Archive for the ‘…a la Ferme’ Category

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Date night on the tractor…

July 19, 2010

Raphael and I have been trying to have a ‘date night’ for a while now.  But between the unexpected work in the fields, the kids, the work on the house and numerous other expected and unexpected responsibilities, we’ve been unable to make that date.  

We made a plan, Raphael and I.  After the kids were in bed, I would join him in the fields on his tractor.  So at about 8:30, I changed my flimsy, gold sandals, so inappropriate for a farm (Gotta love inappropriate shoes.) for the thick, practical black pair I bought at the marché the first time I visited the winery.  I grabbed a cold beverage (Wish I could say it was a chilly rose but in fact it was a coke.) and climbed up the path towards the chapel and the sound of his tractor. 

He was headed towards me a few rows away, high up on the green monster spitting out puffs of copper that smelled oddly sweet in the evening heat.  Seeing Raphael on the tractor always makes me think of the country song, “She thinks my tractor’s sexy.”  I have no idea who sings it and have never had Raphael listen to it but there is something about a man on a tractor.  He waved me over and I climbed up the metal ladder amidst puffs of copper and waves of heat from the engine. 

Tractors are one seater’s so I stood next to him, hung on to the bar spanning the top and leaned against the metal tank holding the copper.  It was hot, smelly, loud and bumpy but I have to admit, there’s something quite romantic about riding a tractor with a man through vineyards at dusk.  The sun was setting at the foot of the fields and the building clouds were tinged pink in its glow.  Tractors are really high up so the view is extraordinary.  I could see to the Vercors mountains and the span of fields leading to their base – the yellow sunflowers, blue lavender, and green vines a patchwork in the dying sun.  Despite the noise, we managed to have the longest conversation in days.  We shared the coke and discussed the kids, our summer plans, our current living situation and our future house.  I was sent to apologize to neighbors having dinner in their garden next to the field we were treating.  They are summer visitors and I barely know them but they didn’t hesitate to invite me for a drink and joke about me riding the tractor with my husband.

At one point, Raphael scooted back in his seat and told me to climb up in front of him to take control of the tractor.  “Where,” I said noting the many gears and pedals clamored together in front of the seat.  “There’s no room and I might bump one of those things.”

“No, don’t worry.  Come on.”  I swung my leg over the gears and settled my butt in the small space of seat between his legs.  “Here,” he said letting go of the wheel.  “You take this.”

“What!  No!  I can’t drive.  I’ll crush the vines or flip us over.”  I had heard stories about people being crushed under their tractors and it always worried me.  I had already gashed my knee climbing up on the thing and banged my head against the bar when Raphael shifted gears jerked the tractor unexpectedly.

“No,”  He said it like talking to one of the girls.  “It’s just like driving a car.” 

Tension climbing up my arms, I took hold of the wheel.  I swerved the tractor a bit and Raphael took hold to straighten it.  “See that circle knob on the front of the tractor?”  He pointed out.  “Keep that in the center of the vines and your good.”  It’s harder than it looks, for me at least.  The tractor is built to treat six rows at once spraying three on either side with wide-spread wheels in order to span one row of vines up the middle.  The round knob is meant to be aligned with this center row.  The problem is that each time the tractor hits a bump, and the fields are full of them, the wheel jerks to either side.  It was at this moment that Raphael chose to inform me that the tractor has no brake.  “Why?” 

“I don’t know,” he shrugged that Gallic ‘that’s just the way it is’ shrug.  “It’s old.”

At the end of the row he took the wheel in order to turn the thing around and head back down the next rows.  The sun was almost set.  Raphael turned on the headlights throwing a florescent orange glow over the vines.  We finished the fields and headed back to park the tractor.  Taking Raphael’s hand to walk back to the house, I thought, this was better than dinner and a movie.  We talked, laughed, kissed and enjoyed each other’s company on top of a tractor in the middle of vineyards in the dying sun.  I was reminded of our first summer together and felt free again.

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Fruits of summer…

July 13, 2010

 We’ve been instructed by Raphael to save fruit seeds.  Since the winery has gone bio, or organic, we’ve seen a  resurge of wild fruit trees that he remembers from childhood – those magical days when he used to run free in the vineyards and pick apricots, plums, mirabelles, and vine ripened peaches.   Raphael wants to plant the seeds.  He wants to create an orchard of wild fruit trees. 

 The organic rules mean the vines are no longer treated with herbicides or pesticides nor do they cut the overgrowth surrounding the vineyards.   Walking among the vines with the girls, baskets swinging from their hands, Raphael showed us all the wealth that lay hidden in the woods bordering the vines.  With the scents of wild fennel mixing with the ripeness of the fruit, we devoured one type of rare variety after another.  “Mmm!  It brings back memories of when I was young.”  Raphael’s exclamations came to me from the midst of the brush into which he scrambled to find the trees and bushed with the ripened fruit.  More fruit made it into the girl’s mouths than their baskets.  We managed somehow to return home with baskets of varying shades of plums and mirabelle’s.  Our guests will be enjoying fruit for the next few breakfasts – unless we eat them all first!

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Cherry season

June 3, 2010

I picked my first cherry’s of the season today. I packed the baby in her stroller and we went bumping down the tractor path following Auriane swinging her basket and Olivia way ahead on her bike. We passed the poppies and honeysuckle its sweet fragrance making me hungrier as I neared the trees. The two old ladies were waiting at the end of the lane, their rich black cherries dripping from their branches. It’s my favorite time of year. Maybe because I met Raphael in May and on our second ‘date’ he brought me a Tupperware full of fresh picked cherries (his mom had picked them). Which I devoured on the car ride from the airport to the hotel. They were the best cherries I had ever tasted.    

May and June is cherry season in the south of France. May starts off with trees covered in white blossoms dusted pink. We have many trees on the property so that the season becomes a parade of pink and white flowers with a different variety of cherry popping out every few weeks.    

Cherry clafoutis.

 

Cherry season means its time for the provincial cake, Clafoutis. Basically a simple egg batter with a thick top layer of cherries dripping juice as it cooks. The blackest cherries are best for a Clafoutis, but they are also the best to eat. I layered them in the baking dish, mixed the batter, poured it over then put it in the over. It’s my mother-in-law’s recipe and we were both hovering over the oven for it to finish. The problem was we had a group of French tourists arrive. Over 50 of them! And we had to man the bar in the wine shop. We forgot about the Clafoutis! My first Clafoutis came out slightly burnt.     

My mother-in-law also taught me how to make cherry preserves. Making preserves is not such a big deal. You put the fruit in a pot, pour in the correct amount of sugar and let it simmer for a long time until the fruit becomes liquid. With cherries, however, you have the problem of seeds. As the fruit liquefies, the seeds rise to the top of the pot. I stood in front of the stove for over an hour, or so it seemed, removing cherry pits from the preserves with a fork. But in the end, I suppose it’s worth it each time I spread the sweet jam onto a piece of toasted baguette.   

Obviously I wrote this a year ago when I still had a baby in a stroller.  Funny I’m about to have another baby in a stroller.  This year, the cherry’s are excellent but unfortunately we don’t have any on our trees.  Over one night a few weeks ago, they all disappeared.  This is the second time that our cherry’s have been hijacked.  Some, I’m sure, are eater by birds.  However, the trees are bare even at the very top and they’re rather large given their age.  One must know where they are as they are hidden in the middle of a couple of vineyards at the end of a long path.  The problem is that they are not far from a small road.  It’s disappointing to not be able to take the girls to pick cherry’s this year.  I’ve been buying them regularly because they are still the best I’ve ever tasted but they are not cheap.  Thus no extra buying for other goodies.  We have no reserve for cherry clafoutis or preserves.  Our plan is to buy some more trees and plant them closer to the house.  In fact, we hope to do an orchard of fruit trees on the small field in front of the house.   So far, we have two apricot trees.    

Cherry clafoutis recipe   

You will need one round pie pan buttered.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.   

21 oz or 2 1/2 cups very ripe cherry’s (Really you need enough to fully cover the top of the batter. ) (It’s your choice as to whether you want to de-seed them.)   

1 1/2 oz butter plus a little more to spread on the baking pan   

4 eggs   

7 oz milk   

3/4 cup flour   

1/4 cup sugar   

1 tablespoon vanilla extract   

1 pinch of salt   

Rinse cherry’s.  Melt the butter in a small pan.  Mix flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl.  Add vanilla and eggs one by one mixing continuously.  Next, slowly add the milk while mixing.  Add melted butter.  Pour the mixture into the pie pan then add the cherry’s to the top spreading evenly.    

Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees then lower the temperature to 350 and cook another 20 minutes.  Dust finished cake with powdered sugar and serve at room temperature or chilled.

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Poppy princesses…

May 19, 2010

 

From my perch on the stone wall, I watch the girls pick poppy’s with their Mamie.  The girls are not looking, however, for the open flowers.  They are on the hunt for the unopened bud.  Mamie has taught them how to make poppy princesses and they are determined to make a whole kingdom of these delicate ladies. 

This is how it’s done:  pick the unopened poppy buds.  They are oblong in shape and have a fuzzy, rough texture.  You snip them below the bud leaving a small part of the stem attached.  Then you open the nodule to reveal the red petals all crinkled and delicate like a lady’s crinoline dress.  The head is made from the poppy’s center after it has lost it’s petals or as the girls prefer- you pick a poppy and de-petal it.  The center is then stuck on the bit of stem  to form the head.   

The poppy’s, or Coquelicot, line the fields and the sides of most roads each spring, sprouting up like the dandelions in the backyards of Pittsburgh.  This year, our fields are barer than usual maybe due to the cold and rain of the last few weeks.  It’s only been a day or so since I noticed fields of poppy’s while driving. 

This delicate little flower that I’ve always admired is the symbol of both sleep and death;  sleep because of the opium extracted from it and death because of its blood red color.   The corn poppy is the most common in France and is considered a badge of war as it is most abundant in fields of distressed soil.  It was the only plant life to grow in the shell shocked northern fields during World War I.  I picked my first French Poppy in front of Mt. St. Michel 18 years ago on my first visit to France and I still have it pressed between the pages of the photo album.

A ‘discussion’ is taking place near the ‘castle’ or swing set as to which poppy princess should become the queen.  The search is on as it has been decided that the queen should be made from the rare pink poppy.  This ought to keep them busy for the next hour.

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Pucerons, frozen lady bugs and bird poop…

May 14, 2010

Frozen ladybugs and live pucerons on a Mandarin tree leaf.

“It looks like a bird pooped on our mandarin tree,” I said to Raphael.      

He looked at me strangely, “Why not?  It’s outside where birds poop.”  He went back to digging the drainage ditch along the stone wall.      

“But it’s not a big drop like you normally see.  They’re tiny drops inside, along the branches.  And there are little bugs crawling around it.”       

My strange comment brought him over to investigate.  There is an advantage to being married to an agricultural engineer.  His knowledge comes in handy when I am clueless.  “That’s not bird poop,” he said brushing it away.  “It’s not poop at all.  It’s ladybugs that got caught in the frost.”  These grey and black smudges on my mandarin tree were the dusty remains of lady bugs that got burnt up in the freezing winter.  The bugs, he told me, are pucerons.  Pucerons, aphids in English, also known as plant lice, attack the grape vines as well other plants. “You need to treat this with insecticide,” he said.  I didn’t want to use insecticide on a tree I’m hoping will one day produce edible fruit and I found that a strange comment coming from someone who doesn’t use it on his vines and is an organic grape grower.  But then, I don’t want these pests killing my tree either.      

Recently I was in the Drougerie, not a drug store, but a store which sells cleaning supplies, paint, and other household odds and ends.  I was looking for a product to clean and seal old tile called tomette.  The shop owner gave me a bottle of savon noir liquid a l’huile de lin, or liquid black soap made from linseed oil, along with a list of things it was good for including treating plants for bugs.  This caught my attention as my yet untreated mandarin tree was still on my mind.  I asked if this could work on the pucerons.  Most definitely, she said writing down the formula of 20ml oil to 1 litre of water.     

Returning home, I found an empty spray bottle and mixed the formula.  This was a few weeks ago during the unseasonable heat of April, and seeing the shiny coating after spraying at mid day, I wondered if I was causing more harm to the tree.  Could treating the tree in full sun be like watering it in full sun?   I sprayed the entire tree concentrating of the leaves that were most under attack.  Two days later, I went for a second look.  Honestly, I couldn’t see a difference.  Nothing seemed to have changed, potentially a good thing since no new bugs seemed to be living on my tree.  But the old pucerons were still living among the lady bug dust.  It’s too bad the lady bugs didn’t survive the winter, it turns out they are a natural preditor to the aphid.  

I sprayed again thinking it needed to be treated more often.  The next time I went back, there seemed to be fewer bugs, or maybe that was just my hopeful imagination.  Spray, spray, spray.  

I haven’t had a look since we began this rainy period of May, a perfect time for the bugs to reproduce and attack my tree.  Since Raphael is busy dealing with the possible effects this rain could have on his vines, I’m wondering if my tree is suffering.      

Recently I discovered some new tricks – matches planted with the tip in the soil or tobacco, soaked in water for 24 hours, then filtered and mixed with vinegar and liquid soap.  My trees were not planted with matches in the soil but I may go shove a few in.  I’m not ready to try the tobacco mix as I’ve been told by more than one person to stick with the savon noir, it works.  I’ll let you know.

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Ferme en ferme…

April 23, 2010

What a busy week!  All in preparation for this weekends big event, the Ferme en Ferme.  Organized by the CIVAM, the Ferme en Ferme is alway held the last weekend in April.  An open door to all types of farms throughout various regions in France, the objective of the Ferme en Ferme is to  allow people to discover the métiers and know-how of the farming industry.  Each department is organized into mapped out circuits that are followed, or not.  We are part of the Ardeche de Ferme en Ferme and our circuit is number 10.  We are one of 5 wine makers on the path.  Our circuit is excellent for those who want to do a winery hop.  Besides wine, you can visit a grower of cacti, producer of essential oils, a cheese maker, a honey producer, an almond producer, makers of juice and two restaurants – one for lunch and one for dinner if you wish.  What’s great about our location is that we are on the border of the Drome, another participating department.  So visitors can go back and forth between the two locations for more diversity.

This is my first year as a participant, although I’m not a farmer, and have no desire to be one outside of our little potager and maybe a few chickens and sheep in the near future.  (Raphael has assured me that both chickens and sheep are mostly self sufficient and require no care outside of feeding them.  This remains to be seen.)  Raphael participated in the first Ferme on Ferme the year before we met.  It just so happened that the following year, we were married on the same weekend and each year since, our anniversary falls around the same time.  (It’s Tuesday.) 

I’ve been busy over the past week spring cleaning the store,  reorganizing and unpacking new stock.  We got a new delivery of ice cream from Terre Adélice.  If you ever see the name on a café or store be sure to try it, I recommend the myrtille or blueberry and the bio fraise or organic strawberry.   WE also added some new products like goat’s cheese and saucisson.  This may become a problem however, since we are primarily a wine store selling our own wine and the cheese especially, is stinking up the place – not good for the wine. 

The visit will include tours of the winery with explanations on winemaking.  Visitors can try to cork a bottle using the old fashioned hand corking tool.  Raphael says it’s impossible.  I think we should offer a prize for those who succeed. 

Needless to say, 8 months pregnant, three kids at home on school vacation, and a week of cleaning, I’m exhausted.  I hope the weekend is a success but I’m looking forward to next week when it’s all over and I can finally rest.

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Frogs, fish and stinging nettles…

April 7, 2010

Catching frogs and fish.

 

I learned a new use for wine that has nothing to do with drinking.  The Monday after Easter is a jour férié in France as it’s the first long weekend in spring, everyone is ready to play outside.  My in-laws invited family over for a couscous lunch.  The weather was superb and the kids spent most of their time exploring the grounds.  Their favorite play area was near the water basin where they spent most of the day catching frogs.  We’ve had numerous frog generations make their home in the basin, however, since Kitty came to live with us, their numbers have decreased.  The kids had the idea of capture one or two, keep them in captive until they reproduce thus repopulating the basin.   

 The water flows from the stone wash basin, along an ancient roman waterway that lines the path, down through the woods to a creek.  It was, of course, necessary for the kids to follow this water flow to its end in search of more frogs and apparently, rocks and sticks to decorate Frog’s new home.    

Sadly, Frog didn’t make it through lunch.  During the jostling during relocation of her new home in a water pitcher swiped from my cupboard, somehow she became squished under the large rock meant to be her bed.  She will not be participating in the repopulation of the water basin.    

Shortly after this adventure, Olivia came running back to the garden complaining that she had been piqued by ortie, or stinging nettles.  Her legs were riddled with little red bumps that burn and itch.  Immediately, a cousin took a napkin doused in wine and applied it to the marks.  I imagine the alcohol in the wine was the property that helped, but it worked.  An hour later the bumps were gone and Olivia was back to hanging over the water basin with her cousins – this time fishing for the two or three large goldfish which share the murky water with the frogs.  Just a typical jour férié in Provence.      

Stinging nettles.

 

I was surprised to learn that this stinging ortie is the same plant used to make the soup that is so popular in the region.  In fact, it is the leaves of the nettle which are used in the soup.  Apparently they are used in tea as well.  I can’t understand who would want to eat soup made from something with the name stinging nettle.  It doesn’t sound very appetising, at least the English name.  Ortie, however, sounds exotic – soupe d’ortie.    

For that matter, who came up with the idea of making soup out of this plant to begin with.  The soup is made from the first leaves of the spring.  Gloves are a must when picking them.  I have never tried to make it and would have to ask Raphael or Olivia to show me what the plant looks like.  I do want to share with you a recipe I found in a book containing tips from French grandma’s.  But if picking stinging nettles for soup is not your thing, I have tried a good one from this company http://www.panierdumaraicher.fr/.    

Recipe:     

2 cups of stinging nettle leaves   

4 large potatoes   

4 1/2 cups water   

1/4 cup crème fraîche   

salt and pepper   

Remove the stems from the nettle leaves and cook the leaves in two tablespoons of butter until soft.  Peal the potatoes and chop them into small cubes.  Add the water, potatoes, salt and pepper to the nettle leaves and cook for 20 minutes.  It says to pass them through a vegetable mill but a blender works just fine as well.  Add the crème fraîche.  Serve.