Tuesday, August 28, 2012

sticky joys

The last three days have been dominated by jam making, jam filing and jam throwing away. In short, I made 24 pots (assorted sizes) of plum jam, both red and yellow plums, and threw away 5 random pots of 'stuff' mostly without labels. These included a couple of 3 year old containers labelled 'hot tomato chutney', probably unsafe. Net gain to jam store: 19 pots. Total jam store, 115 pots that I could see, total pots likely to be consumed by JP = 10; he only eats marmalade.

There is something immensely satisfying about making jam, especially from your own fruit. It is not just that the result looks very pretty, or that it can be sold or exchanged or even eaten. It is the idea of conservation, of preservation for winter, of independence from those evil agro-industrial companies that produce 'jams' heavens only knows how and with what. My jams are at least equal balances of sugar and fruit with, if the fruit is low in pectin, the juice of a lemon (organic of course). Somehow the judgement required in assessing exactly the setting point (without thermometer) on a cold saucer seems a witch like skill. The whole is a blissfully sticky job, many tea-trays and tea cloths covered in jam spatter, then paraffin wax when it comes to sealing the pots.

Fruit processing can be a messy job but is much helped by a decent radio programme – France Inter or France Musique – and the occasional foray into tasting. Plums are amongst the easiest of fruits to prepare, just halve and pop into a pot with an equal quantity of sugar. I let them marinade overnight. The secret that recipes forget to mention is that the plums should be cooked soft before being brought to a setting boil otherwise you will just find yourself re-boiling the lot, having potted and then discovering it will not set.

The rejected preserves were mostly pesto – just basil with olive oil and pine nuts, no cheese as that goes sour – and apple mint jelly. Both suffered from the same defect. For some uknown reason basil and pine nuts absorb olive oil like sponges, so however little one puts in a pot, eventually the oil spills over. It smells fine, unlike when one puts pecorino in the mixture which goes sour very fast. The pots I rejected dated back two years. The basil was one solid lump, smelt all right but I was dubious. The jelly had gone from the mint, leaving a hard, unlovely lump.

In fact I have found a cheat's way of making pesto: first cook your pasta, troffiete or linguine or whatever, drain well and keep warmish. Then, in a large frying pan, put olive oil, ground pine or walnuts, finely shredded basil leaves. When these have melted, put in the pasta to warm up, lastly add grated pecorino.

I have totally given up on mint jelly as a larder stand-by. I just make sure there are a few pots of apple jelly, not too old, and mix in the chopped mint the day before. This may be difficult in 2012, so far all the apples have dried on the trees. My French friends are still dubious about mint jelly.

Apart from the plums, the fruit on the trees looks very sad. The peaches are few and small. The Comice pear tree has totally dried out, lost all its leaves though its branches are still supple. It might revive if we get this week's promised rain. The other pear trees bear their usual crop of black-spotted inedible fruit. There is only one pear tree whose fruit I appreciate. It has a hard, brown skin and needs long slow cooking with a few cloves stuck into the flesh. Then it becomes a tender pink. It is what I was served with roast pork in Holland – and that was a long time ago.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A week of heroes

My present number one hero is Didier Angibaud, the vidangeur, more familiarly known in English as the pig slurry man. This is the man who came at short notice to empty the leaking swimming pool and transfer the chlorinated water into the golf course reservoir which was desperately low.

The swimming pool was steadily leaking into the fields which, at nearly two euros the cubic metre, was unacceptable as an option for any length of time. Nor was the water doing any good to the fields. The grass grew high and rank. The sheep refused to, and were not allowed to, graze it. The pear tree may have benefitted but that is doubtful. Anyway, the water percolated into the septic tank inspection chamber and chased out a lot of flies. Not desirable around holiday homes. And we had probably lost 50 cubic metres already before deciding enough was enough.

Fortunately, having taken the executive decision to close the gîte pool we were able to offer our holiday makers the use of our own larger, heated pool with wave machine. Even more fortunately the temperatures have been so high we have not had to heat this pool but it has swarmed with a variety of small children.

