Counting Sheep

I’m standing in the meadow behind the house, clutching a stack of buckets. Before venturing outside, I pulled on a pair of shorts and stepped into my wellingtons, leaving a gap for my knees to peek through so they are now wet with dew from the damp morning grass. Drops cling to my eyelashes and to my beard, though the rising sun will soon see them off.  I will gently steam dry in the warm butter-yellow early hour.  The chickens – six now, with two new arrivals – scratch at the ground in their pen, muttering about things I cannot see.  The chicken pen, my first attempt at construction, is beginning to collapse as the repeated besieging by five greedy sheep takes its toll.  I have patched up the wire where they have forced their way through either in an attempt to get in, to eat the chickens’ pellets, or to escape when I have used the pen to corral them when foot-trimming or treatment have been required.  Two of the wooden posts have come loose, and it is barely fit for purpose anymore.  I will have to rebuild, make it stronger.

I shake the buckets, a handful of oats in each, to tempt the sheep from their shelter.  They are bright white, freshly sheared.  A neighbour, half a mile down the lane, came and picked them up and took them to his farm, where he was shearing his flock.  They were herded into his trailer, fat woolly barrels, and were returned a few hours later lighter, smaller, cleaner.  With the temperatures reaching the low thirties some days, they are happier now, and there is less chance of fly-strike (a most unpleasant and painful affliction).  They bound through the long grass toward me.  Or, rather, toward the sound of rattling breakfast. 

They do not really need feeding in these long summer days.  The meadow provides more than enough forage for them; grass, clover, wild herbs, even thistle and dock fall to the relentless mash of teeth.  However, they are such skittish creatures that a daily beckon with the bucket helps to reinforce the association of man with food, and I am able to (eventually) steer them where I want them (nearly every time).  It also provides an opportunity for a close inspection each day, make sure they are in good health.  Eyebrows, the queen of the meadow, comes last, and slowly.  She is the oldest, at seven years.  When she arrived, last September, she was the biggest, the fastest, the nosiest, and the most stubborn.  She would stamp her foot at me if I approached with anything less than complete subservience (and some food).  She was both the easiest to handle, because she was not particularly scared of me, and the most difficult, because she was of her own mind, and stronger than me.

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Today, sheared and svelte, she moves slowly, a little stiffly.  She does not limp.  Her feet are fine, recently checked and gently trimmed where needed.  She eats with gusto, and grazes with the others, though often lies down when doing so.  She is not sick.  She is getting older.

The time is approaching to decide who to send to the abattoir.  To be killed, let’s not pretty it up.  The original plan, to keep the two older ewes along with one of the lambs to breed from, now seems less likely.  If Eyebrows is ageing, and struggling a little, should we put her in lamb?  Will she carry to term, safely for both her and her lamb (possibly twins, it’s common)?  If she finds it harder now to carry her own weight, how will she cope with the added weight of gestating unborns?  I don’t think it fair, or safe, to do this now.

Equally, we cannot afford to keep a pet sheep.  Winter feed costs, the inevitable mounting vet’s bills, with no financial return does not fit in our strict budget.  The cat is luxury enough (though she does help keep the mice at bay).  I know what needs to happen, if we are to see our ideas through and not end up going broke.  Emotionally and ethically, it is trickier.  I have allowed myself to grow attached to Eyebrows, as we planned to keep her on.  I am fond of her, if she is at best ambivalent to me.  And what gives me the right to end a life based on financial considerations?  Why is this different to sending the lambs to slaughter, as planned?  But it is, somehow.

I battle with these thoughts this morning, as the five sheep munch on their daily oats.  In my mind, I know I have made a decision.  Eyebrows will go, along with at least one of the younger sheep.  My heart rails against this.  This indecision is almost the worst part.  The worst part for me, I remind myself.  Whatever happens here, it will not happen to me.  It will happen to another living being.  Had we not taken her on, she would already have gone to slaughter.  We have given her more life, and a good life at that.  But does that justify whatever decision I make?

The sheep finish their breakfast, and wander off to graze in the brightening morning.  I collect up the buckets and walk back towards the house, to some tea and a towel for my knees.  Eyebrows lies down in the grass, grazing in front of her.  A dragonfly zips past my ear and barrels off across the meadow.  The birds sing, but I do not enjoy their song today. 

