Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Great Tree Question

The Great Tree Question in these highly  climate wise, sensitive, media highlighted days resolves itself into:   To Cut - or Not To Cut? 

At La Chaise we are surrounded by some 18 hectares of mixed woodland of which only five are cultivated, cleared and cossetted firs. These five also host a wild boar motel with mud bath and regular supplies of maize.  The rest get on as best they can, dying, losing branches, succumbing to rot,blight and wild weather.

This is what happened to twin millenial oaks after typhoon 'Miguel' passed through in June this year.

The most recent, most impressive woodland disaster in the Dordogne was at the turn of the millenium.   One of our greatest and probably oldes oaks was felled - but tactfully fell onto a path rather than a roof.  Its stump was more than two metres in diameter.

Now we are looking to cut the older oaks again but are very aware than many people may disapprove.
But to be realistic, a two hundred year old oak has a head that stunts the growth of any saplings, from its own acorns or  those of other species.  All of us, human, animal must make way for the young.
And sometimes the young are nurtured by the very old.

Youth being nurtured by an ancestor.

And as the small ones grow, the old left standing continue to breathe.   As the sun sets slowly in the west and the wind drops, wisps of vapour, the breath of the trees, is visible on the skyline across our valley.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

A sentimental road journey - la nostalgie

Driving back from Merignac airport one darkish evening I was rather tired and cross - anyone would be who had just fought their way through Gatwick South to a plane. Fortunately the rocade is not the bumper to bump jam in the evenings as it is in the daytime.   So I was gradually soothed, avoided taking the turn off to Toulouse and headed dutifully towards Bordeaux Centre. 

Once over the dreaded Pont d'Aquitaine*, I remembered I had to take the second right turn, try to squeeze in between lorries thundering down on my right in order to join the rocade.  I had to be in the very rightmost lane in order to get off the rocade to get onto the A 89 to Libourne and Lyons. We were still on the free part of this motorway.

 Then the  blue signs for the peage loomed up I took a wrong turning on the A89 and headed for Libourne Centre.    This takes one off the motorway to  as I quickly discovered.  So I drove home, which is near Perigueux, from signboard to signboard, starting towards St Medard de Guizieres which I knew was somewhere near.  We spent a couple of hours wandering through villages and vinyards north of Bergerac and eventually found a link to Perigueux.

* I dreaded it from its inception. Then it was a a steepish four lane bridge, slung on metal strings between four metal towers.   The formal speed limit was 70 km/ph.   Now it is a six lane bridge with no immediately visible change to the untutored eye. It just got wider.  The speed limit is still 70km/ph.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

June: hot enough to wash a bear; birds fail to eat all the cherries

June was a wonderful month, even allowing for the excessive heat. In fact it was hot enough to wash Gregory Bear, much loved successor to Artur van Gelderen.  now in the Bethnal Green childhood museum - somewhere.  And, gosh, was Gregory dirty!

Gregory sunbathing himself dry

  For the first time ever in the near half century * we have been at La Chaise we had more cherries than there were birds, or small children, to eat them. Adults gathered in quantity but never had the time to conserve or preserve.  It is much easier to eat them than to stone them..

These are the cultivated cherries just ripening in early June

  The cultivated cherry trees also had more than enough at a low level for even the stickiest small person.  The wild cherry trees, merisier, in French out did themselves.  They are tall trees, most cherries beyond ground tied adults, or even adults on ladders.   They taste quite different to the cultivated kind, slightly more acid, a little less flesh and a smaller pip.  Locally, those who can manage to pluck sufficient, just bottle them in alcohol.

Merisier wood is prized by ebenistes for use as an inlay - given the narrowness of their trunks there is little enough around. The drive down to the gites is now covered in dried cherries

A wild cherry tree bearing a very full load

And talking of carpenters we cannot close our June diary without mentioning Miguel, Tempest Miguel, an early arrival.  Miguel managed to destroy one of the defining images of  La Chaise:  the twin oaks at the head of the ravine.   (Our own private wild life reserve)

Sadly I do not have a picture of the twin oaks upright - but I remember the day young James Brown, an acrobatic tree surgeon, to slightly mistranslate the French, shinned up one oak, tied an 'elastic' band round it, crossed to its  twin, thus holding them together.  Some quarter of a century later, Miguel struck.

