French Hens And Scrambled Eggs

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Which came first the chicken or the egg? It’s a question that is guaranteed lengthy debate around our table at supper. All of our children have strong opinions and know their own minds and no one is shy in making their thoughts be known!

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In our garden the chicken most definitely came first; it’s now just over a year ago that we bought our first four hens. Within a month we had added another three and later a couple more somehow sidled in from somewhere to join the fray. Happily though, since then there has been many times when we have asked ourselves why we’d never kept chickens before. They’re a riot! There’s been a lot to find out, with chesty coughs and sore feet to learn about amongst other things, but that’s where our French neighbours have helped so much; there’s not much they don’t know about chickens, although they do struggle to come to terms with how our chickens are part of the family while their’s are part of the larder. Certainly we have a better understanding of some subtle differences between French country animal husbandry on one side of the fence and children’s pets that lay eggs as a bonus on the other.

In addition, Roddy has become a dab hand at administering the necessary potions and drugs in the dead of night with a torch between his teeth – he’s found that the flock are better treated then when they are all half asleep. He’s remarked on more than one occasion that it’s easy to see how a fox could kill a whole hen-house without any trouble at midnight.

As those of you who have followed the blog for a while know, our chickens are often the star of the show.

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However, I have to admit that for a time they fell into second place, with our Muscovy ducks claiming the centre of our feathered stage; not because the ducks were ducks or because they were enormous; no, it was because of their antics around the garden. You see it turned out that Penny and Adrian (who arrived as a couple) were in fact, not a couple. No, not for them was there the simplicity of being a male and a female; instead there emerged the complexity of having two large testosterone-laden adolescent males in our quiet rural space.

Now this in itself did not bother me, Penny was still called Penny and I simply forgot my plans for free range duck eggs; I liked them, we all liked them and they were here to stay, until that is, they started chasing each other whenever the urge took them. They hurtled around the garden whenever they felt the need, and anything in their path was sent flying; nothing would stop them, for neither wanted to be caught by the other; whoever made a false move lost and then the loser had to succumb to the other’s, er, desires (let’s just leave it at that). It became known as the ‘sex run’ and it was all quite hilarious until it became really quite dangerous for small creatures and small girls, and that’s when we decided they needed some girls of their own. Luckily we knew where there were plenty; some friends of ours who live thirty minutes away were very happy to have two drakes to replace their aging champion, and now our two boys each reside over a harem of females, extremely content.

That brings me back to our chickens and our two roosters; Fritz, our original bantam has been joined by Falafel, our young Faverolle rooster who hatched at the end of May last year. These two have never fought, the result I suspect of them being surrounded by women. There has been the odd squabble at times, but now it all seems to have evened out – Fritz has the small bantams as his consorts and Falafel has the bigger girls. This just leaves Constance the Silkie, lets just say Constance is a bit of a floozy, and she just hangs out with whoever she feels like!

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Our little flock are free to roam where they please

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On rainy days they seek out the wood shed

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and the barn where we keep the mower.

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I am told that several decades ago, when new people moved into the village, they would always be given two or three laying hens as a gift from the Mayor. No one seems to know when this started or indeed when it ceased, but what a wonderful welcome present. Just about everyone in our village keeps chickens, ducks and geese – for the pot.

Talking of pots, we are not going to kill our chickens of course; the only cooking involved is with the eggs, and of course free-range chickens mean fantastic eggs! Ours are really  fabulous jewels with deep, dark, rich-orange yolks and hard thick shells. We have eggs of all sizes; tiny ones from the smallest bantams all the way up the size scale to the double yolkers delivered by Chuckles a couple of times a week; she was one of the original four we bought in 2014 and is now the reigning matriarch. We have near white eggs, pale creamy-colored eggs, and deep brown eggs; in fact we have all sorts of eggs.

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Lots of eggs means lots of egg dishes and sometimes we have to be a little inventive, but it’s amazing how many different recipes and ways to use them Roddy and I come up with. Eggs are of course the perfect quick lunch or supper; easy to cook whether you fry them, boil them, poach them or bake them; we also add them to homemade pizzas

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and we sometimes serve them hard-boiled with a little steamed kale from the garden, which is just about the only vegetable still going strong in the winter weather.

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I also love scrambled eggs with a few herbs, a dish that most of our French friends cannot understand; they call them œufs écrasés which literally means ‘squashed’ eggs. It’s a wonderful way of cooking eggs for us, but our friends look at the results with much ridicule, and there is much muttering about the English and their strange ways of doing things!

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Of course, our eggs also make the best cakes and our little chefs are slowly turning into egg snobs. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but baking certainly has a different hue when the girls start talking about egg quality from our garden!

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Tell me how do you prefer your eggs? and which do you think came first – the chicken or the egg?    Have a wonderful Sunday x

 

AUTUMN IN THE GARDEN

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Across France it’s now the two-week autumn school-holiday known as “Vacances de la Toussaint”. So far we have enjoyed fantastic weather with warmish sunny days; ok, not exactly swimming weather, but perfect walking weather, perfect playing-in-the-garden weather and perfect weather for exploring near and far.

The children take a huge interest in this little blog of mine; indeed frequently they are my inspiration and so as we were kicking about in the falling leaves, they asked what I was going to write about this week and that’s when it came to me. “This”, I replied, pointing to our autumnal shrubbery and falling leaves,”a tour of our garden in autumn”,

“But it looks a mess!” they chorused, adding “and it’s not exactly pretty at the moment,” but  that’s when the fun started. I fetched my camera and we wandered around, stopping to take photos, and suddenly what they had taken for granted as red leaves clinging to an old stone wall, took on a new form as they turned russet orange in the afternoon sun.

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The Japanese Anemones are still flowering, self-seeded in places, and with the protection of a north-facing wall they are still  in abundance in many corners of the garden; and the Salvia Grahamii have been in bloom all through the summer and continue to provide colour.

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Roses are once again flowering as they have their last flurry before winter takes its toll, and  the Pampas Grass is looking fabulous. There are tiny hardy Cyclamen all over the place in shady spots, poking their heads up between the fallen leaves.

