Friday, 21 November 2014

Chooks - at last!

As a city girl born and bred, I didn't know the first thing about chickens, except that Old Dai Cox, my dad's farmer neighbour in Cowbridge in the twenties and thirties, kept Sussex hens, and logically referred to a singleton as a Sussec. Dad, from whom I inherited my love of words, thought this was great fun. Gradually a desire grew in me, to have a Sussec too. Which is why we are now proprietors of a trio of cross-bred Orpingtons.
The henhouse is a little palace, supplied by HRH Hill Ltd of Hounslow who wholesale chicken houses, and Amazon France, who retail poulaillers.

"The Monmouth", or possibly "The Devonshire" with Tim at the wheel
Of course, there had to be modifications to it - a solid base with wheels at one end and handles at the other, so that the whole thing could be moved from one place to another. Various reinforcements, particularly the replacement of most of the hinges with more solid ones, and the addition of catches at the front of the roof to stop it lifting in high wind. The stencil "hut 17" on the side is to come.

Releasing the wheels

Des. res. - the roosting area, with hay for home comfort.

The roof lifts off too. The metal handle is to close the internal door and shut them in.

Roger brought the hens over today and we settled them in the new house. He has six to part with and these were the easiest to catch on the day. While I went to get the camera they took themselves up the ramp into the roosting box where they couldn't be photographed. Problem: one, or possibly two, of them could be a cockerel. We don't want a cockerel, and no way do we want two. The neighbours have more than enough cockerels for us, thanks. The prime suspect is the biggest and boldest of the three. They didn't have names, but garden chickens should have names. I suggested the name "Shirley" for the possible male, after Shirley Crabtree, alias Big Daddy, a well known British wrestler. The others had to have a female-name-that-is-actually-male too. Welcome Alice (Cooper) and Marion (Morrison, aka John Wayne). We shall see.

Get off your horse and drink your milk!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Civray draws the crowds

Every year, in late October, Maison Perrin hosts a Marché à la Ferme in the hamlet of Civray. That's about five kilometres away from us as the crow flies, but not as the grotesquely-overfed duck staggers as it's mostly uphill. The speciality of the house is foie gras, and I know many find the whole business of foie gras unacceptably cruel, but I must say the ducks in question appear not in be any distress as they sit, getting fatter and doing nothing but eat, sleep and excrete. And I'm rather partial to foie gras.

M. Charcellay of Maison Perrin with customers in front of Laurent Joumier's goat cheese stall from Pré. The Joumiers have a new baby daughter, Clémence, who is now sleeping through the night, we are told.
It was just approaching lunchtime as we set off for the farm, and some of those not lunching were just about to depart, so we managed to park pretty easily not far from the gate. That was useful in view of the crowd!

The crowd in the courtyard at Maison Perrin

The big draw of the day is the repas - a slap-up lunch. The queue to pay for this meal was extensive on Sunday, and quite a few come long distances for the meal alone.

Pay here for lunch.
Meanwhile, on sale were wines from Vouvray, Bourgueil and Chinon (we bought some of that, to encourage them)...

very popular, not even a chance to say hello, never mind ordering anyrhing!
local honey from M. Hervé ...

no shortage here
...jam, walnut oil, poires tapées (dried, flattened pears, we still have some from about four years ago), snails, charcuterie of the duck kind and oven ready birds, almost all sold out, pottery...

Some of Magali Desroches' lovely work, elegantly displayed

and dairy products from Fromagerie Maurice and La Borde staffed with great dignity by a female person who may only have been eight years old but she knew how to operate a till and do sums, which is better than one of the Civray boys two years ago!

All in all 'twere a reet good do.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Sheep's noses and amputated fingers

Sounds like a gruesome recipe for Hallow'een? No, these are the varieties of sweet pepper (poivrons) that we are growing this year. Sheepnose is an old favourite, a heritage variety from the US state of Ohio (obtained from Kokopelli who no longer have them, try Rareseeds). They produce a good number of middle-sized bell peppers with thick sweet flesh on stocky plants that have been known to fall over under the weight of fruit.

Sheepnose plant, 6/8/2014

They have been growing all on their own in a little bed behind the longère to isolate them from the other peppers, and particularly from the hot ones (piments)! That way I can keep the seed strain going. They grow happily outdoors here, apart from the snails; in the UK I kept them in the greenhouse where they did extremely well. A certain amount of tickling of flowers with a sable paint brush was called for, in both locations, to ensure plenty of seeds.

