Friday, 21 November 2008

First socks

Well, I've finished them. My very first pair. Read the post here.

I wouldn't normally post them here as they are made of bought wool (oh no, shock horror!) that I found at the bottom of a drawer; but for some reason Typepad won't let me post the picture. I don't think it's offensive but it's for you to judge!

All right so they're not perfect but I think they're fantastic!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Farewell Happy Hams

Some of the pictures on this post are of a dead pig - please do not look at the pictures if you are of a sqeamish disposition!

The pigs are dead, long live the pigs.

And so they shall, both in our memories and, more practically, in our freezer and ultimately on our plates.

Before I go on I want to emphasise that the pigs did not suffer. They were killed by a professional debiteur who used what I believe is called a bolt. They were being scratched at the time by my husband. The photos below are graphic but please remember that this is reality.

OK. Speech over. Description now follows of what we did this weekend. First off on Friday Laurent arrived to slaughter the pigs. I was not there at the kill but went up afterwards to help with the initial butchering so that they could then be hung overnight before being cut up and "dealt with" on Saturday. As you can see in the photo, the pigs were hoisted onto a ladder to make his job easier and the first thing he did was to pass the flame gun over the entire body to remove the hair. They were then scrubbed and hosed down.

The pigs had to be gutted and the livers were kept for the pate and our Monday "Liver night" (more on that later).

And that was just about it for Friday. Our pigs were suddenly no more than a very fond memory and two carcasses. The real work began on Saturday morning at what my father would have called "sparrow fart".

We decided a month ago that we would ask Laurent to do the butchering. He is after all a professional and although Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has an excellent course available on his website we knew that faced with two large carcasses we would probably not do a very good job. Laurent was fantastic. He had so many buckets I lost count: pate, rillettes, sausages, fat, rubbish and fromage de tete. Meat and bones were put into each bucket accordingly. Two enormous pots were simmering - one for the rillettes and the other for fromage de tete (this is eaten cold and I can't really describe it but please, it is not the guts which is what everyone appeared to think - that is called andouillette and we had opted out of that option!).

Whilst we stood and watched and occasionally cut up vegetables Laurent got on with the job in hand. Joints magically appeared with and without bones; chops mounted up in a separate tray; spare ribs in another; did we want bacon? And how many hams were to be smoked?

As it turned out we didn't use the liver for the pate as only one was usable - the other had a small number of spots and we had to throw it away - and we wanted to keep the one we had for Monday evening.

By lunchtime we had bagged up all the meat except the sausages which needed to drip a bit to dry off and the rillettes and pate. And of course the Boudin - a close relative to Black Pudding and absolutely, utterly delicious! We put everything in the freezer and took a break for lunch. Laurent had very kindly given us some Pork Liver Pate and that was enjoyed with French Bread and salad.

Later in the afternoon he was ready with the rillettes and the pate. We only had eight pate bowls so we have bagged the rest up - it is frozen uncooked so this is not a problem. And of course the sausages...

These took a little time to bag up as we wanted five per bag (2 parents, 3 children) and there were a LOT of them! In theory I have been very organised as sausages are in bags of 5 and chops in bags of 3 (I can't remember the logic but at least I know how many there are!). The boudin came as three enormous sausages, each about two metres long; so these were cut into pieces about 30cms long and bagged.

Back to Monday night and the liver...

As I have never cooked pork liver before a friend very kindly agreed to come over and cook it with us and of course eat it with us! So we decided we'd have a degustation du porc, or a pork tasting evening. Whilst Joyce prepared the liver, I cooked some of the boudin and sliced some of the fromage de tete. I was determined that any produce was to be from the garden so my chard parcels were there, together with mash potato. There were nine of us in all and we started by drinking a toast to the Ham One and Ham Two - it seemed impossible to not mention them. And then the feast began. Everything was delicious although I think there was less enthusiasm for the fromage de tete. It's the sort of thing you would eat very happily if you had a blindfold on as it tastes delicious but looks less delicious than it tastes!

Right from the start of this project we have had people telling us that we wouldn't be able to slaughter the pigs (or rather, get someone else to do it) as they would become our friends. Well, yes, they did become friends but there was never any doubt in our minds of their final destination. We gave them a happy home, fed them, played with them and loved them. I wasn't there at the end but that was because I was worried that my reaction would stress the second one. I said goodbye to them in the morning.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

New Raspberry Canes have arrived

A little while ago I ordered some strawberry plants and raspberry canes from a company called Delbard here in France. I have been frustrated in the past buying from garden centres because they never seem to have enough of what I want and although I can order from them it involves a second trip which for us is a minumum of 30ks. The result would be six of one type of strawberry and six of another, when what I actually wanted was 20 of one type!

Ordering from Delbard seemed to be a solution and so it has proved. For a start I could buy the plants/canes bare-rooted which made them cheaper and made up for the small transport cost (six euros). The strawberries arrived a while ago and then last week the raspberries turned up. We had prepared the beds already - hard work for a couple of days with a mattock and then even harder digging out the perennial roots - and within 24 hours the raspberries were in the ground. Conveniently it rained the next day and they are looking very happy.

Bearing in mind that raspberries put out runners I decided to go for a few canes of three different varieties. Hopefully at the end of next year I will have more of each but we will see. My shopping list is as follows:

Framboise Magnific Delbard x 5 (July-August)
Framboise Himbo-Top x 3 (August-September)
Framboise September x 5 (mid-June - mid-October)

I know that most people make jam and delicious puddings with soft fruit but personally I don't. I prefer to eat fruit raw and with very few embellishments - personally I don't add sugar or cream although I realise I'm one of the few! To be honest, if I didn't have other mouths to feed none of the fruit would come into the children are the same. In fact I have to hope that my children don't read this blog because one of them at least is very partial to raspberries and whilst he might not venture into that part of the garden very often he will make a bee-line if he realises that raspberries are to be found; birds are nothing compared to children when it comes to soft fruit in my opinion!

As a footnote I would like to add that from 40 strawberry plants I have had no losses. I was concerned about six/seven of them as they took a while to get going but yesterday each and every plant had healthy leaf growth and I am looking forward to a good crop next year...can't wait in fact!

Monday, 10 November 2008

New Vocabulary

A quiz...what connects the following words or expressions:

Lazy Kate
Niddy Noddy
Mother of All

Anyone who has spun wool will be way ahead of the rest of you! All new hobbies and occupations have a vocabulary of their own but I am rather fond of the words I am beginning to use with my new found passion!

That's right. I did it. I have bought myself (pure indulgence!) a spinning wheel. My particular wheel is an Ashford Traditional and I bought it off Ebay from a lovely lady in England who just happened to live near Bath where I visited during half-term with my son. I gather I have been really lucky though as more experience spinners than me have said that buying a wheel on Ebay can be a very expensive mistake. Well, clearly the lady I bought from was the exception that proves the rule. So, I have a wheel and have barely stopped spinning ever since.

My first efforts were purely to learn to spin wool. So, lots of bumps, sometimes thick and sometimes thin but with no real idea of why! And it turned out I didn't like the colour mix of the result. The wool is from a Jacob Sheep so I thought it would be fun to ply the dark wool with the cream coloured. But no, I don't like the chocolate/vanilla effect!

But no matter, my second attempt is a lot better and I am looking forward to knitting this neck warmer tomorrow or Wednesday. Doesn't the wool look great on the bobbin? You can see specks of dark wool in there but I don't think that will be too noticeable once it's knitted up.

Actually, the neck warmer, Tudora, is the reason I decided to buy a wheel. The Tudora requires Arran weight wool and I simply couldn't find any in France. Sure, Ebay was an option(!) but I decided that homespun would be more of a challenge! And so it is!

