Two go forest gardening

…or how to live at one with nature and the French…


4 Comments

Hunting, shooting and, er, more hunting…

It’s that time of year in France when people of all shapes and sizes don a fluorescent yellow jacket with a ridiculous hat, and walk around toting guns. Yes, it’s hunting season again, when the peace of the Bournac countryside is shattered by the crack of rifle shots, the baying of dogs and the thought that any minute I might get a bullet in the back of my head.

Hunting is apparently highly controlled in France. To obtain a hunting licence, you need to pass a theory exam which tests:

  • your knowledge of wildlife (presumably so you don’t shoot the neighbours cat or child),
  • your knowledge of hunting, including hunting techniques and vocabulary (“It’s ok, it’s only a flesh wound!”)
  • your knowledge of rules and laws (which can then be forgotten once you have your licence)
  • your knowledge of arms and munitions (aim the pointy end away from you, preferably at something you can see)

You then have to do a practical test where you simulate hunting (cut away to Marcel Marceau miming how to chop up a wild boar), shoot at coloured targets (some of which are permitted targets and some not) and then shoot a moving target (hopefully, not the person you have surprised in the undergrowth who is now running for their life).

Whether or not these steps produce careful hunters is up for discussion. Not all the French people we know are keen on their presence. They need to observe certain rules, such as not hunting within 150m of someone’s property. I guess someone needs to invent a bullet that will stop once it reaches a boundary. Monsieur Pioche says he always tells hunters to move on if he sees them near his property. Another friend feeds the deer that live around her house in the hope that they will stay close by and stay out of the hunters’ sights. And we once met a very irate old lady standing at the end of her garden, shaking her fist and haranguing the group of hunters that had just gone past with a colourful “Fouttez le camp, bande de connards!” – “Bugger off, you bunch of wankers!”

But hunting is said to be the second most popular pastime in France after football. It’s part of national culture and we have to live with it – we are after all guests in France (imho).

So in hunting season, where can you tool up? There are of course hunting, shooting and fishing shops on high streets, but why not satisfy all of your ammunition and webbing needs while you do your weekly shop? Yes, the local supermarket can supply you with bullets and targets while you pick up your Oranginas and camembert. In fact, a radio advert told us there was 30% all weapons and ammunition at a local shop for a limited period only.

2013-10-01-295

Gun covers, holsters, binoculars and bullets – everything to meet a hunter’s needs

I’m not sure that Johnny and I will ever find it not funny to shout to each other as we pass the ammunition cabinet, “Darling, how are we off for bullets? Have we got any left? Did we use up the box when we shot last night’s dinner?”

The French think we’re off our rockers.

Advertisements


2 Comments

I saw a mouse. Where? There on the stair…

Last week, I waxed lyrical about the pesky greenery that takes over the garden the moment I turn my back.  Not only does the flora keeps me scratching my head, so does the fauna .

If this doesn't scream, stamp on me, I don't know what does!

If this doesn’t scream, “Stamp on me!”, I don’t know what does.

There are some less than welcome little people inhabiting the place and humans do not always tolerate living side by side with them.  I must have been a Buddhist in a past life because I find it impossible to kill anything (except perhaps those giant cockroaches in Australia and I had no problem whacking them with a boot so that their legs parted company with their body – uuuggghhhh!).

The French attitude to insects and other creatures that aren’t in the right place is to choke, trap, electrocute or shoot them (OK, not the insects perhaps).  There are at least two aisles in the local supermarket devoted to sprays, electronic bug zappers and poison.  The poison is particularly nasty and I categorically refuse to let John buy any since it works by chemically melting the insides of the animal.

But he has a thing about mice which I do understand since they are decidedly untidy little beasts who are never bother to housetrain themselves.  Doing a quick Google search, I find that their droppings are responsible for everything from salmonella to the hanta virus.  They also have the annoying habit of chewing up upholstery to make their nests.

While on Army manoeuvres in Canada, John learned the importance of hanging up food to prevent it being eaten by bears and he decided that if it worked with bears, it would work with mice.  Soon, carrier bags of food were festooned from rusty old nails in the beams of the kitchen ceiling – very practical until something smelly started to drip out of the bottom and onto our heads.

Thank you so much for my lunch...

Thanks for lunch…

The tipping point came when I stupidly left out a bowl of walnuts and we returned two months later to find them scattered around the kitchen with a tiny hole bored into each shell by sharp teeth. The corpse of a solitary mouse was sprawled on the floor among the debris and I don’t think I was being fanciful in thinking there was a contented little rodent smile on its face.

