Pumpkin time !

Just in time ! The last of the pumpkins in just before a frost this morningLots of people have been asking me how we manage to keep our pumpkins for so long, so I’ve put together a list of things that you need to do to ensure that you’ll have pumpkins to eat all winter and for most of the following spring.

To get really good mature pumpkins, make a note of the number of days they need to grow to maturity. That’s usually marked on the packet if you buy them and for seed swaps, ask people to remember to add that information to the packet too, because it’s important.

Bear in mind that some varieties of squash will keep well in store for a lot longer than others. For example the Siamese squash  (Fig-leaf gourd, Malabar gourd, black seed squash or Cidra) which is in the wheelbarrow in the photo on the left, can be stored for up to two years. The Queensland Blue on the right can be kept for about five months.

Some pumpkins need a long growing season, so for those, about three weeks before the the last frost is due, I either plant them outside and cover them with a cloche which I tuck in with some mulch around the outside, or start them off in the greenhouse.

If you plant good seeds in a greenhouse, they’ll probably sprout amazingly quickly, so make sure your pots are really deep so that the root has enough room to develop, as most squash resent root disturbance. Empty the pot gently when you plant them and take care when you fill up the planting hole. Water in the young plants really well.

It goes without saying, that the richer the soil the better and pumpkins do really well on raised mounds of last year’s compost with anything and everything added to it.

The art of growing pumpkins to avoid cross pollination for seed-saving is a completely different subject and I’ll cover that in another blog post. For the moment, let’s imagine that summer is coming to an end and you’re watching your pumpkins get bigger every day….

I love the colour of pumpkinsIf your objective is to store some for use over winter, leave them on the vine for as long as you can. In a good summer, the leaves will die and become brown and withered, leaving the pumpkins exposed but always remember to gather them in before the frost. (If you’re a day or so late, you can still eat lightly frosted pumpkins, butternuts etc. straight away but they rot quickly and will not store.)

If there a good strong stem then the pumpkin is normally good to store BUT if it has any discolouration after being in contact with the ground or nearby bushes, use it immediately.

Check around the stem for cracks or soft patches, if there’s any doubt, use it straight away.

Never carry a pumpkin by the stem, carry it gently, like a baby

Leave them to ‘cure’ in a dry place in full sunlight with good ventilation for about ten days. A covered terrace like ours in the photo is ideal.

Store only mature pumpkins with hardened skins (Test the skin with your fingernail) they should sound dry/hollow when you tap them and have a good all-over colour.

Wash around the top stem, the base of the pumpkin then give it a rub all over with eau de vie, vodka or some other strong alcohol. Don’t be mean.

Make sure the pumpkins are completely dry then store them in a dark, dry place between 10-15°c

Use wooden planks or fruit boxes to keep the pumpkins off the floor and allow the air to circulate around them.

Check them regularly to make sure that they are still in good condition.

The Pink Jumbo squash in the photo above was gathered on the 22nd of September then cured for a week in the sun on the terrace.

A photo of the same Pink Jumbo (Cut in half) was taken on the 14th of May – about eight months later and both the inside and outside were in perfect condition and I and the Council of Administration of Brin de Paille (The French Permaculture association) who stayed with us for a few days for one of their quarterly meetings, can assure you, it tasted great !

Getting ready for winter

The man with the corn picker is coming to the village soon so we had to get a move on and get last year’s corn out of the crib to fill it up again with freshly harvested cobs.

We kept some of the old cobs for the pigs and goats then grained the rest of it with our neighbour Guy’s ancient machine and put the grain into all the containers we could find and stored it in the extension. It’s the first year we’ve had to rush like this – normally we don’t have any left at the start of autumn but last year’s crop was exceptional.
The weather’s been really dry here since the end of May, so this year’s crop won’t be so good.

This is the ancient corn picker which has been doing the rounds in this village (and several others) for quite a few years. When I see it I always think of Mad Max – a film set in a future where law and order has broken down at the end of the ‘Oil Age’ and baddies use weird and wonderful machines like this for just cruising around doing wicked things.
I suppose using a machine like this is wicked. I hate to think how much diesel this thing uses when it’s chugging through the maize and what sort of damage it’s doing to the earth below. We ought to be sowing and harvesting our grain by hand but a few years ago, thirty of us harvested a small field of corn for a neighbour and it took us several hours. This machine does the job for the whole village in just two days.

I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging for a long time but we’ve been under a lot of pressure from forces beyond our control and I haven’t felt like sharing what’s been going on. I’ll get back on that straight and narrow road soon.

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 !

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.

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.

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.

A jambon keeps well for a year – normally !

Jambon made in January - opened in November 2007

A couple of weeks ago we decided to start the new ham that’s been hanging outside since January and it’s in perfect condition and much less fatty than any we’ve done before. We’ve never managed to keep them from one year to the next – they go fast because the meat is great – but we just might do it with this one.

I was a bit worried about this one keeping well because we had a very damp summer, but we took it down in September, dried it out a bit and rubbed more pepper into the vulnerable areas around the bone and it’s in great condition. We’ll start it now so that by the time Christmas comes it will be at it’s widest and easy to cut in pretty slices.

