Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Raptors, hay and other things

Our main task over the last week has been cutting the hay; or for my part overseeing the process! In the past we have arrived late in the summer to an overgrown field and ended up giving the hay away to the local dairy farmer who uses it to feed his cows. This year however, we have had a bit more time to appreciate our resource and start to manage it. The first thing we did was fertilize it and pray for rain. There was a little, but not really enough to get it going. However, by last week the field was as thriving as it was ever going to get this year, and ready for cutting. Our dairy farmer friend arrived with his big tractor and cut the field in a matter of hours. The sound and sight of this tractor attracted every bird of prey for miles, and at one point I counted about sixteen hovering around; diving the tractor to get the fresh grasshoppers as they lept out of the way. After the cutting, they feasted in the field for a few days on the remains of the dead wildlife until they were so full they couldn't fly! As our neighbour said, this must be where the phrase 'having a field day' came from as they gave the impression this was raptor heaven. Mostly they were buzzards, with one or two smaller hen harriers and maybe a kite or two.

A few days after the cutting our farmer friends returned to fluff the hay into piles ready for baling. (I'm sure this has a technical term but we don't know what it is). After fluffing the race was on to bale; Ian with his small tractor and a square baler and the farmer with his larger round baler. The agreement was that he could take 10 large bales in payment for cutting the field and we would keep the small bales for ourselves and to sell. All was going well until the small baler malfunctioned due to incorrect string and in the end the farmer got 12 bales and we got about 230 smaller sqaure bales. We inlisted the help of our neighbours to load the bales onto the trailer while I drove the van and we collected them all up, stacked them and covered them. We were in a hurry to get them in before the rain the following day; only the rain never came.

On the subject of bird of prey, when we were sitting eating our chocolate cake the other week there were two birds of prey circling above us which our neighbours identified as kites. They were then 'joined' by a third much bigger bird. A fight ensued and eventually the bigger bird was driven away. Our neighbours reckon the bigger bird was a short-toed eagle but if so it is a bit off its usual course as they are found more toward the Pyrennes and the mountains. However, the dry weather and shortage of food may have attracted them further East.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The weekend we get out on our bikes at last!

At last..we got out on our bikes this weekend! Ian has been too focussed on the building work to allow for a break, but this week he changed his mind and got his bike out of storage! Was it the sun, the thought of exploring, of getting fit that motivated him? No, it was an village fete with a display of ancient tractors located about 10 miles away; so too near to justify driving! He also knew that he would only be able to tempt me to come by saying we were going for a bike ride! So we had a nice day out with our neighbours. It wasn't too hot, the rain stayed away, the roads were quiet and Ian got to look at some tractors. We took sandwiches and bought some chips and beer there, which made the route home rather painful! Ian is now trying to recover from his sore rear end!

When we returned we sat on the terrace with tea and chocolate cake. The cake was an experiment, made with the first harvest from the garden; beetroot! Yes, Beetroot Chocolate fudge cake, and I have to say it was very nice, although I reduced the sugar by 50g and made a fudge topping instead of the one in the recipe. I pickled the rest of the beetroot.

So the history of the beetroot is from this:

To this:

To this: (after we had feasted!)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Shifting earth

Mont Blanc (the pile of white soil that has been outside our house since it was built) is now gone!

It was loaded into the dumper, moved and spread out at the back of the house to form the supporting structure for the swimming pool. Ian has been watering it in place as it really needs to pack down a bit before we put the pool in place in five weeks time, and we haven't had any significant rain for some time.

Meanwhile, Mandi the cat is getting rather upset about the fact that everytime he looks outside the view has changed!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Pigeons, boar and snakes for dinner?

So the French really do eat everything and anything! In a way it is an admirable trait as the concept is environmentally friendly and non-wasteful, but it certainly requires us to toughen up and lose our squeamishness!

Ian  returned from the farmer with a bag bulging with freshly picked cherries. It is that time of year and everyone has ripe cherry trees and can't pick them, eat them or bottle them quickly enough. He also had a bag with what looked like quail in, which he presented to me as 'dinner'. It turned out not to be quail, but four pigeons, freshly caught, killed and plucked. Apparently they are a nuisance on the farm as they eat the chicken feed, so the young ones are promptly dispatched and rather than thrown in the bin, they are prepared for the pot! We were given four because in reality, the farmer doesn't like them much! So, I asked around and Googled how to cook pigeon and ended up removing the breasts, marinating them in ginger and garlic and stir-frying them. I have to say that although they were okay  I wouldn't rush to eat them again! I attempted to make a stock from the remains but after smelling it decided against using it. However, the cat enjoyed the cooked pigeon liver!

