Saturday, 31 December 2011

Waffley end to 2011

So we watched the Jamie Oliver Christmas shows. Now, we love Jamie Oliver (not in a sexual way, you understand). His early TV shows were superb, as were his first books, and together they made a huge, lasting, positive impact on our cooking. He's gone on to do Great Things, and we wish him and his expanding waistline all the best.

Excited by some of his seasonal recipes (although a bit weirded out by the number of supermarket packets being used - we're more used to Hugh's way of doing things), Her Outdoors made the waffle and hot chocolate breakfast on Boxing Day. Here's the proof:

I hope I'm not too late to say: Don't try this at home. It's utterly inedible. Far too much baking powder and the salt was overpowering (we did substitute salted butter 'cos we don't have anything else, but even without it, it would have been an awful waffle). The hot chocolate was OK - superbly thick - but there were complaints of powdery nature. After a single bite each, we gave it all to the pigs and chickens, and Jamie's reputation took a savage beating.

Although this experiment was a disaster, the idea of waffles and hot chocolate is a good 'un. And fortunately, Her Outdoors has huge experience in pancakes and waffles, having lived in California for many years. So she took the waffle recipe from "Joy of Cooking" and the real hot chocolate from The River Cottage Family Cookbook, with a couple of minor modifications, and made this:

It was sublime. Exactly what we would have wanted on Boxing Day. Light, fluffy and filling waffle with a rich, sweet and chocolatey drink on the side. Proper - as Jamie would say in the old days - pukka tucker.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Field study

This field was prepared by our first set of pigs a few years ago, then harrowed a bit by Pepito but not planted (ran out of time) a year later, then scraped a bit by a tractor and part planted (which the deer ate) the year after that, then double ploughed and double harrowed, rocks removed by hand, hand sown and harrowed again for good measure a few weeks ago. But that's not important right now.

What is important is that the bit nearest the camera on the left had a few tractor buckets of Pepito manure added to it over the first 30 metres or so (that's about 30 yards) and that bit's doing best of all. Plus, that whole left side was sown by Her Outdoors and seems to be doing much better than my half. (The first bit I over-sowed so that doesn't really count.) And we're not quite sure why.

But everything in life is an experiment. We'll be keeping a close eye on this and coming back to the field study from time to time, not least to show Ben and Anna from flirtingwithyurting how their help has helped us.

Merry Christmas by the way.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

World market

Her Outdoors set up her stall today for the Lalinde Christmas Market. But just over seven billion of you couldn't make it (the parking would have been a nightmare) - and if you're one of those, this is what you missed.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

More mushroom magic

So our mushroom experiments began with the funky looking helvella crispa as described immediately below. Some time later, a trusted neighbour introduced us to the Coulemelle (Parasol Mushroom in English, macrolepiota procera in Biology) seen in a post well below that. Then we tried the also-impossible-to-mistake coprinus comatus (Shaggy Ink Cap, Lawyer’s Wig or Shaggy Mane) and thought we were doing pretty well, adding one mushroom a year to our diet.

Then 2011 happened. Our first new mushroom of the year was this beauty:

In English it’s called the Beefsteak Fungus (in French, the Beef Tongue, which looks more accurate and, in Latin, fistulina helpatica). Again we checked with our books and pharmacist and we were blessed with finding a textbook example to make it easier to swallow. I now check the base of every tree I pass on the off-chance I’ll spot another, which slows down my walks through the woods - another bonus.

And a few weeks ago, a former neighbour told me about the rosé des prés (Field Mushroom in English, Meadow Mushroom in American, agaricus campestris in Latin) which immediately became Our Favourite Mushroom. A small one, freshly picked, entirely dominates whatever you put it in - and this morning I came back from feeding the animals with two, plus a half dozen Elfin Saddles.

Got to love the rain.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The mushroom we've been waiting for

Eating foraged mushrooms is an unnerving experience - especially the first time - very especially when you have young children who couldn't fend for themselves if you fell dead into your risotto. Which is why we only eat mushrooms that cannot be confused with anything else.

