Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oysters, Ants, Pollen Clouds and Miniature Goats.

Along with hundreds of thousands of others, some neighbours here were stuck in Boston after the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano exploded into the skies, dusting European airspace with volcanic ash.

The day after French and other European and UK fights were grounded, I opened my door here in the forest to a haze of yellow dust. Just another natural phenomenon - the breeze blowing clouds of pollen from pine tree branches into the warm spring air. My blue car was yellow. My terrace was yellow. My Burmese/Siamese cat, Coco, was yellow. After a short walk in the garden my shoes and jeans were yellow. Last year there was a shower after the heaviest pollen clouds. Pollen lay everywhere like mustard for days.

It's also the time of year when ants get active. They come in three sizes: giant, middling and tiny. The big ones stay around dead trees in the forest. Don't know quite what the little ones get up to. It's the middle-sized ants, the carpenter ants, that are troublesome. They troop into the house, climbing the exterior wall and entering through any little opening and nest in the wooden beams. Bit by bit, they hollow out the beams, pushing wood dust out. They're eating my house. I like most creatures and generally go out of my way to avoid hurting them. But I have to make an exception with the ants. I buy that ant killer that says the ants find it irresistible and take it into the nest where they all have a good meal then die. It's utter rubbish. They make huge detours to avoid the stuff. I'm just 're-roofing' the frame over the terrace with mesh so I can plonk all the honeysuckle back over it and while I was up the ladder I saw legions of ants trundling over the frame, waving their antennae in greeting at one another, on their way to eat my beams. You can brush them off but they just start again at the bottom.

While I was up the ladder a neighbour arrived with his station wagon. "Viens voir" he said, calling me over.
In the back seat he had a miniature goat with miniature horns and a very sweet face.
"I know you like animals" he said. "So I thought I'd bring this one to show you. There were two, loose by the canal. The other one got away. I think they belong to Gregory, your neighbour."
No I said. Gregory has sheep and donkeys and geese and hens and cats and dogs and children. But no goats.

We looked at the goat in the back seat. He looked back at us. Since he wasn't the slightest bit scared I suddenly thought he must live at the pony school. The pony school along the track has a bunch of tiny ponies ridden by tiny riders, all little girls who love ponies. Every day they ride past the house on the track, led by an older girl or a big bloke on a more substantial horse. Maybe the school also kept goats. That would explain why the goat was used to humans.

My neighbour duly drove the goat to the pony school. No, not ours, they said. But we'll keep him till you find the owners.
Asking around, another neighbour, Daniel, did indeed know who owned the two goats. My neighbour called round and told the family 'I found one of your goats.'
They were delighted, a couple and a troop of young kids. (Not a pun.)
The goats were not tethered they explained. They just wander about all day and come home in the evening. This was the first time in six months that they'd wandered so far.
Everyone went to the school to collect the first goat.
The second arrived at my neighbour's house later that day, perhaps scenting that her partner had already turned himself in.
Goats and family were reunited.

Once that was all dealt with I turned my attention to the oyster shells. I'd invited friends to eat oysters at my place the previous night as the guy who sells oysters in the local market sells the world's best oysters. From Bouzigues, he's a young guy, clearly very proud of his work and the quality of his oysters. Last week I told him I'd found a small blue pearl in one of the oysters I'd bought from him and he explained that yes that can happen but it's rare. Also, because the oysters are young, the pearls are soft and not mature. That had been obvious as the outer layers crumbled easiy. Still, it was the first time I'd found a pearl in my dinner.
Anyhow, I had dozens of oyster shells. More than I'd paid for because oyster sellers work on the old 13 to a dozen principle. Looking at them, they were so beautiful I couldn't throw them away. Maybe they'd make good compost? Looking online it seemed that they do indeed make good compost. I was about to start hammering them to smithereens when my neighbour called round again. He'd done a deal with the woman at the pony school, exchanging our collective olive oil for her horse manure mixed with straw. Did I want to be included so I could have fertiliser for my olive trees? Yes please.
"However" I said proudly "I'm also making oyster shell compost".
He looked at me as if I was mad.
"It's full of calcium" I said. "Very good for the soil."
He threw his head back and laughed.
Yes it's full of calcium he replied. But not good for your soil. Look around - your soil is calcaire - it's made of calcium."
OK. I'll stick with the horse manure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wild Asparagus and Morille Mushrooms

That time of year again. I love collecting the slim, slightly bitter wild asparagus spears that grow in Provence. You soon develop an eye for them, spotting the tangle of spiky, bottle-green asparagus plant and then, off to one side, an elegant spear. Takes time to find and collect them though so no wonder they only turn up occasionally in the local market and cost quite a bit.

They're lovely with a dorade royale, lightly steamed and with an olive oil vinaigrette. Even nicer that the spears come from the foot of the olives trees from which the oil is made. Wild asparagus is lovely cooked and cut into omelette too. Or fine, young spears can be added to green salad or a salade nicoise.