Divided, they fell.

*actually about 10 years short of half a century..

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The odd behaviour of orchids

The orchids started this summer at La Chaise with a most odd behaviour.   Usually they are in small clumps of two or three plants.    One extreme exception was the spread of the early purples under the ash trees - from a distance they looked like a rash of clover.  But then the sheep decided this was a good corner for digesting and sat and sat.   Now there are no early purples there.

Instead single flowers showed themselves in random parts of the fields.   An orchid's way of showing its head above the ramparts.   Of course the sheep bit their heads off.

Ever since the juniper bushes started dying some three/four years ago I have worried what would happen to the orchids that used to co-habit with them on the rocky slopes.  After good winters, warm and wet, there would be prolific numbers of pyramid and scented orchids, sometimes the hanging man could be found, also the bee and fly orchids, if not plentiful, were not rare. 

Young juniper bushes sprang up in a random manner, some came up near the lake and grew rapidly.   Others gradually spread along the fence at the bottom of the horse fields.  Now they are flourishing -  not least because they are not mowed, there are no horses in the fields and sheep do not relish young juniper tops.    Soon there will be a good thick, long hedge of juniper.   We could call it 're-wilding' even though involuntary.

And now the orchids have discovered them and the partnership has been restored.   Lurking in the lower branches are some smaller purple orchids - may they spread and prosper.
Yes, I know - one of them is actually a clover...

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The frogs are back!

For  the past couple of months we have woken to the glorious sounds of frogs revelling in the Black Pond in the woods. In the evening the sound is always as great.    We have missed them for a year or so and wondered why.   There were flies enough, strange things moving in the bottom murk, greenery if wanted.  The Black Pond is filled mostly by run-off from the road, it has no spring that we know about.  

Curiously, the short diversion of the official ditch is not just discreetly on the pond side of the road - La Chaise property - but appears to run under the road because there is a hole also in the ditch opposite.      We do not have enough knowledge of when and how the road was built or when it was adopted by the Department of the Dordogne as the D103.  Speculation is fun. 
This is the Black Pond, complete with fallen cherry tree making a bridge.

 The road that goes past La Chaise may be a departemental but it is not very busy, thankfully.  Still we wondered if pollution was the problem. The road is cleaned by the departement from time to time,mostly by cleaning the ditches.  The time of fauchage causes little traffic perturbation but, many years ago, caused us great annoyance. The driver of the tractopelle was a little bit too proud of his skill.   He came too close to our garden wall and down it fell. The property builder's fault, apparently, for not having envisaged 200 years ago that machines, rather than cantonniers, would clean ditches.

Actually the Black Pond must have been a major work of engineering when it was created.  It is probably 60 metres long and at least five metres wide at its widest part.   Depth varies according to rainfall and off take - by the aid of a floating pump it can be linked to the watering system in the fields below. And - just imagine this for a moment - the pond you see above was dug by hand.

This curious structure is made of stones and has an insert for a handle on the top.
Our local know-it-all said the Black Pond was linked to the well in front of our house by a form of sluice.   On top there should have been an iron handle which opened or closed it.   Presumably the iron vanished during war time to serve a more useful purpose and anyway a close relative of the then resident family parked half into the well coming home late one night.  Know it all forgot to mention that a smaller well had been dug alongside the house when a granny flat was added. Then filled in also.  But water passes where it will.

Monday, March 25, 2019

No going in the Chicken House

The La Chaise chicken house is worthy of a picture postcard.    It is not very high, roof tree about two metres from the ground level, wide roofs slope down to thick walls way less than a metre high.   There is a skylight in the flat mechanical terra cotta roof tiles and a small wired window in the 40 cm thick walls..  The cock crows with daylight - some times before.   The roof is partly covered with a profusion of dog roses.  All that is missing to make the picture perfect is a short person in old-fashioned clothes,  straw hat, and a basket of eggs.

