An apple a day . . .

We have been blessed with a spell of weather so gorgeous it feels like a blast of summer, mild nights and days so warm and sunny we are back in t-shirts and shorts: this is the Mayenne I remember! The sunshine is golden, the garden full of spider silk and butterflies and heady with the fragrance of apples; the air trills with the songs of woodlarks and is so soft and soapy, you could bathe it in. It is pure bliss and I don’t want to miss a minute. I’ve been spending my days zipping about the garden getting lots done, then picking a trugload or more of beans (Asturian and French) and sitting on the seat in the vegetable patch, shelling them in the late afternoon sunshine and enjoying the moment. I’m not the only one.

The weather is perfect for harvesting apples and we have been filling at least one large crate every day. It’s definitely a two-person job but I’m not sure which role is the more dangerous: wobbling about on top of the ladder and reaching high into the branches to pick the fruit (why are the best ones all at the top?) or standing underneath to catch the dropped apples and transfer them to the barrow, whilst avoiding the inevitable free-fallers. Well, Roger is much braver than me when it comes to heights so just call me Isaac Newton! 😆

It’s certainly worth the work, we have already picked many kilos and there are plenty more to come; from what seemed like a disappointing start flavourwise, we are actually blessed with several trees that produce delicious apples . . . what to do with them all now?

Obviously, we are eating them daily as raw fruit and we will be putting plenty into store and observing how well they keep. They are fine for tarts and the like but don’t cook down into a fluffy pulp like cooking varieties so there’s no point in making compote to freeze. I’m planning to dry as many as I can once the weather turns and drives me indoors but for now, the big story is juice. Our wooden press arrived last week and after a happy hour constructing it, we were keen to try it out. Before pressing, the apples need washing then chopping and mashing into small bits in order to release maximum juice; sane people buy a scratter to sit on top of the press so the apples can be chopped and fed in directly but we didn’t want to rush to buy a whole lot of new equipment before we’d explored just how viable the apple juice project is. So, how to mash? We’re quartering the apples, coring them (not essential but we’ve found it helps), cutting them crossways as chunks seem to mash better than slices then putting them in a food-grade bucket and pounding them with a (new) pickaxe handle. It takes a while but I like this hands-on connection with the whole process and it’s very therapeutic in a vandalistic sort of way.

It’s really not a bad way to spend an hour or so, especially taking it in turns to chop and mash. Our press takes 12 litres of apple pulp so we keep going until it’s full to the top.

The press is a pretty nifty and solid piece of kit engineered from metal and beech wood. Roger was very quick to see that it would need to be bolted down to a board and firmly clamped to the table to stop it dancing about under pressure; he also added several extra wooden blocks on top to raise the height of the handle which gives us more pressing power. So, fully charged, turn the crank and . . .

. . . wow! Juice comes flowing out at great speed into the receptacles below. A full press gives us three to four litres each time which we filter through doubled muslin and then bottle. We’re experimenting with two methods: sterilised plastic bottles to go into the freezer and glass bottles pasteurised in a pan of water to keep in dry storage. We think this year we should yield enough to last us six months which makes us self-sufficient in yet another food for half a year; now we know what we’re doing, we’ll aim for a whole year’s worth next autumn. It might not be the prettiest looking juice in the world, but the flavour is truly amazing. Cheers!

I’m not sure why, but our to-do list just seems to keep on growing – needless to say the poor old kitchen has been abandoned once again, we really will finish the revamp one day. That said, weather like this is such a joy that it would be rude not to make the most of it; after all, cold, wet, dark days will come soon enough so it’s good to grab the chance to get out and about a bit on two wheels or two feet and make the most of this gift. Staying with the theme of apples, it seemed like the perfect chance this week to revisit the apple arboretum at Sainte-Anne, not only to enjoy the trees at their bountiful best, but in the hope of perhaps identifying some of the apple varieties we have in our orchard.

I am always struck by what a beautiful and peaceful place this is, we are so lucky to have it on our doorstep. It is very typical of the shared, respected community spaces that are so abundant in Mayenne and France in general, a welcoming place that can be enjoyed by everyone. The lake is open to fisherfolk in the summer months and there are wooden shelters, benches and plenty of picnic tables; it’s a great spot for families and definitely one on the list for when our little grandmunchkins come to visit. It’s also a popular venue for school fieldtrips, giving children the chance to broaden understanding and experience of their environment and nature at large, as well as local history and culture. I love the fact that several new information boards scattered throughout the arboretum have been based on what the children have written; what a wonderful way to acknowledge, celebrate and encourage them as the future guardians of their locality and the natural world.