The kitchen is now full of bits of wool and I think Max is expecting a sheep to be delivered next week after the pigs have been dispatched so that I have a ready supply of fleece. I can't imagine I'll ever spin a jumper but project number two is a pair of socks which I've never knitted before and see as a proper challenge. After that? I don't know but perhaps some Christmas presents?

This is the famous niddy noddy - an ingenious and very simple way of winding the wool off the bobbin and into skeins that can then be washed...

And dried over night in front of the oven.

I'll post a picture of the final article later in the week. Wish me luck!

Cooking Chard

Polly in Ireland asked me for a recipe for her chard which arrives in abundance in her veg box. At the moment it ends up uneaten which is a shame.

Chard is handy as it's really cooked in two parts. You have the leafy green which can be used as a spinach replacement and also the white stem.

First the white stem: Cut it into smallish chunks and cook it until just tender. Then simply drain and add it to a cheese sauce - not too strong a cheese though as the chard stems have a very delicate flavour.
Another alternative would be to add it, in even smaller pieces (think chopped onion size) to a bolognaise sauce but here you don't get the advantage of the flavour.

Now the green leaves: My favourite is to make a sort of samosa so you need filo pastry and also a tub of ricotta cheese.
Cook a decent sized- handful of green leaf and then put it into a magimix with the ricotta and blend well. Add some nutmeg if you want as well as some pepper (salt too but I don't). Then brush one side of your filo pastry with melted butter and turn it over. (The buttered side is the outside.) Put decent/reasonable size quantities of the mix onto the pastry and then wrap it/roll it in any way that works for your shaped pastry. Here in France the filo pastry is round so I cut it in half first. The resulting parcels are oblongish.
Now you can either cook them straight away in a hot oven (200) for about 20 minutes (watch them or they'll burn) or you can put them in the fridge until you need them - up to 24 hours is fine.

I'm quite sure there are other possibilities but that's it for now!

Ah, I've just noticed that the link I've given to Polly shows the most wonderful picture of rainbow chard, which is, of course all the colours except green! I've never cooked or eaten it but assuming it's edible I'm quite sure you can use the same recipes!

Friday, 7 November 2008

Chinese Cabbage

At the beginning of this year - well the spring actually when the gardening year started and with it our plan to grow our own vegetables - I gave some thought to how we could grow enough vegetables to see us through the winter. The summer is easy, especially here in France where the extra bit of warmth helps everything to grow so well...except tomatoes yet again! I have sown a small row of chard which is already in leaf and I will start picking it probably next week when our very last courgettes and aubergines will be finished. At the same time as the chard I put in some Chinese Cabbage seeds and these grew beautifully. My mistake was only putting in one small row and not doing successive sowing. Still, we live and learn!

We are not great cabbage eaters here but Chinese Cabbage is different. It is almost a salad but not quite; it is almost a cabbage but not quite. It can be eaten raw and is delicious or it can be cooked like cabbage when it becomes a good addition to the vegetables. Stir fry is another method I believe but not something I do much of.

I tend to shred it and then cook it briefly and add it to the potatoes - either boiled or mashed. If you add a generous dash of sweet wine or sherry it becomes a more luxurious dish! We all love it. On Wednesday night we had it with Toulouse sausages (big fat bangers to you and me!) and it was delicious!

Oh, and one last advantage is that although the caterpillars are all over the brassicas and the red cabbage, they don't go for the Chinese variety. Slugs do and the outer leaves resemble some very intricate lace work; but once you discard these there is still plenty for four people. Given my experience with the caterpillars I could almost grow to like slugs...

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Caterpillar Sunday

I am not a supporter of GM but since we are being forced to live with it I do think these scientists might actually do something useful. For example, persuade butterflies to produce caterpillars that do not need to eat brassicas. I'm quite sure they could be scientifically persuaded to eat something we actually want to get rid of, or at least have a lot less of, such as bindweed or Japanese Knotweed (yes, I know, I've heard). Until they do this I will be a mass murderer and I simply will not believe people who tell me they've never eaten meat in their life. I have resident contract killers in my garden in the shape of chickens and even they won't take on the job of eating the little leaf eating suckers. And as for vegetarians, well, what do they do when they find caterpillars all over the leaves of their broccoli?

This afternoon I happened to have my coffee cup with me so I stuck the whole lot in that and bought them back to show you. As the chooks won't have anything to do with them I've put them in the pig bucket. Incidentally, these photos don't include the ones I squashed.

Believe me, next year the brassicas will be under insect proof fleece and anyone found leaving it open will be given caterpillar cookies - and made to eat them!

The little yellow eggs - at least I can see these!

If they look a little squashed...well, they are a bit. Too bad. And this is only about one half of my "harvest".

How can I fight against this?

Actually, they are quite beautiful....aaaaargh!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Chicken Run

Every morning when I go out to feed the animals the chickens are waiting to be let out of their pen. I usually drop some feed outside the pen so that the five small ones can come out and peck around without being bullied by the bigger ones - most especially the cockerel who really rules the roost with a charging peck. I've given up putting the feed in the feeder on dry days. I just scatter it around for them and they form groups - again, this avoids the cockerel beating them all up!

For the past couple of months we've been a little disappointed that we've only been "given" one egg per day. We are eagerly awaiting the adolescents reaching egg laying age (not long now) but in the meantime we still have the two original hens who should still be laying. Being novices we assumed (hate that word!) that either they were laying every other day or that one of them was no longer laying at all. It never occurred to us to look elsewhere for the reason.

This morning as we were walking back I absent-mindedly kicked a half an egg shell - rather like kicking stones on the path. Two strides later I realised what I had done so Max went on the hunt. Two minutes later he called me over and we found a wonderful pile of eggs - there must have been forty or more but the ones at the bottom of the pile had broken (yuck!) and soaked into the ground leaving 33 still in one piece.

Working on the basis that some of them must still be ok so we gathered up 30 of them and I put them all in a bowl of cold water to see if any of them would float. None of them floated to the top and only one or two looked as if they'd be floating in a day or two. I got rid of the latter, cleaned and dried the rest and then put a pen mark on them so that we use them first and only in things like cakes or omelettes where they are broken first. This way we'll know if I've missed any bad ones.

The chooks were already out of the pen by this time but for the next couple of weeks we're going to leave them in until lunchtime to see if we can get whichever hen it is to start laying inside again. The hen house is inside a large enclosure so they still have plenty of room to run around and to feed so they won't be deprived too much!

Omelette for supper and carrot cake for tea...

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Spinning Around...

So I went spinning and guess what I caught the bug...the spinning bug so not too bad.

Klara started me off on a spindle which is a good way to learn to draw the fibres from the roving (so many new words - thank heavens she prefers to teach in English!) whilst twisting it into yarn. Within minutes I had a piece of yarn - although nothing anyone would want to use! Gradually I was able to produce more even thread and after a short break I was allowed to move onto a wheel - yeah!

At this point it all became much more complicated. For a start Klara doesn't have a wheel; she has seven and they are all different and used for different things. I quickly learnt that spinning wheels have different set ups: Scotch Tension, double something and something else. Some wheels pull more than others. One wheel is perfect for spinning silk and other very fine yarns; another is good for chunky yarn; another is an all rounder and good, thank goodness, for beginners!

Spinning on a wheel is a lot more complicated than a spindle. You have to keep your foot going to turn the wheel as slowly as possible - in the right direction - and at the same time draw the fibres towards the orifice (horrid word) and onto the bobbin. Back to chunky, lumpy yarn!

