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The end of the maize

The last harvest of the year is upon us

Maize

They are taking the maize. 

It's always with a touch of melancholy that I write that phrase each year - though this year it's later than usual, due to the wonderful long Indian summer we've all been enjoying. The end of the maize is the signal to hunker down for winter, to make sure the woodpile is well stocked, the oil tank is filled and the velvet throws are back on the sofa. 

The maize in this part of Normandy is for animal consumption only - we simply don't get the sun and heat that would ripen it enough for humans to eat. All day long and all night the combines have been running for the past few days, as hunters gather around with shotguns in case of the wild boar or deer that hide within the maize fields. The farmers don't own the behemoth machines, which cost hundreds of thousands of euros each: no one farmer can afford one, so the plant is hired out, hence the 24-hour work schedule. 

The maize is beautiful when it's standing, forming great tunnels 8ft high, turning country drives into something of an adventure (when lost, head uphill - at some point there'll be a church and then you can find your way again). But the harvest brings consolations with it as the landscape opens out again and fills with light, restoring a view that was lost for months. 

In normal progression, then will come the rain, which turns the stiffly stubbled fields into something resembling the paddies of South East Asia - on a bright day, the reflection from the water is like walking on a landscape of mirrors.

This autumn, though, it is particularly beautiful, with china blue skies above, the golden maize, and all the trees still in leaf, turning shades of gold, russet, ochre and saffron. Walking the dogs means crunching over acres of chestnuts - one of the biggest crops I've ever seen in our 18 years here. If only they weren't so fiddly to cook... I always feel it's such a waste that these trees, planted originally by the Romans that came this way as food for their troops, are so little harvested - and when we eat chestnuts, it's usually the Italian bottled variety. 

The apple crop is bumper too this year, at least for the late bloomers, and the whole district smells of apples and pineapple weed and camomile.  

The maize is the last harvest of the year, barley being the first. Our land is entirely surrounded by the fields of one farmer and this year he planted barley for his chickens - my favourite crop because of the achingly sweet smell when it's ripe, turning every day into a honey-dipped festival. Every other year he plants wheat, which takes the longest of all crops to grow - the farmers plant it in November or December and by Christmas, it's coming up like a lime-green pelt clothing the furry landscape.

The barley is taken in early summer, the wheat in late, when cutting through a field smells like walking through a loaf of brown bread. Between may come oilseed rape with its insistently bright flowers and sickly honey smell when in bloom, followed by the rotting cabbage stench of its leaves, usually ploughed in for green manure when they shoot again after the seeds are taken. Occasionally the farmers plant oats - a tough grass that will grow almost anywhere and which I dread a little because the next year it will come up all over our courtyard. 

So, just a few more weeks to enjoy nature's bounty and then it will all be gone, the morning walk with the dogs will be in wellies over ploughed brown earth, the silhouettes of trees will be like black skeletons and the colour will drain from the landscape, leaving the eye to frantically seek out colour when it reappears again in spring. 

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A white world

Minus five overnight and a hard frost this morning.

frosty orchard

I can forgive Normandy everything on a morning like this. I've just got back from walking the dog in this first hard frost of the winter, and it was so gobsmackingly beautiful it took my breath away. 

The whole countryside looks like it's been dipped in sugar: every catkin, every withered leaf, every blade of grass (the photo at left was taken just after dawn). The fields were peppered with crows, waiting for the sun to thaw the maize left over from the harvest. My neighbour's willows were reflected in his lake, preternaturally blue and lined with ochre bullrushes. A solitary heron was hunting by the stream, and the dog and I seemed to be the only other creatures on the surface of the earth as the sun came blazing out and turned the whole world into a mirror.

I didn't see another person or sign of life, nor heard a sound until I reached my gate again after an hour of walking, when a solitary tractor appeared on the brow of the hill. Not even a single cow was in any of the fields - this temperature drop was forecast, and the farmers have taken the cattle in. 

Squall parka

The dog is always happiest on a frosty walk, but now that he is 12, I put a coat on him when it's below freezing. He looks very sweet in his scarlet Land's End fleece, which (other than the colour) matches my Squall Parka. No more perfect coat for dog-walking was ever invented, btw, with its fleece-lined handwarmer pockets and hood, drawstring waist, and screaming daffodil yellow colour that I hope will prevent me being mashed by a tractor. Luckily, no-one could tell this morning that I still had my polkadot pjs on under my layers of fleece.

Yesterday we had the 1000-litre fuel oil delivery, just in time for this freeze, so we actually woke up to a warm house, ye gods. Until now, the mornings have been a rush to get into my down dressing gown (Lands' End again - I should take out shares) and Uggs and get down to the living room to bang on the paraffin heater.

If we're frugal with the heating, running it for just two hours a day, the oil lasts a year, at a cost of just short of 1,000 euros (and right now, this office is 17.5 degrees, which seems to me stiflingly hot - about 16 would suit me better, as we're just not used to being this warm).  The wood will be, what - another 1,000 euros this year? For six cords. Plus maybe three lots of paraffin, and say the same of butane, and about 200 euros a month for electricity. No wonder we're broke when it costs over four grand just to heat the house to a moderate temperature, LOL, though of course that lot also includes cooking gas, hot water and lighting. 

Oh well, enough whingeing. Lunch is in the slow cooker (rabbit and lentil casserole), the birds have had their second feed of the day and I've put vegetable scraps out for the deer, so I'm now off for a bath before we get the wood in.

Wrap up warm, people.  

