Creative thinking

I love cabbage. We’ve been eating a range of varieties for many months and there are still plenty left in the ground, toughing it out through the worst of the weather to give us a reliable green vegetable in these cold, dark months. I love the sweet starchiness of parsnips, the bold earthiness of Jerusalem artichokes, the onion tang of leeks and the crisp leafiness of chard and kale but there is no doubt that at the moment, cabbage is king.

Despite this, if someone had told me that there would come a time when making sauerkraut would be a regular and enjoyable way of life, I’d have laughed my socks off. Roger has always liked it, I couldn’t bear it . . . but then, I’d never tried the proper homemade stuff. Encouraged by those who already knew how good it is and the gift of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Much More Veg recipe book, I gave it a go a couple of years ago and never looked back. It is such a simple process but one I find totally therapeutic and satisfying: wandering down to the patch to cut a cabbage, washing and shredding it, packing it into jars with sliced garlic, bay leaves and coriander seed and covering in brine, then waiting a couple of days for the magic of lacto-fermentation to begin, the fat bubbles of carbon dioxide rising up the jar like a miniature lava lamp. It’s a great way of preserving and produces a food that is wonderful for our gut health as well as being truly scrumptious; yes, I’m a complete convert! I do need to sort my timings out, though, as we’re both a bit disappointed if we finish a jar before the next one is ready . . .

Something I’ve been playing with in the garden this year is leaving plant roots in the ground after harvesting. I wrote in the summer about how incredibly successful this was with lettuce, the new growth of hearty, crisp plants meaning we were able to cut two decent-sized lettuce from each root and there was no need for more than two sowings. The drumhead cabbages we cut two or three months ago have proved to be every bit as enthusiastic, sending up a rosette of baby cabbages from their knobbly stumps, as many as half a dozen on some plants. They might not look that impressive, but each is every bit as tasty and edible as the original and they are ideal for turning into sauerkraut; it seems like we are enjoying a huge amount of good food from each single seed. This willingness to look at things from a new angle, to try to do things differently, to play with curiosity and exploration is a quality I think human beings will need more and more in the future as we grapple with the changes that are to come, possibly sooner rather than later.

These summer cabbages are now a patch of baby winter ones!

This approach fascinates me but I’m not even sure what its precise definition really is; I’m not usually lost for words but I’m struggling to nail this one. Creativity? Adaptability? Practical skills? Innovation? Flexibility? Resilience? A combination of all these and more rolled into one? It’s not just the ability to make things, mend things or repurpose things but also the willingness and confidence to respond to new and difficult circumstances in a positive way. That doesn’t necessarily mean having to come up with bright, shiny, new ideas, either – far from it, in fact, as the answers to many problems can lie in what was done or used in bygone times. There’s much talk about new technology being the way forward in tackling climate change (and I’m not pouring cold water on that idea) but I believe that many of the ‘old ways’ hold significant value and hope, too. One of the most enjoyable and interesting blogs I’m currently reading is all about bushcraft; now, I’m not planning to live as a wild woodswoman anytime soon or stitch buckskin moccasins or light the fire using a bow drill but how fascinating would the experience of learning and applying such ancient skills be? In these long, dark evenings by the fire, I’m never short of something to do as there’s always plenty of woolly business to hand but Roger is planning to arm himself with rope and string and spend time extending his repertoire of knot-tying skills and I think I’ll join in the fun; apart from being a great bit of brain gym, it’s an activity that could bring significant benefits to a wealth of our practical, outdoor activities.

The woodsman at work.

Anyway, for want of a single word that encapsulates all these ideas, I’m going to stick with ‘creativity’ because as much as anything, I’m a word nerd and I like its etymology. The English word ‘create’ comes from a root meaning ‘to grow’ and it’s a root shared by French, too, yielding one of my favourite sounding words croissance (growth); this is not to be confused with croissant (delicious breakfast pastry / crescent) although that’s the same word root, too! It is also related to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, and this is why I think it’s the right word for me to choose because the farming metaphor is a good one: we plant seeds of ideas, nurture projects as they grow, practise skills, allow time for development, adapt to conditions and situations and finally – hopefully! – reap a harvest. I believe we all have this creativity within us and it’s definitely a characteristic to be cherished and celebrated.

Lacking plant pots in the spring, I made them from newspaper.

When reflecting upon the problems of surviving in an uncertain future, I think creativity is a key concept to consider. As a primary school teacher, I worked through several shifts in pedagogical thinking, approaches and new curricula, all of which saw a gradual shift towards a greater emphasis on developing children’s creativity, critical thinking skills and problem solving faculties; the problem was, these were still firmly entrenched in the joint straitjackets of an overloaded timetable and never-ending assessments and testing which served to stifle the very elements we were supposed to be encouraging! It was as if the Powers That Be couldn’t quite bring themselves to allow children (or teachers) the time, space and – above all – freedom to be truly creative, innovative and risk-takingly different. If I’m going to be completely cynical, I could argue that modern societies focused on economic growth don’t really want too much creativity flowing through their veins because if people could shift for themselves then they wouldn’t need to spend so much time buying goods and services from others. We are encouraged to become reliant on others to provide for our needs (and, in all honesty, it’s actually very hard to be completely self-sufficient); this might make our lives easier but it also makes us very vulnerable as the recent prolonged shortages of water and power following in the wake of Storm Arwen have shown. I’m not for one moment suggesting we crawl back into our caves or give up the true advantages that modern technology brings but I think a move towards getting back to basics would be very wise.

Stormy skies this week: an increasing trend for the future?

It’s an interesting (and worrying?) percentage -31% in this study – of British people who say they are not confident about preparing a complete meal without a recipe and I think that is such a shame, partly because feeding ourselves must surely be one of the most fundamental activities there is – and one that could become increasingly crucial in the face of climate change and global shifts in food production – but also because cooking can be such a pleasurable and rewarding experience. There is much debate over the reasons for this and I don’t want to go too far down that particular route here although it’s certainly an interesting topic to explore: are the causes social, economic, cultural, political, technological or a result of trends in parenting or education (or none or all of the above)? As an aside, I’d like to state for the record that the three so-called Millenials we raised can not only boil an egg with their eyes closed but also know precisely how to look after the hen that laid the thing in the first place. Oh, and how to turn chickens and eggs into amazing meals for many people, served up with fabulous dishes of homegrown or foraged fruit and vegetables. Please don’t believe everything you read about ‘Generation Hopeless’!

