Monday, 19 July 2010

Fruit - A new discovery

One of the things I love about living here is the abundance of fruit. The cherries kick off the year and we then have fresh fruit right through to about late September. The strawberries this year were abundant - for three weeks we were picking between 500gms and 1 kilo every two days. Then came the raspberries; again three weeks of picking a huge amount but I didn't weigh them (difficult when they are already eaten!). Now we are eating mirabelles (both yellow and red) - not quite so abundant this year but never mind - and the figs have just started to ripen (shhh - don't tell anyone!).

In the vegetable patch I have water melons with golf ball size fruit - I planted 20 seedlings and about 15 are doing well so we'll be feasting on water melon later in August. I also have 15 regular melons but they were planted late so are still developing.

The peach tree is heavy with fruit which will be picked shortly and the pear trees also promise a good harvest.

But the biggest surprise this week was a new discovery - bear in mind we've lived here for over 10 years now. Two days ago I was inspecting the bees and suddenly noticed that the tree behind the hives was full of a small plum like fruit, green/yellow in colour. Definitely not a mirabelle and the taste is delicious. I'm guessing a plum of some sort and am not too bothered which sort so long as it tastes good! Harvesting them will be fun though as they really are a metre from the hives!

Last night two friends came for supper and I had approximately no notice. The joy of being able to go into the garden to find supper. We feasted on French beans cooked with onions, salad and cucumber. We decided that courgettes would be too much. For pudding we feasted on ice cream and honey straight from the comb. Perfect!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Video of bees marching into their hive

I transferred a strong colony from a nuc into a larger brood box this afternoon. It was a bit of a game as I was on my own and it involved a second colony (weaker) also being united. It always amazes me how the bees march into the hive to find the queen.

I tried to take a video - it wasn't terribly successful and as you can see I didn't know how to turn it off at the end. But if you watch you'll see them almost running out of the smaller box and into the bigger one. Enjoy!

Mange Tout

The peas have been a disaster this year. I think it must have been the seeds themselves because I have had no trouble with beans or mange tout. I planted the peas in two separate places and a total of three plantings (or sowings I suppose) and only about twenty came up at all (about 10 per cent so not good) and the crop on those has been bad.

The Mange Tout however are brilliant. They are growing so fast and producing so much that it's hard to keep up. Feast indeed but how to preserve them? Freezing isn't ideal but it does appear to be the only way so I did an experiment and we ate the result last night.

Basically I blanched them for 30 seconds and then left them to dry slightly in the colander. Into the plastic bag and into the freezer as quickly as possible. I only put in a small amount - enough for two people or three at a pinch. To use them I put them straight from the freezer into boiling water and just gave them another 30 seconds before removing into the colander.

There is no doubt that they were not as good as fresh mange tout. However they weren't bad as a side vegetable. By that I mean I wouldn't use them as decoration around a piece of duck but they tasted delicious. They were only in the freezer for 48 hours so perhaps they would lose more flavour or break down more if they were there longer. We'll see - I have so many that freezing will be a necessity.

Bee Season

Nature really is amazing. When our eldest son was here in mid-June I had a look at the hives and although all was well and as it should be the supers were mediocre. Filling but slowly. I had another look exactly seven days ago and the situation was just the same.

What a difference a week makes! We opened the hives yesterday and to my astonishment the supers were filling to the extent that all but one hive needed another super. Hmmm, shortage of supers then! I can't judge how the harvest will be in comparison to last year but at least there will be a harvest.

A few years ago I exchanged a stack of sailing charts for some 12 frame Dadants and other equipment. This meant that we were able to expand our apiary and they have served us well. However, Dadants come in two sizes, 12-frame and 10-frame and we had a mix. This isn't great as I seem to spend a lot of time needing the other size super regardless of what I've put on the trailer. So last week I bought two new 10-frame Dadants and have put two of the bigger ones up for sale, together with one of the nucs we created this year. This is the nuc when we opened it up yesterday:

It was very hot yesterday and one of the hives was busy taking a breathe of fresh air:

There is something unbelievably fascinating about bees. I know there's a stack of publicity about honey bees at the moment and that's wonderful because it means more people are becoming interested and more are becoming beekeepers. That's got to be a good thing and perhaps one day it will be quite normal again to have a hive at the bottom of the garden (or on the roof).

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A good yield so far and our first rabbit...

It's funny how the garden catches up with you. One day you're lucky if one of the lettuces is big enough to stretch to a couple of mouthfuls and the next you are feasting on fruit and veg. Everything has been late this year because of the long winter and the late cold spells. I think we still are running a little late - I am sure the elderflower was later than usual - but with enormous benefits it seems to quantity.

