Tales from the Pit

Trip Start May 22, 2009
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Trip End Feb 16, 2010


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Flag of France  , Midi-Pyrénées,
Thursday, October 22, 2009

We’ve been staying in an area of the Pyrenees called Ariege which is often described as the ‘Pit’ of France.  Las Laous is the name of the farm we’ve been living and locals say it means ‘Landslide’ because of it’s steep steep grade on the property.  It has quite the reputation of wives running away and leaving their husbands because it’s just too harsh a living here.  Hopefully this trend has ceased and there will be no more of those stories, but here are a few of ours from our time here. 

Lots of stories.  Browse a little.  Read the titles to see what tickles your fancy.  Hope you enjoy a few. 

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

One of the things that has amazed me most is the abundance of food that can be grown here.  Nut trees have been a curious scene on the horizon for me.  Acorns pelting us while we camp and conchs exploding on the pavement before us are things we‘ve seen all along our travels in France.  But neither of these are edible and so interest me little.  At the farm there are a few new nut trees:  walnut and chestnut. 

Having never been a nut eater, this is a new culinary adventure I‘ve been slowly traveling on the last few years.  Able to only bear shredded cocunut in baking and the odd candied almond, I‘m now embracing nuts of all sorts.  The fact that walnuts fall from the sky is remarkable!  I thought that chestnuts were simply for pig food, but after some reading I‘ve made a spreadable puree, roasted them with squash, and made a lentil/chestnut soup.  Not the nicest to work with as they are extreemly finicky and hard to peel, but the novelty hasn’t quite warn off yet and I’m still enjoying experimenting with them. 

Of course, we had to do the classic roasting of chestnuts, and I’ve learned that they taste wonderful warm with a little melted butter and salt.  We even took a pan up to a beautiful viewpoint to watch the sunset while sipping wine. 

House Made of Sticks

We all know the story of the 3 little pigs and went out to build their homes, one of straw, one of sticks and one of bricks.  In the sow park there are 3 soon-to-be-mommies looking for homes to give birth in, but there are not enough condos for sale.  So Brian has the wonderful undertaking of creating a house for a pig.  His building materials are lumber and metal sheeting.  And this isn’t just any house - it’s a DUPLEX!

The Pukin

While harvesting the garden before the first frost, I came upon the strangest looking vegetable/fruit I’ve ever seen.  It was on the small pumpkin vine, but didn’t look like a pumpkin at all!  Instead of round, it was long and cylindrical - almost like a large overgrown cucumber, but a yellowy-orange colour instead of green. 

I went to ask it they had grown cucumbers earlier in the year and if this could be the result of a cross-pollination.  Apparently there had been Gerkin’s growing.  Opening up this strange creature showed the seeds of a cucumber but with a cream colored flesh that was a little spongy in nature.  Bravely tasting it, the flavour was fresh like a cucumber but with the texture of cooked squash.  Gross!  Hence the dubbing “Puke-in’.  Needless to say I didn’t cook it up for dinner that night!

Workin’ 9 to 5

One of the main projects going on at the house is the building of an energy efficient wood stove.  The man who’s doing this work is absolutely hilarious!  He comes over for a few hours whenever he feels like it, with a case of beer in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other.  At the end of his few hours work, both will be empty again.  It seems like for every 10 minutes of work there’s at least a 10 minute break. 

When Justin hired him for the job, he was told that it would take 3 weeks to complete.  That time has passed and the cold weather is here and Justin wants his stove!  When confronted about this, Haiko laughs and says ‘3 weeks of work time, not 3 weeks time!’.  But who knows what that could mean.

Those Chickens are up to Something Mrs. Tweedy


Chickens are hilarious!  They’re always running around like there’s a great catastrophe and the different sounds they make are quite hilarious. 

Every night before dark it’s important to shut up the chickens to protect them from predators.  When we arrived, the chickens were living in the lower barn and not the chicken coop.  Previously Justin had gone out in the morning to let out the chickens only to find a mass slaughter had taken place.  A martin had gotten in the house.  Now these little creatures can apparently squeeze through something the size of a wedding ring making it very difficult to protect the birds. 

One of my jobs was to patch the holes in the coop with lots of chicken wire so there would be no way for the martin to enter, then the chickens could be moved back to their real home.  Of course, that meant catching all 10 chickens and moving them back up the hill. 

Brian was the best a catching them.  He’d corner them in the barn and lunge, but no one wanted to touch that damn rooster.  Last to be caught, Justin was lucky enough to grab hold of a leg mid air as he tried to fly over a partition.  Once neatly inside the cat carrier I was able to laugh at him as he made pathetic attempts at crowing, but not able to since he couldn’t stretch out his neck all the way. 

The night they were released I prayed that there were no holes that the martin could get in through.  The next morning I gingerly went out to the coop listening for the slightest cluck to indicate that they were alive.  Thankfully they were!