By mid-afternoon my mind was reeling and I simply couldn't take in any more. But I had caught the bug. I came back with a spindle and some fibre to spin and, needless to say, a yearning to get a wheel. Oh dear!

My, haven't you grown!

Oh that really annoyed me as a child! I was tall for my age and known, amongst other things, as Runner Bean due to long legs and constant running around.

Anyway, these two boys have certainly grown. Can you imagine that back in the summer they used to BOTH get into their drinking tub?!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Weighing the Pigs

The dreaded day of dispatch is fast approaching. Last week I called a "debiteur" and it is he who will come to the house and do the dreaded dead. One of the questions he asked me (naturally enough) was how much do the pigs weigh?

Well, I had no idea. If this sounds amateur remember this is the first time we have kept pigs and every day contributes to the learning process. And anyway, how do you weigh a pig if you please? He's hardly going to stand still on the bathroom scales.

I did vaguely remember the lady who sold them to us mention a formula and for any other first time pig keepers I have managed to track it down. All you need is a fabric tape measure and a pen/paper. A calculator greatly speeds things up back in the house. Please note: All measurements should be in centimetres and the result is the live weight.

OK. First of all measure the girth of the pig. ie. Put the tape measure around the pig just behind the front legs. Make a note.
Next measure the length of the pig from the base of its tail to just behind its ears.

Now do the following simple maths: Square the girth measurement
Multiply the result by the length
Multiply the result by 69.3

So as an example: The Girth of your pig is 101cms and the Length 108cms

1.01 x 1.01 = 1.0201 (Girth squared)
1.0201 x 1.08 = 1.101708 (result multiplied by Length)
1.101708 x 69.3 = 76.34ks

This is meant to be fairly accurate but whatever its accuracy it's a lot better than trying to get him onto the scales!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Spinning a Yarn

Well, I hope so. It is clearly a rush to the head and Max hopes it's curable and of short duration. But on Tuesday I am spending most of the day with a lady who will (attempt to) teach me how to spin wool. Why? Not sure at all and it may come to nothing but a pleasant day out.

One thing's for sure though. My visions of a beautiful old-style spinning wheel in our 14th century house are unlikely to come to fruition. All the people I have spoken to have told me that the modern wheels are much easier to use for a beginner.

I will take photos and notes and let you know how I get on. In the meantime, if any of you are spinners I would truly appreciate your advice and comments!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Broccoli Cheese - new recipe

I know that the French have a reputation for wonderful cuisine: healthy, delicious, a people who truly care about their food and take time to prepare and then eat it. They don't hesitate at this time of year to go out into the woods and pick as much fungi as possible which is then turned into the most delicious je ne sais quoi a la fungi. However, I bet even they haven't tried this one...and to be honest I hope I don't ever again.

A while back I planted some broccoli plants, together with some cauliflowers and some red cabbage. More new vegetables for our plot although most people have been planting them for years. A week ago I decided the first broccoli was ready for eating but as Max was away I didn't cut it until Thursday. I bought it in and broccoli cheese was instantly on the menu.

Things started to go wrong when I cut it up. I've been very careful about picking off caterpillars. The first time I realised the leaves of the broccoli were being eaten I picked off nearly 100 rather beautiful multi-coloured caterpillars and gave them to the chickens - who weren't interested.

After that I realised a bit of method was required and picked caterpillars every two days. The multi-coloured ones have gone and I am collecting little green ones - the result of the Cabbage White butterfly I presume. I include the caulis in my caterpillar-harvest and thought I was doing quite well. But on Thursday evening as I cut up the broccoli a couple of small green devils dropped out. I picked over the broccoli fairly thoroughly and more fell out. I cut it smaller, to make the flowerlets easier to pick over, and yet more fell out. I had about 12 by the end of all this picking over but I was also fairly confident that I had done a thorough job.

Cooking revealed three more. They float up to the top and are easy to pick out. Not something I really wanted to know to be honest.

As I prepared the cheese sauce I went through the broccoli again - just to be safe - and there were no more. Excellent and no need to mention any of this to Max.

The Broccoli Cheese was delicious. Just right for a mid-week supper. We were thrilled with our first broccoli. We were looking forward to the second one in fact which needs cutting this weekend probably. And then the crunch came. Literally.

Did you know that the caterpillar of Cabbage White Butterflies are crunchy when they've been boiled for five minutes? Did you also know that they are very bitter? And finally, that biting one rather puts you off the rest of your supper?

It's too late for this year of course but some insect netting will be on my list to Father Christmas!

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Clearing beds

With the house to myself and beautiful weather I decided to start clearing the vegetable beds to make way for things that will be growing through the winter. With the passing of the autumn equinox we now have more dark hours than light and it's showing. The leaves on the tomatoes and courgettes are yellowing suddenly, mildew on the courgettes is suddenly worse - although this may be a coincidence. I have mentionned before that we haven't had enough onions in the garden this year and so I thought I would plant some now for harvesting in the spring. But I don't have much space!

So yesterday I cleared the main tomato bed to the delight of the chickens who followed me along the way picking up lots of delicious wriggly morsels! The tomatoes were planted through black plastic so that part was quite easily. However, on both sides of the plastic the weeds had taken charge and this took quite a while a clear. At one point a large stone that I was about to throw in the trailer suddenly hopped away towards the aubergines - it gave me a fright but frogs keep the slugs down so I have no complaint and shock passes quickly!

After the tomatoes I cleared the French beans and beetroot. Maybe I just grew more than normal but we do have the most amazing amount of beans in the freezer this year. Beetroot is harder to preserve but we'll probably eat it this week anyway.

The onion sets will go in later this week. I have three different varieties plus garlic: White Ebenezer (not surprisingly a white onion), Stuttgarter Reisen which has done well for us before, Griselle (shallot) and for the garlic Germidor which is a new one to us and has a violet coloured skin. 500gs of each so a fair bit of planting!

Friday, 26 September 2008

Leeks - disaster!

A while ago I planted just over 100 small leeks. I love adding leeks to just about anything - a good substitute to onions when I've run out and a lovely taste all on its own.

But disaster. I noticed a week ago a few were still very undeveloped and skinny - sort of like Twiggy but in leek-world. I investigated and there was a sort of powdery white mould on the inside of the bases. I thought perhaps it might be a worm and as some were unaffected I hoped for the best. Then yesterday I saw orange spores on the leaves of just about all of them. Quick look in the book and sure enough they have rust. It doesn't affect the taste but it is incurable and the plants stop growing. So, I can eat what is there but they won't get any bigger. Some of them are still pencil size so we're not exactly going to get a feast out of them.

Now that all the children have gone back to university (they left this morning - I have the house to myself) I will have time to get the veggie patch sorted. Sadly the first job will be digging up all the leeks and deciding which ones will be worth keeping.

To add insult to injury, the leaves affected by rust (ie. all of them) cannot be put on the compost heap, but burnt. I can't even give them to the pigs as the spores will stay in the ground and come back to haunt us. AAAAARRRGGHGHHHGHH!

Think of me when you tuck in to leek soup this winter...


I have been a member of Entrecard for sometime. There are advantages and disadvantages but it is a way of getting my blog seen and, hopefully, picks up a few regular readers. This blog is still quite young so anything that spreads it around a bit is fine by me!