We’ve still got some pork chops and some of the fattier pork cuts which I’ll use for Saté and making bean stews so I’ll have a look in the freezer and make some casseroles from whatever I find there for bottling because now that the cold weather has really set in (It was -8° this morning) we’ve lit the woodstove.

We got the corn harvest in this weekend

Normally, we just fill the dryer with a bit left over, but this year because of all the rain everyone in the village is really pleased with their crops and we’re all trying to find suitable containers to store and dry the corn so that it lasts well all year.

We use the same machines all round the village, going from field to field loading the wagons, then one by one we get our corn dryers filled. The men work together with several tractors pulling all the different machines needed to do the job. It’s very exciting and a good crop like this means we don’t have to spend money buying in expensive feed for our animals.

We use the corn for feeding our pigs, sheep, goats and poultry and the local wild birds do very well on it too ! We also swop the corn for other cereals like barley and wheat with our neighbours.

We give the whole cobs to the goats and pigs and they have to work to nibble the corn off. We have a hand machine to grain the corn for our sheep and poultry and we’ve a neighbour with an electric machine who’ll do a load for us when we visit him.

I’ve gathered in most of my Indian sweet corn which I planted in the potager, it’s a good crop too although about eight of the cobs were attacked by a mushroom and disfigured. In France this is considered a “maladie” called “Charbon” and the corn is worthless. I was really disappointed and showed the corn to my Flickr friend Podchef (Now there’s a man who can cook!) and he suggested that it was a highly prized delicacy in Mexico called Huitlacoche !

Huitlacoche [wee-tlah-KOH-cheh]
Mexican Corn Truffle
Huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche) is a fungus which grows naturally on ears of corn (Ustilago maydis). The fungus is harvested and treated as a delicacy. The earthy and somewhat smoky fungus is used to flavor quesadillas, tamales, soups and other specialty dishes.

Fortunately, I didn’t give Peggy all the “damaged” cobs, so I’m going to try cooking with the Hiutlacoche and see how it tastes. Fabrice will never eat it – I just know…

Here are the four cob colours I got from last year’s saved seeds and I want to keep as many as I can of the best from this year for planting on a bigger patch next year.

4 cobs all different

The bottles are filling up with fruit and the garden’s filling up with summer veg

We’ve been working flat out getting our summer veg in, gathering soft fruit and collecting Girolles while we can.

This is a jar of wild cherries which we’ve filled over the past two days then covered with Eau de Vie, which is a distilled alcohol we make from figs or any fruit we have enough of, gathered at its peak and stored in a barrel until the man come with his still.

We’re still filling the wild strawberries and the raspberry jars, little by little. It’s great being able to just plop them straight into the Eau de Vie when we come in with a handful. It’s a very easy, and very delicious way of storing fruit and if the jars are stored somewhere cool and dark, they’ll last at least a year…well in theory anyway. We serve the fruit with coffee, or as a dessert with cream or use it as a cake filling. It’s always delicious and a real treat.

We’re under a lot of pressure, because Fabrice’s uncle comes out of hospital tomorrow. His health has been deteriorating for the past few years so he has to rely on us, his sister and the nurses who visit twice a day to do everything for him. It’s very humbling to think that he was once a big strong man who could cut down a mature tree with an axe in just a few minutes.

So, I’ve managed to plant out almost all the summer veg and cleaned up the garden ready for planting extra veg to extend the season. All the herbs and soft fruit are doing well and with the rain we’ve had, there’s no need to water except when things have just been planted.
Early June organic vegetables in the potager
We let the chickens free range all over the place, but the price we have to pay for their cleaning and weeding the garden is that we have to work at protecting our newly planted veg with sticks – at least for the first two weeks or so. I re-use the sticks for the second round of planting once everything is growing well.

The chickens don’t do a lot of damage really. (Although they do break my heart sometimes.) They grub up and eat a tremendous number of insects and slugs harmful to our plants, and they really throw the earth around and make it a lovely crumbly texture and of course they add their own nitrogen rich droppings as they work, so it’s well worth the effort to let them get on with it.

After everything has settled and is growing well, I cover everything with mulch – the dry bedding from the goat shed, and the sticks keep the mulch (complete with goat droppings) away from direct contact with the stems of the plants.

I know you’re not supposed to put fresh manure on, but goat droppings are dry and I find that the mulch doesn’t heat up and do any damage because it’s airy with lots of straw. This system suits us, because we empty the goat shed every year around this time (once the goats start sleeping outside) and it gives us the shed time dry out completely over the summer.

Courgettes are best when they're tiny - too big we give them to the pigs Emptying it now keeps the chickens busy eating the woodlice and other insects they find in all the crevices in the shed and they usually stay away from the newly planted veg until it’s strong enough to withstand real life in our potager.

We’ve been eating lettuce for a few weeks now and had our first courgettes yesterday, the beans are almost in flower and the Borage is perfect for decorating new potato salad made with home made and very yellow, (thanks to the chickens’ free ranging) mayonnaise.

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