Sunday, December 18, 2011

tempests and their waves

There are a good many cardinal rules about living in isolated, or fairly isolated, rural areas – such as always knowing at least two mechanics or roof tilers – but amongst the most important concern water and electricity. Rule one: never (if possible) live at the end of a water supply line ; rule two: never (if possible) live at the end of a an electricity supply line. We have transgressed both(remember my over-pressurised water tank?)

Last week we suffered from being at the end of an electricity line. In the beginning of that week, way up towards the Channel, starting in Brittany and raging across northern France in the general direction of Germany, a tempest called 'Joachim' was wreaking havoc. It drove a cargo boat, the TK Bremen, sailing under the Maltese flag as the newspapers quickly pointed out (sub-text not respectable), onto the beach of Kerminihy, with consequent (smallish) release of oil and diesel. More importantly a large number of households lost their electricity supply, numbers started at 400,000 and dwindled to 70,000 as the week went on. It also, as the respected French daily Le Monde pointed out, drew a 'wave' of journalists to the area.

The fringes of this tempest did disturb the Dordogne with unusually high winds but no so high that any local person recalled the tempest/hurricane/ at the turn of the century. But in the early hours of the morning the electricity supply wobbled; it went off, it came on, it went off for a longer period of time and I got cross. Partly I was cross with myself because I had not made my usual preparations for winter – that is get in a large supply of candles, make sure I had enough fuel for the petrol lamps and that the camping gas lamps were somewhere where I could find them easily, along with a spare set of gas mantles.

This may seem exaggerated. Winds such as those on the fringe of Joachim can affect contact points along those lines, hence the on/off supply. And, as an electricity board technician told me: remember that in hunting season which often coincides with tempest season, hunters shoot pigeons. But they can only shoot pigeons that are perched on branches – or electricity lines. And shot is not good for the insulation of electricity lines, it makes for a wear point.

So, last Friday, saw us trying to pack with an on/off electricity supply. I found the candles, the gas camping lamps, even the three petrol lamps which I really must clean. After about an hour the electricity supply settled down. However Joachim was still sufficiently active for my son-in-law to joke (I thought) that he was taking his chain-saw to work. (Every real man in the Dordogne has his own chain saw.) How right he was. As we set off for town, we saw two pines across the road, which he duly cut up and neatly stacked on the roadside.

Electricite de France seems to have enormously improved its reaction time to such wind-driven catastrophes. At the time of the millenium hurricane we were without power for weeks. In our early years the problem was so frequent that I learned how to light part of a room sufficiently with a petrol lamp to read. In fact, I read the greater part of Walter Scott's works in the same circumstances that he probably wrote them – by candlelight and petrol lamp.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas is a-coming, conscience follows hard behind...

Conscience comes with Christmas

It has been said that carrots scream when you pull them out of the ground. Of course one should be using a fork to loosen the soil, then gently shaking off the earth and rinsing them under an outside tap. Perhaps then they will only whimper. But, if they scream on coming out of the ground,what noise do they make when topped, tailed and peeled?
The great eating feast that now is Christmas is a time when some people may want to re-examine their relationship to food, particularly meat. One of the great arguments is about France's essential Christmas (and New Year) delicacy: foie gras. This, for those who have not read a paper for years, is the over-sized liver of a forcibly over-fed duck or goose. The liver is processed in various ways to conserve it but is most appreciated as paté de foie gras mi-cuit. France produces about 20,000 tonnes of duck foie gras, goose foie gras is about three per cent.
The origin of foie gras – known to the Ancient Romans and Egyptians - is the natural tendency of certain ducks and geese to stock their livers with energy producing food for their winter migrations. The main duck breed presently used for foie gras is the cross between a Muscovy and a Pekin duck known as the 'mulard' . Only the drakes are used – ducks' necks are too slender. Once I had to fish a duck out of the grain bin – grain destined for the pregnant ewes – so I can testify to a duck's greed for grain. The webbed feet of ducks have extremely sharp toe-nails, and my hands suffered considerable damage .
When foie gras was still an artisanal product, one made by the farmer's wife mostly for the immediate family, possibly some for the local market, it was probably less stressful for the bird. The bird had wandered round the farm, got in the way, had its own pond, dutifully came in at night – because it was fed grain inside. Then, after some twelve to fifteen weeks in the fields, it was confined to quarters. Twice a day, as it was held in box between her knees, the farmer's wife pushed maize through a funnel down its neck, stroking the neck if the descent appeared to cause problems. There was a relationship between the two during the two weeks this lasted.
Fat duck livers produced this way, along with a few fat goose livers, can still be bought in France's rural markets, especially those of the South-West and Alsace, the two traditional fat duck or goose producing regions. At one point in time Dordogne farmers were encouraged to increase their fat duck production with both training and sometimes financial help. One acquaintance of mine built what he proudly called his 'laboratory' where the 'gavage' or stuffing process happened. It was cleaner than many a domestic kitchen. The ducks were fed by himself and several part-time helpers. He was also inordinately proud of the salle d'abattage where the ducks were 'sacrificed' – a word rural French people frequently use in preference to slaughter. He was deeply disappointed that none of his English clients would visit, his French clients insisted.
Domestic production has long since been over taken by large scale industrial production to satisfy world wide demand to the detriment, in my opinion, of the relationship between producer, consumer and consumed. Respect, knowledge and appreciation of and for all forms of meat have gone. In Genesis it is written that “God chose to give man, made in his image, dominion over animal life,..... over plants and seeds”. Nowhere does it say that Man has the right to turn these into protein factories.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