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The vegetable garden has been dug over and the autumn kale has been planted. The roses down there are a stark contrast to the plainness of the bare earth.  However, the aubergines, peppers and chillies are still going strong and producing as fast as we can eat them.

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Our Persimmon tree is quite literally groaning under the weight of so much fruit, so much so that a huge branch broke off one afternoon with a quite frightening crack and a subsequent thud. This has made us look at seriously pruning it back this winter to a more manageable level. In the meantime we have yet to see if we can get the fruit to ripen enough before it gets too cold, I am told they sell for a pound each in England so we must have at least £200 of fruit! Last year winter came far too quickly for the fruits, and I fear it will be the same again this year.

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We don’t have any apple trees but a friend has plenty and she is constantly providing us with box loads of fruit. Sweet and crunchy they are perfect in cakes, tarts, compotes or just eaten straight from the box.

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The chickens are hard at work enjoying the cooler weather. I was digging up some of last years well rotted leaves as mulch for a new shrub I had planted and they are never far away from my feet, searching for grubs and worms. In turn they are rewarding us with more eggs than we can eat and it’s been a very long time since we saw a tick on the dogs. After a summer fraught with chicken problems we are back to a healthy flock, so our fingers are crossed that Roddy can take off his veterinarian’s coat for a while.

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Fritz the bantam cock has turned very dark, quite suddenly, and Constance, our only Silkie, is quite a madam earning herself any number of nicknames from visitors this summer! Gone are the long lazy days when our flock rested in the shade of a tree for hours on end; now they are on the move from dawn until dusk, constantly scrounging tidbits from anywhere they can get their feet and beaks into. They are very opportunist feeders and we have seen some surprising items disappear into frenzied craws, including half-consumed cat leftovers….. no more details needed..

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It seems as if we have been clearing leaves forever, but in truth we have barely started, many are still green and there are plenty more to come down !

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So it’s just as well we bought ourselves a new leaf collector that is towed along behind the mower, it is certainly making life much easier this year, I won’t have the arm muscles of last autumn but it will be done in a quarter of the time instead and anyway I always have my little helpers!

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IT’S TIME TO GET SERIOUS

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It’s that terribly sad time of year when the children have returned to school and suddenly summer seems to be nearly over.   There was no gentle slide towards the impending autumn; rather it happened overnight in the blink of an eye. One day everyone was swimming, with long leisurely lunches outside, and everywhere one turned holiday-makers swarmed like wasps over hot pavements.  Then the next moment the children were back at school, slipping back into their routines as if the long summer-break had never  happened. Suddenly the traffic is a little lighter, and the tourists have halved in number; and quite co-incidentally the weather  has dropped by several degrees.  To be honest though, I don’t actually think it’s the slightly cooler days that have made it all feel somehow different, it’s the fact that in France La Rentrée doesn’t just apply to schools; it actually applies to almost everything – restaurants re-open for business lunches, businesses re-open, government offices that have run on a mere skeleton staff return to full capacity, and in short France goes back to work and gets serious again. It’s a system quite unlike anything you may be used to, but it seems to work.

The two youngest girls and Roddy walk to school on these lovely sunny mornings, gallantly trailing  their pull-along bags; nearly every French child at primary school uses a pull-along and it certainly makes a great deal more sense than carrying backpacks groaning with books which are almost the same size and weight as the child carrying them.  As a result each morning and afternoon the old narrow streets of the village reverberate to the unmistakable sound of school-bag wheels rolling along the pavements.

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I drive the older two children to their school some 8kms away.  Once again we’re back to our school routine and once again admiring all the area has to offer. I relish how lucky I am to have such a beautiful early morning drive each day following the church steeples from village to village.  On the way home yesterday I stopped and took some photos, trying to capture the very essence of what makes the school run so special and why I never tire of it.

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This morning it was such a beautiful day I took the time to dawdle again and take a few more photos.  It was one of those early mornings when you just want to be outside; the air had a definite coolness to it, and the sultry humid air of mid-summer is slowly waning; it’s being replaced by something just a little fresher.

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I noticed this new sign in a nearby village, Roule ma Poule, it’s a new Salon de Thé due to open this coming Saturday; Roule ma poule does not mean ‘roll my chicken’, which is the literal translation, but is rather more an expression similar to ‘Let’s go!’. It should’t be confused with ça roule ma poule which in total contrast means more “are you okay, little one ?” in a casual way, with perhaps a wink!  Roddy – who is pretty fluent in French – read an amusing expression last year which he had understood was just a local term for ‘bad weather’; he happily went around repeating it to all and sundry last winter, thinking he had a grasp of the local patois. Unfortunately, little did he realize that in fact what he was saying, was indeed very local, but also extremely rude (but that’s another story!).  In short beware of odd phrases, they don’t always mean what they say at all!

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Still, summer may be fading, the sun may be just a little weaker and the nights a little cooler, but the days are still beautiful; with solar-heating the pool is still around 30˚C and I am hoping there will be much splashing after school and at weekends for at least another month, if not two!  To confirm that the holiday season is not totally forgotten some of our favourite friends are coming over to visit from America at the beginning of October; yesterday they phoned to confirm they had booked their flights and we couldn’t be more excited – I cannot wait to share our little corner of France with them.

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Our vegetable garden is still producing wonderful food. We still have lots of carrots, plenty of melons, loads of peppers, an abundance of courgettes and aubergines, and a few lettuce.   The grapes are ripe and soon it will be the turn of the persimmons and olives. The tomatoes were hit by an end of season late blight which took hold in a matter of hours after one particularly strong storm accompanied by an overnight downpour.  But I can’t complain as the freezer is stocked with homemade tomato sauce and ratatouille,  it is Roddy who has labored over the tomatoes with some dedication at the stove and the freezer is looking very healthy.  The hedgerows are overflowing with blackberries and sloes and our fig tree is heaving with fruit – right now we’re getting a trug-ful a day !

