Saturday 30 September 2006



The deer are very active at the moment, it’s the time of year when a young deer’s thoughts turn to sex. Each night the forest echoes with the amazing roars and calls of the animals as they stake their turf, castigate their enemies and discipline their women.

Normally all you can register of this activity is the sound and I wish I could record it, it is easily as impressive as whale song, varied and surprising. Last night I noticed a herd with stag had wandered into the near field (by that same old perry pear tree) but the light was quite insufficient to photograph them, I got a lot of black frames.

However, they were still here this morning. No battery in the camera and I thought I’d lost my chance but the males are supremely confident and with them around the females are fairly calm. I had time to get the battery and go back out to where they were. They had only moved about 150 metres away and I damn my camera for being inadequate.

Still if proof was needed we have deer, here it is.


Thursday 28 September 2006

Puff Ball Feast

Giant Puffball

A while back I found an enormous Giant Puff Ball near to the eucalyptus patch. I weighed it, photographed it and sniffed it and decided that it was too mushroomy for me. (I can be ambivalent about mushrooms, blame it on a misspent youth). Less subjectively it was full size and just about to go over from firm flesh to spongy. It tore rather than sliced and was dry. You can see the picture above.

Today while trying to clear a patch of rough grass that will form another vegetable bed for next year I ran over two young puff balls with the lawn mower. Sadly they were completely minced by the blades but while investigating them (one was enough to stop the motor in its tracks) found they were really quite appetising and I was brave enough to eat a little bit raw. It tasted good. So when I’d exhausted myself mowing I went back to the eucalyptus grove and looked where I had found the fungus before. And I was in luck. Another puff ball about a quarter of the size of the first one but still firm and only slightly attacked by slugs.

Cleaned, sliced and fried in a batter made of cornflour and water it was delicious. Really good, barely needing salt or pepper although I had both and a squeeze of lemon juice too. They’d better beware out there, I know where they live.

sliced puffcooked puff

Wednesday 27 September 2006


Two days ago I gathered windfall pears from around the small perry tree, the one in the field where most of the campers were in the summer. The hunting season is now fully open and more than once I was surprised by nearby bangs, wondering if my neatly displayed bottom had driven some frantic killer to loose his shot into me. However, I gathered a plastic trug full without harm, about 12 kgs.

The authors of the various books we have on cider and perry making are not agreed on the greatest risk to the amateur fermenter. One warns of the dangers of patulin, another of possible e.coli or salmonella poisoning from livestock in the fields, others of mysterious organisms that will spoil the brew and turn it to slop if the fruit isn’t perfect in every way. Each one emphasises the risks of their preferred peril, then reveals that fermentation is expected to kill the bugs anyway. These dangers are all more serious in the windfall fruit. Mindful of this I discarded the worst damaged but as this was a first try and likely to be wasted anyway I wasn’t too particular and just gave them a good wash off under the hose.

Then I spent an hour chopping them in half to make crushing easier. We’ve spent a long time agonising over the press and how it’s damaged by rot, lost various appendages, weakened by wood worm and age. I’m here to tell you that that may be a problem but we’ll never know unless we can crack the crushing phase.

For the first attempt I put my halved pears in a big bucket and used a heavy length of beech branch as a mortar. Half an hour bumping this unwieldy weapon up and down barely made small boulders of the pears, nothing like the fine gravel of fruit I needed. My arms were aching and my head spinning. I decided to give it a go anyway.

For this tiny amount of fruit there was no point in using the full sized press in the pressoir. We are fortunate to have a small amateur construction put together by Paul’s father one year after a bumper crop of grapes in his garden, which as far as we know had never been used before. I dusted this off and assembled it, nearly all interference fits that had to be hammered into place with my fist. Then I shovelled half the lumpy pulp into a pillow case and popped it into the press. The first thing I discovered was that none of the juice created came out through the spout positioned at the bottom, the second was that it did come out from every other nook and cranny and because I had stood the press over its receptacle instead of in it all the juice was lost into the gravel. I sat the press in a plant tray and chucked in the rest of the pulp, no need for a bag, then pressed again. About 3 pints of juice was my reward but it could have been so much more. The juice was very sweet, disgustingly cloudy and probably lethal with bugs from the barely washed tray. It was at that point I discovered I had no Camden tablets to sterilise the extract. The left over pear pomace had many barely crushed pear halves in it. There would have been much more juice if these had been properly pulped.