Like this one.

It's called Helvella crispa (or White Saddle, Elfin Saddle or Common Helvel for short) and is the wildest looking wild mushroom you're ever likely to pick. It can't be eaten raw and is a bit of a pain to clean, but well worth the effort.

It's actually the first wild mushroom we ever ate.

First we looked it up in two mushroom books, which are both in French to add room for error. Then we took it to a pharmacist trained to give safety advice on mushrooms, who didn't recognise it (a bit of a worry there) and had to call us back to confirm its edibility (which is a word I've never written before). Finally we ate it, probably on toast with some cream - and lived to write the blog.

Ever since, we've waited for it to appear on the same patch of drive, never knowing exactly when that will be. One year a wild boar got to them before we did (presumably the don't-eat-raw law doesn't apply to them) but yesterday I made a momentous discovery while chasing another hunting dog. There's a second patch of them in the old pig area.

Or at least there was until just before dinner last night. Yum.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Socking it to Christmas

The craftiness of Her Outdoors continues in the run-up to the mid-Winter festival. She made this awesome sock monkey using this website, having been inspired by these designs. All she used was a pair of socks, some stuffing, a needle, thread and a couple of hours.

Friday, 2 December 2011

A post of two books

Back in May 2007, I hinted at some books that have profoundly influenced my thinking. I said they "might be a bit New Age for your tastes" and left it at that. (What a book tease.)

But I recently got a message on a Popular Social Networking Service from a former colleague who said I lent her one of those books and it also had a profound influence on her. It just so happens that this was the book that started me off on a journey from the kitchen table in an apartment in Minneapolis to this old garden table in a yurt in the Dordogne.

Who knows where it could take you?

The book is called “Journey of Souls” by Dr Michael Newton. In a sentence, it’s about what happens between the point of death and the point of re-birth, using case studies from many clients under deep hypnosis to tell the whole story. Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for reincarnation and it was great to read about the process in more detail. But it’s a touchy subject for a lot of people, so I’ll say no more about it for now.

The other book I’ll give you (it’s nearly mid-winter, can you tell?) is far less challenging. It's called “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by the astonishingly named Audrey Niffenegger. You may have read this already, but I’m re-reading it now and it’s just as good the second time round. Unwaveringly brilliant (and unless I'm mistaken, a key source text for the current series of "Doctor Who").

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Christmas markets

Her Outdoors is realising a very long-held ambition today. After four weeks of being crafty, she's selling her own hand-stitched Christmas decorations on a market stall. For those of you who can't make it to Cadouin before the end of the afternoon, here's what she has on offer.

If there's anything left, she'll be going to the Christmas market in Lalinde on December 10th. Of course, you could always send an email through the Booking Form of the website if you want her to make one especially for you. The decorations are €4 each or three for a tenner, plus postage and packaging. The wreaths are far too cheap at €12 and €15 (I think) - but they'd be far too expensive to post from France. You wouldn't believe me it I told you the rates.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Out and about

Here's a shot of the pigs this morning, recovering from the terrierist attack the other day. Still small, but bigger than they were...

Kids and French

One question that comes up from time to time is: How did the children cope with French?

The short answer is: Better than us.

When we arrived in France, The Daughter was six and a half. Despite the best efforts of Her Outdoors, she knew next to no French. But she's a very sociable person and we didn't worry too much about how she would cope at school.

On the first day, it was hard to send this little person into a playground where she knew no one and had no way of communicating. But by the end of the day she had both English-speaking and bilingual friends. Before the week was out, she'd been invited back to a new best friend's house and everything looked OK.

There were some downs as well as ups, like when the teacher (rightly) banned English speaking in the classroom, but the desire to play overcame everything and after three months she spoke French very well. By the end of the year she was fluent. And by the second year she not only spoke with the village accent, but was at the top of her class in French (where she remains, jockeying for first place with another English girl).

