Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tiler on the roof

As fate would have it, we seem to have chosen the worst spring ever to have the main house roof re-done. It was very necessary but I am more than somewhat grumpy that the World Union of Rain Gods has decided to exercise ancient skills on south-west France. (Also on other areas of France, but I don't live in those.)

As promised Pascal Maillet, our newly accredited roof tiler, arrived mid-May complete with flat bed truck and his over-sized Manitou. It was decided that he, and human employee, should start on the garden side of the house. It was also decided that the 'lawn' would not bear the weight of the Manitou the top of whose driving cabin is just below the edge of the house roof.

A walkway of so- called scaffolding, planks supported on ladders with braces, was created along that side of the house. Some of the ladders are wedged with wooden blocks on the sodden, be-mossed terrace, some sinking into the damp grass in front of the the fig tree. It was decided, to be on the safe side and for aesthetic garden reasons, to keep the Manitou on the drive way side of the house.

 Scaffolding, apparently. Spot the planks!

The way it works is like this: the employee climbs up the scaffolding, then up the roof to its ridge. He starts to sort good tiles from bad, to uncover the underlying structure of the roof. The bucket of the Manitou is loaded with new tiles, selected by M. Maillet from the pallet of tiles previously picked up by the Manitou's fork attachment. M. Maillet then brings the Manitou so close to the other side of the house that I have conniptions.  He extends its arm to ridge level, switches off the engine and joins his employee on the other side of the roof. Dead, broken and generally rejected toils are thrown into the bucket of the upraised arm. New, impermeable roof felt and new tiles are laid.
Somewhere in the foliage is scaffolding

Next comes a balletic moment of elephantine engines. The Manitou, arm still raised is backed away from the house, does a three point turn to face the flat-bed truck. The truck backs and turns to present its side to the bucket, the bucket tips, the broken tiles rain in. The noise is fearful. Fortunately this is just before lunch, when we are truly awake.

But the most impressive part of this whole exercise is the overal lack of noise with which it is performed. The tilers arrive at around 8 a.m. - we are not what is called in French 'matinal', that is morning people. In fact we have usually gone to bed late, woken at about seven in the morning and need a coffee or hot chocolate, with an half hour's reading, to accept the new day. All the curtains are drawn. All we hear are footsteps on the roof – the tilers' radio is not switched on until they hear ours, their voices do not resume a normal pitch until our curtains are open. And neither speaks to us until we have first spoken to them.

The Manitou at rest

Monday, May 20, 2013

Weapon of Mass Destruction: the Sheep

One can seriously go off sheep, especially when they no longer look pretty. At the moment the ewes look all angular and awkward. They have recently been shorn, so the hip bones, shoulders and spine are very visible. Also, I think, they feel unlovely, undignified. It will take a little while for the fleece to grow back and cover their bones.

In the meantime, not only have they eaten the flowers off all the early purple orchids under the ash trees, they have kicked over the three serapia lingua next to the pine tree in Pont François field. It is four years since those orchids last showed their purple, asparagus like heads, in virtually the same place. My fault, I suppose, I should have protected the plants before the sheep got in that field. But how? At least they ate the other orchids, possibly for worming purposes, but just kicking the plants over is pure ovine vandalism.
serapia lingua to be?
But, of course, the real answer probably lies with the lambs. They are 'children' after all and human children explore by putting things in their mouths, then spitting them out or swallowing them, depending on the taste. Purple, obviously, does not taste as nice as pink. Is gambolling a form of ritual violence?
 Moi?  a hooligan?

Fortunately, in the field known as Fontenelles, on the slope behind green five, where the juniper bushes are, a new crop of orchids is coming through. The pyramid orchid is one of the most prolific followed by what should be the scented orchid but my knees were too stiff for me to get down and test. To my great joy I saw one 'hanging man' orchid, doubtless there will be others. There was a solitary burnt tip and, sheep permitting, later this month or early June we might be lucky and see some bee, fly and spider orchids.

hanging man orchid - not fully out
The luck element comes in because the sheep do not like the grass on this slope but stay on the flat. All I have to do is to persuade/bully the Wonderful Arnold into NOT mowing or strimming that area until the orchids are over. Never mind the lost golf balls, one can always buy more. You cannot buy wild orchids. And, at the rate at which the juniper bushes are dying off, we soon may not have orchids on that slope at all. It was very evident on my walk that on the cleared area of the slope, where the dead junipers had been removed, there were no orchids in the grass.

New junipers are seeding themselves but whether they have settled on ground that will please orchids, I don't know. There is a splendid new specimen at the head of the pump lake and some smaller ones growing along the fence between fairway six and the horse fields. These I shall have to defend, tooth and nail, against mowers and golfers for the soil might just be suitable for new orchids. Sheep don't seem to eat junipers.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

May - the month of strawberries and alcohol

May is strawberry time in the Dordogne which prides itself on producing the first, and best, strawberries in all of France. Sadly the May weather has not been at all propitious for this delicious fruit, temperatures way below seasonal averages – or at least below memories of temperatures in previous months of May. 

