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 The parasol has (with difficulty) been withdrawn from the terrace table as food and people no longer need protection from the sun.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 Franรงais: 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.