We were still picking cherries in June and I know for a fact that hasn't happened before. And what a crop. We thought last year was good but this year wasn't only good in terms of quantity but in quality as well. I suppose the fruit starting ripening late and then with a sudden burst of sun and heat at the critical moment it all burst into ripeness. The cherries have never been darker in colour nor sweeter in taste. Once again the birds left us plenty and for once we could reach them from the ground - indeed the branches were so heavy they sort of came down to greet us!

And then the strawberries - for three weeks we were picking about 3 kilos per week. Not bad when there's only two of you to eat them - and at the weekend we were good enough to share them with our youngest son (he's away at school during the week).

Right now we are feasting on raspberries. The yield isn't quite so magnificent but I am picking about two kilos a week so I can't complain. Certainly enough to accompany ice cream or yoghurt.

And what about the vegetables? Well, of course we are still fighting the rabbits and I had to put netting over the courgettes - all the leaves were eaten one night. But all the same we are eating our first baby courgettes, baby and medium sized carrots (the sweetness of a freshly picked carrot...), and of course lettuces when we beat the rabbits to them. Also potatoes left in the ground last year (by mistake) have given us a few tasty meals.

Chard will be on the menu next week and for some time to come, mangetout are in flower so hopefully they will be eaten soon, French beans likewise.

The tomatoes will be later this year and also the melons and water melons. Cucumbers are still without flowers but enjoying this sunny weather. Onions are doing well. The pumpkin plants look fantastic.

I could go on - aubergine, peppers, chillies, brassicas. But they can be a subject for another day.

The fight against the invasion of rabbits goes on but they are two down. One was taken by a dog, the other by us. Stir fry rabbit for lunch yesterday was delicious.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Elderflower Cordial Recipe

Having had a fairly sheltered childhood there are many things which, thankfully, didn't come my way. One of these was the possibility that citric acid might be mixed with powdery drugs to make them go further - or so I'm informed by our local pharmacist who refuses to sell me any despite having known me and my family for over 10 years.

May is traditionally the month for me to make Elderflower Cordial and this year I was determined to make plenty and freeze it but that required an element of forethought. The result is that I bought three packets of citric acid when I was last in England and have kept them safely in the cupboard - there should be enough for next year's cordial as well.

The fact is citric acid is not essential but in my opinion it does make for a better result - more bite to the taste. Anyway, I made about six litres and they are safely in the freezer awaiting hot summer days.

I was amused though to see that other English have come up against the problem of obtaining citric acid in France. I honestly had no idea that it was used by drug users until the pharmacist explained - I insisted on an explanation and he was good enough to at least look embarassed when he told me so I am fairly confident he was accusing me of anything; just following the rules - but since then I have heard it from several nursing friends.

So the moral of this story is buy your citric acid in England if you plan on making Elderflower Cordial in France.

My recipe is in fact that of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and is as follows:


20–30 freshly picked heads of elderflower
Zest of two lemons and one orange
Up to 400ml freshly squeezed lemon juice (6–8 lemons, depending on juiciness)
Up to 1.5kg granulated or caster sugar
Tartaric acid (optional)

Shake any insects off the elderflowers, then place them in a large bowl with the lemon and orange zest and pour over enough just-boiled water to cover them completely (about 11/2–2 litres).

Cover and leave for at least 4 hours, or overnight, until cold.

Strain the flowery liquid through muslin, a clean cotton cloth or a jelly bag, gently squeezing it to extract all the juice.

Measure the amount of liquid and pour it into a saucepan.

To every 500ml liquid, add 350g sugar, 50ml lemon juice and a heaped teaspoon of tartaric acid if you are using it.

Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, stirring occasionally.

Bring to a gentle simmer and skim off any scum.

Let the cordial cool, then strain once again through muslin, cotton or a jelly bag.

Pour the cordial through a funnel into clean bottles, filling them to within about 2–3cm of the top.

If you want you can freeze the cordial for later use. If you use plastic bottles, only fill to about 5cms from the top and don't tighten the lid until after the liquid is frozen. Alternatively use ice cubes containers or ice cube bags.

Saturday, 12 June 2010


We went to a friend's house for supper on Tuesday and started talking about the rabbit problem. She remarked that they don't worry about the lack of wildlife between her house and ours (16kms) because they know when they come up our drive they'll see plenty. She's right, we have buzzards, lapwings, owls, snakes (could do without those), lizards galore, hares, hedgehogs and, of course, rabbits.

