Tuesday 30 January 2007


Planted some seeds yesterday. Not really for France but for the greenhouses in NP.

So far, I've put in some 'Lemon Drop' and 'Dedo de Mocha' chilis, some small leaved basil, tomatoes 'Salt Spring Sunrise' and 'Scotland yellow', 'Mammoth' onion seed, aubergine 'Szechuan' and some mixed abutilons. They are in a heated propagator and I take a peek every time I pass by.

We have quantities of seeds and each year I swear I won't buy any more for a year so that the older ones get used up but I'm a sucker for interesting varieties and there are so many places that supply fascinating seeds that I can't stop myself.

This year I have already ordered and received seeds from Realseeds who are great for chilis and south american crops like amaranth, the HDRA heritage seed library and have plans to get caper seeds from Chiltern Seeds, not to mention nipping into Lidl for their incredibly cheap seed packets of regular essentials like carrots and annual herbs. Another great seed supplier is Tuckers and I may be buying some more pumpkin seeds from Chase Organics since they are stocking a new favourite of mine Cucurbita Moschata 'Muscade' a really productive green/bronze squash with really thick orange flesh, almost sweet enough to eat raw that stores well. The only problem is that each fruit is much too big for two people and we nearly always end up wasting half of each one.


Thursday 25 January 2007

New Template

A meta blog if you like.

Chose this template with a view to modifying it - all I really wanted was the widget that collapses the archives but actually I think it's quite pleasant so it will stay for now while I work up enthusiasm for some tweaks.

That's all.

Friday 19 January 2007

Square Metre Gardening

After the fiasco of the deer eating my leeks (they ate my leeks!!!!) various strategies are being considered to stop similar disasters with the vegetables in future.

Vegetables in Newport Pagnell 2003

Somewhere we have a book that suggests the only certain way of keeping the beasts at bay is to shoot them regularly pour encourager les autres and it goes into quite some detail about how to arrange a successful and financially viable shooting party. Alas, that isn't going to be acceptable to us and I'm sure the deer are most relieved about it.

Obviously the usual solution of fuck off fencing is high on the list of options and there are many useful suggestions and plans in our xmas presents books like Caring for Small Woods by Ken Broad and Fencing: A Practical Handbook by Elizabeth Agate. We're also considering a mile long brick wall, straw bale walling and earth mound hedging but these are not going to happen in the short term or ever, frankly, being expensive or labour intensive or both and thus pretty much out of our class.

However the small back garden is already fenced adequately to keep all but the most human inured deer away (my leeks, did I say they ate my leeks?) and it would be possible to make a small veg. patch within the protected ground.

Last year I put a few pumpkins and runner beans in but the pumpkins were lost to snails (no fencing for them) and the beans, well I don't know what happened to the beans. They were old seed of my favourite variety of runner bean 'White Emergo'. They germinated and I hoped to grow them out for a new saved seed crop to last another few years but they were sulky and stunted and never really got going, setting few flowers and no seeds. A disappointment that I think can be ascribed to the poor soil quality in the newly turned lawn but might have been down to the age of the seed.

Anyway the thought that's been in my mind recently as a solution to all these problems of rampaging animals and poor soil quality is to try some Square Foot gardening. You can research this on the web and you'll find various claims for its origins but it is a really simple idea where each crop plant is given a foot square plot (or since we're europeans a 33 cms square) and the plots grouped together to make small raised beds a yard or metre square.

This has various advantages some of which are that it is possible to have varied crops in a very small area bringing vegetable gardening to people who might not previously felt they had the space for it. It is excellent for small successional cropping avoiding gluts and ensuring vegetables can be used at their prime. It's appropriate for the smaller family units that are now the norm across the country. It's on a scale that enables all physical abilities to have a go and it lends itself to organic and minimum intervention growing techniques.

It has a further benefit from my point of view which is if, as seems likely, my current depression continues throughout next summer the task of keeping a tiny bed like that tidy and functioning won't be too overwhelming. Any five minutes when the clouds lift will be sufficient for weeding and fast growing crops should keep my interest from wandering away. Of course, we'll still plant 'field' crops of potatoes, onions and beans in the larger bed I'm making to the front of the house and fence this as we can with poles from the hedges and such wire and netting as we can find.

cabbage patch
Baby Cabbages netted to keep the butterflies away.