the last fly

A sure sign of the end of autumn, the beginning of winter is the disappearance of flies. But there is always one fly left. No-one knows for what he or she is looking but everyone knows that he – or she – is (insert favourite expletive) annoying, indestructible and buzzes without cease, especially at night. And this fly arrives just as the tidy housewife, (sorry 'house-person'), has removed all the hideous glue strips that wreaked such havoc on flies all summer.
This one fly is always to be found in the company of human beings, at breakfast, in the bathroom, or in the sitting room where the same human is peacefully getting irritated by the stupidities offered by television companies. Irritation piles upon annoyance when the daft, dazed insect drops into the soothing evening drink and adds frantic paddling to its insistent buzz. The squeamish will probably pour the whole drink down the sink, the more parsimonious will spend a few moments with a teaspoon saving the fly's life and the contents of their glass. Both will miss the best part of an episode of whatever they were watching. It is, of course, worse for those who are reading and absent mindedly reach for their drink. Since words are so much more absorbing than pictures they may not spot the fly until it touches their lips. Beurk.
But the most annoying habit of autumn's last fly is its insistence on exploring the darkening bedroom of humans trying to get to sleep. Like most flying insects it aims incessantly for any form of light, even an alarm clock with luminescent hands is not spared. Again and again it beats itself against this last sign of warmth. The irate human, sleepless with fury, attempts to swat it. But this is a dangerous activity for the fly cannot always be accurately located and hitting your best bedside lamp with a rolled up copy of some respectable newspaper will do more damage to lamp and paper than to the fly. Even if you do not fall over your slippers.
And what do you do when the fly has got stuck in one of those formerly fashionable sixties Japanese paper lantern lampshades? You can switch the light off but then the insect appears to use its buzz as an echo locator to find a way out. This can take an eternity, or so it seems. (Eternity is the length of time whose duration cannot be shortened by the person suffering it – my definition.)
The plastic fly swatters made in multitudinous hideous colours, probably in China, are more accurate instruments of death than rolled up newspapers or flicked napkins. The present ones that we have are hexagonal and have very flexible stems. The head, or killer end is decorated with a grinning face which may or may not terrify the fly in its last few moments of life – if you are accurate. But flies fly very fast and rest in places you do not wish to hit even with the most flexible of fly swatters. The best you can do is to chase the fly from the place it wishes to be to a place where you can safely – safely for you and your goods – swat it. Perhaps these latest fly killer models were designed with the encouragement of the late Chairman Mao who had very decided views on flies. He preferred them dead and enrolled the entire population of China in this ambition.
A fly swatter is, of course, very different to a fly whisk. The first, as I have just mentioned, comes in awful plastic colours. The latter can be a thing of beauty, an elegant weapon, used to distance the fly from the human face. The human in this case was often a very important person, especially in his (or her) own opinion. Somewhere in the attic we have a couple of antique fly whisks: carved ivory or bone handles garnished with white horse hair for use by the important person him or herself. They are very efficient at distancing flies. I have tried them, but they are not killer weapons at all. It is difficult to concentrate on a text whilst moving horse hair rhythmically before your face.
When houses are closed up for any length of time during the autumn to spring transition, it will be seen that the 'one fly' is a myth. There are actually numerous flies but they only show themselves individually. And humans cannot tell one fly from another. Hence the idea that there is 'one' fly all over the house. However, whilst they may manifest themselves singly, flies die collectively, usually on window sills. There is is a splendid piece of doggerel verse in the Penguin 'Verse and Worse' collection which – along with the fly whisk – is somewhere up in our attic, but unlike the fly whisk I could not find it. The rhyme, to the best of my memory, ends:
'but flies is wise,
when winter comes,
they dies.'

Except for that one keeping you awake at night.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

where is Agatha Christie when you need her?

As I was going down to St Astier the other day (- pls, no panic, this will not be a poem) I saw a pair of men's shoes in the road. Highly polished, seemingly new, black mens' moccasins were lying on their sides about a metre from the kerb, noticeably on the newly laid tarmac of the road. One shoe showed a protruding, equally black sock, the other had a sock quite near-by. It looked as though they had been thrown with some violence into the road but it was not evident whether it was from the near-by house or from some passing car.
The shoes gleamed, so obviously not a case of spontaneous combustion on the part of the wearer. An unoccupied mind can devise hundreds of stories about the provenance of these shoes, the reason for their place in the road. Had an irate lover thrown them from the house...but then why no clothes? Would a man limp, shoe-less, the five kilometres to St Astier, even if the rest of him was clothed? The same could be asked if they had been thrown from a car. Or perhaps he was wearing shoes but these were his favourites that were thrown after him...It intrigued me sufficiently to almost buy the local paper and see if there was any information, but self restraint won the day. Anyway, a nice line for all students of 'Creative Writing' 101.
The hamlet in which the shoes were abandoned is what might be described as 'dormitory' for St Astier were either to be any larger than they are. It comprises probably less than 20 houses, most of them post-war. One is a former animal/equipment shed that has been extended, modernised and prettified by its owner. It now has an extensive vegetable garden and the geese and chickens have their own salubrious dwellings. Across the road from this is a more dilapidated homestead. Obviously a former farm worker's cottage, with sufficient land for subsistence farming, its present owner has succumbed to a bad attack of self sufficiency. He appears to be trying to re-do the roof of the building, technically not very difficult but it takes time. Horses and donkeys succeed each other, trying to survive on the rapidly vanishing grass. Another owner but of a brand spanking new house has also succumbed to a degree of self sufficiency and is attempting to put up his own wire fencing. Results so far, fencing one, owner nil.
Lurking in the woods behind the hamlet, is a road that leads to the barracks above St Astier – a training ground for the various riot control police of EEC countries.
The trainees are never seen in the town and little is known about them. Except that one day I was shopping in my local supermarket in the quiet hour between twelve and two, Intermarche at Chancelade, when a near invasion force of local police, plus some national gendarmes, came swooping into the car-park. They escorted fifty or so embarrassed, youngish men, into the shop. The few shoppers and check-out girls were all agog. Girls gathered together and demanded information. Apparently these young men were future Afghan policemen on a training course in St Astier.
The hamlet's houses are all on the ridge of the hill leading down to St Astier. Driving in from La Chaise, we are reminded of the speed limit – one can only drive through at 70 kmph, a standard for all the hamlets on the road between Tocane St Apre and St Astier. I tried to have this limit applied to La Chaise, which is not actually a hamlet, but was officially informed that the traffic past our gates was insufficient and did not go above the approved speed limit. Once out of that hamlet above St Astier, the speed limit is lifted and those who wish, can take two hair pin bends at more than 70 kmph. Fortunately local residents, even when not totally sober, are reasonably sensible.
I darkly suspect the blanket, one size fits all, Napoleon thought of it first, administrative regulations here,for example, speed through hamlets should be restricted to 70 kmph, once the hamlet is passed, back to the overall road speed of 90 kpmh – regardless of bends. These preconceptions take a long time, some practical good sense, to change.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Of saints, summers and soldiers

The day after Remembrance Day, Saturday 12th November, we had lunch on the terrace. It was over 20ºC, brightly sunny, no wind. Perhaps it will be seen as the high point of St Martin's Little Summer, the days before had been bright, the days to come are promised to be sunny and dry. A vast skein of geese, perhaps the last, had noisily flown overhead, general direction North Africa, probably Morocco. French commercial radio was vaunting the attractions of the new foie gras, without specifying whether goose or duck. Oddly, there seemed to be no forwarning of Beaujolais Noveau, usually launched on the third Thursday of November.
And the locals were right: these last few sunny days produced a vast harvest of different kinds of fungi. There were the usual '40 kg of cepes in a hour' stories and even the lady who helps with my house came with photos of a mushroom (penny bun, of course) that she had found, it weighed 1.5 kg and was 20 cm across. But she did admit that most of it was inedible.
Our fields were polka dotted with field mushrooms and puff balls – the latter known more imaginatively as 'wolves' farts' in French, presumably because of the malodourous cloudlet that is released as children stamp on them. So even I succumbed and went mushroom picking. But, self restrained, I only managed 3 kg of the simple rosée des près, the standard 'mushroom' sometimes also known as the champignon de paris. In the latter case it probably grew in a cellar and never knew grass. One thing I have come to rely on over the years, and it is a useful safety guideline: fungi always come back in more or less the same place, if not always in the same quantity. If they are not in the same place, but look the same – be very, very careful. I collected a basket load of 'mushrooms' from a hitherto virgin patch of grassland, assuming that the spores had spread. Handling them at home, I noticed they went slightly yellow; on checking with my mushroom bible I discovered they were indeed the vomit inducing version of agarics.
As often in prolific fungi years, the witches' circle becomes more obvious. This year I observed that the mushrooms that were under the walnut trees circled around the tree, probably at just that point where its horizontal roots ended, certainly it was at the limit of the tree's branches. There is one edible toadstool which always comes up in the same place in good fungi years which – I think – is the shaggy ink cap. As it rises from the ground, in a semi-circle round a scrawny, possibly dying, walnut tree, it looks like a child's drawing of a phallic symbol. Then it opens flat and looks just like one of those hairy parasols set around a decaying seaside cafe. I am told it is edible but will leave it to others to try.
Remembrance Day, the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, is the official feast day of St Martin who brings us this brief autumn summer now Americanised as 'Indian' summer. St Martin was a soldier in the Roman army in the early 300's who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar outside the town of Amiens. He eventually became Bishop of Tours – against his will, apparently, he was kidnapped from his hermitage and forcibly enthroned. Tours is a town reknowned for its fine wines, fine wood and excellent spoken French. Legend has it that St Martin encouraged the creation of vineyards. It may not be very religious but the symbols most often associated with him are the goose – a roast goose is eaten in his honour – a horse and sword as reminder of his military days. St Martin's day (or days) also marked the formal end of the medieval agricultural year. Livestock that could not be over wintered was slaughtered and conserved for the lean days ahead. I wonder whether St Martin was in the minds of those who settled the 'war to end all wars' on his feast day

