Well, first things first. I guess an introduction is in order. We are Laura and Ashley, two American girls who went to Paris to study at age eighteen and now, seven years, an education and some work experience later, have left the city of lights with our respective partners to live in the French countryside and pursue dreams of a more fulfilling, self-sufficient, eco-friendly, sustainable and slower way of living. In short, the good life. Something which in France inevitably involves good food. So we thought we would start a blog to share with you all our adventures in this pursuit: the ups and downs of organic gardening, mouthwatering recipes, tips for living on the cheap, as well as the exploits of Maya and Kali, the pointer sisters (Laura's puppies), and Bandit the chihuahua, so far our only livestock.
No, we're not getting rid of Maya and Kali. But there are over 320,000 pets waiting to find a good home on Petfinder.com. Today is Petfinder's 15th birthday, and they are celebrating with Adopt the Internet Day.
If you are looking to bring a pet into your lives, please consider adopting one of these animals. And even if you are not, please donate your Facebook or Twitter status to help spread the word today!
I have to confess there has been another reason for my relative silence here on the blog. You've probably been wondering about the lack of posts detailing my plans for this year's garden plot, or crowing over the first seedlings poking through in their sunroom starter home, or preparations dug in the garden beds. But in fact I'm sorry to say that none of that has been taking place, as we have some big news...
No, not that big news...I'm not pregnant. Actually, it looks as though we will be moving to the old USofA! So the French Country Challenge will become the Montana Country Challenge (we'll practically be neighbors, Mike! :) ) for this half of the American girl duo. The good news is that we'll no longer be renting, and we will have a whole 20 acres on which to enact our vegetable and other smallholding dreams. We seem to have unknowingly shared a mindmeld with the previous occupants as well, as they have already planted fruit trees with a drip irrigation system, set up a heated chicken coop and constructed a 3-bay wooden compost heap, not to mention put in deer-proof fencing for the garden area.
We are extremely excited about this new leap toward a more self-sufficient life, but naturally it is bittersweet to be leaving France and abandoning the French Country Challenge. Rest assured, however, I will be starting an as-yet-unnamed new blog in a few months' time (move date is still not nailed down, but sometime in May), once we have settled in, and we can all pick up where we left off. I will post here to let you all know of my new virtual address. In the meantime we are going to be dealing with the craziness of a transatlantic move and the 8 million official registered letters you have to write to tie things up here in France, so it probably will be as though I have fallen off the face of the earth until I resurface sometime in July or August, so apologies in advance and I'll 'see' you on the other side!
It is with great joy that I humbly accept the 'Life is Good!' award from my friend Heiko over at Path to Self Sufficiency, despite the fact that I've been rather quiet on here. Apologies for that, by the way, dear readers, but with very little happening in the garden and thus rather little of note happening in the kitchen as well, I admit I've been at a bit of a loss on what to post. So many thanks to Heiko for this award, and for giving me something to write about!
So apparently rather than giving a speech (darn it, I was headed for the stage in my best gown), it is customary to answer the following questions, then pass the award on to someone else. As it happens, the questions are about me personally, so if you're only here for gardening stories, recipes or cute dog photos, feel free to navigate away now!
1. If you blog anonymously, are you happy doing this? If you are not anonymous, do you wish that you had started out anonymously, so that you could be anonymous now? Despite the fact that I share a lot about myself through my posts, the blog really is about the growing and eating of vegetables, which I don't think really requires anonymity! So I'm perfectly fine not being anonymous, though I do sometimes wish I had come up with funny nicknames like Pioneer Woman and her Marlboro Man.
2. Describe an incident that shows your inner stubborn side. Hmmm, the first thing that comes to mind I guess is from when I was a kid. For summer vacation we had gone to Wyoming and done a trail ride, and I became completely obsessed with horses (yes, I know, most other little girls do at some point) and was dead set on having horseback riding lessons. I have little memory of this, but apparently I asked my parents when they were tucking me into bed if I could have said lessons...every night...for the better part of a year, until they finally relented. (Thanks Mom!) 3. What do you see when you really look at yourself in the mirror? Well, once you get past the usual mud and dog hairs of my 'work clothes', someone who is genuinely happy to be pursuing a different kind of lifestyle.
