Thursday, November 13, 2014

Extended summer

It is fast becoming a habit, the migration of Percival Parents to warmer climes as the Dordogne winter hovers.   I say 'hovers' deliberately, for this year the Indian summer lasted practically till the end of October.  We left before it did.

 The grapes dried on the vine before I could pick them. (Alexandre won't let me use the step ladder anymore, we are both too wobbly, the ladder and self).  And, as a result of the lingering warmth, some plants got quite confused. Rose bushes tentatively offered buds,which I quickly picked.The olive tree - presented to the aged PP's this summer - settled happily into its new quarters at the bottom end of the the garden.  The theory behind its location is that it would get direct sunlight from about 11 a.m. until practically sundown. So far, so good.
Here's a happy little olive tree

It was also decided to plant out, i.e. take out of its pot and put in the earth, the latest oleander which should produce wonderful, dark red blooms.  And it started to do so - having sulked all official summer time.   Lack of sunlight, Audrey pronounced, Michelle (the giver) thought so too - then Arnold and Alexandre supported Audrey's thesis. So could not argue.  Since Jeremie was coming with his small digger to clean out the sheep shed anyway, we decided to ask him also to dig planting holes.  Both jobs well done.

But the oddest plant reaction of all, was that of the gourd which is draping itself all over the wrought iron gate to the vegetable garden.  A&A planted the gourd next the gate because they found the latter rather 'stark'. I keep forgetting to tell them that the curved archway, with its simple gate, was designed and lovingly wrought by the wrought iron specialist of Riberac, a certain Monsieur Beau.
A late gourd flower, behind it - the result of a previous flowering..

Anyway, the gourd suddenly decided to flower again.   Fragile white flowers came, showed but lasted only a day.

There is no understanding plants.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Greed Factor

Fear not, despite the prevailing gloom in local shops and cafes, despite the dire predictions of taxi drivers, boletus edulis, the coveted cepe did make a belated appearance.   Two weeks late compared to last year. A very long two weeks for the dedicated cepe hunter-gather-consumer.

So, as usual, there were cars parked in every gap in the woods that was accessible by road.  And in the roadside ditches, elderly persons risked life and limb (they should know better) slithering along, armed only with a hastily cut stick and a battered plastic bag.

And, as usual, in the local shops and cafes - even the hairdressers' salons - the arguments rage over whether and how to control the harvesting of this highly prized wild mushroom.  What makes people cross is partly jealousy - of the greater gathering success of some - partly anger that non wood owners 'profit' from their success on wood owners' property by selling what they have stolen.  For it is still legally theft to take wild mushrooms from land that does not belong to you.
A rare boletus triplet, the top one is actually growing on the
left hand one, found in La Chaise woods.

And, as usual, humans are attempting to control nature, domesticate the wild. Way back in 1995 an association was created, the Cepe du Perigord to research ways and means of encouraging cepes to grow with greater regularity and in greater quantity. Last year Cepe du Perigord formally became a brand name and those selling under this name have to conform to certain standards of presentation, identification, date of harvesting - and be owners of woodland. Reassuring for the ignorant buyer - and who would be bold enough to be certain of their judgment in the matter of fungi?

So far it does not look as though the cepe can be reliably cultivated though there are various theories on how to encourage their growth. Number one theory is to keep out trampling hordes of ignorant, non woodland owners. It is true that once we had fenced in part of our woodland, our 'harvest' of all sorts of wild fungi more than quadrupled.

Surprisingly, the sheep seem to do little damage to emerging fungi, even when eagerly turning over the fallen leaves in search of chestnuts and acorns.
They were not even tempted to kick at the largest puff-ball ever.

The largest vessie du loup EVER

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Re-learning how to boil an egg

It was frequently said of my beloved grandmother that she did not know how to boil an egg.  Apparently this is the height of culinary incompetence.  But over a glass of gin each, neat Dutch gin, she confided to me that she had, once, known how to boil an egg.   But now there was someone to boil eggs for her so she filed this knowledge to the back of what active grey matter she still had.   We had a second glass of gin.

This memory surfaced with the official return of the Rayburn wood fired cooking range to active duty.  Cook (i.e me) has to switch from the three ring, top of the Bosch range electric hot-plate, a Bosch electric oven-microwave and an electric spit roaster (whose maker had probably better not be named), to a solid cast iron 54 x 27 cm cooking surface of uncontrollable variable heat, a cast iron oven box 35 x 38 x 30 cm wide, deep and high, ditto...

In short, I have to re-learn how to boil an egg.  One of the first things one learns about a solid surface cast iron hot plate is that it is not an efficient means of bringing water to the boil.  It takes too long.  And the longer the hot plate insulating lid is raised, the quicker the hot plate loses heat, also the oven.

Before anything one has to get the fire very hot, using small, fast burning logs. A supply of these should be too hand in the kitchen along with some heavy duty oak logs for taming down the fire, keeping it alight until evening cooking time.