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The rest of the garden is still looking relatively good despite a tough summer for plants with searing temperatures and very little or no water. The Japanese Anenome have come into their own and are flowering in all sorts of corners that otherwise lie forgotten.

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Last night for the very first time I made confiture de figues.  In Italy it is a firm favourite and I have eaten it several times before, but never made my own. It is delicious with cheese and I am going to try it out on several friends who are coming for a bbq on Sunday. My many little sous-chefs here confirmed that it tasted fab while warm, so it’s looking good !

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In other news, it’s been a difficult summer for the chickens that has seen us back and forth to the vet several times; I can almost hear the vet clap his hands together as he sees les fous Anglais (crazy English) arrive at the door for yet further medicine for their chickens; these are drugs that costs 20€ a go for a chicken that cost 11 euros!   However, suffice it to say that not all has been a success and there is sadly now more than one cross at the end of the garden.  But we have treated a respiratory virus that seemed to plague several of them with (fingers crossed) complete success.

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Out of the eggs that Rosie sat on so patiently and hatched we kept one faverolle chick who we really hoped would be a female; it was lighter than the rest of them which we had given away but alas, the remaining ‘she’ is very much a ‘he’, who we have named – and I have no idea quite how this came about – Falafel!  He is now thirteen weeks old and very cute; he has taken to following me around the garden cheeping wherever he goes and for some bizarre reason he thinks the two ducks are his parents.  For the time being there is no fighting between him and Fritz and so for now his home is assured with us. He does sleep separately from the others and much to his dismay, Evie still thinks he is there just to be chased, no matter what we do to stop the fun and games….

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Talking of ducks, Penny and Adrian are thriving, but – and it seems there is always a but – Penny is not a lady, alas, but a male!  We have two male ducks and not the couple that we thought we were given!  We didn’t have the heart to rename him so he is now a male duck called Penny!  The two of them went through their teenage stage of being a little standoffish and aggressive,  but they’ve now settled into a happy domestic partnership who once again eat out of our hands – tame and as gentle as can be.  I guess as there is no dominant male any longer life is easy!

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A SLOWER PACE OF LIFE? YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!

“We will have more time on our hands”

“It will get less frenetic soon”

“When we have more time”

I seem to utter these phrases several times a day, or perhaps I am just trying to convince myself, but I do know that we really will have more time on our hands soon; I really do hope so.  Right now, I feel as if I am being pulled in every direction.  The weather is beautiful, with long hot sunny days and it’s not getting dark until well after 10pm.  This has a downside though, as we are working until well past 10pm each and every day.  We’re up against a few deadlines and nothing bar nothing seems to be going our way at the moment.

Our guest house has a deadline and we are frantically trying to get it finished, but it seems to be a case of one step forward and two back as we hit problem after problem;  below is a little glimpse of what it looked like when we bought the house, and what it has gradually turned into.

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The pool is still not finished as it has also suffered a few setbacks.  Arguing with customer relations on the phone is not my forte in French, and even Roddy struggled to break down the obstinate defenses of the seasoned pool shop campaigner who fielded his questions and demands with an increasingly frightening use of French terms which seemed to have no direct English translation.

Jack finished school this week on Tuesday and has been reveling in not having to get up at the crack of dawn any more.  Millie finished last Friday, but returns to school today and tomorrow for her Brevet exams which I’ll explain later;  this has been a revision week at home for her.  The two youngest girls still have another week much to their annoyance, but it’s hardly doom and gloom, they have their big school fête to look forward to at which I thoughtfully volunteered Roddy to run the barbecue!  There are dance performances, games and singing, and with much practicing replacing standard lessons at school the excitement is building amongst all the little ones.  They also have a day out touring the marsh in the Marais on their bicycles next week and it should be a fabulously novel school trip. This morning they went to school on their bikes as they were spending a good part of the day going over road safety, safe bike handling and so on. Of course, when you’re 8 or 10, this isn’t boring –  this is super-exciting stuff; in fact anything that detracts from normal lessons is super-exciting, at least that’s how it was in my day and I think that is one of the few things that hasn’t changed! Roddy trundled down the road with two children, two bikes, two large school satchels, helmets and various other accoutrements, muttering under his breath about Don Quixote, donkeys, and windmills. I rather think his foot suddenly developed a limp again just for the spectators.

What is also exciting for us is the fact that Izzi is home from University for the summer; it’s fabulous to have all five of the children together again and it’s just plain NICE to have her home.  She has taken over the role of head-cook and part-time housekeeper whilst we live in this temporary whirlwind of deadlines, and in turn this allows me to get bitten late at night in the garden by mosquitos as I deadhead, weed and water. The bats whirring sibilantly around my head are very much my friends in reality, of course, but I have to worry about them too, I have had a fear of bats ever since I watched a highly unsuitable horror movie when I was a teenager. Roddy confidently announced we had two species in the garden, and surprised at his knowledge, I asked which sort – the answer was typical and to the point – ‘big ones and little ones’.

Mowing the lawn at 8pm yesterday evening Izzi called me in to supper.  What awaited was not a quick snack thrown together, but a beautifully presented delicious meal, including a much needed glass of wine. Best of all, she is managing to cater for all seven of us with a lot of our produce fresh from the garden; no one could ever ask for a more thoughtful beautiful daughter, Izzi darling, you are the best, Thank You xxx

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Amidst the chaos of the last week,  it turns out that our four Faverol chicks appear to be three males and one female –  which is not the result we had wanted!  As I had promised our neighbour’s son, who also happens to be best friend with the girls, a female and a male chick, I wasn’t going to go back on my promise.  So we have advertised the other two males for sale as we cannot keep another rooster; it would be much bigger than our dear bantam rooster, Fritz, and would no doubt beat him up quite severely with so few females to go around.  Roddy did mention that we had some perfectly good casserole dishes and a bottle or two of good red wine which could be used to rectify the situation, but this has appalled the children who vehemently stated they were going to a good home instead. As a result, however, I was persuaded (although it took very little persuading, to be frank), to purchase two new laying-hens.  So we now have two beautiful white Sussex hens; Églantine and Astrid – regal speckled-white ladies amongst the shadows under the lime trees. Along the way when my back was turned Millie also managed to squeeze a young female white Silkie into the hen basket at the same time, whom she has named Constance.  She has been wanting a Silkie for five years, and  her dream has finally been fulfilled.  We had to trim the feathers around her eyes yesterday and I can see she is going to be the pampered pooch of the hen house!  Roddy stomped his feet at first and then muttered that Constance looked a little like a poodle!