4. What is your favorite summer cold drink? I'm with Heiko on this one, most definitely a cold beer, preferably a good microbrew. Though I'm also partial to a freshly made smoothie with berries and mint from the garden. 5. When you take time for yourself, what do you do? Most often it is reading. I've been a book addict since I could read, and I always have a stack of books I can't wait to get through, plus another couple of thousand I wish I could buy and add to the stack. I also love to walk or just sit outdoors and meditate with the sun on my face (yeah, winter, thanks a lot, it's been awhile) and the sounds of nature around me. 6. Is there something that you still want to accomplish in your life? What is it? I swear I'm not just being lazy, but honestly I think I'll just have to quote Heiko's answer on this one! "I still want to reach a greater degree of self-sufficiency. Livestock will have to be a part of this, bees, chickens, goats, a wild boar or two... We're also fantasizing about an eco-village..." (Does four count as a village? Add in those long lost brothers and sisters and I think we're on our way!) 7. When you attended school, were you the class clown, the class overachiever, the shy person, or always ditching? Er, I think it's safe to say I was the overachiever. But I think, or at least I hope, I wasn't a horrible know-it-all type (former classmates feel free to beg to differ!). I generally got along with just about everyone, and I love to learn new things, so I liked school, and even now I can hardly go a half an hour without looking something up online just to find out about it for the heck of it (that's the best thing about technology as far as I'm concerned). I also had great teachers, so that makes a huge difference in how you feel about school.
8. If you close your eyes and want to visualize a very poignant moment in your life, what would you see? This is a difficult one to answer. I've been very fortunate to have a life that has not been too touched by sadness or tragedy, with the exception of the deaths of my paternal grandfather and aunt from cancer. Seeing my grandpa for the last time, sick in the hospital, and trying to wrap my nine-year-old mind around the concept of death.
9. Is it easy for you to share your true self in your blog or are you more comfortable writing posts about other people or events? I've always felt like I express myself best in writing, much more so than in speaking actually, so my written thoughts here on the blog are probably about the most accurate representation of my true self there is, despite the obvious element of increased self-awareness that comes from writing for the public sphere and not just in a personal diary. 10. If you had the choice to sit down and read a book or talk on the phone, which would you do and why? Most definitely read a book. I hate talking on the phone. I take after my dad in this, and my husband claims it is an actual genetic condition called 'phone-aphobia'.
January. A new year. Well, a new calendar year anyway. For me, milling uselessly about the muddy garden, it still feels like the old year, though with that antsy feeling of excitement and restlessness combined, like when you're waiting for someone to arrive whom you haven't seen in a very long time. I suppose it has something to do with the turning of the tide in daylight hours, with the waning having given over to a palpable waxing, gearing up for a new season of bringing forth life, despite no perceptible change in the weather.
I am aching to get started - let me at that seed compost! But last year it was very evident that in my excitement I started my seedlings too early. So unless I come by some cold frames or several score yards of plastic sheeting, I'll just have to sit on my hands for a while longer. The good news is the winter greens seedlings I put out a few months ago (under my currrently single solitary sheet of plastic) have managed to survive the onslaught of a harsh early winter, so it looks like we will be having spinach this year, hooray! On the other hand, though still alive, they don't appear to have grown any, meaning the Chinese cabbage, escarole and winter lettuces I also planted, destined for immediate winter consumption, aren't going to be gracing our table anytime soon, though hopefully we will get something out of them before they have to cede their spot to the spring plantings.
While I am waiting there is one thing to keep me busy, and which needs to be dealt with before the spring arrives - we have a mole infestation. So far it had been restricted to the neighbor's garden, I assume because of the dogs in ours, but with the dogs vacationing in a nearby kennel while we went to the States for Christmas, we have returned to a lunar landscape in the backyard. I suppose I could thank the little guy for aerating the soil in the yard, which badly needed doing, but he's going to have to be escorted off the premises before the garden gets going again. I'm just hoping the return of the dogs scares him off anew so I don't have to resort to more drastic measures, softy that I am. Judging by the even-more-than-usually (which I didn't think possible) muddy state of Maya and Kali's paws when they come back inside, they are on the job, so fingers crossed.