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Rain! The Rain!

At last, at last, the rains have come! After all the drought ridden summer months wondering whether there would be enough early dew or scotch mist to dampen the fields and stimulate the grass, the daily chore of watering the ungrateful vegetable garden, the rains have fallen.
The arrival of the autumn rain is always a frighening moment in deepest rural South West France. It is the moment when the house owner discovers whether or not the roman tiles on his roof have slipped, allowing the water in either through the channels or through the cracked covering tiles. Foresighted owners have been up on their roofs, cleaning the gutters of dried leaves – only the long-lasting summer meant these fell in one go, unexpectedly, along with the rain. A blocked gutter means rain back-firing up under the tile channels and dripping through the plasterboard ceiling below – with a sleep-disturbing vengeance. Terra cotta roof tiles are slippery in the wet and it is recommended that only expert roofers walk on them – but with the rain, roofers (like London taxi drivers), dissolve into the mist and owners have to be patient and find last year's buckets.
This is the age old story of Dordogne roofs, delightful roman style terra-cotta tiles, provencal style, but unsuited to the higher pitch of local roofs, hence sliding and slipping and propping and generally getting too heavy. Somehow the locals do not seem to demand that their roofs keep out rain, unlike northern Europeans, there is an 'ah well' attitude. And just as a Dordogne male is not a man without his own chain saw and cement mixer, he must also be able to fiddle with his roof. Fortunately in the thirty odd years we have been year, improvements have been made to the basic tile concept, all aimed at attaching the tile in various ways to the underlying roof, with varying degrees of success.
But there is a joyous side to the advent of these downpours – going out in the rain to see what has happened. I clapped my long unused boots together to shoot out the spiders, millipedes, earwigs and any other univited insect that had taken up residence during the summer. I did the same with my long, green plastic, serious agricultural rain coat. Insects scuttled, grumbling, into the further reaches of the conservatory as I vainly searched for my hat. Then, armed with mobile phone (in case I slipped) a serious rain hat, the boots and rain coat and the standard plastic bag for collecting things, I set off to see what, if anything the rain had achieved.
The first day's answer was - not much. The earth was so hard baked, the rain had hardly penetrated. The soil of the vegetable garden did look fertile again and the comice pear tree, planted just last year, and sporadically watered since, looked as though it had decided to live. The carrots revived, as did the bugs in them. The courgettes were rotting and the aubergines were failing to colour. The odd chilli pepper strove to produce a red bean. Down the fields the hard marbles of sheep shit at long last began to dissolve and carry their goodness into the soil and there were signs of the faster intestinal transit of the wet grass.
The trees dripped, more fir-cones had fallen but closed, there were more acorns and chestnuts on the ground and the last of the walnuts were scattered under their trees. Most walnuts by now had been hollowed out by passing rodents but we were feeling generous. With the nuts down came the leaves, turned yellow brown in the course of a weekend, the maples still defiantly holding on to their own.
But the ponds, small and large, had hardly been affected. The duck pond nearest the Farmhouse, its bottom covered in lush grass, was barely wet, the solar powered fountain still disconnected for lack of water to spout. The Black Pond in the Woods, which is fed by the run off from the road, was doing better, but still the green growth of opportunistic grass and lentil weed showed. The pump lake, at the very lowest point of the land, has shown some intake of water but the reed and grass growth was hardly affected. We still keep it fenced off so that animals cannot get stuck in the mud.
But, oh the joy of the locals! The rain, the rain, if followed by warmth – which the local weather forecasters did not hesitate to predict (at times one would think weather forecasters were elected) would lead to another crop of champignons! Perhaps some 'trompettes de la mort' would show up (late because there was no rain on Halloween) or there would be more 'boletus edulis'....there were certainly a lot of agarics, rosée dès près, the simplest of field mushrooms. Sadly a considerable number turned yellow when handled, vomit inducing but not deadly.

Monday, October 31, 2011

just add a log

This year the renewal of my regular, all consuming winter love affair was unexpectedly early. In fact it was not initiated by me at all. Normally, I plan many days ahead, preparing mentally and physically, cleaning, scrubbing. This time JP and I had taken a quick trip to London – day one travel there, memorial service on day two, day three return trip, alas, we are in that age bracket – and got home at dusk to be greeted by an all pervading feeling of warmth. Not just the feeling of warmth, but the smell of wood fire warmth. The Rayburn had been lit.
Now you may consider it daft to have a relationship with a cooker, even one that heats hot water and services some radiators, but I feel that the Rayburn and I are partners. One cooks with a solid fuel range, not on it. In fact, says she waxing indignant, cooking on a wood fired range requires a great deal of critical path analysis, long, longish and longer range planning. It also requires a rough knowledge of the heat output of various woods, at least by size of log if not by type. It demands a considerable degree of man management skills to get the wood as near as possible to the lengths and widths that cook wants and cooker needs, rather than those that satisfy male egos. (I draw the line at learning to use the circular table saw.) The cooker, also, has to be understood.
My Rayburn has three principal functions, it heats water, it heats an oven and it heats a hotplate. All this is done by directing hot air flow from the firebox. Very simple technology. But one has to allow for weather conditions: the Rayburn does not like rain or damp, the flue will not draw properly unless it has previously been made very hot. This cannot be done except with small, thin logs, preferably chestnut. Then cook has to remember to add thicker, oak logs to keep the fire going, ready for cooking. It loves cold, the flue roars away and one spends a considerable amount of time damping down the fire, opening draft intakes, putting on green wood (bad) leaving just enough embers to revive it in time to cook lunch.
Of course, with such variable fuel, the temperatures of both hot plate and oven are not easily controlled. Recipes demanding that something be cooked at x degrees for y minutes have to be radically modified. Cook in or on hot, less hot, barely hot, areas until ready is the only guidance. The temperature gauge on the oven door is more indicative than accurate. I can feel the temperature of the hot plate by holding my hand above it – but once the insulating lids are open, the oven starts to lose height. And the oven is not evenly heated, main heat input from the firebox side obviously. Cook has to remember to turn oven contents regularly. Fortunately I have been comforted and supported by my inherited, first edition of the Larousse Gastronomique which does not give temperatures and only approximate times in its recipes.
Once I have re-learned its vagaries the Rayburn is back in my heart again. Even the fact that hanging over the hot plate is not good for the complexion; that it makes everything so dirty that I have to wash my elephants and other ornaments once a month; that it is erratic and sometimes has to be relit; that bringing in logs is no fun; all this is forgiven, for it does cook beautifully. I even know how to sweep its flue though now, old age and common sense dictate, I have delegated this activity.
The Rayburn is the third person in our winter marriage. We ask if the other has 'fed the cooker' recently, decide which one of us will 'put the cooker to bed' and know that the first person out of bed in the morning will 'wake the cooker', whatever the weather. And I push to the back of my mind that in a few months time, with the inevitable progression of seasons, cooker and I shall cease to work together.
As the marketers of the Betty Crocker ready cake mixes discovered way back when (the sixties, I think) a cook (usually but not always a woman and wife) likes to feel s/he has created the food being offered to the family. Hence the famous egg that had to be added to the eponymous cake mix. Working with a wood-fired range is hard work, rewarding work but, oh, how I wish it was not so hot and dirty!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

