Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Lightbulb Moment

One of the advantages of having a steeply sloping south-facing roof is that it is just the right place to install some sort of solar powered apparatus. In this house, we have solar-heated hot water, to replace an old, inefficient electric tank. 

We had great fun removing that, as over the years it had accumulated a lot of sediment, and weighed far more than anyone could possibly imagine. He who does everything around here (aka the man with the bad back) got the thing out of the door, but we then had to lift it into the trailer. We roped in a neighbour to help, while I sat on the other end of the trailer as a counterbalance. This was not a fair contest, and I was nearly catapulted across the courtyard. DIY is so exciting.

That was late last summer; now we have had the first non-estimated electricity bill, covering the winter, and we have had our monthly payments almost halved. 

The electricity bill in France will tell you where your power comes from, and in what percentage. In Brittany last year, 87% of the electricity produced came from renewable sources.  There are 95 wind farms already, and 30 new ones are planned. These will increase production from the current 665 megawatts to 950MW. 

Brittany only produces 10% of the energy it consumes. The hope is that this will rise to 35%. It’s a windy place – I’m sure it can meet the challenge. Of course there are days when the wind dies away, and nothing can be produced; but on all the other days, there are the giants turning on the hilltops, doing their thing. 

But times are tight, and electricity is expensive, so there are all sorts of ideas as to how to cut down its use. One national initiative is that from July, shops and offices have to turn off their signs and their interior lights, between 1am and 6am. This will save enough energy to power 260,000 households – just by turning off some lights. 

On a smaller scale, there is a place by the sea where, in the winter months when the Parisians are tucked up in their arondissements, and the streets and seafront are quiet, the locals have opted for a novel approach to lighting: they call up the lamps via their mobile phones as they go along. 

Many people have discovered that actually, without streetlights, there is plenty of visibility to be had from the moon and stars, and that their own outside house lights can guide their way to the roadside with their wheelie bins. 

I read a story in the local paper this week, about an initiative in Rwanda, which does not, in general, have what you might call a National Grid. In the depths of the country they rely on torches to go out at night, or petrol lights indoors; but batteries are expensive and take up half of any earnings they may make, and petrol lamps are dangerous and fumy. So some bright spark has come up with a pedal-driven generator to charge LED bulbs. A minute’s pedalling gets you 375 minutes of light. 

Here in the Breton countryside our village lights go off at 10pm, and reappear at some early hour of the morning when I don’t. There’s no-one about in between, so why waste the power? Well, there is the odd occasion when there has been a Do on at the Salle des FĂȘtes, and you have to walk home in the dark, but it’s rare. 

Green initiatives don’t have to be handed down to us from the Top. We can do our bit. A spot of daylight, and you have hot water. Natural light lasts a lot longer than we think. And a bit of cycling will get you some lamplight and keep you fit at the same time. 

It’s Earth Hour tonight at 8.30pm, when we are being encouraged to turn off our lights for one hour, for the sake of the planet. Start small: if everyone does it, it soon becomes something big. A lightbulb is nothing, until you have to pedal to charge it up. A million lightbulbs turned off, and you might just be able to hear the planet sigh its thanks.
© lms2012

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Top of the House

In the old fairy story, when Rapunzel let down her hair, her would-be lover didn’t say, hang on, love, I’ve just got to get this past Health and Safety. (There’s a reason why no-one writes Fairy Tales any more.) He was probably a French roofer in his day job.   
We have a little house in our garden, whose roof has failed under the weight of ivy and snow. It will need to be replaced completely, wood and all. Of all the jobs we have to do, that’s the romantic thing that we’d like to tackle first. Forget the septic tank; and who needs a kitchen? We’ve got a ruin, and it’s calling to us. 

Roofs. Most of your life, you don’t think about them. They are up there, doing their roofly thing, and you rarely raise your eyes above the parapet, as it were. 

When we were thinking of moving over here, we had to choose an area in which to look for a house. France is a huge country, so where do you start? It seemed worthwhile to come up with a limiting factor, so we decided to go for west and south enough for rounded red tiles to take over from black state. 

Never having lived with a clay roof before, we had things to learn. For instance, they aren’t attached to anything: they just curl onto each other. You have unders and overs, and they slot together in a sleepy fashion and lie there, being a roof. After a high wind (of which we had a lot) you might have to resettle a few. And bees can get in amongst them, and did – but that’s what happens when you have acacia trees right next to the house. 

Clay tile roofs are low, shallow of slope, and accessible. 