It seems I had just gotten used to fall when winter descended upon us rather precipitously. Something seems amiss with the seasons when a half-raked pile of leaves I had intended to return to is buried by a sudden snowfall. Last Thursday the snow began as a light dusting, and proceeded to partially melt off over the course of sunny Friday. It was enough, however, for the dogs to get reacquainted with this fabulous phenomenon, leaving them bounding and sliding about in sheer joy, that is when their noses weren't snuffling through the strange cold powder in search of chunks of ice to scarf down.
(Don't get your tongue stuck Kali!)
We thought it was a freak early light dusting of snow, but as the temperature dropped further over the weekend the real snow set in and it would appear winter is truly upon us. By Monday we had attained veritable winter wonderland status, and we set out to take the dogs to the forest to enjoy it to the maximum. However, unfortunately both forests near us had been commandeered by hunters! Even though I was wearing my highlighter lime ski jacket we figured it wasn't all that safe, so we sadly had to bundle the confused pups back into the car and return home.
(Hunting underway. Thanks for your understanding.)
(Warning: hunting day. Live ammunition/bullets in use.)
And I suppose I have to admit...yes, we have finally put the heating on, if only to keep the pipes from freezing! We have been perfectly comfortable with just a roaring fire in the evening and a small space heater in the bedroom, and our central-heat-denying efforts have indeed been rewarded, as we just received the latest utility bill. As it was based on estimated consumption, the bill was still as heart-stoppingly high as last year, but I took the meter reading myself and phoned it in, and they sent us an adjusted bill reduced by fully half! Though with this early set-in of winter we had to put the central heating on now, we have set the thermostat as low as possible, so we're hoping to still have smaller bills.
In the course of clearing out the summer plants from the garden, we took out our remaining fennel plants (one of which we had cut already in order to dry the feathery leaves to be used later - apparently if brewed as tea it is good for the digestion!), which happened to be neighboring the parsnips. Much to our surprise, the tap root of the fennel plant was quite large and looked nearly identical to a parsnip! So much so in fact that we had to take a good look and make sure it was indeed attached to a fennel plant. Which brings me to the challenge part of the post... Take a look at the photo below, which is a lineup of a mixture of fennel roots and parsnips, and see if you can tell the difference! I'll have to think of some prize to award anyone who correctly identifies all of them in the comments below (unless of course the difficulty was mine and you all get them all right). :)
Anyway, this resemblance made us rather curious if indeed this enlarged tap root was edible. After some online searching, the only thing that was clear was that there is a lot of confusion surrounding this poor plant, about what should be called root, bulb, stem, etc (not to mention between the herb fennel and the vegetable fennel). I did finally find one forum in which a few different people successfully ate it without dying or suffering any ill side effects, so we decided to give it a shot.
The idea was to make a soup, using other root vegetables as well as the small fennel 'bulbs' we had (they had been developing nicely, then when we came back from vacation this summer we found they had gone tall and weedy instead of developing the proper enlarged base that makes the vegetable fennel). However, we were also curious what it tasted like on its own, so I decided to dice it up and boil it until tender. The chunks we sampled weren't bad, but to be honest, didn't actually taste of much; they were just a bit starchy like a potato, but not as tasty. So considering these results and at the suggestion of a friend (thanks for the idea Lizzie!), I simply used a handheld blender to whiz up the chunks in the water they boiled in to use to thicken the soup.
The soup was made with the small fennel bulbs, Savoy cabbage, parsnip, carrots and a beet from our garden, potatoes, onions and white beans. Start by sautéeing the onions in a large pan, then add the other vegetables chopped along with some of the fennel tops and cover with chicken stock. Add the fennel root thickener & a few splashes of worcester sauce, season, and leave to simmer until everything is tender.
Serve as-is, or topped with a bit of fresh cream and/or fresh herbs or chopped chives. If you're not a big fan of that anise flavor, don't worry, this soup was actually very light and subtle, not overpowering on that front at all. We also used quite a bit of cabbage, and so made the soup in our large stockpot to have room for it all. It actually lasted us nearly a whole week, which considering it was only for the price of a few onions, potatoes and a can of beans was quite a good deal!
Sorry it has taken me a few days to post this! But here is the recipe for the burritos from the last post...
