vendredi 29 février 2008

Birch Syrup

After collecting about 50 litres of birch sap I've spent the last 3 days reducing it (by evaporation). I'm down to the last 2.5 litres but from the original 50 litres I'll get 500ml of syrup - 1:100 concentration. It's a delicious deep red colour already.

About half the upper terrace of field no 1 has been cleared over the last two days - though there are still some acacias to fell and log. Hopefully the worst half is now cleared.

mercredi 27 février 2008

Being a smallholder

In France starting a business or simply being self employed is notoriously difficult. Boy how the french love bureaucracy. The simplist form of agriculteur who can buy and sell animals and produce is a 'cotisan solidaire' (or cotisan de solidarite). You pay a fixed tax contribution each year, can usually get all your VAT on purchases refunded but get no pension or healthcare entitlement unless you pay extra. must have no less than 2 hectares of agricultural land (woods, scrub, etc don't count) and no more than 9 hectares. Sounds perfect if I want to legally sell pigs or lambs, saucisson, jambon, some vegetables, etc at St Girons market. But I've been adding up my agricultural land and even with the extension to field 1, I only have 1 hectare. I have another parcelle about a kilometer away which I reckon I could clear to bring the total to 1.3 hectares but all the other land is definitely forest - so I'm still 0.7 hectares short...damn and blast. A visit to the Hotel des Impots is in order to see the cadastral maps and look for some extra land, if anyone will sell it!

Fields update and slight re-numbering!

Field 1: The little terrace wall in field one is rebuilt and the land relevelled after the pigs turned it into the Somme. The lower terrace extension is cleared and fenced.

The upper terrace extension is still to clear.

Field 2: Finished the last stretch of Hazel fencing today.

In the afternoon cut the field - amazed at how well the grass has taken and how few brambles there are - of course the bracken onslaught hasn't started yet.

Field 3: The field around the barn - good meadow.

It has a copse of birch trees which I'm tapping for sap at the moment.

Field 4: Down in the woods, the one I swept of leaves. Grass doing well.

Field 5: Not really a field more a steep stoney track in the woods - clear but not much use.

lundi 25 février 2008

A day in the woods

This morning some general clearance to fields 4 and 5 which were cut yesterday - basically felling some of the trees and big beech boughs which overhang the field. Then I discovered an old route into the field through the beech forest (suitable for a vehicle) which will be useful if I put sheep in it this year as I will need to transport water, etc. After a couple of hours clearing some big trees which had fallen across it, it is now serviceable.

Next some leaf raking - crazy as it sounds I raked most of the leaves off the field. As it's surrounded by beech forest it was a LOT of leaves. But to give the grass the best possible chance of colonising (and it's doing pretty well) I need to give it some warm exposed soil (not foot deep leaf litter).

After lunch I tapped three big birch trees for sap - planning on making some birch syrup. Can't find the book with the instructions but have found some articles on the web. I need 100 litres of sap to make 1 litre of syrup! Trees are gushing sap at the moment but I might need to tap a few more and get some extra buckets.

Finally, I prepared about 40 fence posts, from hazel spars reserved from the hedge laying, to finish the last section of hurdles around field no 2. These were sawn to length then sharpened with the axe. Tomorrow I'll hammer them into place before starting the 'weaving'.

samedi 23 février 2008

Port d'Urets and Pic Mauberme

Pic Mauberme highest peak in the Couserans

Cabane d'Urets with a foreshortened view of the Port (left) and Mauberme (right)

After failing to drum up anyone to come to Pico Aneto (the Pyrenees highest peak at 3404m) for a ski tour, I decided I would try to the climb the highest peak in the Couserans instead - Pic Mauberme 2880m. Whilst Aneto is 1500m above the nearest road, Mauberme is 1960m so it's a Pyrenees giant alright.

I left late Friday and in about 2hrs 30 had reached the Cabane d'Urets at 1947m. A one room unmanned refuge (though currently being exanded to two rooms - whoopee!). Alas there were no mattresses and though I had taken my sleeping bag I hadn't taken a thermarest, so a very crap nights sleep followed (in fact 'sleep' doesn't belong in that sentence as there wasn't any - possibly the worst night's rest since the infamous bivvy below a dripping rock below Pic Morterasch in the Italian Alps with Andy Matthews).

I set off at 8.30 next morning for the Port d'Urets, from where I hoped to cross into Spain traverse behind the summit cone of the mountain and finish up a short couloir to the summit. Although I had taken ice axe, crampons and snow shoes, the latter were of no use today. It was about 1500 ft to the Port and the snow quickly got thicker to the point where it was impossible to discern the summer path. The snow was hugely changeable - one step it was like concrete, the next unconsolidated powder, then with a crust, then windslab and lots of sastrugi - which made the going very difficult. To reach the Port I had to climb short steep steps and traverse increasingly steep slopes (40-45 degrees at the end) on unstable snow above large cliffs. All in all very mentally trying when soloing. The final slope just 20m below the Port and leading to seemingly easy ground was the most exposed of all and composed of windslab seemingly unbonded to the ground below. It creaked and dropped as I trod over it (the latest avalanche notices warn of weak windslab over unconsolidated snow on NE steep facing slopes close to the frontier crests)...enough was enough, I bid a delicate retreat. Frustrating to be so close and yet so far - but better to be alive!

