The self-seeded lettuce is ready to eat and the no-dig seed bed is ready to plant !

Self seeded lettuce ready to pickOur neighbour Robert gave me these lettuces and told me to let some self seed and I’d have early lettuce.
The commercial winter varieties I planted just haven’t grown at all but these ones been through frost, snow, hailstones and torrential rain and they’ve come up smiling and taste wonderful!

Alongside them is some Italian Parsley which is coming on well, and there was Coriander but it’s disappeared after a morning frost on Saturday. Behind, is my replacement patch of wild strawberries which has always grown there and I use it to re-plant where I think the strawberries will grow well or just to give away to friends.

Next to that bed is another cage that Fabrice put up for me yesterday. I normally just cover newly planted seeds with wire tents to protect them from the chickens but this little area was just asking to be cordoned off so he’s driven four or five posts in and put a chicken wire round and made me a little gate.

The ground in this little spot was used for pumpkins last year and was really well mulched – once when the pumpkins were planted and again just before the winter really started. The mulch has rotted down and the resulting earth is just beautiful, dark and crumbly and totally weed free thanks to the chickens.

I can’t wait to finish off the top of the new cage and start sowing seeds in that patch of earth but after our terrible experience of foot rot which spread through our flock of sheep and goats like wildfire I’ve had a very bad back.

After a visit to a chiropractor who seems to have cracked me all back into place, I have been ordered to do nothing for a while – which is very easy at the moment because I can hardly move ! I should be very careful over the next week or so as my back heals, so I’ll have time to devote to this rather neglected blog.

Using Quinori – and a recipe I want to share

QuinoriIn the summer there’s so much to eat that we really are spoiled for choice.

Rather than eat heavy meals with meat I prefer not to cook the new peppers, sweet tomatoes and crunchy lettuce, shallots, new carrots, chives or whatever else I can find but eat them raw tossed in vinaigrette and a little salt.

From the middle of summer until the start of the hunting season we tend to eat mainly vegetarian food. It seems to fit in with the rhythm of the seasons when the body doesn’t need so much protein and the sun goes with every meal eaten outdoors.

Once Autumn comes, it’s good to have recipes which use garden vegetables but perhaps we need the addition of pulses – a little bit more protein to help prepare us for winter. I’m not one for recipes, tending to just make up as I go along or use tried and tested recipes with variations according to the ingredients we have – but this is worth passing on.

I saw this packet in our local bio shop in Villamblard and although it’s a bit more expensive (3.15€ for 500g) that plain quinoa it has chick peas, rice and sesame seeds in it too. I’d spent a long time talking to the owner of the shop and wanted to buy a bit more than I had, so I though I’d try it. This dish takes about 25 minutes preparation then another few minutes under the grill.
Vegetables from the garden
Stir-fry the veg, adding them to the pan in this order:
Two small carrots
1 Aubergine
2 small courgettes
small chunk of fresh ginger sliced finely
2 long small sweet peppers
1 small onion
A few cashew nuts is nice too and crushed garlic can be added and stirred in after the cooking process is finished

I used about 70g of Quinori and cooked it in water for about 7 minutes then drained it and put it at the bottom of a fire-proof dish.

While everything is still piping hot, slide the veg on top of the quinoa, dribble a couple of beaten eggs into the dish then place a few tomatoes cut in half. Top it off by sprinkling some grated cheese and a big pinch of herbes de Provence and put the dish under the grill.

Dish made with Quinori and mixed vegetablesQuick, cheap and cheerful dishes like this are useful and this was one of the best we’ve had. I think what makes this dish special is to not overcook the vegetables – especially the carrots and add each ingredient to a wok cooking on a fast heat.

I’ve since used a tiny amount Quinori with just aubergines and a few red peppers as a starter in small individual dishes and all our guests asked what it was that made the dish nutty, not too “bulky” and very tasty.

