Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Is it Autumn Already?

The weather this year has been odd, I think the most succinct description I’ve come across to describe it is; Summer during Spring, Autumn during Summer and Summer during Autumn.  And while the calendar might say October, the thermometer has been in the 30’s. 

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I am loving the extra warmth this year but the lack of rain is more than worrying.  Sometimes it’s the obvious things that remind you, the great cracks in the ground as in the pictures above and bellow or the depth to which the well has dropped, other times it’s the less obvious that suddenly hit you, in my case it’s the access to part of my septic tank.  The lid used to be level with the ground, now it protrudes 5cm/2in due to the shrinkage of the soil around it – I suppose the good sign from this is that the tank isn’t leaking SmileDSCF0295 tiny

Anyway, back to autumn, it’s migration time when I start scanning the skies for the cranes and storks migrating south for the winter.  So far I’ve not spotted any but I have been lucky enough to see a large group of golden orioles flit through the trees in the garden last month and yesterday it was 6 red kites flying south and then circling on a thermal just to the south of me.  They looked so majestic gliding effortlessly across a clear blue sky.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Moving the Alpacas


DSCF0290 tinyI wasn’t planning on moving the alpacas until I’d built the new field shelters but they have totally run out of grass in the old fields and while we’ve have had some rain over the last couple of days it’s been nowhere near enough to get the grass growing. 

The interim solution is to let the boys use the trailer as a shelter in their new field and to let the girls have access to the shelter in their old field from the new one.  Al and I moved them in this afternoon and they have been beside themselves eating the new grass.

Moving them entailed a fight with one of the castrated males, Dartagnan.  He can be a total pain and at one time thought he was in charge of me.  He was put in his place by Colin the shearer and I’ve been doing my best not to let him gain the upper hand again.

Dartagnan decided that first he’d stop the others boys from moving down to their new field.  Once we’d moved them round so the other 3 started on their way to the new field, Dartagnan decided he wasn’t going to follow and went to the far side of the old field and patrolled the fence where the girls were.  He wasn’t going to move and there was no way I could shoo him to the gate’ so I got the leading rein. 

He let me put it on him with only a little fuss but there was no way he was going to walk.  He’s my biggest alpaca and to be truthful I’m a little scared of him.  He’s also the most likely to spit, his nickname is ‘spitty boy’, well at least the only one I can write here is.  We then performed something like a dance along the edge of the field, and by positioning myself in just the right place,  when he moved it resulted in a step towards the gate.  It was taking time but we were moving in the right direction and then… he let me lead him!  He wasn’t particularly happy about it but he let me walk him round to where the other boys were at which point I took the rein off and all was fine.  And even better I only was subjected to a tiny bit of spit – more a case of some he had in his mouth rather than aimed at me.  A very definite success, well for today at least.

I’m still working on the field shelters; the uprights have all been cut to length – some the wrong length but that's life! Smile 

DSCF0292 tinyIn this picture I’m in the process of planing the bottom of the uprights to fit the metaposts – one third of them are done and I’m hoping to finish the rest tomorrow and paint them with the wood treatment.

After that there’s just the matter of another couple of cross members and another 30 or so, 4 meter long, roofing planks to paint and we’ll be ready to start the construction.

It’s Quince Jelly Time Again


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While my quinces didn’t do well this year other people’s did so thank you's are due to Ann and Tricia for the above which have all been converted to that culinary delight that is quince jelly.

Monday, 19 September 2011

True Friends


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I am blessed with some really wonderful friends and words just seem so inadequate to express my gratitude to them last week.

In the background of the picture of the beautiful morning glories above you can just make out the two alpaca fields that are fenced.  There were two more where the posts were in but were still waiting to be fenced.  It’s been a while since the posts were put in and for various reasons the fields were never finished but I’d decided that they were going to be done this year. 

However when I went round the field to clear the growth from the fence line it quickly became obvious that the 60+ post along the boundary with my neighbour were going to have to be redone as they were falling into the ditch between us.  I think this is the result of clearing the ditch and the severe drought we had at the beginning of the year.  There was a deep crack in the soil running along the line of the posts, a bit like join the dots; some of the post were already falling into the ditch and the bank was crumbling in other places.