I can't be squeamish about this but the rabbits have to go. We have been invaded by them for the past three years and I've had enough. I don't mind sharing the excess veg but it seems that we are getting less than our fair share. Electric fences are apparently not strong enough - although it keeps the pigs in their paddock - so we've decided the only solution is to shoot them. Max has held a French shooting licence for a number of years - frankly I wish we'd decided to do this earlier. I went into the veggie plot this morning to find a baby rabbit munching away at the beans. Lettuces are worn down to the bare minimum and carrots, well, what carrots?

I'm afraid I feel complete sympathy with Mr MacGregor and rabbit pie will be on the menu as soon as possible. Beatrix Potter clearly didn't grow her own.

Monday, 7 June 2010

My wonderful bees

I feel that we have definitely taken a step up the beekeeping ladder this year. If that sounds like pride, well, it is and no doubt it will be followed by a colossal fall but let me explain.

Last year we had so many swarms we had difficulty hiving them all. It was entirely our fault because we simply weren't experienced - or confident - enough to take the required action at the required moment. "Go away and think it over" is good up to a point - the point being that the bees are following a timetable of their own and will happily carry on regardless of the shortcomings of hesitant beekeepers. This year I knew it would happen again unless I worked it all out in advance in my head so that action could be taken on the spot.

Because of the cold weather we were unable to open the hives until late April/early May. We were thrilled to discover that all our colonies (four plus the Wild Hive) had survived the winter and were busy bringing in pollen and nectar, the brood was expanding and all was well. However, the Oil Seed Rape period also bought a sudden onslaught of queen cells. This year I was better prepared. Still not confident enough to risk all the colonies I decided I would divide two of the hives by putting a frame of brood with a queen cell, together with nurse bees and frames of honey, into a small 6-frame hive. As I couldn't find the queen (she was unmarked) I couldn't do a proper Artifical Swarm so I knew I'd still have a swarm from the main hive but at least I had a back up.

From the other colonies - the two I didn't touch and the Wild Hive which I can't manage in the same way - we had swarms as predicted but as we were here we were able to rehive these as required.

So at present we have four main hives and the Wild Hive, plus four small hives containing either collected swarms or the divisions. We went through these last week and were thrilled to discover brood in all of them and were also able to mark the queens - I think I need marking practice though as the blue mark is more like a blue streak!

The next job is to combine weak colonies with strong ones and I hope to do this later in the week. Photos will follow and I'll try to keep up to date from now on.

Full speed ahead - strawberries

Just because I haven't been blogging, don't think I haven't been sorting out the vegetable plot. It's all a bit late this year because of the long winter - can you imagine we are still picking cherries and it's JUNE? Once again we have a good crop - more than we can eat - and the birds are needless to say helping us to eat them. Strawberries have been amazing too. Each day we have picked about 1/2 kilo. Since there are only two of us here during the week guess what? Yum. At the weekend we have to make a huge effort to share them but somehow we manage.

These are the strawberries I planted in the autumn of 2008. Last year we had a good crop. This year we've had an amazing crop. They are in the new vegetable plot (started in 2009) under a plastic sheet to keep the weeds down. I believe that I am meant to replant strawberries every two years so in the autumn I'm going to move them over a bit to where the potatoes are currently growing. This means the ground will be relatively weed free, well manured and in reasonably good nick. The plastic sheet will be reused (it's one of those heavy green ones usually used for hedging) and I'll take runners from the current plants. Hope it works or my name will be mud this time next year!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Cleaning the Greenhouse

This was the greenhouse this morning. Just to remind you, it was hit by a tornado several years ago and a lot of the glass was broken. We decided then to replace the broken glass with sheets of plastic that we had and for the past five years that has been ok. However, plastic deteriorates with time and sunlight and it has now got to the point where you can't see through it at all. Coupled with the fact that at the back of the greenhouse we "boarded" it up with planks of wood, well, it was time to sort it out.

Oh yes, and the grime...

You can see above how the grime collected between the panes of glass (above right where you can also see the black boards at the back) and also, worse, between the glass and the frame (above left - really disgusting!). You don't need to read the books to imagine what is hiding in all that grime - I'm quite sure some of it was moving...look at the cluster of eggs we found hiding between the plastic and the glass:

So we have established that it needed a really good clean! In order to do this properly all the glass had to be removed. Some of you may have heard that there's been a bit of a wind in France recently and playing around with glass is something to be done in calm weather. Today was the day. Not a breathe of wind, lovely sunshine, perfect.

