Friday 30 September 2016

The last cheese......

Upon observing the rather large tummy and 'tight like a drum' udder of Lissie this morning, it came to me that I really ought to get myself moving with sorting out the cheese making equipment. Days are passing, and soon her calf will be here and then I shall be awash with milk. OK, a  bit of an exaggeration, but once Lester starts milking then I shall once again feel two steps behind myself as I try to keep up with the processing of that milk. 'I can do it' I keep telling myself, and of course I can because this is my third (I think) season of milk.
So in an effort to make a start with the Milk Project, I plucked up the courage to look inside the cheese fridge, whose door had not been opened for many a week / month. I was expecting much mould and whiffy odours, but no, the interior looked quite clean and there were no odours at all.
But sat forlornly on the middle shelf was this:

Now I knew that there was one last cheese wheel left, but thought that by now it would have gone 'off', but I had to have a look anyway, so I unpeeled the lard and muslin wrapper, et voila!

One reasonably pristine wheel of cheese, but shame about the state of the work surface it is sitting on, which is covered in flour and pastry. Now all I needed to do was get the cheese cut in two and have a taste. Now when a cheese comes out into the air after being wrapped up for a long time it tends to have a strong, sharp, taste, which is almost acidic which immediately has me thinking that it has gone 'off', so Lester has to be the tester for first time tasting. His verdict? That it was a nice cheese. As a reward I then made him a sandwich out of the DIY cheese, DIY butter, and DIY bread.
So this is the last cheese from the last milking season. It would seem that lard and muslin work as a good wrap, so nor more fussing with salt brines or cheese wax which should make cheese making less complicated for me.

Both cows are due to calve in the next week or so. Meanwhile, Lester thinks that he will have to go to the UK to get another car as ours is due for its French MOT and will probably fail miserably. The cars in the UK are vastly cheaper than the ones here in France, although the steering wheel is on the 'wrong' side. He will be away for at least a week. I shall be in charge of the farm.
Bye for now,

Thursday 29 September 2016

Jus de Raisins

So what do you do if you are driving along a country road in SW France,
and the road does some twists and curls,
and then you see a warning sign saying
'Jus de Raisins' quickly slow down, that is what you do,
  because you don't want to drive into a sludge of grapes (raisins in French) lying on the road,
just waiting for you to do a grand skid on,
which will do neither your nerves or your car any good at all.
The annual wine harvest is underway, and motorists in the wine region of south western France, which is our region, have been urged to take precautions
due to the unusual hazard of spilled grape juice.
We often come across large spillages of maize grains during the maize harvest,
as the over filled trucks take the maize from the fields to the grain silos,
but they do not present a hazard,
but I do know that driving into a spillage of mushed up grapes from an overladen truck going from vineyard to the wine presses of the domaines, does not bode well
because I heard of someone who did actually drive into such a spillage.
She said that it was not an experience  she would never want to have ever again in her life.
And another lovely day today,
and starting to get an idea of what we are going to be doing on the smallholding in the future.
I had a sort of flash of inspiration this morning when I woke up,
which has made us quite enthused about the future here.
We need to earn a living here, but we do not want to be swimming in lots of money,
just enough to pay our way, but we need to be motivated.
Drifting about from day to day is all very well,
but it can become a habit if it goes on for too long,
so the inspiration I had this morning has quite woken us up to new possibilities,
.... a sort of feeling that pieces of a jigsaw were falling into place.
Simply put, the inspiration I had was to open a 'Produits de la Ferme',
or 'Farm Shop' here.
Feeling excited, but dazed at the same time because there is a lot to do,
I am going to have a little nap to recuperate!
Bye for now,

Wednesday 28 September 2016

View from from my kitchen window........

River mists, not cold yet, nor frosty, just gently chilly, telling us that the year is marching on. Yesterday I sat outside on the front door step and did some spinning,
and watched the weather starting to change. It was fascinating to see the minute by minute changes as autumn crept closer. It was nice to take time out. Not that I have been particularly busy anyway, just pottling along at the moment, enjoying the still warm weather, knowing that soon  I shall be wrapped up in woolly winter clothing.
And straight from the grape vines......
........ of the man who provides us with the wood for our Rayburn stove.
We are OK for wood this winter now, but the store for next winter needs to be bought in so it can dry out. We shall be cutting some dead trees from our woodland, but not yet, other things to do first.
So our wood man took us round his vineyard, snipping bunches of grapes here and there, several different types, the smallest grape being the most meltingly sweet grape I have ever tasted.
We were never going to eat all these grapes before they rotted because they do not have preservatives sprayed on them to keep them fresh, so I thought I would a go at dehydrating them.
Trouble is, that these grapes have pips in which have to be got out first, and gosh but this was a fiddly job. Took ages, .... had to slice open the grape and then search out the pip (sometimes one, sometimes two) with my fingers. I haven't been playing the piano or accordion lately so my finger nails were quite long, which came in handy for fishing around in the pulp of the grape for the pips, but this was only for the larger grapes. The very small grapes I gave up on. I had spent enough time on the project, and needed to go do other things. In other words, I was getting bored!