Why are they called Sheepnose mummy?
'Dedo de Mocha' or Sweet Ají is a new one for us, courtesy of the Real Seed Company. They are related to some of the hottest chillies in the world, but are not hot at all. To quote the supplier,
The name of this traditional variety translates roughly as 'Amputated Fingers', which is fair enough given the shape and colour, but seems to be in dubious taste! 
Lurking pepper

The closer you look, the more you see (August 2014)

They are incredibly productive plants, but the peppers stayed resolutely green. A few are turning red now (mid October). The shape is rather wiggly, but it's quite easy to remove the seeds to stuff them.


They are perfect for many stuffed pepper recipes, including some for mild chillis such as poblanos. The recipe for Tina's Greek stuffed peppers with feta cheese that follows is from Allrecipes UK and Ireland.

Serves: 6

    12 long green peppers
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    1 tablespoon plain flour
    235ml milk
    250g feta cheese, crumbled
    1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
    black pepper to taste
    oregano to taste

Preheat the oven to 180 C / Gas 4.
Boil the peppers in hot salted water for about 7 minutes, or until they start to soften. Drain them and leave to cool.
Heat the oil and flour in a small pan. Add the milk and whisk until you have a smooth sauce. Take the pan off the heat and add the feta cheese, some parsley, black pepper and oregano. Mix them in but the feta should remain slightly lumpy.

Make a slice in the side of the peppers and take out the seeds. Try not to break the peppers, but open them up (like the shape of a little boat). Stuff them with the feta mixture. Place them in on an oiled baking tray.

Ready to start baking

Bake in the preheated oven until heated through, about 30 minutes. You can leave them to cool before serving, but I thought they were nicer hot.

Ready to start eating!

Make ahead and pop them in the oven  ready for serving as a starter, with crusty bread and a green salad.

No need to add salt to this recipe because feta cheese is salty enough. I used a young goat cheese instead of feta, and that did need a little salt.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Health and safety puts a blanket over its head

just when you thought it couldn't get worse...

Note this is a hard hat area. Is Monsieur wearing a hard hat? I have airbrushed out his face, in case you were wondering, to spare his blushes. Note also that he is holding onto the guttering so that he can step over the frame holding up his planks. He's just about finished this wall, but how on earth will he do those gables?

The cladding looks nice though.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Little Plum

Little plums in increasing order of size:
  • sloe (prunelle)
  • damson (prune de damas)
  • quetsche (damson)....
Prunelles en profusion
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn (épine noire, prunus communis), a British and European native shrub to be found in hedgerows all over Europe. Its sour, astringent fruit are black, with a bluish bloom that disappears as the fruit ripens. Sloes are widely used to flavour alcoholic drinks and to make jelly. In France, another alcoholic drink (also called épine noire) is made with the young shoots.

We have blackthorn along the bank of the Aigronne. Unusual among them is one plant (and its offspring) which flowers three weeks earlier than all the others, and has fruit the size of a marble. The leaves are somewhat more rounded than normal. This fruit is relatively sweet and we believe it is either a subspecies or a hybrid of some kind. The bush was absolutely loaded with fruit this year but we have more than enough sloe gin, not to mention sloe rum. So I decided to make jam from them.

Good enough to eat?
The recipe comes from Recettes de Confiture, by Vincent Pommeraie. It was only after the jam was made that I found out that a prunelle is also a type of small plum, a bit bigger than a quetsche. However the context does indicate that he means sloes and not plums. Being by M. Pommeraie, the original recipe includes a vanilla pod, but I left this out as I wanted to taste plum, not vanilla.

This jam could also be made with frozen sloes.

Sloe jam

1.8 kg sloes
750g sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Wash the fruit and remove stalks spiders etc. Place the sloes in a stainless steel saucepan, add water to just cover and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer until the fruit is reduced to a pulp (en marmelade}. Strain out the stones (see below). Tip the resulting pulp into a preserving pan with the lemon juice, and bring back to the boil. Stir in the sugar. Heat gently, stirring till the sugar is dissolved, then turn up the heat and boil till the setting point is reached,. Pommeraie has a final, unusual step here. I left this out because our sloes aren't astringent. To remove any remaining acidity, he suggests you spread the mixture on a baking dish or tray and heat in a very slow oven at 150° - 200° F / 70°-90° C (therme 2-3) for 12 hours. Pot and cover in the usual way.

The sloe jam worked very well, with a sharp but intense plum flavour. This made it worth the tedium of removing the stones. The traditional mouli food mill proved to be the best tool (forget rubbing them through a sieve). The main problem was that the tiny stones jammed under the mouli blade and burst with a loud bang, shooting bits across the kitchen. The only thing worse than fruit stones in jam is broken bits of fruit stone. I received a lot of help with this part! The mixture I obtained was actually quite sweet, although sharp, and a little goes a long way. I used a jam thermometer backed by the old plate-in-icebox to test for set. Having used too much water to get the mixture go through the mouli it took about an hour and a half to reach a set. The texture is more like a fruit spread than a jam.