John was revolted and insisted on getting some kind of trap so I relented, but made it very clear that he would be on the fast track to divorce if the trap involved any kind of snapping.  He returned with a contraption that described itself as “humane”, a little plastic box that closes on the mouse so it can be released outside unharmed.

For several mornings, Johnny rushed to see if the trap had worked, was disappointed at finding it empty and then apoplectic at spotting mouse pooh deposited at various locations in the kitchen.

It was time to bring out the big guns.  I watched as John spooned Nutella into the trap and tossed in a walnut for good measure.  The words “little sod” were mentioned several times.  If he’d had a moustache, he would have twirled it.

The next day was cleaning day and John was busying himself with the hoover, sucking up as many spiders as possible while I had my back turned (he thinks I don’t know about this arachnicide).  I noticed the trap on the floor – closed.  When I pointed this out, John said, “I know, there’s one in there.”  And I went mad again because the poor little thing had been stuck in there, quaking in his little mouse boots while John hoovered around him.  Rather than listen to me bleating on, John took the trap away.

Fifteen minutes later, he returned.  The mouse, he said, hadn’t wanted to come out, whether through fright or the pure practicality that it was now too fat to back out after eating all the Nutella and walnut. He’d released it at the bottom of the field and said grudgingly, “If it finds its way back from there, it will deserve to live in the house.”

Thankfully, we haven’t seen Mickey since and now have electronic alarms which emit high pitched frequencies that both mice and spiders don’t like.  If only they’d work on whatever is now scratching about in the roof…

imagesCAQVPJR9

Sssshhh! Don’t tell them I found a way back in…


Leave a comment

Sheltering from the wind

windyThe French like to give names to their wind.

Whether it’s the Cers, the Sirocco or the Mistral in all its various guises, these French names make wind sound sexy.  You can hear it whispering through the branches of olive trees as you say it.

But there’s nothing sexy about the wind that blows through Bournac.  The Autan missed out on the sibilance of its southerly sisters and blows mercilessly from the south-east across our forest garden.  It flattens everything that’s not tied down as it barges down the valley.  When it loses its puff and takes a breather, another wind takes its place, this time blowing from the north-west, up the valley.  This one is so strong that all the trees are bent over like old men hunched against the cold.  Our cherry trees were only planted three years ago and already they’re exhibiting a definite lean.

When I asked Monsieur Pioche what the north-westerly was called, he shrugged and said, “C’est un vent du nord.”  Not strictly true and not even slightly helpful.

So we have un petit problème.  How are we going to protect our forest garden from the ravages of the Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield of the wind world?

You will recall from Chapter 9 – Not such a grand design that I have already done a rough sketch of the garden layout.  Fortunately, although our winds blow in opposite directions, they are on the same trajectory so that means we can prevent wind tunnels developing by laying out the paths at right-angles to the prevailing wind.

But we will still have wind unless we create a shelterbelt at each end of the garden. This is a row of trees/shrubs that will reduce the impact of the wind and help to create a mini-climate within the garden.  And because this is a forest garden, we need to find plants that will also produce food.

Sea buckthorn berries

Sea buckthorn berries

After reading a variety of books on edible hedges, I decided on sea buckthorn and rosa rugosa.  I remembered Hugh Fearnley-Doodah making a rather tasty champagne cocktail out of the sea buckthorn berries which contain high levels of anti-oxidants to counteract the effects of the alcohol.  The rosa rugosa, a variety of wild rose introduced from the far east, much beloved by bees, has massive hips in the autumn (rather like me except that mine are permanent).

I bought 6 bare-root plants of each online and was somewhat surprised when they arrived in a package that looked like it contained an umbrella.  Once I unpacked them and spread out the roots, they looked ok, if a little twiggy and dead.  But this is how bare-root plants are supposed to look apparently.  You get them in winter when they are dormant and don’t mind being wrapped in bubble wrap and shoved in the post.

The vibrant bloom of rosa rugosa.

The vibrant bloom of rosa rugosa.

So off I went with my pick and shovel to make 12 holes. Naturally, the Autan decided to blow its hardest and brought along some rain just to make my digging experience all the more pleasant.  I had managed to dig three holes when Johnny arrived on the scene wielding yet another tool he had bought on the sly because he knew I wouldn’t allow him to get if I’d known about it.

It looked like a giant corkscrew and is known as an auger.  As you screw it into the ground, the earth is spiralled up out of the top of the whole…or it would be if you had lovely loamy light soil.  But you will recall that we have stones, cemented together with a bit of clay and Johnny’s smile soon because a grimace as he twisted his new toy around and around.

And its big hips...