Into the dehydrator over night. Got up in the early hours to make a visit to the loo, did a side track to visit the dehydrator to see how the grapes were doing, took a morsel of grape to see what it tasted like, was so bowled over by the explosion of taste that happened in my mouth, that I then spend another hour getting the fiddly little  black grapes, which I had given up on, into the dehydrator as well. I eventually ended up will all nine trays filled, after which I went back to bed. It was four o'clock in the morning.
I have broken my rule of not using any canned, frozen, or dehydrated produce from this current season until the clocks change in late October. This means that there can be a 'down' time when I don't have much to variety in the larder, although there is a fully stocked larder which I ban myself from using. So the other day I needed to make a cake. Didn't have time to rummage in my cupboard of stored dehydrated fruit and veg ( I am waiting for a rainy day to sort that untidyness out!)
A jumbly cupboard of dehydrates!
..... so I did a raid on the nearest dried fruit I had on hand, which just so happened to be the cooling trays of now dehydrated grapes, thereby breaking my rule of not using newly processed produce until the seasons had changed. Of course I could save the rest of the dried grapes but that is unlikely. They are delicious. They will be used up quickly.
Ah, but now the sun has broken through the mist, and the day is calling me. Lester is brimming with frustration about how he is supposed to fix the gate to one of the cow pens, the one which Bonny broke last year, and I had better get on to making the goat meat curry which I was supposed to get going early on this morning so the flavours would all mix and mingle, which they won't now because it is now only an hour away from lunch time!
Bye for now,

Saturday 24 September 2016

Thoughts about rabbits......

Before 2008, and still in England:

Little rabbits, my oh my but how cute they are, with their long velvety ears, and fluffy, cuddly bodies, that is what I thought when Lester first mentioned that we should keep rabbits,
but not as pets but as meat for the table when we eventually moved to our smallholding in France.  And oh what a fuss I made, no, I did not think it a good idea at all.
'Rabbits are for pets, not for eating' that is what I said.
2010, and now in France:

So what do you do when an English neighbour comes calling, together with the two rabbits that she said that she had mentioned to Lester a few days ago as needing a home.
Not wanting to put a downer on things, if you were me you don't say anything,
but neither do you take much interest, that's what you do.
And then you become sensible and supportive to your husband, because his belief is that rabbits would make a good supplement to a homesteader's food table, and you are a team, so you stop making a fuss and accept his decision.
But, where to put them, and here is where they went....
against one of the courtyard walls....
(the fig tree is on the right)
...and what to put them in....
Concrete clapiers, that is where rabbits are housed here in France,
so Lester went and found one from somewhere or other,
and then had a grand time trying to assemble it.
.... and finished!

The Rabbit Project then took off,
and soon we had another two clapiers the other side of the fig tree,
plus lots of rabbits to put in them.
..... but eventually we made our first rabbit tractor so that the rabbits could be put out on to the field,
which we felt was a more natural environment for them. 

Unfortunately all our rabbits died of myxomotosis just as the tractor was finished, and that ended our enthusiasm for keeping rabbits for a long time.
'Taken from the blog of Sept 2012: And a sadness:
Of the fourteen original rabbits, thirteen have now succombed to myxomotosis. One, therefore, remains. She has just had babies. She also now has myxi.
Don't know whether to end her life, or not just yet. It is quite heartbreaking to see the squirmy little ones who will no doubt have been infected by their mum. Ending their lives is going to be very, very hard. So we do nothing at the moment, just watch, hoping for a miracle which we don't really think is going to happen.
Such is the life on a homestead,
the heart sometimes works overtime coping with it all.'
Although the smallest animals the rabbits are the ones most prone to fatal diseases, and then there is the tendency for the female rabbits to tear their young to pieces for no reason that we could ever see. Picking up little bits of legs, heads, and bodies, is not the most pleasant of tasks.

