Apparently we have had the coldest Spring in 50 years. On Monday I got up early to catch the ferry and there was frost on the grass – it was the last Monday in May and on Sunday I had planted out a host of seedlings that I’ve been caring for in the polytunnel until I had dug enough ground over outside. I tiptoed across the frosty grass to check on them and breathed a sigh of relief that they looked as though they had escpaed the worst of it. Between the weather (an ongoing round of teasing sunshiny days and then monsoons, cold and wind) and work commitments I haven’t managed to move things on outside as much as I’d like but it’s probably a good job. Plants that were put outside about a month ago look as though they’re hunkered down like the rest of us waiting for the weather to warm up – beans that I planted as seeds in the polytunnel at the same time as planting bean plants outside have now overtaken the earlier ones.
However a few sunny days this weekend and suddenly everyone and everything seems to be perking up. We’ve had a pond dug under the oak tree by a friend with a JCB and I’ve started letting the chickens out each day to freerange – there’s few things more exciting for a hen than a mountain of freshly dug earth.
Over the next few weeks we’re hoping to fence off a good space around the pond and then we can add ducks to our life here along with a few more chickens.
Progress might be slow in the garden but in the polytunnel everything is getting a bit overexcited particularly the cabbages which are enormous. We’re already able to harvest lettuces, rocket, mixed salad leaves and radishes. Now the challenge is to keep sowing successionally and avoid the sudden salad gap I usually manage to create by taking my eye off the ball.
The pigs are growing at a rate of knots and getting through pasture like a bunch of locusts. We’ve moved them on to a new area this weekend. Never mind pigs in clover we have pigs in buttercups here.
And, in the rabbit hutches there is a new fluffy fur nest with a bundle of rabbit babies wriggling about in it. So Spring may have been non-existant and Summer may not have arrived just yet but good things are happening around us and I feel a sense of promise for the harvests to come.
Over the weekend I hired a rotovator from a local garden centre and set to with vigour in the new veggie patch. I quickly discovered that rotovators are about as keen as I am on taking turf off and then much later discovered that I needed to use it with it’s front wheel lifted up if I wanted it to cut deeper. So after a good many hours, the latter few of which were rather more satisfying the veggie patch went from looking like this:
and I had to have my first soak of the year in the hot tub to try and ease my poor aching bones. Now, all I have to do is rake up all the turf and chunks of grass roots, dig it over, lay some paths, plant some veggies and Bob’s your uncle! I think the ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ approach may be the best one – one hour’s digging every day until complete!
All that rotovating meant that i didn’t in any way feel guilty when Sunday turned into Pork Belly Day. In the morning we sliced and tried our 5 day cured bacon with some home-laid eggs.
It was very solid to slice through, looked more like cured ham and was ridiculously salty – what a disappointment. The recipe said that 5 days was a good length of time for bacon and anything over this would make it unpalatably salty so I wonder if perhaps our little Kune Kune bellies are so much smaller that they need a lot less time to cure. The antidote is to soak the bacon overnight before use next time so that’s what we shall try.
More successful was Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s recipe for Aromatic Pork Belly slow cooked until tender in a syrupy stock and served with noodles and raw onion like a ramen:
You can find it in his Meat book and I highly recommend it after a weekend of hard physical labour.
I was chatting to my mum on the phone the other day and she mentioned that they were having pork belly for dinner which got me thinking that I hadn’t done anything with our pork bellies from last year’s pigs. So this afternoon I have started two of them curing for bacon and lardons using a basic dry cure of coarse salt, brown sugar, black pepper and chopped bay leaves. It’s the first time we’ve made bacon so I’m excited to see how it turns out and I’m hoping that it’ll be cured enough for a few slices to go into a hot pan on Sunday morning along with the tiniest chicken eggs that are being laid each day by Omelette our black hen we bought the other week.
This year’s piggie gang are currently enjoying some delicious long grass outside their paddock. It’s an area that we started to claim back from the nettles and brambles last year and it’s got fantatsically lush grass growing on it already so we’ve cordoned it off with electric fencing and the pigs are having a fantastic time stuffing their faces. The grass is so long that Little Pig gets lost amongst it.