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The Apocalypse Pantry

It’s not the end of the world.  As I write this, I am listening to the radio, where sombre voices are speaking of madmen rattling their swords, about missiles, about poisoned eggs, about droughts, floods, forest fires.  Stay indoors.  Cover the windows, cover your eyes.  Be afraid. And I am afraid.

Yet, outside the open door, the sun shines, the swallows loop their exuberant loops, the tomatoes still ripen, and the cat, a cooler head than mine, licks her paws, caring not a jot for the news.  Not the end of the world, then.  Not today.

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At the back of the house there is a room that originally would have been the ‘summer kitchen’.  It would have had a sink, a dirt floor, a fire or oven, little else, and would have been used for cooking in the hot, dry summer months as a way of keeping the main house cool.  Ours has been ‘refurbished’, meaning the floor has been tiled and the walls have been papered, the main result of this being a good deal of dampness.  For the time being, until we get around to getting it back towards its original make-up (never), we are using it as a food store.  The shelves are filled with airtight tubs of dried wild mushrooms,  of canned tomatoes picked from the garden.  Pickles, jams blackcurrant syrup, nettle beer, brined green beans, dehydrated courgettes (and a bubbling demijohn of weird cloudy marrow ‘wine’ that will probably be a solitary pleasure).  It is not enough food to get us through a winter, let alone a nuclear one, though it is a start; we will be self-sufficient in tomatoes until the season is in full swing again next year.

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It is a whispered truth than there was an element of fear for the future in our decision to move towards a self-sufficient lifestyle.  (That’s not quite true.  ML is more positive than I am, and my dark mutterings about storing water, after one too many glasses of wine whilst listening to the radio news are, thankfully, counterbalanced by happier, more reasonable thoughts.)  If things do get difficult, here we are in a better position than most to weather the storm.  A well, chickens, sheep, fruit, vegetables, wild foods.  These may not be our salvation come the end times, but they are surely our salvation in any case. Connected to the land, to the creatures that roam and scuttle, to the sighing plants and, well, everything, we are happy, and healthy, and a part of things. Apocalypse or not.

 

 

The Hive, Part Three: Epilogue/Prologue.

The bees are dying.

All was, or seemed, well.  We had weeks where the bees were busy busy.  Collecting nectar, the clover in the field surrounding the hive a-buzz with 40,000 tiny beating wings.  Bringing in pollen, little globes of yellow and orange and chestnut brown attached to their legs as they arrived home from their forays.  Building comb, first white then yellow, filled slowly with honey and brood, alien geometry.  All the wild carrot species were in bloom, along with plenty more mid- to late-summer blossoms, a feast for the eyes and the insects.  We fed the bees a little sugar syrup to help them build their winter stores, as we had installed the swarm later in the season than was sensible due to delays from the breeder, and they lapped it up on overcast days or ignored it on sunny days.

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The weather has been changeable, very wet for a Burgundy summer, though with plenty of sun and heat interspersed with the storms.  This has limited the good foraging days for the bees (and for me, though it does mean mushrooms are popping up earlier than last year).  We have watched the bees intently, spending hours sat in front of the hive watching the comings and goings, trying to get a handle on what it all means, these waggles and leg-waves and circular flights.  They have been tolerant of our presence, only becoming antsy if we have taken friends to show them the colony and lingered too long.  All was, or seemed, well.

Then the daily activity on the landing board seemed to slow, little by little, until there were mornings, hot and bright, when the arrivals and departures were sluggish and sparse.  One afternoon, both of us in the field raking hay (wet, unusable, though we shall use it as a mulch for next year’s planned no-dig beds), there was a sudden fierce buzz. Approaching the hive, we saw hundreds of drone bees flying in tight loops.

Drone bees are the male bees; bigger, heavier than the workers, with domed eyes that meet at the top of the head like a crash helmet.  They have no sting.  They are the product of an unfertilised egg, meaning they have no father, only a mother.  If one traces back the number of genetic ancestors of a drone, a sequence is revealed; the Fibonacci sequence, that code that is found throughout nature, in the spiral of a shell, in the uncurling of a fern, numbers revealed in nature.  Drones have one job: to mate with a queen.  They do no foraging of nectar or pollen.  They do not nurse the larvae or tend to young bees.  They are all noise and sex.

