Busy, busy

There’s so much going on right now I have no time to blog about it! What with the classic Easter cold, taking us all down one by one, and a visit from my parents I’m only just starting to catch up on all things computer-based. I’ve got a bunch of part-written or planned and not started blog posts so plenty to keep me busy when I do find the time to sit down and write/think for any amount of time. For now though, here’s a list of some of the things that I’ve been doing since I last posted:

  • Herding goats
  • Planting up more of the garden
  • Sewing
  • Finessing the worm bin setup
  • Picking cherries
  • Thinking of things to do with a gazillion fresh cherries!
  • Horse riding with DD
  • Swimming
  • Settling DD into her first full days at the maternelle
  • Settling DS into the créche
  • Setting myself up as an auto-entrepreneur
  • Land and house viewings

That’s pretty much all the fun/interesting stuff, which doesn’t look like a lot but when crammed in amongst everything else it feels like a lifetime’s worth of achievements!

So, more blog posts to follow – but for now, bed. Zzzzzz.

Ah, that’s better (cleaning, again)

In an earlier post I lamented about the state of this house and my efforts to clean the grotty kitchen worktop. Here’s a quick post about the result which was pretty good.

I wiped the baking soda/peroxide mix away after about 30 minutes. The worktop, which looked more like this…

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Now looks like this!

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I’m happy with that. (That’s not the exact same bit of worktop but you get the idea.)

The first picture shows how the grout is still stained, even after a good clean. It’s been bleached and cleaned with alcohol but you wouldn’t know that by looking at it. As well as disinfecting it the peroxide/baking soda mixture has really whitened the grout so I’d say it works really well. Because the peroxide works into the grout it’s not just clean looking but also biologically clean too, which is more important at the end of the day, especially in the kitchen. There are still a few stubborn spots but they will be much improved when I go over it again, which I inevitably will.

Ultimately though I’d like to find a cheap and easy way to cover these damned things up, which could be tricky in France because many diy related products and materials seem super expensive. Or maybe I’ll just ask the landlady for a new kitchen. Next, the fridge and freezer need to be decontaminated. The fact that we just started using them without cleaning them properly grosses me out every time I open the door and take a look at the seals. Yuck.

Watch this space for more riveting updates on my house cleaning efforts!

DIY Worm Composting

Something that irks about not having our own garden space is not being able to make our own compost. At our last place we donated our food scraps to others’ heaps, which worked out just fine. We thought we’d got a similar arrangement going here but our new neighbour turns out to be a bit fussy about what goes in her heap, accosting me one morning with a list of things that she didn’t want in there, all of which we happily chucked in our compost bins in the past without any issues. From the outset we had a feeling that would happen. You know how some people can be and as lovely as she is it was fairly inevitable that she’d go picking over the compost and find a problem. C’est la vie, as our compatriates like to say.

So what to do with our growing mountain of food waste? We contemplated a regular compost bin but they seem to retail at around 30€ here. These bins make compost slowly – not always helpful in a rented and (hopefully) fairly temporary house  – as well as requiring quite a lot of work and taking up a lot of space – time and space we don’t have. A compost tumbler then? They retail upwards of 80€, so a no go. That’s a lot of bags of compost and the 80€ ones didn’t look great and there was no question of us spending more than that. DIY? We thought that was the best option and even bought a barrel to use but the cost of all the small parts to make the door, the catch, etc came in at nearly 40€ – crazy! Another option bites the dust. That left us with one option: worms!

It turns out that composting with worms is actually the best way to turn your old food scraps into garden fertiliser and soil conditioner. In fact, if you are regularly chucking your food scraps into a plastic bin and letting it turn into compost, you are effectively composting with worms because the worms that turn up in compost bins – tiger worms – are the same worms used in most worm composting systems.  In the UK our old composter seemed to just get on with it: we’d chuck our food waste in and later in the year it would be gone. We barely got any usable compost out of it but at least it wasn’t in land fill. I presume the worms were eating it!

