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“Oh and one more thing. Do you have any information about sending organic meat to France?”

I was on the phone to the Soil Association (SA).

“No, it’s definitely dead.” I said “Yes, and butchered. The same I supply to customers in the UK. You know vac-packed, labelled, insulated boxes, ice packs, pretty paper, recipes…”

I listened.

“It’s not a great quantity. No. It’s for my son. Yes, he lives in France and he, his future wife and family want my meat.”

Ben and Berengere had asked if it was possible to send my beef and lamb down to them in Marseille.  As I was talking to the SA anyway I thought it  as good a place as any to start my enquiries.

But unfortunately they had no information on exporting organic meats, only importing. DEFRA, she thought, should be my next port of call.

I called DEFRA.  If I want information about FMD/Bluetongue: press 1. Avian flu: press 2. The whole farm approach: press 3. Helpline: press 4. I pressed… another list of options and choices – yes, helpline again: press 9.

A very helpful and efficient person answered. No, they didn’t have any information on the export of organic meat but they could give me the number of the department that did.

Animal Health – yup, if I called them they would have all the answers. I was given the local phone number and a call reference number too. Excellent, I thought.

I phoned Animal Health. Heavens no, they didn’t have any information about exporting meat to France. Yes, they used to but it had all be centralised. Did DEFRA really say they could help? Well, how out of date were they?

I was directed to call the centralised Animal Health Export Centre in Carlisle where they could definitely help me.

I called. Those options again…cats, dogs and ferrets to the EU. Cats, dogs and ferrets not to the EU. Livestock and germplasm (germplasm?). Live animals, dead animals, other animals, meat and dairy…that was it. I pressed.

“I wondered if you could help me with necessary licences and/or regulations needed for the export of a small quantity of organic beef and lamb to my son in France.”

“No, sorry, we don’t deal with exports of meat to the European Union. We only negotiate with third world countries. Actually, in reality, we work with the world. All of it. “

“France? It’s in the world.” I squeak

“No, we have nothing to do with the European Community. You need to talk to the French Embassy.”

“The French Embassy?” I’m amazed.

“Yes, google it.”

“Okaay. Google it?”

“Yes.”  She softened and giggled, warming in quite a conspirital way “Actually I go to France quite a bit for my holidays. You can find out all sorts of things from the Embassy site, about where to stay, what to eat and how to drive there. Really good maps and advice too.”

“As well as the export of meat?” I try to bring her back to the point in question.

“Oh yes, I should think so.” She replied, crisp and business like again “It’s them, after all, who look after their borders.”

I said a small thank you and did a search for the French Embassy. Loaded the English version and dialled the helpline number.

The options were spoken in French, which is much prettier, so I listened again, then again, and again…eventually someone picked up – they must have a signal for ‘imbecile-on-line’.

She spoke in French. I asked her politely if she wouldn’t mind talking to me in English as I wasn’t too sure of the correct way to ask about exporting meat. With a very French ‘Pooffe’ and a Gallic shrug reverberating down the phone, she replied in perfect English.

“Export of meat? You’re asking me?”

“Well yes, I was told you may be able to help?”

“No, this is London.” She replied with icy clarity “London.  You need the French Department of Agriculture. Possibly the science department.”

“Oh. Could you put me through to them please?”

Without any hesitation the phone was ringing again. Another list of fast spoken options, in French. Ah, but wait…if I didn’t understand, it said in English, hold and I would be answered! A very proficient woman answered and changed to English immediately she heard my voice.

I repeated my question.

“Why are you asking me?”

I gave her a potted history of the last two hours.

“How extraordinary” she said “You don’t need us. I can’t believe this. Someone in your country must know!”

I nodded franticly on the phone. “Yes. Yes. I agree. Completely.”

“Well, it’s very obvious. You need to contact the MLC or Eblex. In England!” she says…from France.

“Oh, that’s great. I’m a member of Eblex. Thank you. Thank you so much.” I gabble.