This morning I stumbled across a new entrecard link called ECOCARDERS. I have put the link under my Entrecard advertisement. The link will take you directly to a list of other eco bloggers (who are also all members of Entrecard, but that's not the point!). To help them get started I am also listing them here. I don't usually do this and if the list becomes too long I will delete it. But you may be interested in some of them!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

New beds up the garden path

The last few weeks have not been idle ones Up The Garden Path although as autumn arrives and the days are shorter and the nights cooler, things have been slowing down - including the weeds thank goodness! This year has been a learning curve - or maybe I should say the last six months as we haven't been living from the garden for a full year yet.

Our freezer is packed full of vegetables and fruit and I hope very much that together with any winter veg we succeed in growing, this will see us through the winter months. But of course, some things were more plentiful than others. We will be sick of French Beans before the year is out but wondering where all the peas are. There are no Broad Beans left in the freezer at all and all the onions have been used up - although that's partly the fault of the family who insisted on THREE batches of chutney this year. I have enough stewed apples to satisfy the entire planet's desire for apple crumble and apple pie. Also masses of blackcurrant and blackberries - but no raspberries or strawberries at all.

In an effort to put this right I recently ordered 40 bare-rooted strawberry plants; 20 each of Gariguette and Manille. For the past week I have been frantically digging two 10 metre long beds in a new piece of land which we will use as a veggie plot extension. Ultimately there will be three beds there this year and then about three more in the spring (if I still have the energy!) Yesterday the strawberries arrived and I spent two hours planting them through plastic. This morning they are still standing so I must have got something right! According to Alan Titchsmarsh's book planting them now will give us a decentish crop next year. They are under plastic because I simply don't have the time to weed every single vegetable bed and I plant as much under plastic as possible. I have bought a strong green plastic than can be re-used for several years. As in most things, a compromise between saving the planet and saving my back/time.

I also ordered some raspberry canes - these will arrive next week or soon after and there's a rush on to finish the third bed!

I would like this new piece of land to be, as much as possible, permanent beds although at least one bed will be part of our annual crop rotation (all those onions!). So as well as the fruit there will also be a bed for artichokes - I have six plants raised from seed already and waiting - and also a new asparagus bed. I planted asparagus eight years ago but it has only ever given us enough for two people on a strict diet. I think I planted them all too close together. Whatever, we don't get enough and a new bed there will be to supplement it.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Goose Island

At the beginning of this year we had a visit from the fox who took our two remaining Donald Ducks. They were ten years old, walked with a limp and should have been dispatched long before; but our sentimentality wouldn't allow it. The winter was cold and for only the second time since we've lived here the moat froze to the extent that we could play ice hockey on it. Unfortunately it also meant that Donald and Donald couldn't escape into water when the Fox came to visit.

We gave Max some geese for his birthday and recently two small ducks have been added to our wildlife. As a result we have been humming and haa-ing about the winter and the possibility of a second visit from the Fox. Finally last month Pillock Island was decided upon. Max decided that a pile of rocks should be placed in the middle of the moat, surrounded by a wire netting to hold them in place, and a pallet put on top. It was a family affair with the two older boys helping their father and me taking the odd photo. The youngest very sensibly did his homework!

The pile of rocks were punted out (boy, they weighed a ton!) and dropped in place inside the wire. The pallet was put on top and Max even stood on it...briefly. It worked a treat and Dad was able to do his "I told you so" look as he'd taken a certain amount of helpful advice from his sons...and ignored it all.

But then, the island started to list a bit. And then it very gracefully sank. He hadn't counted on the amount of mud at the bottom which the rocks had disturbed and then sunk into! That was the moment it became Pillock Island although my naming ceremony wasn't appreciated!

My idea of four anchor rocks holding the pallet in place was scoffed at several times but finally a mixture of more rocks and the anchors was used to great success. We left some bread on the island and by the next morning both ducks and geese were happily using the island. Since then the geese have decided it belongs exclusively to them - hence the renaming of Pillock Island to Goose Island.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The fruits of our labour

We are currently enjoying a good harvest of courgettes and I found this yummy recipe in Hugh F-W's book - even our non-courgette eaters love it and it goes well either on French bread or as an accompaniment to other things:

1 kilo courgettes, sliced preferably in a magimix or other slicer so they are uniform and fairly thin
3 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
olive oil

Heat about 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan and fry the garlic for a couple of minutes. Then add the courgettes and continue to cook over a medium heat for about 20 minutes, stirring most of the time. You want it to cook at a brisk walk and not at a gallop. Just before it starts to brown take it off the heat and serve. DELICIOUS!

I also have a large amount of aubergines at the moment and the family is getting a little tired of eating them; so yesterday I got busy again with the chutney.

As I make it in the bottom (cool) oven I can chop up vegetables one day and then leave it over night to cook. The next day it's all ready to pot up. Given how fast my children eat chutney - have you even thought of eating a chutney other filling except chutney - this seems to be a good way to save hours of stirring in the kitchen.

The next major job will be the apples. Our one apple tree has been here for much longer than us and to most observers is neglected and in need of a really good pruning. To us though it is the bearer of an incredible crop of large apples every year. We daren't give it the drastic pruning it needs in case the shock is too much for it! One day, I dare say, it will succumb to the great big orchard in the sky but for now we will continue to enjoy it.

These apples don't store well as they have so many insects all over them, but they taste delicious in crumble. So each year I stew up the apples and freeze them in one kilo bags for use throughout the year. This year we used the last bag in July so I was very satisfied! Again, I stew them up in the evening - on top of the stove though - and leave them to cool over night. Then they are ready for bagging in the morning and can go straight into the freezer.

Plenty of people told me that keeping a vegetable plot free of weeds would be hard work. Nobody mentionned that using the veg before it went off would also be such hard work. However, the pigs are happy - they get all the peelings from the vegetables and apples : piggy bliss!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Blackberries and neighbours

When people ask me where we live I usually tell them "in the middle of a field". Of course it's not true but we are completely surrounded by agricultural fields and as a result we refer to anyone within three kilometres as a neighbour.

All our neighbours are extremely one. A widow of non-descript age - perhaps in her 70's - and her son live rather too close for comfort; perhaps 700 metres away. They are known by all around us as "trouble" and indeed, by the local gendarmes. They are both, in my opinion, unhinged and spend their time causing trouble for other people.

An example - our immediate neighbour, a farmer, was clearing his ditches last spring and as he had all the machinery out, cleared a ditch that was blocked but is technically the responsibility of the commune. This is a ditch that flows downhill towards the road and it was overflowing at the bottom, putting water over the road. Our neighbour did a good job and was extremely careful not to damage the sides of the ditch. Not good enough for Difficult Neighbour. Quick as a flash the son was outside and complaining that our neighbour had done it at all. He called a Huissier - a type of lawyer - who turned up and in turn called the Maire. The Maire thanked our neighbour very much for taking the trouble to sort out the ditch and that was pretty much the end of it. But it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Yesterday I went out to pick blackberries. Half way down our drive there is a turning to the left which runs down to the road. Although our drive is private (we share it with the farmer), the 200 metre stretch of linking track is public; and of course it has the best blackberries. I've been picking these blackberries for ten years and never has anyone suggested that I am doing anything wrong. And never in ten years have I seen anyone else blackberrying. In other words if I don't pick them the birds take them or they rot.

One of my favourite puddings is apple and blackberry crumble using apples from our tree and wild blackberries. Every year I collect as many as possible and freeze them in small quantities - there's usually only a small quantity left by the time I've finished picking/eating!

So there I was picking happily in the sunshine when Mrs Difficult Neighbour arrived on foot. How sad. She had walked 500 metres especially to tell me that I had no right to pick blackberries that were not on my own land. She insisted I had to ask permission but when I asked from whom she couldn't say. After five minutes of listening to her I'd had enough. I told her that I was going to carry on picking blackberries; that I would happily give her some if she wanted them (she didn't); and that if she wanted to she could lodge a formal complaint with the Mairie but as I wasn't trespassing or stealing I suggested she wouldn't get very far. That was the end of it but only because I walked away and carried on picking.

