The little things make the biggest difference

April 2017

Hurray, we’ve successfully managed to get quite a few little projects done this month, both inside and outside the house, and it’s made a big difference. At the beginning of April, the weather was so hot, our poor little plants were getting scorched in the polytunnel, and it didn’t help matters that I went to the market one very hot Thursday morning and forgot to open the polytunnel door before I left…oops! I was lucky enough not to lose every potted seedling I had that day! We quickly looked into buying a fitted polytunnel shade screen, but we couldn’t really justify spending 150€ on one. Our neighbour suggested we try a local garden centre, where they sell rolls of shaded netting and we subsequently bought three rolls of it (10m x 1.5m) at a bargain 14€ per roll. We then cut them into 5m lengths and placed them inside the polytunnel over each arc. The effects were noticeable immediately. Let there be no mistake, it still gets incredibly hot inside the polytunnel, but the netting blocks up to 80% of the sun’s rays, thus prevents the leaves from scorching. So far so good. I also added a straw mulch to the polytunnel beds in a bid to increase water retention.

Our next priority was to stop the cats from getting inside the polytunnel and digging up our seedlings. In no time at all, Pete rustled up a hinged door that can be closed from either side with a highly sophisticated device known as a rubber band! For the mesh, he simply stapled a fly screen to the wooden frame. Easy peasy…for a carpenter!

Project 3 was a wooden trellis for my mum’s sweet peas, outside the front door.

April saw the Aveyron burst into bloom with beautiful lilac flowers everywhere we looked, although we had no idea what they called in English, French or latin for that matter. The man on the plant stall at the weekly Villefranche-de-Rouergue market seemed the perfect person to ask and he just so happened to have one for sale. A Wisteria tree is its name (Glycine in French) and we bought one without hesitation to train up and around our front door. I am amazed I never noticed these wonderfully scented trees before. It’s as if I’ve been walking round with my eyes closed for the past two spring seasons!

My current project is to landscape the north side of the garden, now the old septic tank has been filled in and is out of sight. The gravel there had been surplus to requirements when the reed beds were installed and the landscaper had roughly spread it out with his Bobcat tractor to make a make-shift drive way, but I find it really untidy and it bothers me a lot. In hindsight, we’d have put a geotextile membrane down beneath the gravel to keep the weeds under control, but we didn’t really get a lot of say in the matter. It is a very mindful task, but I have begun levelling out the gravel with the use of a rake, a shovel and a wheelbarrow and I am hoping Pete will put a small wooden border down to separate the gravel from the grass. I plan to re-seed the grass and finish the dry-stone wall I half-heartedly started building around the house and hopefully, it will look much better than it does at the moment:

The vegetable garden is coming along nicely. We planted four different varieties of potatoes in five beds on Easter Monday and we are still waiting for the last frosts before we plant out anything else. We currently have an asparagus bed, two small beds of garlic, a large bed of onions and a bed of leeks…and the swiss chard we planted last August/September just keeps on coming! As for our autonomous sewage system, the reeds have started to pop through the safety grids and are expected to grow between one and two metres tall, before we need to cut them back. There are no unpleasant odours, just the odd frog to rescue from under the grid!

Inside the house, with the help of some carefully chosen soft furnishings, my parents managed to transform their ‘junk’ room, overnight, into a comfortable guest room for when my sister and her boyfriend came to stay. It still needs insulating and painting, plus the skirting boards and parquet floor are to do, but at last we have a guest room of sorts! Oh and I may have forgotten to mention recently but my “25 led lightbulbs for 2€”did actually turn up in the post and it wasn’t a scam after all…thank you MesAmpoulesGratuites.fr!

Until next month, here are a few photos of Belcastel and Rocamadour, courtesy of my mum and sister:

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Short but sweet

March 2017

It’s been only six weeks since February half term and we end the month of March with another two weeks of school holidays. In the interests of tourism and traffic flow, France is divided into three zones so that the school holidays can be staggered. It means the kids will have a really long, final term to endure before the summer holidays, but it’s just how it falls this year. Hopefully we can get out in the garden and enjoy our first barbecue of the year, with an abundance of fresh ‘Merveille des quatre saisons’ lettuces, 18-day radishes, ‘Perpetual’ spinach and ‘Black Tuscan’ kale at our disposal.