midnight's magic moments

There is a magic moment during the night as one day becomes another of which humans are seldom aware, except, perhaps, during the monthly turning points of the moon which may disturb sleep. Country lore associates changes in the moon phases with changes in the weather. So, as Thursday faded into Friday with the waning moon and JP heard the pattering of rain, he stayed happily asleep. We have waited for so long for rain, he for his golf greens, me for the grass in the fields to feed the sheep. As a lighter and more pessimistic sleeper, when I heard the patter of rain become more insistent in the very early hours of Friday morning, I immediately thought of leaks in the roof. I got up and went to see.
Water was pouring down from the attic bedrooms, dripping from the oak beam, hitting the dining room radiator, putting a sheen on the bottom step of the stairs, being greedily sucked up by the yellow Afghan rug under the dining table. I shot outside and collected a handy bucket – every well run country house has a number of multi purpose buckets within easy reach of the front door – and went upstairs.
No water appeared to be coming through the plaster board ceiling in the attic but the white carpet in the red bedroom was sodden. So was the hessian wall covering that gives the red bedroom its name. Fearfully and with difficulty I pulled aside the heavy rosewood screens that hide the inaesthetic water storage tank. A white enamel 2 metre high, double skinned 200 litre water storage tank was doing its best to compete with Manneken Pis. It would seem that the pressure valve on the incoming water supply pipe had given up. After a couple of false attempts I managed to place the bucket so as to catch the jet.
Then I went downstairs carefully – no point in slipping and breaking a leg – to switch of the mains water supply. This is not as easy as it would seem. First, one has to displace one of the arm chairs in the conservatory, also probably a number of buckets holding golf balls. Then the carpet has to be rolled back to reveal the pit in which the water meter and stop cock live. The pit is covered by several broken pieces of concrete slab, then some wooden planks. With the aid of a torch – a well run country house always has a supply of strategically placed torches – one can see the meter dial and three taps. A brief pause for cogitation and I decide that the tap ahead of the meter should logically be the stop cock. I open the kitchen cold water tap and then go back to switch off the selected stop cock. The kitchen tap runs dry.
Upstairs Manneken Pis bis has stopped. The bucket is nearly full. I empty it in the upstairs bathroom – then realise we shall need a bucket in the downstairs bathroom. If there is no running water to flush, we use a bucket of the carefully preserved and this year very rare rain-water stored in the former wine vat outside. With some annoyance I fill the bucket, take it to the bathroom and

wonder just how early I can telephone one of the wonderful plumbing men in my little black book. I decide not before 8 a.m and go to make myself some cocoa. The rugs that I can lift, I take outside and hang on the washing line. A dry Afghan is pretty impossible to move, a wet one is worse, so I just try to roll its wet edge away from the floor and aim an electric fan heater at it.
And then, of course, I sink into a guilt trip. Had I done something wrong with the rather simplistic water supply system? Was all this my fault – had I started my habitual winter love affair too early? Fortunately the plumbers arrived just after 9 a.m, before I could come up with an exculpatory answer and before it seemed necessary to add cognac to the cocoa.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

of cranes and acorns

Saturday night, 15th October, the first cranes decided to noisily fly south, later than usual, passing over our heads in skeins of uncountable numbers. But their message was clear: the future weather here would no longer please them, it was time to go to Southern Africa. This is a message for which we can only be grateful – if it means rain.
The duck pond is now one drying mud puddle, the Black Pond in the woods has the bare minimum of water to enable us to irrigate the greens, the same goes for the pond in the lowest point of our valley. The spring at the twin oaks, even in the driest years has had a certain dampness about it - it is now just dried mud.
Acorns and chestnuts have been falling earlier than expected, indeed the whole summer has been punctuated by signs of autumn. Night-times have been disturbed by the sound of acorns hitting the plastic covering the drying wood cut the previous winter. The lime trees at our main gate shed leaves all the time, there never was a moment when brown leaves were absent. Everywhere one walked, acorns or chestnuts were scrunched under foot – how many oak saplings does it make to substitute for a lawn?
Forestry magazines and articles earnestly urge the tree owner to save his best acorns now for planting in the spring with a view to creating new oaks. First you have to select your best oak tree, then the best acorns around its base. This is likely to be the tree where you most often see the squirrels doing their flying leaps from branch to branch. So you have to compete with the squirrels for the acorns.
Your selection should be put in a bucket of water for 24 hours so that the bug ridden ones rise and the whole ones sink – because of the holes in the former. You keep the whole ones and then treat them as any other large nut from which you wish to grow a plant. It is very difficult to get one's head round the idea of growing an oak tree from an acorn, not least because one is not likely to be on earth for the duration of the project, nor more than two generations of one's offspring.
The oak seedling has many enemies – the mower on what is supposed to be our back lawn, for one. In the woods, the deer are particularly fond of tree saplings, possibly rabbits, too, had the local chasse not dealt with them all. In the fields the sheep greatly appreciate acorns (as well as chestnuts) even the ones with bugs in them. In seriously poor times, humans used acorns as flour or coffee substitute, a tedious process and not always successful. And we must not forget the pigs: Spain's famously expensive 'pata negra' pigs are fed on a diet extremely rich in acorns, France's wild boar just help themselves.

There is one acorn based art that seems to have died out that I learned at my maternal grand-father's chair. The Colonel was a frightening, not terribly child friendly man who had spent most of his military career on the island of Aceh, one of the myriad islands in the Indonesian archipelago. In the dark shadows of this island he learned to be very still, so still that in his planter's chair, on the terrace of a small Dutch suburban house, sparrows would eat from his right hand. Even lifting his left hand for his jenever barely disturbed them.
But the great joy for me was when I presented him with a collection of different sized green acorns, some still with their stalks and 'hats' on, most without. Then I had to get the sharp, pointy knife and a box of matches. And he would create for me acorn dogs, acorn men (acorn women were more difficult, a problem of skirts), sometimes even acorn tortoises. The difference between an acorn horse and an acorn giraffe was the length of the matchstick legs and neck, acorn dogs could be any size.
This summer I made acorn toys for a friend's grandson – a great success.

