Monday 30 July 2007

Natural Phenomena

A few examples of the natural world impinging upon the human order of things...

A couple of nights ago as we sat at our dinner in the courtyard we became aware of a continuous humming, droning noise, too high pitched and regular for bees. I thought it was the sound of far off farm machinery echoing around the boundary formed by the trees of the forest. Paul wasn't convinced by this and tracked it down to the old perry pear tree. High in the branches and swarming in their millions the tree was entirely surrounded by midges and it was the sound of their beating wings that we could hear.

I've not been able to find all that much on the web about midge swarms - it is believed the noise itself attracts more midges to join the throng and opinion appears to be divided upon whether it is a mating ritual or not. It seems the midges choose a marker spot for their swarm around a prominent landmark and may return to the same place over many years. There is a little bit about them here on the Marcia Bonta nature blog. The pear tree is showing some signs of stress this year, we fear the worst but hope that it is merely the fallout from these over-abundant insects that is causing mottling and die back of the outer leaves.

Later as it became dark a single spot of cold green light shone out. A solitary glow worm, really a beetle, desperately trying to attract a mate. It's the females that glow, wingless and pretty much helpless, they must advertise their presence for the winged males to find them at the same time revealing themselves to all other comers. Just as last year we seem to have only one lonely lady, I hope she gets lucky.

More trouble from our wildlife was caused today when we discovered that something, almost certainly the coypu or muskrats that infest our waterways, had chewed the leaves off the Barbara Davies waterlily. This poor plant was a gift to me from Paul last year and was nearly nibbled to death last year almost as soon as we planted her in the pond. We were so pleased to find she wasn't killed by that poor treatment and watched each new leaf as it unfurled this year with great anticipation. To find she had nearly suffered the same fate again was heartbreaking, so we went out immediately and bought some chicken wire to make a defensive cage to put around her. Of course, this meant someone had to don the waders and step into the sludge again but it's all in a good cause. I hope it works.

Sunday 29 July 2007

Summer catch cropping


Although we are theoretically in the height of summer now as you can see from the pictures there are a lot of rain clouds out there. Instead of hot dry months we are having an extended spring with frequent showers and frost free temperatures. At this rate summer may never arrive, apparently this is due to a deviation of the usual jet stream which is much further south this year than usual.

Ordinarily it would be hopeless to plant crops from seed for another month so at least the mild damp weather does have some potential for cultivating an interim crop of quick growing vegetables. We've chosen varieties which are normally sown in spring to provide the early harvests and fill the hungry gap until the main crops mature. These varieties might not be the heaviest yielders or the best for storage but they grow strongly and quickly. If we're lucky we'll have fresh baby veggies in a couple of months.

Yesterday we did the actual planting.

From the left; a half row of dill (last minute change of plan there), a row of Savoy cabbages bought as plug plants as we've got to give the deer something to keep them going until the other plants are up, then a row of salad onions, some Early Nantes carrots, Egyptian Beetroots (I'm particularly hopeful over these as they appeal to me), a row of Lambs' lettuce, a row of Chantenay Red Cored carrots, another row of salad onions, a row of winter radishes - half black round, half rose long - and then a row of dwarf mangetout peas and a final row of haricot verts.

None of these, possibly excepting the radishes, are likely to germinate before we take a break to the UK during August so we are keeping our fingers crossed that the weather remains temperate and the deer, cabbage whites and slugs can be averted sufficiently well that the baby plants survive a week or two with little attention.

If these look as if they'll be successful it might be worth sowing some of the Chinese vegetables in August to carry on cropping until late Autumn. Some crops are capable of overwintering and could provide early vegetables next spring but there's always the deer factor to consider. We might just lose the lot.

Friday 27 July 2007

Peasant labour


When I chose a spot for our new vegetable patch all I really did was wander out from the house until I found an open area, mentally stuck some surveying pegs into the earth and announced that from now on this ground would be known as the Growing Fields.