I was in the village this morning and decided that I might just as well relate the rather dull story to the Mairie secretary (who confirmed that I'd done nothing wrong). I know it's silly but the fact is Son of Difficult Neighbour is trouble in a big way and not someone I enjoy meeting at any time. He's not adverse to driving cyclists off the road if they don't move over far enough and unfortunately, he's not adverse to driving up to our house to complain about whatever injustice he thinks we are responsible for. So I thought it would do no harm to let the village authority know what had happened.

The good news: I have 500 grams of blackberries in the freezer and will be out later today to pick more - from a different area perhaps!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Figs -- straight from the tree!

It was F's 50th birthday a month ago and we gave her a fig tree as our figs do well here and she is always very jealous.

I remember eating figs as a child in Berkshire. We were lucky to have a south facing wall that lapped up the sun and the figs loved it. In the morning we would eat a couple before going off to school and then in the evening we'd eat as many as possible that had ripened during the day. It was a battle to reach them when they were perfectly ripe but before the wasps had found them. Oh the joy of a freshly picked fig!

Yesterday was the plantation ceremony for F's tree. Despite having a large garden finding a suitable spot wasn't easy. Figs need as much sun and warmth as possible - but so do grapes and all their south facing walls were taken by beautiful looking vines! We compromised in the end and set to, taking turns to dig the hole in the sunniest part of a walled garden about two metres out from the wall.

The French always laugh at us when we tell them how we plant our figs. It is a system well known to anyone who has looked in an English book on the subject but not to the French. Having dug a deep hole we put in a square tube made of concrete - more commonly used for access to water pipes - and put some large stones at the bottom of it. (If you have one available the drum of an old washing machine is even better than the concrete.) Then some good compost, followed eventually by the fig tree which had been soaked in water all morning; and finally the rest of the compost and some of the original soil.

The point is to restrict the roots of the tree so that it can put more effort into ripening fruit than into producing leaves. I might add that the French can laugh all they like but they do admit that our figs grow better than theirs!

Anyway, fantasy then took over and we all danced around the fig tree singing Happy Birthday. By the time we left I suspect F & T were confident that we are total lunatics - let's hope that this time next year they will have reason to change their minds!

Right that's it - I'm off to feed the pigs and gather a few of our own figs on the way!

Bees and Honey

Last year we entered the world of beekeeping. Our son had met a beekeeper when he was 12 and was fascinated and it was really thanks to R that a year later we bought our first two hives and honeybee colonies.

However, last year was not a good year to start! We might have had a full 24 hours without rain but if so I was asleep and missed it. In any case, the nectar in the flowers and crops around us were saturated and of not much interest to the poor bees. We had to feed them huge amounts of syrup to build up their supplies for the winter but even so we lost one of the colonies - probably through ignorance as well as the meterological circumstances.

Our remaining colony came through the winter and built itself up during the spring - largely thanks to the oil seed rape in the area. With great excitement we added a super (which is where the bees put our honey as opposed to the brood box where they keep theirs) and gradually they started to build this up and fill it.

At some point the colony swarm. I was irritated as I had been checking the hive and as it's in our garden I pass it several times a day; but I neither anticipated the swarm nor saw it leave or in the area. That's life and again probably due to our inexperience. When a colony swarms you lose about half of the honey collecting bees so your harvest will be badly affected. That's the problem! In addition, I have noticed since this happened that there is very little brood in the hive which worries me as the colony will not be strong enough to survive the winter.

So we decided to take action on two fronts. The first was to harvest the honey already in the super straightaway. The second was to requeen.

We had a great time on Sunday extracting the honey from the frames. I bought a second hand extractor last year and was very grateful to have done so as it makes the job a lot easier and less sticky!! We left the honey to settle for three days and then yesterday we potted it up. Oh the joy of having our own honey at last! We have estimated 5.5 kilos - not exactly enough to make a fortune but certainly enough to keep us in honeyed toast for a while! )We can't resist calculating how much we might get in a good year)

The second decision to requeen was more complicated. It is late in the season to do this and we are taking a risk. I wanted therefore, to find a queen that was a good egg layer and would do her best to build up the colony in a short time. Strange though it may seem I bought a queen from Cyprus as they appear to have a fantastic reputation and the supplier is extremely helpful. She was sent on Monday and arrived TODAY by standard post. Not bad at all.

This afternoon we will start the process by making up a small nucleus colony (six frames instead of 12) and introduce the new queen still in her cage. After a couple of days we will check to see if the bees have accepted her and if so will let her out of the cage. Then about a week later we will re-unite the nucleus with the original hive.

If anyone is interested in the subject of beekeeping I do have some books in my online bookshop (run by Amazon). These are the books I have on my own bookshelf and the Clive de Bruyn especially is one I look at almost every week. Either click the link or click on the pile of books on the right of this page.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Red Hot Chilli my eyes!

One of my favourite jobs at this time of year is chutney making. The French love it and I often take a small pot along when we are invited out to dinner. They look surprised, disbelief follows when they are told what to do with it; but they always ring up for the recipe afterwards!

I don't have any particular recipe, although I base it on Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's, but use whatever is available in the garden. Today's batch has aubergine, French beans, cucumber, onions, garlic, green tomatoes, green peppers and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Well, one actually. Be warned, the juice from this vegetable gets into your skin and stays there. Washing hands, showering, gardening and more washing doesn't mean it has been removed...

My son and I sat in the kitchen together and chopped vegetables for half an hour enjoying the relative peace and quiet. We talked about the satisfaction of growing our own chutney - raisins excepted - and the very last thing I chopped were the Red Hot Chilli Pepper.

After getting the chutney into the oven (I slow cook it rather than cooking it on the top of the oven) I had a lovely day, sowing some Swiss Chard and some Chinese Lettuce, and transplanting some lettuce seedlings. Then it was off to a local church for a wonderful concert. On my return supper was underway and we had delicious spaghetti with a pesto sauce (Basil supplied by yours truly from the garden of course!)

At some point I must have rubbed my eyes; I can even vaguely remember doing it. BIG mistake! The sting was not instant but came on gradually and in stages. Each stage was just about bearable but then got worse. Finally I couldn't see and my youngest went to get some ice. Didn't help. Then Max suggested some cucumber slices. This was BRILLIANT. The cucumbers are in the fridge (in the hope that we will be able to use them before they go off) and were so wonderfully cool when sliced. The children thought it very funny to have Mum sitting there looking like a complete prune; needless to say one of them had his I-phone with him and took full advantage of the situation to take photos of me looking stupid! But it was worth it. After about two minutes the pain went and I could see again.

So, if you are foolish enough - or unfortunate enough - to get Red Hot Chilli Peppers in your eyes, cut some cucumber slices and they will help enormously. Alternatively, just wear this rubber gloves when you are cutting them up!

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Our chicks have hatched

You may recall from this post earlier in the month that we have had a mixed success with our chickens. The original three, two hens and a cockerel, are alive and well and providing us with two eggs per day. Perfect. In addition, I gave Max an incubator for his birthday and we have had enormous pleasure from hatching chicks from the fertile eggs. Sadly, we lost the second lot of chicks (although they were hardly chicks as they had reached the unattractive six weeks!) to an unseen predator and then we discovered that The Blue Team were all cocks and therefore for the pot. That's the resume in a nutshell!