Monday, October 10, 2011

on being long wild pig

On being long wild pig

Hunting is assumed to be an inalienable right for French people ever since the revolution of 1789 set them free to hunt – rather than poach. And wild boar makes better eating than a handful of roast chestnuts..(read Jacquou le Croquant by Eugene le Roy). Let the wild boar eat the chestnuts first and then let humans eat the wild boar.
Once sus scrofa is fully grown there is nothing sympathetic about it nothing to make anyone go – aaaah! The young are prettily striped, chocolate and cream, but their mother, like so many over-worked mothers, is seriously bad-tempered and does not wish her offspring to be admired. Given that she is likely to weigh around 80kg a brief charge by her should be sufficiently dissuasive to any spectator.
What all the boar, irrespective of sex, like doing is rooting things up, maize fields, sunflower crops, someone's vegetable garden, a prized lawn. They are creatures without respect for anything: a boar being pursued in our woods charged right through the sheep fencing, right past the sheep who apparently serenely continued munching ( scout's honour word of a following hunter) and through the fence the other side. Well, no sheep fencing is likely to stop a 90 kg boar charging at heavens only knows how many kms an hour – and our local chasse only told us about the incident when presenting a near 3 kg haunch of same animal, having repaired the fence.
Boars will charge across country roads also, no respect for cars. My daughter wrote off her relatively new boy-friend's car one night in the Landes as a boar crossed their way. The boar did a somersault and went its way, the car was a write off. Fortunately seat belts and air-bags meant there was little damage to the passengers, just an unhappy insurance company. My daughter's rescuers hoped the boar had been sufficiently damaged to make it easy to find the next day, Sunday – the primary hunting day.
I did, once, meet some young wild boar face to tusk. I was taking the labradors for a very early morning walk. Going down the path to the pine woods, dogs on leads (I did not trust them not to do a bunk) three youngish wild boar, side by side, stood across the path. Their tusks were not very long but even so I was frightened. Courageously, I stood behind a tree, desperately holding the dogs' leads and screeching at them to be quiet. They were equally desperate to jump on the pigs. Stand off. Then the young pigs clicked their heels, wheeled round and trotted back into the woods.
In a good hunting year we always get a haunch of wild boar or deer, recently it has mostly been wild boar because – it has been darkly opined – a local commercial chasse has released bred wild boar into the woods. The gift is partly a public relations exercise and partly a genuine thank you. The last time I walked in our pine plantation I noticed that what appeared to be a 'wild boar motel' had been installed: a nice muddy bed, some relatively clear water in a deeper hole, a convenient back scratching tree and what looked suspiciously like the remains of breakfast in bed, maize cobs. Wild boar roam over many kilometres of forest, hunters prefer them to stay within walking tempt them with food.
I mentioned this 'wild boar motel' to the representative of the chasse who came to deliver this winter's haunch of wild boar. She disclaimed all responsibility, said that our pine plantation, so well maintained, was what attracted the animals and they – the hunters and the pigs – were duly grateful.
So there I was, with a fresh near 3kg haunch of wild boar, to add to the 3 kg haunch already in the deep freeze, also the 2 kg plus boned and rolled roast offered by a hunter friend. Given that an average, generous portion of meat per meal should be around 150 gr that's enough meat for about twenty people on one haunch alone. With freezer capacity at a premium, what to do?
The answer was 'paté de sanglier aux cèpes' but conservation rules being what they are, the older frozen joint had to be used and the new joint frozen. Fortunately, as I have mentioned in previous posts, we are currently as 'long' cèpes as wild boar meat so using those might make some space in the freezer. (Silly, innumerate me) My local butcher kindly boned and minced the joint once it was unfrozen and sold me an equal quantity of slightly fatty sausage meat, also some caul fat to wrap the patés. Net result, over 6 kg of processed meat spread over 12 foil patés, net space gain nil but at least an easier, quicker way of serving wild boar to fewer people at a time..

Sunday, October 2, 2011

the small pests of late autumn

There exists a serious end of summer, invasive flying pest, small, numerous and almost impossible to destroy or prevent. It is one of science's favourite insects: please welcome the drosophilidae more commonly called the 'fruit flies'. You will find them hovering over the fruit bowl in your cool kitchen, inside the refrigerator, frantically paddling in a temporarily neglected glass of wine. Some of them are even teetotal* and will swim in fruit juice or cold tea. No respecter of persons, fruit flies will even swim in the bottle of wine that accompanies your lunch – you really do have to cork the bottle after every pouring. However, in my non-scientific observation, it is not keen on hard alcohol – I have yet to meet it doing the crawl in a gin and tonic.
For a little while I tried placing a damp dish cloth over the fruit bowl to discourage the fruit fly. The trick reduced the numbers slightly, but only slightly. Recommended traps for fruit flies are simple – leave out a glass of wine or other sweetish drink, close with a funnel and down they go, just like the vastly more ferocious hornets in the water bottle and honey trap. But I am not wholly convinced that fruit flies will drown – if I empty the glass over some handy bush, will they not just sneeze, shake themselves and come back? Probably not, but the sheer quantity of these insects make it seem to be the case.
Now the hornets seem to have either all died, emigrated or hibernated. In the last week the number in the grape vine over the terrace has substantially reduced for no apparent reason. Some seriously deranged, kamikaze hornets came barrelling into the house at dusk,head-butting totally inoffensive electric lamps until they died. This left my paranoid self looking for their bodies – I did not wish to sit, or go to sleep, on a hornet corpse which might, in sheer malignant death throes, sting. It seems very early for them to disappear unless the queen hornets – who hibernate in snug, unlikely to be disturbed places such as cracks in trees, walls or apparently abandoned chimneys – know something about the immediate weather prospects that human forecasters have not yet confided to a dependant public. The Indian summer goes on and on.
In the meantime the butterflies and the smaller birds are having a ball for they have the grapes almost totally to themselves. Wrens and robins send complicated call signals from the vines or the near-by palms, sneak a grape or two when no human is visibly by. The butterflies, predominantly fritillaries, couldn't give a fig for the presence of humans and just go about their business – which includes sucking nectar from the figs that have been pierced open by the birds or that have split from sheer ripeness.
The grape bunches now need serious beauty treatment before being presented next to the cheese board. The split grapes have to be removed along with their dead stalks. The presentation is more elegant if the unripe grapes are also suppressed and the whole bunch tailored to a correct 'bunch of grapes' shape. Then you might want to wash off the remaining bouillie bordelaise or copper sulphate wash that was applied earlier in the summer to prevent disease, successfully this time. As the very dry weather has tended to bake the copper sulphate onto the grapes, a soaking rather than just a rinse is recommended. A soaking in a deep bowl, possibly with a little salt added to the water to discourage insects, as one does with garden lettuce.
Yes, indeed, hello earwig!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