Contrast that with my repeated failed attempts at worm composting. I had a Can-O-Worms and after three failed attempts gave up and gave it away. With this in mind I was reluctant to spend any money on a proper wormery so we went DIY. There are a lot of good wormery suggestions out there and they’re all pretty simple. We wasted an evening trying to find the things we needed online (a plastic box for under 10€ -how hard can it be!?) then found everything we needed at Mr. Bricolage for 41€, which included 10€ on a fancy drill bit. Here’s the shopping list:

  • 2 x black plastic containers. We went for the 48 litre ones which are wider and flatter than the 50 litre versions.
  • Something for the lid. Our containers didn’t come with lids so we bought some chip board, enough to make two lids, if we decided to set up an other container.
  • Mesh to cover the base and the ventilation holes. This just stops flies getting in and worms getting out.
  • A tap. This is for the bottom container so that we could drain off the liquid, which is a fantastic plant feed known as “black gold”!

We also had to buy a special drill bit so we could fit the tap.

Here’s the result.

 A picture of a worm bin made of two black plastic containers with a wooden lid and a plastic tap
Worm bin with tap
A picture of a piece of chipboard with 8 drilled holes covered in mesh
The lid: 22mm holes covered in fine mesh to stop the flies getting in
A blonde girl leans into the open container that contains a layer of compost, the tiger worms, and some food waste
DD checks out the finished product, complete with worms and food waste

It’s a really nice and simple design. The bottom box is used as a reservoir to collect the liquid. The tap just simplifies removing it and isn’t absolutely necessary – a hole in the bottom draining into a cup or jam jar would work just as well. The second box is the worms’ home. We drilled drainage holes in the bottom then lined it with mesh so that our little wormies don’t fall into the bottom box and drown (that happened a lot with my Can-O-Worms wormery – a tragic as well as stinky thing.) For the lid we drilled more holes and covered them with mesh held down with wood glue. And that’s it. All that was needed then were worms.

We asked around, posted in a couple of Facebook groups, but ended up buying some from a local fishing shop – another 20€ but we now have a ready-to-go wormery that cost, in all, around 50€ with enough parts left over to make another. We’d need a couple more plastic containers but can transfer worms from this one so the extra cost will be just 12€.

For the worms to be happy in their new home they need not just food but also bedding. For this we covered the base of the top bin with a layer of wet paper then put a layer of compost down. The veg scraps then went on top. Internet wisdom generally suggests letting it all get going before piling too much in there so we sprinkled some of the fresher looking scraps on there, gave it a spray with some water to ensure it’s not too dry, closed the lid and left them to get on with it.

We did have a bit of shock the next day when it looked like all the worms were trying to escape as they’d congregated at the top of the bin but some Googling later and we’re putting that down to typical worm behaviour, either because they’re in a new home or because it rained through the night. They seem to have settled down again today (Day 3) so perhaps it’s all working just fine. We will see!

From Farm to Farm

Today we ventured out to visit a few local farms who were taking part in the De Ferme en Ferme open day. I’d seen posters around for a few weeks then, after reading a really nice blog post about last year’s programme, picked up a leaflet that me, James, and DD talked about to decide where to go. The promo leaflet and handout for kids can be downloaded from the Fermiers Audios website, here. DD was very specific about wanting to see pigs, cows, and horses, and we were keen to try out some local places where we might be able to buy good, local produce at sensible prices, reducing our overall reliance on the supermarkets or towns, as we seem to spend an awful lot of time driving too and from the shops. Having studied the map and the descriptions we settled on five places that fulfilled our wishlist while also providing a sensible itinerary, since we’d be carting two littlies around.

  • Ferme de Jaffus (#9) in Couiza
  • Gaec de Bergnes (#10) in Campagne-sur-Aude
  • Le Gaec du Méchant Pas (#11) also in Campagne-sur-Aude
  • Pépinière de la Roche Blanche (#2) in Puivert
  • Campserdou (#3) also in Puivert

The plan was three farms over by the D118, possibly having a burger at the beef farm (bio burgers for €6) or heading home for lunch, then the two close to Puivert in the afternoon. Manageable.