But now rounding up the chickens into the new house can be a bit of a pain.  One night cock-head decided not to go in.  Still being afraid of him, I didn’t know what to do.  Shaking a stick at him only seemed to ’get his feathers up’.  So I went for help.  I couldn’t believe it!  Paul walks in with a stick and the stupid rooster goes running!  But not into the coop, so it was still a game of running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off.  Until the rooster flew up onto the roof of the coop.  Now the last thing we wanted was for him to fly down outside of the fenced enclosure - then we’d never get him in!  So I started chucking chestnuts at him, until a few blows made him fly down and finally into the coop.  What a pain! 

1000 ways to cook a squash

Part of the joy of trying to live off your own produce is how to cook it in various ways so you don’t feel as though you’re eating the same thing over and over.  With an abundance of Butternut Squash I’ve been having my creativity stretched to the limit.  So far we’ve had:  roasted squash, mashed squash, bacon fried squash, roasted with apple and chestnut, squash soup, stuffed squash, roasted with pumpkin, and battered and fried with dip.

How to Pen a Porker

As with all farming, there comes a time to ‘process’ your food.  This applies to both animal and vegetable.  Being pig farmers, we had to take 2 porkers to the abatoir to fulfill an order. 

Unlike catching the wiener, there was a very different technique used to get these guys into the trailer.  Since it didn’t matter which pigs went there was no need to chase a particular one.  So instead the pig’s favourite thing was used:  food.  At lunchtime, Justin began to lure the group up out of their park and into the trailer with their food pellets.  It took quite a bit of time before one was daring enough to enter into the trailer, but eventually hunger took over and one did and then a second and the door goes shut - usually.  First attempt raised an alarm and the porkers backed out and Justin couldn’t get the door closed.  But with a little more food and the familiarity already there it didn’t take long before they were back in again. 

Romeo and Juliet

The family here have 2 beautiful dogs of the breed Hovawart.  Sumba the male is this faithful companion who comes to visit us in the mornings in the loft and ‘talks’ about his dreams to you.  But poor Sumba’s girlfriend was in heat, so they had to be kept apart.  Of course, that just exasperated the problem and he cried outside the windows and doors for her day and night. 

Upstairs there is a little balcony so Gia (the female) could at least be outside and get some air.  There she was sitting up top, with him below looking up at her longingly.  A doggy version of Romeo and Juliet except she didn’t want anything to do with him. 

Jelly in the Bowl

While at Las Laous I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen working to make meals and preserve some of the fall bounty for winter.  One day Justin comes back from the cows with 5 buckets full of apples!  So it’s been apples for dessert every night and lots of applesauce in the pantry. 

Inspired by Mami in Brittany, I thought that apple jelly would be a great addition.  From what I could briefly read in a book, it seemed very easy - just strained fruit juice and sugar.  However, I couldn’t seem to get the balance ‘set point’ right to turn it into jelly. 

My first attempt just made a thick liquid almost like honey.  Great tasting, but not jelly.  Second attempt I added more sugar as I read that that was the problem, but it started to turn to rock candy in the jars.  Argh!  Too much sugar, not enough sugar.  Where is the balance?  I don’t really want to try a 3rd attempt at this point.  At least not without a more detailed recipe and maybe a little pectin…

Chain Gang

Classic getting ready for winter activity is chopping and stacking wood.  The French are fanatical about drying their wood for at least 3 years before burning.  The wood here hasn’t quite dried that long, but it’s the best there is. 

Stacking wood up on the balcony took some engineering.  Thankfully there were quite a few of us.  Some worked at chainsawing and chopping.  Others piled it into the back of the pickup.  Others unloaded the truck by chucking it up to the balcony.  And still others were on the balcony doing the stacking.  Took a few days, but now the house looks cozy warm lined with rows and rows of firewood. 

Chicken Dog

Went out to pick some spinach one evening and looked over to see the dog Gia with a chicken in her mouth!  Paniced, I ran down towards the pigs to call for Justin and tell him that I thought the dog had killed a chicken. 

Running back, I got my mind in order a little bit and ran over to the dog and told her to ‘drop it!’  When she did, the chicken ran away!  Thankfully she didn’t seem to do any major damage, but you can’t have a chicken dog on a farm where there’s chickens. 

‘Hay’ Day

The summer has been so dry here that grass is not growing enough to feed the cows, so their diet has to be supplemented with hay.  Also, since they keep their animals over the winter, hay is necessary for them to eat.  So this requires a lot of hay on hand. 

Justin ordered 34 large round bails to be delivered and we set about to preparing the hay loft.  Then as they began to arrive it was a team effort to roll them into the barn and into place.  The hardest part was rolling the bails up on top of one another to get as many into the barn as possible. 

Haunted Nights

When we first arrived at Las Laous, we chose to make the old hay loft our bedroom.  A room with 3 walls and a gaping window opening where the stars and moon shine through.  Having spent so many nights outside in a tent we didn’t mind at all.  Bundled up in our sleeping bags we were plenty warm. 

Every evening is was a treat to tiptoe through the dark along the path, sidestepping the colorful salamanders to get to bed where the owls call to one another and sing us to sleep.  In addition to that there are many other sounds that are difficult to identify. 