Drones often fly in the afternoon, heading out to seek, and mate with, queens from other colonies, but we thought the number we were witnessing was rather large.  A quick look through the observation window revealed something worrying.  More drones, fewer obvious workers, and much more comb visible than normal, suggesting a general decline in numbers.  They were not dying of starvation, there was no obvious disease, no sign of varroa mites.  The possibility, which is today all but confirmed, was that we had lost the queen, that she had died, or been killed. When this happens, sometimes one of the worker bees will begin laying eggs, though these eggs are infertile, the worker never having mated (indeed she lacks the anatomy to do so).  These unfertilised eggs will only produce male drones, no workers, meaning that as the workers reach the end of their lifespans they are not replaced.  The population of the colony is not refreshed, the number of drones increases whilst the workers decrease. Eventually the hive becomes a male-only hive, and, as the males cannot reproduce or even feed themselves, they die.

The only way to confirm what was happening was to open the hive, which is not something recommended in natural beekeeping.  If we were to open the hive and see only drone brood, no worker larvae, this would be a definitive answer.  Our fear was that we might be wrong, that the queen may be alive and laying, and we were simply worrying because of our inexperience, bamboozled by the complexities of the bee society as we are.  Opening the hive, apart from being detrimental to the health of the colony, risks accidentally killing the queen.  Our very quest to save them might be their end.

We asked advice of other Warré beekeepers, which was mostly positive; the bees will be fine, don’t worry, keep an eye, don’t interfere.  So we did just that.  Watched.  Tried to not worry.  Watched and watched.

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A month on and the numbers of bees have reduced to the extent that we could count them, if that were not a macabre and depressing thing to do.  No pollen at all is being brought in by the few workers who are still going about their business.  Too many drones, smaller than they should be, are hanging from the comb in the hive, doing nothing.  Wasps and, we think, bees from nearby colonies are robbing the hive.  We have reduced the size of the entrance to make it easier to defend, but our bees seem disinterested in war, seem to have accepted the siege is lost.  We continue to feed them, now supplementing the sugar with pollen for protein, but every day there are fewer and fewer bees, more tiny corpses, and ML and me look at each other and despair.  ML sits by the hive in the evening sun, swatting at invaders.  I visit the hive less and less; it is too sad.  It feels as if we are presiding over a dying planet, witnessing the end of the world, and this is true, for the bees.

Did we do something wrong?  Possibly.  Could we have intervened?  Yes, but our interventions would have been unlikely to succeed this late in the year, and we are of the mind that if, as seems inevitable, the bees are on their way out it should be because of the natural rhythm of things rather than a clumsy, misguided helping hand.  Are we wrong about all this?  We have talked it over for hours.  I am still unsure.  And it is too late, in any case.

There are many positive things that have happened.  We have been laboriously dealing with a glut of tomatoes, green beans,  and courgettes.  We have canned the tomatoes, either simply chopped and cooked down, or then passed through a sieve and reduced to make a sweet, intense puree, and we have stored enough to last us until next summer. The courgettes we have frozen or sliced and dehydrated in the hot August sun.  Our aubergines and carrots have been a success, and a revelation in terms of flavour.  We have bought no vegetables for two months now, and have been eating well.  The chickens, odd birds, grumble and scratch and lay four eggs, every day.  This evening we are going to look at some sheep, with a view to buying two ewes along with their four lambs.  We’ll keep the ewes for breeding, and raise the lambs on for a year or so for hogget.  Our first meat animals, which raises a whole new set of questions and feelings. Sheep, less inscrutable than bees.  New lives coming in as others fade.

We will not give up.  We’ll start a new bee colony next year, learning from our observations and errors of this year to, hopefully, help create a strong colony.  This is our first real experience of failure, and it is not sweet.  But next year we will get it right.

The queen is dead.  Long live the queen.

 

The Hive, Part One: A Boot Full of Bees.

Note: bees are complicated, wildly so.  I am not an expert, not even close, and much of what follows is knowledge I have gleaned from books and courses, and some is still controversial in the beekeeping world.  I have provided links to further reading for those that wish it.  I cannot take responsibility for external links.  I do not really see myself as a beekeeper.  I own a hive that bees live in. I am more of a bee-landlord, who will collect rent only if the tenants can afford it.