So it would be hard not to say she's coped pretty well. Only her name gives her away as a non-French person.

Boy had a gentler introduction to the language. After we'd been here about a year, he went to a childminder a few mornings a week. He was going to start school in the September and we felt he should at least know what he was being asked to do, even if he couldn't say much himself. The childminder had no English, so he had no option but to learn.

His first year at school was tough, but he was very little (his class was actually called "Very Little") and it would have been tough anywhere. But, again, by the end of the year he was happy and competent. We hardly ever hear him speak French, as we just use English at home, but I'm beginning to ask him for pronunciation advice of difficult words (his rolled "r" is incredible), while we consult The Daughter on the meaning of expressions that don't translate.

Our French isn't terrible. And maybe with eight hours of lessons a day, four days a week, we would have been fluent after a year. But I doubt it. For adults, I think it takes a little bit longer.

Monday, 21 November 2011

War on terriers

Last year, our pigs were attacked by two hunting dogs (cute little terriers the like of which you'd expect to see on an ageing grandparent's knee wearing a tartan collar). Fortunately, me and Her Outdoors were both on the land at the time and, in the 30 seconds it took for the dogs to jump over the pig fence, pin down our biggest pig and try and tear it apart by pulling it round a tree, we were both on the scene. Me screaming at the two beaters in robust Anglo Saxon, Her Outdoors shouting more politely in French.

The pig survived. The local Chasse president agreed to pay the vet's bill for the antibiotics, and said they would hunt further from our boundary in future.

Despite this assurance, one of us still runs down to the land when we hear gunshots and dogs nearby. Luckily, this only happens at weekends, on public holidays and any day in between, and usually only very early in the morning when we're just about to enjoy a nice hot mug of good coffee. Like last Saturday.

I went down to check on the pigs and stood around for a few minutes, listening like a human. Then I thought: 'This is bloody ridiculous, I could be here all morning' and came back for breakfast. When I went back on the animal food run, I heard yapping coming from the pig house, grabbed a stick and ran.

I chased off the dog - another lovely ickle terrier - and found all three pigs cowering in their house. I shut them in and went after the hunters. (It's amazing how quickly you get used to walking up to someone with a loaded gun and telling them they're not welcome - I've even learnt some robust French to drive my point home.) Sadly, I didn't find them.

The pigs are not doing so well this time. The biggest had the most bites, but he's walking around getting on with things. The smallest can't put any weight on one of her back legs, although she's more perky today than yesterday. The middle one was fine yesterday but wasn't looking at all good this morning.

And we're both a bit pissed off.

My first response is to want to shoot any dogs that come onto our land. But it's not their fault. They are apparently starved for a few days before being taken hunting and are only doing their job - quite well at that. They don't know the difference between a wild pig and a domestic one living in the wild, and probably can't read the signs banning hunting here. So we're going to catch future hunting dogs and call their owners instead. And make fencing an expensive priority.

Sure, we will probably get the vet's bill paid, and hopefully compensation if one or more pig dies. But where's the compensation for us being permanently on full alert? Jumping up at any dog barking (there's one barking up the road right now) and running off to defend our livestock? It's nerve-wracking - and not how we want to be spending our time.

I wanted to take some nice sunny pictures of the pigs on Saturday, to show you how well they're coming along, and how much they're enjoying their newly expanded pig area. Can't do that now, can I?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Our Little England debut

In which we swear a little bit.

(I'll let you into a little secret - in take one I didn't say: "boy chickens".)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

You're one click away from the "Little England" yurt camp as seen on ITV1

If you're looking for the yurt camp featured on ITV1's "Little England" last night, you've come to the right place.

Or, nearly.

What you've actually found is the blog of the whole story, from a few months after we had the idea to "sell the house and buy a field", to a very warm mid-November, where we've been fielding emails from people we haven't seen or heard from in a very long time and getting ready for the cold weather that's due to arrive in the next few days.