But on the whole, we missed having rabbits on the farm and so December 2015 saw us with another couple of rabbits, although we did not expect much from them. But surprisingly they quickly became parents and, as is the nature of rabbits, by May 2016 their numbers had multiplied to twenty.

However, a change of plan, mostly because we did not like having to keep the rabbits in the concrete cages, and thought they were more deserving of a better environment in which to live.
The plan was that the clapiers were to be broken up, which has been done, and a new set of runs, taller and longer that the concrete ones, will be built, but that is a future project, as is the  making of new rabbit tractors so they can be put out on the field during the day. 
One thing we have learnt, though, is that rabbits breed better during the winter and spring here in France, possibly because of lower temperatures and the lack of flying insects, so we shall encourage winter breeding in the future.
Meanwhile, we are gradually putting the rabbits in the freezer. Slaughtering animals is never a pleasant task to do, but the reality of life on a farm is that it has to be done if meat is to come on to the table. But the animals are loved and cared for, they are not pets, but are part of the cycle of life here, and therefore have our deepest respect for what they give us.
All the rabbits are now in the freezer.

September 2016

So, our thoughts on keeping rabbits, are:
- they can be prone to fatal diseases, but the possibility of that happening seems to have lessened after having successfully bred rabbits during winter and early spring.
- rabbit meat is the best meat we have had here, even better than chicken.
- I would probably not keep rabbits if I was on my own. They might be lovely to look at but the nature of the animal is something else.
- Lester was right in that rabbits are an excellent way of providing meat for a family living on a small farm. They breed fast, and come to a good size faster than chickens. They are quicker to skin and butcher than chickens as well.
All in all, we shall keep on having rabbits here at Labartere in the future.
They are worth the effort even if their health can sometimes be delicate.

Meanwhile, the courtyard is now free of rabbits, geese and chickens. It does feel like we are taking a step backwards at the moment, but sometimes you have to do that before you can move forward.

Next step is cutting back the enormous fig tree,
and then we can start working on the ground works.
A potager is intended for this area.
Bye for now,

Saturday 10 September 2016

It has rained!

Delivered by a long thunder storm yesterday evening,
which eased so much tension from the air that I suddenly felt a million times better than how I have been feeling over the last few days.
And it has got chilly enough at night for the rottweiller girls not to want to go outside during the night. Last night Maz wanted to go to the loo, Blue followed her as far as the front door but got no further as the cold night air wafted over her. They are such ladies, these rottweiller girls. They like their home comforts, as do the cows who will  have to start being brought back into their own overnight accommodation because they have taken over the sheep barn and will not let the sheep into it,  horning them to keep out should they try to get shelter. The cows and sheep have been out in the field all summer, with access to the sheep barn during the day if the flies or heat are a bother to them. But cooler nights have meant that the cows want to stay under cover, which is why they are bullying the sheep in to having to stay outside, which has been alright during this long dry spell, but now the rain is hovering around something has to be done.
Lester's job today is to clear out the rest of the manure from the cow pens, and put new straw down ready for the cows to be brought in tonight, and so the winter cycle of their care begins, which reminds me that I need to have a look at my supplies of cheese and yoghurt cultures as another season of cheese making is on its way.
I think it is a good idea that we have the calves at the start of winter. To make cheese and manage the processing of the vegetable and meat harvests would, I think, be just a little too much for me, but now the vegetable harvests are finished, which only leaves the meat harvest from this years lambs still to be done, which should leave space in the day to get the cheese made.
But a problem with the cheese....I have found that it is difficult to store it long term, especially the hard cheeses like Cheddar and Parmesan. This may be because I refuse to use animal rennet which help sets the milk into curds and whey, but instead I use vegetable rennet. The animal rennet comes from the stomach of new born calves. It is the traditional and commercial method of making cheese, but I can't bring myself to use it. There must be a difference between the two types of rennet which is giving me a problem with storing hard cheese. Not to worry, the solution is that I don't make hard cheese! But the semi hard cheese does alright, providing the cheese wheels are not allowed to mature beyond six months at the most. I am also thinking I might have a go at Brie and Camembert this season.
Meanwhile, I have been making some underpants for Lester, himself preferring the wide soft floppiness of DIY underwear to that of the commercially made pants, which, he says, confine him too much and scratch him in places he does not want to be scratched. I personally would prefer to be making some patchwork curtains for the kitchen, which is I think is far more creative.
Onwards with the day,
and hope it is a good one for us all.
Bye for now,

Friday 9 September 2016

We are still in slow mode here......