I’ve always made mincemeat and a Christmas pudding from scratch but for many years I stuck religiously to the same recipes (thank you, Delia!) because I was too busy to do anything else and ultimately because they worked. Recipes are useful things and certainly if you’re making something like a sponge cake or bread, it’s usually a pretty good idea to at least have some guidelines to follow in terms of quantities of ingredients and cooking temperatures and times. However, being pretty practised in those two recipes, I’ve had far more fun since I started veering off the tracks and doing my own thing. Perhaps courage and creativity go hand in hand, being brave enough to ask, ‘What if . . ?’ and then going for it? A few days ago, I found a recipe for a so-called ‘classic’ British Christmas pudding which contained only one kind of dried fruit (raisins) and one type of spice (nutmeg). Well, I’m sorry: it might turn out to look like the ‘perfect’ Christmas pud but doesn’t that seem incredibly dull and unimaginative for something that is supposed to be the crowning glory of the biggest meal of the year? When it came to making our own pudding, I used very much what we had to hand: how many recipes require us to dash out and buy special or extra ingredients when we might very well have perfectly good alternatives in the house already . . . and how often might that put people off cooking? Golden sultanas, plump dark raisins, Agen prunes, dried cranberries, homemade candied peel, our own apples and walnuts, half a dozen different spices, flour, breadcrumbs, eggs, melted butter and brown sugar all went into the mix until it looked vaguely right. I never put alcohol in mincemeat but I like a splash in the pudding and in the absence of the usual suggestions, I sloshed a bit of Talisker single malt whisky in (we don’t drink spirits, I have no idea how old that part-bottle is!). Well, what’s the worst that can happen? This is creativity and adaptability at it’s easiest and (I hope) tastiest, too.

Moving beyond cooking and personally, I think that planned obselence has an awful lot to answer for. How can we criticise someone for not being able to change a plug when electrical goods come with moulded ones these days or for not owning a screwdriver when manufacturers use weird-shaped screws or make their products deliberately non-fixable? In the world of fast fashion, who’s going to be bothered to sew on a button or stitch up a hole, yet alone replace a zip or turn collar and cuffs? Let’s be totally fair, when aisles and aisles of supermarket shelves groan under the weight of ready meals, how relevant is the ability to boil an egg, anyway? According to the study I quoted earlier, only 37% of people claimed to feel confident about changing a flat tyre (I’m assuming they meant on a car). Well, I know how to do it but when the need unfortunately arose a few months ago, I had to ask for help as the complex wheel locking system and garage-tightened wheel nuts which require a specialist tool rendered it physically impossible for me to manage alone. We are at the mercy of modern living and it’s not always very helpful.

A bike puncture is so much easier to deal with!

I’m not going to do my usual ‘Bah, humbug!’ thing this year but may I indulge in the tiniest seasonal rant? Pleeease? ๐Ÿ˜‰ One of the things I’ve always loved about France is how very quiet and understated Christmas is: apart from the piles of fresh oysters, luxury chocolates and bottles of champagne in the shops and the occasional Christmas tree in front gardens hung with brightly-coloured foil bows, you’d be hard-pressed to know anything was going on. To be fair, that remains true of our very rural neck of the woods; except for the tasteful decorations in the boulangerie window and a few extra boxes of chocolates in the local supermarket, life here is just simply sliding gently from late autumn into early winter without any fuss or bother. What a difference elsewhere, though! Last week, we needed to venture further afield than usual to buy a new mattress ahead of Sam and Adrienne’s visit and neither of us could get home fast enough. It was like a feeding frenzy in the shops but one that reminded me more of sheep than sharks. What is it about Christmas that has people piling their bags and trolleys high with so much stuff and how much of it is truly needed? (In the same vein, why does a supposed ‘crisis’ drive people to stockpile toilet rolls?) How much of that Christmas food will even be eaten at all, yet alone with enjoyment and honour? I believe true generosity is a very beautiful human characteristic but since when did a piece of mass-produced tat grabbed from a supermarket shelf become a meaningful, loving gift?

Here’s another situation where surely a little creativity could go a long way. I don’t necessarily mean making gifts and the like as I realise for many people that is neither an option nor a pleasure, but perhaps there’s an argument for more lateral and original thinking rather than following the herd headlong into the chaotic and predictable consumer circus? I recently had a long telephone conversation with an old friend who I hadn’t seen or spoken to for several years and it was better than any bought gift, believe me. We took it in turns to talk and listen, catching up on news, putting the world to rights (ha, I wish!) and more than anything, laughing ourselves silly together; I was reminded why we had become friends in the first place and how that friendship endures, even if we are not in contact on a regular basis. I was left with such a wonderful feeling of warmth and well-being, that true cozy sense of hygge that no amount of mass-produced Christmas jumpers, snowflake-printed fleecy blankets or cinnamon-scented candles could ever create.

Returning to the ‘Woodland Ways’ bushcraft blog and I am fascinated by the series of articles about star lore. I can find north using Polaris and I recognise a few well-known constellations and stars but I must confess, I feel otherwise totally ignorant; it’s true I’ll probably never need to navigate by starlight, but for how many years have I stood beneath wide starry skies gazing upwards in awe and wonder without really knowing much about them? Well, I’m setting out to learn, working my way carefully through each article and building up a star map which I hope will become embedded in my memory; it’s just another way of looking at things from a new angle, an activity to challenge and develop my powers of observation and tickle some neural pathways into action. It’s also a refreshing way of embracing the season, spending time outdoors in the longest, darkest nights of the year – as long as nature is kind enough to grant me a few cloudless ones, of course! A cabbage-loving, knot-tying, recipe-dumping, star-gazing word nerd: mmm, a bit weird, maybe? Well, yes, I think I probably am ‘out there’ somewhere but at the end of the day it’s about embracing and loving life and all its possibilities, being mad enough to climb out of the box, take a few risks and do things a bit differently. One day, it might be a question of survival. For now, I’m just happy not to be a sheep. ๐Ÿ˜†

Time, space and spirals

I enjoy waking, whenever I feel like it, to a choice of interesting creative tasks all of which I want to do; or, best of all, just stepping out into the world and responding to it: total immersion. Paradise gardening.