A small packet goes a very long way and should keep well, so that’s another useful addition to the larder.

The tomato blight is under control !

Sweet peppers and tomatoesWe’ve been lucky – either the hot weather or the Bordeaux mix has stopped the blight from taking hold and we’re getting good crops of tomatoes from the plot. The capsicums and aubergines are doing well too and I’ve lifted my onions. So as well as eating lovely fresh salads and tasty Provençal dishes, every week we’ve enough veg to store in sterilised jars for the winter.

Ratatouille is often my choice because it’s quick and easy. The smell and taste of it bottled is almost as good as freshly made and it’s good for couscous, adding to a stew or to eat just on it’s own. I simply stir fry all the ingredients in batches then put them together in a huge pan and reduce the water content by simmering then put them into Kilner or Le Parfait jars and sterilise them for 30 minutes.

Rocket stove for cooking and water heatingAt this time of the year we clear out the freezer. The ice melts quickly and the freezer dries properly ready to be filled again with our own meat and winter game. I use up all last year’s meat to mix with the summer veg to make stews and curries and this week I’ve made a few batches of bolognaise sauce.

Reducing tomatoes and the long slow cooking needed to make a really good bolognaise sauce takes a lot of time and a lot of gas so we rigged up a cooking plate on the rocket stove with a simple chimney leading the flames towards our back boiler in the fireplace so while we’re cooking we also get hot water.

We normally use tree branches as fuel but at the moment, we’ve thousands of light, clean, dry corn cobs lying outside. (We grow a couple of hectares a year for animal feed.).

A dozen pots of Bolognaise sauce sterilised ready for the cellarWe’ve been using them in the rocket stove with really good results. With one bucket of cobs we slowly reduced 7 kilos of tomatoes (four hours) and now there’s enough water for a bath !

I usually to make a dozen or so jars a week of garden veg in August and September because there’s not an awful lot to do outside and it’s hot here in August !. So we can have “ready meals” two or three times a week throughout the year without having to buy veg or spend too much time cooking – which suits me just fine !

First Morels (Morilles) 2009

Morels are really delicious mushrooms and we found our first dozen or so this week. If you’re not sure about identifying them, then this site will give you some more information on the potentially dangerous False Morels which don’t look at all like Morels when you cut them open.

As always you must be very careful about gathering and eating any mushrooms if you’re not absolutely sure exactly what they are.

While we’re looking for Morels we also look out for a few Wild leeks or Ail des Bois Allium tricoccum which – with perfect timing – arrive just as our own onions run out.

We had a nice little piece of Deer (Cerf) in the freezer so Fabrice made a lovely main dish fit to honour any hunter gatherer’s table :

Entrecôte de Cerf aux Morilles et Pommes de terres.

Ready for the chop

At this time of the year I pick my vegetables quickly because they rot easily later in the season and get them eaten or chopped up and cooked as quickly as possible.
Now’s the time to get everything ready for winter so these vegetables were sterilised to conserve them.

I made five .35 litre and two .75 litre jars from 8 kilos of veg. I reduced the sauce a lot to thicken it, (That way I use fewer jars and there’s no point in storing water!) then when I open each jar I rinse it out with some water and add that to the sauce.

The smaller jars are enough for two people and make a quick meal poured on to pasta and sprinkled with cheese or used as a sauce to complement a small amount of left-over meat.

The nice thing about having loads of these jars in stock in your cellar is you know they’ll taste great, you can feed a lot of people quickly without too much stress and to prepare a good meal all you need to do is heat everything up. That saves a lot of the energy used in cooking and this is the nearest we ever get to a take-away.

I’ve posted a lot about conserving food in this way, if you click in the search function,”storing food”, you’ll see other blog posts where the process we use is described in detail.

New to growing Stevia

Stevia cuttings in waterSome of you may already know about Stevia, also called Honey Leaf and Yerba Dulce, a plant used as a sweetener – just a teaspoonful of the powder, depending how the plant was grown of course – can be equivalent to a cupfull of sugar.