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Then, just as I thought I was finally in control, Millie dropped a bombshell. We were just returning in the car yesterday evening, halfway down the drive, when she casually mentioned she needed her passport to take to school with her tomorrow for her Brevet.  “But I don’t have it” I replied, “it’s in England being renewed, I sent it off a couple of days ago.”

“What ??????” she wailed, “You cannot be serious ????  OMG !!!   I have to have it,  I have to have a piece of official identity with a photo, nothing else will count, Mama my life is finished, I won’t be able to take my Brevet –  Mama how can you have sent it away, Mama…”   I felt about as small and useless as a snail, but right then I didn’t have any other answer,  which really wasn’t helpful in placating a distraught 15 year old who truly believed she would now not be able to take her Brevet.

I’d best explain a little.  The Brevet in France is similar to GSCE exams in the UK;  they are taken in several subjects at the end of College (MIddle School), and most children are usually 15 when they take their Brevet.  Some leave school for good after this, for others it is the exams that decide if they are able to move on to Lycée (High School), but there are only three years of Lycée and four years of College here.  The exams are sat right the way across France on the same days at the same time, by millions of pupils.  During the past couple of months they have sat several mock exams (the Brevet Blanc) but now everything comes down to two days.  I phoned Roddy who was not at home to ask him what we should do, although he had no clue either.

Just as I was preparing to ring the school and beg, plead, grovel (this was not a time for pride), Roddy called me back.  Rather sheepishly he told me he had found an envelope on the dashboard of his car, and in it was the said passport which was meant to be on it’s way to the UK and Her Majesty’s Passport Office for renewal.  He had completely forgotten to go to the post office with it on Monday when I had given it to him.  Never again will I swear at my husband for forgetting to mail a letter; it’s true there have been other occasions when I have taken his car and found a letter sitting on the passenger seat under a long-forgotten coat which I had assumed had long ago reached it’s destination; and there have been occasions, I have to admit, when I have been more than just a little annoyed (with maybe even the odd swear word uttered), but never ever again will this happen – for this time he has truly saved my bacon.

Peace has been restored and I did not have to grovel and beg at all!  So to any readers from France who have children taking their Brevet today and tomorrow I wish them the very best of luck, or as a French lady said to me yesterday, we don’t say good luck to someone we say Merde!

In the meantime Izzi and I are off to Bordeaux today to collect her best friend who is visiting France for the first time ever,  now if only I can find the time to show her around!  Meanwhile I am still dreaming of those long lazy summer days reading a book under the shade of a tree, drink in hand and the occasional dip in the pool when it gets too warm – sigh, we will have more time soon!

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WE HAVE CHICKS!

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I grew up on a farm; beef, sheep and arable land. Lambs, calves, foals, kittens, puppies we had a-plenty but we never had chicks.  I have no idea why this was; perhaps, and most obviously, it was because we never had a rooster. Our hens were free-range around the farmyard, but they sadly lacked a male counterpart.  However, if you have followed my blog you will have guessed by now that chicks have been very much on my mind, not least due to the pleadings of the children!  So, when in November we purchased our four laying hens, which were quickly followed by a pair of Pekim bantam hens and a young rooster, I knew that chicks were going to feature in our future – it would be impossible to refuse the children their little piece of animal husbandry and I wasn’t objecting!

So, fast forward a few months to the spring and we had two broody bantams each sitting on a clutch of eggs. Much excitement was followed by bitter disappointment as each batch failed to produce anything at all. Roddy did some forensics on the eggs once it was quite clear they were never going to hatch and it became apparent Fritz had not quite done his job.  He was certainly practising several times a day, as we were all a witness to that, but for whatever reason these particular eggs were not fertilized.

A friend then told us of someone who had some fertilized Faverole eggs and we thought as Rosie was still listless with disappointment we’d attempt to be cuckoos and let nature do the rest.  The Faverole is a French breed, it all seemed rather fitting.  So three weeks ago on a very hot Sunday whilst the rest of the family headed to the beach, Millie, Gigi and I set off on a two and a half hour round trip for five fertilized eggs – no one was going to accuse me of not making an effort to fulfill their dream!  We knew Rosie was tired, so whilst we were excited to put the new eggs under her, we were also quite aware that she might abandon them – we were going to just let nature run its course and see what happened.  Quite bizarrely, the five eggs turned into just four at the start of Week 2,  it is still a total mystery what happened to the egg as there was never any trace of it.

Three weeks after Operation Faverole commenced, there was no sign of movement come the appointed day on Sunday morning at breakfast time, so it was without any anticipation that Gigi and I wandered down to the ‘broody’ coop a little later with some extra food.  As we chatted away and nonchalantly opened Rosie’s little upstairs door, feed in one hand and fresh water in the other, it was a complete shock to find a tiny fluffy yellow chick inches away, staring at us in bewilderment!  A lot had happened since breakfast, it seemed.  The little bundle of fluff stood out against the dark brownish black of Rosie, and over the course of the morning the other three eggs hatched without further ado. For some reason the excitement affected everyone, including dog, cats, ducks and even Roddy!

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Yesterday morning we set about redeveloping the duck’s old outdoor run for Rosie and her tiny babies;  it’s going to be vital they are kept safe from Rory and Clara, as our two kittens are now almost fully-grown cats and they are both Olympic-level hunters.  At teatime Rosie and her chicks were safely transferred from the far end of the garden to their new home just by the terrace in the cats’ travelling basket, and the children took up their positions watching through the slatted walls of the run like tourists outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for a glimpse of the new-borns. After an hour or so Rosie finally gave in to the adoring crowds and let the chicks emerge from under her protective wings into the open air. It really was rather like watching royalty appear on the balcony. There was quite some considerable excitement amongst the crowds which now included four neighbours, attracted by the sound of high-pitched whispering and the paparazzi clicking away.

