Spring, it seems, may finally be here.

It’s been a long, hard winter.  I have spoken of winter at length (thank you for your patience), but now my thoughts and my hands turn to warmer work.

We are still battered by the occasional gale, and in fact a great many trees in the area have succumbed to the winds in recent days, and the local rivers have burst their banks, turning fields into lakes.  We have managed to avoid the worst of this, have not (yet!) lost any trees, and the chickens now seem used to the occasional bath (although they still complain).  We have had no repeat of the now legendary Flood of 2016, and my daily clearing of the ditches and waterways around us seems to be paying off, paying back for the aches it causes.

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The fruit trees we planted are all waking up, little buds popping out along their branches, drinking in the March sunshine.  Daffodils are beginning to flower, tulips are pushing up through the earth, dandelions and daisies and bumblebees and butterflies, new life and hope.

We are visited by bluetits, goldfinches, robins, and the occasional nuthatch.  We have spotted lapwings and storks stopping by for a rest before continuing their migrations.  The buzzards circle in pairs, calling to each other and sending the chickens flapping for cover, tumbling over each other and trying to hide under me.

The cat (Mrs. Badcrumble) was taken to the vet to be spayed, and is, as I type this, sleeping off the effects of anaesthesia, waking now and then to glare at me accusingly and lick her stitches, and I feel like a monster.  The feral cat population in the area is quite large enough already.

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We have started a lot of our vegetables now, and every windowsill in the house plays host to trays and trays of seedlings.  We are growing things we did not attempt in the UK, such as sweet peppers and aubergines, in the hope that the hotter, longer summer will produce good specimens, and ML has planted over 40 tomato plants, which we hope will yield well, so we can preserve enough by drying and canning to see us through next winter.

We have worked hard at improving the clay soil that we have, adding topsoil and well-rotted horse manure, and the pile of kitchen compost grows ever bigger.  I hope to get to a point where the soil is much improved and we can leave it alone as much as possible.  Soil structure is paramount, and any digging or tillage can ruin this, as well as causing loss of nutrients.  We are experimenting with permaculture and no-dig methods, and are planning a small forest garden next year, and we hope for a good harvest.  I have been attempting to coypu-proof the veg garden with chicken wire and rocks, and I will be glad if  they and we can be good neighbours.

There is a chap that ML’s dad used to work with who keeps bees, and he has promised us a swarm (he does not prevent his from doing so), which means we will have bees already adapted to the local environment.  They will swarm sometime in May, all being well, so we are preparing the hive with a final coat of linseed oil, we will rub grass on the inside to make it smell less of human, we will put some lines of wax on the top-bars to encourage comb production, and we will be stupidly excited when they arrive.

The variety of wildlife around the farm in astounding.  When I foraged in the UK I would trek from forest to field in search of spots for wild spring greens.  I had good spots for many edibles, but they were often miles apart.  But here, just on our own land, I have found wild mint, wintercress (bitter!), chickweed, nettle, dead-nettle, hogweed, crow-garlic, dandelion, hairy bittercress (neither bitter nor hairy, confusingly), common sorrel, and comfrey (with which we shall make a foul-smelling tea for the garden).  A bowl of some of these plants dressed in some good oil and vinegar is a welcome crunch, and a taste of things to come.  I have found a spot for wild garlic (I would searched far and wide for this as it is essential, luckily I have found a good patch some half a mile away, in the same forest that provided such a glut of wild mushrooms last year), and when we visited today to pick a little for dinner, we spotted a pair of Alpine newts.  This bodes well, I have decided.  I plan on making enough wild garlic pesto to keep us in easy suppers for the rest of the year, as well as lacto-fermenting some for kimchi or just on its own, a salty crunchy pungent hit of microbiome health food.

The birds sing, the signs are good, and if the coypu eat all my tomatoes it will be roast coypu and wild kimchi for dinner, with a glass of nettle beer.

Patience is required.  Although I wish that spring were here, it stubbornly refuses to be anything other than winter.  For every beautiful, frosty morning, there is a day like today, when the clouds hang low and dew forms in my beard when I step outside.  I can confirm that it does, indeed, drizzle in France.  I have planted trees, but they do not yet bear fruit.  I have dug vegetable beds, but they are still naked earth.  The beehive is an empty mansion, awaiting the waggle-dance of its masters.  Patience is required.

I had grown used to life in the city, where everything is available on-demand.  The shops and the bars are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (or near enough), I could buy any food or drink or ingredient I desired, at any hour, any time of year.  When one is able to access anything, anytime, the value of all is lost, becomes meaningless.  The recent ‘lettuce crisis’ is a case in point.  Why are we eating imported, often tasteless, lettuces and courgettes in January?  At what cost?  Why are we not waiting with baited breath for those first crisp leaves, in season?  We are accustomed to reaching out and having our cups filled with whatever we want.

As a side note, there is plenty of crunch to be foraged in the forests and fields at this time of year.  Wild winter salads are a marvel.

The shops here in Burgundy close for lunch.  They are shut on Sundays.  They often only open in the mornings on a Saturday.  I have to wait.  I am more aware of the worth of it, I think, for this very reason.  It is a small thing, though important.

As my own apples are at least a few years away, I am lucky that ML’s brother has an orchard in the village, a scant mile or so away.  It produces more apples than he can sensibly cope with, so we, selflessly, spent a happy afternoon in the late autumn sun collecting box after box.  Some we have stored to feed to the chickens (they of refined taste).  Some I cooked down into a compote.  The rest I pressed into juice.

Not possessing a scratter (the marvellous name for the mill one uses to crush apples), I resorted to improvising; a bucket and a sledgehammer and aching shoulders the morning after.  The apples were smashed and then pressed in the hand-turned fruit press we share with the rest of ML’s family, and the resulting juice was the colour of caramel, cloudy, and the sweetest thing I have ever tasted.  We bottled around 20 litres, drank some, froze some, gave some away.  Another 20 litres I decided to turn into cider.

