Building a Potager

P6600754My vision for our garden was always to create somewhere enchanting; somewhere that had a romantic feel, I imagined a place where one could float around while wearing a swirling skirt with a glass of champagne in hand. I didn’t want anywhere that would be taken too seriously, instead I wanted somewhere that would delight the senses, fuel the imagination and be easy to maintain. But above all else there had to be somewhere that provided edible treats. If you have ever eaten a warm sun-ripened tomato straight from the vine, you will know that the taste far outweighs anything bought in the chilled section of the grocery store.

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Summer and a Day That Could Change Our Lives

 

IMG_7515As I sit here writing this post gazing down our long garden, it’s a scene that probably hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. Yet so much could alter today, the day Britain votes to either remain or leave the EU. In London it’s pouring with rain, there are lightning strikes, and storms and flooding have caused travel chaos. Here in the Charente Maritime the hot sun continues to shine, the skies remain resolutely blue, and life continues as normal. Read more

Breaking Ground

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A lot has happened in our sleepy little corner of France this past week. Or at least a lot for a place where life ticks along at a slow pace that’s remained relatively unchanged for a century. On Thursday we had an earthquake (yes, a real earthquake!) measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale. The epicentre was in between Rochefort and La Rochelle. There was some slight damage and schools were evacuated but there were no injuries. Read more

THE DEMISE OF BORIS

I’m really hoping that someone will tell me we are not the only people to have given their watermelons names. However, I rather fear as this is bordering on the totally insane that we probably are, and therefore it’s probably even worse that I’m actually telling you all about it rather than keeping it a secret!

I know this all sounds rather bizarre, in my defence, I wasn’t the one who named the watermelons, it was the children. I promise it was.

You see, we have never successfully grown watermelons before and so when two started to grow bigger and bigger for some reason they got named and during much laughter at supper one night, Boris and Tom were christened! Boris was the smaller one and a deep dark green. Yesterday was the day he finally got taken out of the vegetable garden to the table on the terrace where seven people sat under the shade of the umbrella, staring, waiting, wondering if he would be juicy, wondering if he would be as ripe as we hoped. The truth is he was utterly delicious – our very first watermelon we have successfully grown and eaten. Tom is next but not for a week or two!

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Just to prove we are not completely bonkers, we headed off on our bikes yesterday evening for the very normal and down-to-earth activity of blackberry-picking.  Long warm summer days mean the blackberries are incredible this year, and also very early. For our foraging, it’s vital to find a good source away from any commercial farming where fruits can run the risk of being sprayed with all sorts of chemicals as farmers treat their fields, so we headed down to our favourite place, the Marais; untouched by modern farming methods and away from any mass-produced crops, the blackberries and sloes here are very much as nature intended them to be.

Every time we go there (and it is often, we admit) there is something new to see –  also some things remain unchanged, the three bay mares still come over as soon as they hear our voices.
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It’s awash with insects and wildlife; I’m just an amateur but it is surely a nature photographer’s dream location and I can’t help myself when opportunities arise. The two photos below are of a spotted darter (which seem to be swarming in plague proportions right now) and a yellow-tail moth caterpillar which Millie found amongst the blackberries. We also saw a barn owl out quartering the fields in broad daylight.

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The secret to blackberry-picking I have found is to not worry about filling the basket to start with, because in our family it simply won’t happen.  The blackberries are so sweet and still warm from the sun and for the first half an hour nothing is saved, everyone picks and eats, tongues and fingers turning purple. The bucket dangles uselessly from someone’s arm and  it’s only once everyone has had their fill that the task of collecting them can begin in earnest.  Blackberry-jelly, blackberry and apple pie, crumbles with cream in the cold winter months, or perhaps, as I like best, eaten plain, straight from the freezer with some yoghurt for breakfast.  Thankfully they freeze well; they’re packed with vitamins, organic and free – what’s not to love about them ? The best part of all is collecting them though, as it is such great family fun.

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Of course nothing is ever completely normal with us, and Millie borrowed my camera for some digital therapy whilst I was busy picking.  Going through the results yesterday evening I came across quite a few selfies she had taken and then some great photos of us all, I think Gigi is eating as fast as I pick here!

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and then some more – how on earth did she manage this?  There are some settings I never knew existed on my camera quite obviously, this shot now looks like something from the 70’s…

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and then it becomes a water-colour painting, if only she hadn’t chopped everyone’s heads off!  I can see I have lots of experimenting to do!

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The blackberry-picking and bike-ride was a family affair as always, with Bentley and Evie joining in too. Since Bentley’s offering last week they have finally become friends, and Evie now follows Bentley’s lead on everything he does. In the Marais this involves sniffing scents from a thousand sources and eating delicacies from the local inhabitants!

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When Evie had really walked far enough for her tender age of just 10 weeks, she fitted quite snugly under my arm!