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Having never observed baby chicks and a hen together, I was struck last night and this morning by Rosie’s utter devotion to her babies; she is such a proud, proud mother, and she permanently fusses over them and they in turn follow her everywhere; where Mum goes, the babies follow. I am totally hooked.  Roddy remarked that it is like watching four little yellow tugs working feverishly around a great Cunard liner.

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Amongst all the madness on Sunday I had also set about making strawberry jam. I’d bought several kilos of locally grown Charente Maritime strawberries at the market on Friday and I wasn’t going to let them go to waste amidst all the excitement. So after the royal Faverole introduction there seemed no better time to try out the first homemade jam of the year, complete with a batch of homemade English scones, fresh from the oven. The timing was perfect for the childrens’ traditional 4pm goûter, which is the hour of the afternoon snack in France. Our neighbours’ son joined in the feeding frenzy, as he is a young French boy who has become a huge fan of ze leetle English scones!

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Meanwhile the jobs here are already mounting up as I have spent far too much time standing watching chicks!  Yesterday afternoon Rosie led her little line of followers to the little tub of special chick feed, and started Lesson 1 of life.  A few moments later and Lesson 2 started – this was the drinking one, and the children fell about giggling hysterically as one small chick’s attempts to mimic mum’s throwing back of the head led to a rash backwards somersault. I can see it’s going to be an entertaining summer !

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 Animal Tales Badge Final

TRAGEDY IN THE COOP

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It’s been a rather sad week and for that reason I am keeping this brief.  I don’t want to be morose and I don’t want to dwell on things, this has always been such an upbeat blog, but one of our chickens, one of the big ginger farm hens, died at the weekend.  It was simply horrid.  Hetty and I were down at the bottom of the garden cutting some of the lower branches off the lime tree, when something made us decide to take a look inside the chicken coop.  I truly don’t know why, but we opened the door and there inside was Buack Buack, flapping her wings in a crazy fashion.  I ran as fast as I could back to the house and called for Roddy and Millie to come quickly.  We were no more than two or three minutes.  We opened the door and she was dead, lying on the floor of the coop.  It was awful.

We stood hugging our poor sobbing children.  But like most children, within half an hour they were playing with a friend, poor chicken temporarily forgotten, screams of laughter once again rung around the garden and Gigi returned to her current hobby, taming Penny and Adrian so they eat out of her hand!

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We phoned our vet and they told us to bring her straight in and they would carry out an autopsy for us.  We really did want to know why she had died.  Why, why, why?  Roddy loaded the box into the car and off we trundled to our vet who is in the middle of Rochefort.  Amid Louis XIV’s venerated and exquisite 17th century buildings, you would imagine a very la-de-da surgery, caring for the pampered pooches of the sophisticated residents living in such a beautiful part of the town.  But no, this is very much a vet caring for farm animals too.  The shelves are lined with fly-masks for horses and various boxes that indicate their contents will be helpful to sick sheep, cattle, pigs and goats!  Whilst waiting we casually looked at the notice-board; did we want a 2 year-old ewe? A puppy? Some goats? Or perhaps some riding lessons?  Noticeboards are such fun to read but rather dangerous – suddenly I was wondering if Roddy would mind terribly if we had a sheep, and as we had talked endlessly about getting a puppy in the summer, and as it is nearly the summer after all………

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And then, we nearly came away with another kitten; nearly but not quite, as we really, really, did NOT want another kitten!  But they were so adorable and I am such a pushover when it comes to any small helpless newborn creature.  The veterinary nurse showed them to us; they were about three weeks old and just starting to open their eyes.  They had been left on the vet’s doorstep in a cardboard box the night before.  I suppose someone was desperate and didn’t know what to do with them – at least they had the decency to leave them at the vet’s.

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HEN-ZILLA AND THE MOLLYCODDLED DUCKS

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The children have just started two weeks of spring holidays, which makes me really happy.  Friends coming and going, sleepovers here and there; it’s like Picadilly Circus but I love it.  It also means there are a few extra pairs of hands to help in the garden; there is just so much to do at this time of year and weeds seem to grow overnight.  We have been working so hard in the newly formed vegetable garden, and we spent the afternoon on Sunday planting out tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and hot chillies which are Millie’s project.  We also put in some lettuce, salad greens, cucumbers, watermelons and courgettes.  The children planted because that’s the fun part while I hoed up weeds and raked!  Our beans we sowed a couple of weeks ago are now about 8″ high and the peas are shooting up.  There are rows of tiny carrot tops peeping through the soil, along with the spinach and potatoes – it’s all so exciting.  We have had to fence it to keep our dear feathered friends out, or else they would think we had planted a feast just for them, and we included the row of ten grape-vines inside the fencing because I read that chickens love grapes and we would not have a grape left if they were within their reach.  Next project to hand cut all the grass under the vines!

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Dear Rosie is being a very dutiful hen; she has less than a week to go now and we are all so hopeful we might get at least one chick.  She leaves her nest briefly around 11am each morning:  the routine is always the same as she wanders up the garden, stretches her legs and looks around.  The others are really quite nasty to her as she is no longer “one of them” and they peck at her and chase her away if she comes too close; it’s actually rather sad to watch.  After ten or fifteen minutes she swiftly heads back to her nest and carries on coddling her beloved eggs.

Eleanor is now also broody, sitting on two eggs and a ping-pong ball to make up the numbers!  Our sweet, lovely, docile Eleanor, she of the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party fame, has turned into Hen-Zilla.  Each morning when we open their door, she comes out straightaway clucking that special phrase of cluck we’re now getting used to; “Get out of my way, I’m an important broody hen with eggs to sit on; out of my way, out of my way, I need to eat, no time to waste!” and she is back inside and on her eggs within ten minutes, having made quite sure that we all know exactly how important she is!

