Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society

Michael, Gustav & Munson's tongue

…but does a polar bear have a tongue like a malamute’s?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sanglier sensations


As Spring warmth envelops the farm, we’re doing more frequent circuits of the boundary line, giving Munson plenty of sniffing room. We also take out our “dirty hoes” to clean up brambles and thistles before they completely take over some these fields and paths. 

Near the back of the farm there’s a long low ditch connecting two ponds. The first (above and below) is ringed with grassy mounds spotted with the dried remains of last year’s thistles, and a new crop about to take off. While hacking those away we ended up clearing most of the bramble that was beginning to take a foot-hold. Last year’s drought saw the water disappear so far that larger thistles spread out into the centre.

While Munson was checking out the coypu holes along the edge, Gustav found a large frog or toad amongst a nebula of spawn clinging to the grassy banks.

2012-03-24 12.43.25   frog

Space frog navigates the stars

Moving onto the ditch, there are lots of really big starfish-like thistles taking advantage of the moisture and occasional shade. It reminds me of navigating a small underwater trench while scuba-diving.

The fields up here have a lot of mole hills of crumbling clay and you usually see big curving ruts in the ground marking where the sangliers have had their boargies. These are quickly disappearing as vegetation and busy worms start to erase the tracks of past months of activity.

The next pond I call the Sargasso as it usually has a wild mat of grass through it. There are narrow sanglier trails along the banks, leading to the large entrances to their boardellos.
Boardello entrance
On the return journey we follow a service road between farms. There’s a powerful sweet smell of cinnamon and mulled wine as if we were passing a Cinnabon store in holiday season. It’s coming from the fermenting silage in large plastic wrappers that have been sitting on the edge of this field for at least a year.


Friday, March 23, 2012

O la la – Boeuf Bourguignon

"When you hear the words 'fast food', you automatically think of one thing: Casserole." At least that was true in 1970s Britain, as a Look Around You special report attests. Those unfamiliar with this educational series should immediately head for the pilot episode on Calcium.

Casserole French-style is not quite so high-tech nor so speedy. Today I’m attempting a Beef Bourguignon, following a recipe by Raymond Blanc, found in written form ici, and in video la:

Day before

Yesterday I prepared the meat, vegetables and bouquet garni for marination. In the picture here I’ve reduced a bottle of cab sav on the stove and it’s just cooling off now before I add it to the bowl, cover it and leave it in the fridge overnight.

clockwise - Beef Bourguinon
The final steps today were not complicated: draining the marinade and patting down the meat on a towel; browning the meat; finishing the sauce; assembling everything on the stove-top before adding the lid and sending to very low oven for three hours; eating the rewards.

There was supposed to be a final step of reducing the sauce further after the oven, but I didn’t have enough liquid left to justify that. In hindsight I discovered I’d been following a 95%-identical recipe on Raymond’s site for braised beef. The main difference was that it omitted half a litre of stock/water. Since I only used half as much beef  the meat:liquid ratio seemed to net out quite well with the beef being very tender and succulent.

Milk cowWhen I was poking around the “bourguignon” (stewing beef) freezer of my supermarket’s meat section I noted that some of the packages were labelled “vache laitiere” (milk cows) and some “vache viande” (meat cows).  I decided to opt for the “laitiere” since I hadn’t had good experience with the specialized beef breeds.
2012-03-22 19.31.07

Munson has haunted the kitchen throughout the entire process, from “creuset to gravy” but has hung back respectfully until the pan was ready for a tongue-scouring. He seems to have laboured as long and hard over this dish as I have.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Friday, March 16, 2012

Oh the springtime it brings on the swimming

2012-03-15 15.54.33 Stitch

Gustav made the suggestion that we should take a walk around the lake at Lupiac. As one drives down the hill towards the lake, there lies a large farmhouse which has been for sale as long as I’ve been visiting here. I wondered why a place in such a spectacular location has gone unloved and unlived-in for so long, although perhaps the million+ euros needed to buy it may explain.

A few people are already sunning themselves on the sands of the swimming beach, and more still are fishing further along its banks.

Munson’s had his first non-pond dip of the season, which gives him excuse to tear around like a mad thing. It takes about forty minutes to amble around and enjoy the range of scenery, giving Munson many opportunities to sample the water.

2012-03-15 15.49.45

Munson x 3 webs and nests
There are no signs yet of the frog spawn in the water although the trees are full of bird, spider and insect creations that I can’t identify.

