Two go forest gardening

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


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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.

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