The final rise to the Port, the route traverses the upper part of the highest snow slope before gaining the easier ground of the banked out path leading to the Port

The last section of steep snow leading to the Port. At the bottom of the picture my first aborted attempt to mount the slab, at the top my second successful attempt, but after about 50m I decided enough was enough.

Looking back to the Cabane on the descent

mercredi 20 février 2008

Missing eggs

The chickens have continued to lay eggs throughout the winter, albeit at slightly reduced numbers. During the last week however, numbers have been markedly low. I realised that when I moved their house last week (something I do from time to time) I had left it on a bit of a slope. Now chickens are descended from jungle wildfowl and they still have a strong instinct to nest a little above surrounding ground level - in case of flood. So my nest box is slightly raised above the general floor level of the house. But the lowest corner of the house was now the nest box - a ha! I let the chickens out to rectify the matter and noticed that one of the hens which had been making a "I want to lay an egg" noise, bolted for the barn. I followed and discovered a lovely little nest up in the hay full of 12 eggs!

After levelling the chicken house and refreshing the nest box with fresh hay, the hens seem much happier. In fact they spent all day in and around the hen house making their new nest.

mardi 19 février 2008

Wiener Schnitzel

I often think that my home produced pork tastes more like veal than pork. It's super succulent and when cooked stays pink (unlike the white cardboard that passes for pork in UK supermarkets). So why not make wiener schnitzel? I took a pork chop, deboned it, beat it out into an escalope with a rolling pin, then a bit of beaten egg and bread crumbs and hey presto! Delicious.

After a short shopping trip in St G this morning, I started fencing the lower terrace of the new field - need to start researching sheep - books on order!

lundi 18 février 2008

Weather change

Finished clearing the lower terrace of the new field today. Four big fires later and all is clear. The weather here is changing and all day a wall of cloud has been spilling over the frontier from Spain, perhaps tomorrow it will rain for the first time in over a month. This has put pay to a planned re-ascent of the Cheminee de Cornave (a 800m couloir which I soloed about 6 years ago) at least for the time being.

samedi 16 février 2008

Pic de Lampau

View from just above Col de la Core at dawn.

Up early for a longish day in the mountains. I started from the Col de la Core at sun up (8.00ish), and headed for Col de la Crouzette via the Cabane d'Eychelle. Things got off to a poor start as within 10mins of starting I realised I had an upset stomach and no toilet paper! With increasing cramps I held on until I reached the Cabane and there found salvation in the form of 'Le 09' - the local free admag that someone had left at the hut for starting fires. Somewhat relieved I pressed on to the Col. Then a descent to a second Cabane (des Espugues), before striking up the face of Pic de Lampau. The snow was hard (enough to take a crampon but leave no footprint) and although the slope was only about 35 degrees, perhaps 40 in places, the 450m slope was enough for a bit of adventure (especially when you are soloing). I followed the Pale Long which was corniced, to the summit.

Final section of ridge to the summit - it was steeper than the picture suggests.

Looking over the wafer thin cornice towards the East.

I had hoped to continue along the crest to Pic Pomebrunet but for the third time was unable to because of lack of time.

Pic Pomebrunet and Caries wait for another day...again.

After a careful descent, I returned by the same route, this time wearing snowshoes, as the sun beat down softening the snow. All in all 8 great hours in the mountains in fantastic weather, but with 1600m of ascent the knees are a bit sore.

Snow eroded into amazing fishscales by the sun.

jeudi 14 février 2008

Field clearance again

Another day of tree felling and scything in the unusual heat of February. About three-quarters of the lower terrace are now cleared - I decided to leave a single acacia standing in the middle. Tomorrow a day off, probably a day in the mountains.

mardi 12 février 2008

Field clearance again

Spent most of the day clearing a potential extension to field 1. I would like to purchase two parcels to the east of field 1 to make it into something useful. These are owned by my neighbour Patrick at Pinsou and Alain at Quelebu. Whilst negotiations continue over whether they will sell or lease or just let me use it in return for clearance works - I've made a start. Scythe, chainsaw and brushcutter were all brought into action to tackle the 25 years of brambles, acacias and other assorted undergrowth.
In the afternoon I met a guy from Oust, who I met last autumn - a painter and one time architect. He stayed for a drink, then the mayor passed by in his car with his neighbour and insisted we all go to Rogalls (the bar in Castet d'Aleu). It was interesting to hear the old guys talking - the mayor, his neighbour, the guy from Oust and Monsieur Rogall - about when they were young. Evidently the grandfather of the guy from Oust employed Monsieur Rogall as a young man, when he was charged with bringing 46 litres of milk from Aleu to the three fromageries in Oust (in fact back then there was also a fourth fromagerie which made only Camenbert). Today alas the fromageries are no more and there is no milk production in Aleu.

lundi 11 février 2008

Tuc de Fourmiguet

Ascent to Tuc Fourmiguet
A small herd of Izards (Pyrenean Chamois)

Mont Valier from the ridge

A short walk today from the Col de Pause. Upto the Cabane d'Areau, a rising traverse to Pic de Lacrabere across snowy slopes then following the ridge over Tuc de Fourmiguet (2093m) to Pointe de la Banque before descending the same route I snowshoed on jan 1st. Beautiful weather, great views to Mont Valier and halfway along the ridge I encountered half a dozen Izards at close quarters. Just about enough snow to ski to the Port d'Aula - perhaps the next trip?