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But the real time-wasters are Penny and Adrian, the pair of ducklings we were given at the Farmers Market nine days ago.  Most of the ducks sold that day no doubt were bought to be fattened and intended for the table.  They would have gone into a large sandy enclosure with an old pond in the corner, where the last blade of grass would have long since ceased to exist.  However, Penny and Adrian have entered a life of luxury, and are enjoying the pampered mollycoddled life of a pet duck!  When they arrived, a temporary run was made for them, along with an old paddling-pool filled with clean cool water.  The next day a new home arrived.  A brand new dog-kennel was put together and filled with straw.  Chairs were placed near the enclosure and the children would sit and watch them, chatting and laughing, the ducks getting used to people and their endless talking!  The chickens came and took a look, wondering what all the fuss was about and who the new arrivals were.  Penny and Adrian ate and swam and loved all the attention.  Then just when they really thought life couldn’t get much better, it did – in fact it got a whole lot better.   Yesterday the temporary fence was removed from around their paddling-pool and their deluxe house – they are free to wander in the garden along with the chickens.  Their permanent pond is under construction, yet another project!  The chickens take little notice of them and the cats have decided they are definitely too big to hunt and wander away.  Bentley, being Bentley, totally ignores them.  The ducks waddle around, they flap their tiny wings and run across the lawn – if this is what life is all about, it really is pretty good.

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The garden is changing on a daily basis; it’s like a video on permanent fast-forward and everything is growing so fast.  The first roses on a south-facing wall are blooming

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I love the Arum Lilies, simple perfection

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and the Tamarisk is never still, always moving in the breeze

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We’ve also been walking, lots and lots of walking; it’s such a perfect climate at the moment, not too hot and not too cold and everywhere is so stunning.  Hedgerows with sweet scented lilac,  tall grass waving in the breeze, waiting to be cut for hay.  The bright yellow of rapeseed cuts a colourful swathe across the landscape.  Blowing dandelion seeds and making wishes.  Childhood memories and carefree days.

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Whenever we come home and walk down the driveway I am greeted by the beautiful flowering horse-chestnut.  All the trees are incredible and in full leaf; one half of the garden is now a canopy of shade.  Sometimes I just stand and stare.  I call the children over to look at them as it’s all too easy to forget about the trees.  They are just there, a part of the garden, and we do take trees for granted.  But I like to draw attention to them as they are magnificent, hundreds of years old, and only then, standing looking up at the giant lime tree, do we all really see how huge it is.

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SO MUCH CAN HAPPEN IN 4 DAYS

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It’s amazing how so much can happen in four days, I mean I know it is only four days since Sunday, that’s a fact, but it seems like four weeks. The French air-traffic controllers went back to work, and so Izzi flew back to University on Sunday. A hot and sunny day and the usually sleepy little airport at La Rochelle was a heaving mass of frustrated travellers and fractious children after so many cancellations.  The arrivals and departures building is so sweet and so small you can’t even check in online as it doesn’t have the facilities, and I drove off leaving Izzi in a 65-minute queue for security.  She texted me from the plane whilst they were sitting on the tarmac waiting to depart – 15 passengers had somehow gone missing, security had been completely swamped as three flights were leaving within ten minutes of each other, and she was next to a toddler and behind a crying baby and then someone threw a book at her head – all of this and she still hadn’t taken off!  It was going to be a long 75 minute flight across the Channel!

Roddy is still hobbling with his infected foot and ‘septic shock’, and is on his second course of antibiotics.  I’m therefore still flying solo so to speak, and there are far too many jobs around the garden still remaining half-finished.  However, the days are drawing out and it isn’t getting dark until gone 9pm so after I have collected the children from school and everyone has been fed and watered there is still plenty of time for an evening dog walk and some playing in the garden.

More dramas on Tuesday evening when Gigi, our youngest, tripped over whilst playing in our neighbour’s garden and took the brunt of the fall on her wrist.  Amidst floods of tears, I took her to our delightful local doctor who was happy to see her despite the fact it was definitely the apéritif hour!  He suspected it might be a hairline fracture of her wrist and sent us to the Urgences in Royan; this was a little further than Rochefort but, in his words, much more efficient and with much less waiting time.  I am really happy to say it wasn’t fractured but just sprained although she will be wearing a support bandage for the next couple of weeks.  However yesterday she was back happily playing in the neighbour’s garden once again; the young bounce back so quickly at that age – it is making Roddy green with envy.  When Gigi fell over, I had been in the middle of giving Bentley a much needed spring hair-cut as he was looking extremely shaggy!  Poor chap – taking care of Gigi meant he got left unfinished – one side trimmed, the other still long and hairy – until the next morning.  He looked like two different dogs, depending on which side you viewed him from!

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The garden seems to have literally exploded into life;  gone are the bare trees and in turn we have a jungle of semi-awakening buds and unfurling leaves, which literally seem to have burst open overnight.  This was no gentle transformation!  Of course the weather has played a major part in this, and we went from a pleasant 20C last week to a very hot 30C this week; in fact, we were actually having to water both our long-term plants in pots and also everything else we have recently planted. Whoever heard of having to water plants in April!  The chickens have taken to foraging under the trees and old stone walls and avoiding the open shadeless lawn.

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The plum blossom and peach blossom have long since given way to small fruits, but the cherry is still magnificent –  a stunning backdrop of white amongst all the greenery surrounding it.  The horse-chestnut is in full leaf and its flowers are poised to open any day.  The Virginia creeper which climbs all the old stone walls has suddenly come to life, little red buds and delicate leaves appearing all over the place amidst the tangled web of the vine.

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The wisteria spreading along the front of the house is stunning, and gently scenting the bedrooms above through the open windows with a sea of bluebells underneath.

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Rhubarb has shot up out of nowhere in one corner of our newly formed vegetable garden.  We didn’t even know it was there. The girls and I have sowed and hoed and weeded!  We have cut and trimmed hazel sticks for the runner beans, and cut off the tops and made them into pea-sticks to support the peas as they start to grow.  We have so far also planted potatoes, carrots and spinach.