All my enthusiasm crumbled too, the though of resetting them all  50cm further into the field, digging into a clay soil that had set like concrete, was truly daunting.  I tried to buoy myself up by thinking how much harder it would be if the fencing had already been attached but even my positive attitude has a limit. 

Then I was told of a petrol post hole digger for hire so decided to ask if anyone would be able to give me and my son Al a hand with the posts. Ann H, Alex B, Chris A, Chris O, Eric S, Graham D, Jos O, Sandra A, Terry D, and Tricia S all said they would come for the day.

An early start for me (I’m not a morning person at all) meant I picked up the post holer and the bread first thing and everyone turned up for 10 am.  The post hole machine started without much of a problem but it couldn't dig more than a couple of inches into the ground.  The clay was hard and the auger was almost compressing it and forming a polished surface.  The digging team had a think and came up with a plan.  Between us we had not only the powered digger but also 2 chisel type posthole diggers and a hand auger.  Small holes were cut by Al using the hand auger, these were then filled with water and left to soak for a while after which the petrol auger could do its job.

While this was going on, other teams had been putting up the fencing on the posts that were OK on the other 2 sides of the field. By lunchtime nearly all of the posts had been re-set and we adjourned to the barn for lunch.

Suitably invigorated the teams set to and worked through to about 6pm putting up more fencing while I shuttled to and from the local farming supplies shop buying what ever we had run out of.

I was truly grateful for all the work they had put in and then they amazed me further.  All those that were available volunteered to return the next day to finish the rest of the fencing.

It’s at times like these when I realise just how lucky I am to have so many special people in my life.

All that remains now is to fit the gates and one extra strand of wire and/or some tape to discourage the alpacas from thinking of jumping over and to make the fence line visible which is a really easy job and to construct the field shelters, which is a bit longer.

DSCF0289 tinyAl and I spent most of last week buying the wood for the shelters.  Wood is heavy and even with my bigger trailer it’s taken a couple of trips to collect all that I need to make the two kits.

Collecting the bits is further complicated by trying to source everything which can be a bit of a nightmare.  When getting the extra bits for the fencing I bought out the local farming supplies place of the items I wanted.  They only held 2 rolls of sheep fencing, 2 rolls of the gauge of fencing wire I needed, 2 of the collars I use to secure the gates…  A big project need planning and a sustained effort to get everything.  Then add to that, finding it at a sensible price and your work is cut out.

I had been buying the metaposts over the year,  -whenever I got a 10% reduction voucher, - and had 14.  I need 18 so at the brico store where I was buying the first batch of wood I went to pick up 4 more posts.  The shop assistant I had just been talking to basically told me to put them back and then pointed to the price.  They were just under 25€ each.  He told me to go to the garden department next door where I paid 3€50 each for them!

All the wood needs to be painted with wood preserver – the picture shows some of the cross beams and some of the roofing planks.  I still need to cut the uprights to size and paint them and then we can head to the fields and attempt to get the metaposts in.  As if to help it’s finally rained which has stopped the painting but will hopefully soften the ground a bit.

Did I Mention I Have Tomatoes?


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There are only so many fresh tomatoes you can eat in a day and I managed to pick my roma tomatoes before the chickens got to them – the chickens adore ripe tomatoes.

DSCF0286 tinyThis lot made the first of my bottled plum tomatoes.  The tomatoes are first skinned by plunging in boiling water and then moved to cold water after which the skins slip off easily.

I packed the skinned tomatoes in bottling jars and covered with brine solution and processed using the cold fill method.

It’s sad that there are so many horror stories put out about home preserving of food; while some may be legitimate, some I feel are to force us by fear to buy commercially prepared foods.  After all they are supposedly regulated and therefore pose no threat to consumer health – BSE in beefburgers and e-coli in bean sprouts are probably just a figment of my imagination!!!  Ok off soap box now. 

