Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reality check

It is only too easy to forget, living in our lovely, private valley that there are two reasons for having sheep in our fields. First, they exist to eat the grass so the golf fairways do not need to be mowed every other day. The second is for the ewes to give birth to lambs which we feed, then kill to eat.

For many years we were intermittently protected from this reality because various third parties dealt with the problem, selected the lambs, took them away and paid us. The other way of avoiding the reality was to sell live lambs to engraisseurs, keep a few for friends, ourselves. But I still had to take those to the abattoir and get the carcasses cut up.

Then, a great stroke of luck! An organic co-operative decided to hire a butcher. His task was to select and collect animals, take them to the abattoir and cut up the carcasses ready for sale. The various joints were vacuum packed, weighed and labelled. This made it so much easier to sell – half a lamb, pre-packed, freezer ready.

This butcher, the best 'third party' of all, invested heavily in a laboratoire, so that he would meet all sanitary and bio regulations. Unfortunately, success went to his head and he quickly opened a butcher's shop – not in a good location – and started to visit local markets.

Of course, he equally quickly went spectacularly bust, six zeros if one can believe local rumour. Of course I felt sorry for him – but slightly less than I felt sorry for me, back at square one. Fortunately, in 2012 I was put in touch with a young farmer who was just starting to breed Clun Forest sheep – he bought all the lambs with great enthusiasm. Promised to buy this year's lambs, so I was quite serene. Silly me.

But another engraisseur who lived closer by was a retired sheep farmer who missed his sheep. So he took all bar five that I kept for autoconsommation. Audrey, Alexandre and I (actually mostly A&A) had to work out a way to get the lambs to the local abattoir and then to find a butcher. By leaning on friends, discussing euro charges, the lambs got taken to the abattoir and we found a butcher who would help.

However, we ourselves had to pick up the carcasses, in my car. I vacuumed the boot, lined it with sheets and off went, Alexandre and I, arriving at the secretariat at 08.30 a.m as instructed. The secretary was there. I paid the charges and asked if the carcasses could be loaded.

The secretary said the director had gone to have a blood test. We asked when he would be back. She did not know because he had just gone for his blood test. We commented how unpleasant this was, a blood test on an empty stomach.. All she knew was that he was gone for a blood test. Every time Alexandre grew a little taller, leaned over her slightly. She got the point: blood test or no, we were not leaving without our lamb carcasses. She asked Alexandre if he thought he could carry the carcasses – he said, of course. Sigh.

Alexandre was garbed in a plastic jacket to save his clothes and we were duly given our four lambs. They looked beautiful. When we got them to the butcher, he said they looked beautiful. After he had jointed the carcasses, the butcher said there was a lot of meat and it looked very good. Alexandre and Audrey were the first to eat some of the meat – it tasted very good, they said. And therein lies the consolation of breeding animals for meat.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fire all the time

The greatest of country winter skills is the ability to keep the home fires burning, especially the ones in open fire-places. The truly skilled, and lucky, country fire-bugs manage to keep an open fire alive for twenty-four hours. It is revived in the morning from embers that were covered in ashes last thing at night. The ash broods over the embers like a hen over eggs.
seemingly no sign of life

We feel very proud because we have managed to keep a fire going for seven days. This morning's fire I revived with three Kleenex, a couple of sticks and half a fir-cone. No matches involved.

Obviously the type of wood that is being burnt counts for a lot. The fruit woods, for example, (cherry,pear,apple) are lightweight and burn clear away. The same goes for the 'white' woods – ash, aspen, beech. Pine burns well, smells good but tends to spit and tar up the chimney.
Not a good wood for a room with expensive rugs in front of the fireplace, for then, as the loi d'emmerdement maximum' will have it, the sparks will jump the fireguard. Sparks from chestnut logs that are not properly dry are even worse – they seem to be able to jump six feet.

The secret is to get an angular log for last thing at night, one that has all sorts of nooks and crannies in which fire sparks can lurk. It is what professional firemen dread. The fire seems to be out but a little wind – or breath in our case - and the glows start to flame. Add a little dry tinder and the whole flares up.
but there is a glowing heart

The best, the most prized and most expensive firewood is well seasoned oak. Heavy oak logs that have been split into manageable widths, about a metre long, and that have dried for three a good three years since splitting. We were briefly the proud owners of an X ton hydraulic log splitter but it was a cumbersome device, our tractor was underpowered. Eventually it became too dangerous to take it into the woods. Fortunately, Jean-Claude down the road had always wanted one and he had a full powered farm tractor. We struck a deal, he took it away and we gained lots more space in the tractor shed.

Now we use professional wood cutting companies to cut down selected oak and chestnut trees, do the splitting and stacking near the house. Then we – that is Alexandre – cuts the logs into stove or fire-place sized chunks and stacks them. A very comforting view.

Of course, in line with the law that one workman creates work for another – the bucherons did manage to drive their ginormous tractor and trailer right over the the inspection chamber of the Hermitage's septic tank. |In March I screeched for M. Angibaud, who empties our septic tanks (and any leaking pools), who said he would come, fix. In September he came – by which time I had almost given up. But he did a beautiful job. His sons were this year's chimney sweeps.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Country Mouse travels with her Hat

Country Mouse went to London last week. But this time she went better armed. She wore her Hat. Actually, not only the Hat, but also a black suede coat with a detachable black fox fur collar (bought for 10€ in a brocante) and very shiny black shoes. Sadly, age dictates, these were flatties.

The Hat is a 'Borsalino', bought for heaven knows how much, many years ago in Swaine, Adeney and Briggs, then of St James, London SW1. I bought it after Humphrey Bogart was filmed wearing it and before Harrison Ford gave it world-wide fame in the Indiana Jones films. In the United States these Italian made hats are called 'fedoras'. In TV series they are usually worn by Mafia types, along with the ubiquitous, long camel hair overcoat. (See any episode of 'Law and Order.')

The Hat's influence was first felt at St Astier railway station where Country Mouse, her husand, our daughter/chauffeur and grandson arrived just as the train was drawing in. We were on the bridge over the rails, I waved and blew a kiss at the driver who was already being beseiged by daughter and grandson. The train driver waited for us – most unusual - to board and the conductor did not charge a penalty when we had to buy tickets from him. Indeed we got the standard old age discount which is considerable.

It, (or should I say we?) drew glances for the rest of our journey to London. The Gatwick border control agent asked me to take my Hat off – the Bordeaux agents did not. Obviously leaving is less important than arriving. It made me more conspicuous – without the Hat there were times when I was invisible to taxis, or so it seemed. And it impressed in shops.

But I think the Hat's most important influence was on our return trip. We boarded the dreadful Gatwick Express at Victoria Station and installed ourselves, first class in deference to the Hat, at a table. I nodded at the man with the drinks trolley. He acknowledged my greeting.

Later we bought some drinks from him, there was a confusion about the cost. Then I gave him a pound tip and a handshake. He smiled and disappeared.

Somewhat encumbered by luggage, we got off at Gatwick – only to find the ticket barrier at the top of the escalator, closed. And JP's ticket was on the table in the train carriage. He turned, resigned to going back to find train and carriage. Then we heard a voice, 'sir, sir and madam'! It was the young man from the drinks trolley. Would he have recognised us without my Hat?