Builders and Beehives

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.

What We Learned From the Flood.

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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Mushrooms.

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 and the Egg.

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.