A chicken house is seldom a salubrious place  Not just because chickens shit# without moderation.   Experienced chicken keepers manage to put a replaceable plank or thick cardboard under the perches to collect most of the muck and change it regularly.  There are also spider webs with accumulated dust and debris in them.    There will probably be rat or mice droppings if careless chicken keepers have thrown in chunks of hard bread. These are often disease bearing for humans as well as fowl. Scraps of dank feathers will be scattered as a result of chicken squabbles, along with the rotten rejects of unconsumed vegetables.  The lid of the laying box can drop on clumsy fingers.

All in all not a desirable place to be explored by small children.   Hence Oma's frequent greeting to the small grandsons:   NO GOING IN THE CHICKEN HOUSE!!

This,of course, is regularly ignored especially once all the other forbidden or nearly forbidden places have been visited.

But to see the glow of joy and triumph on their faces, almost reverent, as they come out of the chicken house, each carrying most carefully one egg in their cupped palms, proffering it to the adult in triumph - all is forgiven.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

February leaves with flowers, fire and fun

February has been an unexpectedly wonderful month, the spring flowers came early, the wild boar stayed sagely in the woods, the grass has started growing and lambs continue to be born in the barn. Everything flourished, even the camellias came out in flower - and they are not supposed to like our chalky soil.
Lurking rosettes of leaves promise future orchids, especially the billy goat orchid with its pervasive odour, near our front gate of course.

white violets in the roots of the lime tree - we have more different colour violets than ever before

But talking of shoots, the funniest event of all in  February was my brief on/off affair with the local St Aquilin chasse. It is a small association of men - and at least one woman - (legally approved of course) who  pursue the occasional wild boar or small chevreuil during winter months.   The official season ended in February but will restart this August.

(In case anyone is worried tourists are not counted as game, however annoying,
there is no price for any edible part of their bodies).

When we returned to La Chaise end January,  Audrey told us proudly of the 'huge' leg of wild boar that had been given them by a young chasse member whilst we were away. Gifts of game to land owners who lend their land to the 'chasse' are given such trophies as a sort of tithe. 

Then a charming young man, with adorable baby in arms, came to see me to talk about problems in the local chasse association.  He was very familiar with me, kissed me on both cheeks, assumed I knew who he was - which I did not but blamed it on my long absence. However, old ladies are very susceptible to young men with babies (official as my psy daughter told me) and so I listened to his tale of woe and dissension in the hunting fraternity - all 12 or so of them. 

Then I duly did my homework, talked with some local people, talked with some official chasse experts and decided to withdraw our land from the permitted territory of the St Aquilin hunting fraternity.  Naturally the opposing party came to see us - not least because Audrey and Alex' dog (NuKa) had chased an intruding chevreuil to the extent it got its legs entangled in the fencing. So Audrey called her friend in the chasse (who supplies dog food) to come and deal with the dying animal.

The result was that we all got the whole deer carcasse and I got a long explanation of the other side of the dispute.  After a few days of reflection, a formal letter from the remaining members of the chasse we restored our land to its hunting rights.

And so now I have a leg and a shoulder of deer in the freezer and a large amount of ragout which is hopefully turning into next winter's stew in the warm belly of the Rayburn.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

spring is nearly sprung

Spring is hovering in the woods at La Chaise - also the barn.   The first of the 2019 lambs was born the day before grandson Nathan's sixth birthday - overnight that came to be January 29th...Only just back from Spain, I went down to the lambing shed to see mother and daughter, to take a photograph.   Only mother would not let me, far too protective of her new born.

Then I lent over the gate to the main barn where mothers-in-waiting were quietly eating hay, a little noisily demanding grains.    There I was allowed to take a picture.

Everyone is calmly eating, looking a me with the question: what are you doing here?   Take a good look, look to the left, against the stone wall there is one ewe sitting down, smug look on face.   She has just gave birth to twins that morning. Spring is very nearly here.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

the first of the winter marmelade

We have a wonderful range of fruit trees and bushes at La Chaise.    There are the wild cherry trees that are the star heralds of spring.  From the main road down to the Farmhouse there is an avenue of blossom. Any day I expect a group of Paris based Japanese to come into view.  