So today I thought I’d have a go at using the crusher that came with the farm. Like everything else in the cider house it was filthy dirty and encrusted with the detritus and insects of years past. We’d had a go at cleaning it last week when Paul was here and this morning I brought the hopper over to the house so that I could give it a good scrub down with a wire brush and some water under pressure. That cleaned up well enough revealing rather a lot of wood worm holes but enough fabric left for the job. The main mechanism was brushed off again. It has been well greased in the past a good thing, but it has attracted dust. The crushing blades are rusty but there isn’t much that can be done about it without risk of contaminating the fruit. The crusher rests on a wooden ‘coffin’ which is designed to catch the pulp as it falls through. This is so dirty, full of broken glass and cobwebs and in such a poor state that it seemed better to sit a plastic bucket under the grinding teeth to catch what came through. I chucked in a few kilos of pears and turned the wheel.

The pears were whole – that was mistake number one. They are just too big to slip easily into the jaws of the machine or if they do too dense to turn the wheel against them. The second problem is that if the pears don’t go into the teeth then they roll out the ends of the feeder and slip out down the sides without being ground at all. The bucket was not broad enough to encompass the wide spread of falling fruit and pulp and a lot of it landed in the dirty box below. I suspect the grinder can be set to different positions to allow several passes of the fruit through, getting tighter each time and finally producing the necessary fine paste but the adjustments aren’t clear and the bolts and springs rusted up. It will take more of an engineer than I am to work it all out.

Overall, not much progress but I suppose issues have been discovered that can be thought about. We have to decide if we’re doing this for fun or as potential income. Will it be too much hard work to be fun or too inadequately remunerative for business? There need to be further investigations.

Wednesday 20 September 2006



Frightening sights for autumn nights. These wasps are strong. Big. Very persistent and they love the light.

Friday 15 September 2006

Pears and Walnuts

The pears are nearly all ripe now. We have eating and perry pears, the eating pears are mostly behind the cider making house and the perry pears distributed around the grounds. The big perry tree has crisp, juicy clean growing pears, russetted and reddened with the sun. The other perry pears are small, hard pears of the wild type except for one on the wall of the cider house which is almost apple shaped, heavily russetted and with a long stalk. Research suggests this is a very ancient type of pear. Certainly I have never seen a pear like it.

I’ve picked about 20kg of the fruit from the big tree today. When Paul comes next week we will have a trial run with cleaning, mashing and pressing as best we can to extract enough juice for a gallon or so. I’ll pick some more before he comes but the ground is uneven and the ladder wobbles alarmingly so I’m reluctant to go too high on my own.

The eating pears are in a sorry state, all the trees have been badly neglected but the smallest most beaten up specimen which has produced ugly, small black spotted fruit is a pear of delicious flavour and texture, ready now in mid September. The largest tree has larger fruit, still green and badly spotted but not quite ready yet. They will be nicely flavoured if not as good as the earlier pears. Of two other trees, espalier trained along a wall and almost unreachable through the nettles and long grass, one is still vigorous with large crisp red flushed fruits and the other is nearly dead with small misshapen fruits that may not be much use for identification because they are so stunted. The last tree is clearly diseased and will probably have to be destroyed before it affects the others.

While stomping through the long grass to get to the dessert pears I found three small walnut trees, probably seedlings from last year or the year before. I must transplant them somewhere where they are less likely to be mown to death before they can make decent sized trees. Someone in the future will value the wood even if the nuts never come to much.

Wednesday 13 September 2006

Alien Invaders

Weird Gourd

I never realised before how easy it is to transport common plants from one locality to another without intending it. It’s easy to sneer at the fools who released the grey squirrel or marvel at the stupidity of the cane toad infestation in Australia until discovering that with the pots of small trees and herbs we brought over intentionally to furnish our new gardens and hedgerows have carried seeds of other less welcome plants which I would have hesitated before importing to this new environment.

In the gravel by the tree nursery there is a plant of Chenopodium “Magentaspreen” which we bought as an exotic vegetable seed several years ago for the allotment at Newport Pagnell and which has vigorously self seeded itself ever since. It is a pretty plant with vivid magenta young growth, hence the name, edible young leaves and a magnificent habit reaching 6 ft or more in a healthy plant but just like its cousins the fat hen and goosefoot almost impossible to eradicate. I don’t think it cross fertilises with the native species but I’m reluctant to make the experiment without a bit more certainty than that.

I’ve also discovered a plant of buddleia, that butterfly beloved weed of railways and abandoned car parks. I can’t be certain that the seed for this came over with us, but there are no other plants of it within miles and it is suspiciously close to the potted trees.

Normally I enjoy the serendipity of discovering these tiny seedlings and make good use of the free propagation but now I’m wondering if it may be taking things too far too fast while we are still learning about what we already have.