If you want to visit the website RIGHT NOW, to look at some pictures of the yurts, read a bit about smallholding, hear a bit about the surrounding area, find out how much it costs to stay, and see the availability calendar, click here.

But if you've got some time and want to see what it was really like to get off the hamster wheel and set up a yurt camp in rural France, pull up a coffee and start at the beginning. It takes a while to read the blog, but I did it the other day and it's quite a story (even if I do write so myself).

You can always visit the website later.

One more thing, the yurts and us will be on "Little England" again in a few weeks. I hope the producer is as kind to us then as he was last night. He's called Simon. Not the Simon you'll read about in the blog. But Simon none the less.

Monday, 7 November 2011

écovallée on Little England

Last Spring, écovallée got a phone call from ITV asking if we’d be interested in being filmed for “Little England” - a 12-part prime-time TV series scheduled for broadcast later in the year.

Four and a half years ago we’d have said no.

We’d just had the BBC round to do a piece on the Daughter’s school in Brighton. A very well-dressed, well-spoken guy showed up at our house at 7.30 in the morning. He did all the filming himself, and the sound recording, and the interviewing, filmed some more at the school, and even more at a political party conference, then cut together a few minutes for the lunchtime news and a longer special report for that evening. He was incredible - and incredibly nice - and I guess he worked that hard every day.

But for us, once was enough. It was a strain having to edit what you were thinking before you said it out loud. Her Outdoors did brilliantly, producing amazing soundbites from nowhere (and I’m supposed to be the writer), but afterwards she said: ‘Never again’. I had to agree - even though we were about to leave the country for rural France.

We didn’t want cameras in our faces when we were screwing up, exposing our total ignorance, shouting, crying, bleeding and everything else we expected to experience as we went from suburban family to yurt-dwelling smallholders. We wanted to enjoy it all privately.

OK, I’ve blogged the whole thing. But Her Outdoors has always said these posts lack emotional content. Having re-read them as background to a book I’m writing, I see what she means.

I’ve always tried to make light of what we’ve been through in “Dordogneshire”. But for far too long, it was hell. We lost a load of money, were ripped off, lied to, misled, exploited and punished for being English - and we discovered this is normal. I read recently that 18 out of 20 ex-pats who move here return to England, broke and broken by the experience. It sounds a lot, but it’s possible. Most of the people we know live in some kind of survival and they all have horror stories to tell.

It would make great telly. But that’s not what Little England is about.

Little England is about the sunny side of the Dordogne, which is one of the reasons we said yes to doing the show (not just because the producers are so nice - or for the free publicity). It’s gentle, feel-good TV with beautiful scenery. As a viewer, I think some shows have worked better than others. As a participant, I hope Geoffrey Palmer goes easy on us. But as someone who’s made the move, I want to warn people who might be tempted to follow the thousands of people who have made this part of France their home.

Yes, it’s a beautiful place (we didn’t know quite how beautiful until after we moved here). Yes, you can buy a large property for a relatively small amount of money (still well over-priced, as French and English alike attempt to take advantage of newcomers’ ignorance). Yes, the sun shines a lot (which is why we chose this part of the country to live under canvas). But as the occasional comment in Little England reveals, making a living here is unimaginably hard.

We haven’t done it yet. Last year’s money from the yurts went back into the infrastructure, buying the solar shower, gravel filter, new canvas and more. We’ve only survived at all thanks to the overwhelming generosity of what I call the English mafia, our friends and family, and the eventual backing of our mayor.

From next year, depending on the economy, we will move from survival to thrival (Her’s Outdoors’ expression - see what I mean about sound bites?). It feels like we’ve gained many lifetimes of experience over the last four and a half years. It’s been a genuine emotional rollercoaster, with elation, horror, fear, love, pain and joy - and our world’s been turned upside down many times.

I don’t know what exposing ourselves to an audience of several million people will do (we’re due to appear on November 14th and December 5th on ITV1, at 8pm), but it felt right to say yes. Whatever happens, we’re determined to enjoy the ride.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Mushroom magic

November 5th 2011 is Coulemelle Day.