In order to clean the glass I armed myself with a bucket full of the hottest water I could bear, a thick spongey cloth (this is glass remember and the edges are sharp - I have found four cuts on my hand from this job but nothing serious), two towels (for drying the glass - it's slippery and difficult to replace when it's wet), a toothbrush and an old scrubbing brush (the type used for dishes). All were required.

Max had other items - a flat headed screwdriver for removing/replacing the "W" clips and a nice collection of swear words for when the same clips flew out and hit him in the face - several times. (Also, a slightly peeved expression because he'd read my previous post about the greenhouse...)

The grime between the panes of glass was so thick that it took a fair bit of scrubbing - this was the job of the toothbrush. The hot water eventually soaks through the dirt so often I'd come back to one that "I'd prepared earlier". The scrubbing brush and the toothbrush were also used for cleaning the bits of frame normally under the glass - again, dirt had built up where the water runs down in gulleys. Yuck, Yuck, Yuck.

We took it slowly. First the roof glass was removed, cleaned, the frame cleaned, the glass replaced. Then the same process with the side glass.

This is the moment to introduce the hero of the day in action...(drum roll please)...

This really is not a one man job. Apart from anything else those pesky clips kept falling on the ground just when the glass was being held in place. However, we learnt something today - this is a job that is easier than we thought. Yes, it takes time and patience and has to be done calmly but it really was worthwhile.

This is the greenhouse as we left it this evening...

It's not finished yet - you might notice that the front on the right has no glass at all. All in all we need 14 new panes of glass (none of which were broken today) which we will get cut this week. I rather fear that will be the moment we discover it would be cheaper to buy a new greenhouse; I'll let you know!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Spring is in the air

It's official. After the dreadful storm last week (all the hives lost their roofs which were found floating in the moat - the bees were unharmed) the sun has come out. This has happened before but today it's different. Let me explain.

On the face of it, despite the blue sky, it is still very cold. The temperature this morning when I woke up was a meagre 3 degrees. Not exactly T-shirt weather. But the day warmed up and this afternoon when I walked the dogs I found I was being buzzed - as I walked through the field about 20 metres from the hives a continuous stream of bees were whizzing past my head and not all of them bothered to detour around me I might add!

Curious, I took a look at the hives and sure enough the entrances were all frantically busy with bees rushing in and out; most exciting of all was that many of the bees were carrying pollen so there must be some food around somewhere.

Now of course I didn't have my camera with me and by the time the dogs had walked what they considered a reasonable minimum distance and I'd got my camera from the house, it was already a degree cooler and the bees were on their way home. So the photo above shows activity but not the mass excitement of 40 minutes earlier.

It is still not warm enough to give the bees a liquid syrup feed but it is important to keep an eye on the weight of the hives (by hefting them) because this is the time of year when bees starve very quickly. We keep candy on top of the crown boards and it is still being taken down into the body of the hive. I hope that in a few weeks time it will be warm enough for us to open up the hives for their first spring inspection. For me, the first inspection is the beginning of spring and brings so much to look forward to. Of the six hives (including the wild hive) I am hopeful that four have colonies that will survive through to the spring; the other two are touch and go but I haven't given up!

But it wasn't only the bees who were actively showing signs of spring. More good news was to follow. On my way home I collected the eggs and was pleased that once again we had two - although hens lay less eggs during the winter, we have been worried during the past two weeks because we were getting one egg if we were lucky. When Max got home I told him I'd got the eggs and he was astonished - because he had collected two before he went out. And then there were two more this evening from our young hens who are obviously just beginning to come into lay.

Looks like eggs are back on the menu!

This year's pigs - Berkshire Blacks again

You may recall that we first raised pigs two years ago and it was a great success. We were fortunate to have been recommended Berkshire Blacks - they were easy to look after, friendly and gentle and, ultimately, delicious.

Last year we wanted the same again but unfortunately the breeder lost her piglets during a dreadfully cold spell so instead we had a pair of Gloucester Old Spots x British Lop. They were much bigger and equally friendly - less gentle purely because of their size. However, we had tasted the best and although the meat from these two was excellent, it missed a certain je ne sais pas quoi.

So this year we were back searching for the Berkshires. First stop the original breeder but she has decided to retire from pig farming. She put me in touch with the couple who have bought her Berkshires and I was able to order three weaners. The great news is that this couple are as keen on Berkshires as we are and are hoping to keep them for years to come; and they only live about two hours away from us. Perfect!

