December 2008

Having been here well over a year, you’d think my conversational ability in French would have improved dramatically. I clearly do, despite some evidence to the contrary.

A couple of weeks ago, my dentist asked me if I was having any more trouble with the tooth he’s in the expensive and involved process of fixing. I smiled reassuringly and said: ‘No, not at all. I have pretty much forgotten the pain.’

Or rather, that’s what I thought I said.

What actually came out of my mouth was: ‘I’ve made a mistake with the bread.’

This office isn’t like the others I’ve worked in.

Instead of extra-shot lattes, almond croissants and airborne viruses, my colleagues bring in things like eggs from their own chickens, rabbits (dead or alive, for table or children), ducks, turkeys, sausages, an impressive variety of fruits and veggies, and an almost constant supply of meat-free kitchen scraps for our pigs.

I’ve got to say I prefer it this way.

When we were buying the land a couple of years ago, we were standing where the orchard is now, looking at the boundary several hundred metres (yards) away. ‘Next year,’ I said letting myself get carried away for a moment with the whole land-buying thing, ‘we’ll buy the bit beyond that – then more and more until we own everything!’

When we were selling our house last year, various people were talking to us about the sizeable amount of cash we were about to receive. ‘Yeah, but next year,’ I said, ‘we’re going to spend the lot. Every penny.’

On the Friday before last, during a meeting a few doors away from when I am sitting right now, we signed a contract for our next bit of land and handed over a cheque representing our last bit of cash.

So excuse me while I think about (and not say) what’s going to happen next…

Pepito ran away a few times. Which meant the fence became Priority Numero Uno for a while. The ground was perfect for these posts and it was a joy to swing a sledgehammer again.

Coming soon, our first attempt at post-and-rail.

We also ate our first wild mushrooms. We didn’t do this stupidly, but bought a comprehensive book on the subject and had them checked by the local pharmacist (a service provided free around these parts). Cooking and eating them was still pretty unnerving, although bluddie delicious.

Here’s a mushroom we didn’t try, although I think you’ll agree it’s pretty wild in its own way.

So, I had the right pig in the right place. All I needed now was the right method.

For my first trick, I tried apples.

On the day before our next planned trip to the abattoir, I walked past the pig field rustling a bag of apples. I tossed a few into the back of the trailer (I’ve become quite an impressive tosser in the last year – more on this, later) and went off to feed the chickens. Out of the corner of my eye, with much pleasure, I saw the pig climb into the trailer and go about his breakfast.

The next day, I repeated the exercise: I rustled the bag; I tossed in more apples; and after the pig climbed in, I shut the door.

Ta-da. (Thank you very much.)

Minutes later, Sonia turned up with her 4 x 4 and pulled the trailer out of the field. We gave him some extra breakfast to calm his nerves. Then drove, with the mixed feelings that come with taking full responsibility for your decision to eat meat, the 25 minutes to the abattoir at Bergerac.

Which was a surprisingly nice place.

We buzzed at the big metal gate, which slid open to receive us (at 12.05! Lunchtime in France!) and checked in with the receptionist. She put down her roll-up and welcomed us in.

She: (in French) ‘How old is the pig?’

We: ‘About a year.’

She: (looking relieved) ‘He’ll be a good size, then. (PAUSE) There have been lots of pigs in lately who are only six weeks old. For Christmas in Paris. They’ve had to put boards around the bottom of the pens to stop them escaping. It’s absolutely savage.’

This was literally the last place you’d expect to meet an animal lover.

Next, we went through another push-button gate to the dropping-off area. Past the entrances for cattle, sheep and veal, to pigs. A rather impressive piece of reversing followed and we were set. With a little help from a very strong (and equally nice) man, we walked the pig through a shed that felt and smelt very much like a farm, into a waiting pen.

At that time of day (five minutes after opening) there were only two other pigs in there. Two pigs that, “coincidentally”, had been delivered moments before by one other than Gary and Marlene – the people we bought our pigs from in the first place.

My first trip to the abattoir had an immediate effect on the way I look at meat.