Many claims are made for Stevia, that it has properties which help maintain blood sugar levels, it improves digestion, protects against Candida and even suppresses bacterial growth around teeth. Anything that helps reduce the amount of sugar we consume is a good thing and I grow it to reduce our honey consumption and be self-sufficient in a plant which I use in cakes, for sweetening drinks and bottling fruit.

I’ve been looking for seeds or plants of Stevia for some time. As if by magic, I was given three plants for my birthday in April this year.

Our vegetable plot should be ideal for growing Stevia as an annual – although it’s a herbaceous perennial shrub in its native sub-tropical Paraguay. The plant likes moist sandy soil – ideally in raised beds which prevent the plant from rotting. My plan was to lift the plants or take cuttings and overwinter them on the back terrace where, under plexiglass and with the heat of the south-facing wall the conditions are frost-free. My citrus and olive plants have done well there for the past few years.

After hardening it off for a couple of weeks, I planted one of the plants into the garden and it disappeared overnight – totally consumed by slugs who ate the stem almost down to the root!

I spent a few early mornings cutting the slugs into bite-sized chucks which our chickens gobbled down enthusiastically and felt confident enough to plant another – protected by a ring of wood ash to deter even more slugs. The second plant didn’t do well and lost a lot of its leaves and despite my attempts to revive it by retransplating it into a pot, it died.

Stevia Plant growing well in a potI kept the third plant in a pot and it’s growing well. To get a good crop of leaves and to stop the plant flowering (It dies after flowering.) I nipped out the leader stems which has make the plant bushy and it’s now a healthy specimen.

I’ve used the leaves to sweeten rhubarb in a crumble and the taste went well with the Angelica I put in with the rhubarb. I had to sprinkle some “real” sugar on top of the crumble because although it’s heat stable and can be baked, Stevia doesn’t carmelise like sugar, but it’s good to know that I could be buying less sugar in the future.

Stevia cutting showing roots developingAs the weather warmed up I started taking cuttings from the mother plant. I took off the lower leaves, dipped the stem into a rooting hormone and put the cuttings into little pots full of sandy soil. So far, the cuttings put straight into soil are struggling and don’t look as though they’re going to make it but after seventeen days the cuttings I put into water look healthy and they’ve started shooting out little roots. I’ll wait for another few days then pot them up to make new plants for the garden and to give away to friends.
When I’ve enough plants I’ll put them into the potager to grow on and harvest the leaves for drying and storing in Autumn. Once the Stevia leaves are properly dried the leaves whole or ground to a fine powder will keep for years in glass jars.

I’ve a few other posts in the blog about Stevia – How to overwinter it and about the idea times and conditions for cuttings. Just click on the label “Stevia” below and you’ll get all the posts on the same page.

Soft fruit and wet weather

Another shot of the chickens with chicks and the Clematis
This photograph was taken on Sunday – a day which started off sunny and warm then it got warmer and stickier then came another thundery storm with heavy rain. This has been the pattern for the last ten days, so using the internet is a bit risky – one of the reasons I’ve not been blogging much.

I’m knitting a lot for pleasure, a cardigan for Fabrice, a jumper for me, and to replenish summer stock – mostly lightweight shawls and socks and I’ve finally sorted out my wool stash which needs a bit more colour, so I’ll be gathering and ordering dyes soon. In between showers, I pop into the garden see what’s happening, cut a few flowers (mostly roses) for the house, feed the chicks and have a look to see how our ladies are doing who are sitting on eggs. One gosling hatched this morning and there are two more goose eggs still to go – all under a little brown hen who’s been doing a grand job of shuffling them around for a month.