I did my own google on this and found this Square Metre Garden Training Manual which gives all the basics if you'd like to have a go yourself. There are many books available too and consumer products trading on the quality of the idea. I'm going to write my plan now avoiding where ever possible commercial solutions and will do a follow up to this post in about a month's time.

Tuesday 16 January 2007

Vegan in Normandie

It's the new year - I feel the need to explain something that may not have been clear from previous posts. It seems important just at this time to state our position on veganism. Maybe I've been reading too many food blogs these last couple of days.

So we're vegan and we're living in one of, possibly the most, unaccommodating places in the world for vegans. Every local foodstuff uses animal produce, all the cheeses, all the cream, butter, the local oysters and mussels from the coast, the salt lamb, the veal and right down to the tripe of the local gourmands is produced by the exploitation and death of animals - the whole economy is built upon it. All the patisserie relies on butter and eggs and the sweets and puddings are drowned in cream. This is the food of the peasant and landowner alike, there is no cuisine maigre to fall back upon. A local without access to these foodstuffs would be deemed to be starving indeed.

As you can imagine, we don't eat out much and attempts at the art of traditional french cooking are limited. In fact, of all the varied recipes of France I can think of only one dish, the sadly abused ratatouille, that can be classed as vegan in its entirety.

But all is not lost. The Frenchman, bless his hypochondriacal soul, has a regard for his liver that is almost religious and as a result it is often possible to obtain the essential foodstuffs of life, tofu, yeast products, veggie burgers even, by reference to the health food sections of the supermarket. Soya yoghurt and rice cakes are available for those taking a cure and an influx of good German vegan products to the health food shops of the larger towns means that some convenience at mealtimes can be acquired when cooking fatigue or xenophobia seems about to set in.

Another positive aspect to the area is the agricultural nature of the terrain. We are favoured with sandy coastal soils which grow excellent carrots and leeks, the many orchards provide plenty of fruit and traditional character of French commerce ensures that many items are locally and lovingly produced in market gardens for the vegetable stalls and supermarkets.

And there is a tiny breath of change stirring in the populace. The organic movement is growing and with it an awareness of farming technique and the exigencies of intensive animal production.

Our plan to offer vegan meals may yet gather customers from the native population as well as the holidaymakers we hope to entice as soon as the buildings can be put in order to receive them.

Tuesday 9 January 2007



Let’s pretend WI.

Quite a lot of produce last year was preserved in one way or another. The medlars made good jelly, the plum jam wasn’t too bad after I got the burnt bits out and the single jar of tomato ketchup only lasted a week.

There were some other efforts that didn’t get tested or tasted until the xmas break – our biggest disappointment were some brandied plums which had quite simply gone off. Doubly annoying as they were destined for xmas lunch and had taken about a bottle of brandy to make. Don’t really know what went wrong there – the method was an old one which seemed to have worked for others. We think the seal was faulty but even so with all that brandy it’s hard to understand how it could have failed. We won’t be trying to keep plums that way again.

However the Patxaran is a raging success. Made with sloes, coffee beans and vanilla steeped in Anise liqueur it is almost exactly as I remember it. For a perfect finish it could be filtered before serving to reclaim clarity but this isn’t important for most occasions so don’t worry about it.

The plum preserve made to another recipe of the Archdruid’s did survive and it’s not bad at all. A little bit sharp, I will add a touch more sugar next time but the texture is good, slightly jellied, the plums kept their shape and they have lasted in good health for three months. He recommends it with cold meat and cheeses but I couldn’t possibly comment on that. It’s nice on a piece of bread. The recipe as I made it follows:
For 1lb plums, halved and stoned use 6oz caster sugar, 4fl oz cider vinegar, a cinnamon stick and 2 star anise**. Multiply these proportions up for larger quantities of plums. Put all the ingredients except the plums into a pan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil then simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the plums and cook gently for about another 10 minutes (or less if the plums start to disintegrate). The plums should be tender but more or less intact and the liquid syrupy. Bottle when hot and seal immediately. Store at least 6 weeks. Keep in the fridge once opened. (** I didn’t have star anise and used a tablespoon of anise for the flavour but I’m sure the star anise would taste better.)