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The redcurrant and blackcurrant are all flowering, I think we have five of each; the irises are a vivid blue against a backdrop of green; and the tiny wild strawberries which grow in abundance under one of the south facing walls are in flower.

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Our huge fig tree in the small courtyard to the side of the house has finally come into leaf and I am extremely relieved to see buds forming on the grapevines.  Relieved as I have never pruned vines before, we have a row of old established vines which we incorporated into the vegetable garden which bear really sweet juicy red grapes and a huge old vine against the wall in the courtyard.  They were all sorely lacking attention when we bought the house and after much advice from friends I tackled them just before Christmas and I was brutal!  Every day I discover something new, it’s like entering a toy shop for the first time – I can’t wait to see what our garden has to offer in our first full year here.

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Finally, Rosie, one of our sweet Pekim bantams has gone broody which has caused so much excitement in the household.  It’s the first time we have had a broody hen.  We moved her at dusk to the old small coop which we no longer use, a joint effort between Millie and I as we carefully carried her and re-located the eggs.  However, nothing is that simple.  Naturally, she was sitting on several of the larger eggs of the big girls (as we call our standard farm hens) and only two bantam eggs.  So whilst Millie was at school the next day I waited until Rosie took a little time off her nest to switch a few more eggs.  I waited and waited, and about 11 o’clock she hopped outside for a walk.  Quickly I hurried down the garden with 6 bantam eggs from the past week and carefully put them in her nest,  removing the large eggs from the big girls.

Mission accomplished, or so I thought.  I waited a while to check she would go back into the coop and all would be well but when I checked, she wasn’t there!  She’d gone back to the big coop they all share and was quietly patiently waiting outside the nesting box whilst one of the big girls laid an egg!  Obviously I was going to have to pick her up and put her back on her nest, but I hate picking up hens and unfortunately a broody hen does not like being picked up – especially when she thinks she is being taken from her eggs.  Bravely I donned my gardening gloves and carried her back to the old coop and her bantam eggs. Two days later and she has remembered which coop to go back to, and is being a very dutiful hen.  Thank goodness she only has another 18 days or so to go! The excitement amongst the children is akin to the build up to Christmas. I hope to goodness that the eggs are actually fertilized and that Fritz has done his job.  I am not asking for a lot, just one little chick would be fine, I’ll keep you posted!

 

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TEN DAYS

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There is something about the month of March in our family – the children nearly always fall by the wayside with this bug or that, they can happily navigate their way around all the winter sickness and then March arrives and wham, they drop like flies. I truly thought we had got away with it this year, but first Millie caught a medium dose of bubonic plague at school, and then Roddy found himself unable to walk after an ankle grew to the size of a football.

He claimed to be in some pain so our fabulous neighbour very kindly took him to the local Urgences (ER) in Rochefort as it was a Sunday afternoon.  Several hours later, and armed with a sack-load of antibiotics he returned with an infected foot after spending several hours in one of those silly back-to-front tunics on a wobbly gurney in the corridor while they did blood tests. Back in November when we were still renovating the house, a water tank fell on his foot and his toenail went quite black.  To his credit he just carried on as though nothing had happened and we thought little more of it until he dropped a log on it last week – and although the air went temporarily blue as a vast amount of expletives could be heard, the moment passed without further incident.  However, it appears that the wayward piece of oak caused a septic shock that triggered the infection.  So, ten days later, he is still on crutches and unable to drive or do anything at all.  Garden projects lie half-finished.

Just as I thought that not a lot else could go wrong, Izzi called me from university in the UK; “Mama, I’ve got an awful sore throat and cough, and I’m flying to Milan tomorrow and the doctor is closed!  Help!”.  My advice was simple – drink lots of lemon juice and honey, eat raw garlic and suck on raw ginger.  There was little else I could do from a few hundred miles away in France and I crossed my fingers it would do the trick.

So March finally passed and I welcomed April, quite literally rushed off my feet.  So many extra things to do with Roddy unable to move or drive.  The plum blossom is already over and in it’s place delicate green leaves and the beginnings of fruit.  The cherry now takes pride of place in the garden, it’s magnificent blossom overshadows everything else.

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However, April brought the ants. I came into the kitchen one morning last week to find a trail of dark little specks, speeding across the floor like a tide of black dust, creeping imperceptibly under the dishwasher.  But there was no time to worry about that until I had delivered the children on-time to their respective schools!  With a much needed cup of coffee on my return, chickens let out and fed, kittens fed and husband fed, further investigation revealed a music-festival gathering under the dishwasher, writhing and dancing to some invisible beat.  After pulling the machine half-out, I realized that most of the ants in the Charente-Maritime were actually jamming away under there.  I hurried off to our local garden/agricultural centre, Gamm Vert, the place where you can buy everything – plants, clothing, chicken-feed, ham, cognac, lawn mowers, paint and even an oven, and searched for some ant repellent.  But what did I find on the shelves?  Not much choice of ant poison, but a huge new seasonal selection of snake-repellents!  Lots of the stuff.  I thought I had left Florida and snakes behind, I HATE snakes, and now, if I believed what I read on the shelves, my perfect garden was about to be invaded by all of Europe’s finest venemous varieties. Through my tears I could see shelf after shelf of products of various designs for repelling the mighty asp, the dreaded viper, and the lesser spotted cow-gobbler, or something.  Quietly sobbing I remembered the ant-bait just in time, and drove home thinking dark thoughts about reptilian defenses in the garden.

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Of course when I spoke to our neighbour that afternoon he told me that there were indeed snakes, but  –  not too many would be seen, if indeed any at all.  They were small, and the cats would keep them away as well.  “Just don’t put your hand in any cracks in old walls” he said!