Joe Hollis

Window dressing is quite an art form here and I love the displays that appear in the local boulangerie in particular, they are always so creative and colourful, such joyful expressions of the season. I’m thankful that there is currently no headlong rush into all things tinsel; in the windows of St P’s friendly little shops it is autumn leaves, nuts and berries, hedgehogs and squirrels that still capture the essence of the season so perfectly. The surrounding landscape is on fire with breathtaking autumnal colours and I am giving myself the time and space to revel in this transient beauty. Leaf fall is accelerating, the sun sinking a little lower every day. Soon it will all be gone. Time to enjoy it while we can.

When Roger asked me last Saturday what my plans were for the day, I smiled and said I was thinking about having a weekend for a change; this was a tongue in cheek reference to our farmer friend who grumbles that for him, it’s ‘never Saturday, always Monday.’ Looking at us from afar, I suppose others might say our life is the opposite of that – one big permanent weekend or holiday – and I will be honest, not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for the fact that we no longer dance to the tune of paid employment, timetables and deadlines. However, we are still incredibly busy people, spending most of our time on outdoor projects; in fact, apart from the occasional essential shopping trip or a walk or bike ride somewhere together, we never actually stop to draw breath. Please don’t get me wrong: this is a lifestyle choice and I am not complaining about it one little bit. Like the quote at the top of this post, I don’t regard what we do here as ‘work’ when every day is filled with the possibility of being active, creative, productive and reflective without even leaving our patch. To open the door and know I can spend the entire day immersed in the beauty of our garden, whatever the weather or season, is the greatest luxury imaginable. Paradise indeed.

My reference to fancying a ‘weekend’ really means some time where I can ignore outside jobs for a while and turn my attention to a few other activities, some which perhaps otherwise feel like a bit of an indulgence. In modern society, lives can so often be starved of time but even in a more relaxed setting, I believe we still need time and space to ourselves to use however we wish; it is often cited that hunter-gatherer peoples have a greater amount of leisure time than any others and I think there’s a valuable lesson there for all of us. Also, when you think about it, it’s quite difficult to do nothing; I’m not great at sitting still so reading a book for hours or watching television (which we don’t have anyway) are not my thing, but they are still engaging the brain at some level. Even daydreaming requires a bit of effort!

So, how did I spend my real Saturday? I did a session of yoga; I read some blog posts and replied to comments from other people on my own post; I sewed tiny buttons on to a couple of baby jumpers I’d knitted and finished making a little hat to go with them; I made a batch of solid hand lotion to get my sore hands and feet through a winter of gardening; I collected, peeled, cored and chopped another vat of windfall apples and cooked them into compote and leather, while listening to a French podcast; I blended wool and silk on my hand carders to make rolags for spinning, then set up my wheel and started the first bobbin; I wrote postcards to our grandchildren and messaged a friend who wasn’t feeling great; I sorted and packed the last batches of seeds I had drying – coriander and nigella for the kitchen, basil for next year’s garden; I looked at the next unit of my permaculture course and turned a few articles into PDF files to put on the Kindle for bedtime reading. Thinking I’d done for the day, I then started making a crochet teddy from scraps to match the baby knitting. On reflection, I had a pretty productive and very enjoyable time without setting out with any specific intentions in mind and I think that’s a healthy and rewarding thing to do occasionally – to allow ourselves to just go with the flow, not setting any goals, abandoning all ideas of a must-do list and then seeing what happens!

The current unit of permaculture I’m studying is about forest gardening and I am certainly leaving plenty of time to immerse myself completely and absorb as much information as I can. It’s arguably one of the most important topics to consider and I know there will be a wealth of additional material to absorb and enjoy. I’ve long liked the idea of planting a food forest but my personal opinion is that it must be tempered to some extent. In Miraculous Abundance, Charles Hervรฉ-Gruyer tells of an indigenous Amazonian family he lived with who kept no breakfast in the house because they could simply walk outside and find it every morning. What a wonderful thought, to be able to harvest everything we needed by simply wandering outside! However, let’s be realistic for a moment: far from living in an equatorial rainforest, we are in sub-maritime temperate northern France and here we are very much at the mercy of the seasons with fluctuating weather patterns and light levels. The idea of planting many more food-bearing trees and shrubs and extending the list of perennial food plants is very high on our to-do list but I would be loathe to give up on our annual crops as fresh, stored or preserved, they form such a key part of our diet.

Despite this being the ninth garden we’ve created together, in many ways the first year here has been as much a learning curve as ever. Even though we have gardened in this area before, there was no certainty at the outset what we could expect from this piece of land: it takes time to understand how factors such as aspect, prevailing winds, weather patterns and soil composition affect growing conditions. In the event, despite numerous less-than-ideal situations, we’re pleased with the overall harvest we have enjoyed and, as we move into the realms of winter vegetables, it’s still interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) worked. For instance, the Florence fennel has been very disappointing and that comes down to sowing times; it’s a tricky customer, needing to be planted relatively late so as to miss the worst of the summer heat but early enough to put on plenty of growth before the season has shifted too much. I was probably a week too late in sowing the seeds and my decision to cram them between patches of leafy beans and burly Savoy cabbages actually led to them being shaded rather too much. It’s no big deal, we are eating the small bulbs and foliage anyway but next year will require a rethink. Purple sprouting broccoli is an early spring staple and the plants are looking wonderfully healthy but I’m concerned about the possible effects of savage winter winds blasting in from the west, so Roger has used some of the hedge prunings to weave a protective hurdle; obviously, the hazel leaves will die back but I’m hoping it will be enough to at least break up the wind a bit or divert the worst of it away from the plants.