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We had so much fun that we arrived home long after we meant to and we’d totally forgotten about heading to the local grocery store for some supper. As the children jumped in the pool we wondered what on earth we were going to eat. It was up to Roddy to conjure up something tasty using whatever he could find, mostly vegetables from the garden.  Thankfully, though, this is his speciality;  I am so lucky as he rarely follows recipes and loves to experiment, so his absolute forte is coming up with incredible dishes from what always seems to be an empty pantry! Soon delicious smells started filling the kitchen and children appeared dripping in the doorway wanting to know what Daddy was cooking that smelt so good.

Here’s what he did. One and a half onions and some garlic were sautéed in a little olive oil with a mixture of Curcumin, sweet paprika and some mild curry spice. Then he added a couple of small chopped aubergines, and then a diced courgette; last came half a dozen freshly picked tomatoes in quarters.  Once they were gently cooked he bound them all together with a little cream, let it cool, and organized the pastry in a pie-dish. An egg from the chickens was folded gently into the warm mixture and it all went inside the pastry which he folded over at the edges. A few slices of mozzarella and a little grated cheese and it was popped into a hot oven for 20 minutes.  The result was an utterly mouthwateringly delicious far-eastern delight of home grown goodness, washed down with a glass of local red wine – a great way to end the day.

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A TALE OF CONTRASTS

“Variety is the Spice of Life” – so they say, and in my case it certainly would appear to be true!

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The summer holidays are here, the children have finished school and with the long hot sunny days the grass has turned brown from the lack of rain.  The kitchen floor tiles are permanently marked with wet foot-prints as children wander in and out from the pool.  Wherever I go I seem to stop to pick up a bikini-bottom, a swimming-towel, or a pair of goggles – all dropped here or left there; but I don’t mind too much, these are the signs of summer and the children are winding down from early starts in the cold wet rain of winter and spring.  People drop in for supper, always casual at this time of year, with plenty of fresh produce from the garden, and either friends of the children are always here or our children are away at other people’s houses. There are tents on the lawn, and screams from the pool;  it’s all part and parcel of having five children and I love it!

Early morning is the peaceful time; the soft golden hour between 7.00 and 8.00am is a favourite time of the day to wander down the garden to watch the ducks lumbering across the lawn as they wake up, wings flapping as they learn to fly. It’s akin to watching giant amphibious aircraft struggling to leave the ground. Much noise, much effort, and little to show for it still.  The cluck of contented chickens foraging in the flower beds for breakfast competes with Fritz as he improves his teenage morning crow; being a small bantam rooster, it’s a quiet crow, almost tuneful but not too overpowering.  Our potager is now hugely productive thanks to our well and the ancient, but incredibly effective pump, without which I would feel supremely guilty about endlessly watering, a necessity considering we have had no rain for weeks.  When we first arrived here I looked at the huge old tank, the rusty pipes and archaic system with doubt and dread, now in the height of summer I have come to love the old pump, it groans into life with the press of a switch and I have learnt what an incredibly valuable commodity it is.

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The aubergines are growing fast, their vibrant deep purple fruits fattening each day and the watermelons are now the size of small footballs.  Admittedly, some of the garden is now somewhat overgrown, but it’s a dense sea of green with beautiful colours – a strong piece of kitchen garden with an organic life of its own. One or two of the lettuces have taken to adulthood (there are only so many you can eat) – Roddy has suggested one variety should be called ‘New York Skyscraper’, so vertiginous are its heights. Each morning I expect to find it toppled, a small tiny axe lying beside it. Potatoes lie in wait under a dark brown loam, and some of the larger courgettes have turned into marrows, lying hidden like anacondas under the jungle of leaves and flowers. Everything, of course, tastes just tinglingly delicious.

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We are feasting daily on tomatoes still warm from the sun, peppers, lettuce, cucumber, those courgettes, those freshly dug new potatoes and sweet carrots; all accompanied by our terrace-beds of herbs and the freshest of eggs from the chickens; it seems like such a pure simple life which in turn fills us with energy. Until around midnight, at which point someone turns off the energy and I wilt into bed, satisfied but worn out.

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Bentley loves the French summer sun – he spends most of his day lying in the warmth on the doormat!  The kittens are now 10 months old and although they hunt together at night, during the day they are completely independent. Rory loves nothing better than to curl up somewhere in the house, usually  in one of the childrens’ bedrooms, where he buries himself deep on a chair under cushions or surrounds himself with a duvet so he can hardly be seen; there he sleeps, content and undisturbed for most of the day.

 

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Clara, by contrast, likes to follow me around, and whenever I go near the vegetable garden at the very far end of our garden she magically appears at my feet from the bushes and her lizard-hunting.  Rubbing around my legs, she purrs continuously as I stop to pick tomatoes or a cucumber.  She often stops and lies at my feet when I pause for thought – I think I have never known a cat like her.

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The calm of this semi self-sufficient summer lifestyle is in complete contrast to the vibrant life of the coast a mere fifteen minutes away where the summer season has started in earnest.  Already the roads have double the amount of cars and our village is buzzing with life and traffic; holiday-homes have opened their shutters and our little bakery is no longer a 30 second wait for one’s baguette; sometimes you have to wait a scandalous minute or more to be served!  The beaches are busy and the hotels are filling up, and the camper-van season has started on the country lanes.  All of this is good though, as the financial life-blood of provincial France sorely needs this artery-opening season – without a good, successful summer, households go cold and hungry in winter. Roddy and I suspect this is why the local attitude to the tourist and visitor here is respectful and courteous – it is a refreshing attitude compared to those places which have a 12-month tourist season. From what we have seen, the local population do really seem to happily put up with any inconvenience that might occur, content in the knowledge that by being busy now, they can enjoy the rest of the year sleeping on their wads of Euros, tucked away under hard mattresses.