We set off. DD was excited about the pigs, cows, and horses. Oh, and ducks, chicks, and geese, apparently! A tall order. I was armed with the printed map, the address, and – having plugged the information into Google Maps for our first destination, was hoping the place would be well signed because I was pretty sure there wasn’t a beef farm where the map marker was. We got to the first set of traffic lights and there was the sign, so we turned to follow it and set off down the road. We drover further down the road. And further. No more signs. I was confused because Google (and the farm’s own website) showed the marker much closer to the village. We drove a little more then turned around, thinking we’d missed the turning and the sign. We decided that if we made it back to the main road before seeing another sign we would just skip it and carry onto the next one. We made it back to the lights, no more signs, so that was that. On we went to Campagne-sur-Aude. DS was pretty unhappy that the trip to a farm hadn’t materialised   so it was a relief to pull up at our next stop: La Ferme du Méchant Pas

 

The well-signed entrance to our first farm of the day.

 

This farm had various poultry breeds on display, all of which looked rather uncomfortable in their tiny cages! There wasn’t much to see really so we followed the sign pointing us in the direction of goats, cows, ponies, and sheep. Also lacklustre, unfortunately. So one small pony and one cow later, we headed back to the car and onto our next stop, Gaec de Bergen’s, just a few minutes up the road and where our friends, Matt and An, were waiting, having decided to tag along.

Heading back to the car

 

Our next stop, the cattle farm, also turned out to be a little underwhelming, albeit in an absolutely stunning location, on a hill high above the village with awesome views. While we stood chatting and DD did some colouring, people came flocking in, most likely because a €6 burger was one of the cheaper lunches on offer (most places providing lunch were charging €15 and up for three or more courses). We had considered staying ourselves, but now we were in the company of two militant vegetarians and DS was starting to get into don’t-pick-me-up, don’t-put-me-down mode, so I was keen to get him in the car and back home so he could have a bit more freedom away from the general muck of the farm yard – not the nicest place for a crawling boy.

We headed back, had a nice lunch, let the kiddies let off some steam (DD really enjoyed showing our friends her bed and all her toys) then it was time for the afternoon’s programme of visits. We started with the plant nursery (Pépinière de la Roche Blanche) with Camperdou, the lai cru farm, saved until last. This was the one we were most interested in as I quite fancy making some cheese once I find I have time!

The nursery site was pretty nice – another stunning location – and it was nice to walk around. They had lots of plants on sale – flowers and vegetables – all at good prices and, usefully, they supply salad and vegetables throughout late spring and summer: all I have to do is call in the morning then come and pick them up an hour or so later. Obviously I’m thinking trailer ride, yay!

James and An relaxing outside the main polytunnel

We stayed there while the little ones did some exploring, then it was time for the final farm of the day.

After a short drive we arrived. I was quite underwhelmed at first – there really wasn’t anything to see except for a few cows munching away in the barn, a few calves in a small pen in the yard, and a gazebo, from which you could try or buy the farm’s produce: essentially, the lait crufromage blanc, or confiture du lait, which is already caramelised condensed milk.

We stood around chatting again and the next thing the farmer wandered by so we started chatting to him about how many cows and calves, how much milk they produce each day (25 litres!), how the milk is processed before it’s sold, and – the burning question for me and James – why it doesn’t separate like regular non-homogenised milk. To be honest, I’m still not sure we got to the bottom of the last question, but he assured us the production process is basically cow to bottle with no messing around. While were stood chatting DD started messing around with the feed, giving it to the greedy cows. She had a lovely time! After a few minutes she wanted to see the calves again so we’d wander over there, then she was back to feeding the cows.

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James and DD on their way to the cow shed

Then it was getting late (DS was awake and trying to escape from the carrier) so we decided to head back, stopping on our way out to sample the produce. Boy, that confiture was awesome! It’s basically super-condensed milk, like the stuff you get when you heat condensed milk to make the caramel for a banoffee pie: one of my favourite puddings – yum! Of course, this doesn’t sit well with our sugar-free home, so DD was allowed to try some of their fromage blanc, which was also very good.