We had hoped the bees would arrive earlier.  We wanted to source a swarm locally, so the bees already knew their way around, where the best flowers were, and were already acclimatised to the weather and the landscape.  Sadly this proved impossible, so we ordered a swarm of bees with a mated queen from a breeder near Colmar, up by the border with Germany.  Inclement weather had delayed the swarm season; March became April, April turned to May, wild flowers bloomed and wilted away, and still we waited.

Last year we went on a weekend natural beekeeping course, when we were still living in Bristol.  Run by the hugely knowledgable and lovely Heather and Tim from Bee the Change , it was an inspirational couple of days, with a lot of biology, natural history, and tales of beekeeping traditions around the world, such as Polish tree-hives.  It really opened our eyes to the idea of beekeeping for the sake of the bees, not for honey.  Bee decline has been in the news for years now, with much being made of the use of neonicotinoids on crops.  Whilst this is almost certainly part of the problem, it is much more complicated than this.

The bee is a mystery that humans have tried to solve for millennia, and has been deeply involved in the folklore, religion, medicine, even politics, of societies from ancient Egypt onwards (perhaps even earlier).  For centuries it was thought (typically) that the queen was a king. It was thought that bees were generated, spontaneously, from the flesh of dead oxen.  There are still aspects of bee behaviour and biology that are not understood, though we manipulate and spray and confine and hurl chemicals about, and are flummoxed by colony collapse, by bees simply disappearing in their millions.

In natural beekeeping, chemical treatments are not used, the hive is opened as little as possible (if ever), honey is only taken if there is truly a surplus (if ever).  There is growing evidence that bees self medicate using nectar and pollen from specific flowers, even utilising some fungi.  The varroa mite (Varroa destructor), a parasite that feeds on  the bodily fluids of bees and their young and spreads diseases such as deformed-wing virus, has been shown to be present in lower levels in hives that are left undisturbed.  It is certainly true that, so far, our bees seem to be free of both varroa and disease.

The phone rang, early on a Saturday morning.  ML spoke to a gruff gentleman who told us he had our bees, and we could collect them.  The breeder sends out lorries, full of bees, across the whole of France, where the boxes are deposited at collection points to await their new keepers.  Our collection point was an hour away, so we jumped in the car and headed off, still slightly bleary-eyed, nervous, excited.  We had talked of this day for a year now, and here it was, here they were – bees.

We arrived at the collection point, which turned out to be the basement of a house.  The gruff gentleman, still gruff, took us in to a room where there were around two dozen small wooden boxes, all a-buzz with the sound of wings.  He handed us our swarm, contained in one of these boxes; 10,000 bees and a can of sugar syrup to keep them fed on their journey.  The queen came in a separate small plastic cage, accompanied by three attendants (she cannot fend for herself at all) and a small piece of candy as a travel snack.  We signed for the package, bid a (gruff) farewell to the gentleman, popped the box and the queen-cage in the boot, got in the car, and stared at each other as the car filled with a loud, low vibration.  Then we pootled off in the early morning sun, an hour down country lanes with a boot full of bees.

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We had prepared our hive (a Warré type) by carefully running lines of beeswax along the bars at the top, in hope that the bees would use this as a template for their honeycomb.  We had sanded the wood of the boxes to remove any small splinters and rough edges.  We had applied a couple of layers of linseed oil against the elements, and had rubbed the inside of the whole thing with grass to make it smell more ‘natural’, less of nervous human.  We sited it in the field, and I made a windbreak by weaving together branches from a friend’s English lime tree that he had given us last year after pruning. We planted flowering herbs, sunflowers, and pots of other blossoms. We’d live here, we thought, and hoped the bees felt the same; there is a danger, in the first couple of weeks, that the swarm will decide this is not the place for them, and disappear.

The weather was far from ideal – rain and wind had arrived.  When we got home with our buzzing box, we decided to wait for a break the clouds, if it came.  I sprayed the outside of the package with sugar syrup to make sure the bees would not starve (they had likely finished the syrup in the can), and thousands of tiny tongues began to lap at the mesh of the cage.  I placed the box, and the queen-cage, in our pantry, which is dark and cool and would keep the bees calm.  A while later the sun was peeking, the time had come.