Then step one in boiling an egg on the range is to put said egg into already hot water - slowly. (Pretend it is the mythical frog.)  I use hot water from the tap, pouring lukewarm water over the egg until hot water takes its place.  This, along with pricking one hole in the egg shell (a typically Dutch trick), should prevent the egg from cracking and spitting out white as the water temperature rises to boiling. 

The egg should be placed in the smallest possible container - I use an old 1960's blue enamel, Polish made, Habitat bought 1970's Turkish coffee maker. (Yes, it will also make Greek and Arabian coffee). Obviously it takes only one egg at a time.

Step two is to place this pan, with a lid, on the apparently hottest part of the cast iron plate.   This is usually as near as possible to the insulating lid over the oven , still down, as that is where the hot air passes in high concentration.  It is important to have a lid for the pot.   I modified a very large, deep cork to fit this particular pan.
Egg boiling tools, the egg pricker,  the Polish pan plus lid,  the egg decapitator.

Step three is to program a timer which you will set in motion as soon as you hear the water boil, properly boil.   Whilst waiting you can toast bread on the exposed parts of the cast iron plate.   I recommend using a long bladed knife for turning the bread - do it frequently to avoid excessive burning.

Step four is to get the egg out of the egg boiling pot and into egg cup as quickly as possible.   Put egg boiler, still containing hot water on the flue box to keep hot for possible second egg. When the egg is slightly cooled - the time it takes to get from range to table - use egg decapitator and quickly remove top.  If egg not cooked to recipient's satisfaction, pass to someone else and try again.

Luckily for me, the cook books I acquired when I first started to live at La Chaise, namely the Larousse Gastronomique of 1938 and La Mazille's 'La bonne cuisine du perigord' (Flammarion) are both excellent on technique but vague on temperature and timing.   One puts the dish on a 'hot fire', or 'on the edge of the fire', a dish of cooked cucumbers (!) will take about one and a half hours....a roast is cooked - when it is cooked.  How did any cook ever manage to get anything to table in sequence and on time?

And how on earth could anyone imagine that such a range cooker, perhaps even one twice as long, could produce elegant dinners of many courses for a party of twenty or more?   In my view, the 'Downton Abbey' kitchen seems unreal....the largest party I remember cooking for, a Christmas one, numbered twelve.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Early autumn oddities

Proper autumn weather always arrives sooner than expected.  All of a sudden one is closing curtains in the early evening, peaking around them at seven in the morning only to find that it is still dark outside. The day closes faster and opens more slowly.

Our usual pattern here is to have a warm but misty start to the day, a start that promises warmer weather by mid-day.  The warm weather comes after lunch (taken on the terrace) where evening drinks are later served as the sun settles behind the high woods across the valley. Toasts are drunk to 'shepherd's delight' as the sheep noisily rootle in the woods for chestnuts and acorns, then finally settle for the night's digestion in the high fields.
morning misty view from the terrace - towards the fields

For a while we were all lulled into thinking this autumn would be a standard issue autumn.   But, if a few days experience is any basis for judgment, it seems this autumn will not be as autumns of yore.

On the one hand, I blame the mycophiles who are in great distress.   The tail end of August, most of September, were very dry months with only sporadic rainfall - though some of it was impressively heavy.  As a result the ground in the woodlands is dry, too dry for fungi to arise at the appropriate phases of the moon.   And now it has started raining, a full moon is expected on Wednesday as well as a rise in day-time temperature.   This should mean fungi by Sunday.
If yes, their prayers have been heard first.

But the hunting season has started - so all may not be safe in those woods. Scared game, over enthusiastic dogs with little bells attached, and armed men in strange combinations of camouflage clothing highlit by fluorescent vests, will also be noisily ploutering around.

Another sign of an unexpectedly cold early autumn is the arrival of strange insects attempting to take over the house.  We quickly get used to the dopey flies, head-butting against the window from the inside.  Even the odd, disoriented couple of dragon-flies in the conservatory were accepted and eventually persuaded outside.

A very silly arthropod indeed.

But i do not understand the fascination of the bath for spiders and other multi-legged beings.   Only a few days ago, truly the biggest spider I have ever seen, was trying to find minute roughness in the bath sides in in order to get out.   I had to help by hanging the shower mat over the side.   The millipede managed to get out by itself.  I rather wish I knew where they went.   Or perhaps I don't.

How many legs?   I did not stop to count.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Of fruit and flies...

A curious end to the summer, marked by small, unripe fruits and a noticeable absence of wasps and hornets.  Bees in the pool, yes, but few hornets in the vines and fewer wasps.

Now that the warm weather seems to have settled in without interruption of rain or unseasonal cold, the grapes are drying on the vine.  

somewhere in there is a butterfly

I have tried picking bunches of grapes, using the step-ladder but felt too insecure - (old age, wobbly ladder not drink).  Fortunately, the very tall Alexandre - who is also used to walking on stilts - has now forbidden me to use the step-ladder and promised to pick the remaining bunches of grapes. Then we shall make juice, using the steam extractor, followed by grape jelly which is very good with game.  Yes, the hunt season has started!.