All in all it was a good day out. We now have confidence in at least two local producers we will definitely frequent in future and we came home with two very tired and hungry children as well as some some fromage blanc and milk fresh from the farm, the latter of which I hope to try and turn into mozzarella or ricotta cheese. Assuming next year’s event includes many of the same producers there are other 14 for us to discover and as our littlies will be older we can justify driving a bit further and hopefully they will both get a bit more out of it. A nice family day out all round!

Good Neighbours 

It’s a long weekend here in France, as with much of Europe (I think), made longer for the us by the fact that DD came back from school on Friday with suspected conjunctivitis (joy of joys) so we’ve been busying ourselves in the garden. Today we worked on our new compositing solution, which I plan to blog about once we’ve finished setting it up, and also caught up with our lovely neighbours Patrick and Claudine, who took us around their veggie patch and orchard and gave us some of the many lettuces they’ve started in their cold frame, as they’re now ready to plant out and they have loads of them. These are the sucrine variety, or Little Gem en anglais, apparently native to this part of the world and a really good grower in this climate.

They have a wonderful garden which they work hard at maintaining. They know what they’re doing and have been giving us some good advice with our little patch, which is more than welcome. While we’ve gardened before and grown veg the climate is very different. They’re keen for us to succeed, which is lovely, and happy to also share their produce as well as their knowledge! Rhubarb is one of my favourite fruits (edible plants, actually) so when Claudine showed me their well-established patch I was more than happy to take up her offer of a large bunch to take home.

Claudine and I were also able to clear up the main difference between jam and compote, so now I know (it’s do with the amount of sugar used and the length of time you plan to store it.) Her recommendation for rhubarb was very definitely rhubarb tart.

Now to find some sugar-free rhubarb recipes, which will be new territory as my preferred dishes are usually fairly sugar-dense, like stewed rhubarb crumble and custard. Can I find a passable rhubarb tart recipe that will be up to Claudine’s standards, I wonder?

Yuck! Cleaning, cleaning and yet more cleaning

Before I write anything else I want to make one thing clear: I am by no means a clean freak. Friends will testify to this – a few, those with tendencies towards OCD on the cleaning front, sometimes found visiting our old house challenging; well, there was always something more interesting to do than cleaning! So while I can cope with a certain amount of mess and also stomach a certain amount of built up grime, I always tidy up and give the place a good clean at some point.

When we came to look around this place we’d spent 6 months in what was effectively a single room. Our new house is so much bigger and feels really spacious, and that’s what we saw when we came to look around: the space. Wow, we said, look at all this space! What we failed to notice was the grime. Oh my, I have (almost) never seen anything like it. The only thing that I think compares was a student house I stayed in during my first year at uni where the floor in the kitchen was so filthy we mopped a path through to the bathroom, so we could walk to and fro with bare feet after a shower. Really, it was bad. But now, as a more grown up version of my old student self and with a small baby crawling around on all fours, I am like a dirt hound. I can just see it, everywhere.

It’s not all the owner’s fault: she’d lived here for many years, and we all get a tolerance to our own filth as it builds up day by day. Plus she has horses and dogs and does building work, mostly barn renovations. That’s a lot of muck coming into the house everyday. Also, we wanted to move quickly, so on the day we arrived she was still moving her things out meaning she didn’t get chance to clean so we can’t say how much she’d have done given the chance. But it’s been almost four weeks now and we’re still cleaning! The floors downstairs were more like a stable than a house. There was a rug that stank of dog. There are three leather chairs, all covered in grime, one of which I’ve cleaned twice (as per instructions from the Internet) although it’s impossible to tell from looking at them which one it is. The dining table chair cushions had to be thrown out because the foam was degrading and there were mites crawling around in them! Ugh. But perhaps the grimmest of all is the kitchen.