We are still on slow down here,
with the hot and humid weather encouraging us not to want to do much.
In some ways this is good, as it is giving us a much needed rest,
but we are getting fed up with not being able to get things done.
No rain for a long time now.
This has been a very long hot summer.
But the tomatoes continue to flourish.
They seem to like being neglected even though they have not been watered for a long time.
I skinned and dehydrated these.
Meanwhile, Lester has been putting away his Kubota tractor and implements for the winter....
... and been bringing in to the courtyard four hay bales which a neighbour had kindly donated....
They are now under cover, and should last until late November.
The cows are getting bigger udders, and will have their calves soon,
so they will be brought in each night rather than being left out in the field all the time.
It has been a good summer for them, but grazing is non existent at the moment,
so Lester has started giving them hay. They have been also having a grain supplement for several weeks. They are looking good, our house cows.....
.... and one of the old bales of straw being moved round to the veg paddocks...

....... it just about stayed in one piece until it got there!
Not to worry, the dogs enjoyed rummaging through the straw for little things,
like rats, mice, etc....
And the log pile, covered over and done for this year,
One of these years we hope to get a better storage facility for the wood,
but for the moment tarps will have to do,
they might not look very pretty, but they do the job of keeping the wood dry.
All that is left to do is getting the kindling cut up and stored.
And already we have to be thinking about the 2017 winter supply of wood!
Saying bye for now,

Friday 2 September 2016

Chickens: O Geese: O

And so it came to be the day when we no longer could cope with living so close to the geese and the chickens. For eight years we have shared our immediate outside space with first the chickens, and then the geese, but that was alright because the courtyard space was also full of builders stuff, of piles of bricks, wood, and general buildery messiness so the chickens and geese sort of fitted in with the general chaos. This was also reflected in the house, which at first was just roof, windows, or floors.... and then this work was done and we moved in but still the house was as chaotic as the courtyard space.

And it was an enjoyable experience learning the ways of chickens. Living so close to them gave us an opportunity to learn that every living being has their own characteristics, and therefore must be respected and not thought as less than us because they are 'just animals'. The chickens taught us about the cycle of life, that it takes but just a minute for life to end....memories of accidentally dropping the food bowl on a little chick which moved underneath it just as I was putting it on the ground comes to mind. Life to death in just a instant. And the delight of putting eggs in the incubator and watching them hatch, which forever changed my way of thinking about what is inside an egg, and also gave me a healthy dislike for commercially produced eggs. And the even better delight of watching hens with their young chicks, fussing and cooing round them, teaching them about what to eat, and how to get up into the fig tree to roost for the night. There was a temporary chicken hut but most of the chickens preferred to roost up the fig tree, which they would do even in the harshest of winter weather. I remember giving them some porridge one morning so they could warm up, their backs being covered over with a light frosting of snow.

And the 'honour guard' of hens which stayed close to a well loved cockerel as he died. And the endless habits and attitudes which cockerels had towards each other and the hens, and the way in which hens can be vicious towards each other, but can also be kind. All of this we learnt in the time of having chickens in the courtyard.

As for the geese, these were different because it was Lester who bonded to them rather than myself. In the beginning they were supposed to be for eggs and meat, but he could never bring himself to slaughter them so none went into the freezer and we never had many eggs from them either because they have short laying seasons, and they also tended to lay out on the smallholding and  we kept forgetting to get the eggs in, so overnight the local predators would take them. But they were great characters as well, and it was a grand sight to see Lester calling in the geese and chickens for their evening meal, when they all came charging towards him in a fluff of flapping wings and feathers. They gave life to the courtyard, despite the mess they made, but that was alright because the builders were also making a mess, so the courtyard generally looked a busily chaotic space of things happening, and everyone was happy, the chickens and geese because they were out foraging on the smallholding all day, us because the house was getting renovated and we were finally getting settled into the homesteader's way of life which does take a while to get used to after years having lived

2016, .... the major building to the downstairs of the house was now done, the courtyard was now empty of builders stuff although still looked untidy, and the chickens and geese were still in situ overnight but still out on the smallholding during the day. But as the months rolled by the chickens started refusing to go outside the gates, preferring instead to stay in the courtyard all day. The geese were still were out all day, but were spending more and more time hovering outside the back and front gates of the courtyard as well as the double doors of the middle barn during the day, leaving lots of poo to as evidence of their new habit, which we had to walk through before we could leave the house and courtyard.  
We have had a successful year with chicks this year. We didn't want to, we wanted the eggs for use in the kitchen, but the hens eventually found so many secret dens to lay their eggs in that we couldn't find, that most of them went broody. I am not saying that it is not a charming sight to see a hen suddenly appear with a clutch of chicks, it is just that we wanted to keep the hen numbers down while we sorted out the Chicken Project, which was going to give the chickens and geese new living quarters away from the courtyard so that we could then concentrate on getting the courtyard tidy, and eventually planted out with shrubs and flowers.