the butterfly that would sting

The winter solstice, September 23rd, is when the tomatoes get sick. They refuse to ripen wholly and get rot, perhaps due to the wild variation of temperature during the day. The morning is cold enough to need an electric fan heater and a cardigan, mid-day the temperatures are in double figures and one is sitting outside with a drink. Sunsets are watched in comfort from inside. There is a brief, internal debate about whether to light a fire, so pretty, or move the fan heater from the kitchen. Score one to the fan heater for ease of use.
Local tradition has it that, at the winter solstice, one should pull up the tomatoes and hang them, upside down, under the woodshed roof but just where they will be touched by the last rays of the sun. So the remaining tomatoes, the good ones, will ripen. Sometimes it works. The other Mediterranean vegetables have also slowed. Courgettes have come to a virtual stop, the aubergines have ceased to swell but one fruitless but ambitious aubergine is now waist height and flowering. The bell peppers stay green, either that or I am too impatient to wait for them to redden. The basil plants, tomato's best friend, are still vigorous, so it is time to get more pine nuts, check the home garlic supplies and olive oil in order to put up some more pesto for the winter.
The grapes continue to flourish, despite the lower sun that now hits the bunches side on. The parasol has (with difficulty) been withdrawn from the terrace table as food and people no longer need protection from the sun. At lunch, under the awning of vine and wisteria leaves, we notice strange, apparently new things. Very small birds are singing agressively in the palm trees, occasionally in the grape and wisteria cover. There are suddenly a lot of butterflies, mostly fritillaries, hovering around the grapes. Secondly there are a lot less hornets – and not just, I think, because they have finally got the message about the honey trap. Some fools still fall in.
Perhaps the butterflies are prospecting for split grapes to suck out the nectar, taking advantage of the relative absences of the fearsome hornets. Not that butterflies are always shy of hornets. We did, one summer, witness a fight (possibly to the death) between a very large and showy peacock butterfly and a hornet that was insecurely riding a grape. It was rather like a television wrestling bout, except possibly not stage managed.
This particular day in late August initially had nothing to distinguish it from any other day in August until we saw a butterfly stamp its foot. It was a perfect specimen of a peacock, large and showy, perched on the mossy balustrade of the terrace. It silently (to us) stamped its left foot, presumably to frighten. To heighten the aggressiveness of its action, antennae curved forwards, it also beat its large wings together above its slight body.
Its opponent was a large hornet, insecurely riding a prize grape. The hornet clutched the fruit between its six legs, flapping all four wings to help it balance, longwise, on the grape. It buzzed in anger. The butterfly occasionally launched itself into the air and flew at the hornet which buzzed even louder. There was less than a inch between the two when the butterfly came to rest on the balustrade.
The grape was merely one of many that had fallen. It did not look particularly more luscious, more ripe than any of the others. But somehow the two insects had become obsessed with the idea of possession of this particular grape. They were oblivious to everything else, including movement, as we poured out more wine for ourselves. The fight must have lasted a couple of minutes at least. The end came in protracted slow motion. The hornet lost its balance, the grape rolled oh so slowly to the garden side of the balustrade and went over. Hornet and grape disappeared into the iris plants below. The peacock hovered for a while, then took off, presumably disgusted with all grapes, for it did not disappear into the vine canopy above our heads. This September's fritillaries are far more serene.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

the country woman's little black book of men

Every self respecting country-woman has a little black book with the contact details of 'useful - little - men- who - do – 'things'. These people are not found in the yellow pages. They are former salesmen from failed D.I.Y. stores, desperate ex-apprentices trying to escape the unemployment lists by use of promotional flyers, someone's neighbour's nephew or grandson, all trying to make an income for themselves. They range across the whole gamut of skills necessary to keeping a country house neat and on its feet. There are skilled plumbers and electricians, sometimes both skills in one person; there are those who know about the pecularities of the local roofing systems, or who have a way with cement; there are plasterers and painters and skilled tilers. There are tree surgeons and simple woodcutters. There are the rat-catchers and chimney sweepers. The one thing they have in common is that, in the beginning, they are prepared to do relatively small jobs.
Indeed, in their beginning, they mostly come when you call and are grateful for the work. A form of inter-dependance comes about between small time employer (yourself) and your little black book men. A shriek about leaks or outages and they will come. Later family information is exchanged over a post work glass of wine, especially with those whose children have been to school with yours. Everything is open to discussion, from the state of the local roads, the shocking retail prices, the state of local schools, the iniquities of the taxation system, but politics is taboo.
The rat-catcher and the man who comes to check the fire-extinguishers do not quite fall into this category. The are true specialists and come (when requested) on a regular, annual basis and unexpected disasters in their field of experience are few and far between. But, for example, my accredited wasp and hornet exterminator – who is also a part-time roofer, chimney sweep, decorator and fireman – is someone who usually comes on an emergency basis for his first two skills. Indeed, my wasp and hornet killer will come within 24 hours because he knows that I am seriously allergic to stings from these flying pests. (Also I have let him collect ceps in my closed woods.) He knows that the visiting holiday makers do not take a very tolerant view of them either. One time I called him out for a wasp infestation in the smaller holiday home, mentioning that the people concerned were city dwellers. So he dressed in the full gear, boots, overals with a zip up each leg, helmet and face veil, gloves sealed at the wrists. They were most impressed. Normally he just dons the head gear and gloves...
This year he had to come three times: one wasps' nest on a bush and two hornets' nests in trees. A third nest in the ground, at the root of a dead tree – probably small black bees – had already been dug out by some competitive animal, perhaps a badger, perhaps a buzzard, a grub eater anyway.
The news of their skills is spread by you amongst your friends, their skills and so their ambitions grow and your 'little' jobs begin to lessen in importance. They will be done, out of consideration for you who gave them their first jobs but now you have to fit in with their time scales, just put up with the leaks. And it is at this moment that you become seriously aware that they are not motivated by money. Yes, they need to earn money and yes, you have frequently negotiated how much of the money you pay them will pass through the books and how much will be cash in hand. Offering to pay over the market rate will seriously offend and lead to much loss of face for the offerer. These are skilled artisans, there is an appropriate rate for the job – the scale of which need not concern the government except in the most minimal way – and they will do the job out of respect for you, out of respect for themselves. Eventually.
And, irony of ironies, with increasing age the jobs that need doing get littler and littler, such as filling cracks in plaster because one is uncertain on ladders; or bigger, as old age indecision postpones the inevitable and what was a patch up possibility becomes a total refit. This is the point at which the country woman has to find a new intake of 'little-men-who-do-things' many of whom may be recommended by the first set that she helped launch into commercial life, those who now have serious work sites. But they will still come at year's end, take a drink and hand over a ball point pen, or a calculator, with their name and phone number engraved. The economic cycle rules.