We are certainly putting our polytunnel to good use this spring, there are potted seedlings everywhere. I’ve got around forty purple broccoli plants on the go, cauliflowers, red and white cabbages, beef and cherry tomato plants, sweet corn, runner beans, lettuces, cucumbers, courgettes…oh and three, pesky cats that treat the polytunnel like it’s a giant cat litter tray and love nothing better than to chase each other on the roof, often digging their claws into the polythene, as they slide down the arched sides, leaving me cursing at them from inside. If anybody has any tips how to keep them off the roof, I am listening! As a matter of urgency, I must get Pete to build me a fenced gate for the doorway to stop them getting inside. An insect net, attached to a simple wooden frame should do the trick. Hint hint.

Outside the polytunnel, Pete has prepared a new bed where we will be growing sweet corn this year.

The locals deem it strange to grow sweet corn for human consumption as it is regarded as animal feed around here, and pesticides are often used for a higher yield. We feel that organically-grown corn on the cob would not only be a welcome addition to our home-grown produce but it will hopefully offer some necessary shade to the polytunnel which becomes intensely hot in the summer months.

The straw mulch and humanure compost we put on our empty vegetable beds at the beginning of the winter have been mixed in with the soil and the beds are ready and waiting to receive some plants, once the last frosts have been and gone (the ‘Saints de Glace’ fall on 11th to 13th May this year). The potatoes are busy chitting, the fruit trees are blossoming and the downstairs bathroom is looking better each day, although it’s not quite finished.

The kids recently went on a ski residential to Le Lioran in the Cantal for four days of husky riding, cable cars, indoor climbing and pyjama parties.

The older school kids had ski lessons despite the evident lack of snow, but they all seemed to have a great time. Back at Chez TêteBlanche, we appreciated the peace and tranquillity…for the first three days without the children, but I was excited to see them and relieved to have them back safe and sound on Day 4. It is the first time they have been away without us, although I think I missed them more than they missed me! I made the most of this spare time to work out at the gym and plant tomatoes in the polytunnel. Since there were no distractions, I decided to give guided meditation another go and I’m really glad I did. I have experienced a decrease in stress levels and an improvement to my well-being, on a physical, mental and emotional level. If you’re interested in trying it out too, there’s a highly recommended App called ‘Insight Timer’ which works wonders for day and night relaxation and stress relief.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got for this month as the garden demands a lot of my spare time at the moment, but next month I will hopefully have some garden projects to share with you as well as some photos of my gardening efforts both inside and outside the polytunnel. It has to be said, whoever made permaculture out to be an easy option is telling porkies. It takes a hell of a lot of time and effort to put the initial permaculture design principles in place, which is what we’ve been working on for the past two years, but we are literally learning as we grow. Yes, it can be physically draining at times…but is it worth it?
Of course it it! I can tell you that creating a flourishing vegetable and fruit garden from nothing is, without a doubt, an incredibly rewarding and satisfying experience. Now I think I will just have to stop myself there, for fear of sounding too much like Monty Don on Gardener’s World!

Our long-awaited reed beds!

February 2017

It might be the shortest month of the year but so much has been going on around here, February has literally flown by. After numerous setbacks, work finally began on the reed beds, which are now fully operational, and my dad began working on the bathroom…which may be far from completion, but it’s a vast improvement on the damp and mouldy bathroom we’ve been using for the past two years! I’ve been busy in the polytunnel, sowing seeds, and planting perennials outside in our new, raised beds…oh and Pete and I ventured into the big city of Toulouse on Valentine’s Day, for our naturalisation interview at the Préfecture, in order for us to become French citizens. Be prepared for plenty of photos this month, especially of our mouldy bathroom (as it was), and of the muddy tracks left by the mini excavator that tore up quite a lot of our lovely, green grass.

Since we moved here, I’ve kept in touch with the family of the previous owner and was delighted to be invited over to the granddaughter’s house, so she could give me some of her perennial plants, that she has to cut back each year. As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t know very much about flower-growing, but having studied botany, Patricia gave me lots of advice and helpful tips. As soon as I got back, I got to work finishing off the raised beds (with a helping hand from Pete who made numerous wheelbarrow trips full of soil). So far, we have a stone circular bed, one made from spare roof tiles, one made from an old tractor tyre and a huge cast iron cauldron. Patricia also gave us a corkscrew willow tree, three hibiscus trees, and two ‘pêche de vigne’ trees that she had grown from the stones (she highly recommends growing peach trees from scratch, as opposed to buying them already established from the garden centre, as she believes they stand a better chance of survival). It is true that we have already lost a peach tree we bought in our first year here, and one plum tree, although we put it down to a neglect of water on our part.

So, now for the really exciting bit…for us anyway…our autonomous reed bed sewage system, commonly known as phytopurification!