When the builders were here the hens used to take their chicks out of the courtyard during the day, so the chicks learnt that this was the thing to keep on doing when they were no longer dependent on their mum, but with the building work done everything quietened down in the courtyard, and the hens started preferring to stay close to the house instead of going out and about, so that as the hens raised their chicks they stayed inside the courtyard all the day long. This taught the chicks that this was their world and that there was no other beyond it.

Meanwhile, try as we might, we could not get ahead with building the new chicken run. Other things kept interfering which kept pushing the Chicken Project down the To Do list. Meanwhile the young chicks were growing up, other hens were suddenly appearing with more youngsters who then started growing up. Every time we went out into the courtyard we were besieged by chickens. We started feeling overwhelmed by them, and the chickens started to get stressed because their numbers were starting to get too many for the courtyard to comfortably handle. The young cockerels started fighting with each other and gang raping the hens, who would scream their way round the courtyard to try and get away from them. Chickens are vocal creatures, and it is a pleasure to hear them talking to each other and chuckling away to themselves. It is not nice to hear constant arguments and battles. And then the hot weather hit us, robbing us of the energy to get the Chicken Project done as the need to get the wood sorted out for the coming winter took top priority. Meanwhile, the courtyard was starting to feel stressed....... the atmosphere was often loaded with tension as the chickens battled with each other.

And yet we still coped with living with the chickens, until we found the ground of the courtyard being littered with chicken poo, which was increasing daily. This meant that whenever we walked across the courtyard we would inevitably pick up bits of poo on our shoes. We were already used to the huge squirts of goose poo, but they were big enough to avoid unless one was lazy about looking where the feet were going to go, but the chicken poo is smaller, and anyway there was too much of it to easily avoid.
It took a while to realise why the courtyard was suddenly getting so messy underfoot. Boolie was no longer with us, and it was he who used to hoover up all the chicken poo. I used to try and stop him, but it was no good, he would sneak out into the courtyard when I wasn't looking and have a quick hoover up of any recent droppings. The goose poo he never touched, just the chicken poo. And now he was no longer with us, the job had become vacant.
It was only for a few days that we could cope with the state of the courtyard. The cockerels had all been despatched so at least the gang raping had stopped, as had the noise of several cockerels crowing to each other from early dawn to late evening, but still the hens were arguing quite a bit with other, and there were a couple of batches of growing chicks who were steadily becoming restless and unquiet. Try as we might, we could not encourage any of them to stay outside of the courtyard, which would have been better for them, but no, they would not. Roosting space was also becoming at a premium, with the younger chickens preferring to spend the night sleeping on Lester's tractors and tractor implements, and anything else they could sit on which did not involve climbing a tree. For some reason they would not roost up in the fig tree, unlike the older hens who did. 
And then another hen appeared out of nowhere with a couple of chicks trotting along under her feet. We looked at the sea of feathered beings, of all ages and sizes, laying siege to us. We looked at the big and small tractors and their implements all covered in chicken poo. We looked at the hay bale which was being shredded to pieces by the chickens. We looked at the couple of plastic chairs we occasionally sit on and they, too, were covered with poo.
All it took was a phone call to a neighbour down the lane who has an animal park. The geese went first, then the chickens, all of them. Boxed up and put into the back of a bright yellow Citroen 2CV, they were taken to their new home within the space two hours.
It was a relief. The geese will have a river to swim in, and not a bucket. The chickens will roam at will and have a better life than being cooped up in the courtyard, although they always had the option to go out on the smallholding if they wanted to. And we have no chickens, and no geese, and all is quiet, and I can sit outside without feeling besieged up chickens, and we can finish the Chicken Project at our leisure, and we can get the courtyard tidied up so it does not look such a rough and untidy space, most of all it is peaceful.
Looking forward to having chickens again next year as I already miss their shenanigans.  Looking forward to starting work on the courtyard now the chickens and geese are gone. Glad that we put a stop to the situation between us and the poultry, and glad that a solution came to us which was of benefit to us all.
It would seem that is a year for sorting things out, as the next to find a solution for are our two adult Tamworth pigs, who refuse to breed, and who cost us a lot of money to feed and provide water for while they laze their days away in the sun!
Bye for now,