This was my first time trying to make flour tortillas, and they were actually suprisingly simple (and they make the store-bought kind seem like eating a placemat!). I looked at several recipes online, but I kinda did my own thing a bit, switching out half of the flour for corn flour, and they turned out really well. I also halved the quantities so we ended up with just the right amount for the two of us. They require some sort of fat, and if we had had vegetable shortening this would've been a vegan meal, but we only had butter.
Black Bean Burritos
150g dried black beans
2-3 cloves garlic
Fajita/mexican blend spices (see here for list of what this comprises)
1-2 sweet red onions
1 chilli pepper
Several leaves of Swiss chard
1 can corn
Tortillas (makes four smallish tortillas):
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup corn flour
Few tablespoons shortening, lard or butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/3-1/2 cup warm water
The first step is to put the dried black beans in to soak either overnight or at least in the morning. Then, two hours before you want to be cooking dinner, drain and rinse the beans, picking out any stones or beans that look bad. Put them in a pot of boiling water with a half a stock cube and simmer gently for two hours, stirring occasionally and checking to see if they are tender.
When the beans are ready, peel and smash or roughly chop 2-3 cloves of garlic, and put the beans and garlic into a large food processor, along with a good drizzle of sunflower oil, mexican spices and salt and pepper. Blitz it all together to make a paste, adding more oil and probably more salt to get the seasoning and consistency right. I left this in the processor with the lid on to stay warm while doing the rest.
Get a wok or large frying pan heating with sunflower oil in it on the stove. Peel the red onion(s), cut them in half, then chop rather finely crosswise to get 'ribbons'. Start them cooking in the wok and then add a finely chopped chilli pepper and season. Separate the stem from the leafy part of the Swiss chard and chop the stem like celery, adding it to the wok first. Once this mixture has cooked through enough, add the can of corn (drained) and the tops of the chard. Turn the heat down to leave it while you take care of the tortillas (or better yet be making the tortillas while someone helps you with the topping!).
To make the tortilla dough, combine the two flours, salt and baking soda with a fork in a large bowl while you get a griddle or a frying pan hot (dry). Soften the butter in the microwave, then add it to the dry ingredients and mix it together with the fork. Add the warm water a bit at a time while stirring until you get a good consistency of dough, then take over with your hands to mold the dough into a ball. Tip the ball out onto a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, then separate the dough into four balls and roll them out one at a time between two sheets of wax paper. They should be as thin as you can get them really without making holes in them. Peel it off the wax paper gently and put it straight into the hot pan or onto the griddle (no oil, at nearly the highest heat). It only takes a couple of minutes, and you can see it start to go bread-y, then flip it over for another couple of minutes on the other side. Wrap the done tortillas up in a clean kitchen towel to keep them warm while you do the others.
To assemble, spread the bean paste on the tortilla then top with the onion, corn and chard mixture, and enjoy!
This blog entry is actually taking up a meme passed on to me by Heiko at Path to Self Sufficiency (and before that Mr. H at Subsistence Pattern), that of "A Day in the Slow Life". (I highly recommend these blogs to anyone interested in the goings-on of this one!) Before you describe the actual day, however, you're supposed to give an account of how you arrived at that day, or how you came to live the slow life. While I've provided the quick version of this here, I suppose there are quite a few more details I could fill in, namely how I ended up in Paris in the first place!
I guess you could trace it all back to my older brother deciding to take French classes in school. I did pretty much anything he did in those days, so I followed suit and started studying French in the 7th grade. It was fun, as we felt like we had a secret language between us that our parents couldn't understand (sorry mom...you weren't missing much though, as we pretty much only knew how to say things like "Jean-Paul likes to eat baguettes"). From there, we went on a Rick Steves trip to Europe when I was 13, and I was fascinated by the centuries of history right under our feet and soaring above our heads at every turn (since in Missouri anything built in the 1800s is considered 'historical'!). Then we had an exchange student, well, not student really 'cause we did it in the summer, from Lyon, also called Laura, who came and stayed with us when I was 14, and then the summers when I was 15 and 17 I went to live with them.
These may seem like fairly innocuous events, but I think it is safe to say they altered the course of my life forever, opening my eyes to different ways of doing and thinking things, and ultimately leading to me bending over a vegetable patch in a small village in rural France.