Coulemelle, also known as the Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera to Latin readers), is one of the few mushrooms we know we can eat. We were introduced to it by a neighbour a few years ago and, after checking two books and discovering it can't be confused with other mushrooms due to its size, we look forward to it every year.

Calendar watchers will want to know that it arrived on November 4th 2009:

And on September 22nd 2010:

Here's a quick recipe to celebrate this year's magical free food day, which will extend our enjoyment by three months (if we can leave them in the freezer that long).

Bag yourself some mushies from the field. (5 mins)

Tear into bits and make a pile. (10 mins)

Put a batch in a hot wok with oil and butter. (5 secs)

Sautée. (less than 5 mins)

Put on a plate to cool. (3 secs)

Bag up, freeze and repeat while crops last. (Only a few days)

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Many horses make light work

In truly unbelievable act of generosity, one of our favourite neighbours gave us a tractor that looks exactly like this:

Renault tractor buffs will immediately recognise an R 7051 - but that's not important right now. Blog followers will spot the cut off plastic bottle preventing rain getting into the air intake and killing the engine (I'm not getting caught like that again) - but that's not important either.

What is important is that this new toy - includes bucket (but no battery) - has made our big winter project of collecting rocks from the field and dumping them on the road through the woods far, far easier. After only a few days it already looks like this:

Next year's guests can look forward to their own access - and écovallée parking (thanks Simon) - when visiting the yurt camp. Which currently looks like this:

Friday, 7 October 2011

How to make a yurt platform - Alex's fairly definitive guide (including pictures)

Now that I've made a raised wooden platform for the play yurt,

a beaten earth platform with dry-stone retaining wall for our 18-foot yurt,

an 18-foot beaten earth platform with woven chestnut retaining fence for our first guest yurt,

a wooden platform for our second 18-foot yurt,

and a second 18-foot earth platform on a slope for our second guest yurt,

I feel qualified to write a fairly definitive guide to how to build a yurt platform. I'll be happy to answer questions if anything needs clarification, time permitting.

Before I started my latest platform, I bought:
o Thirty 2.5-metre lengths of rough 7.5 cm by 4 cm douglas fir from a nearby woodyard
o A six-litre tin of treatment against wood-boring insects
o 27 square metres of pine flooring, 23 mm thick, 10 cm wide and 2 m long
o A five-litre tin of protective treatment for the finished floor - oil with a white pigment
o A box of 200 screws 70 mm long, 5 mm wide
o A box of nails 40 mm long, 2 mm wide

On day one, I laid down and levelled the floor joists 61 cm apart, and screwed noggings between them to strengthen the frame.

I was lucky enough to have almost level ground to work on, and some old tiles and bits of wood lying around. Levelling an area like this takes a huge amount of work and is covered in other posts.

On day two, I joined the ends of the joists, trying to get these outside noggings as close to the finished edge as possible.

The weight of the yurt will be resting on this edge, which is why I put supports at the top, bottom and sides.

An important point here, in capital letters: THE FINISHED FLOOR FOR AN 18-FOOT COPPICED YURT IS 18 FEET 4 INCHES - the 18 feet is in the internal measurement. If you are using sawn timber, just add the wall width on both sides to your internal finished size.

On day three, I started laying the floor, aiming for as little wastage as possible, pre-drilling holes diagonally through the tongues wherever the boards crossed a joist.

This is what I can do in about 10 hours working alone.

On day four, I finished laying the floor while Her Outdoors applied the first layer of oil. Unfortunately, the oil had an eight to 12-hour drying time between coats, so this day ended up being quite long too. Rain had appeared on the forecast I use and we were now chasing the weather as so often happens.

On day five, I screwed 10 cm strips of 5 mm ply to the outside edge of the platform.