In the meantime, the fruit fly hovers over every fruit in the kitchen, lives in hordes in the compost bin which makes one reluctant to raise its lid, and drowns quietly in any unattended glass of wine or other slightly fermented drink.

Considerable skill is required to remove a fruit fly from a glass of fruit juice, whether alcoholic or not.   First, consider the glass - can one get in two fingers or only one?  Are one's fingers sufficiently clean or should one use a spoon handle? To tilt the glass, or not?   

A lot of liquid will pour off either side of whatever implement is being used, finger or spoon handle, taking the drowned fly with it.  If one pushes too hard with finger against glass, one risks smearing the insect against the glass - might just have poured its contents down the sink from the beginning!

On a more serious note:   a Japanese variety of the ubiquitous fruit-fly 'drosophila suzukii' is attacking one of the Perigord's major productions - the strawberry.  According to the local agricultural paper, this fruit fly arrived in the environs around 2011 and now, three years later, is causing enormous physical and so financial damage to the second strawberry crop.  There is talk of a  loss of 600 tonnes of the fruit, resulting in a potential financial loss of 2.3 m euros....No joke, especially considering the economic repercussions (employment not the least of these) as well as the potential need for chemical pesticides....Research is being done on means of distracting the fly (using baker's yeast and powdered sugar) as well as trying to determine its natural parasites.

And here is a butterfly that has had too much grape juice...!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Bees in the Blue

One of the many basic rules of country life is that humans have to share place with other, non human forms of life. So, for example, I share my house with various insects, spiders,a variety of flies, the odd millipede,or hornets with a poor sense of direction.   In the house it is a constant battle to keep an acceptable balance, that is a balance acceptable to me. Outside the house humans have much less power.   .

BUT I draw the line at sharing my swimming pool with wild bees.  For the last month, ever since the weather has got reliably warm, ever greater numbers of bees have been congregating at the deep, top left hand corner of the pool. As so often with human versus other life form reactions, my hostility is based on fear.  I react severely to wasp and hornet stings, and the reaction has got worse with the years.  Yes, I know that - in theory - bees only sting in desperation. But a drowning bee is probably pretty desperate.
bees lining up on pool cover

When the pool cover is on, the bees line up in orderly fashion along its edge.  As the cover is rolled up, a little cloud of buzzing bees forms at the end furthest from the winding wheel - fortunately.   Then, as the rolled cover drips, part of the cloud settles on the paving, more enterprising bees head into the roll of damp plastic. Leaving the pool cover rolled means less bees in the pool, but still an unsettling number hovering around. And still some desperately paddling, drowning bees in the pool.
Bees, bees everywhere

I tried luring them away from the pool by providing another source of water, a neat aluminium barquette, weighted down by a stone, filled with pool water.  I assumed the saltiness was probably necessary to them.  This was useless.  The pool and its cover were still preferred though there were a couple of drowned bees floating near the stone.

Then I wondered if the very blueness of the pool water was the attraction. So I purloined a plastic baby lunch plate, put in some chunks of white coral to imitate the rough paving, added pool water, went away, waited.  Yes, that was acceptable - but there were more bees, enough for the new,small pool, the paving stones and the rolled up pool cover.  Sigh.

new bee pool

Apparently bees not only drink water, the worker bees also carry water to the hive in order to build winter quarters.  So, if the bee-keeper has not provided sufficient water near the hives - or if the bees are 'wild' - they will fly as far as necessary to get water.  There are many suggestions wandering round the internet as to how to determine the source of the bees, each more time consuming, slightly more absurd than the precedent. 

Since these bees do not appear to be 'swarming' there is no point in finding the nearest bee-keeper to come and fetch them home.  One has been recommended to sit and watch which way the bees fly when they leave the water and head for home.   It is said that bees fly above tree level when homing....given that our pool is surrounded by trees which are 40 plus metres high, and the bees fly individually, this is going to be difficult.

SO, until the bees have decided that their task is finished, or we stumble upon the location of the hive by accident and call in a bee-keeper, people will have to share the pool with bees.   The rule is: left hand side as you head for the deep end will be reserved for bees, right hand side for humans.  Now I just need someone who speaks bee to inform the bees....

Oddly, there are no bees anywhere near the beautifully situated, sun-kissed pool that is reserved for the holiday makers. And, apparently, in 'Bee-Keeping 101', students are recommended to supply plenty of water near the hives ...even if only to keep them out of the neighbour's pool....

Bee free pool - holiday makers only!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Autumn arrives, in boots.