Without these things happening, I would not have even considered going off to Paris at age 18 on my own to study. But when I scored high enough on a national French exam in high school to qualify for a scholarship for a year at the American University of Paris, I applied, and when I was fortunate enough to be selected to receive it, I took it, and next thing I knew I was living in a closet with a baguette and a jar of Nutella and roaming the streets of the City of Lights, happy as a clam.
So I guess that fills you in up to the point of my story as related here on the blog, of how I got from Paris to the country, so now for my Day in the Slow Life. I should say, however, that technically it is more like the Slowing-Down Life, as we still have one foot in the modern economy, despite wanting to have both feet in wellies squarely in the mud of the garden. As such, our week is divided, with Henry going into Paris to work three days a week, so I wasn't too sure which sort of day to pick to recount here...but I ended up going for Thursday, November 4th (one of his work days unfortunately).
6:30 The alarm, a gentle twittering of birds that is about the only thing I can stand, goes off. Grumbling I bat it off and Henry and I lie there for a few minutes pretending that it is my turn to go make tea, though we both know somehow it never is (unless you want a very grumpy Laura for the rest of the day). Henry stoically braves the morning chill downstairs to make us tea and brings it back upstairs for us to drink in bed and slowly drag me into consciousness.
7:15 Henry gets ready for the day and I go downstairs and let the dogs out for their morning constitutional, then let them back in, laboriously wiping each of 8 muddy paws for the first of many times in the day. Maya stands still and graciously lifts each paw in succession, while Kali is feeling frisky and flips herself around in circles, playing the 'you can't catch my paws' game, which she apparently thinks is very funny.
7:55 Henry drives the ten minutes to the train station in the next town over and takes the train into Paris to work, while I wave him goodbye and put on the laptop to check my email, online news and blogs, etc, while the dogs go back to sleep on the couch beside me, Kali snoring as usual. We were actually supposed to get a report in, so normally I would've spent the day copy editing, but it has been postponed, so I have to figure out what needs doing the most around the house and garden. But for now I'm just catching up on things on the computer while eating a quick porridge (oats and a sprinkling of raisins with boiled water poured over them and a small drizzle of honey).
9:18 I decide I want to cook the dried black beans I had the excitement of finding at the grocery store the other day for dinner, so I put them in a bowl to soak, then do last night's dishes and clean up the kitchen.
9:42 I had been hoping to get some work done in the garden, but it is a bit miserable and rainy out, and I think the ground is far too muddy to pull up my beets and carrots to store, as the soil is now a sticky clay. But maybe later in the afternoon I can do a bit of something. For now, I fold some clothes that have been drying on a rack and put another load of laundry in the machine.
10:05 The pups are stirring now and actually there has been a let up in the rain, so I take them for a quick walk before feeding them a mixture of dried food and canned (goose and turkey meat today). I take them one at a time, as Kali (surprisingly) is quite good on her own, but together they egg each other on and become rather difficult to keep in check. Maya, usually the goody two shoes in the house, is a completely different dog on the walk, distracted at every step by a flutter of birds' wings, a neighbor saying hello, a rider on a horse passing by, the smell of wet fallen leaves or baking bread wafting from the local boulangerie. I guess it is all just too much for her to take in.
11:43 The doorbell rings, and it is a van from a cooperative farm in Normandy which apparently comes round every few months to sell staples such as carrots, potatoes and onions that have been grown organically (but they just haven't been able to get the official organic label yet). Ashley had them a few weeks ago and I was hoping they would come calling here, too. We have carrots in the garden still, so I bought red and yellow onions, shallots, red and 'normal' potatoes, and three different kinds of amazing apples, the kind you won't find in the grocery store. I followed his instructions to store them in our shed. It feels good to have food stored, like some sort of primal feeling of being prepared for the winter.
12:10 I heat up some leftover vegetable soup for lunch. It uses all the things we still have in the garden - carrots, parsnip, beet and beet greens, Swiss chard - and I give those red onions and potatoes a try to bulk it out a little. Perfect for a chilly wet day.