The majority of rural homes in France that are not connected to mains sewerage have a septic tank, which stores solid matter, but in doing so prevents any oxygen reaching it to complete the breakdown process. This results in the production of sludge which gives off an unpleasant odour and has to be emptied, then transported to a wastewater plant for treatment. Phytopurification or reed beds offer an ecological alternative to traditional sanitation systems, so there is no longer the need for a septic tank, and any sewage (both grey and black water) is treated through the use of a vertical gravel filter, which is planted with reeds. While the solid matter remains on the surface, it reacts with the oxygen in the air to compost down, so there is no production of sludge and no bad odours. Any water is filtered down through the gravel, and biologically treated thanks to the microorganisms in the gravel. The reeds complete the process by absorbing the nitrates and phosphates from the water for their metabolism, effectively cleaning it. The clean water then trickles into a drainage area on our land, providing irrigation to nearby plants and trees. Genius!

Our vertical filter consists of two individual tanks and only one tank is used at a time to collect our waste. We have a manual valve which is alternated on a weekly basis to distribute flow between the two tanks.

The reed beds are relatively low maintenance. We have to cut the reeds back manually every autumn and the compost that forms on the top of the gravel needs to be removed approximately every 10 years and can then be used on ornamental plants. Apparently the first year requires the most weeding, since the newly-laid gravel offers the perfect growing conditions for absolutely any plant, not just our reeds.

So here’s a look at their installation, which took three and a half days by a team of three professionals:

Preliminary work
Before the professional work began, we had to move our wood store out of the way to make room for the new pipe work, and some bushes had to moved and odd branches cut, so the mini excavator could pass.

Stage 1:
Digging trenches for the new pipework and the filter tanks

Stage 2:
Delivery of three different types of gravel for the filter tanks
Unfortunately, the gravel couldn’t be used right away since there was a delay with the delivery of the filter tanks. Our installer was most unhappy as much of the work had to be put on hold.

Stage 3:
The huge filter tanks eventually arrived, four days late! They were installed, the gravel went in and the reeds were planted. 

Stage 4:
The pipework was glued together and tested. Grass seed was sown.
Sure enough, when we turned on the tap, water slowly trickled into one of the filter tanks. We were finally operational! Now we just need the grass and reeds to grow!

Since my parents still have a classic, water ‘flush’ toilet in their bathroom, we had to get the 1-filter vertical gravel system for the equivalent of six inhabitants to meet the legal requirements for our house. This system has cost us just under 11,000 €uros and must be considered an investment, bearing in mind there will be no further maintenance costs and the natural slope of the land means we do not need to run an electric pump. A traditional system with septic tank and sand filter would have cost us a minimum of 7,000 €uros anyway, so although it’s more expensive, we feel it is worth it to have an ecological and autonomous system. There are reed bed options available for houses with dry toilets only, which are, of course, much cheaper to install.

While all this commotion was going on outside, my dad was busy inside, knocking down walls, laying lino, tiling walls and plumbing in a new bathroom suite. The downstairs bathroom had been in a state since we moved in, but being in a functional state, it was not a priority when it came to renovating the house. Our initial priorities were insulating the walls of the house and installing a wood burner. With the installation of the reed beds, my parents could at last make necessary changes to the bathroom.

Here’s what has been done so far:

  • The individual toilet walls have been knocked down, to make way for a larger bathroom.
  • Once the walls were out of the way, the toilet had to be moved from the middle of the room to the corner.
  • The old shower and toilet evacuation pipes were filled in and the old septic tank became obsolete. We had it emptied for one last time and it has since been filled in with rubble.
  • The old floor tiles have been covered with lino.
  • The framework for a towel cupboard has gone up and a freestanding shower cubicle installed.
  • The new sink, shower and toilet have been plumbed in by my dad, using copper and PVC pipe fittings.
  • Tiling has begun on the walls and the electrics have been put in place for above-the-sink lighting and an extractor fan.

There is still a lot to be done, but it’s not easy renovating the only bathroom in the house when its six occupants are in desperate need of a shower! Hopefully next month I will be able to show you some photos of it almost finished. In the mean time, here’s what it looked liked before, when it was damp and mouldy, and during the initial renovation stages:

Finally, just to fill you in on our request for French nationality…
Pete and I had a very short but enjoyable stay in Toulouse for our appointments at the Préfecture early on 15th February. It meant that we had to spend the night of the 14th there, which, being Valentine’s Day, seems to give everyone the right to hike up their prices. Nevertheless, we decided to make the most of it and booked a small boutique hotel right in the very centre, where we found an authentic Chinese restaurant (so authentic, in fact, I had to teach myself how to use chopsticks in record time…either that or starve!) and a pleasant brasserie for lunch the following day, after two gruelling 90-minute interviews, to see if we are worthy enough to be considered French! The answer to that we don’t know yet and the French being French, we will have to wait another year to find out! Our interviews went OK, despite being asked random questions about French kings of the past, and the piles of paperwork we presented seemed to be complete and in the right order (which I gather doesn’t happen very often, judging by their reaction when I handed over two very organised folders spanning ten years of credentials).
We’ve since had to go down to the local police station for an interview regarding our insertion into the local community. The interview went remarkably well, that is until Pete bumped into a guy he plays football with on our way out, who couldn’t help but ask if Pete had knocked anyone else out on the pitch lately from fighting! It sounds like a joke and hopefully the chief policeman saw it that way, but in reality, it’s not far from the truth, and both Pete and the other player got a red card! You could argue that Pete could not be more integrated into the local community, he now has a reputation as a tough guy, not to be reckoned with…a somewhat Vinnie Jones of Compolibat! As for becoming French, we will just have to sit and wait…and wait…and wait. It is something we’ve become quite accustomed to during our lengthy time in France, where everything seems to move at a snail’s pace…at least, here in the Aveyron at least.

In any case, time is not worth worrying about…que sera sera. Spiritually-speaking, you could argue that time does not even exist…it is an illusion, a man-made concept that has enslaved the Western world, trapping us in the past and future, and leaving us struggling to live in the present moment. I’ll leave you to contemplate that thought until next month, I’m off to water my seeds!

Soil, seeds and social change

January 2017

img_4536For New Year’s Day, we decided against tradition and ditched the typical roast dinner for an Indian buffet instead. We enjoyed homemade onion bhajis, curried mince samosas, chicken tikka massala, naan breads and basmati rice…what a perfect start to 2017! The food may have been getting hotter inside, but the outside temperature certainly wasn’t. January saw temperatures plummet to -10°C, which was quite a shock to the system, but cold spells are beneficial to the garden and essential for the survival of many plants, in order for them to bloom. This process is known as vernalisation.

WIKIPEDIA (US)
“Vernalization
(from Latin vernus, “of the spring”) is the induction of a plant’s flowering process by exposure to the prolonged cold of winter (…) For many perennial plants, such as fruit tree species, a period of cold is needed first to induce dormancy and then later, after the requisite period of time, re-emerge from that dormancy prior to flowering”.

Despite several frosty mornings, we have, however, been lucky enough to see some pretty spectacular sunrises.

While I am in charge of the vegetable garden this year, my mum is going to take care of the flowers, which we hope will attract many beneficial insects. There’s something special about a garden in full bloom…it has this amazing ability to lighten everyone’s spirits through its vibrant colours and incredible fragrances. Once the terrace is done, we hope to have a ‘scented rockery garden’ around it, so we can spend summer evenings enjoying our favourite lavender and jasmine scents that fondly remind us of our time spent in Antibes, in the South of France, from 2002 – 2003.

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The potting station in the polytunnel has been cleaned out in preparation for the sowing season, and I didn’t have to buy many seeds this year, as I had some bought ones left over from last year. We had also collected quite a few from our own plants. I find that French supermarkets and garden centres tend to charge a fortune for packet seeds and so I have taken to buying them online. I think it would be great to take part in a ‘seed swap’, but I’m not sure anybody does that kind of thing in our local area. I will have to look online for seed exchange sites, we tried it once in Chamonix and we got our hands on some super heirloom carrot seeds.

jiffy-7-pelletsFor the past two years, we have used universal compost for seed sowing, which really hasn’t been adequate enough for the smaller seeds, so this year, we have invested in some finer seed compost, which is rich in nutrients. I had quite a lot of success last year from a small selection of seeds grown in propagation pellets (those that expand in water), but I haven’t got round to getting any yet. The soil conditions were perfect for tiny seeds and I got a high success rate.

Progress has begun on the new beds on the north side of the house, where the stump of our magnolia tree is still deeply rooted to the spot! We have had a change of heart about the tractor tyre, which I so adamantly wanted to remove! Our new beds are going to be a series of circular raised beds (including the loathsome black tyre), and they will be framed in whatever materials we can get our hands on, notably off-cuts of wood, surplus stone left over by the masons when we had our patio doors fitted, and some of our spare red roof tiles (the idea of which came from a recent article I read – see below photos, courtesy of Permaculture Magazine).imageHaving tried to dig down into the soil, which was not only frozen solid but plagued with tree roots, we quickly agreed that the no-dig method would be better, so we will use our trusted hügelkulture/hügel-spiral method once again of simply laying down cardboard, branches and twigs, followed by some top soil, and voilà, a ready-made bed! Here’s a look at how I got on this afternoon:

While I have been outside, enjoying the appearance of some much-welcomed sunshine, Pete has been busy upstairs, working on Madeleine’s bedroom renovation.