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Earlier in the week friends took us to the Luna Park at La Palmyre.  As it’s name suggests, this park is only open at night, from 8pm until 2.30am.  There’s little point in getting there until it is dark as that’s half the fun; the neon lights and electric atmosphere pulsate against the night sky, and considering sunset is not until around 10pm at this time of year, it means a late night!  We arrived somewhere around 10.30pm and left in the early hours, several dozen Euros lighter but laden with soft cuddly toys and other winnings from various stalls!  It was all a complete opposite to our life in the village, with its quiet country lanes and fields of yellow sunflowers. In the dark of the night as children weaved and bobbed amongst the throbbing lights and excited rides, I had a glimpse of a totally different way of life, where one can imagine shady deals taking place behind the bumper-cars and illicit kisses being stolen behind the cardboard cut-outs, where danger may lurk in the shadows; a delicious blend of excitement and surprise. Of course, nothing happened, and the children had a great time; and so did Izzi and I, as we chaperoned the small people from one stomach-wrenching ride to another, and from coconut shy to the splash of the duck-catching stall.

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As we drove home, small people asleep within minutes in the back of the car under a great sprawl of stars above a sleeping landscape, it was astounding to think that the pulsations of the fun fair are a mere fifteen minutes away, this is the home of ClubMed here, a zoo, hotels, waterparks and campsites.  It’s not somewhere I would want to go every night, or even every week, but very occasionally it is the greatest of fun! As we hurried home our headlights picked out the nightlife in the marsh, where eyes glowed behind rushes and where dark forms scurried from shadows across the road – I knew in the morning I would be back at work with the hoe and the pitchfork – a complete Freudian contrast to the evening.

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GARDENER, HOUSEKEEPER AND CHAUFFEUR NEEDED AND WANTED!

 

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Here we are rapidly approaching the longest day of the year, and time flies by – why can’t it just slow down ? I’d like to press the pause button just for a little while whilst I catch up.  So many jobs, so much to do, and not enough hours in the day.  Last weekend was wet and grey; and while it was not much fun for us, the garden and vegetables loved it; unfortunately so did the weeds!

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The runner beans are smothered in blackfly; if anyone has a natural organic way of getting rid of them please, please let me know. I have tried washing-up liquid and at the moment am squashing them by hand (yuk) and then hosing them off with water…. it’s a wee bit time consuming, to say the least, but I don’t want to lose the entire crop just as the beans are developing.

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We have never had grapevines before and we have much to learn, so at the moment it’s rather a case of discovering as we go along; lots of research on Google and lots of help and advice from friends for which we are eternally grateful.  In the winter I nervously pruned them, but much to my relief they survived and are flourishing – now onto the next stage.  We were up and out early this morning, training them along new wires, trying to tame them.

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Even though I’m feeling a little trampled, I’m rather in love with my garden, and once the lawn is mown I think it manages to look good, weeds included.

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The scent from the flowering Magnolia Grandiflora is incredible and as I duck down low to mow underneath the perfume is succulent and clean; no wonder it is full of bees. I pulled the branch below downwards to take a look (and to take the photo) and was amazed to see the stamen loose, sitting in the petals like matchsticks.

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The mixed flowering-hedge along the drive has also come into its own,

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and the terrace, totally unlike the rest of the garden, is a place to linger.  It is also the one place where I strive for perfection – that means it is weed free!

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It’s not only plants that are growing at lightening speed; so are the chicks, now nearly three weeks old and they scarcely resemble those little yellow fluffy newly hatched bundles.  We are fairly sure we have two male and two female, time will tell!

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There is little, that can beat fresh food straight from the garden, especially when it is totally organic. I am immensely proud to be able to give the children a simple lunch entirely from our garden and potager, red-currants, our first cucumber, lettuce, baby carrots; whether the goodies are eaten within an hour or less of being picked, or cooked whichever way –  raw or thrown on the barbecue, everything just tastes so much better for hard work and good fortune –  it all tastes delicious, especially the eggs thanks to our laying hens.

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Everywhere around us now, food is being grown. Fields of barley and wheat swim uphill and down dale in the landscape….

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Maize and sunflowers – another month of Charente Maritime hot sun and they will be bursting with corn and bright yellow flowers.

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I have decided I need a cook, a housekeeper, a gardener and a chauffeur for the children – wishful thinking!  In the meantime I am forcing myself to take a break every now and then; the guest-house can wait, and the summer kitchen (a project that has been thought of but not even started yet!) can also wait; the weeds can grow a little higher but the children won’t be at butterfly catching age forever. One has to take the time to walk with them and enjoy their company.  Every summer day is precious, and every day I realize  how lucky I am.

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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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