In truth there are foods and ways that are perfectly safe and have been used for years and years, what’s missing today is the understanding of the process. In the past while the science wouldn't have been known, the safe way would have been passed down from generation to generation, today we can also look up the science.  I chose tomatoes as my first things to bottle because they are slightly acidic and that inhibits a lot of the nasty's and I use the cold fill method, bringing the tomatoes up to temperature very slowly to ensure everything heats through completely.  I check the water bath temperature and that the jars are fully sealed.  I also seal check, visually check, smell check and taste check before I use anything and so far so good – the only problems I've had was listeria-like symptoms from a bought supermarket salami a couple of years ago. Of course I’m now going to worry about tempting fate Open-mouthed smile.

DSCF0284 tinyAnd there is the other great ‘how to use up’ tomato standby, ratatouille which also helps out with the backlog of courgettes, squashes and aubergines.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

And Yet More Food Preservation!


Tomatoes and apples aplenty.

DSCF0281 tinyThe dried tomatoes of previous years were very successful so the first batch for this year has been prepared.  All the seeds and soft centres were saved and sieved leaving me with a lovely refreshing drink of tomato juice to enjoy as the tomatoes dried.




Then came the apples.  This turned out to be a very long job but hopefully it will all feel worth it when the cider is brewed.

DSCF0282 tinyThe apples have also struggled in the drought.  They are much smaller this year and have ripened more sporadically than in previous years.  An awful lot were brought down by the storm and suffered a lot of bruising but I still managed to pick around 10 UK gallons or so.  I gave them a quick rinse and then cut them into small enough pieces to go through the shredder on my food processor.  What you can’t see in the picture is the pebble-dashing of the kitchen with bits of grated apple flung out while putting yet more chunks of apple into the grater feed tube.  Next year I will be doing this outside.

I then pressed the grated apple and finally transferred it to a large covered container to start a natural ferment.  I will be tasting and sweetening if necessary this weekend when I’ll move it to demijohns to finish fermenting.  The raw juice tasted good so fingers crossed for the cider.

The Storm



September started with a bang or to be more precise one of the violent thunderstorms that are frequent in the summer, but being very localised I rarely get. This one was however localised overhead!

It started with the sky turning yellow and then an ominous dark cloud rolling overhead. There were a few drops of light rain and then the wind began to pick up a bit. In less than a minute it as blowing a gale and the hail was flying through the air almost horizontally. Al was outside in this trying to find the cats that hadn’t made it back inside. Thankfully at the height of the storm, when I could barely see him through the hail even though he was only 25 feet away, he moved into the lee of the house – I was panicking that he had been blown over or hit by the items that were being swept across the front of the house in the wind.

A couple of minutes later and it was all over, Al was OK, all be it soaking wet but we were missing one cat, Hazel. Al eventually located her at the bottom of a deep ditch meowing pitifully, (something she is very good at). We attempted a rescue but the ditch was really overgrown and deep. Finally Al made it into the ditch and I tried to rake away some of the brambles and other weeds that were covering her, only to find that she had decided to make her way along the ditch, through the drainage pipe under the field access and up the easy way into the field, in fact the exact route we’d been trying to make her use but she had ignored while we were calling! She was extremely wet and covered in leaves but I think Al as even wetter.

DSCF0264 tiny_thumbI don’t know how people manage to photograph or film things like storms when they are happening, I was far to worried about all my animals and my son so the photos are of the aftermath taken about half an hour after the storm had passed and I was happy everyone was OK.

DSCF0265 tiny_thumbThe first one is attempting to show the layer of hail lying on the ground, while the second shows the size of some of the hailstones. We were quite lucky, in the Bordeaux region the hailstones were the size of golf balls.


DSCF0266 tiny_thumbLooking down the drive all I could see were a few branches down and the remains of one of my patio chairs that had been thrown through the air.




DSCF0268 tiny_thumbAt the back of the house I found this little heap that had been washed down the gutter,





DSCF0272 tiny_thumbIt’s always difficult to photograph the sky and give a true representation of the amazing lighting you get with storms like that but here’s my attempt.

As both Al and I were soaked to the skin and it was getting dark we gave up on outside for the day and decided to leave any further damage inspection until the following day. That was a good choice as the power went out and stayed out until very late.