I had never made cider before.  I’ve brewed beer (from kits) and country wines and elderflower fizz and nettle beer, but never cider.  I read on the subject a great deal beforehand, and everything indicated that drinkable cider was not an easy thing to achieve.  Vinegar was probable.  Success, it seemed, was not.  There are many ways to brew cider; measuring of sugar content and acidity, adjusting specific gravity (oh the irony, Mr. Newton), pectic enzymes, double fermentation, it all seemed a bit daunting.  So I decided to go full rustic.  I transferred the apple juice to a fermenting bucket, gave it a good stir, covered it with a tea towel, and put it by the fire.  After a week, it had certainly started to ferment, fizzing and frothing weirdly.  I fitted an airlock, and left it.

I am reminded of a recipe I came across for ‘hobo wine’: take 5 litres of grape juice, leave it in the sun for a month, drink it.

The maybe-cider sat for 4 months, seemingly doing nothing.  Fermentation appeared to stop after a few weeks, but I left it alone, too afraid of failure to test it.  Yesterday I summoned up the courage to bottle it (if that is not an oxymoron).

And it is, in fact, perfectly good.  A little flat in its ‘mouth feel’, not exactly delicious, but not too acidic, not sweet (which means most of the sugar is now alcohol), not too dry, not ‘eggy’ as some scrumpy can be.

Free booze.  It was worth the wait.

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dscf4037Winter is all about preparing for spring. We tidy and dig and prune trees and wait and wait. We choose and buy seeds, and I’m already planning what to cook, preserve, and ferment with the produce we’ll grow. Next year we’ll save our own seed, but this year we buy what we need from the good folks at the Real Seed Catalogue, who specialise in heritage and non-hybrid varieties, along with a good deal of things you won’t find in your garden centre, like oca and cinnamon vine (no, I don’t know either).

dscf3989Mist hugs the fields, crystals of hoar-frost crisscross the hedgerows, and the oak trees all shimmer and glitter, white, like the frozen skeletons of gigantic ancient creatures (which they are, of course).

The builders have been here for a couple of weeks, repairing some rotten timber at the edges of the roof (don’t mention the problem with rest of the roof and it might go away), filling in holes in the earthen walls (holes, apparently, made by cows licking at minerals in the rock – I am unable to get over this fact), removing render from one end of the house, ready to replace it with a better lime-based one, and making a huge amount of noise.  The cat is furious.

Our house is old.  How old, we don’t know.  Over the last few months we have uncovered dscf3976many oddities in its construction.  It is a farmhouse made of a material called pisé – essentially a mix of earth, sand, and gravel.  It’s a very environmentally sound material, and long-lasting if treated properly.  Ours has not been treated properly.  It has been covered in a concrete render that does not allow it to ‘breathe’, which it needs to be able to do as it basically a giant sponge.  The lime render we are putting on one end wall will alleviate this, and we’ll eventually do the rest of the house when funds allow (never).  The walls have been repaired and rebuilt many times over the years, with an interesting mix of brick, breeze-blocks, stone, and Lego (maybe not Lego).  We also discover that the whole roof has been raised at some point to allow rooms to be placed in what used to be simple hay-lofts, and now seems to rest on piles of bricks that look alarmingly tipsy.  We are assured that this is safe and normal, but I feel my scales for safe and normal may be a little different.  It seems we may be repairing the house for the rest of time.  Time, though, is something we have.

The next big project outside is the start of our bee empire.  We are starting with two hives, and will expand if it seems necessary and I am not chased into the river by bees.

About eighteen months ago we went on a two day ‘natural beekeeping’ course (run by Heather and Tim of Bee the Change), which was fascinating and inspiring.  Natural beekeeping is more about the bees, less about the keeping.  Chemical fungicides and miticides are not used, the hives are opened and interfered with as little as possible, and honey is only taken if there is a true surplus (if ever).  Swarming is not discouraged (queens are regularly killed to stop bees from swarming in commercial beekeeping and, as swarming is part of their natural reproductive cycle, this seems a tad mean).  The queen is allowed to roam the whole hive (not the case in commercial keeping).  They are, in essence, allowed to be bees.

Bees are a vital part  of the ecosystem, and having a hive or two close by is beneficial for everything.  Our fruits and vegetables will have higher pollination rates, and thus higher yields, and all will be right with the world.

dscf4010We have decided on a hive type called a Warré, which is slightly different to the usual ones you may have spotted around the UK.  There are no ‘frames’ restricting the construction of the wax honeycomb, meaning the bees can build in their natural drooping architecture. Any new boxes are added at the bottom of the hive, rather than the top as is the case with UK ‘National’ hives, with the hope that this keeps the atmosphere and temperature within the hive – so carefully managed by the bees themselves – at a constant, and stresses the occupants to a minimum.  The bees will then migrate down into the lower box, leaving an upper one full of honeycomb, which we will harvest if, and only if, we judge it safe to do so whilst leaving the bees with enough honey to see them through the winter.

A bee colony is a mind-bogglingly complicated society of queen and drones and workers and larvae, and the more I read the more I am hooked, the more I cannot wait to don my suit, to sit and watch their comings and goings.  My one worry is if I worry about the chickens so much, I can see myself camping out by the hives to ward of any invading wasps or errant birds, becoming more and more crazed until I, myself, begin to buzz and waggle.

I am oiling the wood of the hives with linseed oil, as a natural preservative, and we may paint the hives with some natural paints (the hives at Bee the Change are painted bright and bold with flowers and colours).  When ready, we’ll situate them at the end of the stretch where we have planted our fruit trees, facing South and slightly raised.  We are planting many plants and flowers that are beneficial to the bees, providing as much forage for them as we can.