12:40 It is still heavily misting out, but I feel the need to do something in the garden, so I waterproof myself as much as possible, and rake up the leaves from the cherry tree that are starting to carpet the lawn. I also put down one of three bags of a soil nutrient mixture I got from a garden store on special, which is supposed to help return nutrients to it (it is an organic, seaweed-based mix) and promote its biodynamic content. This goes on the resting earth where the tomato plants were, as the first layer I am adding on top in my foray into the no-dig method. Usually this would also include horse manure from the local riding school, but I read that brassicas, which are going here next, actually don't like fresh manure, and in the rotation system it is best to manure before the tomatoes. But I did want to try to return some more nutrients to the soil, so hopefully this seaweed mixture will help, and fingers crossed we'll also have compost ready from our compost bin by spring.
Maya and Kali weren't too sure about going out in the rain at first, but they'd rather not stay in if I'm outside, so I let them out and after hugging the sides of the house they finally venture out and start playing in the mud with their squeaky duck. Normally I only give it to them a little at a time, but I wasn't paying attention while I was working and turned around to find its insides spread all over the lawn, and the duck in a very sorry state!
14:52 Both the dogs and I are already soaked, so I figure I might as well take the dogs out again, as our walk in the morning was pretty short. We take the long route across to the other side of the village, past the local landmark of the centuries-old public bath house, Les Fontaines, which is fed by a spring.
Then down the path and across the stream, appreciating the glorious fall colors despite the damp.
Up the hill on the other side, through a patch of private forest (the path we're on is public though), and out the other side, now in-between farmers' fields.
The path loops back around and crosses the stream again, and on the way down to it we pass farmers harvesting corn. The ground is strewn with the stripped corncobs, which once dried are a great natural firestarter.
Fortunately I'm wearing my cargo pants, which inevitably have their pockets filled with something or other on our walks, and this time turns out to be no exception as I pick up several to take home.
16:05 Back home I towel the dogs off and spread the corn cobs out on some newspaper to dry, then get out of my wet clothes and have a quick shower.
16:30 The beans will take a couple of hours to cook, and Henry usually gets home around 18:30, so I put them in a pan of gentle simmering water with a half of a leftover veggie stock cube. I'm planning to try out a Black Bean Burrito for dinner tonight, complete with homemade flour tortillas. I've never tried to make the latter before, however, so I spend a few minutes looking up recipes online.
16:50 It will be getting dark soon already, so I bring some firewood from the closer pile into a box in the house, just enough to keep us going for the evening so we don't have to venture outside into the black, wet night. I also go cut some Swiss chard in the garden for dinner and grab two more red onions from the shed, as well as one of the green chilli peppers still hanging on the drooping plants.
17:25 I clean the glass-fronted fireplace and empty the ash out, then light the fire to get the house warming up for the evening, as a chill really sets in with the sun going down, particularly on a damp day like today. The floor is also covered in little bits of mud the dogs have tracked in despite the diligent wiping of the paws, so I throw the vacuum around quickly so the house doesn't deteriorate into a total mess, as it can so quickly do with those dogs!
18:20 With the time change it is already pitch black outside. I open the gate for Henry so he doesn't have to get out of the car and do it, and a few minutes later he pulls in the drive. He fends off the excited dogs while he comes in until he can change into more dog-friendly clothes. He then feeds the dogs another round of what they had in the morning, while I start cooking. I'll post the full recipe after, but basically I pureed the beans and made the tortillas while Henry helped out by cooking the red onions, Swiss chard and chilli pepper and a can of corn together in a pan for the topping.
19:15 We eat our burritos (which turned out great! never buying tortillas again...) and load up season 5 of Gordon Ramsay's 'The F Word' tv show to watch a couple of episodes. In-between episodes we chat, make ourselves an herbal tea, let the dogs out and back in and re-stoke the fire. I also put the leftover bean mixture away in the fridge to be used the next night and put the pans and other dishes and kitchen implements in to soak overnight. Though I like going to bed with a clean kitchen, more often than not we just leave it till the next day to make better use of the evening together. At some point I run upstairs quickly to put the electric heater on in the bedroom so it will be warm when we head up to bed.
22:05 We let the dogs out a final time. Maya can be in the deepest slumber and will jump up and bolt to the door. Kali, however, merely opens an eye and grumbles a little, a bit like me in the mornings, and snuggles her nose deeper under her paw. Not wanting to be awakened in the night however, I drag her bodily off the couch until she finally gives in, stretches and pads over to the door. When they come back in we tuck them into bed and head upstairs to get some sleep ourselves.