Monday, September 12, 2011

It's an insect's life

This summer the black Muscat grapes hanging over the terrace have been very successful, the bunches are big and most of the individual grapes have ripened. There seems to be no single reason why they should be better this summer than in any previous, no reason to believe that the experience will be repeated in the next.
Picking them is a hazardous business. The terrace chairs are not quite high enough, the step-ladder is nearing the end of its life. Neither are a solid base for an elderly person stretching uncertainly up with a pair of scissors or pruners above the head. And then there are the hornets and the wasps who also like grapes. So much care has to be exercised in order not to get either of those unfriendly insects in one's hand at the same time as the grapes.
At least the ripe grapes have distracted them from the lure of the night-time terrace lights from which they used to recoil, stunned, to fall on innocent people at table and – by sheer reflex, I am sure – sting. After several unfortunate experiences of wasp and hornet stings, with increasingly strong reactions on my part, I have reluctantly hung a trap in the grape vine. The trap is a simple one, idea courtesy of Le Chasseur Français: take a bog standard plastic water or soft drink bottle, cut off the top one third of the neck and invert into the bottom, seal with broad sellotape and fix some way of hanging it up. Put some sweet product in the bottom – beer, jam, honey – and hang up.
The result is murder.
All through the meals on the terrace, the attempt at a quiet time to read, or just to enjoy the sunset, and one is aware of the hornets – and it is mostly hornets in the trap – drowning. Concentrating on the meal can block out the sound a very little but that relaxing period after the meal, with that one extra glass of wine, is no longer so comfortable. All sorts of philosophical questions about the balance of the relationship between man and insect arise, unformulated and unexplored for it is too warm and too much wine has been drunk. But I feel bad about killing the hornets, perhaps because they seem to be so terminally stupid, because they are smaller than me.
But now, each time that I get stung, my body's reaction is more severe, lasts longer and, like the hornet, I have developed a reflex, or rather a variety of reflex actions. Inside the house, downstairs, at strategic points there are surplus badminton racquets. I use them to entangle the hornet and hopefully convey it back outside via a door or a window. Sometimes the straw broom fulfills the same function, it has a longer handle and can reach the ceilings. But I am very tense and worried that the wretched insect will fall on me – and sting me.
In the attic rooms I am less gentle and just use the all purpose aerosol insect killer as there is no way of letting them out. This year there have not been as many hornets as usual in the attic which I put down to the fact that we have eliminated two nests outside – and that they are more attracted by the grapes, so stay outside. I still hate killing insects.
When I first came to England, in 1950, I went to a very modern school with big windows. There was a fly buzzing against the window pane, in that irritating way that flies have. Kindly I decided to to let it out. I lifted up the window catch, opened it and let the fly out. The wind caught the window and it broke. This cost my parents £5 – a lot of money in the 1950's. I look at the wasp trap and recall that good, but expensive deed.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tomatoes are evil

People who live in the country should not go on holiday at the end of summer, especially not after such an erratic summer as we have just had in South-West France. All July and August the tomatoes have sulked, hanging greenly on their vines, grudgingly offering the odd red fruit that has to be eeked out with onions and mozzarella to make a salad; sometimes even with white beans and tunny. Then come September, you decide to go away for a few days – and there they are, glaring redly at you from their luxuriant vine foliage with the basil plants flowering madly underneath.
Prevarication suggests that you do something about the basil first. Cut it down to just a few leaves, cut off the flower heads, strip the leaves off the stalks and put into a blender with pine nuts, garlic and olive oil. Do not, on pain of the mixture turning rancid, put parmesan or any other cheese with it until you are ready to use.
But do, above all, store the jars in a shallow saucer as the oil will swell and overflow.
There is probably a scientific explanation of this – but I do not know it.
Just as there is probably a scientific explanation for exploding oil bottles. I carefully picked some basil, a few branches of thyme, chive stalks and put them into a pretty bottle. Then I added a couple of garlic cloves, some pepper corns and filled the bottle with best Ligurian olive oil and put on a screw top. So pretty, a future gift. This I put on the sill in the conservatory alongside a couple of other salad oil bottles I had prepared earlier. Unfortunately, unpredicted, temperatures rose to near 30 C and the new bottle exploded only a few hours later. Such a shame.
But there were still tomatoes looking at me from the vegetable garden. No-one, however parsimonious, really wants to make tomato ketchup, or sauce, or chutney, the evening before a journey. I did get as far as putting the jars in the dishwasher to sterilise them but then decided a ring round the neighbours was an easier way out. Luckily I did find someone who would act as god mother to the vegetable garden in my absence. Not only would she process the tomatoes but she would also keep an eye on the creeping courgettes, the bell peppers and the aubergines. She flatly refused to do anything with the chillies.
I have put the chillies, as they turn red, on the table in the conservatory to dry.
Sometimes I use them fresh but have been reminded – painfully - of the first rule of chilli cooking: after processing chillis, wash hands, scrub under finger nails before doing anything else.....they really are very hot and very bad for the eyes. Even if one removes the seeds from chillies, either by slitting them in half and scraping out the seeds, or just topping the pods and squeezing them out, there is enough capsaicin left on the fingers to transfer to any other more sensitive part of the body. Oddly enough, they also seem to blunt scissors, so I have gone back to using a knife to cut them – a knife that is carefully washed before being used for anything else.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

as peaches fall

Had summer been normal this year, the compost heap would have been quietly hiccuping as rejected fruits fermented in the warmth of the sun. Niffle the Rabbit once got drunk on rotten fruit, his eyes were crossed and he could not move; made him easier to catch.
Only July and August have not been normal, they have behaved rather like obnoxious drunks, at one moment warm and jolly, even over-exuberant with temperatures above 30 C. Then cold and suspicious, snarling with torrential rain and a ten degree drop in temperature. The spring warmth was good for grapes but has not been good for our apples, pears or peaches. There are great quantities of these fruits – so great that many branches have crutches - but they are small. In fact the peaches are more the size of golf balls and every burst of rain knocks more to the grass. Fortunately the trees are in the orchard, not on the La Chaise golf course.
The yellow peaches are finished, leaving me with a few pots of peach marmelade (add orange zest, juice and some cloves...) and the rest went to a friend. Now it is the turn of the pêche sanguine, a white fleshed, red veined fruit that turns the most wonderful deep, velvety red when processed. It is also known as the pêche de vigne because it is often planted at the end of vine rows. Like the canary in the mine, it gets sick first.
These, too, this year, are very small but so far seem wonderfully disease resistant. I expect I shall conserve them some way, their colour makes it almost obligatory, irrestible. In our early years at La Chaise, I used to bottle them, either in eau de vie, neat fruit alcohol distilled by a local farmer from his own grapes, or in red wine. The alcoholic peaches made a wonderful dessert, two or three peach halves on plain vanilla ice-cream and the alcohol served in small glasses as accompanient. The yellow peaches were ideal for a 'Belle Hélène' style dessert, peach halves on plain vanilla ice cream, keep chilled, then pour over melted bitter chocolate. But desserts have rather gone by the board with age, as have the stronger alcohols. There is a limit to the number of times one can eat peach crumble, of whatever colour.
In his London flat my son has a 2 litre bottle of peaches in eau de vie that I made in the 1990's, I think. No-one dares open it. As we were renovating our house, thirty years ago now, we discovered under the floor boards some roughly corked wine bottles with peach slices in them; conserves to get the then owners through the war. Inedible when opened – alcohol preserves for a while but not forever, neither peaches, nor people.
Fruit is the first of the autumn bullies, demanding 'eat me', 'pot me'. One late summer visitor came haggard to breakfast, claiming he could not sleep 'for the sound of peaches falling from the trees'.
The advent of the freezer, now that we have a reliable electricity supply, has made life a little easier. It takes less time to make a puree and freeze it than to make jam or fruits in eau de vie. However, it does not have the same visual appeal, the same moral satisfaction as jars and jars of conserved fruit, whether in alcohol or in sugar, neatly labelled and lined up.
The difficulty for the novice country housewife is to get it into her head that these pretty jars are not just for admiring, or giving as modest gifts, but for consumption by the household through the coming winter. Another space has to be made for clean and empty jars, ready to be refilled next autumn.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