The nine goat kids are charming but it’s such a shame the weather’s so bad for them. It’s time-consuming feeding hay, changing water, keeping the kids in when the adults go out if the grass is too wet, taking them out when it’s dry enough and generally making sure that they don’t get upset tummies now that they’ve started to eat for themselves. We spend a lot of time playing with them and neighbours’ children come and help us to bottle feed our two little ones in the afternoon – so the time just seems to fly by at the moment.

I’ve decided to wait until the ground warms up more to plant out the rest of my summer vegetables – the tomatoes and aubergines I put out a few weeks ago haven’t budged. I’ve re-potted all the plants in our compost (Fortunately we’ve no shortage of that!) and they’re doing well in the micro-climate of the terrace – which is now a temporary open-plan greenhouse.

Wild strawberry tartWe’re really enjoying the wild strawberries which are popping up everywhere and we’ve been using them to add to eau de vie and making tarts and just eating them straight from the plant freshly washed by the rain. They taste wonderful and because they’re in lots of different areas – some shady, some sunny – the season looks as though it will be a long one this year.

Our raspberries are starting to taste a bit more like raspberries – the first ones were insipid and full of water, but they’re now getting really ripe and I have to admit most of them never make it to the kitchen. I’ll try to save enough make some jam – something I’ve never managed to do with my own raspberries because I’ve never had enough.

The rhubarb is enormous – I keep picking it but the plants never seems to diminish in size. I’ve still got loads of jars from last year, so I’ve been turning Bourrou housewives on to rhubarb crumble…

The Spring Girolles or Chanterelles are in the woods !

With all the rain we’ve been having it’s inevitable that the mushrooms have to be good this spring. We’ve been out gathering Chanterelles and got a good enough haul to make it worthwhile bottling some for keeping all year round.

Cleaning Spring Chanterelles or GirollesThese ones were full of water so we left them on the terrace to dry out slightly then cleaned them with a soft brush and removed any eaten pieces or damaged parts ready for cooking.

I cook them before bottling because if you put them straight into the jars then sterilise them the mushrooms reduce so much in size that you only have a third of a jar-full and lots of water – wasting space and fuel in the process. I do the mushrooms in batches in a small knob of duck or goose fat and heat them gently at first to get rid of the water then fry them until they’re golden brown. I then spoon them into jars, cover the jars and sterilise them while they’re still piping hot for about 35 minutes.

Sterilised jars of Chanterelles ready to storeChanterelles stored like this can be kept in a dark cellar for a very long time and taste just like fresh ones when you open the jar.
Cooking them ready to eat means you can have a mushroom omelette ready within minutes of opening the jar. I also add Chanterelles – which go really well with creamy dishes – to sauces and stews. Even just par-boiled potatoes with mushrooms fried in a bit of goose fat make a tasty and interesting meal. It’s so nice to have something delicious to eat when it’s not mushroom season.

Pig skin soup with beans – sounds horrible – doesn’t it ?

hardworkinghippy opening a jar of pig skins for making Soupe aux couennes et aux haricots
Pig skin potted in 2005, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

In French, it’s “Soupe aux couennes et aux haricots” or even just “Soupe d’haricots couennes” and if you mention that to anyone who appreciates and knows a bit about good food, their eyes will light up – because it’s an old classic French country soup, very rare these days, really delicious, easy to make and very quick if you cheat and use tinned beans. As I do, sometimes.

Pig skins are often thrown away or given to the dogs – there’s so much to do the day after you kill the pig. However, we know that you eat everything except the “oink” so I decided I’d learn as much as I can about how each part of the pig is used. Our neighbours showed us how to strip the fat off the skin to use as the flavour base for lots of different dishes. When they explained what to do I was a bit dubious, but I’ve since learned to listen to what they’re saying – it’s amazing what you learn.

hardworkinghippy Soupe aux couennes et aux haricots 1I made a batch of couennes two years ago – I found this jar at the back of the cellar when I was looking for jars to wash to get ready for my next outbreak of sterilising and it’s always a good idea to use up stored food within a few years, so I thought I’d explain what this is and what we do with it. (…makes a change from knitting.)