Roger sometimes runs this way on his morning outings and I was keen to see the small apiary which he told me had been added since my last visit; as former – and hopefully, future – beekeepers this sort of thing is always interesting and for me, the three hives sited in a fenced area, complete with wooden observation shelter, have made a perfect addition to the arboretum. The bees were boiling out of their hives in the morning sunshine, not to visit fruit blossom, obviously, but it didn’t take too long to see that their flight paths were leading to banks of ivy flowers which make such valuable forage at this time of year.

The arboretum was created in 1992 by grafting donated scions, in an effort to preserve as many local apple varieties as possible; there are currently over 250 mature trees, mostly apples but with the more recent addition of 30 or so pear trees. Seeing the apples in ‘full fruit’ brings home just what an incredible variety there is, the branches dripping with fruits in many shades of green, yellow, orange and red: truly beautiful.

At the entrance to the orchard there is a board and numbered map showing the position of each variety, their musical names creating a rich, linguistic tapestry. I could have spent the whole day simply wandering from tree to tree, appreciating their autumnal beauty but the apple press was calling from home so I had to make do with a quick whizz up and down the rows in search of something that matched the two main varieties we are juicing. I’m not entirely sure I struck gold – needles and haystacks spring to mind – but I think what we have are ‘Binet Rouge’ which is a classic sweet cider apple and ‘De Fer’ which is all good news: late flowering (so unlikely to be frosted), reliable cropper, multi-use fruit with excellent keeping qualities. Can’t say fairer than that.

For our second little wander this week we went back to Saint-LĂ©onard-des-Bois, a pretty town in the nearby Alpes Mancelles which I wrote about earlier in the year. We planned to do a marked 10k / 6 mile walk in two loops, following the fascinating ‘Histoires GĂ©ologiques’ route which climbs 275 metres and spans a mere 600 million years! We started at the Domaine du Gasseau picnic site with a flask of coffee and patisserie (a treat we haven’t had for some time) then headed down into Saint-LĂ©onard; the town is built in a loop of the Sarthe river and crossing the first of two bridges, we stopped to enjoy the view.

The town itself is pretty and welcoming, a popular attraction for campers and canoeists in summer and the sort of quiet place where you can just sit outside a cafe and watch the world go by. Passing the mairie and church square, we wandered through narrow streets of ancient houses still boasting colourful floral displays, then climbed steeply out of the town and into leafy woodland.

The woodland was a tranquil place to wander, still green and full of dappled sunlight but in times gone by it was a very different story. This was the site of a flourishing nineteenth-century slate quarry and although it was difficult to imagine the bustle and noise in what is such a peaceful spot today, there were plenty of deep water-filled holes and slate cliffs hinting at the industrial heritage.

Here we found the first of many information boards (in French and English) which were to take us on a fascinating tour through geology and time during our walk, accompanied by samples of various rocks which we could observe and handle. The slates from these quarries were traditionally used for roofs but apparently being high in iron levels as seen in the colour of the rocks – and, I would add, the rich red of the local soil – they had a shorter lifespan than other slates.

The path led us along a ridge above the VallĂ©e de MisĂšre, where in times gone by the trees had been felled for timber and the land heavily grazed; today, it is restored to a wide expanse of mixed woodland full of deciduous trees just on the turn, suggesting that in a couple of weeks’ time the autumn colours will be gorgeous. A little further on at the Butte de Narbonne Sud, the information board told us we were standing on the edge of an ancient volcanic crater an incredible 20 kilometres wide; no volcanic activity today, but the views are beautiful.

We walked along the top of the gorge, the drop below us so precipitous that the local sapeurs-pompiers were using it as a rescue training area, clambering up and down on ropes; we declined their tongue in cheek suggestion of trying the little path they were using down to the river! The views beyond were so typical of Mayenne and Sarthe, a rolling landscape of farmland and woodland dotted with stone houses and barns. We read that the manoir below us was roofed in local slate . . .

. . . and further on, that the ancient cross had been hewn from local stone.

Walking back down into the town to close our first loop, Roger pointed out that the second one would take us to the top of that wooded ridge opposite. Oh good, not done with climbing yet, then!

