Clink, clink, the pressoir is open!

We moved into our home in France in the autumn and the first sound we heard was the clinking of bottles from the pressoir next door. It’s apple time here on the edge of the Alsace and people are bringing their apples in trailers and tractors to be be crushed and turned into thick golden juice to be enjoyed all winter long.

People here don’t farm apples, they just have three or four trees in their gardens or a strip of land they still own squeezed between the ever encroaching fields of maize. The trees are thickly festooned in mistletoe , often cracked apart by lightening and are the favored roosting spots of long eared owls .  This year the spring was cold and wet and fruit did not set on many trees, but some old varieties caught the weather and the bees perfectly and are laden with fruit. Weekend farmers collect the apples on Saturday morning and pile the fruit into sacks and tubs to bring to the pressoir on Saturday afternoons. Old farmers slowly pick their fruit on Wednesday mornings and bring it in during the week. The school children are brought in minibuses to watch the fruit being crushed and the clinking bottles fill.

In front of the pressoir is the old wooden press for show, but the real business of washing, crushing and bottling the fruit now takes place on a modern mill in a converted barn. Locals keep their empty bottles for reuse the next year and the warm pasteurized juice from their own fruit fills the washed bottles as they clink along the line and are then cooled in wooden racks, before being loaded back in cars and trailers. I never realized what a remarkable place this pressoir is until I looked at the car number plates lined up on the curve of the road in front of our house on a busy Saturday. There are local cars from France; cars from over the border in the cantons of Baseland , Baselstat , Soloturn in Switzerland and cars from over the next border in Baden-Wurtemberg, Germany . It seems that the things you take for granted when you first arrive in France are odder then you think: there are not many pressoirs left  and so people come from far and wide in order to transform their wind falls into juice and cider. Scout groups and families with excited children, well heeled city types playing at the good life, crusty farmers , hippies and hells angles all appear eventually here with their apples.

We own the tiniest apple  tree and this year it produced no fruit at all, so I scavenged apples from parks where they lay unwanted on the ground, picked some from a friend’s tree and collected windfalls from a tolerant neighbour’s lawn. We managed to find enough apples to turn into 50 liters of juice that was poured totally unpasteurized into two large fermenting kegs to turn into good dry English style cider. We have learnt a trick or two from our neighbours who make cider and the most important advice was not to add yeast to the juice until 48 hours after pressing . Of course you don’t really need yeast at all. The natural yeast on the apples is really all you need and so we have two kegs slowly fermenting in the garage now using champagne yeast and one Demi- John with no yeast, fermenting even faster!

By Christmas the cider will be ready and by spring it will be all drunk. The lovely clink of the bottles from the pressoir will continue until November when the late apples have all been picked and the rest have been left on the branches to feed the hungry winter field fare or hidden in the long grass for the wild boar and the Roman snails to feast on in the snow.


Deamon slayer

Today is the autumn equinox and a day to sing the praises of michaelmas daisies

(aster amellus).

In my garden I have showy purple michaelmas daisies and simple white ones and I think I prefer the white ones for the way they blaze light against the dark bushes. Their latin name comes from the Latin for star and the simple flowers sparkle and are absolutely covered in hungry honey bees.image

Their English name is an abbreviation of St. Michael’s mass and the prince of angels who is credited with defeating Satan, is celebrated on 29th September, when the flowers are in full bloom.  I like the idea that such a biblical warrior should be commemorated in this unassuming flower. Old St. Michael’s day was celebrated on 10th of October and when St Michael threw Satan out of heaven, the devil  landed in a blackberry bush and spat in disgust on the fruit, which is why traditionally you should never pick or eat blackberries after that date.  The fact that they have gone mushy and taste bad has nothing to do with it!

On a French note, St Michael made an appearance in Normandy on a rock which is now the famous sea-girt Mont Saint Michael.

I wonder if they grow michaelmas daisies there?

Making the summer last or gothic inspiration.


Most of the flowers of summer fade, but some can be kept all year to decorate the house during the dark winter months.image

I have already written about my favourite dried flower:  Lunaria annula or honesty , which is really the lovely delicate silver inner seed case stripped and  revealed, but other garden flowers will also maintain their beauty for months.image

Hydrangeas come in many shapes and sizes and all of their flowers can be picked, hung up and dried, or if like me, you have no time for dangling plants on a line, you simply pick a few fresh heads and put them in a vase with no water and they will dry themselves – no effort required at all!

imageYellow Yarrow , Achillea millefolium  is equally easy.  Just pick some wonderful sturdy yellow flowers and put them in a vase without water where they dry, unwilted and stay colourful for the whole year.   You can get fancy and make arrangements by combining  white hydrangeas and yellow yarrow, and  make surprisingly elegant gifts in no time at all.