The earliest strawberry is usually the 'Gariguette' a long, narrow pointy fruit which is supposed to have the best flavour. This is then followed by the 'Clery' which is larger and rounder. In fact, I think the strawberries have been getting larger over the past few years to the detriment of their flavour. I would serve individual bowls of, say, Gariguettes, with cream and sugar – to be eaten with a teaspoon. Now I find I am having to slice the fruit to get it on the teaspoon!

So different from the little wild strawberries in the woods, rarer and rarer.
Shortly after having purchased La Chaise, and 'sold' a number of large oak trees to the local saw mill, we had a mega harvest of wild strawberries. The little plants profited from the sudden light. JP picked 4 kg – yes, four kilos – which we ate with four friends in one greedy evening. We have never had so many since.
At the moment the strawberries cost about 3.50€ for a barquette of 250 grammes and greed makes one forget the price. For the moment, only quality fruit is on offer but very soon certain quantities of sub-standard fruits will be offered pour la confiture. Making strawberry jam is not easy as the fruit tends to collapse when cooked, has virtually no pectine to help it to 'jell' so many lemons, or sugars with added pectine, have to be used. But it does look so pretty in its pots....

However, the genuinely providential Dordogne housewife, the one who despises most commerçants, is busy making her own aperitif liqueurs, namely
vin de noyer, vin de pecher, vin de cerisier, depending on which is the favourite in her household. These have to be made in the month of May with the very young leaves of the relevant trees. The walnut leaves must be barely unfurled, the peach leaves picked before the 'cloque' has attacked them, and the cherry leaves before the green fruits are visible.

The recipe is the same in each case: first acquire some decent, farm made – most likely illegally distilled – eau de vie that is at least 40 degrees proof. Then a collection of 1.5 litre bottles, shape and colour indifferent. Another collection of 75 cl bottles of attractive shape and dark colour. Into the first put a good handful of washed, dried, leaves, a wine glass of white crystal sugar and a wine glass of eau de vie. Add a bottle of good red Bergerac from your cellar. Put in a dark place and wait. After about a week – you must wait at least that long – filter the resulting mixture and bottle in the interesting bottles. Cork and put away until the summer. 
I insist, leave it to mature until the first summer visitors. Then you can produce it, in sherry like quantities and glasses, murmuring - a little something I made myself. Guests will be very impressed, fall over with appreciation – or the
alcohol content of your home made drink.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

country travels

Last weekend Country Mouse and Spouse went to Town (London) which was mostly a mistake. To start with country distances between towns in France have got longer despite the expensive creation of motorways, or dual carriageways, between them. Take the distance between La Chaise and Angouleme. In our early years here we would allow a country hour door to door, even in our ancient Fiat 127. Now, in the very superior Audi (also previous Audis) we have to allow an hour and half. As for the distance between Montauban and Brive.....the official motorway panel says an hour twenty – we have never made it under two. Perhaps the town moves as one approaches.

And now the same has happened with Bordeaux airport. I always used to allow an hour forty to get there on the old national roads; now it has to be two. Admittedly these days I do allow a longer time for what I have dubbed 'the haywain factor'; that is when one gets stuck behind a mega-tractor trundling wood or hay from A to B at around 20 kmph on the feeder roads. Or a Spanish lorry trying to overtake another that is going 6 kmph slower than it is, uphill which takes about half an hour.

Consequently we got to the airport rather too late to catch our Easy-Jet flight with comfort – I won't say at what speed I drove in case local police read this. However the airline has cleverly managed to get the right to sell tickets on the Gatwick Express, so that was one hassle the less.

Once in London our mobile phones went on strike and refused to work reliably with any of their partner carriers.. And we were reminded that wretched English plugs – we needed a three pin adaptor French – English – have fuses in them. It took us some heavy cursing time to work out that, in one particular adaptor, the fuse had blown.

The mobile phone hassle became a serious problem when we headed to the English countryside from Liverpool Station: we lost each other and neither phone worked. It was a miracle that we both met up again at the appropriate departure platform. So off we trundled into eastern England, the weather was sunny, the sheep were the right way up and all was well. There was even a buffet wagon, boasting an 'on-board' chef who was dispensing breakfast – hot bacon rolls!

We missed the return train because I had left a case behind but, boldly, I went into the local station and, to my surprise, found there was a real, human person in charge – on a Sunday! I explained the problem in my best blonde manner. He said no problem and gave me a handwritten chit to change the ticket. The train inspector accepted this, no problem. So, there are country manners in remote, rural England too.