Here’s why. Teeny tiny little tiles. Who in their right mind would decorate their kitchen worktop with these ridiculous tiles! They are almost impossible to clean. When we arrived they were covered in an oily residue, now removed thanks to a fair amount of scrubbing and steaming. The question though was how to actually clean the grout. We used bleach and alcohol (not together) but still it looked pretty grim, so today I tried this mixture of peroxide (eau oxyegene) and baking soda. It’s looking pretty good so far and the grime seems to be lifting judging by the fact that the paste coming off is now a rather ugly shade of grey.

It also seems to be fizzing up where it’s contact with the grout, which is why peroxide is good for grout: apparently, it gets into the little holes and actually cleans through it, rather than just cleaning the surface.


I didn’t bother with any particular quantities and just aimed for a paste that was thick enough to spread over the tiles. Now I’m having a coffee, writing this post while it sits there for a while. I think about 30 minutes should do it. Okay, maybe an hour. If this stuff works the bathroom is up next. Like the kitchen we’ve bleached it from top to bottom but still it looks grubby. Oh what fun we’re having. One of the reasons I’m looking forward to my parents visiting is so they can look after both littlies while I give more parts of this house a good scrub down!

With all this though it’s still a great house in a great spot with the added bonus of lovely neighbours. We’re so much happier here than at the last place. It’ll be tidied up eventually but with the two smalls to accommodate and time needed to work we can only do so much at a time. Yesterday the floors got another going over. They’re still not quite so clean that I’d be happy to eat my dinner off them but clean enough to reinstate the three-second-rule.

 

 

 

Collecting Birch Sap

Here are the photos from our recent attempt to harvest some birch sap, which I posted about a few weeks ago.

The first picture shows our respective His ‘n’ Hers setups: his is the green bottle, mine is the white. We both whittled sticks to use as “straws” to guide the sap from the cut in the tree and into the bottle.

His ‘n’ Hers Sap Collecting Bottles

On this second attempt we both collected about 200ml, which isn’t much (pro collectors will harvest litres from each tree) but that may be as much to do with the location of the trees as our methods: the landscape around is very dry and these particularly trees were on a steep slope quite a way from any water source.

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Ants: Cleaning up after the previous day’s attempt

This is how the cut James made looked the following day. We didn’t have any beech tar or equivalent so hope that the other internet sources who claim that the method of cutting a flap and then just pressing it back down afterwards doesn’t damage the tree are right! The ants were enjoying their bounty anyway.

And this is a gratuitous pic of James and DD on their way up the hill to find the bottles. There might only be two silver birch trees, but it is very beautiful here.

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Since this walk we’re actively spotting birch trees whenever we’re out in the car. Today, on the way up to Belcaire, we spotted quite a few in the woods so we have until next year to get our walking legs on and find a good spot for the next year’s harvest.

21-Day Challenge: No Complaints

Earlier today a friend posted a link to the Calmer You 21-day Complaint Free Challenge, encouraging us to become aware of just how much we complain. It’s said that you need to keep at something for 21 days before it becomes a new habit, so that’s also the point of this challenge: to reprogramme the sunnier side of ourselves and put that old whinging git that occasionally takes centre stage back in it’s box. I need this challenge. Furthermore, James needs this challenge (if you’ve seen the film Paddington, think Mr. Brown.) I’m not going suggested directly that he does it but, if I can do it, my sunny disposition may just rub off on those around me. Whether that works or not, especially on a three-year-old, it will be good for the littlies to have one whinge-free parent, even if it’s only for a short while.

The rules of the challenge are simple: no whinging! If a single whinge or whine passes your lips, you’re straight back to Day 1. No ifs,  no buts, and… no whinging!!

I have a feeling it’s going to be tough. I like the idea of it being a time-limited challenge. It’s in-keeping with a general rule I’ve been trying to follow (with mixed success) inspired by a blog post I read somewhere (I’ve no idea where) a while ago with regard to focusing on positives, so before speaking think:

  • Is it kind?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?

It’s surprising how many thoughts are not worthy of being articulated once you start filtering them through those three criteria. I often like to remind James of them when he’s in a negative one but am probably not so good at moderating my own mutterings. I think for both of us the last year has been hard and it has felt like there have been a lot of challenges which have taken their toll and while we’ve had some real doom and gloom days – and who needs those – we have a whole lot to be thankful for. It feels like being busy and tired seems has become an excuse for being miserable!