Autumn arrived mid August at La Chaise. The weather gods gave up trying to be nice and concentrated on being unreliable. Fruitfulness was rampant rather than mellow.  Heavy rain storms beat plums, apples and unripe walnuts from the trees.  Intermittent bursts of sunshine fermented the fallen fruit, confused bees and butterflies. I saw one of each, rocking on the open wound of a fallen plum. They seemed friendly enough. Picking plums became dangerous because of the dopey hornets clinging to the fruit.

Our plum trees were obviously tortured in their youth.   Just look at the twisted trunks, the strangled bark. It is not just that the sheep use them as scratching posts.  Even the young plum saplings, self sown, are beginning to torture themselves into twisting.   Some of the trees have little or no heart-wood, are just hollow.   It is a wonder that they produce fruit at all.

Two tortured fruit tree trunks

The sheep get the runs from eating too many fallen plums, followed by wet grass. We worried about letting them into the former horse fields which are heavy on clover and different kinds of vetch. Worry unnecessary - the sheep suddenly remembered that there were other kinds of fallen fruit - namely chestnuts and acorns.   It was difficult to get them out of the woods, even when it was not raining.

Books on sheep-rearing strongly suggest that sheep predominantly eat grass.    Obviously the La Chaise Clun Forest sheep, when young lambs, were not read these books at bed-time.   Indoctrination classes may be necessary this winter. Something along the lines:  what you are eating now is hay, you like hay, hay used to be grass, you will like grass.   Sheep look at people with a peculiarly blank, slit-pupilled stare that leaves in the balance the answer to: which one of us is stupid?
Attractive but deadly

Formal confirmation of autumn's arrival was given by the emergence of the  autumn crocus flowers.  Their pale lilac petals look too fragile to be able to pierce the earth - but they do, every year in the same place.   The fragility is doubly deceptive .   This flower is extremely poisonous.  One local name for it is 
tue-chien, dog killer.  Apparently it is similar to arsenic in its effect (death) and there is no known antidote.  Curiously, many of the fungi that come up at this time also are inedible - or plain poisonous.

Red for danger?

A secondary confirmation came when the Official Local Crone was reported to have predicted a morning frost for Tuesday 22nd August.....She was wrong.   The weather gods got their act together, remembered that 'Indian summer' should be on their activity schedule.   The warm weather has duly arrived.

It is not that one wants to complain but this does mean that a glass of wine, or any other slightly alcoholic, fruit based beverage cannot be left unattended or uncovered.  The minute but suicidal fruit flies are present again and they will be in the glass in less time than it takes to sneeze. (Or the bottle, corks must be replaced pronto.)  Also the house flies are getting curious and the Queen Hornets are looking for winter quarters....

As always, the arrival of autumn was abrupt, unexpected.  Suddenly we are closing curtains in the evening, not opening them until after eight in the morning.    The year is suddenly shorter.    Must make a calendar note for next year.....

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Old Woman defies Weather Gods

It is said one swallow does not make a summer, well - nor do eleven.   They just make an appalling racket, rushing in and out of the workshop were there are at least three visible nests.  Then they line up, briefly, in rows on the old wire TV antenna, all the better to continue the squabble. But still it rained, not continuously but just a downpour or two when least expected.

Mildly irritated, I asked JP to light an evening fire in the sitting room to fight off the sensation and smell of damp.   It worked.  The room was pleasantly dry, the fire made nice noises, an elegant pyramid of wavering flames.  The following morning there was a little glow of warmth from the hearth.  And it did not rain all day.  But, the next day - sporadic downpours came again!

Truly cross, I decided to prepare my fiercest weapon against the cantankerous, contrary weather gods.  I decided to light the wood-fired Rayburn. Foolishly I thought it would require just a perfunctory service, a raking out of the ashes and dust.  Then I opened the flue cover...there, gleaming at me, was a pile of soot flakes, black as jet, going up the flue I knew not how high.   A gentle slapping of the flue pipe was followed by the sound of a shower of soot.

Old Woman's best Weapon against Weather Gods

It started raining outside.   Inside, I rolled up my sleeves, leaned over the Rayburn, embraced the flue pipe and removed its base cap.   The bucket standing ready below was immediately filled with the offending soot.  A couple of firm slaps to the flue pipe and more soot rattled down.

I fetched my trusty Nilfisk and vacuumed inside the flue, the gap between the hot plate and the top of the oven, the air intakes, the ash-pan, between the fire bricks and the cast iron walls of the hearth.  Then, Friday 15th August, Ascension Day, I lit the stove.  It is only Sunday - but the weather holds good.

But then, before I boast, I should point out that 15th August is often a pivotal day for weather according to local legend.  And the first autumn crocus has shown its head - fifteen days earlier than expected.   The Weather Gods may yet have tricks to show.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Male on notice

Small triumph with chickens - sometimes things go nearly right. Below a picture of proud father with his two wives and their four children. Four chicks is rather a poor yield for one cockerel with four always in such matters, it will be easiest to change the male. 