When I opened a packet of mince that evening, I didn’t just see a pile of diced beef. I saw a living and breathing animal that had been taken to an abattoir, walked through the same kind of shed and waited in the same kind of pen as our pig was waiting in. It completed a picture I’d never had reference for before.

(Vegetarians will enjoy a small break from pigs while I catch you up with some of the many other ecovallee jobs that are making our lives so unbelievably full at the moment. Then it’s butchery. Without the pictures.)

I just read this comment from ‘peterbaldwin’ on Robert Peston’s blog. It’s very well written – it’s even spelt correctly:

“It is understood I hope, that Capitalism as it has been known during the last 30 years is all but dead. An immensely painful transition is about to get underway in the western economies. As a nation we can embrace the changes and help it along, or we can resist, thereby making the transition even more painful than it needs to be. At the moment, and I fear for the next few years, it looks like we are going to resist. We will keep borrowing, keep pumping money into a dead economy, and we will keep digging this hole deeper and deeper.

An enlightened government however would see the crass stupidity in this action and take a look to 10 or 20 years ahead and see where all this is leading and start planning for it now. For that is really what governments are for, the long term and not the short term, as unfortunately they all seem to be these days.

In 10 or 20 years the market economy must cease to exist. If we artificially keep it alive, then as a nation, and as well as a race, we will plunge headlong into total economic and social collapse as the accelerating environmental changes take hold and demand impossible resources to deal with them, especially if we want to keep our present day levels of consumption and living standards. The eco system can no longer support us.

So the future is a known quantity. It is a hot, hungry, dry and hard place to be. If the present way of life is to change, as it must, then it must change in a controlled way to meet the future we see coming. Economies, production methods, social systems and personal needs all have to be directed to a way of life that can be sustained.

Money as King is a corpse. Profit as prince is dead. What we are seeing at the moment with the tax payer directly and visibly supporting the economy and thereby our society. This will continue and become the norm, expanding into all areas of money and material production. It will not be called Communism, but rather Socialised Capitalism.

The trick will be to stop the taxpayer realising his power and keeping it in the hands of those who currently weld it. Until that trick is achieved, then the current pain will continue and deepen because the power welders will be scared of letting go and scared of change to the status quo.

When the transition is completed, then accelerating competition can ease and our focus can be turned to the real issues. Our very survival.”

More on this, later.

(It gets worse.)

A few days after we divided the pig field and successfully confined one porker with the trailer to sleep in (an idea generally deemed Well Worth Trying), Her Outdoors was late picking me up from work. Unusually late. And when she arrived, she was unusually agitated.

‘Black pig’s gone,’ she said.

These three little words may not seem much to you, but this close to slaughter they have a relative value of over 230 euros (about 230 pounds). Each.

‘F*c*i*g pigs,’ she said. (She doesn’t swear like me.)

Apparently (and this will come as no surprise to pig-followers of this blog), Her Outdoors had turned up for the evening feed to discover all was not as we had left it. On one side, in the trailer part of the pig field, the smallest (but most inquisitive and food-led) pig slept comfortably in the trailer. But on the other side of the field there was… just a field.

Maybe the fence had shorted out on the trailer. Maybe the battery had failed. Either way, at some point since breakfast the two big pigs had gone trotabout.

Only slightly disturbed (so far) by this turn of events, the Pig Whisperer armed herself with a bucket of feed and went hunting. Her weapon of choice: ‘Piggy-piggies!’

It half worked.

After a few moments, the White-Faced Pig came trotting through the long grass and, true to recent form, obediently returned to the big pig area. Which was when the pig from the trailer side of the field made a dash through the un-electrified fence, instantly undoing our previous hard work.

A few more volleys of ‘piggy-piggy’ were tried. But night fell fast and heavy, and Her Outdoors came to pick me up.

‘He’s probably already been shot,’ she suggested as I pulled my seatbelt on (a high probability, given the number of hunters in these parts and the very-much-like-a-wild-boar appearance of the missing pig).

When we were nearly home, Her Outdoors remembered she’d left the battery in the field and forgotten to pick up some bread.