We have decided on black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera), native to Europe.  They are considered to be more aggressive and less easy to handle (yay) than the more commonly kept western honey bee (Apis melliferaconfusingly), but are hardier, with more resistance to the dreaded varroa mite (more on these beasties another time).  We will buy a swarm, which will come in a box.  We will then, gently and slightly nervously, introduce them to their new home.  We will stalk the fields in our beekeepers suits, like astronauts awaiting first contact.  We will not consider taking any honey for at least the first eighteen months.

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Much has been made of colony collapse and bee population decline, and we hope our hives, left pretty much to their own devices, will in some small way help to restore a balance.

A jar or two of honey will be a gift, if they choose to give.

The mornings are cold.  Frost clings in sharp little lances to everything, the sky is a pale blue blanket, and we all shiver underneath.
dscf3960My morning routine is a chilly one; let chickens out, defrost chickens, feed chickens, stare at the sunrise until my eyes freeze over, drink tea.  I worry that the chickens are too cold, but the inside of their house is reassuringly warm.  We’ve taken to feeding them cracked corn in the evening as a last feed, as they digest it more slowly than pellets, and this helps keep them warm throughout the night.  The problem seems to be that they love the corn a little too much, and are beginning to turn a haughty beak skyward at the sight of their usual feed. Remaining strong and not giving in to their more ‘refined’ tastes is a battle of wills, as I am a softy.

They are eating a great deal more than they did when we first got them at the end of thedscf3954 summer, and they are still laying daily – a surprise, as the shortened hours of daylight should mean that their laying slows down during the winter months.  I am not complaining, although as chickens only have a finite number of eggs in them I worry about them running out.

A friend in the UK got in touch to let me know about the current DEFRA ban on moving chickens, and the fact that he has to keep his inside, due to outbreaks of bird-flu.  There is bird-flu in France, but far to the South and the West of us, and not yet in Saône-et-Loire, our département.  There is also a turkey festival in Marcigny today (no idea, I’ll tell you when I get back later), so the locals are clearly not too concerned.  I keep an eye on the news, and the chickens, and I worry.

I worry that I am worrying about chickens too much.

dscf3923The fruit trees are all planted.  As I planted them, I pulled even more scrap metal from the ground, along with sheets of plastic, and an entire car windscreen.  Even here, in what seems to be a culture that works more closely with the land, people buy things and use things with no plan of how to dispose of them.  Manufacture, buy, use, bury in the ground and hope no one notices.  A microcosm of capitalism, in my field.

On misty mornings we spy deer and wild boar, and there is a black woodpecker who pecks away at the same tree, each morning, Morse Code patterns in the fog.

In the evenings we light the fire, and eat hearty, warming food, and delay going to bed as it is so cold upstairs we can see our breath.

There has been no recipe here for a while (I wonder how many of you, Dear Readers, want or follow my recipes), but there is one today.

Boudin-Noir with Apples, Potatoes, and a Honey Mustard Sauce.dscf3945

(serves 2 if you’re greedy like me)

This is a properly seasonal supper (yes, pig’s blood is in season right now), and a rich, filling, simple way to push away the chill of the day.

Ingredients

(for the sauce)

2 shallots, finely diced

250 ml dry white wine

250 ml stock (I used pork stock, because I had some in the fridge, but a good organic chicken stock will do nicely)

2 tsp mustard seeds

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp honey

The leaves from 2 sprigs thyme

Salt

(for the rest)

300 g boudin-noir (or black pudding – they’re not exactly the same, but close enough for us), cut into 2 lengths

2 large floury potatoes, cut into chunks

1 large eating apple, cored and cut into thick slices

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt

A handful of curly parsley, finely chopped

Quite a lot of butter

Method

Cook the potatoes until just tender, drain, and set aside.

In a small pan, cook the shallots in a little butter until soft.  Add the rest of the ingredients for the sauce and bring to a simmer.  Reduce by about 2/3 until quite thick, season to taste, and set aside.

In a large non-stick frying pan, melt a little butter and cook the boudin-noir until warmed through and a little crispy on the ends.  Remove from the pan, set aside somewhere warm, and cover.

Add more butter (yep) to the pan, and cook down the sliced onion until soft and just starting to brown.  Add the cooked potatoes, apple, and garlic, and fry until the apples have caramelised and there’s some lovely crispy bits on the potato.

Place the boudin-noir back in the pan, pour over the sauce, cover, and let it sit on the heat for a couple more minutes to warm it all through properly.

Season to taste, scatter the parsley over.

Eat straight from the pan, and try not to worry about chickens.

 

dscf3384When I was a child, we had an orchard.  I remember the day we moved in to that house like it was yesterday.  Me and my sister paced the length and breadth of the field, wading through grass as tall as we were.  We’d never seen so much space.  I remember dragging an old plastic sled around in the autumn, loading up apples for cider-making.  I remember picking ripe fruit from the branches, all crunch and sweet and juice like an ideal of apple. I remember climbing the trees in the spring, camouflaged in blossom.  I remember my Dad hanging swings for us to swing on, higher, higher.  I would lie in the tall grass in the summer, looking up at the blue sky, framed in blades, birdsong, buzz.  I remember.

The plan, such as there is ever a plan, is to create an orchard in the part of the field that adjoins our vegetable garden.  We will plant apples (of course), pears, quinces, cherries, plums, we will sow wild flowers, we will put the beehives here, and it will marvellous.

Winter is the traditional time to plant fruit trees, and our local garden centre had a ‘tree dscf3874day’ – special offers on trees, a talk on how to plant and tend them, a very lovely and knowledgable lady who helped us choose varieties that will pollinate each other and give a long harvest, rather than a week of oh-my-days-how-much-fruit?  So we bought two apple-trees (a Starking and a Reine des Reinettes), two pear-trees (a Conference and a William), one quince (a Portugal), and one cherry (a Sunburst).  ML’s brother loaded them up into his dscf3867trailer, and we took our new arrivals home to introduce them to the chickens and the cat.