So, without more ado I invite you to click on this link and see what Esme produced last week. Clever girl!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Greenhouse

A few years ago a tornado came through our garden. It started down in Bordeaux and followed a path north. When I say "through our garden", you could actually see the path of damage that it left with untouched trees and fields on either side. Our neighbour's barn roof was found in our moat. We were lucky that the chimneys fell away from the house and not through the roof. It was an exciting night.

Not surprisingly, our greenhouse was damaged. Max managed to save most of the glass and we put clear plastic in the "glass beyond repair" areas. Unfortunately the clear plastic is now opaque and I made a policy decision to get it all sorted out. It will also give us an opportunity to clean the grime out from the glass overlaps - they really are disgusting and no doubt harbour all sorts of government health warnings.

This sort of thing seems to have a sort of dance routine. When I suggested that we sort out the glass Max immediately pointed out that finding glass that precise size would be impossible. The glass came with the frame.
Glass-cutting places?
S'pose so...but we'll never find the clips to hold the glass in. It all comes as a kit.
Er, greenhouse accessories?
Won't find them.

You get the idea. Anyway, if anyone else is thinking of changing or replacing greenhouse glass I can recommend Two Wests & Elliot for the clips. I ordered them over the phone and they arrived within the week. For your reference, they are called w clips and z clips.

Now for the fun of getting the glass cut!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Honey update

The honey from 2009 was excellent. To our astonishment we have sold nearly all of it via the local market and are keeping the last few pots for ourselves. I hope that we have made enough money to upgrade at least two of our hives. I would prefer them all to be 10 frame Dadant and at the moment we have 3 which are 12 frame. This simply means that the supers from one size don't fit the other and it was very frustrating last year finding we'd taken the wrong ones out to the apiary. Also, realistically, a 10 frame is just a bit lighter than a 12 frame so easier on the back.

I took advantage of the brief blast of sunshine last week to look at the hives and heft them - lifting the hive to see how heavy it is gives you an idea of how much honey is left inside for the bees. This time of year is critical as the bees are just beginning to enjoy slightly finer weather but there isn't any food for them so if the hive is low on stores they starve to death. I put a block of candy on the feeder boards of each hive and this hopefully sees them through to the appearance of the first food in the spring. The feeder board is placed between the main body of the hive and the lid and the candy sits on a hole so that the bees can get at it from underneath.

Of course the wild hive presents all sorts of problems. There is no feeder board with a convenient hole so the candy is placed pretty much amongst the bees. Needless to say getting it there upsets them (although I like to think they appreciate it when they realise what it is I've given them!) and they were getting just a touch irritated with me. I was only wearing the veil (not the trousers) because usually bees are quite sleepy at this time of year. Famous last words - there was nothing sleepy about these bees! Still, the job was done and hopefully the candy will help the bees through the rest of the winter.

Freezing potatoes, tomatoes and onions

Well, it's been a while. I went to London in September and when I got back I just lost the oomph for blogging. This was partly because there was just so much in the garden - 2009 was a mega year for fruit and vegetables. We ate most of the fruit as it came off the bush/tree, but the vegetables were so plentiful, preservation was required.

For once I didn't make any chutney. In our house this goes down as unforgiveable! I just never got around to it, partly I suppose because I actually had some work during the chutney making period so that took priority.

So, how to preserve vegetables? The great thing about the garden nowadays is that if you have a question you just tap it into a search engine and up comes the answer, or 110,000 of them, in an instant.

I have frozen potatoes successfully in the past, both as par-boiled (for roasting) and mashed (for re-heating and serving) and I did the same this year. However, I did store about 20 sacks (each containing 5-10 kilos) of potatoes in the barn and we are still eating these. Despite being stored in the cold and total dark, they have all started sprouting but not turning green. They still roast, boil and mash well so until they go green or rotten we'll eat those and keep the frozen potatoes for that period between none left and first earlies.

Tomatoes also freeze successfully and this year I just froze them whole. They are wonderful for pasta sauces - I just take them out of the freezer, run them under the tap (which makes their skins slip off easy as pie), chop them roughly and throw them in the pan. Easy.

Onions - well this was a new one on me. We had a fantastic crop of onions and shallots and as well as plaiting some I discovered that I could freeze onions - just chop them up and put them in a plastic bag. Use them straight from the freezer. I added a bag to the pasta sauce (and the faithful tomatoes) last night. It was excellent. However, remember that onions have a high water content so when they defreeze they are not quite the same consistency.