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There are a couple of ways to hive a swarm.  One is to empty the bees, by banging the box, on to a ramp that leads up to the hive entrance.  The bees then (in theory) march up the ramp and into the hive.  Another is to open the hive and pour the bees in directly. Both involve placing the queen-cage in the hive first, where the bees, once in, will eat through a small plug of candy to release the queen.  This is important, as the queen is not ‘their’ queen, is genetically distinct, and may be rejected by the swarm if they are not given time to get used to her, to accept her as theirs.  I had thought, being a softy, that both these methods were a bit violent, with danger of squashing a number of bees and angering the others, so we had researched other ways to do it.  One was to simply pop open the package of bees and place the whole thing into one of the hive boxes, put the roof on, and leave it for a couple of days, coming back to remove the package once the bees had made their way out.  This was not possible for us, as the package of bees was bigger than the brood-boxes of our Warré hive.  Another was to place the package underneath a brood-box with a hole in between, sealed so that the bees could move between package and hive, but not out of the hive.  We plumped for this method, feeling (hoping) that the bees were more likely to choose to stay, without the shock of being shaken.  We suited up, two astronauts wandering the the land with a box full of thousands of tiny aliens.  I lit the smoker, working the bellows to produce puffs of cool white smoke.  I popped the lid off the cage, removed the can of syrup, and placed the cage under one of the brood-boxes, a piece of wood between with a hole cut in it to serve as a connection.  And suddenly the air was full of bees.

They had found a way out, the seal I had made was not, in fact, a seal.  A few drops of rain began to fall, and we had to move fast, decide what to do.  The only option left was to pour the bees into the hive, so I banged the cage on the ground (squash) to concentrate the bees in one corner, and I poured, a great stream of wings and legs, and the sound, the sound was immense, almost a roar.  Banging the box again (squish), I tipped more bees into the hive, and the majority of the swarm was now in the brood-box, with others flying in circles around us, above us, landing on our suits, there were bees everywhere. ML placed the roof on the hive, gently brushing away any bees in the way, and I leant the cage against the entrance, hoping any stragglers would make their own way in.

This was not how it was supposed to go.  We had shaken the bees violently, we had squashed perhaps dozens with our clumsiness; vision and movement restricted by our suits.  We were worried that the bees, annoyed, angered by our inept attentions, would leave, seeking alternative digs.  The rain was coming in now, the light slipping away, and there was little else we could do, so we retreated inside, drank wine, waited for the next day and better weather to check the bees, to see if they were even still there.  All this planning, all this investment of money and work and worry, all those tiny lives, all for nothing?

Next time – Part Two: Tea With the Queen.

Locavore Magazine.

Some exciting news – in between wrangling chickens and running away from wasps, I am going to be writing a regular column for Locavore Magazine.  “Who?” I hear you cry. Well, in their own words:

“Locavore is an editorial-led magazine, defined by beautiful photography and intelligent writing. Firmly based in the British Isles, we’ll also roam the world for the best local food stories and the most inspiring people.

Locavore will explore how food is found, grown, prepared and served. We’ll meet foragers, farmers, artisans, teachers and cooks, and learn about their ideas and what motivates them. We’ll discover flavour, variety, method, tradition and ritual.

We’ll look at community projects, networks and campaigns, and investigate the science and effects of modern agriculture and production. We’ll explore food philosophies that put the land, consumer and animal first and contrast these with a globalised food system that homogenises taste and commodifies nature.  And we’ll examine food security and sovereignty within a changing climate.

At 132 pages and perfectly bound, Locavore will be published quarterly and printed to a high eco-standard. It’s available via individual issue sale and subscription. The first issue will be published in March 2017, priced at £8.

Not just another trendy foodies’ magazine, we want Locavore to be the journal of local food, telling stories of slow, seasonal and sustainable eating, engaging in debate and delivering images and writing of the highest quality.”

Which sounds, well, marvellous.

If you should want to subscribe, or buy a copy of the first issue, I can offer a 10% discount. Simply head to http://locavoremagazine.co/shop/ and use the code loc01kj3104 when checking out.  This offer is valid until midnight on 30th April 2017.

Right, off to carry on planting shallots.

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Spring.

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.

Booze.

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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