After a day of digging holes, I went to bed, tired, sore, excited.  When the topsoil arrives, I thought (three tonnes of good earth; ours is a little clay-like), I can soak the roots of the trees, and get them in the ground.  I slept very well.

Then came the flood.

The next morning ML got up early to feed the chickens.  I stayed in bed for a few more moments, encouraging my stiffened limbs into some semblance of life and usefulness. Rising, I opened the shutters of our bedroom to be presented with a scene from a John Wyndham novel (specifically The Kraken Wakes – read it, it may stand you in good stead for the future).  The entire vista in front of the house had been transformed into a great silvered mirror, and the clouds above were dark and furrow-browed, moving too fast.  The chickens were huddled on a rapidly diminishing island in the middle of their run (should we have got ducks?), the cat appeared to be doing the backstroke, and ML was nowhere to be seen.dscf3892

I dressed hurriedly, pulled on my wellies, and waded out into the water.  It had not (yet) reached the house; panic did not (yet) set in.  ML reappeared from the lane that runs past the farm.  “We need to do something about this,” she said, and took me to the drainage ditches that separate the lane from our hedgerows, all along one side of the property.  They were clogged with branches and twigs and brambles and leaves, and rapidly filling with water.  So much so, in fact, that they could not cope with the deluge and eventually burst their banks.  The garden was underwater, the chickens were now balanced on top of one another, the lane became a river, and the water was gradually encroaching on the house.  I donned my overalls and plunged knee-deep into the ditch and began furiously pulling out the material causing the blockage, while ML did the same a little down-stream, in an attempt to encourage the water to pass us by, to not stay for tea.  It worked, to an extent, in that the water got no deeper, although neither did it start to recede.

I dug a ditch in the ground to drain the chicken run.  The chickens thought me mad, and told me so as I worked, but it was successful, and their island began to get bigger.

dscf3885I did this for seven hours (ML had to work).

When ML finished work, we jumped in the car and aquaplaned to Marcigny, and bought some sandbags.  We rushed back and used them to block up our driveway.  Miraculously this seemed to help, and the water in front of the house began to disappear, even as the lane became more submerged.

Satisfied that we had done all we could (would it be enough?), we went inside, closed the shutters, opened a bottle, and waited with crossed fingers.

We awoke to mist, but no rain, and the flood had all but vanished.  There remained a little water in the chicken run, and the holes I had dug for the trees were filled to the brim.  Well, I thought, that will delay the planting a little.

We are reassured to learn that this was an exceptional event, and that we need not buy a boat quite yet (although we are likely to have more, less severe, floods once or twice a year).

Five days later, no more rain, and the tree-holes are still full, the water having failed to drain away.  No good for fruit trees, who will do badly (die) if their roots are submerged for any period of time longer than a day or two (charmingly referred to as wet feet).

I do a little digging tour of the field, exploring how far down the water is.  It is similar in almost every place, and I am disheartened.  More work to do, then, putting some drainage in the field to we can grow more than watercress (I do like watercress, though am unsure I could live on it).  I am glad of the flood, we would have merrily planted the trees and then watched them wither and die (rather less merrily), if not for the warning the water gave us.  A silver lining, then.

I have found a spot in the field where we can plant the six trees we have, but we will then need to complete the drainage before we can expand the orchard as planned.

And the bees?  A hive on stilts?  Can I rig up a floating beehive?  Can bees swim?  Bee-snorkels?  All these questions (maybe not the last one) will be answered in the spring, when we get our hives and source our bees.

I remember those sun-dappled orchard hours, and we will get there again, but the path will be longer than it looked.  As it ever is.

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dscf3824We awake early to a foggy morning, wrap up warm (it’s cold now, summer didn’t last forever after all), and let the chickens out.  They, as is their wont, stare at us, gurgle weirdly, and then proceed to continue digging to China.  They seem to have settled in nicely.  The last few days we have received four eggs each morning, one from each chicken, and the eggs have increased slightly in size every day.  I take this as a sign that the hens are happy and well fed (as are we, thanks to the eggs).

As the sun burns away the last ghosts of mist, I wander the perimeter of the farm, gathering rosehips to make more syrup (the last batch having disappeared, mixed with sparkling white wine, fairly rapidly).  We have had deer and coypu visiting us, but no sign of a fox (although this may be deliberate on the fox’s part).  The day is warming up nicely, and my thoughts turn to the wild.

The forest near us can be seen from the farm, jagged tops of pine trees pointing to the sky on the horizon.  It’s a mix of managed pine woodland, and ancient, wild tangles of oak and beech and birch.  It goes on forever.dscf3832

I hop on my pink rusty trusty bicycle, and pedal along the lanes.  Buzzards and egrets, outraged by my presence, flap up and away from the fields as I pass, the sun warms my face, and I remind myself that is not yet spring, that we still have a winter to get through. I have been preserving and pickling the little bits of produce I have been given, or foraged, since we arrived, to bring a tang of warmer times to our winter meals, and the last on the list is mushrooms.

It was a very dry summer here, and mushroom season has been delayed.  In fact, there is talk in some regions of the poorest wild fungi harvest for years, although compared to my foraging in and around Bristol (dear Bristol, how are you?) it’s a positive glut.  We’ve had a few days of wet weather, and I’m hopeful.  One can buy foraged mushrooms in the local greengrocer; trays of girolles and hedgehog mushrooms and trompettes de la mort. Almost everyone here seems to pick some kind of mushroom, be it field or forest, and it’s not a fashion or a fad, it’s simply something people do.   We’ve had folk stop by with boxes of field mushrooms, and even someone who called in to let us know about a patch of parasol mushrooms he’d spied from his car.  I like these people.