The Secret Garden was always going to be a bit of an experiment this year and I feel the results were a bit mixed. I certainly won’t be planting brassicas in there again, it was just too shady and they were hammered far more badly by weevils and caterpillars than those grown in more open sites. That said, a few ‘Thousandhead’ kale plants have rallied with lots of delicious fresh growth and there is still a carpet of New Zealand spinach to tuck into. What a good trooper it is. I’m also pleased to see patches of self-set rocket and land cress, I love it when the garden starts to grow itself. There will be more light next year once we’ve finished the hedging but I think this will be the best patch for things like salad crops and leafy greens and I’ll move the needier varieties out. There is still a decent picking of beetroot and they add a splash of rich colour to what we are calling our ‘Root Downs’ (as opposed to our ‘Green Ups’) – trays of mixed root veg like parsnips, carrots, potatoes, oca and Jerusalem artichokes, such lovely sweet and starchy treats. Gone are the days of summery basil, mint and coriander, these strong earthy flavours call for something more robust in the way of herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme or savoury. Toss in some onion chunks and fat, creamy garlic cloves, and we practically have a complete meal.

A simple ‘root up’ ready for the oven.

I’m happy to admit that brassica planting registered very high on the chaos scale this year, not helped by the fact I’m a lazy labeller. I knew I’d planted out some romanesco broccoli somewhere but lack of any obvious evidence suggested they’d been a casualty of the Weevil Wars. Imagine my delight, then, to discover three large heads hidden deep within the foliage this week, their fractal patterns the living embodiment of Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence, the golden ratio that spins exquisite spirals in nature. They are astonishing things, I am happy to grow them simply to look at them – although they do happen to taste pretty amazing, too!

As the leaves fall and spaces open up in the garden once again, we have a chance to assess the changes we have made here so far and to make plans for other things we would like to do. We’ve recently planted a couple of young bigarreau cherry trees in the hope of increasing the harvest in years to come, and we plan to plant more fruit trees – plums are a must! – during the dormant period. I’ve found a good online nursery in Pays de la Loire and have started putting together an order for some of those plants which will add more edible options to our ‘food forest’: sea buckthorn, autumn olive, honey berry, goumi berry, goji berry, jostaberry, yellow raspberry and the like. I don’t want to order until the bare-rooted willows are available; Roger has started to dig the pond (despite us agreeing a mini-digger hire would be the sensible plan, it comes as no surprise that he’s doing it by hand!) and I want to create a ‘wild’ area between it and the veggie patch with a mass of willows and dogwoods to add a splash of winter colour. The willows I’m after are saule des vanniers in French, literally basket makers’ willow; I’ve always had a soft spot for baskets but have never made one myself so that’s an interesting project for the future, as well as using some withies to create other features around the garden. Some of the features we already have here have become more prominant as the dense green of summer growth fades away and bring a new perspective to the garden.

Log ‘seat’ framed by hazel and blackthorn.
Stone pyramid wildlife habitat . . .
. . . and a more temporary one made from hedge prunings.

Away from the garden, the 30-day yoga programme is going well. I’m sticking to my daily practice and really enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I started to feel a bit disappointed that the sessions come to an end far too quickly. I decided it was time to look for something else to add to my morning exercise and wondered if I could find a simple dance lesson or two. I’ve always loved dancing: contemporary dance was my thing as a teen (yep – footless tights, legwarmers, the whole Fame shebang ๐Ÿ˜† ) but as an adult, my dancing exploits have been pretty much limited to a bit of a boogie at parties and weddings. I have mentioned before that after a rush of blood to the head, Roger and I signed up for salsa evening classes a few years ago and spent most of our time in fits of giggles as we tried to work out what on earth our feet should be doing. The tutor was unquestionably a very talented dancer but I had the impression he felt he’d drawn the short straw teaching a class of hapless beginners. He made a good fist of giving us a taste of different Latin American dance styles but for me it was all too fast and furious; we’d learn a new routine and would just get to the point where it actually felt like we were dancing then he would move us on to something new, often never to revisit anything. As soon as we were home, I would scribble down everything I could remember to help us practise but it ended up a complete jumble as there was too much to recall.

As a teacher, I am all too aware that learners need many things: clear instruction and demonstration, motivation, fun, repetition, time to practise and permission to make mistakes in a safe and supportive environment but overload isn’t at all helpful. I would have loved just to focus on one routine each week so that at least we would have had twelve basic dances under our belt at the end of the term; as it was, we didn’t crack a single one. We persevered for another couple of terms without any real improvement so we put it down to experience and bowed out gracefully . . . but I’ve never lost my desire to do better. So, I was pleased to hit on the short video lessons by Oleg Astakhov, although I was highly sceptical about learning nine dances in twelve minutes: I’d be happy to suss one, to be honest! Mmm, it sounded like an interesting challenge, all the same and – all credit to the teaching – twelve minutes later I was indeed nine dances wiser. The best and most unexpected thing, though, was that suddenly everything clicked and fell into place, all the things I’d found so difficult in those dance classes suddenly became as clear as day.

I’ve always been an advocate of spiral (as opposed to linear) learning, the idea that we are not essentially programmed to learn anything first time round – or second or third, for that matter – and that it’s important to keep circling back to what we are trying to learn, perhaps in a broader or deeper sense, in a different context or from a new angle; sometimes, we don’t grasp something simply because we’re not ready to at that moment. Learning new dances is great brain gym, a brilliant workout for the mind as well as the body, and I’m suddenly having so much fun! I don’t suppose solo dancing will ever catch on but finding time and space to spend a few minutes getting my head (and feet) round waltz and polka, rumba and hustle, jive and jazz, not to mention mambo, merengue, bachata and cha cha is certainly keeping me out of mischief and making me smile! I’m not sure I’m ready for hip hop just yet but there may be a little zumba in the pipeline. Lifelong learning and laughing. I love it. ๐Ÿ˜Š

Keeping cosy

I’d forgotten just how lovely autumn can be in Mayenne. There has been no wild and windy headlong rush into it, no violent tearing of leaves from the trees or damp and drippy descent into the dark; rather, there is a sweet softness and gentle meandering through the season as though nature itself is patiently giving us the chance to adapt and adjust to shorter days and cooler nights. The weather is settled and still, with crisp frosty mornings followed by warm sunshine in a sky of flawless blue. Not a breath of wind, not a drop of rain and, most wonderful of all, still real warmth in the afternoon sun. The landscape remains richly upholstered in green yet bright with the fire of autumn colours in hedgerow and woodland. It won’t last – of course it won’t – but for the time being, we are basking in every magical moment.