Next month, we have two important dates in our calendar…the installation of our long-awaited reed bed sewage system…and our visit to the big city of Toulouse, for our French citizenship application. I can’t help but feel apprehensive at the thought of leaving the tranquility of our beautiful countryside home, in exchange for the hustle and bustle of city life which doesn’t appeal to me any more. I keep joking with Pete that I am the country mouse from one of Aesop’s Fables, ‘The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse’, which you can read here, if you haven’t already! the-town-mouse-and-the-country-mouse-ladybird-book-favourite-tales-series-gloss-hardback-1993-45-pToulouse may be a far cry from our everyday life here in the Aveyron, but I am also looking forward to a change of scenery, some time with Pete, the scenic 2-hour train journey and a night in a city centre hotel. Let’s just hope our interviews go well and we come back to a fully operational, ecological sewage system that we might just finish paying off in ten year’s time!

Oh, and it’s been over 8 weeks now…and we’re still waiting for our free LED lightbulbs!!!

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The title ‘Soil, seeds and social change’, although apparent to my current blog post, is actually reference to a new initiative, supported by the Cabot Institute, a centre for research into dynamic and  changing environments at the University of Bristol, and to the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador.

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Winter sun in Aveyron

December 2016

wp_20161211_007A far cry from the cold, alpine winters of Chamonix, mid to late December found us sitting outside in the garden, enjoying the warmth of the winter sun on our faces.
It was quite surreal to be decorating the Christmas tree with the sun pouring in through the patio doors, but it made a nice change. My dad set to work, painting his lounge, and the cork insulation went up on the first outside wall.
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We were a bit disappointed by the local Christmas markets as there weren’t many stalls and the vast majority didn’t seem to be selling anything remotely Christmassy. Mum and I agreed we could do a better job ourselves and have decided to do a Christmas stall of our own next year. Pete is rather sceptical, he reminds me that my mum and I have been planning to do a car boot sale for nearly five years now and we still have boxes of old clothes taking up unnecessary space upstairs!

Christmas Eve is a big occasion in France, I would go as far to say it’s the equivalent of Christmas Day in England…so we decided that while everyone was at home spending time with their families, we would spend Christmas Eve at Magicland with the kids (the local gymnasium, filled with more than ten bouncy castles…and the only place we could get a beer the afternoon before Christmas!). We were practically the only ones there and the kids definitely got our money’s worth.

For Christmas, Pete had made a huge wooden doll’s house for Madeleine (out of Alexander’s old cot) and she was delighted with it, that is when she realised Santa hadn’t actually brought her “a set of wooden shelves in the shape of a house!”. Alexander was thrilled with his Darth Vader costume and lightsaber, in fact I think he preferred them to his new red bike! We enjoyed a traditional English Christmas dinner, with carrots picked from the garden on Christmas morning and Yorkshire puddings. Much to my dislike, we managed to get our hands on some brussels sprouts at the local supermarket, so not one to go against tradition, I felt obliged to slip one on my plate! Being in France, Pete couldn’t resist some oysters, but I’m not a great fan of sea food at the best of times.


Outside, we’ve started clearing the area around the magnolia tree, which has been cut down, so that we can make a keyhole bed for growing vegetables.

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Before

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After

img_4578The magnolia roots go deep down into the ground and removing the trunk completely has proved to be extremely difficult and time-consuming, so we decided that instead of removing it completely, we would make a feature out of it and use it as a central point for our keyhole bed. Similar to a herb spiral that uses maximum growing space, a keyhole bed would make a nice feature, with some additional flowers to attract insects, whilst increasing our growing capacity. To give you a rough idea, it might look something like this picture (with the remaining magnolia trunk in the middle), although I wouldn’t expect it to be as neat and tidy in our garden: keyhole-bed

Our next door neighbours recently hired a professional wood chipper so they could clear some of their overgrown shrubbery. It meant we were able to get hold of some free wood chippings, which we’ve since laid down on the path of the polytunnel. The polytunnel is proving to be a gem…its location is ideal for getting every bit of winter sun. I’ve already started planning what to grow in our polytunnel next year: tomatoes, chillies, sweet peppers, basil, lettuce, peas and cucumbers. When the weather gets too hot in June, we’ll stop growing lettuces indoors and start growing them outside. Unfortunately, our polytunnel’s location also means that although it is great for winter sun, we have about a two-month period in peak summer when it gets far too hot for anything to grow and the plants just seem to go to sleep. Come September, everything starts growing again, which means we get quite a late harvest of chillies, peppers and basil. However, we have found that the extreme heat can actually kill the pollen, leaving us without a single aubergine this year! I think the trick is to get a head start with our seeds next year, so that the plants start producing before it gets too hot. We will try to learn from our mistakes and do better in 2017!