So, who’s in? 21-days of sunny, positive blog posts coming up!

A Circuit of Puivert

I blagged a pass out today so decided to go off and quickly reccie the a local and easy-looking VTT route, Circuit 20 on the VTT Pyrenees website. It’s short – just 10km – so never far from home and not the end of the world if it didn’t work out for any reason but I always like to reccie any family rides, then I know if there are any difficult places I should I avoid, such as fields with big scary cows in, or parts of the route that aren’t accessible with the trailer.

What’s nice is that all the routes listed on the site are also waymarked along the way. The waymarks are easy to spot and are simple but effective, showing you when to turn – or not, much like the symbols used to identify walking routes. I’ve no idea why this notation isn’t used in the UK, because it makes it so easy to follow a designated route, but it isn’t.

DB (my mountain bike) was in good shape after getting a quick burst of TLC in the morning (with help from DD) so I was able to head out with a washed, lubed, and appropriately pumped up bike (last time I went out there was almost no air in the tyres!)  The plan was for James to take DS and DD to the park (DS in the sling, DD on foot) and I would meet them there. Since he had his hands full I packed some fruit and extra water and would deliver the picnic after my ride. We both set off at the same time with James turning to me and saying “don’t be too long” – great, thanks for nothing! Just sometimes I wish I’d hear “don’t rush, we’ll be fine” but he hasn’t had the two of them that many times yet (I know, DD’s one already) and I think he forgets that DS is now old enough to manage without me for more than thirty minutes! Anyway…

I set off down towards the lake, which is where the route starts and ends. First heading past the buvette towards Camp Bonnaure along the Sentier Cathare track.

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Looking towards the aerodrome (left) and the mountains beyond, from the Sentier Cathare

As the track approaches the road into Camp Bonnaure it bears right, continuing along the Sentier Cathare route. A gorgeous view with the mountains beyond! I was worried that there would be too much climbing for my weak cycling legs but the track meandered along nicely, alongside a clear stream, before slowing looping back towards the road.

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Continuing on the Sentier Cathare from Camp Bonnaure

By now I’d been gone about 25 minutes. My original plan had been to miss off the last part of the loops once I got to the road at roughly the midway point, but I was having such a nice time – perfect weather, a lovely route, DB in quite good shape, unlike me! – that I figured I would be okay for another 10 minutes or so, so rather than head straight back I took the next turning onto the next track. Uphill, eek!

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It looks flat; it isn’t.

My poor legs haven’t really ridden up a hill in two years so while it wasn’t brutal, it wasn’t pleasant. I walked. I decided it will keep for another day. Fortunately it evened out just around the second bend and turned into a nice descent. Not technical but not totally boring either.

From there the trail swoops down to a lovely little place – maybe one of the Camps? It’s not named on the map so I can’t say for sure*. I stopped to take a picture though because the old water trough had been put to good use, decorated with flowers and with a well-populated nomadic book shelf, and was definitely worthy of a photo!

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A well-cared for but unnamed village outside the main village of Puivert

Another day with more time I will stop to investigate further. But on this day I was now mindful that I’d been gone nearly 40 minutes and should probably get back. I decided to skip the last part of the route and head straight back to the lake.

When I got down there it was lovely: DD was paddling up to her knees, her leggings soaked, splashing about and having a lovely time. We were excited to see each other and she grabbed my hand to take me into the water for a paddle to (an advantage of wearing shorts!) After our little picnic it was time to walk home, up the hill.

The ride I will definitely do again – though I won’t be attempting it with the trailer any time soon as I just don’t have the legs for it. Having promised DD a ride during the holidays I may try Circuit 11, which is graded as a green route: also about 9km but keeping to the tarmaced roads linking the Camps. Next time James can bring the picnic and meet us at the lake!

*UPDATE! The mysterious camp I couldn’t name is called Camp Brion, easily identifiable on OpenStreetMap but for some reason not at all on Google .

Check out the route and download the GPS track on GPSies.

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