DSCF0274 tinyA new day dawned, power was restored and we ventured out.  The wind had blown over everything on the patio sending all the lighter items flying towards the pump house and the alpacas.

DSCF0276 tinyThe plastic table and chairs on the lawn were as they say scattered to the wind.  A couple of chairs had their legs broken off as they blew around and the side of the table was broken but it really did need replacing next year so all in all we got away really lightly.


DSCF0279 tinyDown by the pond another part of the large poplar was toppled, so having just got that area cleared of fallen wood I’m now back to square one.  Work there though will have to wait until I get the big tractor back (it’s out on loan at the moment), as the branches are too heavy to safely use the small tractor.

During the previous evening’s power cut I had ventured out to check on a neighbour.  I’d heard a lot of noise emanating from the farm above me and wondered if they had suffered any damage.  Thankfully they hadn’t and it was just the people collecting the meat chickens, a job that’s always done at night when the chickens are roosting.

DSCF0278 tinyI had a bit of a shock as I drove down the drive though, the telephone line was down and an emergency stop was called for.  As ever it didn’t come down in a place where it could be moved aside, it’s on a corner so it crosses the drive twice.  On the plus side though, the ‘phone and Internet still work and there is just enough room to get past both points.  The question now is just how long will it take to get fixed – I reported it straight away and I can’t claim to be a priority case but 2 weeks have passed and I think it’s time to complain.

So Much to Write About


So much has happened already this month that I will probably forget most of it if I wait until the end of the month before posting so I think it’s time to start posting more than once a month again.

August 2011



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Most of August was taken up by food processing although I did squeeze a trip to the prune museum at Grange sur Lot with my children.  Those that were interested in the museum had already visited previously, (I’ve been round quite a few times as I find it charming), so this trip we limited ourselves to the gift shop.  They do the most wonderful prune sweets although you do have to be careful as to just how many you eat!


The museum is situated on the river Lot and above is a view of the river from the landing stage along the river.


DSCF0254 tinyMy pear trees are not old enough to be producing much fruit yet, so it as nice to be given a box full of ripe pears which I decided to bottle in a wine syrup.  I’m really looking forward to tasting these.



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While a lot of the vegetables plants grown this year either didn’t make it into the garden or shrivelled within an hour or so of being planted a few things did survive.  The pepper plans were a gift from a friend and were planted in the polytunnel where once the watering system was up and running they did really well.

I learnt from last year and only planted a couple or courgette and patty pan plants and have also made an effort to pick every other day if not every day.  Even so I’m getting at least one patty pan and one round courgette each day.

The green beans took over 6 weeks to germinate but once they started they have provided a large handful of beans every day.  These again are the purple variety but as I've blanched them ready for the freezer they’ve turned green.

And last but not least, in the basket is the first of the okra which this year I’ve decided to grow in the polytunnel.  I grew it outside last year and the plants ended up about 30cm high.  In the tunnel they are (at the beginning of September) nearly as tall as me, around 5ft or 155cm.


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A quick resume of some of the preserving, mainly using the nectarines.  Starting from the right, is some nectarine jam.  Then it’s some fruit chutney using up whatever fruit I had to hand, then it’s the pears in wine.  The last row is a nectarine chutney, based on a mango chutney substituting nectarines for mangos and prunes for dates. It has a bit of a bite due to the chilli and is a nice change from the usual fruit chutney.  The large jar on the left is some dried nectarines which I’ll hopefully remember to use in a fruit compote over winter.

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This is one of my recycle/re-use projects.  While I try to grow a lot of my own food, I still buy some and when it is in net bags I save the bags.  The large ones I use to store my harvested onions or to store bulbs.  The smaller ones I build up into a ball forming a scrubbing pad which I use outside to clean the alpaca and chicken water containers.  They last about a year before they breakdown in the sunlight but it does give them a second use before hitting landfill.


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Once the nectarines finished the peaches kicked in.  For some reason they started to fall off the tree before they fully ripened.  At least it was before the hornets started eating them.  They also suffered from the drought but I managed to get a tray full that ripened enough to be eaten fresh.  The rest I peeled and poached with some vanilla sugar and I now have some lovely stewed peaches to brighten up the winter.

