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!