This time we headed out of town in the opposite direction, crossing the second river bridge; those flowers were a real show.

After a steep climb through woodland on what felt like an ancient trackway, the path opened out into farmland for a while and gave us some more lovely views. The hedgerows were beautiful, still very full and tinged with soft autumn shades, bright with scarlet splashes of hips and haws; bryony and honeysuckle berries were threaded through like brilliant necklaces while spindle berries hung in pink spatters, not yet ready to reveal the vibrant shock of orange seeds hidden inside. This was the oldest part of our geological tour, walking on rocks formed aeons ago in the depths of a southern hemisphere ocean; I always find such information completely mind-blowing. What an incredible planet we live on.

Having reached the summit, we traversed the ridge on a path that felt like a wide woodland ride with bright sunlit clearings along its length. The trees were tall but not dense, giving us tantalising glimpses of the landscape until suddenly everything opened out and there was Saint-LĂ©onard-des-Bois nestling in the valley below us, pretty as a picture.

Following a trail down, we arrived back at our starting point with time for a diversion to the Domaine du Gasseau potager and a quick peep to see how it is faring at this end of the year. There was still plenty of interest and colour thanks to the likes of nasturtiums, borage, Chinese lanterns, amaranth and an abundance of cherry tomatoes still fruiting this late in the season. The kiwi vines were flaunting small fruits and the whole garden was fragrant with the soporific scent of hops trailing over the pergolas. It was as charming as ever, but noticing how the beds were in the process of being mulched with compost and fallen leaves, I realised it was time to stop galavanting and get home to do the same . . . oh, and press another crate of apples in the sunshine, of course. 😊

Bluebells and buttercups (and maybe bears, too)

A mere stone’s throw from the Canyon des ToyĂšres which I wrote about in my last post is Saint-CĂ©neri-le-GĂ©rei, officially one of the prettiest villages in France. Nestled in the picturesque Alpes Mancelles, it is a gem of a place and beautiful in any season but I have a particular soft spot for it at this time of year when the wooded hillsides are bursting with fresh leaf and carpeted with a soft haze of bluebells. We haven’t visited since our return to Mayenne so it didn’t take us too long to decide where to go for our walk this week!

This is one of our favourite jaunts, a comfortable three-mile loop that starts in a pretty spot by the side of the Sarthe river. It’s a tranquil place, the river wide and lazy after so little rain, and flanked by meadows full of buttercups. There are picnic tables here, and several old buildings converted into gites; you could pick worse places for an al fresco meal or holiday, that’s for sure.

A wooden footbridge beyond a former mill took us across the river, leaving Mayenne and into the neighbouring department of Sarthe, although still in the Pays de la Loire region. The path then starts a long, slow climb with sweeping views of wooded hills on one side and a teasing glimpse of St CĂ©neri on the other.

We had just been discussing how everything still seemed familiar to us and nothing had appeared to have changed since we last walked here (which must be seven years ago) when what we had expected to be an orchard delivered quite a surprise: it is still an orchard, but now also the home of a large herd of free-range pigs! It was lovely to stand and watch them for a while, enjoying the outdoor life as surely pigs should, some busy rootling about in the baked earth but most of them snoozing away the afternoon in the sun. Talk about chilled! I suspected they would be happy to see the rain forecast the next day, their wallows being as far removed from mud as is possible . . . but they seemed a pretty contented bunch all the same.

After passing through a small hamlet of pretty stone houses, their gardens billowing with iris, tulips and forget me nots, the path turned back downhill, meandering through woodland towards the village. Here the bluebells were at their most beautiful, dense carpets creating a colourful haze in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees; whether simply massed in deep blue, or daubed amongst white stitchwort and creamy Solomon’s seal, they were stunning. As for that heady perfume . . .

Emerging from the woods, the path levelled out a little and water meadows appeared to our left. It’s hard to believe we’ve walked here before as if along a stream bed, with water literally flowing beneath our boots; I’m not sure we’ve ever seen this path so dry. At a point just before reaching the village, we passed from Sarthe into the department of Orne and at the same time into the region of Normandy, a reminder that our little corner of Mayenne is very much border country.

At the end of this path, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves at the picturesque stone bridge that leads into the village. There is a stunning view of the 11th-century Romanesque church perched high above on a cliff, a scattering of lovely old stone houses and pretty sweeps of blossom and spring flowers. We have seen kingfishers here previously, darting close to the water in bright flashes of metallic blue; not today, but there was a lone wader-clad fisherman trying his luck on a bend in the river.