Because we've had quite a bit of rain this year, everything's growing as if it's in the tropics. And that includes....morilles - morel mushrooms. A wonderful truffly mushroom that pops up in spring, morels have been few and far between in the last few years just where I live. Usually I find a dozen or so growing in the gravel round the lavender and roses. This year, out looking for asparagus, I suddenly noticed they were popping up all over the place!

Which causes great excitement. (When I spotted the first one, a woodpecker suddenly started drilling away at a tree in the garden which seemed a bit like a morel fanfare given the timing.) My instinct was to fall on the mushrooms straight away and carry them off to the kitchen. But as almost always, with almost everything in Provence, the first thing to do was to try and apply some experienced judgement. They had some more growing to do. So why not wait till tomorrow or the day after? Good thinking. Or was it? Once dusk fell, the four sangliers wild boar that live long the track would be out truffling about looking for food. The morilles would be hoovered up in a second once they were scented. So pick them now.
Or not?

I picked several and cooked them with slices of duck. Delicious. (First it was necessary to be certain they were morilles but they're quite hard to mistake. There is a variety which is highly toxic - if eaten raw - but I was cooking them anyway.)

Since then I've picked around 15 large morels which were luckily not found by the sangliers. A friend who is an expert in mycology, and so also knows his mushroom gathering, identification, cuisine and preservation, reminded me that the flavour of morilles is improved by drying them. Hang them up with their chapeaux down, he said, and use natural twine, not thread or plasticky string.
So I'm starting to collect a few more each day and hang them upside down from the ramp in the mezzanine.

I mustn't forget the less rare but equally desirable asperges sauvages though. Better go out now and find some.

Two books on Provencal homes:

Provencal Escapes: Inspirational Homes in Provence and the Cote D'azur

Provencal Inspiration: Living the French Country Spirit

Buying Houses, Selling Houses, Renovating Houses in Provence

A new neighbour of mine was widowed last year. She left the beautiful villa in Narbonne which she'd shared with her husband and moved to Isle-sur-Sorgue. There were too many memories in the Narbonne house. (Which she's selling - if you're interested in a large, perfect, move-in-condition villa with a great pool and oodles of space, just ask.)

The first thing she did here was order a new kitchen. Heaven knows why - the 'old' one looked perfectly new. But people like to make a home their own. A local company agreed a (high) price with her and duly sent lots of crates and a fitter along. The kitchen would take two days to fit. Er, not quite. The guy was meticulous when he worked but had various other claims on his time so that the two days slid into...12. Twelve days without one or other or several of the appliances and sometimes without water. Oh well, it got done.

My neighbour then decided to build a large wall round the property. To my mind this is a fairly frequently-seen anglo-saxon priority and privacy could often be protected more aesthetically with hedging or shrubs. But beauty's in the eye of the person holding the deeds to the house. She duly engaged a team to build a wall and agreed a (high) price. "How's the wall progressing?" I asked her after a while. "OK" she said slowly. "Though the builders don't always turn up when they say they will. They seem to have other claims on their time."

Next day they were happily back to work though. Part of the wall was to block out a neighbour's garden where a large stately white horse had got used to gazing into her garden, pensively chewing grass. He watched the builders mixing concrete with a certain amount of interest. But looked affronted as they plonked blocks one on top of the other, gradually phasing him out of view. Walled up in his own garden, poor thing. He was accompanied by a barky dog though, whose barks were not blocked out by the wall so I imagine he and the horse felt they'd had a partial victory.

New kitchen and large wall in progress, my neighbour then decided to replace all the house's (new) interior doors with (new) new doors. And the frames they hung in. I spoke with a local craftsman who does patines for doors - (what's the word in English? Finishes?) Could he supply doors and frames? No. Did he know anyone who could? Probably. What about price? He didn't know. Probably high? Probably.

And then she turned her attention to the lawn. Her gardener is pretty good at what he does but, like the kitchen fitter, he has various other interests and things to do with his time apart from prune trees and plant lavender bushes. So my neighbour decided she should at least buy a lawn mower - one she could use so she could mow the grass when the gardener's not available. Which meant a ride-on mower as she's quite small and the lawn is quite big. Looking at prices on line, she saw they were rather high in Provence so she's ordered a John Deere tractor-like lawn mower to be delivered from the UK.

Generally I must say I find prices in Provence wa-y lower than UK prices. For almost everything. (Except, curiously, knickers.) I have a feeling that delivering a tractor-style John Deere lawn mower from Britain may turn out to be quite a performance and possibly one of the most expensive home improvements my neighbour makes. But perhaps it'll arrive on time. We'll see.

For a useful Provence and French Riviera Guide see: Rick Steves' Provence and The French Riviera 2010