As some of you know, my formidable mother-in-law (Blind Granny to her blog readers) is, well, blind and we thought it would be a treat for her if we hatched some eggs during her visit here. We duly put seven eggs into the incubator 20 days before she was due to arrive, secure in the knowledge that with a 21 day incubation period the eggs would hatch 24 hours after her arrival. Unfortunately, noone had told the chicks this although in the end it worked out better than we could have hoped!

The first one was born just one hour before Granny and the others (my sister-in-law, her daughter and daughter's friend) arrived. These were followed by two more that evening and one more the following morning. So they had the full on experience you could say. My niece's friend was entranced. She lives in London and has never seen the creation of life at such close quarters. She came running in and out of the kitchen (the incubator is in the playroom next door) to tell us what was going on. It was very touching.

The picture above shows the egg, still in the incubator, with the very first visual sign that the chick is on its way. It has bashed the first, all important, hole in the shell. The rest follows quite slowly but it is very important that you don't give it a helping hand by cracking the shell. During this period you can quite often hear a cheep from inside the egg.

There is nothing remotely attractive about a new-born chick but for me there will always be the awe of the miracle of life. This hideous little thing has been out of its shell for about as long as it took me to find the camera. I'm not quite sure what the piece of string is - nothing to do with the chick at all!

At this point we put some water in the incubator (in a shallow tray with pebbles so that the chick can't drown in it) and leave it alone for a while. It gets itself up and has a drink quite quickly, then flops down again wherever it happens to be (hence the pebbles) and slowly builds up enough strength to find its legs and start moving around. The lid goes back on the incubator in order to keep the heat in - there are more eggs still to hatch and, most importantly, the newly born chick must not get cold. The chick is quite wet when it's born and the warmth helps it dry out and become what we all think of when someone says "new-born chick"...cute and fluffy!

And so our chicks hatched. From seven eggs we hatched five chicks - not bad. The other eggs showed no signs of life and after a further two days in the incubator to be sure we threw them out. The first time this happened we opened the eggs to investigate but I don't do this anymore as it can be upsetting. Just as with humans and other animals, chicks can die in the egg for no obvious reason and it is not a pleasant experience to discover this when you open the egg.

The chicks are now ten days old. Already they are developing a character, interestingly en masse. When I put my hand in to change the water or give them food they all charge towards me at once. At the first sign of a camera they all vanish into a corner. When one lies down and "plays dead" the others stand around it and gaze. The first time I saw this I was really worried but of course s/he got up and they all danced, seemingly in delight at the joke they'd played. When one discovers he can do something, the others all do it as well - have you read John Wyndham's "The Midwitch Cuckoos"? It should have been the Midwitch Chickens, but clearly he'd never seen baby chicks!

They are still in the house although probably not for much longer. At this time of year the playroom warms up just enough for the smell to be over-powering and Eau de Chick is not our favourite to be honest! Also, it is usually warmer outside than in during the day. So we will bring round the chick house that my son made and put them out in the morning and just bring them in at night.

This lot will inevitably become known as the Gang of Five, or the Fab Five perhaps, and in due course we will ring them with a green tag on their legs. This tells us which "batch" they are from and therefore what age they are. OK, we are not exactly running a huge enterprise here with hundreds of chickens running around but it's amazing how fast older chickens start looking like their brothers and sisters. We are hatching chicks for two reasons: eggs and meat. A chicken will start laying eggs at approximately 120 days (depending on the time of year); however, if we need any of the birds for meat, or if we have spare cockerels, we prefer to cull them before this - at approximately 90 days. Hence, we need to know the dates of birth and the different colour rings tell us this.

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Happy Hams - progress report

Having never kept pigs before this whole experience is a steep learning curve. Fortunately our Berkshire weaners are well behaved and have a healthy respect for the electric fence. They are making contented noises and seem to be growing well - albeit one is growing much faster than the other; he's known as the big brother. They come charging towards us when we arrive with a bucket in our hands and look very cross if we manage to get into the field before they've seen us; clearly that's very sneaky and just not on!

We were feeding them from an old ammunition box (don't ask!) and that was perfect as we could put it under the shelter when it was raining so that the feed didn't get wet and soggy. They seemed to almost climb into the box and had great fun at feed time. But of course they grow and more importantly they grow too big to share the box. It was a little like the time I noticed my baby son looked a little crooked in his babygro - I'd had to force him into it and it was only when I finally managed to do it up I realised that perhaps it was just too small! Ham One was clearly growing at a much faster rate than Ham Two and it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps this was because he was literally shoving his little brother away from the box. So now I put the food in about four piles on the ground. This works much better and I think Ham Two is beginning to catch up a bit!

I also had a fright ten days ago. I went out and Ham Two had what I can only describe as a hemorroid protruding from his backside. The next day it was much bigger. Internet quickly informed me that it was possibly the beginning of a prolapsed rectum - just what I needed - and to call the vet immediately. In the meantime Max spoke to our farming neighbour and although he now only has dairly cows he used to keep pigs. He reassured us that although we should call the vet, both pigs looked extremely well and happy and not on the imminent panic list.

Clearly the vet doesn't have internet and that's probably a good thing. He gave me some worming powder and two days later the problem was no longer visible. This probably also helped with the weight problem.

Unfortunately the vet didn't have any bright ideas on how to give worming powder to the pigs beyond putting it into their drinking water. As they spend a lot of the time splashing the water out of the tub and then wallowing in it this didn't seem a sensible idea. So I bought a large syringe (minus needle) and "injected" it into their mouths - it was brilliant and they loved it!

One day I'll get a photo of them looking at the camera...

Freezing Cucumbers

I think I mentioned that I have had extraordinary beginner's luck with my cucumbers. We have harvested over 50 from six plants and I only hope I will be able to use them all. At the moment we are averaging two per day but my sister-in-law has just left so we have gone from being nine to six. Luckily we all (still!) like cucumber but even so, one a day is easily enough.

One of our "use up cucumber" recipes is Tzatziki. It works very well as a salad or as an accompaniment to meat. Here's my recipe but please feel free to vary the quantities at will - you might think an entire cucumber was excessive for example!

Peel and finely chop one cucumber
Mix it with three or four natural yoghurts (or one big one)
Add some finely chopped garlic
Add the juice of one lemon
Mix it up and it's ready to eat!

However, even this isn't enough to use up ALL the cucumbers!

Max is looking after a chateau/hotel this week. The owner is away on holiday with his family and Max is basically house manager/caretaker/trouble shooter. The evening meal is cooked by a chef who comes in each evening to provide the dinner ordered by the guests. He is a delightful man and last year, when Max did the same job, surprised us by presenting us with a "takeaway" gourmet meal on the day Max finished there. It was delicious and all my favourite things.

Max mentioned to Christian yesterday that he was worried I might be planning on buying another fridge as the one we have is stuffed full of cucumbers. "No problem", said Christian (well, actually it was "Pas de probleme", but anyway...) "Just freeze them!"

Oh ha, ha. I have been looking all over the internet to find out how to freeze the wretched things without all sorts of complicated manoeuvres involving brine. I don't have enough tomatoes to make Gazpacho but that's coming. Back to Christian and I happily give you his very simple and straightforward advice.

Peel the cucumbers
Cut in half length ways and remove the centres (which is where most of the water is)
Sprinkle both sides with salt.
Put in plastic bag, seal and freeze.

Just for the record an ice cream scoop is brilliant for taking out the centres.

I froze four this afternoon and will de-freeze one later this week to see how it tastes. Results will be reported here!

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Storms knock us out!