It’s funny when you compare our two years of vegetable growing, because we had successes in completely different crops. In 2015, we had fantastic quinces, pumpkins, courgettes and tomatoes, but hardly any chillies, peppers or potatoes. This year, we didn’t get a single quince, pumpkin or courgette, and we had some serious issues with our tomato plants, yet we got a good potato yield, loads of chillies, lettuces, cucumbers and melons. The trickiest part of vegetable growing, in my opinion, is timing. It’s trying to plan what goes where, with what and when. It’s easy to draw up garden plans in advance but the ever-changing climate can throw everything into disarray. We certainly don’t want to be left with empty beds like this year. Trial, error and perseverance will hopefully prove their worth next year! As the year draws to a close, we are two years into our project and we have much to learn, but I am quietly confident that 2017 will be fruitful in the Chez TêteBlanche garden.

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A new opening

November 2016

img_4157-copy“Don’t get too attached to the cats”, Pete had warned us. Try as we may, it was hard not to fall in love with our two little kittens, Coco and Jay-Jay. So, when I returned home from shopping at the beginning of the month to find our neighbour had apparently reversed his car into our beautiful Coco, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sad when she was handed to me, with his sincerest apologies, in a black bag. There wasn’t a mark on her, but a tiny trace of blood around her mouth. When the children came home from school, they had their first lesson about death as we buried her in the garden, and seeing their emotional reaction was harder for me to deal with than the actual death of the cat itself. However, it only got worse, when our 4-year old son looked up at me and said tearfully, “but at least we still have Jay-Jay”, who was absolutely nowhere to be found. Losing both cats in one day made me question if Coco had, in fact, been hit by a car, or if she and Jay-Jay had eaten some form of poison and I began searching in vain for the lifeless body of cat number two.

Two days later and we’d given up hope on ever finding Jay-Jay alive, until I heard from another neighbour that a lady in the next hamlet had seen a ginger cat wandering about in her yard and was trying to track down its owner. An hour later, and Jay-Jay was back safe and sound Chez TêteBlanche! The kids were thrilled to find him sitting on the doorstep when they returned home from school, which is more than can be said for Pete, when he came home from work to surprise us with two new replacement kittens. So, we now have THREE cats, yes three…ginger Jay-Jay, an all-black male called ‘Darth’ and a white female called ‘Leia’. After a week in the house getting used to each other, all three have since settled in nicely together in Pete’s workshop, where they are hopefully keeping the rats at bay. I am beginning to feel like the cat lady. We had better be careful they don’t reproduce or we may have a serious situation on our hands!

 

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Dining room, as it was just before we moved in.

I haven’t been able to write about any progress in the house recently, as it had been a surprise for my dad up until now. Since my parents have just arrived and are spending Christmas with us, I can now safely spill the beans. As you may know, my dad had to spend some time in the UK this summer due to a medical issue, so it meant he couldn’t be here renovating his part of the house. When we first moved in, just under two year’s ago, we had an extra large living/dining room which had folding doors, separating the two spaces and individual access doors to each. We soon scrapped the idea of a dining room, since we prefer to eat in the kitchen, and in doing so, we were effectively left with a spare room, which has now become my parent’s bedroom. In order to give them some extra living space, and a bedroom with a south-facing view of the countryside, a partition wall was built at one end (back in October 2015)…

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Partition wall put up between living and dining room- October 2015

…and a new opening created at the other, a couple of months ago, when my mum came out for a holiday. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of work left to do, but it now means my mum can start to make it more comfortable and do some decorating, and my dad can get on with the bathroom plumbing. Here’s a look at Pete’s work in photos.


Elsewhere, in the garden, we have also been making progress getting the land ready for winter and harvesting some late crops, such as white cabbage and beetroot. In fact, it is fair to say, that we have had more success this autumn, than we had throughout the entire summer. We now know that our vegetable beds were not properly prepared and we missed out on a lot of opportunities early summer, which left us playing catch up late August. However, a little effort at the end of the summer is now starting to pay off. We have carrots which should be perfect for Christmas, broccoli, swiss chard, kale, spinach, peas and a second harvest of chillies. Our tomatoes didn’t have time to ripen, but we made some green tomato soup which tasted great. We even have some lettuces starting to appear in the polytunnel! Unfortunately, despite last year’s pumpkin success, we didn’t get a single one this year, having planted our seeds way too late, but I simply refuse to buy them. We will just have to go without pumpkin soup this year and eat as much from the garden as possible.