2012-03-15 15.50.07

This post’s title is a reference to the old Australian song Oh! The Springtime it brings on the shearing. That song is also apt for this time of year as Munson blows the wool out of his undercoat in quantities that defy calculation. Today’s swim will loosen the wool further for another round of spontaneous de-fleecing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rífa: gardening tool of the gods

Gustav wields MjölnirI don’t recall mentions of Asgard having a garden from where the ingredients of mead were cultivated or other Viking delicacies bound for the tables of Valhalla, but I’m sure their garden forks had some spellbinding Scandinavian name. In modern times, it seems they’ve concentrated mainly on garden sheds.

Thor’s hammer Mjölnir derives from the word for crushing or pulverising; otherwise a hammer in Scandiwegic tongues is still a hammer, or a hammaren. A fork is a gaffel which is just not poetic enough – we need it to be a tearer up of weeds. That might make it Riva or in Old Norse: Rífa.
IMG_0550Less melodramatically, the first blossom on my terrace apricot tree appeared today. On closer inspection, it already seems to be wrapped in threads of gossamer malamute hair.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Agen: centre of the pruniverse

Belle de Prune

It’s time to send Vance packing, and we’re putting him on the train to Paris. The easiest point of departure seems to be Agen, an hour north of us, sitting on the auto-route between Bordeaux and Toulouse. From there it’s a choice of TGV trains, and the noon service via Bordeaux will have him at Gare Montparnasse around 4.30pm.

Since I got to France I’ve skirted Agen twice, only seeing the white-box store zone around its periphery. This morning I’ve allowed time for us to have a little walk around the centre before seeing him off. It’s the capital of the Lot-et-Garonne department that borders the Gers, and feels at least twice the size of our capital Auch.

Agen is famous worldwide for its prunes, not stopping at bags of fruit or bottles of juice: specialty stores around the town centre offer aperitifs, chocolates and other prungent treats.

Munson dedans le caféEven at 10.30am it was still a little early to get breakfast here; shutters were just rolling up and chairs unfolded onto the street. We pounced on one café as it opened, but with no prunch offerings in the window, went for a distinctly un-French pecan pie with our coffees.
Musée des Beaux-Arts, AgenAgen's double-naved cathedral
Agen’s unusual double-naved cathedral; (inset) recent statue of a pilgrim on way to Santiago di Compestela
My other cunning motive for picking Agen was to check out a few of the (knitting) wool stores here: the first proved to be a good choice, but the other two were closed with no declaration of hours/days/vacations etc. The lesson in France is that small stores have very irregular openings (actually irrespective of posted hours), so don’t plan a special journey without confirmation that someone will be there.

Agen streets
 darth-vader-burger-ad  Jedi burger

With Vance safely on his way, I suggested to Gustav that we fall victim to Belgian burger chain Quick’s ad campaign for Dark Vador (Darth Vader in French) black bun burgers. That offer had expired a week earlier so we ordered the Jedi burger, Cheesy Etoiles (stars) and MixMania Pétillant desserts.

Yecch. Leaving aside the fact that all three were simply gross, and I have no clue what the little white rubbery cubes were in the top of the burger – they didn’t taste or smell of anything. Maybe they’re a culture of midi-chlorian soya. Aside from that any trace of Star Wars had been removed from all the packaging and we received regular non-starry cheesy blobs, and non-sparkling desserts. perhaps the best translation of “Quick”  is “no effort”. Next time – unlikely as that is – we’ll go for the Death Star canteen’s penne all’arrabbiata.

Eddie Izzard: Death Star Canteen

Thursday, March 08, 2012

More big dogs and little big dogs!

Munson reacts to new neighbours

Munson finally got to check out his new neighbours in the corral today, his reactions progressing from what’s going on over there?, through dawning realization, to oh hai! I c u haz new babeez.


Another calf was born this morning and is already tottering around the corral.

I don’t want Munson gallivanting over to say welcome the new girls while they’re getting used to their new environment and thus he won’t be running around the compound to play with Legend until they’ve been moved off to pasture. Instead we took him walking while I showed Vance around the back half of the farm. Legend followed along and the two had a good romp in one of the newly replenished dams.


Local production

cheese and wine fest

We took Vance to the weekly market in Condom today where he was keen to buy up on cheeses, paté de foie gras, wines and armagnac. The armagnac purchase was split between a bottle of aged spirit, produced only about 5 minutes away from our farm, and some floc. Floc de Gascogne is a sweet fortified produced from armagnac and grape juice – all coming from a single vineyard.