Preparing the skin well and tying the slices in string before sterilising the jars makes the pieces much easier to manage when you’re cutting them up, so it’s worth the extra effort to wrap them before you pack them into the jars.

hardworkinghippy Soupe aux couennes et aux haricots 2The pork gives a lovely rich flavour which peps up vegetables, potatoes or any dried pulses you have in the store cupboard, so it’s very useful to have jars of these ready to make into something you know will be good.
This tiny jar has enough to make a soupe de couenne for about six people – with extra helpings.

TO MAKE THE SOUP
Cut the string off and cut up the skin.

hardworkinghippy making pig skin soupBoil a half a cup of water in a large pan then put the skin in and boil hard to until it starts to burn and sizzle and stick to the pan. Keep stirring and burn the skin – adding a little water from time to time then clean the bottom of the pan with your spatula, repeating this until the mixture smells very good. That’s the very individual smell of crackling that burning the skin gives to the soup.

hardworkinghippy Soupe aux couennes et aux haricots 3Add more water and boil again and if you prefer, let the soup cool and skim off some of the fat. Add the pre-cooked or tinned beans and boil, then simmer gently for about twenty minutes then add garlic. Serve with slices of hard bread and put salt and pepper on the table – they help bring out the taste of the pork.
Serve something light after the soup because it’s filling and really warming on a cold winter’s night.

Killing and preparing chickens for the table

The first time I kept chickens was in a village in Essex – my first experience of keeping animals for food. I had no cockerel, so the girls were purely for their eggs. I could never kill them (From time to time the fox took care of that !) and when I left England I left my remaining chooks to neighbours.

In France, I wanted to have a “real” smallholding, and that meant having chickens and a cock for reproduction. Once I’d got the whole thing up and running, I let my hens sit on their clutch of a dozen or so eggs and 21 days later little miracles started to happen. I had chicks everywhere and this was the start of a long adventure in free-range food.

Even to this day, I love having chickens and their little ones running around our farm. It’s wonderful watching a mother hen do all the things chickens do and teaching her tiny brood to do the same. I feel so sad that these wonderful birds are often seen only as cheap food and that a very large proportion of the eggs consumed in Europe come from battery hens.

The reality of life in commercial broiler chicken unitMost of the cellophane wrapped birds we’ve all bought and eaten have never had a normal existence either, but live in large hangars like these and have a life of misery.

Unless you’re vegetarian, you need to kill to eat. Killing an animal in the prime of its life is very, very difficult to come to terms with. We’ve four dogs, two cats, and almost a hundred goats and sheep. I nurse them when they’re ill, cuddle and stroke them and we work hard to make sure they’re all well fed, healthy, happy and comfortable. Yet, there are some animals that we choose to kill for food because I feel that being an omnivore – especially in winter – is the best way of feeding myself.

There are some things that make killing my own chickens easier to accept and the most important is that they have had a good life. The second is that when you start raising chicks you often come across a chick that’s not quite perfect or has been injured and sometimes it’s kinder to put it out of it’s misery by breaking it’s neck. (In my case that was the first time I’d ever killed anything – apart from an insect!)

The third is, of course, that about half of the chicks hatched are male and they grow up into cockerels, and some of them will be the underdogs. If they are left in the pecking order with the older and stronger cockerels they’ll be picked on, pecked and ripped by the other cockerels’ feet and literally worried to death.

The fourth is that the females suffer a lot of abuse from a dozen or so young cockerels queuing up in the evening at the chicken shed door. There’s lots of fighting, feathers flying everywhere and the “favourite” hens soon become feeble and go off the lay and may become bald on their backs with open sores leading to infection as a result of all the sexual activity.

If you sit watching the girls “walk the gauntlet” on their way to roost. I guarantee you’ll find it easier to kill your first cockerel. (Especially if you’re a woman!)

