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October, 2006:

The owls are not what they seem

In honour of our resident Owl population and in particular this little fellow who has been paying us a visit every few days since we bailed him out of trouble earlier in the year.. our Halloween theme this year was.. spooky Owls.

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If at first you don’t succeed, trap, trap again

We live on the very edge of a river valley and often take walks along/around the river – it’s quite beautiful throughout all of the seasons and is peppered with little crossings and stepping stones and lovely picnic sites.

Aerial shot of Bellebouche and the River Thouet

In that shot our house is blown up (!) on the top left and you can see the distance we are from the river… as the crow flies it’s probably little more than a kilometre but it does involve a little bit of a meander through the gatine to get to it! In summertime it’s no hardship at all as we’re normally surrounded by sunflowers or wafty fields of maize and docile Charolais all batting their giant eyelids at you. I’m reminded that I should get out on my bike more often.

Some time ago whilst clearing out the old grain loft in the house I came across a ramshackle home-brewed eel trap – I pretty much put it to the back of my mind but always thought that it would be worth having a crack at it sometime. We bumped into our neighbours in town (who own the land which has much of the river frontage you can see in the picture above) and over a coffee I was reminded about the eel trap. A brief discussion about the (seemingly remote!) possibilities of an eel supper ensued so we arranged to give it a whirl.

Homemade eel trap

Without much further ado, the trap was dusted down, given some TLC and minor repairs and then loaded up with a bit of bait (trimmings from beef rib, chicken carcass, bit of squid!) and then off down to the river with it.

We found what looked like a first rate spot.. adjacent to the bank, some reasonably deep water… flow directed down between a couple of large granite boulders… just the ticket we hoped for a bountiful harvest.. all that remained was to pop back the next day to bag up our supper.

Fast forward 24 hours… and bristling with anticipation at a sackful of wriggling silvery eels… that would within the hour be sizzling in a pan loaded with garlic butter and fresh chopped parsley and sorrel from the garden… Joan and I trotted down to the river to get the catch of the day.. and lo and behold.. MOVEMENT!

I pulled the trap up and couldn’t quite believe my eyes…. I thought we’d bagged one. There were quite a few leaves cladding the outside of the trap but I was certain I saw an eel in there… further investigation and brave prodding turned out to find that our catch of the day wasn’t quite what we’d planned

Not quite catch of the day - a catfish!

So, that little fellow went back into the river and this fishing expedition was chalked right up there with all my other non-productive fishing expeditions.. a triumph of hope and optimism over any real achievement but undoubtedly lots of fun. I have a fallback position, our fishmonger in town has splendid looking eels for €18/Kg. If nothing else transpires on our return visit to the trap later this week then I’ll be forced to swallow my pride and actually buy one. It wasn’t a total loss.. we did bag a carrier full of excellent parasol mushrooms which are a fine accompaniment to the latest batch of Bellebouche dry cured bacon… of which, much more later.

Lobster phone, melting clocks and silly moustaches

This is another little insight into the history of where we came from both physically and intellectually (… well mentally).

During a much needed holiday – this day in 1992 – we visited a tourist attraction in Florida – no not Disney, nor Universal Studios, not even Busch Gardens – although during the holiday we did visit each of these but – on this actual day in 1992 – we visited the Dali Museum in St Petersburg.

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Something of a departure

Joan has – without fail – kept a daily written journal for the last 30 odd years… and as we’re now finally unpacking boxes and moving rooms around here we found them and have spent a couple of evenings reliving some of the funnier things we’d been up to in the past… they’re a treasure-trove of delights and stuffed with some worthy source material for the odd blog entry.

Now, our usual fayre here involves renovating the old buildings, gardening, livestock, my kitchen exploits and all things rural and French.. but.. it wasn’t always so. For the casual reader who probably doesn’t know us that well here’s a little slice of the backstory that ultimately led to a life in France.

So, in this, the first of an infrequent series of random blasts from the past on the anniversary of 25th October 1989… the one where Adrian never ended up working for the BBC.

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When in Rome…

As one cultivation year draws to a close… the planning for the next gets underway.

Mind you, talk of this year finishing is somewhat premature as we’ve still got plenty of produce growing away merrily out in the garden but some crops are finishing now and I’ve just finished pulling up the last of our Pumpkins, Butternuts and Gem Squash.

My previous attempts at growing garlic have met with mixed success. My usual trick is to just plant up shop bought bulbs and hope for the best. I tried a couple of varieties last year… a small stiff necked white garlic – which did very well and larger ‘ail rose‘ French garlic which sadly all failed.

50 odd cloves of each should have given me well over a hundred heads of garlic. Not so.. we only achieved half of that and since it was harvested over the summer I’ve gone through probably half of my annual crop.

A Sample of the 2006 harvest

So, following on from some helpful tips and advice, I’m keeping back the very best of what remains (that’s it above), to try and develop a specific Bellebouche strain of this garlic… it clearly does well in our soil and the best of this generation were all significantly larger than the starter seed I used. I’d hope that over time I’ll develop something unique to our terroir.

But, lesson learned… I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket, so this year I’ve put my hand in my pocket and actually bought some proper seed as well. We’re fortunate to have excellent availability of plenty of seed cultivars in the regular supermarkets here – they after all serve the needs of their customers and as so many people in rural France maintain their own little potager it’s all done at very reasonable prices. Here’s the Onion sets / garlic I’ve bought in for planting up this autumn..

