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!