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?

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Nature’s Gifts: The Sap is Rising

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?