“No problem. They, of course, will know…and good luck.” she threw at me from across the Channel.

I phoned Eblex (in England). A lovely lady answered. I’d come through to the wrong department. But that was okay. She knew exactly the man I needed, one Jean-Pierre Garnier. She would give me his number, but as he’s very, very busy she’d also give me his email. Any problems I was to get back to her and she’d find someone else to help.

I phoned the number. Jean-Pierre’s PA answered. I asked my question.  Jean-Pierre was in Dubai, she said, he’s very, very busy. But she’d see if she could reach him and get back to me as soon as she had. The phone rang within ten minutes.

“I’ve just spoken with him. It’s what I thought, but I just wanted to make quite sure. You see I take meat back home with me to Spain. And yes, it is exactly as I thought…you do nothing.”

ARRGH!

ARRGH!

It’s 30 December and Berengère’s family are arriving to stay with us over the next five days. This is their first visit and I know they are really looking forward to seeing the farm, the animals, the surrounding countryside; absorbing the quintessential unspoilt ‘Englishness’ of the area. Roland, Berengère’s father, feels that that much of England, especially London, is loosing its distinctiveness and was hoping that he would re-find the special character of the country on this rural visit.

They are most interested in the farm and its produce and are intrigued by my passion for animals, farming and the countryside. Ben and Berengère have always championed our out-of-the-garden and from-the-fields ingredients together with my home cooking, so her parents were, I know, looking forward to some tasty meals to restore their faith in British cuisine, food and farming.  The pressure was on! Normally cooking for ten doesn’t faze me, but I was ill and craving a hole in which to curl up and die.  The thought of being a genial host and chef on top of routine twice-a-day stock care and farm work was beginning to make me feel wobbly.

inspecting the cattle

inspecting the cattle

“It doesn’t matter” said Berengère “Really, not at all. Look, my mother was in bed for the whole week when you came to visit! They’ll understand.” (Martine had injured her back when visited in May and was condemned to her bed by the doctor.)

“I know, I know. But I want it to be special for them. I’ve planned the meals. I’ve kept back the joints. I want them to have the whole experience!” And as always when you’re not 100% everything is blown-up by lip-quivery see-saw emotions.

In my head I’d planned the meals for the days ahead – ribs of our Red Ruby beef, sweet melting legs of Whiteface Dartmoor lamb, slow-roasted aromatic hand of pork and warm hearty white bean and kale casserole.  I would prepare gratins of creamy potatoes and leeks, red cabbage and apple, tiny sprouts stirred into sticky chestnuts and port, steam fresh romanesque shoots and caldo nero kale (jealously saved in the veg garden). I wanted to make puddings of backberries and apples encased in the shortest of crumbly pastry, tiny mincepies with clotted cream, blueberries and currants in a cloud of fluffy meringue, a Christmas pudding (of course) and Christmas cake. I knew what I wanted to do…

It was fine! After a convivial first night where we celebrated the coming together of our families we planned the days ahead. Tomorrow we would take a tour of the animals and the farm, followed by lunch and whilst I stayed at home to prepare the New Year’s Eve meal Robert would take everyone on a hauntingly beautiful walk around Scorhill stone circle on Dartmoor.

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

Sitting down to lunch after the walk around the farm on gloriously hard ground (even our mud is beginning to freeze – total bliss!), the phone went…

“Paula, it’s Elaine from Spring House. Your mum’s had a fall. Well, a couple actually, we think…  it’s a bit muddled. But the doctor’s been out. He thinks her hip could be broken. He’s arranged for her to be taken to Derriford to be x-rayed. She very confused and in a lot of pain….”

“What? Oh no! I’ll be there. Don’t let her be taken to Derriford, it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s Plymouth, it’ll be complete mayhem, she’ll be shoved in a corner. Don’t let anyone take her. I’ll phone the doctor. I’m on my way…Oh God, please let her be alright…”

With my heart pounding, I garbled hasty instruction at Ben for the evening meal and with an apologetic good-bye, grabbed my coat and fled.