Houses in the country are far dirtier than the town

If you think the countryside's cleaner than the town, you're in for a nasty shock

A few years back I used to enjoy a very guilty pleasure from watching a TV programme called Escape to the Country.

It was just another one of those estate agency programmes that litter the UK networks (Big Strong Boys, Place in the Sun, Big Strong Boys In The Sun, you know the kind of thing...). Each day, an aspiring couple, tired of the city, would decide to move to the country and task an estate agent with finding the right thing. Three or four properties would be chosen, and the people would view two of them. Brits being Brits, of course - a bunch of whingeing Poms - they'd never like any of them. 

One thing that always struck me, though, was the repeatedly expressed opinion (by the women) that moving to the countryside would entail less housework because 'it's so much cleaner'.

Hah bloody hah I'd think. Cleaner my backside. You'll learn, missy.

The countryside is filthy compared with the city. Spiders, spider webs, flies, fly shit, chestnut pollen, poplar fluff, willow seeds, stone dust, barley chaff, arsenic bugs, dead leaves, dust, mud. I wonder which bit of the countryside these women are planning to move to that's magically cleaner than town. They're in for a nasty shock. 

I know because it was a shock to me. I was thinking about it again this weekend, as I scoured and scrubbed the kitchen and living room (penance for my taking all Saturday off to drive around the region, having a girly good time while the DH was working).

It starts in spring, when the house fills up with pollen and seeds - hazelnut, followed by poplar, followed by willow, which carpets the courtyard (and our ground floor) in white bunnies (called "kittens" in French). Then comes the chestnut pollen, which smells exactly like semen, in case you didn't know - hence the local name 'spunk trees'.

Meanwhile, in the gravel courtyard, up comes whatever my farmer neighbour Patrick planted last year, seeded into every crack. Every other year it's wheat, but we've had maize, barley, rye and oats as well. Oats are particularly persistent, being a very natural sort of cereal and if I don't get them all out, by late summer I've lost the path to the woodshed.

In an old stone house like this, the stone constantly sheds. Nobody told me that, did they? This house is 'granite doux', and doux (soft) it certainly is. It has to be constantly vacuumed to keep the dust at bay, and the rough, uneven surface provides a lovely home for spiders.

Spiders, of course, are just a way of life. We have to pretend different to visitors, but there are big crawly ones hiding in every crack, and overnight some of them will spin webs across a doorway or over a mirror. I get rid of them with a big brush that looks like a giant loo brush - the best thing ever invented, but you can never stay on top of them. "A happy home has spider's webs," say the French, so I'm happy to go with that. They're at their worst in summer.

I don't kill them though - being a bit of a Buddhist - so I catch them in a big plastic jar with a lid and put them outside (my job, since the DH is scared witless of them). After all, spiders kill flies, which are much more of a problem. They start as soon as the weather warms up, coming out to feed on the ivy, and by mid-summer most of us here have fly papers (cat-friendly, of course) in every room, buzzing frantically with dying insects. I also have a bead curtain at the doorway. It is pretty useless, but I can't bear fly screens. We only put these up once the mozzies start in late summer, and only then out of dire necessity.

With the flies, comes fly shit - something I'd never encountered before moving to France. Little brown or black dots of velcro-like persistence that coat all your windows, along with every cup, plate or pan you leave out on show. I quickly learned, in our open-plan kitchen, to wash utensils before every use. And after the flies come the wasps, attracted by our calva pear orchard and as insistent as they are dumb. The only things worse are the hornets, the sight of which has me running for cover. With these beasts, I am not going to argue. 

Then there's the pets. Who doesn't love the little darlings? But with six cats and a big-pawed mud magnet of a spaniel, no surface stays print-free for long, as the cats leap up with fur wet from the grass onto the sideboard and coffee table, and every two weeks there's a faint brown line right round the sofa where the dog's rubbed himself dry. Thank heavens for removable covers on all the furniture, and pale grey paint on the woodwork (believe me, it hides a multitude of sins). From spring right through to winter the critters tread either dust or mud into the house in kilos, and you can't teach them to wipe their feet.  

There's also the question of hair, and if anyone's allergic to cats, they'd better never come in this house. Yesterday, after a period of neglect while I painted the bedroom, etc, I swept up a small dead animal's worth of fur from the living room floor. I like sweeping, which is quite contemplative, but I also can't afford to keep filling hoover bags, so it's a necessity as well as a choice. A damp rag is the best thing for getting fur off close covers, if anyone's interested.

Autumn, of course, means the house is full of leaves. Surrounded by orchard and woodland as we are, hundreds of kilos of leaves are shed around the house every year and a fair proportion has to make its way indoors, along with the odd rotting apple brought in by mutley as a toy.

Then, come winter, there's just as much muck in the house, only it's a different colour. As anyone with a woodburner will tell you, your house is covered with a fine layer of ash the whole time you use it, along with soot that drops out of the chimney and coats everything around the stove. Ours is peculiarly crystalline and gritty, which is just as well, as we usually get a bird or two down there each season, and you can brush it off a kestrel or an owl relatively well. But it renders housework like the Forth Bridge. I can write my name in the dust an hour after cleaning and whenever it rains, great rivulets of soot and rust pour down the back of the register plate over my freshly painted stonework, which gets whitewashed every summer.  

So now you know, country lovers. There's a reason we country dwellers all have hard floors and no curtains. And in this house at least, we have two rules: never start cleaning, and whatever you do, never look up.

 

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