less orchids.  There appears to be a strange form of symbiosis between junipers, orchids and ants, so the nearness of ant heaps and orchids to juniper roots would seem to indicate.

To my joy I saw the first orchids underneath young junipers along the fence of the horse fields.

The horse fields are still truly wild - because none of the La Chaise based golf fanatics have put a green on them.   Also it is several years since horses last pastured there and our 28 odd sheep and a random number of lambs in season make little impact on the two hectares.   Vetch and clover flourish, some cornflowers can be seen and, of course, 'horse-flowers' abound, known in other languages as 'lion's teeth' for their serrated leaves, edible when very young.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Playing with fire in Dordogne

Two of my favourite men were in front of the sitting room fireplace. Granpère was kneeling and muttering imprecations in alternating languages. Petit fils no:1, Nathan, swinging a small plastic jug, had stopped playing with his bath-toys in the bidet to watch 'Granpère'.   Nathan was muttering random questions in French and received unintelligible replies. 

 Nathan returned to his game. He opened the bidet taps. Grandmère, (me, aka 'Oma'), stormed into the bathroom.   Sighing she turned off the taps very firmly, returned to the kitchen to put more logs into the hearth of the kitchen range. She nudged them with the poker to make stand up. This way heat/flames would go straight up to the hotplate.   It was nearly lunchtime.

Granpère stormed into the kitchen. ‘I can’t get the wretched fire to light. Must’ve used at least four fire-lighters and two big fir-cones. Give up.’ He opened a fridge door, got out all the makings of a gin tonic, got in Oma’s way as she was fiddling with the range fire.

Oma's favourite toy

Lunchtime was called. Nathan let the water out of the bidet, first washing his hands, then pulled the bathmats over the puddles.

Lunch was eaten and both Nathan and Granpère left the kitchen to have their siestas, full of food and goodwill. Nathan talked to his peluches for a while before falling asleep. Granpère read a little, then fell asleep.

Oma went outside to select more logs for the range. This time she wanted half moon logs to put their flat sides down on the embers. This, she knew, would slow the burning so that the range would not need attention for the rest of the afternoon.Especially if she found oak logs.  She turned the draft control so that heat would be directed to the boiler for central heating.

Feeling curious, Oma went to look at the sitting room fireplace. She pushed at the blackened logs with the poker, moved the ashes with the tin dustpan. That was odd, both were extremely damp. Sighing (it is what Omas do best) she removed the damp logs and ashes.

Then she got some newspaper, rolled fire lighters in it and put them at the back of the hearth. Over these she laid some kindling, twigs covered in lichen, pieces of bark and crushed cageot, in a criss-cross pattern, tucked a couple of small fir-cones either side. All of it very flammable. She reached for the matches on the mantel, lit the newspaper, stood back to watch. A few twigs later the fire was ready to receive proper logs, crossed over each other and balanced on the fire-dogs.

Later that day Nathan’s Papa arrived to collect him. But he was distracted by Granpère’s offer of whisky English style. They sat before the sitting room fire and enjoyed their drinks with desultory franglais conversation between them.

Nathan was sitting in the next room. He was playing with a box of matches, tipping them out of the box, then putting them back, all with the red bit at the same end. He tried to see if he could make a little flame, like Granpère and Papa could. Suddenly Papa was standing there, scolding about the dangers of matches, fires, everything. Nathan’s lip trembled,’ mais Papa, j’ai étient l’incendie que Granpère à fait...’

What Granpa did next....