And its big hips…

Never one to be defeated, he created the remaining 9 holes in fairly short order, except that they were all twice the depth I needed and I had to go around after him filling them in…

Eventually, our shrubs were all tucked up in bed and we were able to retire to our lovely warm kitchen for a wine or three, safe in the knowledge that our forest garden would soon be basking in the lea of a rosy bower…

P.S.  When we visited last week a month after planting, one of the sea buckthorns and two of the rosas were really dead.  The others have got tiny shoots and are growing at 45 degrees to the ground, already subjugated by the winds.

P.P.S. According to Wikipedia, “Rugosa rose is naturalized in many parts of Europe, and it is considered an invasive species in some habitats. It can out-compete native flora, thereby threatening biological diversity. It is also considered a noxious weed in the USA.”  Bugger!


3 Comments

In Bournac this week

For once, I am writing in real time from our kitchen table in Bournac.  On it sits a vase of lilac which is perfuming the entire room.  Bushes everywhere are weighed down with the mauve and white blossom of this most elegant of flowers.  The countryside is finally waking up after what locals tell us has been the worst spring they can remember.  Given that some of them are ancient, that’s a long time indeed.

On Wednesday when we stepped out of the plane at Toulouse, we were hit by 30 degree heat and the sweet scent of things growing.  I even managed to get sunburn because I’d forgotten what it’s like to be in sunshine.

But since then a dastardly north-westerly has been blowing, flattening everything that’s not nailed down.  I have been tying raspberry canes to stakes and attaching extra ties to our fruit trees for fear they blow over and snap.  This morning when John went to use the garden hose, he discovered it had frozen up.  It’s not always Jean de Florette hot down here.

So we’re here to tame the weeds that have a party every time we leave for a couple of weeks.  The warmer temperatures and constant rain have provided the ideal growing environment.  But I am pleased to announce that the grass clipping mulch I put around the raspberries and blackcurrants last month has worked a treat.  They are sprouting away happily with nary a weed in sight.

Johnny as usual reserved the fun of strimming for himself.  I guess it’s a boy-thing, but he just can’t wait to wreak havoc with his petrol-driven brush-cutter.  I remind him that a vital part of self-sufficiency is to be independent of oil products, but he comes out with some reason why he can’t use his scythe.  He hasn’t got the right type of blade or his peening anvil is back in London.  I give up the argument and rush out to the garden with my shears to cut around all the plants that are not weeds.  I have learned the hard way that a boy’s eye doesn’t distinguish between weeds and fruit bushes.  Unfortunately, I forgot to mention the violets and cowslips.  The former are now bald and the latter quite decapitated.

It's wine o'clock after a hard day of digging.

It’s wine o’clock after a hard day of digging.

Our days follow the same timetable: breakfast, a bit of work, elevenses, a bit of work, lunch, a bit of work, cake o’clock, a bit more work, dinner, bed.  It’s easy to lose track of time here, but every day at 12 o’clock and 7 o’clock, the chime of a distant church bell reaches us on the wind.  For ten minutes, the bell of St Pantaléon (otherwise known as St Trousers) faithfully calls its parishioners to lunch and dinner.  The fact that the bell has never called us to a church service says a great deal about the importance of food to the French.  In my mind, I saw an elderly, bent-over, little priest in a black robe and Don Camillo hat tugging on the bell-pull for dear life, crying, “Allez, tout le monde à table!”  My fantasy was shattered when someone told us the bell was on a timer…  Such is the price of progress.

Speaking of French food, we thought that we had had all the surprises that French cuisine could present to us.  In this part of France, hunting is a way of life and restaurant menus are a long list of various bits of game: wild boar, venison, hare, guinea fowl.  These dishes usually involve a generous helping of goose fat.  Then of course there are the various bits of insides that the French love so much: sweetbreads, kidneys and our all time favourite…gizzards.  I had to look this up and, according to Google, it’s the “muscular, thick-walled part of a bird’s stomach for grinding food, typically with grit” and it’s particularly delicious served in a salad (yes, a salad).  We like telling our French friends that gizzards were our little dog’s favourite treat and watch them trying to hide their look of disbelief.  Anyway, we passed a menu board this week announcing the starter of the day to be nems aux gésiers aka gizzard spring rolls.  It almost made me regret being a vegetarian.

And then we went into a supermarket and at the till, right where shops like to put sweets and chocolates to tempt customers as they queue, we saw the most delectable-sounding confectionary: bonbons au lait d’ânesse…donkey milk sweets.

We took our pulses, veg and yoghurt and hot-footed it back to Bournac to cook dinner.  I can just hear Monsieur Dubois’s voice, “Mais on n’est pas des oiseaux…”  But we’re not birds…  Being veggie in France is not easy.