I also made blackberry jam and blackberry wine. The jam is good but we’ve yet to taste the wine. It desperately needs racking off but the weather is too miserable and the motivation is missing. It will have to wait until we attend to the cider – if indeed the cider makes it to the final hurdle. It is currently still on a very slow cool fermentation and our hopes for it are mercurial to say the least. It’s still blowing bubbles through the airlocks so our fingers remain tightly crossed.

Tuesday 2 January 2007

Happy New Year

Of all the vegetables that I would have put at risk from the depredations of wild animals, leeks would have to be nearly at the bottom of the list. Therefore I had no fears for my tiny patch of winter alliums and I was looking forward to making plenty of warming soup during the holidays from our own garden. Ha, bloody ha. Deer eat Leeks.

When we arrived there were no leeks, just sad little stumps in a muddy patch of deer prints. A day later and it was less cheerful than that, chewed down to ground level. It’s enough to make you take up hunting. If we did, we’d be in good company with most of the local male population. I have yet to meet a lady hunter if the phrase isn’t ambiguous. They have been out in force over the festive break and we are woken by the sound of shots on all sides nearly every day, sometimes spotting camouflage clad figures with their dogs as they hike across our fields looking for their next prey. In fact, we’re not entirely sure what they do shoot at – we’ve seen no rabbits or small game since we’ve been here, may only have heard a fox once and there are still plenty of crows and pigeons about. They might be after deer but realistically they can’t take many overtly. Hunting in the forest proper is only allowed on certain days because of the risk of shooting mushroom pickers or doggers in the carparks. Still if they manage to catch any I'm sure they'll enjoy my leek flavoured venison.

Something they don’t seem to shoot are blackbirds. Blackbirds eat holly berries and were the cause of more anguish when I decided to make a holly wreath for xmas decoration. I’d had my eye on that holly bush since October but the blasted birds had beaten me to it
The weather has been everything we might have expected, cold and foggy for the first seven days with barely 10 minutes of sun breaking through on the first day, then gale force winds and torrential rain stripping tiles from the roofs and soaking anywhere it could gain ingress to the house, mainly under every door and through every window frame. With only the big woodburner in the main room to heat the entire house our minds were naturally concentrated on the big issue of preventing frostbite.

First of all we searched out a gas bottle fired heater which necessitated buying another gas bottle as well as the heater. The man at the garage must think we’re eating them. The design of heater is the scary catalytic type which lights with a big whuff of glowing gas across a gridded surface. Like fools we bought a thermostatically controlled model, entirely pointless since even with it at full blast the temperature has not yet reached a minimum value to operate a cut off. It’s good, but only for one room at a time and gas consumption is considerable, we’re looking at 25 euros for a couple of days use.


So while we were at M. Bricolage buying draught excluder we idly wandered past the display of fancy woodburners and there we saw it, a jewel of machine, a tiny stove styled like a garden incinerator and dignified with the subtitle “brule tout”. It was the Ardenne No. 3 and it now graces our kitchen, eating small logs and all the cardboard we can feed it while it produces 2 or 3 kilowatts of heat continuously from dawn to dusk. It cost just 90 euros and was reasonably quick to install into the old freestanding chimney that looms over the house in a rather scary manner. This chimney is clearly on its last legs, cracked and leaking which has been made worse by our current use of it. It will have to be rebuilt, but like so many other tasks around here that will wait.

Thanks are due to the kind people who sent our xmas cards directly to France. It was quite unexpected to find we had mail on xmas eve and very cheering. Thanks also to Candice who sent her piano over with Roy and Xtal. It will be great as soon as I learn how to play it.

And since this posting has gone on quite long enough I’ll stop there except to say if there’s any point at all in making New Year’s Resolutions the top slot for us this year is reserved for selling the Irish House. Yes, it’s still for sale and this is because we still haven’t placed it with any agents or told many people about it. This is a genuine bargain waiting to be snapped up. Mail me now for your slice of Irish good life.