13 Years of Hard Work Up in Smoke

Winter Delights.

It’s the middle of winter and it’s time for pruning. I spend the morning pruning the dozen or so almond trees and then go on to prune the shiraz grape vines, as they are close together. These young almond trees are just coming into their 13th year now, we have other, older almonds that are 38 years old as well, but they are in another part of the garden, in with the original stone fruit orchard and are quite established.
Once you get into it, it’s an easy, mindless job. The sun is warm on my back, as there is no wind this morning. It’s a nice job, so much better than cleaning out the kiln firebox. My only difficulty is when I’m working around the trees and have to prune into the sun, which is low in the sky and makes me squint with it’s brightness. If this is the only thing that I can find to whinge about, then I am a happy man.
While I’m at it, I can’t help but recall Peter Mayle’s fictional neighbour ‘Massot” who he encounters while ‘Massot’ is pruning his vineyard. He has been pushing a wheel barrow along the rows depositing all the prunings into the wheel barrow. There is a small fire glowing in the bottom of the metal barrow and as each new collection of cuttings is deposited, it is ignited from the coals and ashes of the previous vine. As it is described, I can visualise that it’s a beautiful system of ancient ancestry. It removes the dead wood from the vineyard. It doesn’t require any cartage. It sterilizes the woody plant material that might otherwise spread infected material from vine to vine and as there is a hole in the bottom of the barrow, all the ash from the fire is slowly drained out along the rows of vines as soluble fertilizer for when it rains. A pretty perfect system. Beautiful in it’s simplicity. I’ve thought about burning my prunings in one of our metal barrows. Sending 13 years of hard work up in smoke.

Mayle takes great pleasure in humiliating his hard-working peasant neighbour for his earthy roots by pointing out that he has seen small bundles of vine cuttings for sale in posh English department stores, sold as kindling – selling for 10 Euros per bundle. Massot looks back along the long rows of vine trellises and can visualise hundreds of Euros of kindling gone up in smoke. It’s meant to be funny, but maybe it can be read in a different way. Perhaps it illustrates that Mayle feels inferior to the local French man in his natural environment. Mayle can’t see the beauty of the system, only the money and we know that the peasant isn’t getting the money, he has a life deeply embedded in the terroir. Mayle will never be part of this environment, never really comfortable, never naturalised into it, always the expat, his clean hands will always tell that he is from somewhere else.




I bundle my prunings, not for sale, but for kindling in our own fire place. Often used to start the kiln. I like the symmetry of the closed loop. Use what you’ve got. The prunings have to be removed from the orchard and vineyard. The best way to deal with the issues of disease is the burn them, but rather than burn them for no beneficial outcome, using them to start the kiln is a positive use, appropriate for a post-modern peasant-potter.

I water the big potato patch down in the Pantry Field and find that they are still growing wonderfully well, as are the field mushrooms in among them. The tall tree cover has worked wonderfully well to keep the frost off. I wasn’t fully aware up until now just how warm it was down there in that secluded little clearing. I collect a dozen big mushrooms for dinner from in amongst the spuds. We’ll have mushroom soup tonight. A few bunches of herbs and an onion browned in olive oil till soft, then the diced mushroom added and sautéed, some marrowbone and garden mirepoix stock added in and all left to simmer down and reduce, lastly a little flour and oil Roux to thicken it up a little, some pepper, a lovely warming and filling garden delight on a winters night.