I used a couple of portions of the stewed peaches to make some peach ice-cream – very rich and very tasty.  I going to try and remember, and those who know me know just how bad my memory is these days – I say it’s because of the amount I have to remember, my children say it’s just my age – to make peach sorbet.

As an aside, in the background is my vanilla sugar; a cheap and easy way to impart real vanilla into sweet dishes which my mother used.  No infusing or chopping up and removing the seeds etc., I just pack an airtight jar with sugar and a vanilla pod in the centre.  Shake it whenever you open the cupboard and when you make something that calls for both sugar and vanilla it’s there.  The pods can be re-used many times until they no longer smell of vanilla.  I keep 2 pots on the go so one is infusing while I’m using the other.


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And even more from the garden!  Peaches, quince, ‘green’ beans, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cape gooseberries, hazelnuts, almonds, dried haricots, patty pan squash and courgette plus my feet on the chair taking the photo Smile

Saturday, 6 August 2011

July 2011

July has been and gone in what feels like the blink of an eye; the most major thing to happen this month were the visits from my children culminating in me having a week with all 3 at the same time – the first time for around 6 years.  As you can imagine I was a rather happy mother.


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I planted a grape vine by the patio a couple of years back in preparation of me installing a pergola.  The pergola has yet to materialise but the vine has grown and begun its takeover of the surrounding fence.  So time for a bit of pruning.



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In keeping with the waste not want not philosophy, I decided to have a go at some vine leaves.

I trimmed and then blanched them and they are now in the freezer so I really need to get round to creating a meal with them.



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July also held some other excitement.  Meet Cato. His entry to the world was a bit of a performance.  I spotted the signs that Tabitha was about to give birth so thankfully was watching her while my friend Chris had come over to repair the outhouses.  Alpaca births are usually really quick, (see later in the post), so after a couple of minutes it was obvious all was not as usual.  I then saw that the head, and only the head was out which meant that the front legs that should be out first were jammed.  This being my first non-standard birth I abandoned helping Chris and telephoned the vet who was here in a little over 5 minutes.

DSCF0204So Cato was pushed back, feet located and puled out first, swiftly followed by the rest of him – he was already breathing air so it had to be done fast to stop him suffocating.  Tabitha was swiftly over the trauma too and quickly became a very proud mum.  As Cato’s fleece dried in the sun it turned a beautiful fawn colour.




Every so often my chickens have free range of the garden.  Sometimes this is because I’ve decided to let them out of their paddock for a change of scenery other times it’s because they’ve found their own way out.  I usually keep them in the paddock partly to stop them destroying my garden and partly to keep them safe from buzzards and foxes.  After one escape, I realised one of my hens was missing and thought she’d become a fox’s dinner – I’d seen 2 foxes on the edge of my property a day or so before.

DSCF0205 tinyThen after a few weeks I found her under the old rabbit hutches at the back of the house, along with the reason for her ‘disappearance’.




Ten beautiful chicks.

DSCF0206 tinyShe’d obviously got fed up with me removing the eggs from under her in the hen house – I really don’t want any more cockerels and didn’t want to have to deal with disposing of the excess cockerel.  So it looks like coq au vin is coming back onto the menu once I find someone to show me how to prepare them.

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I wasn’t sure if my second female Suri, Pandora, was pregnant as she was quite thin but I got my answer.  I’d been out shopping and was driving down the hill on the approach to my property and saw the alpacas moving across the fields in a way that just screamed out ‘imminent birth’ to me.

DSCF0225 tiny200 meters later and I was most of the way up the drive and drew a quick breath of relief as I could see the feet as well as the head.  50 meters further and I was parked and getting out of the car and the baby was born.  A quick yell to my children A and C who were in the house and I grabbed the camera and went over to the field.

DSCF0228 tinyPandora had produce a beautiful female which we have named Cassandra – Cassie for short.

What I found fascinating and is visible in this picture is that alpacas are born with covers over their nails – really practical but I just hadn’t thought about it before.


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Cassie the following day with her dry fleece.






