Fair February

 February, a form pale-vestured, wildly fair. One of the North Wind’s daughters with icicles in her hair.

-Edgar Fawcett

February. A short month and one that is often maligned but so far, ours has most definitely been wildly fair with not too many icicles. True, there have been a few grey days and frosty mornings but mostly it has been fine, bright and sun-blessed, and it has been a pleasure to be outside ~ not just busy in the garden, but enjoying al fresco coffee breaks or a few minutes of evening sunshine before cooking dinner and inevitably, the first official barbecue of the year. It never fails to make my heart sing to see a line of laundry blowing in a soft breeze and coming back into the house smelling of spring. There has definitely been a bit of a bustle in the hedgerows, too, as the birds seek partners and nesting places, or in the case of the bramblings, come and fill their boots at the feeders before heading north once again. A multitude of plump, velvety bumble bees has emerged from winter nests to feed along with carpenter bees flaunting their metallic blue wings and the first red admiral butterflies sipping nectar wherever they can find it. The first daffies have opened their frilly blooms above a carpet of primroses, celandines, daisies and crocus; it has been an exceptional year for the snowdrops which are still flowering merrily and the hazel catkins are truly spectacular, cloaking the hedges in a shower of gold and full of pollen-hungry bees.

Of course, there’s always a flip-side and in this case it is most definitely the sad lack of rain; although we’ve had far more than last winter, recent weeks have been so dry that the soil is light and friable rather than the more usual heavy mud and I am having to water everything in pots and troughs on a regular basis. According to official sources, the 21st January to 20th February marked 31 days of sécheresse ~ a period devoid of rain in France, and an overall precipitation deficit for the month of 50%. After last year’s drought, this is seriously bad news and doesn’t augur well for the new growing season. We have installed two new 210 litre butts in our overflow catchment systems but there’s no chance of them filling at the moment, especially as I am quietly emptying the existing butts through essential watering activities. It is a bit of a worry given what happened last summer and I can only hope that if February won’t fill the dyke, then maybe March or April will. We haven’t quite reached the point of saving grey water yet but I have started to save any water used to wash vegetables; it’s a tip in Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and one so simple and blindingly obvious, I don’t know why I’ve never thought of it before. Veggie washing water is full of nutrients, especially in winter when seasonal produce tends to come to the kitchen covered in soil, and this makes a good feed for plants so it’s a waste to let it go down the drain.

‘Dirty’ parsnip and leeks from the garden this week. My fork is there to give an idea of scale: that parsnip was enormous!

What else can we do about the water situation? I went in optimistic search for an old well only to discover that when the original fermette was parcelled off, the well ended up in the field just the other side of our boundary. Darn it. I have been looking for a bowser which we could pull behind the garden tractor to make watering easier in the summer but the cost of them, even second-hand, is prohibitive so it looks like we’ll be hauling cans once again, although the extra butt on the Love Shack system will help where keeping the tunnel watered is concerned. Increasing moisture retention in the soil is an obvious partial solution and as I’ve been weeding, mucking and mulching the last couple of beds this week, I’ve been pleased at how much more organic matter there is in the soil than when we first arrived here. I’m hoping things are moving in the right direction.

There has at least been enough rain over winter to fill the pond at long last so Roger has been able to adjust the turfs around the edge now we can see the levels and also create a couple of areas of stones to allow wildlife to reach the water. It still looks stark as all new ponds do, and we will have to wait until later in the year for nurseries to have their full stock of aquatic plants; we’ve made a start, though, and the wonderful thing is that there is a lot of busyness in the area with birds drinking and bathing and a large population of great diving beetles and back swimmers already very much at home in the water. If we can get enough vegetation established in and around the pond over summer, then it will be fingers crossed for some amphibian spawn this time next year.

When I stumbled quite by chance on a nursery advertising bare-rooted Bramley ~ or to be completely correct ~ Bramley’s Seedling apple trees, I knew we just had to go and check it out; our sweet cider apples are wonderful for juicing and they make a very presentable compote with the help of a potato masher but there is nothing quite like a good old-fashioned British cooking apple when it comes to pie! True, they’re a sour fruit that, unlike the cider varieties, will need some sweetening but it’s the delightful fluffy pulp they cook down to that makes them perfect for so many things in the kitchen. (As an aside, although Bramleys tend to snatch the headlines, I really rate Howgate Wonder as an excellent cooker, too). To say they are a rare find in France is a bit of an understatement, so this was an opportunity not to be missed even though it was an hour’s drive away. What a complete gem of a nursery, I was in paradise! Run by an Anglo-French husband and wife team, I can honestly say it is the most immaculate nursery I’ve ever visited, the plants are so well-cared for and the choice is dizzying: cue one serious ‘child in a sweet shop’ moment . . . 😁 Needless to say, I came away with a few extra treasures and seeing as we were given a mug of excellent Italian coffee dusted with chocolate and a very generous discount on our purchases, we will definitely be going back. As rather too many of our young trees have been pruned over winter by nocturnal visitors, we invested in a top-notch anti-deer tree guard; this is one tree we really don’t want to lose. I’m already thinking of those pies . . .