A proud father, his wives and offspring       

 Gallantly Audrey and Alexandre have assumed responsibility, arguing that it was their mismanagement of the broody hens and the persistence of the other two hens in laying next to them. I don't know - but the cockerel has been warned.  

Meanwhile the 'auntie' hens have been laying away.  Fortunately (H)aska the dog discovered where they were laying and showed A&A before eating the addled eggs.   It looks as though some period confined to hen barracks is on the cards for all.  

And this time the cockerel would be the winner, for the three junior hens would be added to his hareem.

As I said, sometimes things go nearly right - or so it seems.

Monday, July 28, 2014

10001 ways with a home grown courgette

The courgettes are coming, thick and fast, thin and fat, short and long, bright yellow and two shades of green, pale and dark. So, can tomatoes be far behind?
A rhetorical question.   The answer the soil, of course...and the behaviour of a climate on which we no longer can rely. The wisdom of the ancients, however wittily or obscurely expressed, is no longer of help.   So far A&A's tomatoes have shown no urgency to join the massive courgette production.   Tomatoes are still trucked up from Provence.

like candles in greenery - the yellow courgette.

The courgette, of course, is an inevitable constituent of the 'Mediterranean' diet, at least the vegetable part.   But home cooks soon run out of ideas on presentation and consumers turn as yellow as the vegetable itself if it is offered more than twice a week, undisguised.  So what to do?

Most courgette cooking methods involve frying in some form or other.  So courgettes have to be salted and allowed to stand as excess water drains off. Then, most often combined with aubergines (equally lightened of their water content) onions, tomatoes, garlic and herbs, they are reduced to a mush which is proudly presented as ratatouille.  Courgettes can be presented as spaghetti substitute, or better still as papardelle. Still difficult to avoid mushiness.

Once I was served 'grilled' courgettes, thin slices which had been marinated in best olive oil and then laid (gently) on the ridged, cast-iron grill normally used for meat. Delicious - but not to be tried at home, brain damage to prepare and cook.  Believe me, because I did.   Some things really should be left to experts with many hands to assist them.

 The most irresistible courgette dish is zucchini fritti, courgettes cut into match-sticks, battered, deep fried and served immediately.  Not easy in the average domestic kitchen.  However, the American technique of 'shake and bake' means zucchini fritti can now be made at home without too much hassle.   Only the usual problems attendant on deep frying.

The original 'shake and bake' flour mixture that I discovered was destined for chicken pieces.   It was just seasoned flour (salt, pepper, possibly some finely ground herbs or spices which was put into a paper bag, the oiled chicken pieces added, the whole shaken - chicken pieces then put into hot oven.  Result: very tasty.

To apply this method to courgettes is simple: use the match-stick blade of the mandolin, put pieces in sieve, sprinkle with salt and allow to disgorge.  Dry lightly in a tea-towel, then tip into a bag with your favourite mixture of seasoned flour.   Shake, deep fry and serve immediately.

This Sunday's mistake was to use self-raising flour, all that I had in store.  Bad planning, I know.   It made for a very sticky mess, zucchini fritti in clumps, rather like onion bhajis, but still delicious.

I love my rose bush.

What not every non gardener may know is that the courge family of vegetables is rampantly aggressive.  Plants will escape over the garden wall, embrace rose bushes.  Observant, Alexandre had an idea.  He would throw courge seeds on the heaps of straw and shit cleared from the sheep sheds.  His theory is that this would speed up the composting activity, and be a more aesthetic cover.

The trouble with home made compost is one never knows exactly what is in it.   This is probably why I have a flourishing cherry tomato plant amongst the petunias of the kitchen window box.

out of my way, petunia


Monday, July 21, 2014

apricot apocalypse with jam maker's new bible

A glut of fruit always produces a crisis, especially for those of the 'waste not, want not' school of home management.   Composting excess fruit, or allowing the sheep to eat themselves sick on it, seems like a cop-out, like ducking responsibility towards a demanding gift.

Last weekend five cageots - lightweight wooden cases - of ripe apricots from Provence arrived at La Chaise.  Five kilos of fruit per cageot.  It was a collective order gone wrong, some people did not follow through on their orders.  A few rotten fruits in each box rapidly contaminated the others.

The theory was that the fruits, picked at near maturity, had suffered from being transported in a refrigerated van and then put in store during one of the Dordogne's erratic heat-waves.
delicious macerating in best Victoria ironstone wash bowl.

Emergency jam making was the order of the day.   No time to shop for new jam-jars, extra sugar or sugar with extra pectin added.  Fortunately I have just acquired a new jam making bible - from the 'Jam Museum' , Museu de la Confitura'.*  A major virtue of its recipes is that only half the usual amount of sugar  suggested by English language cook-books, is considered necessary. So per kilo of apricots I only need half a kilo of sugar.