I have a spot, not far into the woods, that I’ve had my beady eye on for ages, as it looks ideal for ceps and other boletes.  A bouncy, mossy forest floor, green and bright, beneath some old, widely spaced pines.  In my experience boletes like edges and clearings, a bit of breathing space, and I’ve spotted a couple of fly agarics (those fairytale toadstools), a good sign, as they like similar conditions to ceps.

Righto, warning time.  This all sounds very bucolic and lovely, and it is, but mushrooms could put paid to that, neither swiftly nor gently.  Eating a misidentified fungus or plant will end horribly.  I shall not go into the details of organs shutting down or the no hope of treatment horror.  Get some books, learn from an expert, never eat anything unless you are one hundred percent sure that it is what you think it is.  The saying ‘there are old foragers, and bold foragers, but no old bold foragers’ is worth remembering.  Even in France, where mushroom hunting is embedded in rural culture, there have been, this year alone, several cases of mushroom poisoning.  Be safe.

I arrive, sweaty and somewhat out of breath, all arms and legs perched like a heron on a too-small pink bicycle, at the forest edge.  I lock the bike to a tree, and start up the path into the woods.  I am passed by two cars, driving along the dirt track, departing.  Foragers, sir, thousands of ’em.  They got here before me.  Curses.  I get to the spot I have in mind, and it is covered in mushrooms of all shapes and colours and sizes – fly agarics, various russulas, false chanterelles, but nothing edible (or certainly not what I am after, anyway). I get an awful feeling that an hour ago, the forest floor was covered in a million perfect ceps, and they are now in those cars, the occupants laughing and joking to each other and juggling mushrooms.  This is probably not quite true.

There is an annoying habit that some mushroom hunters have of picking anything vaguely the right size or colour, and discarding it if it is not a bolete (boletes have pores instead of gills, so it is easy to tell by looking at the underside of the cap), so the ground is  littered with broken and overturned fungi; a sure sign that someone has been here before me, and an unnecessary, even damaging, thing to do.

The fact that, every year, the woods are combed and picked through by locals yet, every year, the mushrooms return en masse brings doubt to the recent controversial picking ban in the New Forest in the UK.

dscf3831From my days of tramping the woods of South-West England, I recall finding ceps in hollows in the ground and under piles of fallen branches, so I nose around, lifting things and generally getting covered in leaves and dirt.  But there they are.  Bay boletes, not as highly regarded as the cep, but delicious nonetheless.  They’re picked and cleaned in situ, and popped in my bag.  I untangle myself from the undergrowth, and head deeper into the woods.

I pass several people, all wandering around, eyes to the ground, baskets or buckets in hand.  We acknowledge each other with a polite “bonjour”, each silently cursing the competition.

I decide to get off the path, away from these usurpers, and fight my way past a huge pile of logs and into a clearing. Soft green grass underfoot, sunlight ribboning through the trees, and a fine collection of ceps, from tiny to huge.  Jackpot.  I fill my bag, resisting the feverish temptation to pick everything in sight, and head home.

“Holy Schmosbey!” exclaims ML (don’t ask) as I come in the door laden down with mushrooms.  Even the cat looks impressed.  Now to preserve them for later use.

Preserving mushrooms.

There are several ways to preserve mushrooms.  Cooking and freezing works well, and youdscf3835 can salt, pickle, then cover with olive oil for a classic anti-pasto style nibble.  With ceps and other boletes, drying is my preferred method; the flavour is concentrated, and the mushrooms may be reconstituted later in water, or powdered into an umami-rich seasoning for soups and stews.  It is advisable, of course, to eat a few straight away – butter, garlic, bacon lardons, hot sourdough toast.

To dry your mushrooms, simply brush them clean, removing any troublesome wildlife (maggots are not delicious, even fried in garlic and butter) and trimming away any blemishes.  If you have some older specimens, especially with bay boletes, it might be a good idea to remove the spongy pores with a knife or your finger.  Slice them thinly (though not paper-thin), and pop them on a rack so the air is able to get all around and in between.  Place them somewhere warm – I put mine in front of our wood stove – until they are completely dried out.  They will shrink alarmingly, but do not fear, all the flavour is still there.  They can now be stored in a clean airtight jar.

I picked around 3kg of fresh mushrooms, which yielded 2 large jars of dried to help see us through the months ahead, and I may well head back to the woods tomorrow.

There is snow forecast for next week, time to batten down the hatches.  It’s going to be a long winter, and we arrived too late to grow any produce to keep us going.  We’ll light the stove, and eat eggs and dried mushrooms.

The chicken run is finished.  Finally.  It became something of a personal Hadrian’s Wall. (Hen-drian’s Wall?  Anyone?  No?)  This is the first fence I’ve ever built, and it’s a surprisingly satisfying thing to do.  We found a chap in a village about two miles away who makes and sells acacia fenceposts.  He has a massive yard full of different sized posts, whittled, or more probably chain-sawed, to a point.  He’s a man of few words (not easy to deal with on the phone), and I think we may have confused him somewhat.  We arrived in our little Clio and asked to buy as many as we could fit in without making the car look too much like a failed teenage tagger-on in a Mad Max film.  The farmer’s sons appeared and watched as we jammed pole after post into the boot, seats down, windows open, and they remained as taciturn as he, as we paid (a whole one Euro each), we waved, we drove off, wobbling slightly as I got the point of one post in my ear. dscf3577

All the fences around us are made of the same wood – it’s hard and durable and seems to turn to stone after a year or so.  We bought some wire from the local hardware store, and I set to work with a variety of tools for digging things and hitting things.

Some previous owner of our farm has hidden a large amount of treasure in the ground, if treasure is springs and nails and bits of concrete, and the job of digging a trench to bury the bottom of the wire made me feel like Sisyphus appearing as a contestant on the Crystal Maze.