For the past three days we have had no internet connection at all after a real humdinger of a storm on Monday afternoon! Today we have at last been reconnected - although whether or not it will last I don't know as there are more thunder storms going on all around us; we seem to be just on the edge so perhaps it won't affect us!

Actually it's been heavenly. We have a house full of guests and just for once the children have not been able to sneak off to "check their emails". Instead they've been much more active outside - even helping me pick vegetables from the patch.

It's been very satisfying producing meals largely made up of home produce. Last night I "took the plunge" and cooked our first home grown chickens - two of the blue team. After Max had plucked and gutted them last week I put them in the freezer. I anticipated an element of heartache when I came to cook them but surprisingly that was not the case. I found that when they came out of the freezer they were just frozen chickens, nothing more.

There was almost no breast meat so I decided to casserole them with some of our onions and other vegetables. I put them in a slow oven in the morning and by the evening they were incredibly tender - delicious!

Anyway, once this lot of guests have left I'll be back online (storm problems accepted) and will show you my, er, glut of cucumbers. I don't think we'll have to buy another fridge but does anyone have any good cucumber recipes that can be frozen???

Lorna asked me in a comment on a previous post how the pigs are doing. The answer is fine. They are growing well - one much faster than the other - and are certainly developing their own characters. The big one is quite a bully at feed time but we have solved this by putting food in several different places so the little one always has another pile to go to. They love, I have discovered, the green beans I give them that have become too big and stringy for us - so nothing goes to waste at all!

Once again, apologies for the absence - I'll be back to catch up soon.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Up The Garden Path has received an...AWARD!

I am thrilled to have been given an award by The Compostbin.
Given that this is such a new blog I consider it a great honour. The rules are that I pass it on to 7 of my favourite blogs. I can't, however , pass it on to The Compostbin. Here are my seven:

Pollys Peri-wrinkles & Piercings in Ireland. I drop in most days and Polly always makes me laugh.

France This Way
. A fellow Englishman living in France (further south than me though).

Garendenny Lane Interiors, again in Ireland. She has a wonderful collection of fabrics which, as an upholsterer, I would love to get my hands on! More importantly she has just opened an on-line shop. Lovely things and I hope to send something to my sister for her birthday.

Thurston Market Garden. How can I possibly not include a gardener who also keeps Berkshire Pigs!

Hedgewizard's Diary. Full of wonderful stories and tips. You name it he grows it!

Obscure History. Slightly different this one. Some of the stories are sad; some are funny; some are just plain daft. But worth a look.

So there you have it! Take a look at these and I hope you enjoy them. Thank you again to Compost Woman for my award!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Farewell to the Blue Team

Our first three chicks were hatched from the incubator in late-April and were followed a month later by eight more. They became known as the blue team and the yellow team because of the tags we put on their legs to remind us when they were born, how old they were and when they would mature into egg laying hens. That was the plan.

Unfortunately two weeks ago the yellow team were taken by a fox or other predator - during the day and with no noise, not even disturbing our dogs which is worrying - leaving just a couple of feathers. And yesterday a chicken farmer confirmed my worst fears - the blue team are all cockerels! And so they will be dispatched later today.

This will be a first for us and will no doubt bring us many regrets. However, we have raised these birds with a purpose in mind, knowing full well that if they were not hens we would eat them. They have had a fine time living in the open air and being well looked after. Their diet has been well supplemented by worms and other insects they have found in the garden and it has been a joy to have them following me through the flower beds while I weed. I weed, they feed on the bugs bought to the surface.

We have more eggs due to hatch next week. We timed these ones to hatch when my mother-in-law will be staying. She is blind and we thought this would be a surprise for her as she will be able to hold them before the end of her stay. She follows our life in France very closely (I write that without any of the usual daughter-in-law irony!) and was staying with us when I gave Max the incubator for his birthday. I sincerely hope there will be at least two hens this time - although comments about not counting chickens come to mind! We do still have our original two hens and one cockerel but I find that two eggs a day are not sufficient - especially when our sons start cooking brownies for tea! - and I really resent having to supplement them with shop bought eggs.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Crop Rotation

Of all things I find this the hardest thing to sort out. It would be so easy if all things were planted on the same day and cropped on the same day. Simple to rotate then. Fortunately, vegetables aren't like that or we would be hungry for half the year.

Crop rotation is essential to growing vegetables to avoid the build up of pests and diseases which hide themselves in the ground and are more than capable of over-wintering and rearing their ugly heads the following year. Not all vegetables need to be rotated but it always helps if it's possible and for some it's vital.

I have done my best to organise my plot into beds and thanks to Max putting slates around them this has worked quite well - although we will have to change them as the hose pipe keeps catching on them. So I have a number of beds with different vegetables in each. So far, so good. But now I've dug up the potatoes what goes in next? I'm about to dig up the onions - what can I put in their place? And after the French beans are finished?

I spent this morning putting my cauliflower (Nautilus) and broccoli (Marathon F1) in the potato bed, together with some leeks (blawgroene herfst) that I bought yesterday. It seems I got it wrong!

I wish I'd found Downsizer first! This is the first time I've seen crop rotation simplified so that even I can understand and follow it - although it's a bit late for the caulis and broccoli unfortunately. Brassicas don't appreciate the ground left by potatoes as it is not firm enough. Well, at least I've discovered this in time to make sure they are well firmed in even if I can't move them. I think the leeks will be ok - I hope so as it took two hours to get them in!

So if you want some help with your crop rotation take a look at Downsizer and see if it helps.


I have never grown cucumbers before (where have I heard that phrase before!) but this year I put some seeds in a pot and they started to grow! Surprise, surprise! However, when I planted them out they didn't seem to be making much progress so in my new found enthusiasm for everything potager I bought three cucumber plants and stuck them in too. Hmmm, these didn't make much progress either so I just decided to ignore the whole lot and get on with the rest of the garden - broad beans were doing well and saved my enthusiasm from vanishing.

They say if you ignore something it will go away. Fortunately cucumbers don't know about this because quite suddenly they started growing at an incredible pace and were promising to overrun the garden. Rapid checking in every veg book in the house told me to pinch them out after a certain amount of leaves had appeared - but we were way beyond that. I also noticed that there were dozens of fruits appearing on all six plants but they were all tiny and only one - which by this time was a full size cucumber! - had grown at all. Several tiny fruits had turned yellow and were clearly not going anywhere but the compost heap. Decision time.

I finally spent a morning pinching out all the trailing parts of the plants. Truth be told I had no idea what I was doing but apart from anything else, they had to be stopped from taking over the entire patch! The results were extraordinary and almost instantaneous. Within a week rapid growth was showing in several fruits on all of the plants. Withing two weeks we were eating reasonable sized cucumbers. Now, three weeks later, I am picking at least one full sized fruit a day, if not two. I have a feeling that next week I will be picking more than that!

I am extremely pleased with this. We have a family arriving tonight for three days and then next weekend my sister-in-law and mother-in-law plus one daughter and possibly another child will be here for a week. Our eldest son will be arriving with them so the house will be full. Cucumbers will be welcome!

In the top two photos you can clearly see the two different types of cucumbers. The top photo is one of the plants I bought with a smoothish skin and the second, with an almost prickly skin, is one of my seedlings grown to fruition. In the final photo, I have put the flowers of borage in with the sliced cucumbers. These flowers are edible and I think the blue is so lovely next to the delicate green of the cucumber.