So at this point it is customary to pass the meme theme on. I don't want to pressure anyone (it's not like those chain letters where your house will supposedly get hit by a freak tornado if you don't...), so I'll just put out an open invite to my other blogger friends reading this who are also living the slow life and might want to share with us what one of their days is like (Max, Sue, Jan, Judith, Roz, or anyone else who feels inspired)!
While we had nearly a week's cold snap of frosts, this past week has warmed back up a little, and has been several degrees above freezing, but still far from warm. This has upped the stakes in our house-heating challenge considerably, but so far we have stuck to our guns, wanting to see just how long we can leave it until we put the central heating (radiators) on.
A large part of our motivation for this challenge were the three €500 gas bills we had last winter, but it is also better for the planet to use human heat as much as possible, not to mention saving on all the life-cycle emissions that would result from the production and use of the natural gas. And since I have a hard time imagining us being able to produce our own natural gas, it also is good practice for more self-sufficient days when hopefully we'll have a wooded lot that can provide our heating fuel.
We have been lighting the fire in the evenings, as a few weeks ago we had a wood delivery of 5 stères of firewood, but otherwise during the day I've just been wearing an additional layer of clothing (so a long-sleeved t-shirt, a fleece and a hooded sweatshirt). It is actually incredible how it may feel like the house is too cold, but simply putting on another fleece or sweater can remedy the situation rather than cranking up the thermostat. We had some practice with this last winter out of necessity, when our hot water heater broke down during one of the coldest weeks of the winter with snow on the ground outside and sub-zero temperatures. I kept all the shutters to the house shut to try to insulate it from the cold as much as possible, had the fire lit, and layered up the clothing, including a fleece hat and fingerless gloves. This was a little extreme, and I don't think I'd do that out of choice again this year, but it was very interesting to see that with a fire lit and warm clothes on we could survive comfortably even in the dead of winter. It must also be a testament to the construction techniques of generations past, as the thick stone walls of our house keep the place remarkably cool in the summer and definitely warm-er (if not exactly 'warm') in the winter.
So this year we are seeing just how late we can leave it to put the central heating on at all, and then when we do have to turn it on so we don't have to worry about pipes freezing, we'll just keep it set very low and still make use of the fire and an electric heater we have bought for the bedroom (waking up to a cold house with a cold bathroom was definitely the worst part), which should still save a lot of gas and money, as electricity is comparatively cheap in France with 80% of it nuclear.
As you may know the last couple of weeks have also been marked by continual strikes here in France as workers protested pension reform legislation, leading to fuel shortages. This also happened to coincide with World Go Vegan Week, so we decided to make use of the food we had in the garden and give the shops a miss so as to conserve fuel and also try eating vegan for the week. As we eat very little meat already, that wasn't really missed, but it was difficult trying to imagine a week without milk in our tea in the morning, butter for cooking and cheese to go on top of whatever we were cooking. We basically ended up making two large pots that lasted us three nights each, a black eyed pea coconut milk curry and a dish that is already one of our comfort food favorites, quinoa and lentil stew, both with veggies from the garden (the root vegetables we have left - and that I really need to pull up and store before the hard frosts return and truly set in - and some Swiss chard stragglers).
It was a very interesting experiment, and I have to say I really didn't miss the dairy as much as I thought I would. I probably ate a lot better in the day than I normally do as well, eating nuts and fruit, hummous and olives, oatmeal for breakfast, whereas I would tend to just have cheese and bread. I actually used to be allergic to milk/dairy when I was little, too, and I have noticed before I don't feel that great when I have been eating too much of it (easy to do here in France!). Overall I felt lighter and healthier and had a lot more energy, and at the end of the week when we had a pan-fried fillet of salmon with creamed leeks, both of us felt very heavy and almost queasy. We both also lost a few pounds, so this week we're continuing with the vegan diet as a sort of detox. While we wouldn't go completely vegan forever, I think it must be healthy to eat a primarily plant-based diet, focusing on vegetables and legumes/pulses with fish fairly often and just the occasional meat and dairy.
A food that would be very welcomed in this would definitely have to be pumpkin/squash, and at the minute, with the leaves turning their glorious fall colors and that delicious crisp feeling of the mornings, I am sorely regretting our decision not to grow any this year. Last year we had these two fabulous 20-kilogram pumpkins, but the plants took up literally about a third of our total growing space, so we opted to use the room for other things.
