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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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 .
I’m sitting here on the rug, fidgeting around to try and get comfy. My back aches (we had a marathon feeding session at bed time), my legs ache (we walked to the park and back yesterday and I carried DS on my back and the rucksack on my front), and I’m shattered. We have this great big space and no furniture to fill it – but I like it this way. It’s great to have the space for the littlies to run about in, to spray their toys everywhere, to not feel cluttered or taken over by giant lumps of furniture that break up the room and create pockets and places for things to hide or become hidden in. This reminded me of some posts I’d read a while ago on the Nutritious Movement blog, so I headed over there for moral support and ideas about how to justify this a “thing” rather than it being because we just don’t have any furniture.
It really makes sense to me that creating a space that enables us all to move around is generally better for us. Coming up the stairs just before starting to write this post I was struck by how the wide open floor reveals so much of our day, and also how much easier it is to tidy it up! We don’t have places to make or hide piles. The ends of sofas were terrible for that in our last house. Then I think of all the running around that takes place – how there’s room for puzzles, paints, stories, and ride-ons (like DS’s new car toy, which he loves!)
As well as suggestions for ways to live closer to the floor – so you’re standing or floor-sitting, not slouched in a couch or chair – I found some great posts about how and why to get us lazy humans moving. Katy advocates that walking is the most important activity we humans can do – and I agree with her. Never mind gym time or workout time, just incorporating walking into your day and doing it deliberately, as well as working on walking with your kids so they build stamina for walking too, is great for your health and theirs. I’m aware that we’re not walking as much as we used to but because DD has a great base she still has great stamina and often surprises us with just how far she can and will walk when she’s in the mood. Even though she’s 3 1/2 we always take a sling so she can have a rest, if needed. She usually walks until she’s tired then hops in the sling when she’s truly beaten. Respecting her rhythms mean letting her decide when she’s had enough and it seems giving her the option to rest when she needs to often gives her the freedom to carry on just that little bit further. On our short walk to and from the lake yesterday we stopped for rocks, bugs, snail shells – you name it! – then she ran around for an hour before walking 1/4 of the way back before finally throwing in the towel. I know, from hanging our with friends’ kids, that her stamina levels are pretty unusual for her age, except for when we walk with other kids from homes who have a similar mentality to us and who have been walking with their kids from a very young age, giving them the freedom to literally find their feet. Buggies are the devil’s own work! DS will be walking soon too, so that’ll make our outside adventures more fun for him – and less carrying for me.
If you’re wanting to get walking and moving more with your kids – or are ready to consider chucking out your furniture and buying some pretty rugs instead (I do feel the need for more rugs) – I recommend checking out the 10 posts on this page of the blog. Given it’s the holidays and we have long days to fill I’ll be using some of Katy’s ideas for getting us all moving as much as I can. And in between I have some cushions to sow up so that we can get comfy in the absence of comfy chairs. Then I just have to figure out how to accommodate my parents when they come to visit in May. They think it’s bonkers not to have any furniture and because they’re not used to floor-sitting they’ll find it quite difficult. I can hear the whinging already so will have to get something “normal” for them to sit on. And maybe concede to meal times sitting properly at the table that’s buried under a mountain of boxes downstairs.
One of the many things I love about this place is the abundance of wild food. When we arrived the trees were loaded with fruits and nuts – figs, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds. Locals in the know were busy helping themselves, taking baskets along on their walks so they could collect whatever they found.
Then there was the apple and pear harvest, where locals harvested fruit from their own orchards (or individual trees) and sent the fruit off to a local pressing co-operative, returning with the freshest of apple juice, perfect for quenching the thirst as is or for leaving bottled to allow natural fermentation to occur, resulting in a very tasty cider later in the year.
Then there are the nuts and seeds to be foraged from woodland: mushrooms, which I don’t know enough about to pick, and sweet chestnuts, which we didn’t have time to go out and collect but were lucky enough to be given some by a friend along with information on the best sources locally, noted for this year.
Then everything slowed down, dying back over winter, but now spring is here nature is starting to provide once again. The first hint of this came when a week ago a friend posted on Facebook that the sap was rising, making it the perfect time to collect birch sap, something I’d wanted to do for a while, and asking if anyone wanted to visit her in the mountains and spend a few days working the trees there. It turned out James had been thinking about doing this too, quite independently, but as we were busy getting ready for our move a couple of days away wasn’t very practical. We decided instead to find out what to do and take ourselves off on a walk from the gite to find any local trees and have a go at tapping the sap from those. After an evening spent Googling and watching various videos on YouTube we were ready to go.
We were keen to avoid an extra shopping trip so decided to try a simple and low-cost method that uses a knife to pierce the bark and an old plastic water bottle suspended around the tree to collect the sap. The videos made it look so easy but of course it was a little more difficult in practice. The first hurdle though was finding a birch tree. On our exploratory walk we walked a couple of miles and found just two trees! The walk itself was pretty eventful, as DD practically ran up the hill, no less than 200 metre as good as straight up, but given our mission was to find birch trees it wasn’t a great success. Accessing the two trees was pretty tricky too as they were quite a way from the track, which meant scrambling through brambles and bushes – not popular with a now shattered DD and not easy with DD on my back. We made it to the tree and James managed to rig up a fairly simple bottle in the short time we had before the two smalls got really restless and we had to go back.
The next morning James went back to check the bottle and see how we’d done. There was about 200ml – not bad. We agreed that it would be good to leave the bottle there longer and also to try and refine our method, plus I wanted to try it for myself, which meant skipping the walk and heading straight for the trees, so we would have time to set things up before the two little ones got restless again. We waited until after lunch then headed out. It was a beautiful day and nice to be out in the fresh air. I sat and supervised the smalls while James popped up to the tree to set up his kit, then we swapped over. DS entertained himself playing with sticks and rocks while DD ran about taking photos and pretending to be various animals (tigers, primarily). I nearly took my eye out walking through a bramble that was so thin and straggley it was barely visible, but apart from that it was pretty uneventful and straightforward.
Returning the next day we both had pretty much the same amount – 200ml – so no great shakes there, but what we had tasted delicious. It didn’t last long, unfortunately, but was a good experience and something we hope to repeat next year when we have more time and also, hopefully, have more trees to work with. The two we found possibly weren’t the best – it’s very dry over here and they were on the hillside, quite a distance from a source of water – so between now and next year we can keep our eyes peeled when we’re out for some better locations. We may also try to refine our gear, opting for an alternative method. James is keen to try a method that involves drilling a hole then plugging it with a dowel and I’d like to try the method advocated by Fergus the Forager on his website, which collects smaller quantities off individual branches rather than tapping the trunk. If we can harvest more sap then there’s the potential we can boil it down to make syrup, much like maple syrup but more labour-intensive as the ratios for birch syrup are 100:1 rather than the 40:1 for maple. I’d love to try it. Since we are trying (mostly successfully) to avoid sugar the idea of a homemade natural sweetener is very appealing! I used to love bacon and maple pancakes, but we forego them nowadays. With homemade syrup it would be a treat we could all look forward to. Heck, I’m already looking forward to it just thinking about it!
I have some photos somewhere, so if I can just find my camera in amongst all the boxes in here I’ll share them in a new post.
Share you wild food stories! What wild foods do you have on your doorstep? Do you have any good recipes?
a blog about family life in France, discovering a new place, new people, and learning a language