I have had a bunch of yellow yarrow in a vase next to my bath and when lying soaking in some bubbles and gazing up at the underside of the flowers one afternoon, I had an extraordinary revelation about how the medieval builders of Europe came up with the idea of gothic fan vaulting. The supporting stems of the flowers reach up under the flat head of fused flowers in exactly the same way that fan vaulting spreads out from column in the cloisters of Gloucester cathedral.image

I wonder which master builder lay drowsing in a garden and looking up into the yarrow, decided to recreate this botanical masterpiece in stone?

The swallows are leaving.

Over my garden clouds of swallows and house martins are swooping and feeding and leaving. The scimitared winged swifts have already gone and now the rest are going too.
We live on an extraordinary migration path and birds are funneled through our village as they fly along the Rhine valley and come up against the first folds of the Jura mountains. The skies are full of their chattering as they regroup to fly all the way to Africa chasing the sun and the insects.

I will miss them.

“The swallow of summer, the seamstress of summer,
She scissors the blue into shapes and she sews it..”

from            Work and Play   by Ted Hughes


Pure and Simple.

Cosmos are such wonderfully uncomplicated, beautiful flowers. When the garden is starting to look autumnal they come into their own. They love the heat and turn their simple pink flowers up to the sun in adoration. The bees love them and butterflies court them. The feathery green leaves look fresh when other plants are fading and by judicious dead heading of old blooms they can be encouraged to flower until the first frosts brings summer to a final close.

Good moths, bad moths!

Just when you get all soppy about nature it reminds you that it really isn’t just there for pretty photo opportunities and anthropomorphic cuddles. So I wax lyrical about the mysterious moths I find in my traps and then I find dozens of very pretty moths that I really don’t want to see at all.

They come in three shapes. First of all is the plum moth ( grapholita funebrana) yup you guessed it, it eats plums, or rather the little pink caterpillars do. So I am feeling all smug and autumnal picking my ripe damsons and then I open them up and around each stone is the unmistakable black frass of the plum moth caterpillar, as he has wormed its way in through the stem and spent weeks eating the ripe fruit. Apparently you can wash out the frass and still eat the plum, but even I balk at eating caterpillar poo and their left overs.

Secondly are the little black caterpillars of lesser ermine moth ( yponomenta sedella) that have woven Miss Haversham like webs over my sedum flowers and sucked them from red to dry black husks. When I found the moths in my trap earlier in the year I was pleased to identify them as normally I don’t bother with micro moths , but now my wild orpine have again been eaten, I am less impressed by their visit.

The final and most unwelcome visitor is the horrible box bush moth ( cydalima perspectalis) which has come into Europe via plant imports from China. The voracious green catapillar only likes box trees and bushes and weaves itself a cacoon in the leaves where it eats a huge number of leaves and can completely destroy a hedge in weeks. It has been a huge pest in Southern Germany, Switzerland and France and many gardeners have dug up their decimated bushes in despair. Only one chemical called Kendo kills the caterpillars. It is very expensive and very toxic, but it works. My moth traps are full of the wretched adults and I try to make myself kill them, but often fail.

So this weekend I will don protective covering and go out to kill some of the creatures that I most enjoy studying – what wretched irony!

The heat goes on!

Still hot and sunny here and not a drop of rain. I am sure my arms have elongated from all the watering cans I have carried!

Plants show you very quickly when they are suffering as the leaves droop and the flowers wilt and I cannot enjoy may garden until everything is perky again. However, perking up everything would take a river full of water and so I ration out my re-cycled bath water to those who seem in greatest need.
Anything growing in a hanging basket or a planter need the most water and I am conscious that growing in containers when you have access to land to plant in, is a wasteful way to garden . Terracotta plant pots are the very worst, as the water evaporates through the porous planter before the roots even use it and so I have given up using them, even though I love their natural weathered look . The bigger the pot you can use, the less watering is needed and so this year I have dispensed with my usual corner of waif and stray little pots of things that are waiting to be planted somewhere else and dry out in the blink of an eye.

While I understand the wilting plants: the forsythias, buddleia, mock orange, hydrangeas, phlox and roses; I am more intrigued by those plants who is the same amount of time have made deeper roots and show little or no signs of stress. Peonies stay green and glossy; the fennel in the veg patch towers over the shriveled vegetables; lavender thrives and the ecinacia flower freely in the dry heat.

I realize of course that what I am observing is the geographical origin of each of my garden plants. In my little garden I am growing plants that evolved perfectly to their natural habitats from all over the world. Those who thrive are originally from hotter drier places and those who suffer are from the cooler climes. As gardeners we want them to all grow promiscuously together and generally we manage this by careful planting each in sunny or shady spots to mimic their original homes; but in a heat wave; when all the garden is hot, this is not enough.

As an English woman transplanted to a very sunny spot of inland Europe I am also trying to recreate my ideal growing conditions and so this weekend I shall be up at dawn, enjoying the cool air, sleeping in the heat of the day and later in the evening watering myself with a long, cool bath and a tall glass of chilled Crémant d’Alsace.