The apricot jam nestles happily with Spanish marmalade and French terrine

I halved the small fruits and macerated them overnight.   By breakfast time the sugar was all dissolved and the fruits looked almost transparent.  A little slow cooking to make sure the sugar entered the fruit, then the zest and juice of one lemon, a brief but fast boil - and it was done. Four pots of assorted sizes, sealed with white paraffin wax and a random selection of lids - job done.

And a mind left free to speculate on one of its favourite theories:   that transport is the root of all economic evil.

* www.museudelaconfitura

17123 Torrente

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Wild chickens and homing bantams

Somewhere in the woods, between La Chaise and Chantepoule, there are now pairs of wild chickens, cock and hen couples, that have escaped from the chicken caravan and its park.  Perhaps as many as four pairs - or perhaps they are all dead.

Hen escaping

One reason for optimism is that no feathers have been seen littering the woodland floor.  When chickens are attacked inevitably feathers are torn out.  The mess left behind after a fox, marten or dog raid has to be experienced to be believed.   Believe me.

For several weeks the hens (the term 'hens' includes cockerels) had been refusing to overnight in their caravan.  Instead, they chose to roost in the lower branches of the huge bay tree that looms over the garden wall.  They could fly because their wings had not been clipped.  It is usual to clip the flight feathers of one wing, so that the bird becomes unbalanced and cannot take off in flight. Only then they cannot fly away from danger either.

Another reason for optimism - with a lot of imagination - is because of the name of our nearest neighbour hamlet, Chantepoule or Chantegeline in its medieval form (from the Latin gallus).  The name can be variously translated as 'Song of the Hen', 'Hen Song' or even 'Singing Hen', depending on mood.   So perhaps Chantepoule is a numenous place for hens.

Chantepoule church dates back to the 12th C with retouches in the 14th and 19th - it has a rather crude stained glass window

Or perhaps not.  This innocuous little hill top hamlet, complete with former school, small church and churchyard with maybe less than ten family vaults, had a very bloody history during France's Wars of Religion (roughly 1562 - 1598).   There is a famous battle that bears its name.  In 1568, the Comte de Brissac (catholic) ambushed and killed the Baron Paulon de Mauvan (calvinist) in the woods of Chantepoule.  Doubtless many nameless peasant foot soldiers died also.

Actually, I remember reading somewhere that when the Chantepoule woods were cut down, a skeleton wearing armour was discovered inside a tree trunk. I have a fly-paper memory to which random snippets of information stick.  But I am not going to get cross-eyed checking this again.

Odd things, chickens.  A long time ago we bought six bantam hens (poules parisiennes) because they were pretty and the eggs reputedly very good. The seller was a charming professional breeder with a stand in St Astier market.

We duly shut them up in the hen-house for 24 hours with food and water, then let them out.  They refused to enter that day and flew up into the crippled oak that leans over the hen-house.  No way of cajoling down into 'safety' in the hen house.   

The following morning there were neither bantams nor feathers.  John reckoned the seller had trained them to return home, like messenger pigeons.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A short life, not always merry

The last ten days have been a terrible reminder of the fact that man proposes but God, gods or Nature, disposes.  We react more often than we act.   Death arrived suddenly amongst the lambs after worming.  We had no means of knowing whether it was the strength of the wormicide that stressed the lambs or whether they suffered a new, fatal infestation.  A warm, wet winter helps parasites to proliferate.

Disposal of dead animals is never easy, neither emotionally nor physically.  When an animal bred and cared for dies before the proposed time of slaughter, the breeder feels a failure, neglectful.   The unspoken bargain between human and food animal (via God or gods, if you like) is that the former provides a sheltered and natural as possible life for the animal before what is called 'le sacrifice' in old fashioned French.
This is how it is meant to be.....

The eleveurs in the Dordogne have not been helped by the re-organisation of 
'equarrissage' service.  It was run from a centre about 20 kms away from La Chaise, not always as speedily as could be wished but a service with a human point of contact.   It was likely that someone's aunt's second cousin's nephew worked there.  Indeed, a lady in the neighbouring village who offers a catering service, was aunt to a young man who worked for the local company.  Now, for reasons not known to me, it is run by a company some two hours' drive away - contact by automated telephone or internet.    Luck of the draw will decide when the collecting lorry comes by.  Meanwhile the cadaver, covered discreetly but firmly against possible carrion eaters, awaits in a wheelbarrow by the side of the road.

In as good an example of pathetic fallacy as ever discussed in literary classes, the weather has been as temperamental as a toddler, beyond human control or prediction.   A heavy, lurking quiet as the clouds pile up, the sky darkens and we below wait - for an explosion or a whimper.   There have been times when we saw the storm clouds just a couple of kilometres and a valley away, shouting thunder and streaking lightning there as we stand in pattering rain here.

The short term weather forecast promises more unsettled weather.  On the positive side this is mostly good for the re-sowing of the greens that suffered from the earlier warmth.  But, on the downside, the damp will encourage the parasites.  The sheep may have to change pasture more often than they would  like.