With the grass shaved off short and a layer of black plastic to destroy the living weeds we left it covered over winter and this spring hacked our way through the top layer to produce a rough tilth in which we stuck our potatoes. Considering the weather, the blight and the wholly inadequate depth of soil we got a pretty good crop but unusually for us the blight has forced us to take the full harvest very early this year. The plot is currently empty.

We thought we would try some of the quicker growing vegetables - early peas, short rooted carrots, radishes and so on to keep the ground in cultivation and to supplement the small crops already growing in the back garden. However, we had discovered during the potato harvest that the ground was virtually undiggable, full of stones; some of them big enough to build houses with and such soil as exists is claggy lumps of clay and sand intermingled in uneven distribution.

So we started collecting the stones...


and after several passes with the rotavator we had taken out 10 or more barrowloads. This has hardly made any difference at all to one end of the plot, about a third of it, which seems to be entirely composed of rubble and rocks and might well have been a roadway or a hard standing in previous times. The rest of the area isn't quite so awful but is still capable of turning up brick sized boulders with very little disturbance. We'll have to keep at it, probably for years, while constantly adding extra organic material to rebuild the soil structure and fertility.

Did I pick the wrong place? Hard to tell, on a farm that has been primarily dairy for much of its history there is little previously cultivated land to discover and the unimproved fields are most probably of similar construction over the whole 9 hectares. We've started now, we may as well finish.

open field

Monday 23 July 2007



Monday Night Cat Blogging.

What's to say, this is a very bad cat. He's lying on a white sheet, he's not supposed to be. He's given the best food money can buy, he won't eat it, mostly. He has his own chair and blanket, he sits on the sofa. He has fires lit for him in July. You can see his fire here.


He sleeps all day, but he wakes us three times every, did I say every, I meant every night. If he's in he wants the sun turned on so he can go out, if he's out naturally, he wants to come in.

He's a very bad cat.

bad cat

Friday 20 July 2007

Eating my words


A few days ago I commented on a post that The Old Foodie had made about brambling or blackberry picking. I said she was a bit early for that in this hemisphere and that it would be several weeks before we could expect to harvest this most popular of wild forager's fruit.

Well, I was wrong. Blackberry bushes? vines? shrubs? if they were raspberries it would be canes, are extremely variable and I had noticed that this plant, near to the cider house, was particularly early in fruit last year but in the peculiar weather that we've had this year it's surpassed itself and there are many large and fully ripe fruit ready to be picked right now.

Of course, there are still some left because as usual the biggest and ripest were way out of reach or protected by huge vicious stinging nettles but I have picked plenty for a crumble and very pleased about it too!

Wednesday 18 July 2007


Abbey St Vigor

No, not the Abbey for all that it's a monstrous carbuncle signifying a repressive, misogynistic and perverted regime dedicated to frightening people into submission, no, that's still rather beautiful and a monument to architecture.

What's obscene was the phone call I got last night, which woke me from my comfortable sleep and despite my most sanguine efforts at dismissal kept me awake for two hours fretting until I finally crawled back to my bed only to be woken an hour later by the same pervert trying all the same things again. I believe I have this person's telephone number and if I do, then I know where he lives. It would be the work of a moment to ensure that he never bothers anyone again but of course, mild mannered and middle aged women do not murder their assailants, they meekly take the phone off the hook and change their telephone numbers at the first opportunity.

It's been a while since I had this sort of problem; last time I finally exorcised the spook by telling him that I knew his wife and would tell her. Did I? of course not, but anyone as sad as a late night heavy breather can't take chances. I don't really think I'm being stalked, about to be murdered in my bed or any of the other horrible fates a sleep deprived mind can imagine but I'm seriously considering getting a dog.

Monday 16 July 2007


Today I had a go at rescuing the last of the Ratte plants, devastated by blight. The crop was ruined, Ratte is an older variety, very susceptible to all sorts of diseases and the first variety to suffer when the spores arrived this year.