Wandering up into the village, I realised that I’d forgotten what a delightful place it is with its winding streets of higgeldy-piggeldy houses, dripping with clematis and wisteria. The only thing that seemed strange was the fact that the bars, cafes and restaurants were all shut, their terraces devoid of the usual buzz of activity; that is set to change on 19th May when the next phase of relaxing restrictions will allow them to open once more, much to the relief of owners and customers alike. It’s no surprise that St CĂ©neri is a popular destination for visitors and is particularly bustling during the summer holidays, yet I’ve always felt it has retained a strong sense of itself. There has been no slide into the dark realms of tacky gift shops, caravan parks, double yellow lines, extortionate car park charges and the like; tourists are welcome, but it is still very much a ‘local’ village. I love the little hidden nooks and crannies, the quaint human touches coupled with unfettered nature; the wonderful informality and unashamedly wild character of this garden is exactly the sort of thing we are hoping to create in our own patch.

We climbed the street that leads to the church, knowing that a narrow path goes right around the building, the perfect spot for a beautiful bird’s eye view back down to the stone bridge. However, looking for a photo of the said view, I realised we didn’t have an ‘unadulterated’ one so the time has come for me to make an introduction (apologies for this rather ridiculous diversion): ladies and gentlemen, meet Kitchen Ted.

Who? Well, he’s a little character I knitted up in the final days before we left Asturias; you’d think navigating an international house move through the shark-infested waters of Covid-19 and Brexit would have been more than enough to be concentrating on at the time but maybe this was a little bit of self-indulgent, stress-busting madness! I contemplated a tiny skein of homespun Southdown fleece dyed with onion skins and a scrap of rather luxurious jade Merino / silk blend and before I knew it, a small bear had been born. For the best part of eighteen months now, the only contact we have had with our young grandchildren is via video calls; I am so grateful we have the technology and our weekly chats are very special, but never the same as spending time together and making simple mischief. Enter Kitchen Ted (he’s called that because he, um, lives in the kitchen) who behaves very badly on our calls, generating peals of giggles at the other end and generally bringing a lot of fun to our chats. He also gatecrashes our days out, sending photos to the littlies to show what he’s been up to and most especially, anything delicious that might have been lurking in the picnic or cake box. Perhaps we should have called him Yogi? In short, it’s one of those mad family things, totally daft but rather lovely at the same time. However, the next time he muscles in on all the panoramic photos, I shall be leaving him in the kitchen where he belongs . . .

From bears to bees, and the protected bees’ nest that is hidden deep within the church wall. The story goes that in the year 898, a colony of honey bees saw off a group of soldiers bent on sacrilegious destruction on this site, sending them packing over the steep cliff. Ever since, they have continued to protect the church and are themselves the object of special protection; they were certainly fizzing out of the hole in the sun-warmed stone and, even as former beekeepers used to being close to bees, it seemed wise to keep our distance and treat them with the complete respect they deserve.

From the church, the path leads down to a tiny chapel sitting in a wide meadow which is bounded by a loop of the river; in contrast to the dappled light and blues and whites of the woodland, it was alive with the bright sunshine of buttercups and cheerful whirring of crickets.

This is a place of utter tranquility, scattered stone benches offering the chance for visitors to sit, rest and simply drink in the beauty of the place and complete immersion in nature. We shared a flask of coffee, faces turned to the sun as a chorus of birdsong ricocheted off the wooded valley sides and butterflies floated idly by. There were a few others doing much the same thing there; no problems with social distancing and no-one wearing masks – it felt like a glimpse of the normality we used to take for granted and one we will hopefully be blessed with again.

The meadow is a hard place to leave and the temptation is certainly to linger but as it is only a few miles from home – a decent bike ride, in fact – then we will certainly be back before too long. The only decision on leaving was whether to wind our way back through the village down streets we had missed or to wander along the river to where we had started our walk.

In the end, we plumped for the river option, still hopeful for a glimpse of those elusive kingfishers; no such luck, they were definitely playing hard to get. Maybe next time? What a lovely walk it was and a gentle reminder of just what treasures we have on our doorstep; it was time to head back to jobs in the garden . . . but here’s to the next little excurson! 😊