Start digging!
  • Top Left. 2x 500g of ‘Stuttgart’ sets. An everyday cooking onion.
  • Bottom Left. 500g of ‘Snowball’ onions. I’m planning on densely planting most of these for a slightly smaller bulb size – for pickling!
  • Centre Top. 500g Violet garlic – ‘Germidrome’
  • Centre Bottom. 500g White garlic – ‘Thermidorme’
  • Top Right 500g Shallots ‘Jermor’ a normal long cooking type shallot.
  • Bottom Right Shallots ‘Griselle’. These produce a subtle/sweeter type of shallot that’s good raw in a simple dressing for a tomato salad.

And a better shot of the two types of garlic head – they’re both quite large.

up close garlic seed

I’ll also continue to raise onions from seed although these never seem to do quite as well as sets.. fine for spring onions but they never quite bulk up the way sets do.

Time to get digging!

Our last crop of plum tomatoes, half a bracket fungus and an outdoor candle later …..

….. our Turkish powerlifter pig had the trots !!

The escapee had broken through the fence, leaving the smaller pink pig behind and discovered our potager and orchard. This all happened while we were out visiting Poitiers. Said animal was happy as the proverbial pig in the you know what and squealed with pleasure on our return. After coaxing the pig back into his pen and re-uniting him with his chum we surveyed the damage.

The main victim was our lovely roma plum tomatoes, there were no whole fruit left, and some of the plants had been pulled up. The other tomatoes escaped total decimation although the marmande and ailsa craig did look a little sorry for themselves. A huge bracket fungus on our old espalier apple tree had a huge bite out of it and a large outdoor candle had been devoured.

We were worried at first that the pig would become really ill after eating all this but the only side effect was an icky tummy. The pair of them troughed down their dinner as if nothing had happened.

Needless to say, the fencing was reinforced and looking on the positive side, parts of the potager, orchard and flower beds have been fertilised and the brassicas were all untouched.

Q. Why does a Frenchman only have one egg for Breakfast?

A. Because one egg is an oeuf!

Or so goes the joke told to us on a daily basis by our lovely four year old nephew Alex when he visited at Easter time!

So, here’s the tale… Joan put out a message on a local web forum that we were on the hunt for some windfall apples. We’ve got two hungry mouths to feed and although they’re eating like kings we do try and vary their diet as much as possible. A few people responded so we nipped out to collect some from a lovely family nearby. They had just two trees but an over abundance of fruit that was going spare… so 138kg later..

You wouldn’t like some chickens would you?

US: ooh yes please!

So that’s it, three layers and a cockerel. Should keep us in eggs for a while and baby chicks can’t be too far behind. Certainly judging by the performance of the cock at least as his prinicpal preoccupation appears to be strutting about and then leaping onto the unsuspecting females with no warning. Eggscelent!

We popped them in their chicken home and put them to bed making sure that they were comfortable (swiftly constructed nest boxes) and that they had sufficient perches for roosting.

I was so excited at the prospect of a genuine Cock-a-doodle-doo I went to bed early, got up at five am this morning and opened the window of the bedroom and sat waiting for the anouncement that the sun was coming up… sure as eggs-is-eggs.. 5:58am. COCKADOODLEDOO, roundly followed by peels of laughter.

Well, at least I was laughing, Joan was not amused.

Our First Egg!

Taking them their mid morning plate of veg peelings, blitzed up ciabata, mixed grains and some ground up oyster shells… we were rewarded with the first egg! So, that’s it.. we’ve now got free range eggs on the menu chez bellebouche… just the perfect accompaniment to home dry cured bacon and a few peppery sage flavoured pork bangers!

Edible Dormouse ….. yes really !!!

Last night we were woken by a noise not dissimilar to a rat in steel toe-capped boots dancing around on the ceiling above our bedroom – well Ok not quite. The noise was of falling masonry which Adrian had previously mended. So, after loading up a mouse trap with peanut butter and putting it on one of the beams upstairs we went back to sleep.

This evening, while Adrian was working on the computer in the bedroom he heard a crash upstairs. After an investigation, he came down exclaiming “what the (use your imagination) is this?“. He was holding up a huge fluffy rodent that I can only describe as a small fluffy grey squirrel like animal, about the size of a small fluffy grey squirrel!

Now, a few weeks ago, whilst spending a pleasant afternoon with some female expats, one mentioned the noise that dormice had been making in her loft while “skateboarding and partying” – the dormice not her. At the time I thought it a little odd that dormice, cute tiny creatures, would make such a noise.

So, when Adrian waved the fluffy creature at me, I went and investigated on the internet. Lo and behold – it was a dormouse – an Edible Dormouse! (Glis glis) – yes they can be eaten ….. no … not by us! They were kept in clay pots and fattened up on chestnuts and acorns and eaten by the Romans. They are still classed as a delicacy in some regions and are mainly found in southern and central Europe.

More investigation and I found that they are not native to Britain but are found in small regions of the Chiltern Hills where they had been introduced from Hungary. They are also designated as near threatened by the IUCN – which after informing Adrian – made him feel awful and I was told to stop tormenting him.

Coing! Coing!

Our ancient Quince has had three significant ‘renovation’ standard prunings to date and this years harvest has proved to be.. much improved!

The tree form
Ready to pick

I’ve only got about half of them off so far.. but they’re the best half.

up inside the crown

Contrast this with last years single 10litre bucket full… and it just shows what a bit of TLC can do to even an old past-its-best tree… so far 35Kg to process!

35Kg.. and counting

So, friends and family… plenty of Quince jellies in everyones Christmas basket this year!

Recipe to follow

Normal service resumes

It’s a long story, but the punchline is… I’m on the hunt for a new, somewhat more reliable webhost whose database servers are not run by chimps.

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