In the early years we had apple trees, pear, and plum trees, random fig trees, brambles and wild roses for rose hip jelly, elder shrubs with their shower of white flowers followed by umbrellas of small black berries. There was even a medlar that had been grafted onto a rowan (the rowan won) and a solitary, struggling quince in the orchard of peaches.

My jam making enthusiasm was eventually curbed by the fact that bread and jam did not seem to fit into the French way of feeding schoolchildren. There was a limit to the amount of bottled fruit, usually in alcohol, that two adults can consume. Then John announced that he (and other real people) only ate marmelade, bitter orange marmelade.

This was in the early Eighties when supermarkets had not really arrived in the Dordogne.   One could get oranges at Monoprix in Perigueux or in the weekly markets when the season was right.

But it all came right in the end.   First, John took me to stay at the Aiglon Hotel in Menton, deepest south of France, right on the Italian border.  One of Menton's main claims to fame, in English eyes at least, was its history as a winter refuge for  the wealthy. Queen Victoria had visited. Menton's micro-climate offered palm trees, citrus trees and exotic plants. The Empress Eugenie lived close to the town.  And some refugees from the Bolshevik revolution also made their mark on it.  There was, and still is, an elegant promenade along the sheltered sea-front.*

When we arrived the esplanade was elegantly dressed with healthy palm trees.  The grander back streets had the occasional small orange tree, some of which were showing very small oranges.So marmelade came to mind.

I went to the local greengrocer, just around the corner from the hotel, and asked for 2 kilos of  oranges ameres and got a funny look in return.  He kindly pointed out that they were bitter and so no use.  I explained about marmelade for the English.  He looked thoughtful, said he would see what he could do and to come back in two days.

The price was steep, I winced and paid.    We went home and I made marmalade the classic English way, 2 x the weight of the fruit in sugar.

boiling the peel with the sugar and some water

Then boil, boil and boil again, add the juice of a lemon, pot when the right dropping consistency has been reached - when a string of orange syrup clings to the wooden spoon in a veil that gradually becomes a thread.

Then a friend visited us at La Chaise on his way from Spain to Britain.  I was complimented on my marmelade and was promised naranjas amargas the next time we visited him.  We booked our trip for the following winter and came back with almost a boot full of the fruit - for free.

Another visiting friend commented on my marmelade whilst we were at breakfast.I related the Menton story.   She laughed.   Apparently one of the more energetic of Menton's mayors had decided to replace all the town's plane trees (English town style) with wild orange trees which did not need so much pruning and certainly did not shed their leaves every winter......It took two days for the grocer to collect two kilos of free fruit?!

Fortunately I now have a source of bitter oranges much closer than either Menton or my Javea based friend.    Saint Feliu de Guixols is only a six hour drive (all being well i.e. no road works around Perpignan) from La Chaise.  Whilst staying there one year we were persuaded to visit the Museu de la Confitura in Torrent - irresistible.  And there I found the definitive recipe for bitter orange marmelade, using one kilo of sugar to two kilos of fruit.

After asking vainly in the local shops for naranjas amargas, and getting very odd looks, I started with the local fruit vendors in the markets. Eventually I located the bio fruit and vegetable sellers but only one responded.   'Taronjas amargues' he exclaimed, drowning me in a flood of  fast Catalan.   I gathered he would have some next week. And so he did, two kilos for €2.50, a give away.

Trial and error have persuaded me to follow the Jam Museum's recipe EXACTLY, even to cooking the slivers of peel with the pith still attached until it could be separated using only finger nails.  I did wait until the mixture had cooled a little.

The pith

Bitter oranges are almost all pith and pips and very little juice, so separating them out is a little time consuming. But the actual cooking to setting time is very quick, about 80 minutes.   I did treat myself of an actual jam funnel to pot the January 2019, I did not wish to lose a sticky drop. But, as tradition demands, I did not buy new jars.

The pots


Do read Giles Waterfield's book: The Long Afternoon - very evocative of the period