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.