Hardly anything to save, the shallow rooted tubers were as badly affected as the foliage, a smelly slimy mess. I had the Winston potatoes a couple of days ago. They were o.k in the main but the actual potatoes are not as delicious eating as the Ratte should have been nor as generally useful as the Stroma or the Ambo. Ambo will be the last potato plants to harvest, hopefully not too badly affected in the tubers although the top growth is nearly all destroyed. If it doesn't rain too much I'll start on them tomorrow.

I also took up the last few remaining tomato plants, no hope of saving them and no crop to speak of. This is positively the worst year for blight we have ever known, even in bad years before it has been much later in the year before the plants have succumbed so totally.

In their place I have planted a row of french beans which should provide a crop in 6-8 weeks time, I hope.

Sunday 15 July 2007

We haven't had one of these for a while

Yesterday I was going to have a bonfire to celebrate Bastille Day but got sidetracked into playing with webcams, fairly unsuccessfully it must be admitted.

Another day has dawned and I've always wanted to know what Harry Potter Character I'd be - particularly as I can barely tell one from another...

You scored as Hermione Granger, You are Hermione. You are academic, intelligent, and reasonable. On top of this, you are highly concerned with justice, scorn the small-minded prejudices of others and work hard to defend the under dog. Many times you may find that your heart and mind are constantly at war with each other.

Hermione Granger


Albus Dumbledore


Neville Longbottom


Luna Lovegood


Ron Weasley


Draco Malfoy


Bellatrix Lestrange


Sirius Black


Harry Potter


Remus Lupin


Severus Snape


Lord Voldemort


Oliver Wood


Percy Weasley


Harry Potter Character Combatibility Test
created with

I think this means I'd make the perfect sidekick for any situation.

Friday 13 July 2007

A good day for...

Well, actually it's just a good day.

But I have noticed that it's a good day for photography, especially if you happen to have the sort of kit that I don't. This morning, at about 5:30 there were big deer on the lawn by the pear tree, some with antlers and then later four fish posed perfectly together in a warm patch of the pond. I didn't catch either of those spectacles but I did get some pretty summery shots. It's so lovely now the sun is back and warm enough to go naked which as regular readers will know is favourite mode of mine.

That cheered me up enough to get some chores done. First, three loads of washing.


Then, I dug a row of potatoes. This was really encouraging because we thought the crop had been ruined by blight but these Winston are mostly big and beautiful with a good yield except on the first few plants to be affected and I only put my fork through one of them!


And after that, I did a big patch of lawn mowing.

wide open spaces

So I feel virtuous and good. They say it's going to rain again tomorrow.

Thursday 12 July 2007


I've been playing with my links lists. From here I want to give access to sites that are of interest to people researching Normandy, self sufficiency, obscure food products and also to some of the more personal blogs and places I like to visit. It's a work in progress. For vegan recipes and resources please visit the Stripey Cat food diary, my other blog.

Wednesday 11 July 2007


This year has been rather quieter for visitors than last. Lots of people have expressed an interest but for one reason or another haven't been able to make a firm date so it was great fun to welcome two old friends to stay last weekend.


We didn't get a lot done, plans for sightseeing fell by the wayside thick and fast as it turned out all we really wanted to do was sit in the sun, soak up the peace and get quietly sozzled in beautiful surroundings. One popular outing for guests was achieved, a trip to the Abbey in Cerisy la ForĂȘt where many photographs were taken, none of them actually available to me at this time - however this is the view away from the Abbey across the fish pond.


I'm hoping to have a few more visitors before the year is out, ideally people looking for a working holiday (!) who will destroy brambles and strim nettles in return for plenty of food and drink but actually anyone will do, it can be a bit lonely here sometimes.

One unwelcome visitor is the feral cat, scorned by Bagheera and anxious to keep a hold on the valuable property that is his leftovers she has twice come into the house and sprayed her foul scent across the furniture. Enough is enough and doors are being closed rigorously to prevent her getting in again but it does mean the old chap doesn't have the same easy access to the sunshine he once enjoyed. So a cat flap is another task for the list, Paul is going to have plenty to do when he gets here.