The pigs were also very pleased to receive a beautiful handmade gift for their home last week from our friend Julie. She makes lovely things out of slate (you can find her website here) and very kindly made us this sign to hang on the gate:
In other news we came up with a plan for a duckpond on Sunday. The ground under the enormous oak tree near the house is always soggy and the water actually runs across one of our paths so seems to be coming from a spring of some kind. We kept ducks a few years ago and they are enormous fun to keep as well as being a welcome addition to the pantry but topping up a paddling pool for them every day in one of the driest Springs we’ve ever experienced was a right nuisance so I had decided not to keep them again until we get around to digging a lake (a project that has been talked about since day one but will have to wait until we have a spare £4000 or so…)
So, we chatted about creating a pond under the oak tree fed by the spring and creating a large fenced area where we can rear chickens and ducks together. Inspired by this idea, Richard disappeared off in the car and arrived back later having borrowed from a friend the most ancient of ancient machines I have ever seen, and trust me rural Normandy is full of ancient machinery! It’s a mini digger but it only has two wheels on the back and therefore uses the bucket and some overly complicated engineering to pull itself along like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of one of the Terminator films where he’s had both legs and one arm blown off or crushed in a machine, I can’t remember which. It seemed to take a very long time just to get to where it was needed and then a very long time to dig a bit out but it’s free to borrow and our time costs nothing so watch this space, there might be a duck pond by the Autumn…
The weather has got drier and slightly warmer and it seems Spring is finally arriving here at La Pichotiere. I had to go to the UK for a few days work last week and got home to discover that Richard had built me a desk up on the landing where I am surrounded by books and can procrastinate easily whilst gazing out of the window to where the pigs are now grazing under the willow trees. It’s a definite improvement on the kitchen table where I have been camping out for the last three years or so and Richard cleverly made it out of an offcut of kitchen worktop. It even came kitted out with a drilled out log to keep my pens in! Here it is in an uncluttered state but currently sharing the surface with my laptop is a large sleeping cat who sems to think it has been created just for him and stretches a leg across the keyboard every now and then to remind me that I am but an interloper.
In the polytunnel there are suddenly green shoots appearing every day and I am aware that I must get on with digging the new vegetable garden if there’s to be anywhere for things to be planted outside. It’s a big project and I am somewhat daunted by the effort required. I must remember how good digging is for one’s figure and stamina!
On Wednesday we went to the market at St Hilaire du Harcouet and came home with lettuce, cabbage and tomato seedlings for about a third of the price that I would pay at the garden centre as well as six young chickens to rear for the table and two laying birds who have been named Omelette and Souffle. They are living in a pen that runs around the side and back of the house with a view to us being able to free range them on the land once they are a little bigger. This year our thinking is all about the economics of self sufficiency, making do, mending and recycling and my thought is why buy chicken food when there are acres of land for them to forage on and feed themselves? Under the heading of recycling we also picked up a trailer full of pallets that were being given away this week which will eventually become new compost bins.
The pigs have done a reasonable job of clearing the grass from the new veggie patch space and digging up part of it for me so with help from Richard’s brother Tony who has been staying with us for a few days we decided to move them down to the larger paddock. The easiest way to move pigs is to get them to follow you so with Tony and I running ahead shaking a tin of tasty pellets, Rufus herding stragglers in the middle and Richard bringing up the rear we made a rather funny looking bunch yesterday. We managed to get four pigs into the paddock fairly easily although they were distracted by lush grass along the way but Richard was still in the garden with the last pig, who it turned out was the same one that we spent most of the time chasing around to get in the horsebox when we collected them originally. Once she realised she’d been left behind she soon headed in the right direction and everyone was reunited although Rufus seems to have become confused about where he fits in and I think would quite like to live with the pigs in Central Pork.
Having spent the latter part of January, all of February and the beginning of March pootling about in Spain and Morocco in our campervan (if you missed it then visit ontheroadwithrufus.wordpress.com for the full story and photos of our adventures) it feels as though 2013 has started rather late at La Pichotiere. We thought we would have missed the worst weather and could get on with Spring activities on our return but three days after we got home it snowed very heavily and ever since it has been bitterly cold and very un-Springlike.