Yesterday we went to another hunt dinner, this time in our village. Hunting is a very traditional country activity around here and whether you approve or disapprove, think it is cruel or a poor sport it has gone on in France for centuries. Unlike in the UK it has never been seen as something that rich people do just for fun, but has been a legitimate way of feeding your family, and hence everything that is killed is eaten or used in some other way. At the annual dinner a feast is prepared of the season's kill, interspersed with a few token vegetables and lots of alcohol. Unlike many of the feasts and fairs, those attending are mostly French and of the older generation. And so, it happened that we found ourselves seated next to an elderly French couple that we had not met before. He was a man of few words but she was happy to talk to us and reminded me of the French equivalent of Nora Batty. She was large and bold and definitely the boss. The lady sitting next to her was around the same age, with no teeth but that didn't stop her polishing off a huge plate of tough old wild boar steaks, cutting them skilfully with her opinel knife! I felt quite sad that my French isn't fluent enough to really communicate with them as their stories would be interesting. These are the last generation to remember the second world war. Most would have been children but, like my mother, would vividly remember the war years, when this part of France was occupied by the Germans. There is a plaque on the war memorial to the local Maire, who was taken into the woods and shot at the age of 69, and the older villagers remember the tanks being driven up and down the road outside our house. During occupation and shortly after the war food would have been scarce and hunting probably saved many from starvation. We were telling Nora Batty about our encounters with snakes. She told us that the best way to deal with the large 'coulerves' is to slit their throats; take a knife and run it down the length of their underbellies, peel the skin off, slice them up, fry them in butter and eat them! I would not like to meet her on a dark night! Formidable!

Monday, 9 May 2011

Sunday walk

The dry and warm weather continues and Ian is currently in the field trying to pull out as much ragwort as he can. We want to cut the meadow for hay (a shortage of the stuff at the moment) but it is no good for horses if it is full of ragwort, which is poisonous to them when cut and dried. Yesterday we went for a walk around the field and the orchids are out in full force.
This one is a bee orchid and there are fewer of them than the pyramid orchids, which along with the daisies make really make the field look spring like. Of course once it is grazed we will lose a lot of this, but for now it is beautiful.

The other things that are out in force are the insects. There are enormous big black bees, blue butterflies and closer to the river, we saw a few dragonflies.

The word in French for dragonfly is libellule, pronounced a bit like 'lee-bell-loo'.

After our walk through the field we headed off down a footpath in search of the old 'lavarie' or washing place. The farmer had told us that before these farms were connected to mains water people had wells for their day to day water but walked themselves and their animals down to the local washing place to water the animals and to wash their clothes! Well, we think we found it; a fair walk from the road, down through the trees and through a small meadow. The dam for the stream has long since washed away but with some imagination we could picture it! I must admit I am grateful for running water!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Introducing Gremlin

The puppies arrived yesterday. Not a big litter, so we didn't get a girl, but we have reserved a red boy. We have decided to call him Gremlin, although he will also have an official name that is a bit longer. We will pick him up in two months, but in the meantime here is a picture of him at a day old. (He will develop a red coat as he gets older). (Not that he is a child subsitute or anthing!)

Sunday, 1 May 2011


Just back from a few days in Bordeaux. This was partly for work and partly for pleasure! I had two days of teaching but had accidently booked the wrong night in the hotel, and as I had paid for it on-line I was unable to cancel, so in the end Ian and I decided to spend a rare evening off in Bordeaux together. It was a nice evening; the weather was mild and sunny, the bars were crowded and full of young trendy people. Bordeaux centre is definately a place for young people! I also enjoyed my teaching. It had been about 6 weeks since my last visit and so I had forgotten what it was like and how much I benefit from the intellectual stimulation, even if it is only on an occasional basis. So the first realisation was that as much as I love the country life I do need the occasional trips into something more lively to keep me up to date and current and, that somewhere is only 2 hours away.

On Saturday we spent the morning trying to buy a bath and in the afternoon we paid a visit to the very pregnant Australian Cattle dog, so that we could get a feel for the breed and an idea of what we will need to do. I was not dissapointed. The dogs were smaller than I thought (a little smaller than a border collie) inquisitive, very dingo like and with personality. We did realise however, that we will need to build a secure dog pen before we get the puppy, as we will not be able to fence in the whole garden at this point. This year, all pedigree dogs must have names starting with 'G', which put paid to our plans to call it Carla. We thought about it some more and I am quite keen on the name 'Gaga' as in Lady Gaga. Ian likes the idea of teaching it to howl along to 'Bad Romance'!