Spending happy hours raking up barrows of leaves to spread as mulch, I realise how subtle changes have crept in over recent weeks. The garden is alive with birds yet the blackcaps, chiffchaffs and warblers have gone, their sweet summer songs replaced with the more strident sounds of fieldfares and redwings, the babble and chatter of starlings, the evocative ‘peewit’ whistle of lapwings; the lizards no longer scurry about the front step and stone walls and the grass snakes have taken themselves off to their secret places. The squirrels are back, gambolling across the lawn and busy with apples and acorns, roe deer slide like silent shadows through the trees across the lane and the calls of tawny owls haunt the star-sparkled nights. Bright motes of tiny insects dance and shine in the soft sunshine yet most have gone now, save for a few brave souls reluctant to give up just yet like the velvety red admiral butterflies sipping sweetness from the last raggle-taggle verbena flowers. In the hives, honey bees will be clustering at night for sure in a tight ball of huddled warmth, but the afternoons find them in our heathers, a mass of shiny-winged industry amongst the purple bells.

The slow, graceful ballet of leaf fall is giving us ample opportunity to make the most of this generous gift of organic matter: just as they come, chopped or mixed with other materials, I am spreading them all over the garden, wherever a little more nutrition is required. The soil is looking so much better than when we started gardening here in spring, the poor state of it then creating a sort of quiet desperation in my mind which has slowly dissipated like morning mist during the the intervening months. The leaves will add yet another layer of goodness, another ingredient to help build the complex recipe of living soil. I’m conscious of needing to nurture our tender perennials through their first winter so I have been tucking them up snuggly under layers of leaves and hay which should help to protect them from the worst frosts and feed the soil around them, too. The globe artichokes are particularly vulnerable but if they make it through in one piece, I shall be sowing more next spring. The asparagus is tougher but I’m taking no chances with these babies – their layer of mulch is so thick, the whole bed looks like a luxurious plumped-up eiderdown quilt buttoned through with thirty planting spaces.

Young asparagus plant tucked up for winter.

I am fascinated by the research and wealth of knowledge about soil biology that has really come to the forefront in recent times and I am equally taken with the changes it has wrought in me as a gardener. Needless to say, organic is non-negotiable but I am happy to confess – and have written in plenty of blog posts over the years – that I’ve always loved a good dig, a bit of weeding and an almighty load of muck. Now my spade is all but redundant, only ever used for digging planting holes and I’ve dropped any concept of ‘weed’ from my vocabulary and come to embrace them as helpful, and yes, even welcome, plants. I’ve left things such as clover, yarrow, chickweed and plantain wherever they have appeared, recognising their worth as healing pioneers; I’ve learned to love dandelions and docks for their ability to pull beneficial nutrients from deep in the soil with those long taproots; I’ve urged the nettles to grow, conscious of the numerous benefits they bring. Has this lax, untidy behaviour led to a garden wasteland infested with weeds crowding out and choking the plants, a pitiful mess where everything but the imposters struggles to grow? Far from it! These plants are an important part of the garden ecosystem: they bring their own benefits, I don’t waste hours of my life removing them and we have more fresh, wholesome vegetables than we know what to do with. That suits me just fine.

Savoy cabbage is on this week’s menu.

The biggest leap of faith has without doubt been the challenge of creating good soil and a productive food patch without muck. Many experts cite a good dollop of farmyard manure applied annually as essential for soil nutrition but there are other voices with different approaches (many from the world of permaculture) and this year, I’ve put my faith in their ideas. The theory is that soil can be built and nourished using whatever is to hand, that we have all that we need right here without any need to bring in manure (and the possible problems and nasties it could contain) from outside. The trick is simply to see every scrap of organic matter not as garden ‘waste’ but as a precious resource to be recycled into a beautiful, rich, living soil. This is achieved by mimicking nature, adding layers from the top down in the same way a mix of organic materials is naturally stacked on the soil’s surface; it’s a bit like making a compost heap in situ, a balance of green nitrogen-rich and brown carbon-rich materials left for the astonishing life forms that inhabit the soil to break down. I’ve spent much of my gardening year collecting and spreading piles of matter like grass clippings, hay, cut nettles, dead vegetation and spent plants, leaves, twigs, bark . . . anything that was once living, in fact; I’ve watered with comfrey tea, chopped and sprinkled yarrow leaves and borage, shredded incoming cardboard and paper, swept sawdust from the log shed. I’ve left the roots of spent plants in the ground, knowing now that they continue to do good long after the plant has died, and simply dropped the rest of the plant where it grew. The soil is already deeper, darker, richer – of that there is no doubt – and our crops are thriving, cosy in their layered beds. Yes, it seems we don’t need muck at all.

I harvested the oca this week after hard frosts killed the foliage.

I’m a great fan of green manure and it’s been interesting this year experimenting with different varieties and planting times in a new setting. Buckwheat, crimson clover and phacelia have all been very successful, either chopped and dropped early for the highest nutrition or left to flower since all three are hugely beneficial to insects. Phacelia has been the real star; we still have plants flowering, there are silvery-blue seedlings popping up all over the place and I have a good swathe of late-sown plants in the veggie patch which I shall be watching with interest to see how they fare through winter. Growing green manures and cover crops is something that has also become popular with local farmers since we last lived here seven years ago and there are several fields of phacelia in full feathery blue-mauve flower in the neighbourhood. Mustard, also; the field next to our garden seems a bit incongruous with its bright yellow flowers and spring pollen perfume amid the autumn colours but it’s most definitely better than bare earth.