Didier owns a couple of heavy tonnage tanker lorries more usually employed in emptying septic tanks and pig slurry tanks. The contents he can 'resell' as fertilizer, assuming the recipient fields are not too far away. When he comes to clear our four septic tanks the 'boues' are usually emptied into some discreet place in the woods. He was pleased by the neat solution of emptying the pool water into the Black Pond in the woods, mostly because he could do this from the roadside.

It took him about seven trips to empty the pool. Mathematical persons present reckoned he put 75 cubic metres into the Black Pond. Of course the water pouring down the side of the pond did soften the bank. As we were watching, a cherry sapling loosened its hold on the earth and slowly sank, upright, towards the bottom of the pond.  It is still standing there and will doubtless flourish. With any luck the chlorinated water will have killed off the pond weed but will not affect the insect pond life. Insects can go elsewhere – weeds are stuck.

Number two hero is the Wonderful Arnold who had been watering the greens using the horse tubs, filling each by hand, hauling them from green to green with the tractor, then watering each green by hand. This had to be done to keep the greens alive until the irrigation system could be cobbled back into use which also required more water in the reservoirs. And various, expensive, complicated taps and valves until the pump can be properly put back into working order this winter. The pump and I are not friends.

And my third hero is our pool man, M. J-F Bonnin who comes every fortnight during the summer season. He came one morning early, disrupting his schedule, with temperatures just about touching 30 C, to put the winter cover on the pool to secure it, just in case some adventurous children got into the pool garden, despite all my devices, and decided to walk across the pool. Nephew Freddie tried that once, on a simple pool cover. He did not get very far. Obviously M. Bonnin is looking forward to replacing the torn liner and doing all the associated works – but he is being very prosaic about it, not gloating at all.

So far, 2012 has seriously been an annee de poisse, an unlucky year – and we are still in August. If it does not rain soon, the natives will get restless: no rain in the last ten days of August, no champignons in the early days of September.  And this morning, August 20th, one of JP's ancestors (a Wedderburn) decided to fall off the wall, doing considerable damage to his plaster and gilt frame but non to the decanters on the table below. Presumably he was a wine buff.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

'Greece', Blues, Bugs

The delight of friends coming to stay is that one sees La Chaise through fresh eyes, especially if those friends' eyes have not visited for some time. All of a sudden one forgets leaking roofs, thistles, sulking pumps and the lack of follow through on the assumed sale of lambs. The beauty of the place returns.

Thus it was that I went with Caroline (and my stick) to 'Greece', the hilly part of our fields at the end of the property, an area officially known as 'Fontenelles' otherwise 'Little Springs'. The 'Little Springs' were turned into a large pond, with pump, in the hollow of the valley some 20 years ago in the course of which the caterpillar digger nearly drowned and had to be towed out by two tractors. (Another story, another time.) We called the hillside 'Greece' because of its rough grass, visible chalk stones, evil thistles, juniper bushes and rampant herb plants. It was also a hillside that ( before sheep ) showed a large variety of wild orchids when climatic conditions were propitious.

The herb plants, mostly wild majoram and ground creeping thyme ( serpolet), still flourish though the junipers are beginning to die. Caroline and I went down there because the herbs attract almost as many butterflies as the Buddleia by the kitchen door. The difference between the two is that the Buddleia predominantly attracts Fritillaries, the day-time flying Humming Bird and Hawk moths. 'Greece' has the Blues, the Adonis, the Common, probably the Short-Tailed and the Large, never mind the commoner butterflies, white or yellow. In fact, on a visit in 1990, Eric Rudge – who knows his butterflies – catalogued eight different types of Blue. Dave, from York (where are you Dave?) photographed one by means only known to him and other butterfly photography experts. 

We wandered up the hill-side to Green 5 from which we had a wonderful view back to the Farmhouse buildings. The Blues were busily everywhere, dipping on the ground spreading thyme, on the higher majoram flowers, ignoring the vetch and the clover. Around us the age old junipers were dying with a high rise form of thistle threatening to take its place. Possibly the carduus nutans, which is hairy,though the picture in my wild flower book shows something more like eryngium maritimum, which is a more naked plant, both described as rare-ish and the latter preferring sandy soil to the chalk which we have which suits the former. Whichever – it cannot be swiped dead by a walking stick.