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It’s been a bumper year for sloes here.  One bottle of sloe gin already in preparation, another batch of sloes in the freezer for when I remember to buy some more gin and 2 double batches in the freezer for sloe jelly.




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Even though it was a tough start to the growing year with many crop failures, those that did germinate are beginning to produce.

In the colander is one of the batches of sloes topped by strawberries, blackberries, mange touts and purple ‘green’ beans.  As you can see from the step it had rained and the shoes show the pick-up of mud I get due to the clay nature of my soil.


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Last year this tree was bare – it suffered badly, along with the other nectarine and peach from peach leaf curl.  There was no fruit and just about all the leaves dropped off and I thought that the tree might die.

It didn’t and this year I treated against the peach leaf curl and was amazed by the bumper harvest I got.  The other two trees have produced fruit this year too.  This one is a white fleshed nectarine while the other nectarine  is the yellow fleshed variety.  One thing I noticed this year was that the ants and hornets attacked the yellow fleshed variety and I only got a couple of undamaged fruits off it.  I don’t know why one was effected and not the other but I’m going to try and stop the ants next year as I’m wondering if it’s after they’ve eaten into the fruit that the hornets arrive.

DSCF0241 tinyAnother day’s pickings from the garden – even more sloes and ‘green’ beans and the start of the nectarines.  The large ones are the yellow fleshed ones.







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And yet more nectarines, these are being prepared for bottling, (canning).  They’ve been skinned and are being halved and the stones removed before being put in the bottling jars, a light syrup added and then processed.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

June 2011



DSCF0138 tinyAnd even more cherries.  The blue bucket full of black cherries was destined to become the first batch of glacĂ© cherries while the colander of the griottes made a second batch of cherry vodka.  Patches decided to oversee the proceedings.



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I had so many cherries, the only way to deal with them was to make cherry juice – that used up around two 10l bucketful's to fill the press and resulted in this collection of bottles of juice to put in the freezer.

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Hiding in the background are the cherries ready to be stoned for the glacé cherries and a bowl of large cherries with stalks that I had stoned and am marinating in brandy with the aim of turning them into a Christmas treat.

DSCF0145 tinyAt the end of last month I took my lawnmower and my rotovator in for repair/service.  as a result the new grass in the orchard took on a Monet-esque look.



DSCF0146 tinyAnd while wandering in amongst the poppies and the weeds I came across these.  They are hare droppings and later that evening I spotted 4 hares running round my soya field.





Not the best photograph in the world but I didn’t have time to change the camera default setting  so it insisted on using the flash to light up the foreground.  Thank goodness for photo manipulation programmes Smile





DSCF0152 tinyThe blueberries have done really well this year although I do need to find out how to prune the bush as the weight of the berries bent the branches right down to the ground.



DSCF0154 tinyA tour round the garden brought these two lots of caterpillars to light.  The first is a caterpillar of the Scarce Swallowtail which is on the bronze fennel, while the second is a group that I’ve yet to identify but I think might be saw fly caterpillars.

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Jewel is her usual mad self and decided to file herself beside me while I was working on the computer.





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The apricot tree outside the front door didn’t produce many fruits this year but made up for it in the size of the fruit it produced.




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The first batch of glace cherries being divided into 300g batches.





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Having drained the glace cherries from their poaching syrup I was then left with a large pan of fruit juice and sugar.  On the basis of ‘waste not, want not’ I decided to use this to make a jelly.



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The last of the cherries and the first of the greengages!








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And the last of the cherries processed.  I made 2 batches of glace cherries starting with around 4 kg for each batch.  This resulted in approximately 3.6 kg of glace cherries.  The first lot of poaching juice I spiced and bottled as a sauce to pour over ice cream, while the second lot I spiced in the same way and added a couple of small bottles of homemade pectin in an attempt to set the jelly.  The jelly on the spoon looked well set but that in the jars looks as fluid as the sauce batch!


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The extreme heat and drought left the gooseberries struggling this year but the blackberries seem to have not been too bothered.  The coin is a 2€ piece





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And the final day of the month was spent on a 1200 km round trip to collect my son A from university in Aix-en-Provence.  We stopped on the way back to take in the stunning view of Carcassonne in the evening sunshine.