But eventually the weather turned more and more against us.  Racing around in the mornings trying to gather bits of clothing with frozen fingers and struggling to see through the clouds our breath made all while holding a flashlight eventually caused us to retreat inside. 

Much warmer and more convenient, but there’s something I miss about the sounds of the night and being close to nature, feeling the sting of cold on my nose but being able to retreat into the warmth of my sleeping bag, and dreaming about what else is sharing the night with me. 

Motherly Instincts

Full moon came and Fatty had her piglets.  The cutest little things make lovely grunts when feeding which mommy echos.  All huddled together under the heat lamp it’s irrisistable not to go and take peaks at them. 

When checking on the new babes the next day, I say a little one-day-old-piglet outside of the pen.  He had fallen out of a crack along the inside.  The entrance back into the pen was impossibly high for such a little one.  He was running around the outside looking for a way in and I just had to help him get back to the heat lamp and Mommy’s milk!  I went for him once and missed.  As he started to run away out of the electric fenced boundary, I knew I had to act fast.  Lunging for him, I held on as tight as I could for I was sure he would ‘squeal like a stuck pig’ as soon as I touched him.  Correct I was, and that squeal alerted Mommy inside the pen.  I heard her grunting and snorting while struggling to get up around her feeding piglets.  Not wanting to cause a commotion, and certainly not wanting Mommy to come out and see what all the excitement was about, I quickly put baby back inside the house and made a bee-line for the electric fence.  Don’t mess with a 600lb new mother of 11!

Chicken for Dinner


We’ve had quite the remarkable vegetarian staying at the farm - one who eats meat.  I must say, all of us carnavors are quite in awe of her.  Not wanting to raise issues, or cause the family to change the way that they eat, she quietly tried everything that was served.  Most everything was ok except for the cured leg of pork. 

In the barn was a meat bird who was lame and in pain and it was time to put it out of it’s misery (and vary our pork-rich diet).  In an effort to understand what it means to eat meat (and perhaps cement her decision to eat vegetarian) she offered to kill the chicken!  She managed to get through the killing not too badly, but plucking was a bit too much to bear.  And then to eat it…well that’s another story. 

Strange how we associate hurt with the animals we eat, but not for vegetables.  The next day when I was harvesting the garden before the first frost I felt just terrible hacking apart the long vines of the butternut squash plant and tossing it into the compost heap.  At least the chicken died quickly, that plant was still alive! 

Butcharing Basics

1)  Pick up carcasses from the Abatoire (Tip:  get the workers to carry and load since they are very heavy and slippery)
2)  Wrap in picnic table cloth and pack with icepacks
3)  Drive as fast as possible with windows down and A/C on to keep meat cool (Tip:  remember to bring your gloves!)
4)  Throw in deep freeze until butcher arrives (Tip:  make space in freezer before)
5)  Watch in awe as butcher makes it look soo easy
6)  Poke and pry at various interesting parts and organs (Brian’s job)
7)  Package and label all pieces and freeze (Sharilyn’s job)
8)  get ready to feast on some fine meat!

Hauling some Heavy Shit

One of the first jobs Brian had to do upon arrival was cleaning the manure out of the barn.  This family leaves the cattle in the barn over the winter simply piling up new straw on top of the straw and manure for the cows to stand on letting it build all season.  Then the next summer it’s all mucked out into a large pile and is allowed to ‘work’ for another year.  After this it’s ready to go on the garden. 

Hard work though.  Took several days of lifting.  One night Brian came in to say that shit was really heavy - hence hauling some heavy shit.  But the chickens love it - scrambling all around eating the bugs that congregate, and scratching.  Making a right good mess of the nice pile that was made. 

Hungry Hungry…Piggies!

The wiener pigs are incredibly cute.  They see you coming with the food and follow along with all sorts of little grunts and squeals.  If you stop, they stop.  If you make a sound, they make a sound.  But as with all pigs, they love to eat. 

Feeding the wieners entails getting into the enclosure, walking along, and then pouring the feed in a nice long line to they can all eat without too much shoving and fighting.  But all the piggys eagerly gather at the end and you need to push and shove your way through while the mob tried to attack you to get at the food. 

My first time going through I guess I didn’t move fast enough, or was not aggressive enough because the wieners started munching on my legs and shoes.  So much that the one got a plastic bit off of my shoe and ate it!  Not quite the dinner she had in mind, I don’t think.  But it was enough to spur me on to get moving and get the REAL food down!

This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home


Working on a pork farm it’s understandable that the main diet is pork.  This is a meat that I’ve had little experience with besides sausage, bacon, ribs and ham.  Coming to Europe though, it seems to be the more popular meat over chicken and beef. 

I have enjoyed learning about cooking different cuts of meat and what they can be used for.  Some of the more unusual pork bits we’ve eaten while staying here are:  leg, belly, hocks, trotters, crackling, ears and brain.  I’ve also learned how to make lard out of the fat, stock out of the bones, sausage meat and liver pate.  One of the most fascinating things to me is working with the animal to use as much as possible so nearly nothing goes to waste thus respecting the animal as much as possible. 

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