OUR METHOD OF KILLING CHICKENS – It’s obviously best to see this being done by someone who is experienced, so that you have the confidence to do it properly first time.

Start boiling a big pot of water and prepare clean bowls for the liver and heart another for the blood, feet and head and another for the innards.

Tools for killing our chickens - a nutcracker and a very sharp pointed knifeFor killing you’ll need a very sharp pointed knife and a small mallet for stunning.
Go down to the chicken shed and lift your chosen chickens from their perch before the start of their day and put them into a cage or cardboard box with air holes. Leave the box outside the kitchen door.
One person lifts a chicken out and takes it into the kitchen holding the legs together, and the wings together in the other hand – gently but very firmly placing the chicken’s head horizontally. The other person quickly hits the chicken with the mallet on the head. The head should drop if the chicken has been properly stunned. Now grasp the head in one hand and push the pointed knife into the chicken’s neck, through the jugular vein. The blood should flow easily into your receptacle and the chicken will be dead in seconds although it will flutter and shake and needs to be held very firmly until it stops moving.

Some people use killing funnels which make the job easier for one person and restrain the bird but I find it difficult to stun the birds properly and we don’t like shoving them into the cones but everyone has their own method – do whatever you feel comfortable with.

Chickens ready for plucking Keep holding the bird firmly until there is no sign of life, and then lay it down near where you’ll be plucking. (We use a bin for the feathers and pluck over the fireplace)

Go and get you next bird, and by the time you’ve finished killing several birds your water should be boiling. Bring the pot over to the fire, resting a corner on the hot ashes or a gas burner to keep it warm if you have a lot of birds to do.

Plucking chickens is easy if you use very hot water and work fastHold the chicken by the feet and submerge it for a minute or so, moving it around gently. Take the bird out and strip off bunches of feathers very quickly while the skin is still hot, because you dip only once. (Doing it again will only cook the skin and the pores will close) With practice, you can pluck a bird in a few minutes. When you’ve finished plucking, singe the fine hairs on the skin either over a gas ring or go over each bird with a plumber’s blowtorch (air entry closed!).

TO EMPTY THE BIRDS

Cut the skin of the neck close to the shoulders all the way round and pull it up towards the head. Twist the head round – it should be easy to pull off.

Cut neatly around the anus to give you enough room to put your hand it to take everything out the chicken in one piece Turn the bird and cut around the anus, being careful not to puncture the colon. Make a slit from above the anus up to the bird’s breast, put your hand in and gently ease all out the innards. They should come out in one piece, but you may have to fish around for the heart and liver. Take everything out and check that it’s healthy and intact.

SEparate the chicken's gall bladder (the small green sack) from the liver carefullySeparate the gall bladder (the small green sack) from the liver being careful not to puncture the sack which contains a bitter fluid which will taint the meat. Put the livers and heart in a small bowl. (for pâté)

Score the gizzard (Photo on the right) half way around the outside and cut in a little – just enough to get a fingernail in to prise it open and remove the contents (stones, grass, insects and grain) along with the hard skin which should peel off easily. Put the gizzards aside with the liver to make “salade de gèsiers”.

Take off the feet by bending them at the knee, slitting the sinews and cutting the skin with a sharp knife. We put the feet, head and any clean waste into our dogs’ dinner – a soup which we add to their kibble. We feed the innards and all waste to our Larsen trap magpies or use them as bait for live traps for foxes etc. (Fabrice is a registered trapper.) You can either burn or bury them under trees and bushes if you really can’t find another use.

Wash or wipe the birds and prepare them for the freezer or stuff them ready for the oven or for cooking in a casserole. The gizzards, liver and other sweetmeats can be left in the ‘fridge or somewhere cool for a day or so until you’re ready to use them.

Sweep the floor, brush all the feathers into the fire or put them on your “soft fruit” compost, wipe the kitchen table and congratulate yourself on a good morning’s work !

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