We intended to lunch at the Lavardens Watchtower pub, but it turned out to be closed for the winter season. Turning back towards home, we stopped at a restaurant in Castéra Verduzan, a small spa town which I’ve driven through many times but never exited the vehicle. The restaurant was quite pleasant, allowing us to introduce Vance to confit of duck, and to armagnac-laced crêpes. All very French, except for the incongruity of  Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, Blondie and other 80s Americana blaring from the kitchen.

migrating birds (1) migrating birds (2)

Our returned to the farm was marked with the passing overhead of waves of migrating birds, and a large number of new cattle.

day old calf

Two Cows Drinking - why do you askAll these Salers heifers and mother cows are the last big injection to the existing herd. A day-old calf, the first of a number of imminent additions can be seen on the right above.

Look at the horns on those mothers!
local colour

Monday, March 05, 2012

Vance warning

2012-03-06 Vance & Munson

It’s only taken 20 months, but at last we have an Australian visitor to chez nous. I’ve known Vance since I worked for him back in the early 90s and have become part of his and partner Même’s extended family at many gatherings. It was through him that I met Brent a few months later, and so this whole farm situation in France can be traced back to him in one way.

This is the fourth country that one of us has hosted the other at – Vance remarked how I’ve duplicated the atmosphere of my home back in Sydney in this new environment. Back in Sydney I didn’t have the space to use my chaise longue (it stood upright in a cupboard for years), so I didn’t learn how convenient it is for Munson to approach a vulnerable guest caught in this comfort trap. The last time Munson saw Vance at my home, he was getting pizza crusts slid under the table -  a Malamute never forgets food.



We had running blackouts throughout the day, the eighth and longest took us through most of our Sunday evening. We’d started sorting out dinner just before the final power loss but ended up standing by the stove eating leftover chili con carne from the pan by torchlight.

IMG_3020There’s no shortage of non-electrical pursuits available, but we weren’t exactly flush for candles. I tried playing the piano by candlelight, giving up when too much motion made the candle flame flicker too much to read by. I did find that the wide-beam LED torch I magnetically attach to my fireplace when I’m cleaning out the ashes was quite good for reading by.

Gustav drowned his sorrows in a packet of crisps in front of the fireplace. Apparently you can’t play I-Spy in the dark – especially with someone terrified of spiders. Munson wasn’t fazed by any of it but we had to make sure he wasn’t lying anywhere we’d trip over since he tends to follow you around the house like a furry aura.

Blackouts are quite frequent out here, and I have to think about battery backups for radio and alarms as a matter of course. I’m quite surprised that many appliances do not fall back to battery stand-by when power is lost. Apparently when the power cord is attached on such devices, battery usage is inhibited.

I think I’ll check out hurricane lamps at the hardware store for future down-times.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Going rural

Nogaro market

We started the day with a morning jaunt to Nogaro, about 40 minutes as a drunken crow flies. Since Ben hasn’t seen much of the area, I thought we’d try a town I hadn’t stopped in before on its market day. There was very little going on : it’s just not a productive time for the growers, but at least we saw a little of this thousand year-old town. I learnt from a reconstruction chart on the local eglise that it was originally Nugarolium, which means “the city of the walnut trees”.

And wine is a stranger who Ben inviteth in  Gustav's mind tricks

Back home we resumed our relentlessly placid pace of life on the terrace. Ben had bought a few jars of confits and terrines laced with armagnac, with Munson extremely eager to clean out one of the finished ones.

Munson loves paté Nick van Bloss goes rural

Earlier in the week Ben had mentioned that his friend Nick van Bloss had recorded a version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which had been very well received. It’s not a piece that I’ve had a good response to in the past but I liked what I heard in preview so bought a copy of the album as a digital download. I played it through the kitchen radio during post-dinner drinks so Ben thought he should call Nick to tell him that he’d made a sale. Nick’s very quick response to the news that he was now “big in south west France” was that he’d gone rural rather than gone viral.

The rest of the evening went into a bit of a blur of bottles of Bordeaux, Gustav introducing Ben to some American rock-bands and me bashing out half of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album on the piano. This is an equal-opportunity household for all manner of music. Maybe one future day Ben will accompany some rising vocal stars in a Jim Steinman song-cycle.