We’ve made good use of various pieces of stone and metal we’ve found lying around to help make the chickens’ house (an old brick tool shed), and the run, as chicken- and fox-proof as possible, although apparently there are weasels to worry about; basically carnivorous pipe-cleaners that are impossible to stop without hermetically sealing the whole of Burgundy.  I’ve also used a load of English lime tree branches that we were given, to make the fence a bit more attractive (for the chickens), and the gate to the run is made from some old kitchen cabinets donated by ML’s parents. Repurposing old rubbish and waste materials is where it’s at.

Some second-hand wooden chairs from a charity shop have been adapted using some wooden veg boxes we were given by our local greengrocer, to make some nest boxes and perches, and we bought some dust-free wood shavings for the floor.  We got a plastic feeder and a plastic drinker and some chicken-feed and some broken oyster shells (good for their calcium levels and their method of digesting their food) and some more wire to plug some gaps – the cost of starting a flock soon adds up, and we’ll need to get (and eat) a lot eggs before they pay for themselves.

But this is not the point.

When I was a child my parents kept hens.  I have vivid memories of collecting warm eggs on chilly mornings, and of the life they bring to a home with their odd ways and funny behaviours. We want to give them as pleasant, as natural, and as long a life as we can. We’ve provided a stack of logs and sticks in the run (they are evolutionarily a woodland bird) so they can hide and play.  All of this for an omelette.  When they stop laying they can peck out a retirement that many a Brit dreams of; in the sun of a rural retreat in France.

This morning we took a trip to the weekly market in Marcigny, where you can buy everything from slippers to sausages, and spoke to a guy there who was selling chickens. He had cages and cages of birds; chickens, ducks, geese, quail.  We talked to him about what we were after (good natured chickens, good layers) and he sold us four hens, all of them six months old and already laying.  They are vaccinated, and he told us about some more care and treatments to consider; using cider vinegar and honey as natural preventatives and medicines. We’ve got a couple of books and zero experience, so it’s heartening to realise that there is advice available from someone who feels as we do – look after the chooks well, show them kindness, don’t use too many drugs, and they’ll live long and prosper. And hopefully lay some eggs.

dscf3722Arriving home with four chickens in the boot of the car, excited and a little nervous, we pulled up to the chicken house and examined our preparations.  Is it good enough?  Will they like the shade of blue on the door?  I opened the box and gently lifted the hens out, one by one, and stepped back as they had a cautious look around.

We removed ourselves so as to minimise any stress, and the chickens popped out of the house into the run.  They started pecking at the ground and scratching away, doing all those things one expects of ones chickens.  They seemed to be taking it all in their stride.

dscf3752Except for one.  As soon as she was in the run, she made straight for the corner where we were standing, and stared at us, making a noise like I’ve never heard before, something like a mix of a creaking door and a submarine.  Which was odd.  She then jumped up, and onto the corner fence post.  A bid to escape?  Well, we’ll have to clip her wings if she continues to try, I thought.  I entered the run and grabbed her, placing her back down on the ground, and she seemed relatively unfazed by me.  I dscf3761decided to stay with her in the run to see what happened.  What happened is this: the hen marched up and down, submarine noises and whistles aplenty, and tried to escape four more times before deciding that I was much more interesting.  I sat on the ground and she clambered all over me, on my legs, on my shoulders, making those odd noises.  I thought there must be something wrong with her, she was so docile, and so I stroked her and murmured to her, like a weirdo.  Finally she settled down on my lap and seemed to be asleep.  After around five minutes she awoke, perked up, and the noises did not reappear.

The chicken got up and strolled away, seemingly, now, perfectly happy and content with her surroundings.  She joined her hen-friends and started chickening away.

And on my lap was a single, warm, perfect egg.dscf3772

Welcome home, ladies.

Two weeks in, and our new life has settled into a kind of routine.  We have both returned to work (a necessary evil until we go completely off-grid/the zombie apocalypse happens/Trump gets in to the White House and presses ‘launch’ instead of ‘snooze’), but we are able to do this from home.  A run in the morning, breakfast in the garden, work ’til about three o’clock, then life proper begins.

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At the moment this consists mainly of planning, as, although it is still very much summer here, the winter is not far away.  The bees will not thank us for installing them in frozen hives.  I shall try growing a few winter vegetables, but shan’t start in earnest until next spring.

I’ve begun digging the vegetable beds ready for next year.  Two down, around fifteen to go. It’s good exercise, and I’m certainly sleeping well at night.

We have decided that the chickens we’ve been planning on getting soon will live in the small brick ‘shed’ at the side of the field.  It’s a sturdy building, will be waterproof with a minimum of work, and, as the third little pig can attest, is wolf-proof (or at least should be fox-proof).  We have researched materials for building a chicken run, and have found a bloke down the road who makes salt-treated acacia fenceposts, which are a lot cheaper, and more eco-friendly, than the pesticide treated, or the plastic, posts in the shops.  There are several small ‘agri’ shops locally, boasting that they sell everything you need for your poultry (in truth this means a bewildering array of things to put feed and/or water in, and an inexplicable display of toy rubber chickens).  After a few false starts (I still can’t get used to shops closing on a Sunday, and a Saturday afternoon, and lunchtime), we found a place that sells the right kind of mesh, the only problem being that it seems to be exclusively for using with rabbits, pigeons, or roses.  Ah well, I’m sure the chickens won’t care.  (I shan’t tell them.)