For some reason this doesn't come up much in yurt books, or sites talking about yurt platforms, but we find it essential. The edge makes putting the frame up a breeze, doesn't cost much, cuts down on draughts, holds in the insulation and even stops slugs coming in to eat the cat food.

If you have large items of furniture and small doors like us, you'll want to move these onto the platform before putting your retaining edges on.


I've since discovered you don't need to pre-drill those holes. Just make sure they are angled nicely into the wood. Saves a bit of time.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Night yurt

This is for Dave, who wanted to see why I said the yurt and gazebo look awesome and make two yurts look greedy. Who could want more than this?

Except someone who would want it in focus.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Something for us

This week, I've been trying to get the work:work balance sorted out. I've been doing the physical stuff in the mornings: cutting and stripping acacia, and digging post holes in readiness for a gazebo next to our yurt (it's about time we did something just for us). In the afternoons I've been doing the mental stuff: tweaking the website, writing a book, getting in touch with an agent and all that.

Gazebo-wise, it's worked out pretty well. Here it was a few minutes ago:

Problem is, the physical stuff is such fun that lunch gets later and later, and the time for writing before the kids come home from school gets shorter and shorter. And as I found in the summer holidays, kids and book writing don't mix. At all.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Interest in rocks

I love this time of year. When we don't have guests we are open to people who come and help, bringing all manner of interests and skills with them. Yesterday, Marc and Aimee rocked up at the start of their long walk to Italy. You read that right - they're walking (you can follow them on their freedombyfoot blog link on the right).

Now Marc is an archaeologist. And you may know I've been wanting an archaeologist here for YEARS. Especially one specialising in prehistory. So you won't be surprised that I quickly exposed him to my Interesting Rocks.

These are some of the countless rocks I have unearthed during the making of écovallée. Some or all of these rocks have been dissed by some or all of the people who have seen them. But I kept the faith, and Marc has identified these as being definitely shaped by man or woman.

He actually got quite excited about one of them.

Instant wood store

Last week I spent two days being an extra in a French film and two nights being the first person to sleep in a friend's beautiful straw-bale house. While I was away, Alex and Laura made this.

A couple of mornings cutting and splitting wood, and it's already one third full. We've never been so prepared for winter.

Friday, 9 September 2011

It's timing all about

Just back from a 10-day holiday in England, where I was an usher at my little brother's wedding.

It all went very well, thanks. The only complaints I'd make are the slate-grey sky we saw almost every day, the size of the new shopping centres in Exeter and Leicester (which seem to be excessively large), and the price of beer in pubs.

Although Alex and Laura looked after écovallée and our guests magnificently while we were away (see their Life in Brian blog link on the right), you'll appreciate there's a lot to do right now. Projects include making a shelter for our wood pile, building a gazebo and roof for the clay oven (see below), tweaking the website to reflect next year's more rustic offering, laying a 100-metre (100-yard) road and car parking area near the Play Yurt using our own hand-gathered stone, building the snail-shell shower cubicle we swapped through project1p, and writing a book designed to coincide with the screening of a 12-part TV series called "Little England".

Which is why I'm in a blind panic at this very moment. You see, I used to think I had months to write the book. I used to think the TV show was going to be aired some time between October and April 2012.

But I was wrong.

Today's post (US: mail) included a flyer that informs me "Little England" will start on Monday. This Monday. Monday September 12th. I don't know which of the 12 shows we're going to be in, but I strongly suspect I won't have much time for blog writing between now and Christmas.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

How to repair our pizza oven

Remember our pizza oven from last year? This one:

Well, during the winter we had a fall of heavy snow, which crushed the gazebo, one of the broken poles of which pierced the oven, which let in water, which destroyed it. Before we even lit it.

In the last couple of weeks, Her Outdoors took the broken section off...

Mixed it about a bit...

Put it back together...

Covered it with what looks like icing...

Made a slip layer, with help from The Daughter...

Made it beautiful...

Set a fire...

And actually lit it...

All it needs now is a proper roof. And some pizza (doh).