Something a little bit different we bought from the nursery was a selection of sempervivum to plant in the low stone wall Roger built some time ago. I remember being fascinated by these ‘hen and chicks’ as a child but we haven’t grown any since our own children were small so it’s interesting to have another go and they already look just right planted in pockets between the stones. I hope the resident lizards will approve of their new succulent garden.

Staying with the theme of drystone walls, last autumn Roger created a circular stone feature which I called ‘The Sheepfold’ because it reminded me of an Andy Goldsworthy creation. We’ve been umming and ahhing about what to put in the centre so I was delighted when the perfect specimen presented itself at the nursery, a red witch hazel (Hamamelis ‘Ruby Glow’) which was simply too exquisite to leave there. In summer, it will provide some fairly innocuous green height above the rainbow of annual flowers I plan to plant beneath it but in winter, oh my goodness ~ what a stunner it will be, especially lit by the low sunshine and seen against a dark backdrop of holly. I went to fetch water while Roger finished planting it and by the time I arrived back with my can, there was already a honey bee in one of the flowers. What a perfect seal of approval.

With our Persephone period well and truly over, the time to get stuck into the first batch of seed sowing has arrived. The light levels are now conducive to encouraging plant growth once again but a balmy warmth takes a little longer to arrive outside! The soil is still cold but we have planted a row of parsnips from our saved seed this week; they are tough little characters and need a long growing season so we always plant them at this time of year, whatever the weather. We didn’t have a huge crop last year but the lack of quantity has certainly been made up for in quality, every parsnip being huge but still sweet and very tender. In fact, we are going to have a surplus as we will never eat what’s left in the ground before they start growing again so Roger is planning to freeze batches of parsnip, squash and preserved lemon tagine which he made this week and is absolutely delicious. The propagator is of course not bothered by cold temperatures and we already have a tray of aubergine seedlings basking in the warmth along with sweet peppers and Cape gooseberries, sown but yet to emerge. The difference the shelter of the polytunnel makes becomes startlingly obvious at this time of year: there is no way we would have potatoes through the ground outside before April.

The salad crops in the tunnel are still going well although the rocket and lamb’s lettuce are starting to flower and I will leave some of them to set and scatter seed; I’ve planted a row of radish between the leaves and they bombed up almost overnight. On the potting bench, there are trays of ‘Greyhound’ cabbage and red Welsh onion seedlings looking grand along with broad beans and ‘microgreen’ peas plus numerous pots and trays of sown flower seeds. I’ve been lifting lettuce volunteers and potting them up to give us the first batch for planting outside when the temperature lifts a bit; I saved masses of lettuce seed last year, but the hundreds that are popping up in the tunnel make me wonder if I’ll actually need to sow any of it this year!

I’ve also put Operation Pea-Off Rodents into action and sown the first batch of ‘Téléphone’ and ‘Merveille de Kelvedon’ in cardboard tubes of compost; I’ve stood them in sturdy plastic crates with wide mesh bottoms sitting in a solid tray which I hope will make watering easier and prevent the tubes from becoming soggy and collapsing. I’ve sown thirty tubes with three peas each which should give us a decent row in the garden and my plan is to simply dig a hole and pop each tube in to avoid any root disturbance once the plants have reached critical mass. Read it and weep, voles. 😆

With outdoor living mode firmly re-established, I’ve been sprucing up the Love Shack table and chairs with a fresh lick of paint in readiness for much use in the coming months. I’m also pleased at how our idea of turning the south-facing former car parking space at the front of the house into a gravelled courtyard garden is starting to take shape, as fresh new growth from the perennials we planted last year starts to make an impact. The fences and gates Roger made have certainly created a more intimate and enclosed feel and with a freshly-oiled picnic table and couple of wooden ‘coffee break’ chairs out there in the sunshine, it is becoming an ever more inviting spot. With gravel, pots and window boxes all planted up we shouldn’t lack for colour this summer but having found the dregs of some bright turquoise paint I’d used in Asturias, I finally got round to painting an old milk churn that had been left here just to brighten things up a bit and provide a colourful welcome at the front gate.

When I was reading up about microgreens a couple of weeks ago, I came across the idea of Buddha bowls for the first time. I realise I’m probably light years behind everyone else in this so maybe I should pay more attention to what’s ‘trending’ (or is it ‘on trend’?) but that really isn’t my way ~ plus I’m always a bit sceptical of anything that can seem to be there just to look pretty on social media. The first article I found left me with the impression that the food involved had to be vegan and eaten with chopsticks but wider reading soon suggested that a whole spectrum of ingredients was possible ranging from strict vegan to unapologetic omnivore and that really (and unsurprisingly) you can eat them however you want. My interest piqued, I decided that the forthcoming few days of being left to my own devices would be a perfect opportunity for a bit of culinary experimentation; I’m happy with my own company and have no problem filling long days with busyness but the evenings without Roger always feel a bit strange as that is when we spend time preparing a meal together. Cooking for one can seem a bit of a faff and it’s all too tempting to resort to something simple on toast ~ or else I usually end up with a vat of soup that’s enough to feed me for several days. I thought that perhaps setting out to make a Buddha bowl might fill the being-busy-in-the-kitchen gap and allow me to focus on creating an interesting meal for one without piles of leftovers. I don’t have an official Buddha bowl so decided to use a big pasta bowl instead with a small Japanese tea bowl in the centre to hold the dressing. Here we go . . .