We also didn't have any pumpkins to carve for Halloween, a holiday that is growing in popularity here as French children have cottoned on that it means you get to eat as much candy as you want in sanctioned form for one day out of the year. With our fuel-saving and strict-eating ways the past week we also didn't have any candy in the house for the little princesses and skeletons that came knocking on the door chanting "On veut des bonbons, on veut des bonbons!" ("We want candy! We want candy!" - not quite the same ring as "trick-or-treat"!), or the strangely polite "Des bonbons, s'il vous plaît!" ("Candy, please!"). Fortunately however, the French kids haven't figured out the entire principle of the classic Halloween, that if there aren't treats you get a trick. So luckily we didn't have our house egged or tp'd!
I had a feeling it was coming, and sure enough this morning we had our first frost. I don't presume to pretend I can predict the weather as well as some of the hoary villagers around here, but it does seem as though my gardening activities have me more in touch with the natural world, and I felt the need to instinctually join in with the other animals, like the squirrels scampering around after acorns and chestnuts, in preparing for the winter.
As such, this past week I have been tying up all the loose ends of summer, and readying the garden for winter. One of the most pressing things was to round up the last of the vegetables that were grumbling about the increasing cold and would really not be happy with a proper frost. Unfortunately, this was it:
With a rather cool August and September, I think we only ended up with about five aubergines, though that is an improvement on last year's one. The chilli pepper plants, however, were surprisingly prodigious in their output. We have been tossing one in whatever we happened to be cooking every few days for the past few weeks, and still we had a decent amount remaining on the plants. There were even more than this, in fact, though the rest were green and thus not suitable for drying. Although a lot of the plans for various vegetable processing have not come to fruition, I am happy that at least we ended up with a string of red chillies that can be used to add a bit of summer heat to our winter fare.
It is as simple as threading a large needle with some string, tying a knot in the end, then pushing the needle through the fatter end of the peppers (not the caps, as these may come off as they dry), then hanging them up in an airy place. They actually make for quite good decoration, much better than those strings of chilli pepper lights that plague college dorms and the like.
Although some of the hardier herbs are good to winter over, I also cut back those such as sage, and hung them up in the house in bunches to dry.
As far as the garden itself goes, I have taken out all the tomato plants (finally), as well as the fantastically-failing cauliflower that never grew any larger than a few inches for some bizarre reason, making room for some fall plantings. In early September I sowed some winter brassicas, spinach and other hardy greens, which are intended to go where the tomatoes were, in order to rotate but also as that side of the plot turned out to be shadier than I thought in the summer. These have been struggling along in the sun room, victims I believe of the shortening days, a bit pale and leggy despite the help of a lamp. So I am not so sure how they will survive in the cruel, now frosty, outdoors, even if I put them under plastic, but we will see I guess! As always, this year has been a learning experience, so next year I will know to start the winter greens indoors a bit earlier so that I'm actually at the point of getting them in the ground by end-September, despite what the seed packet calendars say.
If they do in fact make it, part of the greens will be eaten over the winter then make way for the new spring sowings, but some crops for next year actually need to be planted now, for instance the spinach and garlic. That was something I didn't realize last fall, when I simply prepared the earth, then went to plant everything in the spring and was heartbroken to realize my garden would be bereft of these two favorites. Apparently spinach needs cool weather when it is establishing itself or it will bolt, and garlic needs so many days of below a certain temperature (can't remember exactly and can't find where I read this) to form the bulb properly.
Figuring out this calendar of when to sow, plant and how to keep things successional is one of the key elements to becoming more self-sufficient, as it is all well and good to have a productive summer, but you also need to make sure you have something to eat the rest of the year! It also is a reminder that nature does not tolerate procrastination or bad planning. It has been difficult for me this year to realize that a mistake made has consequences for the entire cycle (such as the lack of spinach and garlic), and that once the opportunity has passed that year, you don't have a chance to right your wrong until a full year later. In our modern times of immediateness and often shortsightedness, it is quite a shift of consciousness to macrify one's timescale to that of nature and the seasons, and to accept that it is necessarily going to be a slow learning curve.