Looking back along the ridge to Tuc Fourmiguet

Looking towards Pic des Accenteurs and the Port d'Aula

samedi 9 février 2008

Much the same as yesterday

I had intended to go for a shortish walk in the mountains today, but this morning the general tiredness in my legs from skiing had gone but there was a familiar pain in my right thigh. About three years ago I tore my sartorius muscle and spent about 3 months limping around whilst undergoing physiotherapy. I've obviously tweaked it a little so I decided to give it a few days rest. Weather was much the same as yesterday and I scythed, burnt bonfires and worked on the terraces in field 1 - much the same as yesterday.

vendredi 8 février 2008

Poulet au boudin

Sounds like an odd mixture - chicken and black pudding - but I thought I'd give it a go as I have quite a bit of black pudding still left. In actual fact it is delicious. As there is only me, I took a chicken breast, stuffed it with black pudding and gently fried it in butter with onions, five minutes before it was ready I added some more black pudding and creme-fraiche to the pan to make a sauce. Served with potatoes and carrots and some red wine (of course) a great main course!

Summer has arrived

The heat of the past few days has brought out the first wild flowers of the year - sweet violet, early dog violet, barren strawberry, hepatica (with 10 sepals?) and lilac ivy leaved speedwell beating the snowdrops which are usually the first to flower.

With the temperature in the sun in the low thirties - I've been working in only my shorts most of the day. I finished building the little stone terrace-wall in field 1, scythed field 2, burnt the branches from the apple tree pruning and the recent storm, and weeded the patio.

jeudi 7 février 2008

Hors Piste Thursday

With only hot weather on the horizon I thought it would be good to consolidate the weekends skiing and at the same time introduce Ian and Jason to each other and Baqueira (my favourite Pyrenean ski resort). So at 7.00 this morning I picked them up and headed for Spain.
Weather today was clear and sunny, Baqueira has about 80% of it's 104kms of pistes open and as both Ian and Jason are good off-piste skiers, I was hoping for some more practice. After warming up on reds and blacks we were straight into the off-piste. Searching out the steepest slopes (mostly 45 degrees) and ploughing through deep snow. I was out of my depth but it's the best way to learn/advance. Sometimes I'd ski well, other times I'd misread the snow or get 'scared' and fall a lot, but either way it was exhilarating and I've advanced. Amazing to ski stuff I wouldn't have dreamed of attempting yet. By the end of the day we were all sun burnt and exhausted.

mardi 5 février 2008


After yesterdays blizzards in Andorra, today here was balmy and spring like with the temp in the sun a lovely 29 degrees. Spent the day tidying up wind blown trees (Sundays gales on the piste were even more ferocious here) and starting the terracing of field number 1 (in tee-shirt and shorts). Also managed to get out on the road bike for the first time - only to the village and back but enough to make sure everything worked properly. Tomorrow some logging then probably another day skiing on Thursday as there is no more snow on the horizon. The high pressure system which has been stuck over Spain for the past few months could be there for quite some time - there's talk of it staying for the whole of the summer bringing drought to Spain and Southern France!

lundi 4 février 2008


Got up before dawn on Saturday to drive to Andorra for a weekend of skiing with Justin, Emily, Pat, Kev and some other friends. It was already snowing when I left Quelebu - yippee! The driving conditions were pretty difficult when I reached Pas de la Casa (the Andorran frontier and a high pass) with a blizzard blowing but by the time I reached Arinsal and Pal, a little before 10.00, things were settling down to a bright, sunny, cold day. I skied all morning before meeting up with everyone else at lunchtime and finishing off the last few pistes I hadn't skied at the resort in the afternoon.

On Sunday we headed to Arcalis which is a beautiful resort with a real mountain ambiance, very little development in the way of shops, hotels, cafes, etc and some very nice skiing. The weather was cold and it deteriorated through the day until at about 4.00 a storm hit. We skied as long as we could, but with gusts of wind strong enough to blow you over when you were skiing (which it did twice), we decided enough was enough. We bid a retreat back to the chalet and following a game of scrabble (man we know how to party) J and E cooked an amazing spaghetti carbonara followed by dry run of a quiz that J is planning for his employees next week, which provided an hilarious and slightly drunken evening of entertainment.

More snow fell Sunday night, so this morning I couldn't resist one more ski run at Arcalis. I skinned up to the top of the resort (about 600m of ascent in 1hr 5mins) before descending in about 15 minutes back to the car. The run was unpisted and with wind blown spindift and fresh snow there was about 16" of powder at the steep top of the run and probably 6-9" lower down. Despite my tired legs from the ascent, I was really pleased to be able to ski the snow reasonably well and concentrate on technique (last season it would have defeated me).