There are wasps everywhere, nesting in the walls, in the chicken shed, in my hair.  I bought a can of Raid, but I just can’t bring myself to use it – it’s nasty stuff, and I don’t want it getting in the local food-chain or environment.  It’s pretty indiscriminate in its exterminating, and we need to look after pollinators, after all, globally and locally, and my crops next year shall be the better for it.  When the colder weather sets in (soon, too soon), the wasps will die off and I’ll seal up all the holes they’ve nested in this year, and hang some fake nests to dissuade them from returning too close to the house next year.  I don’t like the wasps, but I do like the bees and the beetles and the humming-bird moths that zip around our garden, busy being inscrutable.

We’ve pulled so much scrap metal out of the earth in the field (springs, nails, a bed frame) that I’m considering investing in a metal detector and a giant magnet (and possibly opening a scrapyard).

The weather has been very dry, and there’s nary a hint of any champignons in the forest.  I suppose I’ll just have to be patient.  The season has only just started, and I really ought not to be wishing too hard for rain; ML may have words to say about that.

ML’s brother lives a mile or so away, and has an orchard, and several hazel trees.  (It still counts as foraging if you don’t own the trees.)  We got a box of apples to turn into compote, and spent a happy hour gathering a huge bucketful of hazelnuts.dscf3388

Two whole evenings of peeling and shelling later, I’ve come to see that hazelnuts are a complicated nut, and a formidable opponent.  A lot of them have tiny holes in the shell, made by the emerging larvae of the hazelnut weevil (Curculio nucum), which should mean that there is no nut in there.  This, I learn, is not necessarily the case, and one must crack it open to make sure.  A lot of them make no sound when shaken, an indication that there is no nut.  Again, not true, and more cracking ensues.  In fact, hazelnuts are somewhat like Schrödinger’s Cat in that there both is and isn’t a nut until one opens the shell, collapsing the quantum state, and sending bits of shell all over the floor.  It is also true that there is a direct inverse correlation between the effort needed to get into a nut and the likelihood of there being anything edible inside.dscf3422

One giant bucket of hazelnuts yielded three small tubs of nuts (a good result), so I’ve been playing around with some recipes.  The best by far has been a hazelnut and blackberry brownie (our field edges are heavy with ripe, dark fruit at the moment), so this is the recipe I’ve decided to share.

Hazelnut & Blackberry Chocolate Brownies.

There is little one could confuse hazelnuts or blackberries with, but the obligatory caveat remains: don’t eat it if you don’t know what it is.

Blackberries Rubus fruticosus aggregate

The hedge round our farm is heaving with blackberries, although I have to fight the insects who seem a little furious that I am picking their breakfast.  I have discovered that if you attach a plastic jug to your belt, it is possible to pick (or eat) them at double the speed, as you have both hands free.

Hazelnuts Corylus avellana

Nuts are incredibly expensive to buy, so the chance to grab some wild hazelnuts should not be missed.  They are mature and ready to gather from the end of August onwards, but it’s best to get in early to beat the squirrels.  They will need removing from the outer sheath that they grow in, and then shelling.  I also tend to take the skins off by roasting at a medium temperature for 15 – 20 minutes until the skins are starting to darken and blister (they’ll burn easily, so keep an eye on them), then wrapping in a tea towel.  Allow them to cool for a few minutes, then rub the bundle between your hands for all you’re worth (I find muttering under my breath also helps).  The skins should flake off, and you can fish out the peeled nuts.  Not all the skins will come off, no matter how vigorous you are, but do what I do and ignore this.
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Ingredients makes 16 portions

90g good quality Dark Chocolate

250g Salted Butter

4 free range Eggs

200g granulated White Sugar

200g Demerara Sugar

70g Cocoa Powder

225g Plain Flour

120g Hazelnuts (skins removed)

200g Blackberries (washed and  allowed to dry)

Method

Preheat your oven to 170ºc.

Briefly blitz your roasted, skinless hazelnuts with a food blender (not too much or you’ll end up with nut butter – you just want them a bit chopped up).

Cut the butter into cubes, break up the chocolate, and melt them gently together in a metal or glass mixing bowl over a pan of hot water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl, nor allow the water to boil).

Once melted, add the white sugar and Demerara sugar, and mix thoroughly.

Add the beaten eggs and mix through.

Sieve the flour and cocoa together into your mixture, stirring all the time to ensure they’re completely combined – the mixture will start to get quite stiff here, so brace yourself.

Add the hazelnuts and mix.

Pour the mixture into a lined baking tray (20cm by 30cm or thereabouts will give you the right thickness), and spread out with a spatula making sure it’s right in the corners and edges.

Dot the blackberries evenly over the mixture, and push down into it a little with your finger.

Place in the oven and bake for around 20 minutes, or until a skewer pushed into the brownie comes out almost clean (you want them to be a bit gooey, and they’ll continue to cook once removed from the oven).

Allow to cool a little, then portion and either serve warm (with vanilla ice cream drizzled with blackberry coulis is a winner), or cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to five days.  The combination of the nuts, chocolate, and fruit is really special, and properly seasonal.dscf3513

Right, I’m off to dig another hole and avoid wasps.

A bientôt,

Kieran.

We did it.  We’re here.  Les Augères,  in deep rural Burgundy.  Now what?

Well, we’re certainly not going to be bored.

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We bought the farmhouse about a year ago, having been planning to move to France for a good few years now, furiously working and saving and saving and working.  We moved from Bristol, UK, which was a great place to be, and our jobs afforded us the time to plan, to learn, and to experiment with growing our own food, foraging, baking bread, brewing beer and wine, fermenting vegetables, curing meats, generally anything that will help us become as self-sustaining as we can on a limited (i.e. no) budget.  It’s a big move, and not a little daunting.

ML (my partner) is French, and from the area, which is certainly an advantage as my French is still a little, shall we say, limited.  I can understand about 70% of what’s going on.  But, honestly, I only ever understood about 72% of what was going on when we lived in the UK, so not too much of a change there.