Friday, 18 July 2008


When we first moved to France bread makers had been available in England for a very short period of time. We'd seen them in America and tasted the delights but had not met anyone in Europe who owned one. Then one day I found one in a computer shop on one of our trips to England - it must have been an electrical store I suppose but I was in there because of the computer! It was a Panasonic and must have been mark one because a friend of mine has one that is very similar but with an option for crusty crust etc. I bought it proudly back to France and all our French friends laughed at me. Well, they would - the entire French population knows two things about England: it rains non-stop and the bread tastes like cardboard or cotton wool depending on how stale it is. I was nervous to say the least but fortunately had had the sense to bring back instant yeast as the French only had fresh yeast and after a few experiments - only one was inedible - I was confident enough to try it on our French friends. The joke was on them (finally!). They wanted to know where I'd bought this fantastic bread. Which bakery had I, an English woman, found which they did not know about. (The French will drive miles to buy good bread when the village bakery is not up to par.)

I still have my breadmaker and after twelve years service it is just as good as ever. I don't know precisely how the price of "my" bread compares to the baguette in the shop but it is cheaper. And anyway, it means that I don't have to go to our local bakery (7kms each way) each day (and no, frozen baguettes are not that great if kept in the freezer for more than 24 hours). Our efforts at self-sufficiency are not able to extend to growing wheat - we don't have the land for one thing! - so I will always have to buy the flour.

During this past week one of my oldest friends has been to stay with two of her three young daughters. We had a lot of catching up to do and with the wonderful weather we were fortunate enough to have, were very happy to do most of the catching up in the garden or the house - not the supermarket! The breadmaker was on twice a day with rolls for lunch (Mary Berry's recipe) and a brown grain bread for supper. Wonderful!

Thursday, 10 July 2008


A few years ago I was introduced to chard when we tried a veggie box scheme run in the area by a farm that employs handicapped adults. The farm is organic and is a great success. The box scheme didn't work for us as they couldn't deliver and we could never collect on the days specified. They changed it now to a shop which works much better.

Anyway, the chard made up a large part of the box and initially I wasn't too pleased - until I tasted it! It was delicious and has the advantage of being in two parts. You can eat the white stems with, say, a cheese sauce and then the green leaves as a change from spinach. Both are excellent. I might say though that I haven't yet managed to make the white stems in cheese sauce LOOK appetising but I am blessed with a 14 year old (the youngest of three) who will always try a new culinary effort and make a genuine yes or no decision about it. He loved it!

I was too late to sow any this year but found six plants in a local garden supply shop (I was looking for seed potatoes actually). I put three of these in a corner of the veggie patch but had no more room, so I put them in the flower bed. And this was the problem.

All the books say that chard must be watered regularly or it will bolt. The veggie patch was no problem as during the very dry June I was watering it anyway. However, the flower bed we try not to water so much and although it does have a sprinkler system it isn't yet up and running this year. So, guess what? The chard has bolted! It looks lovely though so I'm not too upset and of course I still have the three in the veggie patch.

If you are looking for a new vegetable experience I highly recommend trying chard. Next year I will grow it from seed as it isn't meant to be too hard to get started. You can also, in the UK at least, buy a sort of rainbow chard which has stems in a variety of colours. They look lovely but I haven't yet found them in France.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Happy Hams arrive up the Garden Path

I cannot deny that our attempts at self-sufficiencyish living have been influenced by Rebecca at Sally Gardens in Ireland. I started reading her blog about a year ago and was fascinated by her life on the smallholding and in particular her stories about the pigs. It set me thinking - which as Max will tell you, is always a dangerous moment! The red light flickered in my brain and I thought why not? We have the space and as we both work from home, we have the time.

I am thrilled to say that our very first weaners - two Berkshire Black cross - were collected yesterday. I collected them in the back of our van (which now has a certain Eau de Pig about it!) and they were safely installed in their new home during the afternoon. I was advised to leave them shut in the ark with food and water until this morning and, as there is no door on their ark, I put two bales of straw in front of the door. Well, that didn't last long and very soon they had knocked it down and come to investigate the outside world. Stories of houses made of straw spring to mind - although this time it was the piglets that huffed and puffed!

Thankfully, they were still in their enclosure this morning. I say thankfully because 1) I didn't have any photos and 2) they touched the electric fence a couple of times yesterday evening with their backsides and although we saw their ears literally spark the pigs themselves were seemingly unaware that the fence was electric and should be respected.

They were much less timid this morning and although they still haven't eaten very much they have made a nest in their ark (I'll post a picture of this ark sometime - it's a very grand name for the shack they are actually living in!) and have started rooting around. They both took a carrot from me this morning which I decided was progress although it was probably just hunger! But it was lovely to see them looking a little more at home and making gorgeous snuffling noises.

The Happy Hams are 10 weeks old and we will lovingly look after them until November/December. They will then be dispatched, again with love and care, to the freezer and provide us with more than enough meat for next year. If the project is a success we will repeat it next year.

As much as I would love to say that the pigs will be organic I can't. I have found it unbelievably difficult finding organic, or even guaranteed non-GM, feed. That will have to wait for next time. In the meantime they will be fed all our leftover vegetables and will have a happy life in our field.

Now, I must go and buy a pair of welly boots and perhaps change out of these somewhat smelly clothes! And clean the car!

Thursday, 3 July 2008


Pays de la Loire is a major fruit growing area. Not only grapes - the main vineyards are further south from us along the Loire Valley - but apple and pear orchards and red and black currants. In late August/early September there are always a large number of migrant workers who move into the area to do the apple picking. This is a back breaking job and not well paid. If you are lucky you will find work in an orchard that pays by the amount you pick. They have to guarantee the minimum wage but if you are quick then you will be paid a bonus accordingly. There are quality checks - they obviously don't want pickers who put in bruised or otherwise damaged fruit or fruit that is too small. A friend of mine makes her living picking apples and pears and each year brings me a huge bag of fruit that is not considered suitable for the market - of course, there's nothing wrong with it at all but it doesn't "conform" to the industry standard; and how stupid is that!

Last year the owner of one of these fruit farms called and asked her if she would work a week on the blackcurrant farm. She agreed as she realised he'd been let down but this is not a job she enjoys. Basically blackcurrants are picked by what could be described as a huge vacuum cleaner that is put over each plant and sucks the fruit off the tree. This then goes into the sorting area where people like my friend have to pick it over.

Of course it isn't only the fruit that gets sucked up, it's everything. She bought me a bucketful of blackcurrants last year and I went through it, berry by berry (can you imagine?!) to clean it. I'm not the fussiest person on earth and truly don't mind a bit of dirt. It's the frog's legs, slugs and snails that I object to. She said that they also have to be careful in case there are any snakes amongst the berries!

I was thinking about this as I picked the fruit off our two blackcurrant bushes this morning. It was a lovely sunny day and as we are away this weekend it was a job that had to be done. I've read in various books that if you prune out the fruit bearing branches as you collect the fruit it saves you a job later in the year. It also makes the fruit picking much easier! I was thrilled that I collected nearly a bucketful this year. It really has been a good year for fruit and veg - all that winter and spring rain I suppose!

I don't eat jam and so I don't make jam! Instead, I simmer the blackcurrants in a small amount of water and then sieve it to get all the larger bits out (stems and leaves that have got past the first pick over). I pour the resulting liquid concentrate into small aluminium ramekins which I freeze. I can then take out a small amount of concentrate as I need it during the year. My favourite indulgence is to mix it with cottage cheese for lunch but I also use it to flavour ice cream or to add a bit of variety to apple crumble. It's very strong though so you don't need much.

Please remember too, to wear OLD clothes as blackcurrant stains everything it touches! If you are working on a wooden surface you may want to protect this too - although I quite like the dark pink splashes of colour on the kitchen table and chairs!