The hedges have been trimmed, the shrubs have been strimmed and all the edges have been tidied and cut back. The grass has been cut one last time until early spring. The asparagus foliage recently turned yellow (after the first frost) and I’ve just cut it back before adding a layer of compost mulch to the bed. A few weeks ago, I took some cuttings from our marigold tree. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried to take a plant cutting but hopefully one or two might succeed (out of 30 cuttings). You see, beautiful as it is when in flower, we’ve decided we want to completely remove our oversized magnolia tree, to make way for some more vegetable beds. On the north side of the house, we have an untidy, somewhat gloomy spot of garden, which does nothing but depress us! Once the reed beds are in and the unsightly septic tank filled in, we can hopefully do some landscaping to this area, remove some of the horrible tyres which encircle nearly every shrub, and make it a productive and enjoyable place to be. It also means that we can keep all our vegetables in one area, which can easily be cordoned off from the chickens. The plan is to start clearing the area this winter, lay cardboard and compost mulch where we want the new beds and then hopefully, by late spring/early summer, we can get planting. It has to be the easiest way to prepare new beds, besides hours of unnecessary digging.

As for other news, there’s not a great deal to tell. Both Pete and I passed our TEF (Test d’Evaluation de Français) French test, which means we are about half way to becoming French citizens! Having never studied French whatsoever and learning the majority of it in the pub, Pete got a surprisingly high score, only one level below me (bearing in mind I have been studying French since I was ten years old and have a French degree, plus a massive student loan still to repay for the privilege!). We now each have to have a 90-minute interview in Toulouse in February, to present our completed dossiers and if that goes well, we will be given a final interview, before being given French nationality and a naturalisation ceremony at the Mairie. So Brexit, do your worst, we have our backs covered!

Our commune has been selected to be the first in the area to have fibre-optic Internet installed, yes you heard right, fibre-optic…in rural France! The posts have already gone up between Lanuéjouls and Compolibat and the cable is currently being fitted. Let’s just hope they continue it as far as the neighbouring hamlets like ours. It just goes to show that work does actually get done out here after all. In fact, every now and again, we hear about a new ecological government incentive that sounds just too good to be true, like when we got our loft insulated for 1€ (Pacte Energie Solidarité). The latest scheme is free LED light bulbs. We have just discovered that our household is entitled to five free light bulbs, so we quickly applied online, paying an additional 2€ for twenty extra. That’s 25x LED light bulbs for 2€, delivered in eight weeks. Now I thought it might be a scam, but since a friend of ours has already received his free light bulbs, it is a genuine offer, not to be missed (subject to annual earnings of course). So, if you live in France and pay French taxes, check out Mes Ampoules Gratuites to check your eligibility.mes-ampoules-gratuites-v2

Fancy a cuppa?

October 2016

In our house, we drink a lot of herbal tea…thyme, elderflower, lemon balm, mint, chamomile, echinacea…you name it, we drink it. Primarily, we drink herbal tea for its numerous health benefits, but also for its delicate, herbal taste that reminds us of the natural bond we have with our garden.

img_4344 french-press
We brew a litre at a time, in a plunger-style cafetière, generally used for coffee. It’s extremely practical and saves messing about with those mesh tea ball infusers that always seem to break at the clasp when you wash them.

One of my favourite all-rounders has to be thyme tea. With strong antioxidant properties, this medicinal tea does wonders for general well-being and is a great substitute for coffee (which everyone knows is bad for you). Now living in France, coffee drinking is pretty much an integral part of the French way of life, but I am trying my hardest to cut down on the caffeine. I find that more than one cup of coffee in a morning increases my heart rate and leaves me feeling restless and irritable. Herbal tea proposes a refreshing alternative. Even the after-dinner Espresso has become relatively rare Chez TêteBlanche these days, often being replaced with a nice cup of verbena-mint tea instead, which aids digestion.