So ants dealt with, snake fears almost allayed, it was time to learn how to use the chainsaw.  Our barn is stacked full of wood but most of it is cut to metre long lengths and I had to halve them to fit our fireplace.  Roddy is normally in charge of this programme, but he was still in his chair and we needed some wood.   I am quite amused that despite being a farmer’s daughter and growing up on a farm I had never used a chainsaw, but after Roddy dutifully hobbled out and showed me how to mix fuel and start the noisy beast, I now know how to cut firewood. He did not have the courage to watch me cut my leg off and hobbled away once he thought I had things under control.

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Easter arrived and along with it came stunning weather; clear blue skies and some much welcomed sunshine.  I set off for Bordeaux airport with Millie to pick up Izzi who was flying in from Milan, thankfully feeling much better.  So excited at the thought of having all five children together again. She had been staying with a university friend whose family lives in Milan as she has two weeks Spring Break.  It was a stunning drive down to Bordeaux as it was Easter Day and the roads were quite empty.  Millie told me all about her forthcoming school-trip the following year to China.  She will be starting Lycée this September, the equivalent of the last three years of High School in the USA, and she has decided on Chinese as her third foreign language choice, alongside Spanish and English.  Of course for her English is the easy foreign language she doesn’t have to even think about (an easy pass as we call it).   Jack, who is 13 in a couple of weeks time, will be going to the Alps with the school next winter for a week learning how to dog-sleigh.  A skill I doubt he will need in life but immense fun!  The two youngest girls are off on a big school-trip on Thursday and have had not one but two parties this Easter weekend.  I have decided I want to go back to being a student; I don’t remember it being half as much fun when I was at school!

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I rarely go to Bordeaux as the airport is an hour and forty minutes south of us and normally everyone flies into La Rochelle.  However, on such a beautiful day it was fun to see new scenery, and with so many vineyards Millie and I had great fun differentiating the organic ones from those using endless pesticides – the latter have grass around the roots which is an incongruous shade of orange.  As I love driving, the time flew past and Millie even managed to take a photo of the River Dordogne as we crossed it at 70kph!

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Easter Monday, I managed to spend a couple of hours in the garden in the afternoon in some easterly sunshine, attacking the weeds that seemed to have sprung up overnight with the warmer weather; the chickens helped as always when Fritz would leave them alone (note to self : spring is definitely in the air), or perhaps they hindered; either way I enjoy their company!

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I hate it when the children go back to school even after just a long weekend at home; it is always so much fun but suddenly today the house was silent again.  To cheer myself up I stopped on the way back from dropping them off to take some quick photos of the beautiful weeping willow outside Pont l’Abbe, it really is quite fantastic in the early morning sunshine.

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The daffodils along the river beside the willow will soon be past their best; it seems like only yesterday we were so excited to see the first signs of spring and now already we are moving on to the next stage.

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Everywhere the blackthorn is in flower, delicate little white petals which bely the sharp prickly thorns they hide.  I have never seen so much blackthorn; every hedgerow is a sea of white, mile upon mile of surf surging up out of the ditches, its spume blowing across the roads with every gust of the breeze.  There are plenty of old folklore tales about blackthorn; in autumn it bears the sloe fruit, of course, and this year we will be ready with empty bottles and some gin or vodka. If there is an abundance of fruit, which with so many flowers this spring might suggest, it is said it will be a harsh winter – what my Father used to call “a blackthorn winter”.  But still I can’t start thinking about next winter yet, we have only just said goodbye to this one.   Still I learnt to use a chainsaw! I wonder if it will be effective on the snakes !!!

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THE MAD HATTERS’ TEA PARTY

HDR_1993 2The photo that started it all

It’s a dismal rainy afternoon in South West France.  The children are on their winter break for two weeks and it’s raining.  What is one to do ? Make cupcakes of course!  So, with the two youngest girls, we baked, we iced, we giggled, spoons were licked and a fine mess was made –  baking with the children is always wonderfully sticky fun.

The girls then said they were going to have a tea party.  I thought this was a great Idea.  So they dressed up in their party clothes, dragged in a small table from the garage, found the low stools and chairs, and then took out some real china and silver napkin rings. I just knew this was going to be one heck of a tea party!

However, the number of place-settings confused me at first, until I realized that an invite had gone out to one of the American Girl dolls. This was followed by much giggling and whispering, and then I saw Bentley, our dear sweet long-suffering Jack Russell, offered a seat.  Nothing really too unusual here I thought, and carried on with my paper-work.

However, out of the corner of my eye I then saw Rory, one of our six month old kittens, had joined in the fun. This now peaked my interest and I furtively started to watch a little more closely, un-noticed, in the background.  The giggling continued unabated.

Our youngest then left on the pretext of going to the bathroom, but she had that wicked glint in her eye and I knew something was up!  She returned carrying Eleanor, the friendliest of our Pekim Bantam hens; yes Eleanor was coming to the tea party!  Now I’d forgotten all about the paper-work, I grabbed my phone (no time to look for the camera) and started snapping away….this was hilarious !

IMG_2131Rory wasn’t sure – what was that icky-sticky stuff on the table ? Bentley started to have a meaningful conversation with Elizabeth, the American Girl doll.

 

IMG_1983More tea anyone? Bentley looked perturbed that his plate was empty. 

IMG_2034Rory thought he might just get the last of the crumbs as he enjoyed the rest of ‘whatever it was’ so much.  Bentley on the other hand, now has something ON his plate but cannot quite understand that he is going to be allowed to eat off the table, that’s a definite NO normally; and Eleanor, well she’s just sitting, wondering what on earth is happening….

IMG_1964Rory really wanted more – and then some more. Who knew cats liked cake?

IMG_2010Well, as soon as Rory licked his lips (yum, that butter cream icing is just too good!),  Bentley decided the temptation was too much, and no one was going to stop him from having just a sneaky little taste….

IMG_2004and all the time Eleanor just sat there, unruffled by the chaos and laughter….

What a fun afternoon; there is one thing for sure – our household is never dull – but this certainly beats electronics and television on a rainy afternoon. Of course, Mr H thought it was all totally normal when he walked through the door, but then he is slightly barmy himself – I can see where the girls get it from now.