Self-set lettuce, rocket and coriander . . . perfect Buddha bowl ingredients.

The concept of a Buddha bowl is very simple as each one is based on just five elements ~ whole grains, vegetables, a protein source, a dressing and ‘sprinkles’ to finish ~ within which the range of possibilities is seemingly endless. I set out to see just what I could create using as much of our own produce as possible so the bought ingredients are marked with an asterisk. (There are a couple of ingredients which don’t really fall into either camp: the honey was a gift from a beekeeper and the preserved lemons are homemade, even though obviously the lemons and salt were bought originally.)

Buddha bowl #1

  • Whole grain: brown rice*
  • Vegetables: squash and red and golden beetroot roasted in olive oil* with chilli and coriander seed; sliced black radish; sliced oca; shredded red kale; rocket leaves; radicchio heart; grated carrot.*
  • Source of protein: borlotti beans
  • Dressing: tahini paste* whisked with chopped garlic*, orange zest and juice*, honey and olive oil*.
  • Sprinkles: pumpkin seeds*, chopped preserved lemon, chopped flat-leaved parsley and fresh coriander leaves.

Buddha bowl #2

  • Whole grain: bulgar wheat*
  • Vegetables: red kale, mixed sweet peppers and baby leeks, lightly fried in olive oil*; grated beetroot; Welsh onion;, sliced black radish; radicchio, mizuna, baby beet leaves, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and ruby sorrel.
  • Source of protein: hard-boiled egg*
  • Dressing: herby vinaigrette made from olive oil*, Dijon mustard*, scrap apple cider vinegar, finely chopped flat-leaved parsley, fennel and mint.
  • Sprinkles: sunflower seeds*, primroses, rosemary flowers, chervil and chopped chives.

The verdict

Starting with the drawbacks, the preparation of so many different elements meant I needed to be very organised; for instance, I had to cook rice, bulgar wheat, borlotti beans, egg, roast and fried vegetables and allow them plenty of time to cool so it felt like the meal preparation was stretched out over a long time. It’s not something you can do in a hurry unless using bought pre-cooked pulses or grains but that said, things can be cooked ahead and stored in the fridge. I tried to be as energy-efficient as I could, too, so the roast vegetables for the first bowl were actually cooked the previous evening when the oven was on to cook our meal and I cooked the beans, rice, bulgar wheat and egg in a pan on top of the woodburner; I couldn’t help feeling that my usual ‘lone meal’ choices like a mushroom and herb omelette with salad or a vegetable risotto were far more fuel-efficient . . . not to mention a lot lighter on the washing up! That aside, I certainly had the enjoyable and engaging meal preparation activity I wanted and ended up with two nutritious bowls that looked and smelt wonderful, were completely delicious, very sustaining and which somehow oozed good health. There was also something about them that encouraged slow, mindful and appreciative eating; I even felt inspired to put on some soft music and light candles. Eating alone doesn’t have to be miserable.

I was really pleased that I managed to make two quite different bowls, especially given that we are in a relatively lean season when it comes to what’s available in the garden. The beans, squash and peppers all came out of our stores and everything else was fresh from the garden or tunnel; the only bought vegetable was the local French carrot. It’s also a great way of stretching tiny amounts of anything and using up scrappy bits and pieces in a meaningful way. For instance, we’re very much at the tail end of the black radish with only small ones left and the ‘baby leeks’ were a few straggly specimens that have never filled out into grown-ups but the scale of both was just perfect for the job.

It’s been interesting this week to see press reports of shortages of fresh foods such as broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers in UK supermarkets, especially as the supermarket shelves and market stalls here in northern France are currently heaving with produce from Morocco and Spain, so I’m not convinced about the cold Mediterranean winter being totally to blame. Whatever the reasons, it’s a good opportunity to bang the drum for eating seasonal produce once again, something I feel will become increasingly important in the years ahead. Yes, we have a polytunnel but it’s not heated and we’re not trying to grow hothouse vegetables through the cold months; if I can rustle up a couple of Buddha bowls from the garden in late February, packed with colour, flavour, texture and good nutrition whilst notching up zero packaging and air miles, then who needs ‘summer’ veggies at this time of year? Sadly, there wasn’t quite enough purple sprouting broccoli ready to use and my ‘microgreen’ pea shoots are still a couple of days away from being pickable, but even so there is still no need to resort to imported vegetables . . . I just wish the purple sprouting broccoli would hurry up because I love it!😊