There is, however, one tea that we can’t pick from the garden and it just so happens to be Pete’s favourite…Thé Vert (green tea). There are so many proven health benefits to drinking green tea, it never even crossed my mind that it could actually be doing more harm than good. That is, until, I saw this:
img_4272img_4273
At the beginning of the month, I was perusing the tea aisle in my local supermarket, looking for some green tea for Pete, when I came across an unusual box of ‘Special Gunpowder’ loose green tea from China. Without reading the box in detail, I threw it in the trolley, thinking I had found the next best thing to growing it ourselves. While unpacking the shopping, I opened the box and smiled as I inhaled the aroma of the leaves, imagining the Japanese tea ceremony and zen tea-making ritual. It was then it dawned on me, this was NOT Japanese tea, it was Chinese tea, which changed everything. I was disturbed enough to see the word ‘pesticides’ on the box but even more disturbed to think that the supermarket could be allowed to sell this poison to consumers. As I delved deeper into the subject of pesticide tea, you can imagine my horror when I came upon the realisation that the majority of green tea on sale in the supermarket contains traces of pesticides, lead and other deadly toxins… and we’re talking about the leading brands here! Needless to say, I will never be buying Chinese tea ever again, which didn’t even make it as far as the compost heap, I have to add, but went straight in the bin.

Then I thought just how many more supermarket products contain harmful toxins that are not mentioned on the packaging? It’s an alarming question and one that led me to the discovery that the very notorious American multinational company, Monsanto, either sell genetically modified seeds to, or own, numerous well-known supermarket brands. The list is astonishing and I feel a huge sense of betrayal. It makes me feel like I never want to step foot in a supermarket ever again. But I suddenly realise that we are so far from being self-sufficient and no matter how much food we grow in our back garden, there will always be the necessity to buy certain non-food items (washing powder and toilet roll spring to mind), and thus, it is completely unrealistic of me to imagine our life without supermarket intervention.

So, what initially began as a journey to self-sufficiency is metamorphosing into the more realistic ambition of self-reliance. This said, we still have numerous steps to take on this ambitious journey of permaculture-living of ours.
Step one: having recently discovered that a number of the locals group together and order their dry food in bulk from a Bio co-op and local organic suppliers, naturally it seems important for us to participate too.
sabarot-green-lentils-from-le-puy-boxNo longer will we feel obliged to buy ‘Le Puy en Velay’ green lentils, a place we grew particular fondness for, having spent a year living there in 2007. Instead, we have discovered that the neighbouring village is the perfect source for organic green lentils, reducing our carbon footprint once again. We are trying to source our meat locally too, although the environmental impact of a meat-based diet and the fundamental importance of plant-based whole foods is continually playing on our minds.

I would not object to giving up meat entirely, but I have to say that giving up dairy products would be much more challenging and pretty much impossible. So, we have to compromise. We have renewed our efforts to cut down our meat and dairy intake, replacing as many products as possible with plant-based whole foods. We are already much more inclined to make vegetarian lasagnes, chillis and pasta dishes than before, in fact one of my recent culinary successes was my ‘swiss chard and blue cheese quiche with homemade walnut pastry, served with green lentils’ which the kids polished off in no time.

We currently go meat-free at least three days a week. It might not sound much to those committed vegetarians out there, but considering we used to eat meat with every meal, it’s a step in the right direction. Imagine if everybody did the same? Worldwide campaigns such as Meat-free Monday and Meatless Monday seem to be really taking off, and even France has started to get involved, with ‘Jeudi Veggie’. This said, I, personally, can’t see meat being taken off the menu for even one day a week here in the Aveyron, where the locals love their traditional food and specialities. Put it this way, I wouldn’t want to be the one to take a plate of Aubrac steak away from an Aveyronnais, on a Monday, a Thursday or any other day of the week for that matter!

While on the subject of environmentally-sustainable diets, we recently watched a riveting documentary called ‘Unity’ (see below for official trailer) that basically sums up what we already feel about the world we live in and about what it is to be human…that whether we are human, animal or tree, we are all equal.  It goes way beyond diet and explores the mind, body, heart and soul of existence and how we are all connected…one…a unity. Individually, we can’t save the world single-handed, but together, as a unit, we might just have a chance. So maybe you just don’t want to become vegan or vegetarian, or if you’re anything like me, you’d like to but simply can’t, it doesn’t mean to say that you can’t make a difference. Giving up meat and dairy just one day a week will not only reduce your carbon footprint, it will make you healthier too. Take a look at these statistics taken from Earthday.org and tell me they don’t sway you a little in the right direction:

If over the course of a year you:

  • Ate one less burger a week, it would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for 320 miles.
  • Skip meat and cheese one day a week with your family, it would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by 3 minutes.
  • Skip steak once a week with your family, it would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for nearly three months.
  • And if the entire U.S. did not eat meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

If you are interested in any of the issues raised today, here is some further reading:

Pesticides in green tea (in English)

Thé Vert Pesticide (en Français)

Steps to keep Monsanto out of your garden

Monsanto-owned companies to boycott

And I couldn’t finish without giving a mention to the father of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, who sadly passed away last month.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/131655173″>Unity Official Trailer (2 min)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/specticast”>SpectiCast</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>