Slates are different; they are attached with nails, and lend themselves to a different sort of architecture. The fairy-tale Chateau of Josselin, for instance, has a tremendous slate roof. It has round turrets with conical pointed hats, a miracle of workmanship; but the point is that the castle is built on a rock overlooking a river, and the roof is a long way up, and the ground therefore a very long way down. 

I watched some men re-laying slates on a lesser building recently, but not for long – I had the sudden urge to sit down on terra firma and stay low. The roof was on a Medieval house, high and tall and very steep. The men were not attached in any way, but strolling about up there with trainers on their feet, tossing slates about, directly above the pavement just as it has always been done. 

When our neighbour needed a couple of tiles replacing after a storm the local man came to do the job. He’s over seventy, and has various metal plates inserted where, in the course of a long working life, he has fallen off and hurt himself. He parked his van, and got out the tools of his trade: two wooden ladders. He climbed up to the roof in a pair of old wellies, did the repair, climbed back down, and was off again. 

Where is the scaffolding tower, the English metal roofing ladder with the curved end to hook over the apex, and the full harness? Well, they built Josselin without them. There’s no apex on a conical roof to hang a ladder over. 

Our little house is nothing in comparison: a mere speed hump compared to a mountain. But it is a roof, and therefore up there. It will involve – well, anyone but me – climbing about with slates and nails and hammers a long way from the ground. 

So I was just thinking: isn’t it more romantic to have a ruin? 

There’s a lot to be said for a septic tank, after all; maybe we should do that first, and think about it. Sitting down.

© lms 2012

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A La Recherche du Veg. Perdu

There is a tiny, quiet, stealthy revolution taking place in France’s markets. At first you wouldn’t really notice it – after all, there is nothing remarkable about the thing itself. You see it everywhere in England, you’re used to it being there in winter, it’s normal. 

But to the Frenchwoman, it’s bizarre, alien, even dangerous. It threatens kitchen life as she knows it. 

It is the appearance of that most subversive of vegetables, the parsnip. 

If you were to look turnip up in the Larousse Gastronomique, you will find several recipes. Let’s face it, there would have to be – the turnip, alone and undressed, tastes of stale water. 

Look up parsnip, and you will get a few paragraphs, and the conclusion that the English eat it roasted with their rosbif. End of story. 

When we first came over, it was impossible to get parsnips anywhere. I found out why when I bought a magazine devoted to Medieval life, and found it there under Foods of the Past. The parsnip was eaten in the Middle Ages when everything was boiled into submission and therefore safe to eat. It made a brief resurgence in the 19th Century, but it didn’t catch on. 

The ex-pat English bemoan the loss of many things – bacon, Marmite, marmalade – but if you mention the golden-skinned, pointy vegetable, they will suddenly remember it, and miss it terribly. 

So little by little, supermarkets began to stock them – English grown, of course. No Frenchman worth his salt would give turnip land over to parsnip production. The word went round – ‘you can get them in Leclerc’, ‘SuperU have a few’ – and off we went to buy them whilst stocks lasted. 

But recently they have begun to appear on the market stalls: never in huge numbers, and frequently grown well past the point where you can actually cut through the things with anything less than a chainsaw. The market is quintessentially French – it’s where the housewife of note and standing goes to make her savvy purchases from her chosen stallholders. She will squeeze the radis noirs, glare at the endives, turn her nose up at the chicory; it’s her right to flex her marketing muscles to her own satisfaction. 

And there, amidst all the usual produce, is the parsnip. And next to the parsnip is an Englishwoman (or man), cooing and sighing and dreaming of soup, mash, puree with cream and a sprinkling of paprika, chunks in beefy stews. The Frenchwoman will sidle away, sensing madness. 

I was once asked by a French lady, in the middle of a hypermarket, what to do with a parsnip. Several others stopped to hover, whilst pretending not to listen. It’s food, therefore it’s of interest: but it’s foreign food, therefore it is viewed with suspicion. 

But it’s there, not just on the stalls of the organic growers, or the sustainable farming types, who could be excused on the grounds of incipient hippiedom; it’s crept onto the ordinary veggie stalls too. 

This is, of course, delightful for us. But there will be revenge to be extracted somehow, and I fear that you are going to suffer for our victory. English supermarket shelves will groan under the weight of radis noir, chicory, and endive: but far, far worse – there will be an attempted Turnip Takeover. 

Run for your gastronomic lives – run to France: we’ve got the parsnips!
© lms 2012