The farmhouse is an old building, until recently a working cattle farm. (Most of the farms around here are – the famous Charollais cows are everywhere – boeuf Bourguignon, anyone?)  It has around two acres of land, and several outbuildings.  We bought it in a bit of a whirlwind, so I am pleased to report that, having been in for a week, I do actually like it.  Phew.

We knew there would be an amount of work to do on the house, which, although habitable, needed a new septic tank (how romantic), and some new rendering at one end of the building.  Since moving in we have discovered we also have heating issues, plumbing problems, woodworm, and wasps nests.  So we are now awaiting quotes to see how many of these we can afford to ignore and hope they’ll go away.

We bought a car (a Renault Clio, so we are perfectly camouflaged on the French roads), and a cat (Mrs. Badcrumble, who we pick up next week so she can tackle the coypu – basically a giant aquatic guinea pig – that live in the many ponds and watercourses that surround the farm).

Our furniture has arrived and, after four days of hoovering up cobwebs, we are at some semblance of a home.

The fun really started yesterday.  ML’s dad and a chap called Maurice arrived in the morning to help us install a pump in our well.  Most of the houses here have a well.  Ours is stomach-churningly deep – around twelve metres down to the water, which is one-and-a-half metres deep.  Needless to say one of my first purchases was a padlock for the well door, and I have a habit of shouting at anyone who strays too close that they are about to die.  I’m sure I’ll shake it off.

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Maurice, it turns out, is a water-diviner, and showed us how he uses a pendulum to find water.  Whilst he did this he got both ML and me to hold his hand to see if we had the gift – if the pendulum continued to spin then yes, if it stopped then no.  ML has the gift, it seems.  I do not.  ML had a go on her own, and the pendulum spun, despite ML’s insistence that she was  doing her best to not let it.  My jury is out, but it does appear that there is something of a tradition in the area for water-divining, healing of burns, and the like.  I will find out (and be sceptical of) more, I am sure.

Maurice also dug his own well.  He and a neighbour spent eighteen months digging a hole, fifteen metres straight down, so Maurice must really trust his (neighbour) own water-finding skills (and he now has a working well, so make of that what you will).  I, for one, am glad our own well was already here.

The first pump had a fault, so we got a replacement, and Maurice carefully lowered it, bit by bit, down the well, to the water.  After securing it with a series of increasingly complicated knots, we turned it on and, with an alarming gurgling noise, we had fresh, freezing cold, slightly murky water jetting from the end of the hose.  I felt like we had struck oil, and did a little dance.

We’ll get the water tested next week, to find out if it is drinkable/usable for beer brewing, or just for watering the crops we have planned.

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This morning I was up early, and had a gentle stroll around the perimeter of the farm, accompanied by birdsong and butterflies and sunrise and about forty-two million insects.  It turns out that the hedge surrounding us on three sides is almost entirely made up of edible things – blackberries, wild rose, hawthorn, and sloes.  To celebrate this fact, I have decided to make a bottle of Bramble and Bay Leaf Bourbon.  To business, then.

Bramble and Bay Leaf Bourbon

As ever, when foraging, only ever cook with and/or eat something if you are 100% sure that it is what you think it is.  If in doubt, don’t!

Blackberries (Rubus fructosus aggregate) are most peoples’ first wild food.  In season from dscf3281mid-to-late summer through to October, purple hands and faces are the de rigueur choice of attire when picking, with scratches to hands and arms optional.  Pick the ripest, fattest berries that you can, and try not to eat them all before getting back to your kitchen.

dscf3290Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) produces leaves, blossom, and berries (haws), which are all edible.  A friend gave me a taste of a liqueur made with the leaves and flowers, which tasted like Turkish Delight.  We’ll use the berries here, which are available from August until November.  Again, pick the ripest berries you can for maximum flavour, and watch out for thorns.

Dog Rose (Rosa canina) and Field Rose (Rosa arvensis) both produce rosehips, which can be dscf3294used for syrups, sauces, and all manner of things.  If cooking them, be sure to remove the internal hairs (which will irritate your throat quite seriously) by passing the cooked pulp/syrup through a fine cloth a couple of times.  For this recipe we will leave them whole, so no need.  In season from August until the winter, rosehips have some serious thorny armour, so wearing gloves is advisable, and elegant.

Ingredients

dscf3310To go with your foraging trophies, you’ll also need to buy some demerara sugar (as I am yet to find it growing wild in the UK or France), and some cheap bourbon.  Do use the cheap stuff, as the finished drink tastes nothing like the sum of its parts, and expensive bourbon would be wasted.

Amounts are approximate, feel free to experiment with the ratios. 

300g Blackberries

50g Haws

30g Rosehips

3 Bay Leaves

120g Demerara Sugar

600ml Bourbon

Method

Remove any stalks and leaves from the blackberries, haws, and rosehips.  Gently rinse in cold water to remove any lingering wildlife and cobwebs.  Leave to dry on some kitchen towel.

Add 1/3 of your mixed berries to a clean 1 litre Kilner jar, pop in 1 of the bay leaves, then add 1/2 the sugar.  Add another 1/3 of the berries, another bay leaf, and then the remaining sugar.  Top up with the last of the berries and the third bay leaf.

Carefully pour in the bourbon to fill the jar.dscf3324

Tightly fasten the lid, and then give the whole thing a good shake.

Place in a dark, cool, place, shaking once a day for a couple of weeks until you see the sugar has dissolved.

Really, this should be allowed to infuse for six months before filtering through a muslin cloth into a clean bottle, then left to mature for another six months before drinking.  In reality, my batches have never made it to that ripe old age, and I tend to decant after three months and mature for another three.  Perhaps one day I shall have the willpower  needed to get to a finer finished product, and be aghast at my frivolous youthful impatience.

There will be more stories and recipes from the Wild Beehive (for we are named thus) coming soon.
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A bientôt.

Kieran.