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

part three to follow…

christmas eve carols hatherleigh town square 24 dec 08

christmas eve carols hatherleigh town square 24 dec 08

So where have I been? What blanket of fug was thrown over my head rendering me silent? The first was the same as for many of you, I shouldn’t be surprised…The Cold (of the virus type)! The second is slightly more distressing…

My slip-sliding into pre-Christmas panic disappeared and unabashed childish excitement and joy took over; our family arriving, friends popping round, unexpected invitations and out-of-the-blue visitors.

The tree twinkled in the warm firelit glow of the sitting room; banisters, mantels and pictures were decorated with binds of evergreen; mistletoe decked doorway and beam whilst freshly woven wreaths festooned the doors.

All was ready – larder shelves burdened festive goodies – ham, turkey and goose; Christmas puddings, mince pies and Christmas cake; nougats, navettes, glace fruits and marrons from France; cranberries, clementines, nuts and chocolate. I was all set to feed the army descending on us for the next ten days. But I hadn’t bargained on The Cold.

Olly, first to succumb to The Cold just before Christmas, was surprised to find he became worse rather than better. Will arrived home with the London strain. Camille brought the French version with her over the channel, her temperature soaring on Christmas Eve. The next in the firing line was me – whilst cooking Christmas dinner (naturally). Then it was Berengere. With rapid and single-minded intent it worked its way through us all. We had the added frisson of the more exotic, as our friends from across the Atlantic added their contribution to the melting pot. This was fast becoming virus heaven!

‘Hey bro –how ya doin’? Gi me five!’

‘Aw’rite mate. Didn’t ‘spec you ‘ere. Aint ‘alf bad – oi mean look at these fekking geezers…!’

‘Pardon…I ‘ave not zee Englieesh…mais oui, ici, c’est trez bon. ‘Ow you say? Bloodee marvellous!’

‘Good to see you all in this neck of the woods. The frog’s right when ‘e says it’s bloody marvellous. Never seen such a cosmopolitan gathering. Here’s one for united nations and entente cordial!

The viruses rub their hands in glee at the prospect of increasing their kith and kin by 500,000 billion in the next few days. They high five and in unison stream forward to launch their attack; bookies shout the odds on favourites, and humans didn’t stand a chance!

sharing a quiet moment - two poorly people - camille and paula

sharing a quiet moment - two poorly people - camille and paula

Yesterday, sadly, the house emptied. Today, as I gather up pine needles, escaped shreds of wrapping paper, broken toys, cracker jokes, squashed mince pies and baskets full of holiday detritus, I stop as I seem to the whole time at the moment to gaze out at the frost-sparkling countryside. Do you know we haven’t had a drop of rain for over ten days? I can scarcely believe it.

The more distressing part two tomorrow…

completed polytunnel from the veg garden

completed polytunnel from the veg garden

The polytunnel construction is complete!  Robert and Olly have spent an enormous amount of time, energy and patience on its erection; they’ve developed intricate diagrammatical code-deciphering expertise and brushed-up their plumb-line building and construction skills; not forgetting a considerable input of man-muscle-power. They’ve suffered aching backs, swollen chapped hands, cracked lips, frostbitten noses, fingers and toes and overcome the difficulties of working knee-deep in cloying clay mud. They’ve sweated and frozen, fretted and celebrated.

men at work

men at work

Not, it must be said, the ideal time of year to erect such a monster; nevertheless Robert was determined that we would get back to growing vegetables after the last two washout seasons (you’re now guaranteed  a bone dry, blistering 2009!).

soon to be green with growing plants!

soon to be green with growing plants!

With polythene stretched as tight as a drum, sliding doors constructed to near perfection, the weighted, ratcheted side-ventilation panels working with the smoothness of oiled silk and crop-bars visibly waiting to receive an abundance of lush, verdant growth – the result is quite superb and very professional.