Like I said, she was unusually agitated.

It’s at times like these (and I know I am not alone) that I like to play what Edmund Blackadder might call the ‘Blind Optimism Card’. I selflessly volunteered to return to the land (ooh, about a kilometre away), collect the battery and see if there was any sign of the pig.

At first, it didn’t look good. Two black shapes moved around in the dark where two black shapes should have been. ‘Piggy-piggies’, I said.

A snuffling sound off-stage right, near the compost. I turned. The wind-up torch revealed none other than Troublesome Pig. The pig we originally wanted to get into the back of the trailer in “Stick and board… Part I”. (Can you see where I’m going here?)

Some deft fence turning off, food tossing, door laying down across wires to create a clear path and the pig was where it should have been all along. All with time for me to pick up the battery, some bread, a four-euro bottle of fizz to celebrate a 700-euro saving, and return home a Pigging Hero.

(It gets better.)

‘Fucking pigs!’ (OK. Does contain swearing.) This is me last Monday, large stick in hand, running, again, after a large porker that is completely out of hand. I approach from one side; Her Outdoors from the other. Together, we steer the semi-feral beast towards a corridor made by veggie patch and pig field. I think we’ve got him this time. But at the last moment, he breaks left and legs it past the polytunnel, up the hill, across the track and into the woods. All I can say is: ‘Fucking pigs!’

The day had started so well.

After the school run, we popped down to Beaumont to borrow a trailer from Michelin-star Steve. Had a quick coffee and a chat. Lovely. English-mafia friend, Sonya, arrived with a 4×4, and drove said trailer through the slightly soggy field and into position. All we had to do was persuade one of the pigs up the ramp into the back and off we’d go to the abattoir.

Plan A only started to go wrong when it swung into action. Her Outdoors’ freshly finished ramp was tossed to one side by one pig. Another started eating it. The third smashed the food bucket, spilling the incentive all over the ground and started tucking into breakfast.

Plan B was quickly improvised. This involved an electrified path leading up to the trailer, and the separating of one pig from the other two. A number of other Plans followed, all designed to guide the one escaped pig back into the pig area we started with.

Time is no friend in moments like these, and eventually Sonya had to go and collect people from the airport. Which meant the trailer had to stay in the field, ring-fenced to stop greedy pigs eating tyres, wires, or anything else they could lay their teeth into. Thusly:

When I went into work on Tuesday, a colleague asked me how the trip to the abattoir went.

I told her.

‘You didn’t have a method?’ she asked. ‘You have to have a method.’

‘Fucking pigs,’ I replied.

The people I work with are bilingual to varying degrees; the resulting Frenglish resulting in the occasional ms understanding.

For instance, on Monday I was telling a fully fluent-in-French English colleague why I’d been so brutally hungover the day before.

‘Saturday evening’, I explained, ‘turned into a bit of a band-member reunion drinkathon, with me, my last bassist, our drummer and a friend of his from England who was keen to experience a typical evening in France.

‘It began’, I began, ‘with Ricard and nibbles; followed by a surprisingly offensive drinking game involving gin, tonic and an olive strapped to a cube of sugar (I won’t explain – probably ever – but j’ai gagné!); then a sampling of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau; followed by a very good red; and some Bergerac I brought with me.

(All accompanied by an excellent selection of music on youtube – I saw Deep Purple and Uzeb for the first time!)

‘At around midnight’, I went on (we all did), ‘we had some freshly made and seriously garlic-y soup, and then l’eau de vie.’

She looked at me. Shocked by the last bit and, I thought, slightly awed, with tinges of new-found respect.

(Now I know eau de vie – a brandy-cum-Polish-jet-fuel-like substance, in this case made from prunes – is strong, but it doesn’t warrant that kind of expression. Maybe I was misreading her and she was wondering why such piffling quantities of booze would render me so nostalgically hungover.)

‘I think,’ I said, ‘it was the l’eau de vie that did for me. I really shouldn’t drink the stuff.’

‘Oh’, my colleague said, much relieved, leaning on the table in the kitchen for support. ‘I thought you said a load of e.’