mushrooms maketh men mad

There was a rather smart Renault saloon half parked in the ditch that fed our woodland pond. I gave it a desultory glance and thought no more – until I went to my favourite champignon spot, under the great oak, above the pond. Neatly aligned were several stalks that had been severed by a sharp knife. The rough roadside gate made of sheep fencing stapled to chestnut stakes had been carelessly left open. I was so angry that I immediately bought chain and padlock to make entry impossible. I had gone native and he was a thief.
'Champignons' are considered as the noblest of fungi, the bolets or ceps, over which fist fights, verbal disputes and much boasting occurs. Indeed, as I was walking in the fields with a grass expert last Thursday, he confided that he had been able to collect 40 kilos of ceps in the past few weeks. Experience in this kind of conversation, I assumed he was using the term 'forty' in the ancient Persian or Biblical sense, not as a definite number, just a general term for 'lots'. He was probably a thief, too.
Most of French woodland is private or state property, yet the harvesting of wild mushrooms is still thought of as a right – which it is not. Picking wild mushrooms on land other than your own is theft under French law. Hence all those boards stating variations on 'champignons interdit' or the more severe 'propriété privé, cueillete de champignons interdite'. Some woodland owners have even come round to selling a permit to their local neighbours, so that they can legally pick mushrooms. But, as own disabused owner observed, as soon as you issue a permit, the world knows there are champignons.
The cep season this year started quietly. There were not the usual, near suicidal, plastic bag armed, elderly walkers along the roadsides, poking at ditches with their sticks and totally unaware of cars, lorries and vans going by at over 90kms an hour at breakfast, lunch and dinner times. Nor were there any cars half parked in roadside ditches, or lurking behind trees on woodland entry paths whose trees sported champignons interdit signs. Mind you, it seemed to me that more than usual of these paths had been blocked by strategic, recumbent tree trunks, chains or generally car unfriendly obstacles such as large stones.
Since mid August champignons have appeared with what non cep lovers might call monotonous regularity, probably due to the erratic summer weather. Until very recently daily temperatures had difficulty reaching over the mid twenties centigrade and every attempt at fine weather was spoilt by mild rainfall. Ideal for cep production, local people muttered darkly, the soil would ferment with the warmth and the damp and the cep would show its head. As it did, every third day. You had to get there before the slugs did – not that easy.
There is something magical about finding ceps. You wander along the edge of the woodland, venture into clearings, carefully disturbing layers of oak and chestnut leaves, then suddenly there arises a a firm, dark cap, perhaps two or three. With any luck the long brown slugs have not yet found them, the caps are undamaged and, if that is true, they are likely to be very young, the sponge like tubes under the cap are still white and firm. They look and smell most appetising unlike the decaying, yellow-brown ones offered commercially. You can almost persuade yourself there is a skill to cep hunting, too. You look to see where the sunlight pierces through the trees, where it hits a damp patch of decaying leaves...and then you are proved wrong by finding them on a stony bank above a dry stream.
There are many ways of eating ceps, many ways of conserving them for eating later. Locally, in the Dordogne, they are sliced finely, fried and mixed in with coarsely hashed boiled potatoes, parsley and garlic (the delicate recipe) or very deeply fried and added to potatoes fried in duck or goose fat with parsley and garlic (a more calorific version) often known as 'pommes Salardaises'. To complete the calorific value of the dish, it usually accompanies confit - hot preserved fat goose or duck leg – both birds, foie gras producers, having previously been conserved in their own fat. In theory, the goose or duck meat loses the fat in which it was preserved as it is re-heated.
. The other classic presentation of the cep is in an omelette, again fried with parsley and garlic. Recently I tried combining the two ideas. My potatoes were sliced, boiled and used to line an oiled dish (a quiche form) and kept warm under the grill. The egg, parsley,garlic and cep mixture when partly cooked, was placed on top and briefly placed under the grill. It was certainly filling but had less of the 'fried' taste of the other recipes.
There is an argument about how to prepare ceps before use. Old fashioned persons will blanch the cleaned and sliced ceps in vinegar water, then dry before frying. Modern Perigord housewives, who do not have so much time at their disposal, simply clean, slice and fry them. Having tried the blanching method, I have decided in favour of simple frying; blanching seems to confer a rubbery consistency on the cep which makes it rather disagreable to eat. Perhaps that was what put me off when I first ate them in restaurants.
As always with mushrooms, there are many old wives' sayings and beliefs. In the Dordogne it is darkly opined that once a champignon has been seen by the human eye, it will grow no larger. Well, obviously not, for what the human eye sees, human fingers will pick.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sunday is Chicken Day

As we were coming home from Bordeaux airport, along autoroute 89, direction Perigueux, late last Saturday, I saw a hen carefully shepherding a single chick along the near-side grass verge. I drew my husband's attention to the bird. Perhaps the fact of taking her chicks for insect hunts on motorway verges accounted for the fact that she only had one. We speculated on their chances of survival.
Chicken for Sunday lunch is probably a standard no brain answer, assuming Sunday catering to be a problem. Nevertheless, with only the mildest guilt twinge, I had decided to get a chicken for last Sunday's lunch. Saturday I went off to the local organic butcher because I do prefer my meat to have had a natural life, as far as is possible, before it is killed and I, with my nearest and dearest, sit down to respectfully eat it. Also I knew that he was open all day unlike almost all the other specialist shops. Only he had gone on holiday. It is August, after all.
Fortunately for me – and those who were to eat Sunday lunch with me – there was a farmers'
produce shop close by, and it was open. On the off chance that it still had some chickens I stopped and went in. It was a splendid shop. There were the seasonal vegetables, courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, carrots and beans, an amazing variety of salads. The fruit looked rather tired, as though it had walked there by itself instead of being driven in padded boxes and comfort. There was goats' cheese in all its varied forms next to pots of local honey. There was a neatly tiered display of farm made jams next to the freezer with farm made ice-cream. In the long cold display of decidedly artisanal vacuum packed cuts of meat I discovered the chickens, lightly clad in cling film with date of slaughter, weight and suggested latest date of consumption tacked on. I selected one and went to pay.
Come Sunday, it was time to process the bird. Like all direct-from-the-farm and organic chickens this one had its head, still attached to neck and body, tucked under one leg and its wings neatly turned under to form a stable base. (This authentic presentation has been known to provoke screams from urban holiday makers in the La Chaise gites – as much as 10 dcb on the Edvard Munch scale.) It was white and scrawny, a most unlovely bird, what my late mother in law would have called 'a scratcher', using her best Scottish accent. But perhaps its mother had loved it had it ever met its mother, as the hen on the autoroute obviously loved its chick. More likely its first view of life was from an incubator.
After some 30 plus years buying farm chickens I am no longer squeamish, so merely got down my long, sharp knife and hunted for the poultry shears. A couple of cuts where the neck joins the body, a deft snap with the poultry shears and the carcass almost looked like one of those supermarket jobs presented on polystyrene barquettes. All that was left to do was to remove liver and giblets from the interior and substitute lemon, garlic, bay leaf and salt. But this time – the first time ever – I found that someone, presumably the proud breeder, had included the two feet in the cavity, neatly peeled and with the toenails cut off. I don't (yet) know what to do with chicken feet.