Meet my new best friend - does anyone know his name?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Follow that Hen!

The hens are on strike.   No longer do we - that is Audrey or Alex - find three to four eggs a day in the hen-house, at best there are two.  After more than a year at La Chaise, with freedom to roam all over the front courtyard except for Audrey's vegetable garden, egg production has virtually stopped.

Obviously there are seasons for egg-laying and seasons for repose when the hens are moulting, growing new (more glamorous) feathers, for example. But that should not be the case now.   Perhaps it is because of the unseasonable heat.   Perhaps, Audrey opines darkly, the hens are 'laying away', which being translated means they are hiding their eggs prior to brooding on them and raising chicks.  Pause for an 'aaah-oo' moment.
The hens, and cockerel, in morning conference.
But since we still want eggs, prefer them to fluffy little chicks that will be attacked by every furred and four footed menace in the woods, some one is going to have to spy on the hens to see where they are laying. For a human, stalking a hen is not easy, they scare quickly. But we are all on the alert, watching to see if any hen is behaving oddly, in places where she should not be.

What is the Little Black Hen looking for?

Often, when A&A are out late, it is my privilege to close up the hen-house, checking first with a torch to see if it has its full complement of birds.  A ripple of irritated chirping accompanies the sweep of my torch beam.  Sometimes I even let the birds out in the morning if I think their overseers are oversleeping.

A new dimension has been added to this occasional task.   There are now a flock of chickens-for-eating at La Chaise.  At present they are small and noisy, live in the woods near A&A's front door and sleep in a chicken caravan. This was created especially by Alex so that he could move the flock to new grounds if it seemed they had exhausted their existing territory.  So far, not necessary.  
A caravan fit for fowl - roof closed.

One night I went to close them up - and found them all perched at the back of the open roof of the chicken caravan.   Now i loathe handling hens.  They squawk, flap their wings, are apparently insubstantial and, once scared, become very stupid.   So i took a deep breath and pushed them, one by one, down into the belly of the chicken caravan, then quickly lowered the roof. And even more quickly went to pull up the ramp  that closes their terrace.

in the process I managed to lose an ear-ring - an elegant silver set garnet pendant hanging from a black pearl clip.  A day later Alex found the garnet in the scratchings around the feed bowl, two days later I found the pearl clip near the water reservoir.   My luck was in.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

For once, rain would be appreciated

Still it has not rained.   If one was on holiday at La Chaise, this is happiness.   But we live here and have a golf course and around 60 sheep, with their lambs, to maintain.  Green grass is essential for both.

Fortunately, la grande Kim, was free to shear the ewes, relieve them of the extra weight of winter wool.  Not that either were particularly pleased with each other.   Clun Forest sheep have a bad reputation amongst shearers for they will not sit still, they wriggle and bawl.  And when you are trying to hold still 80 kg of irritable sheep, with electric shears whizzing in your other hand....One can understand why the sheep are ambivalent about the process. On the one hand the weight of wool must be unbearable in the heat, on the other - they do look angular, almost silly, without it, especially the ram.

now we are all skin and bones we refuse to pose...


 Meanwhile I have been 're-colonising' my house.   After many months away, insects inside and birds outside are taking liberties with my space.  I have resumed the never ending battle against spiders, soon to be joined by flies, the fruit flies have already arrived.  Two sparrows suddenly decided to come look/see inside and got themselves stuck at the top of the stairs, beating vainly against the plasterboard ceiling.   It took the tallest of us - Alexandre - armed with the pool net - nearly an hour to persuade/frighten them out through the bathroom ceiling window.

Meals on the terrace are delightful, as always - but the birds have got into the habit of picking buds from the vine and the wisteria and continue to do so whilst we are eating.   OK, so that is just extra greenery with our meal - but we cannot leave the food unattended, not even in dire emergencies such as having to get more wine, for there will be birds on the table.  We may even have to invite Cha-Cha le chat  to visit from time to time - but even then we could not leave food unattended.
Birds lurking in foliage - no, I cannot see them either

And now Alexandre has had another idea....he would like to add some nanny goats and a billy to the 30 breeding ewes plus one ram that are already here.  He has learned how to make goats cheese, sometimes even using some of my marmelade as a counterpoint flavour. The cheeses are very delicious.    But, whilst ewes and nanny goats may be compatible, I have my doubts about a ram and a billy.

Alex's mixed range of goat cheeses

The next challenge is the annual ear-tagging and weighing of the lambs.  And for this we really, really would appreciate seriously cool weather if not necessarily rain.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The only reality is sheep

All in all, with only a leetle number stretching, we - John and I - have been away from La Chaise for the first five months of this year.   We took  three months in Spain, then a brief visit home end March, followed by nearly two months in London.