The picture is of a gourd at an interesting little garden open to the public at Isigny-sur-Mer. Les Jardins de la Decouverte are near a sewage works but have an interesting selection of gourds, pumpkins and exotic plants from around the world. The garden also has a therapeutic function for the adults with difficulties who work there. Well worth visiting in August and September if you’re in the area.

Sunday 10 September 2006

Willows revisited

The basket willow coppice project has been running for a while now. The planting was done back in early spring in a rather slapdash fashion because it was so cold and the ground so hard and lumpy. Pest protection wasn’t carried out in a fully effective manner either and the net result after six months is that we have lost about a third of the cuttings inserted. However, most of the others look as if they will survive with a little care and of these the most successful varieties have been the recommended basket willows

I will take some small cuttings this week and keep them as named references as the original labelling is fading, then in the late autumn cut back the existing plants to the ground for their first year of coppicing and use the material gathered to replace the missing stock.

In the spring I also planted a weeping willow in the hollow near the stream behind the house. This has done extremely well and must have made several feet of growth this year. This tree will be left to its own devices, I’m hoping it will grow tall and majestic and shade out the nettles and brambles currently inhabiting the ground there.

The eucalyptus are mostly doing well, even though they were started from seed this year they are nearly all a metre high and bushy. They’re quite pretty too but are surrounded by a veritable sea of fierce stinging nettles so can’t be seen without extraordinary danger. Other trees planted throughout the year have had a mixed fate. Two silver birch have been swamped by brambles and I may not be able to rescue them, the oak trees planted over winter from Ouville have nearly all died or have been reduced to tiny shoots from the base, hopeful for the future but not the four foot saplings I transplanted, the willow cuttings in the hedge gap have mostly rooted but have also suffered die back and the newly planted hornbeam and field maple further along that hedge are grimly hanging on. One or two other small trees seem to staying alive but haven’t made much growth this year.

There are still many trees in pots waiting for their chance, another month and the time will be perfect for planting them out if I can break holes in the unyielding earth for them.

That fish – I saw him briefly today – can be seen in the photo below.

Wednesday 6 September 2006



Picking blackberries on your own land is an enjoyable task. There is still the feeling of foraging from the wild without the worry that a farmer with a shotgun will appear looking for trespassers or that the berries have been contaminated with some arcane agricultural spray designed to kill 99% of all known pests. Today in a little over an hour I picked enough fruit for several pots of jam and I think, although it depends on the weather tomorrow, that I will pick again and gather enough for a gallon of wine. Blackberry wine is luscious and worth the effort.

The plums are all but finished now, all that is left is the debris of rotting and fallen fruit gently decaying down beneath the trees. This wild jam is beloved of Red Admiral butterflies and there is no way to capture the experience of stepping beneath the tree and being surrounded by a cloud of twenty or thirty beautiful, strong flying and slightly tipsy colourful insects whirling away around your head. You really have to be here.

All this autumnal bounty has a dark side. The hornets, which have behaved impeccably well all summer, are now stupid with the early darkness and chillier evenings. They batter their heads against the glass all evening trying to get into the light and when they do find a chink they force through it to drive themselves mad with frantic beating against the bulbs. This hasn’t been quite so bad the last couple of nights as we have had clear skies and a nearly full moon to tempt them away from the house but they are fearsome creatures and it’s not nice to find one has made ingress.

The swallows left on the 30th August. We have had one small group of late travellers stop by for a morning but it is strangely quiet in the yard, even the other little birds seem quieter and less sociable. I have plans to make a bird table for the back garden, but this is something that keeps getting delayed by the simple tasks of living.

We also have rats. Well, of course we have rats but yesterday I watched the cutest rodent running backwards and forwards to the compost bucket collecting old cat food and rice for her young and having a wonderful time while she did it, squeaking and chattering with excitement. I’ve no intention of finding them and killing them, we have snakes and owls for that but it’s silly to encourage pests near to the house. I shall have to get a lidded bucket and start emptying it more frequently. The cat is no help. While Mrs. Rat was collecting her groceries he slept the sleep of the good just five feet away, entirely oblivious.

Paul has managed to take a picture of the fish in the pond. Surprisingly enough it is a trout! It certainly moves fast and you are much more likely to see a dust trail of stirred silt than the fish itself but sometimes if you creep very quietly to the edge of the water you can catch a glimpse of it as it swims along the wall side. I don’t know if Paul has managed to upload the picture yet, it wasn’t great photography but notable for existing at all, but you can look at all his photos here