We have a huge pile of stumps, old logs too big for the chain saw and too heavy for the tractor to move around, These massive sections of pine tree trunk were given to us to burn in the kiln by my friend’s Mother, when a hundred year old pine snapped off in a severe storm, crashing down in her garden narrowly missing her house. The tree was 1.8 metres across and each section weighed more than a tonne. It was delivered by bobcat and tip truck, 20 tonnes of it over three trips. I cut up what I could manage by myself, the section up to 1.2 metres, but some of the larger base sections were just too big. Now, after 3 or 4 years, the white ants and wood rot have set in, so I have to deal with it. I get the bobcat back and get what’s left pushed up into a pile. We add some nasty weeds that we don’t want to seed around the garden and woody garden waste too thick for the shredder, but too small for hob wood. It’s all piled up on the spare block, where we stock pile our kiln wood.
As the weather is clear and fine with no wind, it’s winter and there are no fire bans, we decide to burn off all this otherwise difficult to deal with herbage. In the evening we light it and it goes up like a Guy Fawkes’ night celebration. We have the long fire hoses ready and the high pressure fire pump going. It’s a good chance to give it a run and check that everything is in working order, ready for the summer.

We crack a bottle of home-brew beer, congratulate ourselves for a long day of hard work and watch it burn, The flare of light tinder is all over in half an hour, but the massive stumps and log sections remain glowing and smouldering into and through the night. Janine is up at 1.00 am to check it and I’m out there again at 6am.
In the early morning light there are three separate collections of smouldering lumps. I get the tractor out and push them all together, back into one big pile and they burst back into flames and continue to burn throughout the day. I hate to waste wood like this, but without the machinery to deal with such big lumps, there doesn’t seem to be any other option for me. I can’t afford to pay the bob cat driver to come and work here regularly, while I work my way through the pile, I don’t want to have a massive termite nest on my door step and now that it has spent a few years in the weather, what’s left of this spongy pine has all gone quite ‘manky’, and lost most of it’s calorific value. A fire seems to be the best way.

We spend all of the next day tending and supervising the fire. Cleaning up a lot of small rubbish, rotten wood and weeds. Someone has to stay with it all of the time, just to be safe. There might be some good ash to be collected, if there isn’t any wind or rain before it all cools down, so that I can get to it.
I cook tofu in sesame oil for lunch with garden vegetables, broccolini and coriander. A little bit of fish sauce makes it sing.



Day 3 of our fire sees very little left of the pile. Just one big block that started off as a 1.8 x 1.8 metre stump, weighing several tonnes, is now mostly gone. We have to drag in other pieces of wood to keep it alight. It’s a chance to clean up the back block and the little lane that wanders through the centre of our land. This pretty little wandering bushy lane was once the main east west road through the village. It was never legally gazetted, but just used by the locals as the shortest route between A and B. There were 3 attempt to make an access path through to the east ridge and 2 of them went through our place. They were both abandoned because the land there is so low-lying and boggy in wet weather. Parts of the lane were paved with stones to try to overcome this, but never satisfactorily. Eventually a legally gazetted road was built in the right place, but it meant a lot of very expensive earthworks.
Our small lane is almost completely over grown now. We’ve seen to that by blocking it off at both ends to stop weekend 4 wheel drivers winching their way through our land without asking on long weekends. It’s a very pretty place to go now, and as it isn’t used anymore, except by us to get to the back of our land to collect firewood, it has soon become over-grown. I decide to take the tractor down there, mow it and clean out all the dead wood, and while I’m at it, I cut up a few dead trees that have fallen down along the track and up on the dam bank of the ‘Max Lake’ out biggest dam, The one that we had built in order to collect and store water for irrigating our vineyard.

Janine has a stroke of genius in getting onto the hot smoldering coals and hot ashes to poke at the fire and shift logs with her rake without melting her shoes. She places thick sheets of stringybark bark down on the ashes first then steps onto them to do the work. She then retrieves them before they burst into flames. I have ruined one pair of old boots by working in the hot ashes and melting the soles.


As it’s Friday and the end of the week, we celebrate by not eating any mushrooms. We have lightly fried tofu again with more garden greens.



So that’s what ‘s been happening this week with the hot-footed, self-reliant Guy and Girl Fawkes, who are lighting the blue touch-paper and standing back to wait and see what happens.

With fond regards from his Naked Flame and her Rake