After all, this is not just a polytunnel, this is an R & O polytunnel!

view from top meadow

view from top meadow

I was busy preparing a celebratory supper for us and some friends. It was Friday and Hallowe’en or Samhain; the end of summer, the beginning of winter and the Celtic New year.

Having lived my life in tune with the seasons and nature for so long I find myself compelled to do certain things at certain times of the year, as if engrained in my genes. Autumn I love, even after a dreary summer. There’s a gentle tranquillity, a whimsical melancholy. I draw the countryside and her gold, bronzes, rusts and amber to me, into some secret place which I hug tight.

hawthorn berries - ecellent tonic for the heart and circulatory system

hawthorn berries - ecellent tonic for the heart and circulatory system

The past couple of weeks have found me collecting and squirreling away the last of the fruits and berries. Hips, for rosehip syrup and crab apple and hip jelly – stuffed full of vitamin C and A to chase away those winter’s colds; haws to make into hawthorn butter and bottles of piquant sauce – a wonderful tonic for the heart and circulatory system; and quince for quince cheese, jelly and spiced quince, just because I love it.

field rose hips

field rose hips

The house changes too. I swap cool summer greens for warm rusts and Turkey red. Our fires smoulder slowly throughout the day ready to sparkle into crackling dancing flames in harmony with curtains drawn against the early evening dark and chill.

dog rose

dog rose hips - rosehips are an important source of vitamins A and C

Like our ancestors I need to celebrate the end of summer and harvest, to wish us all well during the dark months and toast the return of light and growth!

Samhain celebrations have survived the centuries in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest, fertility and the dead. Samhain was a time to take stock and eliminate weakness; to decide which animals, too frail to survive the long winter months, to slaughter, and for preparing stores of preserved meat, fruits and grain to last through the coming winter.  Not so very different from us today.

Bonfires, originally ‘bone fires’, played a large part in the festivities, as the bones of the slaughtered cattle were thrown into the flames. These bonfires also represented the sun, the giver of life and light, warding off evil spirits and providing warmth and a welcome to good ones. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires and each family would relight their hearth from the embers of the common flame, bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification; sometimes cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires as well.

Samhain was overlain by All Saints Day and All Souls Day in an attempt by the church to undermine the Pagan festival and so it became All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en.  Even before this it was tangled up with the Roman festivals of Feralia, celebrating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees (the apple being a symbol of fertility).

With our bonfires already having burnt fiercely from the polytunnel clearance; a shoulder of lamb slow roasting in the oven, vegetables aplenty from the garden, spiced baked apples for pudding and our carved lantern flickering on the table, it seems we are keeping to the age old festivities and traditions of our ancestors.

bonfire or bone fire

bonfire or bone fire

Apples, apples, apples. A more applier a weekend you’d be hard pushed to find. After our hectic Saturday of collecting up apples we were due to celebrate a friend’s birthday that evening.

Hurrying in for a quick wash down and brush up, Robert shouted from the shower “Where are we going? What are we doing?”
“Um, not too sure. Something about South Zeal, common players and cider? Anyway we’re almost late!”

It was a surprise arranged for Jane, the birthday girl, by another mutual friend and we hadn’t a clue, when we pushed open the door to South Zeal’s Victory Hall,  what to expect. We walked in on one Peasgood Nonsuch’s Heathen Harvest! What? What on earth…? I hear you exclaim.

heathen harvest - an evening of entertainment, music and song

heathen harvest - an evening of entertainment, music and song

So, to explain briefly in the words of the Common Players themselves ‘they are an arts organisation who seek to engage people in a positive and playful way’ – Cider-with-roadies, of which Heathen Harvest is their newly commission evening show, ‘uses creative activity to enthuse people about local produce’.
None the wiser? Not surprised. It’s taken me sometime to get there. But it’s well worth the effort.