The city was its usual hot, sticky, busy self.  Drivers have lost their manners, are nowhere near as polite to pedestrians as their Sant Feliu equals. London's drivers have re-discovered the horn. Even taxis hoot at white vans attempting an U turn across three lanes of traffic.   Only suicidal pedestrians would cross streets with moving traffic. 
Street art knitting in London.

The noise levels were horrendous but the shops were wonderful (early in the morning) and the Londoners - many of whom are French - very friendly.

We returned to France, to the fields, lawns and trees of La Chaise that were lushly, greasily green.  The grass in the now horse-less horse fields is higher than my knees. All types of purple orchids are lurking amongst the pink clover and a single Billy Goat orchid is behind the empty stables.
spot the orchid.....

The swallows are back!  They are nesting, in new nests, in what is now Alexandre's atelier, flying quietly in and out.   The nestlings peer out over the rim but are silent.  The golden oriole has returned to the fields but the wild ducks that visited around the turn of the year have not settled.   Obviously gypsy ducks.

Arnold and Alexandre have struggled manfully to keep the golf course playable, with a little help from the sheep.   Now that Arnold is away getting his knee fixed, Alex is on his own - except for the sheep, of course.   This is the time of year when one wishes some enterprising person had set up a 'Rent-a-Flock' business.   We need at least three times as many sheep as we have but only for the very short grass growing season.

The problem with sheep is that they are relatively picky eate rs - they will eat all orchids but eschew daisies and buttercups.  They are partial to the sprouting tops of newly planted trees, such as cypresses. Roses also apparently please the ovine palate, but only the flowers.   This is why sheep are not good lawn mower substitutes.  There are some grasses that they disdain, in particular one tufty, dense grass with broad bladed leaves which may be good for whistling with but also tend to cut tender fingers.

The current centre of my universe does not approve of daisies either.

The hot, wet weather has encouraged the early appearance of various wild fungi - the fairy circle a.k.a
la ronde des sorciers - of the basic field mushroom can be seen from afar.  Just look for the darker grass. A few early parasol fungi are growing along the sheep fencing.  Deceptively dangerous fungi, those that are not rare are likely to be poisonous, to be avoided.   Sadly, despite much enthusiasm in the rural press, especially the current issue of Le Chasseur Francais, we appear to have no spring burst of chanterelles, one of the finest fungi of all.

There has been a sudden flush (? perhaps the best collective noun) of fruit flies in the house and  I have killed my first hornet of the year.  Monday the ewes will be shorn, the lambs will receive ear-tags - and so farm life goes on.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Peripatetic Country Mouse

Sadly, for the next few months I shall be away from La Chaise. In fact I shall be living out of a suitcase, only one. This is not as easy as some people might think – try predicting the weather for different areas of Europe for the next few months! It cannot even be done for the next two days. The answer is underwear that can be discarded and layers over the top that can equally be discarded au fur et a mesure.

Presently I am in northern Spain, not far from the French border where it is mostly nearly warm, until the wind comes howling in from the sea. I have been down to Javea, on the Costa Blanca, where building seems to have come to a stop, making the town a very pleasant place stay. And where it is warmer than in the north.

The choice of language in which to start conversations is another difficulty... how often have I (born Dutch) told my English speaking friends that launching themselves loudly in English is not tactful. Where I am now, the local language is basically Catalan, Castilian Spanish will be addressed to foreigners as a courtesy.

I struggle along with the few words of Spanish or Catalan that I pick up from newspapers, packaging, signs in supermarkets – and a lot of imagination. Also a lot of hand-gestures towards the items I wish to purchase – French words occasionally help, as do Italian.
Yes, I have an old Teach Yourself Spanish Book and a Modern CD with book but somehow the latter is even more embarrassing than struggling in the street. People are so kind, so helpful, if only you will try. I do not despair.

The common currency, of course, makes life a lot easier, especially for the non-numerate who, like me, have un-fond memories of trying to change guilders (dutch) into lira (italian). The Italians always gave us some small boiled sweets as well as many, many small coins..

However, Common Market, or not, few web-sites can deal with the idea of abroad. This means one has to have a MasterCard with an address in all of the countries for which one has mobile phones, for example.(It really is about time Brussels, or some organisation, did something about international mobile phone charges!) And not all on-line retailers will deliver outside the home country. As one MasterCard looks like another MasterCard, it means remembering the last four digits. Yet most cash machines have no problem – one here even offers the choice of Galician, Valencian, Catalan before any of the more usual country or world-wide languages. 
One tip: always, always travel with lots of photocopies of your most important identity documents, passport, driving licence, health card, whatever – make lots, then lots more. You never know when you will be asked to identify yourself and you really do not wish to have vital documents where they can be stolen, hand-bags, jacket pockets or other.

All of which makes me admire those reviled immigrants – whether European or sub-Saharan, who have to learn a language as well as get a job, deal with a foreign administrations, find a house, make a life. I was very young when I was an immigrant. It was not easy. It is easier now and, at least, I do not have to get a job.