Thursday 5 July 2007

Cherry Jam

cherry jam

I used about a kilo of cherries, sour morellos, with a kilo of jam sugar (the sort with added pectin), about 300 to 500g of redcurrants.

Pit your cherries, this takes ages so round up some helpers and some extra cherry stoners. My kilo took about an hour on my own. Try to catch all the juice as you work. You won't succeed so make sure your apron covers all your clothing and protect precious work surfaces.

Put the stones and the redcurrants into a small pan and simmer gently until the currants have completely disintegrated. I was using frozen redcurrants from a couple of years ago so had my doubts about their pectin content, hence the pectin enhanced sugar, but if your redcurrants are fresh this should be sufficient to set the batch.

Then I think I made an error, I added half a pint (300 ml) of water. The cherries were so juicy that this seems unnecessary in hindsight. Anyway, strain your redcurrant juice into a very large pan and add the cherries, their juice and the sugar. If you were using sweet cherries you might consider adding the juice of a lemon at this point. I also cracked some cherry stones and added the kernels to the pot, about half a dozen are sufficient.

On a gentle heat stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and then allow to come to a full boil, stirring frequently. With the pectin sugar it was only necessary to boil the jam for 4 minutes before a setting point was reached, without it you will have to use your favourite method of judging when the jam is done. I usually put a little on a cold plate, wait a moment and then gently push the spot with my finger. If wrinkles form the jam is ready to pot. If you boil hard for much more than 15 minutes the flavour and texture will be damaged and you may end up with toffee.

Pot into clean warm jars. A typical jam maker's fault is demonstrated in my pots, all the fruit has floated to the surface. There are ways of avoiding this but I don't seem to be able to achieve them. It tastes good anyway. Yield would have been 4 x 340g sized jars but because of the extra water I had a small jar of cherry and redcurrant jelly left over!

This should keep well in a cool dark place if properly sealed, but will be better for refrigeration after opening.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

A Stocking full of Cherries

The time has come to share a top tip with you all. Unfortunately, although I'm most taken with this idea I've only just decided to try it myself so I can't guarantee its efficaciousness only its novelty.


And the tip is this - to stop cheeky blackbirds (and starlings and sparrows and probably penguins also) from eating your cherries before they're even properly ripe and you've had a chance to pick them, enclose the fruiting branches in stockings, nicely pulled up over the immature fruit. Here is an example;


What's that I hear you say? You have no stockings? I rather think you do and you'll find them bundled up in the back of the sock drawer so let's hear no more excuses (leave the fish nets, they're not as effective and you may need them sometime).

Your reward for sacrificing your leg apparel.

I'm hoping to make cherry jam with this batch, but need to research recipes as last time the jam was nearly toffee before it set, nice in cakes but not much good for toast. In the meantime another whacky idea for the detritus, Cherry Stalk Tea or Tisane.

It's best to pick cherries with the stalk attached, use scissors to avoid tearing the bark from the branches, but of course stalks in jam are no fun. As you prepare the fruit for cooking save the stalks and then dry in a warm place, your dehydrator or solar dryer until quite brittle. Store in an airtight container. To make the tea, take a big handful of stalks and add about half a litre (slightly less than a pint) of fresh water. Bring to the boil, simmer for five minutes and then allow the stems to steep for four or five hours before straining. Drink the tea cold or warm it up again, with or without sugar.

This is supposed to be very good for the kidneys and fluid elimination but it's a nice drink that makes a change from ordinary tea or the overflavoured fruit and herb concoctions available in the shops.

Monday 2 July 2007

Missing in action

Just an apology to my two regular readers - there's been a bit of a delay in postings while we've been in Cardiff and then travelling around the UK visiting relatives and so on. Things will be back to normal soon, honest.