Wow; Heathen Harvest is an exuberant roller-coster performance, bursting with energy, based on music hall, slapstick and cabaret traditions. And as we, the audience, sat at tables quaffing cider, feasting on a delicious community harvest supper, we were entertained by the players with an eclectic, hilarious and poignant selection of stories, songs, sketches and puppetry. These had all been drawn from research done by the writer, Jonathon Stokes, of local Devon apple workers and cider makers.

It was tremendous, hugely enjoyable and unexpected. What a way to celebrate Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, gardens, and orchards.

snapped with my head in a bucket - washing apples!

caught with head in a bucket - washing apples!

Up for an early start on Apple Pressing Sunday. After checking and feeding the stock we loaded the truck – already groaning under the weight of apples – with fermenting barrels for cider and old water containers and saved milk bottles for juice, and departed for our rendezvous with apple mill and cider press. A system soon established itself of apple washing, milling and pressing; filling juice bottles (time consuming), cider barrels (less so), removing the old pressed cheeses to the compost heap, and refilling the press with fresh pulp. We worked hard and relentlessly, breaking for an apple soup, sausages and apple cake lunch, plus a quick cup of tea. It was growing dimpsy as we loaded the last barrel into the truck and hosed down the equipment and barn. And do you know what…we’ve made approximately 185 litres, 320 pints or 40 gallons of cider and 6 gallons of juice! A weekend of pure apple inspiration. Thank you to all who made it possible.

Pomona I salute you!

our cider barrels, waiting to begin their fermentauon

cider barrels, waiting to start their fermentauon

unknown ancient apple variety, the river meadows

unknown ancient apple variety, the river meadows

Fairmaid of Devon, Tom Putt, Ashton Bitter, Hangy Down, Payhembury, Golden Bittersweet, Polly Whitehair, Sops in Wine, Slack ma Girdle, Pigs Snout and Sweet Alford to name but a few…

different apples, unknown, by the river meadows

more apples, ancient, unknown, by the river meadows

Collecting, picking up, shaking and plucking – we’ve been harvesting our apples.

In March 1994 we finished restoring our derelict apple orchard and were ready to begin planting new trees. We’d spent many an hour pouring over fruit tree catalogues from nurseries that had stock of scarce and rare varieties of apples no longer commonly found. We chose a mix of dessert, culinary and cider.

shaking apples from a neighbour's orchard

shaking apples from a neighbour's tree

Full of eager anticipation for the years ahead we enthusiastically set to with our planting plan. Each of the boys, and us, had specific trees that were ‘ours’ – chosen, naturally, from the fabulous names! Lovingly and carefully planted, in wide holes to encourage root growth, with barrow loads of collected topsoil and muck; beautiful, heavy gauge guards built around each individual to give protection from our grazing sheep: we waited.

We waited with bated breath for the first of our trees to produce fruit. We waited, and waited, waited, and waited a little more. After seven years our maiden whips still looked like…maiden whips! We’d lost a couple, replanted a few, hung over the gate feeling less and less and less enthusiastic. The wonderful wild fruit hedge we’d planted on the restored hedgebank around the orchard was growing great guns and looked a picture – wild cherry, crab apple, wild pear and bullace.  But apples? Nah!

shake it!

shake it! go on - shake it harder!

And then, a couple of years ago the orchard exploded in an abundance of fruit. Unfortunately we were unable to harvest them to their full potential that year, and rather thought that it could be a massive effort on the part of the trees before they finally succumbed to Locks Park sodden clay. But no, they soldiered on, and this year, though nothing like the crop backalong, it was decent enough to pick. So with the generous donations from our neighbours’ ancient apple trees and the big-hearted offer of the use of a friend’s apple crusher tomorrow, we’ll make the first Locks Park cider…and apple juice. To celebrate, of course, a dry, sunny summer and bumper harvest (of everything) in 2009! We’ll see you there. Cheers!

apples, apples, apples

apples, apples, apples

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website, www.cpre.org.uk