On the one warm day we’ve had I went to the garden centre and bought potting compost, seeds, fresh herbs to go into the kitchen herb bed and new asparagus crowns for the new veggie garden I’m planning but every day since we have had either snow or heavy frost and northerly winds making it bitter outside. I’ve planted up a load of seeds and am keeping them along with my herbs safe in the polytunnel but there’s no sign of even the smallest peak of greeness in any of the pots yet. I have big plans for the garden so this is a most disappointing start. At this rate I can’t see us being able to harvest any vegetables much before September!
Since it feels like New Year I’ve been thinking about plans and projects and baking is on my mind. Paul Hollywood is doing a great job of tempting me with bready treats on his BBC2 programme every Monday night but I do not have a good reputation with bread making. I love the idea of it, I love bread and all things baked, I love the smell of it baking but I am not a good baker. Invariably my loaves are squat, heavy things that would best be used for building a sturdy shed and probably should not be put anywhere near anyone’s digestive system. I don’t know why this is. It’s the same whether I use the bread machine or do it by hand, use ingredients from scratch or a packet mix, take all day or do it in a rush. I have become disheartened by failure.
So, I have decided to challenge myself and learn to bake properly this year. I am going to work my way through the River Cottage Bread book from start to finish and bake every single recipe in it from a basic loaf to sour dough to crumpets. I am going to take my time and enlist helpers and eaters along the way. I am going to analyse my mistakes and learn from them (then use them to edge the paths of the new veggie garden). That’s 46 recipes my friends. Not quite Julie Powell’s feat of cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking but a good challenge none the less. I shall let you know how I get on and do let me know if you want to be a tester at any point!
Having become reasonable proficient at rearing, killing and butchering rabbits and poultry over the last few years 2012 saw us taking on something a little larger and we reared our first pigs for the table. We chose Kune Kune piglets for a number of reasons. A large breed such as a Gloucester Old Spot will grown to around 120kg which is a lot of meat especially when you realise that pigs are very sociable creatures and should never be kept alone. The idea of 240kg of meat was rather daunting so Kune Kunes are a good alternaitve as they are much smaller resulting in around 35 to 40kg of meat per pig. Add to this the fact that they are real grazing pigs and therefore have very little requirement for the purchase of extra food and you find yourself with a very economic and manageable pig for the first time pig keeper.
Last year we had two boys that we bought from friends. The year culminated in Pig Fest weekend when family members joined us for a lovely weekend of sausage making, vacuum packing and of course eating. This year we have family and friends interested in having their own free range Kune Kune pork and so we have created something called Pig Share. Friends and family reserve a half or whole pig, we buy and rear them and then our friends and family join us for Pig Fest weekends in November when they collect their pork.
Today we went to collect our piglet gang in a horse box that we had borrowed from a friend (last year we put the two boys in the back of our people carrier but that wasn’t going to work this time). Having been told that there were 6 girls we discovered that there were in fact 5 girls and a boy but thought that they would be young enough to continue living together for the foreseeable future – a decision that soon came and bit us in the bum. 6 people spent an hour chasing, cajoling and ultimately dragging and chucking 6 piglets into a horse box. Then Richard and I spent another 30 minutes tempting them back out and into their temporary paddock which they’re going to clear for me so that it can become our new vegetable garden.
Shortly afterwards we discovered the error of our ways when the boy gave one of the girls a thorough and all too mature ‘seeing to’. He will be heading back to his previous home tomorrow as we can’t have that sort of behaviour going on and can’t separate him out from the others in a way that will result in a happy life for him. That’s ultimately what it’s all about for us. We eat meat and we want to know that it has had a happy life prior to ending up on our table. It’s tough to become attached to them and see them killed but it’s too easy to buy meat in a polystyrene box from the supermarket and not think about where it came from or how it was reared. Personally I would rather eat a home reared free range pork chop than one that was reared intensively in a cage and pumped full of chemicals along the way.
So, here they are, this year’s Pig Share piglets: