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A fruitful summer

Bottling summer's abundance is one of my pleasures in life.

White currants

June is a busy month in my kitchen. 

When we moved to rural France in 1996, I kinda sorta hoped to grow my own veg, keep chickens etc. That idea was quickly booted into touch firstly by our lack of topsoil (the canny French farmer who sold us this land knew what he was doing...) and my husband's hatred of all things fowl, with their pecky little beaks and beady little eyes. 

What I can grow, however - even if it meant hewing holes in the ground with a pickaxe - is fruit.

We inherited about 12 cherry trees (most of them dying or gone now); eight or so calvados pears (rock hard and gritty); and two apple trees. The apples proceeded to keel over and die that first winter and we lost four trees in the Grande Tempête of Boxing Day 1999, but the rest remain and are thriving. 

Redcurrants, whitecurrants (actually pink), gooseberries in shades of red, green and purple, jostaberries, plums of all sizes and colours, apple trees, quinces, crab apples, walnuts, wild cherry and medlars have all been up and fruiting for the past 10 years, not to mention the elderflowers, grapevines and roses, whose petals and fruit can both be processed.

Getting the fruit put up means working quickly in season. Every sunny morning in June, I rush out as soon as the dew is dry, collecting elderflowers and rose blossom before the heat of the day gets up. I cut whole heads of flower off the tree, filling a big steel salad bowl. It gets a good shake, then the petals are removed into a colander, to allow at least some of the insect life to drop out. Another good shake and then you put the petals in a bowl and pour 500ml of hot or boiling sugar syrup over them. (Sugar syrup is made with 50-50 water and sugar, brought to the boil, then boiled for one minute - nothing could be simpler). You then leave this for three days, strain it (I used a chinois sieve, which is conical and holds a huge amount), then filter it through muslin and bottle it. I use two types of bottles - glass for keeping in the cupboard and plastic for freezing, or if the syrup turns out a bit thin. 

Another way to preserve petals or soft fruit is to add 40-proof alcohol (Putinoff vodka from Lidl is good) and leave them to steep. But this is a longer process - about three months in a dark place, shaken every so often is about right. Then you strain the mix and filter it through muslin. You can either leave it as it is, as a kind of eau-de-vie, or, measure the amount and add about the same amount of sugar in grams (ie: 500ml of liquid to 500g of sugar) to make a liqueur. 

The third quick (and cheap) preserving method I use is vinegar, which works well with elderflowers and berry fruits such as redcurrants. Collect the fruit or petals (you can wash fruit, but not petals), if using fruit, mash it with a potato masher, then add hot vinegar, place in jars and once again leave for 2-3 months, then strain it, filter it and bottle it. It's wonderful in the depths of winter to help yourself to a glass of rose liqueur or a long drink with a splash of redcurrant vinegar.  

On top of that, of course, there are the chutneys, relishes, jams and jellies, though these are all more time-consuming (less, admittedly, since I started doing them in the slow cooker overnight). It's the syrups and liqueurs that are my first love.

This year I'm trying a cold-process method for the fruit syrups (redcurrant, whitecurrant and 'fruit walk'). You just gather and wash your fruit, mash it with a potato masher, leave it for 24 hours to ferment slightly, then process to remove the seeds (I use a moulin, then a chinois, then a sieve, then muslin). To this liquid, you just add an equal quantity (or less, if you prefer it sharp) of sugar, stirring until it dissolves, then bottle it and put it in either the fridge or the freezer. This cold method results in a superior product but it won't keep unchilled if you don't heat-process it, so I'll keep it in the freezer in 30cl bottles and only get one out at a time.   

In the past two weeks, I've made walnut vinegar (with green walnuts), rose syrup, elderflower syrup, rose vodka, redcurrant vodka, redcurrant syrup, whitecurrant vodka, whitecurrant syrup, rose liqueur, redcurrant jelly, 'fruit walk' syrup (ie: whatever I can get my hands on), and redcurrant relish. Kind of like nuts for winter. 

Speaking of nuts, this year I'm trying that old French classic, vin de noix, for the first time - about a bottle and a half of red wine, 200ml of calvados, about 250g of sugar, six green walnuts, quartered, a couple of walnut leaves, ripped, and a dash of vanilla. Should be ready in a couple of months. 


Indigo-dyeing day

I'm more than pleased with my first try at indigo dyeing.

Indigo dresses

I thought I'd share my first attempts at indigo dyeing. 

It's all courtesy of my friend M, who has a lovely workshop because she dyes yarn for a living, and decided to invite all her friends over to try their hands at this technique. I was in the second workshop, and decided to cut some dress lengths, because in the past, when I've done shibori dyeing, I've ended up with pieces of fabric that were too small to use. 

This time I was determined not to make the same mistake, so I cut a simple sundress shape out of fabrics in my stash. One is a white-on-white stripe chintz that I've had for over 25 years and never used, and the two others were cut from a bamboo and cotton single duvet cover.

I also did some test samples on offcuts of kimono silk and old haori linings that I'd removed from garments that I dissassembled.

I spent the night before the workshop tying and stitching my fabrics.

mokume shibori

One dress length I did as mokume - a technique where you sew running stitches through the cloth then draw it up. I actually did this on my sewing machine, using a 20mm tacking stitch through both pieces of fabric, and when drawn up, the piece was only around six inches long. You can see here how the striped chintz adds an extra level of texture. 

 'bean' shibori and maki-nuiAnother, I knew I wanted mostly dark, so I tied individual dried beans into it, using elastic bands rather than thread. On the bodice section, I used black-eyed beans, in the middle section I used chickpeas and on the skirt part I used white kidney beans. (The different sizes proved to be a waste of time, as they all came out looking virtually identical.) I also whipstitched in between the motifs on the bodice part - a technique called maki-ori. 

kumo shibori

The third piece was a last-minute decision - kumo shibori of a sort, though very rough in technique. I just drew up a handful of cloth into a point and secured it with one or two elastic bands, going all over the cloth until it was covered. Each dress length ended up about six inches wide and a foot long. 

The indigo had been mixed in a plastic dustbin, using ready-to-use indigo crystals. Apparently it's important to let it settle until it forms a yellowish layer on top, rather like oil on vinegar in a salad dressing. Into this, you dip your fabric, preferably wet to the ease the penetration of the dye, and trying to disturb the surface layer as little as possible to avoid oxygenating the mix.

Three of us, L, V and myself were all trying this, suspending our pieces on coathangers with bits of string, as the level of the dye was well below the height of the bin. Each dip takes a few minutes, then as you pull out the fabric it turns first bright turquoise, then - as it oxidises - blue. You allow it to dry a bit, then dip it again if you want to strengthen the colour. Between us, we did dress lengths, t-shirts, scarves and various pieces of cloth. We were later joined by C, who used cushion-cover-size pieces, each with a different design. 

Indigo vat

I dipped my mokume dress and the silk samples twice and the other dresses three times, but I now wish I'd carried on dipping perhaps another twice to get a really dark indigo blue, given that this colour will fade. Nevertheless, I'm absolutely made-up by the results. All of the silk samples were rubbish, pretty much (indigo doesn't penetrate as far into fabric as the Procion dyes I'm used to, so my pleated efforts, etc, were totally wasted) but the dress lengths all came out exactly as I'd hoped. 

Indigo samples

An indigo vat will keep for some weeks, so I'm now going to shibori some more garment lengths - maybe trousers this time - and see what effects I can get while the going's good. Wish me luck.  


A change of plans

The best-laid plans

Well, it's Friday the Thirteenth. Ooh err. 

All nonsense, of course, but the day starts with our having to cancel planned filming on our new movie, The Garden, as it's chucking it down with rain and some of the crew have come down splat with colds in any case.

They were filming here yesterday in bitter temperatures. Although I'd sent out an email reminding everyone to dress in their warmest clothes I was a bit surprised when they all turned up in short jackets. I think people underestimate how cold you get when you're standing around in the cold rather than walking around in it.

The DH, of course, was walking about without a coat at all, not because he's hard, but because he'd donned his Regatta fleece thermals as a base layer and was wearing neoprene-lined wellies, so he was as warm as toast.

The day began thrillingly frost-covered, with the whole landscape looking like a Christmas card, but to my, and everyone elses's surprise, he didn't want to film in it for continuity reasons, and instead waited until most of the frost had burned off. A missed opportunity to my mind, but then it's not my movie.

My job, as usual, was makeup and costumes. Our main female character, who is nameless, is dressed a bit like a rock chick, necessitating jeans, loads of cheap jewellery, a t-shirt with writing all over it and a denim waistcoat. This, quelle surprise, had gone missing in the post (exactly as happened with our last shoot), but luckily one of the crew had an old denim jacket that he didn't mind us butchering, so while the crew had breakfast, I frantically cut it up to make a waistcoat (sleeves off, shoulders narrowed, bottom trim removed and sides taken in). I then frayed all the raw edges and it looked great - exactly what we were after. 

Since our earlier location had blown out (hence the necessity to film at our house), and along with it, the caterer, I was also doing the food, and had spent hours over the previous few days creating vegetarian soups and curries, plus puddings, for the supposed seven to eight crew members. Only two are veggie, but it saved cooking two separate dishes.

After everyone had had breakfast and gone out, I tidied up, kept the woodburner loaded up and then, at 11.00, took hot chocolate, cakes and hot water bottles out into the garden, all of which were met with alacrity by the freezing crew. E, our sound girl, ended up with a hot water bottle under each arm, stuffed up her gilet, while P, a new guy on board, had feet that were completely frozen.  

Once elevenses were over, I started on lunch, gently reheating a Chinese mushroom soup I'd made the day before, plus a quiche that P had brought with him, and focaccias and ciabattinis. M kept popping in and out, as she had to 'look summery', but she was streaming with cold, and C too began to feel achey and shivery as the day wore on.

Lunch was meant to be at 1.00 but they carried on filming till 1.45, then we all sat down and everyone ate like they'd never seen food before. It must have been tough going outside again after that, even though the day had warmed up to a balmy 9 degrees or so. I was glad I could stay in by the fire. 

Another hour's filming and they began to lose the light, and they finished up about 4.30. I made coffees for everyone then, and we reviewed the rushes, and everyone toddled off home again, ready to be up at 6.00 this morning for another day.

Sadly, it is not to be, so it's back to adopt Plan B, fridge up the massive vegetarian curry that was defrosting in the kitchen, and we'll just have to hope we can start again tomorrow.   


A question of balance

A bit of balance would be very welcome in our lives right now.

Well 2015 does seem to be getting off to a bad start. We could really do with things getting back to normal pretty soon. 

Not only did I start the year with a job loss, so have almost no money coming in, this was shortly followed by the terrible massacres in Paris (and even round here the gendarmes are now armed with sub-machine guns, which is hardly a comforting sight), then the death of a close friend, and then by some upset in a couple of groups of which I'm a member. Someone also reversed into our car while we were parked.

Hopefully these things will all blow over, but it feels almost like there was a shiver in the ether or something. I am keen for things to get back to normal.

The death of our friend and colleague Steve Gold, in particular, has thrown us into not only grief but a mid-life crisis. The other day, the DH and I sat down and decided to make strong efforts to achieve more happiness in our lives. In his case, that means film-making and electronics; in mine it means more sewing and beading. And for both of us it means getting out more and feeling as if we really live in France, rather than just in our house. Beautiful though it is, it could be anywhere - Scotland or Wales - and if one doesn't make the trips to the bakery and the café and the patisserie, some very pleasant aspects of French life go by the board. 

In the interests of achieving some peace and quiet psychologically, I am also progressing in my Zen Den. The daybed has arrived, which replaces the old double bed, and it has been furnished with a nice mattress and lots of cushions. I've installed some lovely Diptyque candles, a little Zen garden, my singing bowl and runes, lots of light in the shape of SAD lightboxes, daylight-balanced fluorescents and softer lighting for evening. There's room for my yoga mat to go down without having to move anything, and the animals, much as I love them, can be shut out. (As anyone who's tried to do yoga with cats or dogs around will know, they do tend you 'help you out' in distinctly unhelpful ways...). My plan now is to sell our old Renault to pay for a huge cupboard to be built in.

The other night I had one of my white menopausal nights and came down at about 4.00am. Instead of sitting in our vast living room, I went and snuggled up in the Zen Den under a quilt and read a 1920s book of household tips until I felt sleepy again. It was lovely to have this quiet, white retreat with no fear of disturbance and I think it will be a haven in the coming months. 


Charlie Hebdo sold out

The first million copies have all gone

It's 9.30am and we're just back from a trip into town to buy Charlie Hebdo. No joy - it's sold out. 

In our local presse, we managed to reserve a copy for Friday - the Thursday reserves are all booked. One copy each - you can't buy multiple copies, it's strictly one per person. In the supermarket, meanwhile, it was all sold out within minutes of the store opening.

The solidarity shown by the French people since this godawful incident is amazingly heartening. The extremists have stuck a fork in the toaster this time, when they kill journalists, police officers and Jews and threaten the civil liberties of an entire nation.

I know that the image on the cover offends some Muslims who have decided it's Mohammed (although whether it is, is moot, and there is besides a long tradition of depicting the Prophet in Shia Islam - the idea that depictions are and always have been forbidden is simply not true). But I live in a village with a church, whose presence offends me because I am an atheist. I have a friend who is a big fan of Thatcher. We can't all go around killing one another because we disagree about subjects - offence is something that is taken, not given.




Tags: None

Steve Gold RIP

A good friend died last night.

Je suis Charlie

Christ, what a terrible day.

Project 333

Could you stick to 33 items of clothing for the next three months?

A room of one's own

I'm creating a Zen space for myself.

The big declutter

Decluttering is an exhausting but fulfilling process.

A calmer environment

We recently stayed in the most beautiful holiday place we've ever booked and it's inspired me to change my home.

Dog happy

You can't be precious with dogs in the house.


Rohan has been around a long time, but it's a new label for me.

No to this

I sometimes think there's nothing at all to wear...

The end of the maize

The last harvest of the year is upon us