I love this approach to gardening, it feels like such a nurturing way to work; not ripping out, destroying, banishing or burning but working alongside nature with honour and respect – yes, even when some wretched pest or other is tucking in to our crops. Dipping in and out of the proceedings at COP 26, I have been far more engaged by the voices of indigenous peoples around the world than anyone else. Accounting for just 6% of global population, they care for some 80% of the world’s environments; much within permaculture and forest gardening is based on indigenous knowledge and skills, reaching back to ancient times and reverently preserved and practised in this modern world. I am not remotely religious but the idea of land as ‘sacred’ meaning something considered worthy of respect or devotion or which inspires awe or reverence resonates very strongly with me. (As an aside, nothing to do with COP 26 but maybe everything to do with COP 26, I love this powerful and eloquent TED talk entitled ‘Seeds of our ancestors, seeds of life’ by Winona LaDuke, the renowned and respected Ojibwe activist). At one side of the orchard, there is a huge lump of oak tree trunk that was here when we arrived; we don’t know its history but it was certainly a mighty tree when it was alive. The bark is soft and pappy, the heartwood wet but as hard as rock and instead of cutting it for logs, Roger has carved a slice off it this week to make a seat. It is currently the most perfect sunny spot to enjoy our afternoon cuppa and I love the fact that it gives us a different view – a new perspective – of the garden. There is still so much life in this dead wood, not least the incredible fungi growing on it, and seated on something so old and vital with my face turned to the sun as autumn dances gracefully around me, I understand the need to care for and honour this beautiful place.

The excellent weather means we are benefitting hugely from passive solar heating as the sunlight streams in through our south-facing windows and spending our days outside, there is no need to light the stove until late afternoon or evening; every log saved now helps to shorten the winter! The stove oven ticking over at a relatively low heat is perfect for slow-cooked, one pot meals stuffed with a variety of home grown goodies (light on the washing up, too!) and tagines are one of our favourites. This week, Roger cooked up a beauty based on butternut squash, potatoes, onions, garlic, beans and tomatoes; highly spiced, richly orange and aromatic, served with a nutty mix of bulgar wheat, quinoa and buckwheat, it seemed like a perfect seasonal dish. I decided to go forth and find ingredients for a one pan ‘green-up’ to go with it as we still have a good selection in the garden: perpetual spinach, rainbow chard, red Russian kale, New Zealand spinach with fennel and the last couple of (very late) globe artichokes made a dish of green gorgeousness.

Do you ever have moments when a seemingly simple task that should be done in a few minutes spirals out of control? Such is the ‘fun’ I had when I finally got round to sewing the linings into the the upstairs curtains. I’ve mentioned these before, two door-length curtains made from bright batik cotton fabric that were left by the previous owners; they are colourful and cheerful and far too good to needlessly replace except for the fact that they are made from a light dress-weight material. Now I realise I might sound a bit of a dinosaur in these days of excessive house dressing but I firmly believe curtains need to offer something in the way of insulation as well as beauty – hence Operation Lining to keep us cosier this winter. Mmm, let’s get this clear from the start: I detest making and altering curtains, it is the dullest sewing job on earth, so my plan was to make the simplest of linings and attach them to the top of the fabric along the casing stitiching – an hour’s job, tops. Ah, how the curtain gods were laughing! Measuring the curtains, I discovered both were several centimetres shorter on one side than the other because the turn at the top had been folded at a random angle instead of straight. I am not an obsessive perfectionist but this kind of thing frustrates the life out of me . . . what is so hard about using a tape measure? Also, far too much fabric had been turned at the top while the curtains were way too short. What to do? Of course, I could have made a wonky too-short lining to match but in my heart of hearts I knew the only thing for it was to unpick the lot, sling the fabric through the next laundry load to freshen it up and start again from scratch.

Time to unpick!

Some days later, we had two good as new curtains, hanging better, looking bolder and sweeping the floor to help keep out the draughts – the kind of cosy I love. The reason I’m sharing this rather dull and uninspiring tale is that, just like the garden, it shows how much I have changed. In a previous life, this situation would have maddened me and I would have ranted and railed in frustration about the waste of my precious time. Now, I am time-rich and these things just flow over me. Who cares if it takes five days instead of five minutes? What does it matter if projects are completed piecemeal, gently and slowly? It’s a measure of how busy we have been outside since moving here that my woolly stuff has remained virtually untouched. I started knitting a pair of socks when we arrived at the end of December and I’ve still not finished them, when normally I’d have them done in a few days. Looking back through old blog posts, I discovered that it’s two years – two??? – since I started crocheting the ‘Harmony’ blanket and it’s not even half done. Well, all in good time; with the darker evenings here, there’s a good chance I’ll get on with both and nothing has been hurting in the meantime. I’m also itching to prep some fibre for my spinning wheel which has been out of action for far too long; perhaps my favourite lustrous Blue-Faced Leicester or super soft Shetland or even a first exploration of Shropshire fleece (my native county, it has to be done)? Or maybe, craving some colour, a blend of the Merino and tussah silk I dyed with madder eons ago, to knit into a new winter hat?

Well . . . not just yet, because the joyful news that we are to become grandparents again next year has my head in a crafty spin – no question, this precious little bundle now takes first priority when it comes to all things creative. My initial thought was to make a cotton quilt as I have in the past, something bright and softly padded that can be tucked round to keep Babi Bach cosy or thrown on the floor or lawn as a playmat. (On our recent UK trip, I was very touched to see William – now six years old – had his baby jungle quilt on the bedroom floor for just that reason). I haven’t done any patchwork in ages and it’s always an enjoyable project but what puts me off at the moment is the logistics of things. Until we sort the upstairs spare room into a more organised and useable space (which could take a while), the only place I have to sew is on the kitchen table; not a problem, but it does mean having to set everything up then put it all away each time. As it’s during the dark evenings that I do most crafting, the idea of hauling my sewing machine, other tools and materials up and down the stairs doesn’t fill me with much enthusiasm; also, I’d far rather be snuggled up by the woodburner with Roger for company, working at something I can pick up and put down in quiet moments. So, I decided on a compromise: a cotton patchwork blanket made from crochet squares. In terms of colours, I was thinking in rainbows so I was very delighted to discover the Danish yarn company Hobbii, which sells packs of rainbow cotton yarn – just what I was looking for!

When it comes to crochet squares, I love the challenge of complicated stitch patterns and colour changes, but for this blanket I wanted something pared down which will allow the individual colours to pop and sing out. I fell in love with the sweet simplicity of this pattern by Becky Skuse – not least because the border is worked using a join-as-you-go technique which means I can build the blanket a square at a time without any need for sewing.

I am already enjoying this project so much, the cotton yarn is soft and works up beautifully and, tucked up cosily by the evening fire, with each stitch I make I dream about the warmth and colour this new baby will bring to our lives. Autumn is truly beautiful . . . but next summer is already filled with the promise of wonderful things! ๐Ÿฅฐ

Hedging our bets

Last winter, we bought and planted 100 bare-rooted trees to plug the gaps in our less-than-wonderful boundary hedges and this year, we are lifting self-set saplings – mostly oak, hazel, wild cherry, spindleberry and blackthorn – to add to the mix. It’s a game of patience but before too long, these youngsters will start to have an impact and we should end up with some decent shelter and windbreaks in all the right places. It might seem a bit paradoxical, then, that this week we have started to cut down a huge hedge which divides the garden in two; to the untrained eye, it looks rather brutal but this is all about conservation and regeneration, not destruction.

The height and width of the bank beneath the hedge suggest it was planted many years ago, possibly as a field boundary, but it has since been left to grow into a row of tall trees, mostly hazel. This means the thick base that makes a ‘proper’ hedge has gone and the whole things casts far too much shade across the vegetable garden, especially now the sun is so much lower in the sky. As it sits on roughly a north-east / south-west axis, it also serves little use as a windbreak since those two directions are where most of our wind comes from; it’s good hedges running perpendicular to this one we’re most in need of! It’s a little early in the season to be laying a hedge but we’ve started while there are still leaves on the trees so we can identify exactly what’s there; although the hazels dominate, there is also holly, blackthorn, hawthorn, oak and spindleberry, all beneficial natives which will hopefully thrive if given the chance of some light and air. Roger is working along the row tree by tree, cutting out the bigger trunks and selecting younger ones to partially cut and bend (or ‘pleach’) through upright stakes; it will all look a bit scrawny for a while but next year, it will start to rejuvenate and thicken, making a much more appropriate living structure for the garden as well as an excellent wildlife habitat.

Hazel is an incredibly useful tree and there is certainly no waste from this activity. We are raking up the precious mix of leaves, small twigs and sawdust and spreading it as a thick mulch on all the planting beds, setting twiggy sticks aside for pea supports, long poles for beans and other climbers, thicker branches are sharpened at one end to use as stakes and a pile of stacked logs is steadily growing against one end of the house.

There’s no waste in the rest of the garden, either. Even though the major harvests are over and most food eaten or processed for storing, there are still a few bits and pieces to use. We have a very healthy crop of huge cabbages but I’ve been making some of the smaller, scrappy ones into sauerkraut and there are still a fair few beetroot in the ground so I’m also fermenting them, grated and spiced with fennel seed. Both serve as delicious and very healthy additions to our lunch plates. On which subject, I decided it was time this week to crack open the first jar of pickled cucumbers . . . and nearly blew my head off in the process! Who thought it was a good idea to add a Scotch bonnet chilli to the mix? It’s not often you find ‘cucumber’ and ‘warming’ in the same sentence, I must say. I keep thinking we have reached the very end of the apple harvest and then we manage to find yet another trug of decent windfalls too good to leave on the ground; time is definitely ticking, I was soundly cursed by a feasting redwing this week, so the winter visitors are obviously arriving and will clear the orchard floor in no time.

Having pressed, pasteurised and frozen many litres of apple juice, we are now turning the fruit into ‘incredible edibles’ helped by the fact that the kitchen woodstove is currently lit at one end of the day or other. We are cooking up big vats for compote; as the apples aren’t cooking varieties, they don’t collapse into a fluffy pulp but a quick whizz through the food processor puts that right and we’re freezing them several portions at a time in saved fromage blanc pots. Apple compote with oats, walnuts, sunflower seeds and a sprinkle of cinnamon is my current breakfast choice – very seasonal and very delicious. We’ve been using the low oven to dry apple rings and at last, I’ve got round to experimenting with making fruit leathers, starting with apple and hawthorn berry. It took a bit of faffing about to get things right but I love the finished leather, each little square is a chewy explosion of sweet-sour fruity gorgeousness; the flavour is impossible to describe but it’s like the essence of autumn and hedgerow, honey and berry, concentrated in a sweet treat – just perfect for a healthy snack to take on long walks or a post-run boost. I feel this is the beginning of a new culinary and preserving adventure so there’s a tray of apple and cinnamon leather-to-be in the oven as I write . . .

In more ancient calendars, this time was regarded as the end of the old year and I have to admit to feeling a closer affinity with that idea than the end of December. As the days rapidly shorten, the weather deteriorates and leaves tumble from the trees, for me there is a strong sense of natural death and decay, of things coming to an end as we head into darker, colder times where rest and dormancy (should) prevail. It’s a good time for reflection, to see what has been achieved through this year, which ideas worked and which didn’t, which projects were brought to fruition, which fell by the wayside. It’s a time of letting go without sadness or regret but also a time to look forward, to make changes and new plans. At a personal level, I find commitments I make now tend to be far longer lived than the empty New Year resolutions which classically fizzle out before the end of January. So, for this November I have decided to do another 30-day yoga programme like I did last year – in fact, I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t really done much in the way of yoga since then, so this binge on my mat is well overdue. I’m following the ‘Dedicate’ programme from Yoga With Adrienne, still my favourite online yoga teacher without a doubt and I’m hoping to do it properly like I managed last year, every day for 30 days rather than my usual habit of either taking something closer to 90 days to complete the programme or ducking out at around Day 17. At the same time, I’ve also committed to a ‘No Alcohol November’: this is partly to benefit my health (last year I did a ‘No Meat November’ and let me be honest, this one is by far the greater challenge – meat I can live without but I do so love a glass of rouge!) and also a concsious effort to reduce consumption and waste in the happy knowledge that my recycling cycle trips will be so much easier without a rucksack of glass bottles on my back. Having made the decision to do both things on 30th October, I decided to start the next day (what does the calendar matter, really?) so I’m already nicely settled in and going strong on both counts. Mmm, still a long way to go, though . . .

I’m keeping an interested eye on the proceedings at COP 26 but not with any great confidence that the needful will be done. Actually, I do find the whole thing weirdly ironic, with tens of thousands of people travelling from all over the world for the twenty-sixth time to tackle the climate crisis: how many tonnes of carbon dioxide has that contributed to the atmosphere, I wonder? On a more encouraging note, whilst painting the upstairs spare room on a wet afternoon last week, I listened to some interesting podcasts about the importance of adaptation and resilience and the ways in which the impacts of climate change are already being managed around the globe by some very creative thinking and inspired problem-solving. There are some excellent organisations, groups, companies, communities and individuals out there deeply engaged in practical and meaningful activities that are saving lives and ecosystems and that gives me hope. I don’t think we can solve these massive issues through individual action alone but I still firmly believe that every gesture helps, no matter how small; there are brilliant minds out there who have the knowledge and skills to come up with radical solutions but I will carry on trying to do my little bit, too, in the hope it makes a difference. It’s become a normal way of life to consider the impact of my actions on a daily basis and I’m comfortable with that, even if it means having to be brutally honest about some things and making some serious changes to what I do or how I do it.

Food is a huge part of this and although I think we do pretty well in producing much of what we eat ourselves (and I am very grateful that we are able to do that) and food waste simply doesn’t exist in our home, I still like to consider ways in which we can reduce our impact on the environment further – there’s always room for improvement. To this end, I was delighted to find this blog post at Simple Living which discusses the idea of eating a primarily regional diet (it’s a fascinating and inspirational read – thank you, Paula!). Of course, there are obvious difficulties such as a lack of access to local producers, farmers’ markets and the like (and I have to say from experience that just because something is sold at a farmers’ market, it doesn’t always guarantee good quality or that it has been produced responsibly); there may well be financial restraints, as for anyone limited to a tight budget, supermarket produce tends to be a lot more affordable; busy people with frantic lives may well also cite time restraints as an issue. Still, the idea of eating 95% regional produce and having a limit of ten or so more ‘global’ foods sounds like an interesting challenge to me so the question I have been pondering this week is what exactly counts as ‘regional’? In France les produits rรฉgionaux are proudly and rightly championed and there is much focus on the concept of terroir, the specific set of environmental factors which contribute to the unique character of local products. Even here, though, I find it difficult to pin down what exactly counts as regional for us: we live in Mayenne, one of four departments in the region of Pays de la Loire, but we are very close to the borders of both Sarthe (in the same region) and Orne, which is in Normandy. Are all three departments our local region, then? How far does the radius extend? For me, the idea of ‘local’ means pretty close to home, buying high welfare pork from a local farmer who sells direct from her farm or a pot of honey from the hives I cycle past en route to St P; ‘regional’ produce offers a wider choice of foods from slightly further afield but to my mind, with not too many more food miles involved. Looking for clarification, I did a bit of poking about on the web and came up with a number of opinions ranging from 100 to 400 miles, much wider areas than I’d expected. Just for fun, I plotted circles centred on our home with radii of 100, 200 and 400 miles and they gave me some fascinating food for thought.

Take for instance the wine that I’m currently not drinking. ๐Ÿ˜† As we live in a traditional cider region, wine has to come from elsewhere and in my own mind, would have to count as one of my 5% ‘outsiders’ if I wanted to continue enjoying it, or else I’d have to start homebrewing from our garden and hedgerow produce. The 100-mile limit would allow me to enjoy wines from the Loire region, perhaps a red Touraine or sparkling Saumur, but not the southern reds I prefer and ironically, I could actually have a bottle from the vineyards of southern England before a favourite Bordeaux rouge! The distances seem very generous to me, especially 400 miles which is surely more suited to countries with large land masses than the relatively small continent of Europe; after all, I can’t believe for one moment that ‘regional’ produce for us extends right up into northern England and down to northern Spain, although that would certainly give us a wide variety of foods to choose from. It’s all interesting stuff, though, and it has had me thinking about what constitutes our list of global foods and what the possibilities are for reducing them or finding alternatives closer to home. In the last couple of years, I’ve seriously reduced my consumption of black tea and now drink far more homegrown herbal tisanes instead but the list of other foods is pretty long with coffee beans, olives, olive oil, brown rice, lentils, citrus fruit and some cheeses probably top of the consumption list (not forgetting that wine and Roger’s beer, of course). I’d also like to find local suppliers for foods we use in bulk, bread flour being an obvious candidate; despite living in a grain-growing area, it’s proving difficult to find a decent supply of locally-milled flour and I have to ask myself which is the better option: buying flour from a local supermarket which has been produced in and transported from another part of France or making a 100-mile round trip to buy from a ‘local’ producer? So many issues to unpick . . . but it’s important and interesting and gives me plenty to think about. At least we’ve got the veggie side of things nailed.

Something that most definitely counts as a regional food here is sweet chestnuts and there has been much activity locally in recent weeks as foragers go forth to hunt those shiny brown treasures amongst the fallen leaves. We have downed tools and spent a happy couple of hours wandering along the lanes from home and through local woods this week, collecting a decent harvest of nuts on the way. What better excuse is there for enjoying the simple peace and beauty of the season, the landscape in all its autumnal glory?

Preparing chestnuts takes a little time but it’s one of those therapeutic and rewarding kitchen jobs that is hugely enjoyable once we get into the swing of it: we tend to halve them first (helpful in checking for resident bugs!) then peel the skins off. Our favourite way to cook them is either to stir them through a tray of roast autumn vegetables – they make a lovely crunchy contrast to the softness of roast squash, for example – or to boil them briefly then blitz them in the food processor and use them to make stuffing. Either way, they freeze like a dream but it’s always lovely to enjoy some of them now at the height of their season. Mixed with onion, herbs and breadcrumbs they made a delicious stuffing to accompany a piece of local pork, roast potatoes, roast squash and carrots (with more chestnuts), leeks, cabbage and caramelised apple rings – a meal that was most definitely 95% regionally produced (most of it from the garden and woods, in fact) and a true celebration of autumn. Delicious . . . and I didn’t even miss the glass of wine to go with it! ๐Ÿ˜‰