Then Caroline pointed: amongst the Blues there was a totally black butterfly, only one, and sooty black. We hurried back to consult my butterfly bible and Caroline decided that what we had seen was a variation of the very common White Admiral – ab.obliterata, a White with all its white obliterated by black. We were very impressed with ourselves (and the Collins butterfly book*) so had a few more glasses of wine than normal, on holiday, that is.

It was only a day later, when Caroline and family had headed safely off towards the Channel coast, that I discovered I had come back with another, better known, insect from 'Greece'. A few aoutat - harvest mites in English or chiggers in American - had hitched a lift on my skin and were busy feasting on my blood. Ironic, given that I always warn our holiday tenants to wear shoes and socks when walking in the fields because of these beastly little mites which are the larvae of microscopic acariens. I was wearing espadrilles but a skirt and no socks, silly me. As a consequence I was itching for days until I realised what had bitten me. The little xxxxx always bite where clothes are tight, e.g. under bra,belt and knicker lines. At first, before one knows what they are, the horrid possibility of fleas occurs. The only remedy is a long, hot bath, an anti-histamine, and a glass of wine – this last for the morale.
Dear Caroline, if you read this, and you have suffered from bites – it was not the bedding, it was the bugs......

*Butterflies and Day flying Moths, of Britain and Europe, Collins 1989

Love flies

Last Thursday, August 9th, the day of Saint Amour, the ants of La Chaise had sex. It is an expression I dislike intensely. It puts love-making, or pro-creation, on the same level as the consumption of an ice-cream cone. In the case of these ants, lasius niger most likely, for one gender the act is death-dealing, for the other a sentence to a life-time of hard work. The males die, the queen females burrow nests and pro-create until the end of their life-time which can be as much as 15 years. Both lose the wings that so briefly take them into the warm air of a summer evening.

In French it is called 'la nuit des folles amours des fourmis' . Mating is such a boring, anglo-saxon word. I doubt whether 'having sex' can be translated into French, anymore than the idea of 'teetotal'. The ants' mad night of love lasts 24 hours, maximum 48, and hurts no human.

Unfortunately most urban human holiday makers, even French ones, are not too keen on flying ants, or any other insect, not too indulgent about their (invisible) sexual activity. In previous years we have noticed the ant phenomenon whilst having supper on our terrace. A few thousand or so ants get burnt by the supper table candles, then take their courtship dance elsewhere. This year, the ants decided that their Prom would be held on the field side corner of the Farmhouse pool where it is hit by the last of the evening light. The pool was already leaking salt water into the fields. We noticed nothing at the main house until there was a frantic call from the Farmhouse. 'You must do something'.

It was a most impressive sight, unless you normally live in the Versailles suburbs. Then it is alarming. The ants covered the tiled rim of the pool to about a metre either side, never mind those that were drowning in the water. Obviously one cannot count individual ants but I would guess they were in their many thousands, hundreds of thousands. By this time their mating ritual had been accomplished and most were wingless. With a brief prayer of excuses to the God of Ants, I took a bucket of pool water, a mop and swept them all into the grass. Then I used the pool skimmer to fish the rest from the water. I hope some of the queens survived. At least the holiday makers were happy, but only because they thought I had 'done something' though nothing actually useful. And the flies were watching us.

For a long time now I have noticed that there seems to be some relationship between ants at La Chaise and certain of the thistle plants in our fields. The ants make a nest under the roots of the thistles, so lifting the plant somewhat above ground level. As I swipe the flower head off the thistles with my stick, I wonder a little about this seemingly weird relationship.

Alright, I know the thistle is the national flower of Scotland but I do not know why. JP's family has adopted the thistle as the family insignia. Now I read that aphids are apparently particularly partial to thistles and ants are very fond of the sugars produced by these same. So the ants nurture both the plants and the insect. It means that ants are farmers really – like us, only smaller, more numerous, more serious.