Last of the Reine Claudes 2

When I told my farm-raised aunt I’d been canning summer vegetables she exclaimed,  “I thought putting up the beans had gone the way of party-line telephones! A shame she wasn’t on hand when I was facing a bumper crop a few years ago.  Her house maker’s DNA registered everything a country survivor needed, including pie crust recipes that still used solid Crisco. Alone amidst the plenty, there was no option but to teach myself how to can.  I found it scary (kill the family if you don’t sterilize properly) painful (forging through scalding water to that last jar at the […]

The Peach Lady’s Daughter 5

When I first came to France as a new bride, I overheard snatches of Friday night conversation – “… early rising tomorrow…  seeing the Duchess…” The next morning the old bell in the courtyard (used in emergencies such as a suspected drowning or for urgent rallying causes, like dinner) sent wake-up shards through the entire house. No pity for latecomers, they were left mercilessly behind to fight over a few stale croissants in an empty larder. In a packed car, lurching along the sinuous road that borders the Dordogne, we were the fidele en route to the holy land – the […]

Honey Bees in the Attic

Photos by Michele Marechal

In the days when the children were children it was the perfect secret hideout.  Secluded, silent, untrammeled. A place for scary stories and hatching plots among menacing gargoyles and doors nailed shut for decades.

Tower Gargoyle

Honey Bees in the Tower Attic

But no one goes up into the tower much anymore.   Perhaps that’s why the honey bees took over.

Bee hive inside the tower, between window and shutter

The colony had multiplied quickly by the time the beekeeper arrived.  We were expecting armored suits and masks from ghostbusters, but were greeted instead by the gentle and wiry Monsieur Labaye (yes, pronounced just like “abeille” – honey bee) who brought only his smoking device and a little mobile home.

Monsieur Labaye and his Bee Smoker

Labaye lit up his smoking can – just rosemary, thyme and grass cuttings – saying the smoke is intended to distract the bees, not to make them drowsy.  The intrusion is a threat, but rather than become aggressive, they get busy making more honey (storing up for the imminent emergency) and thus pay less attention to the new beekeeper.

honeycomb, wax visible

This wasn’t the first time honey bees had taken refuge here.  A few years ago a swarm took up residence under a picnic table and a local beekeeper transported the swarm to our woods – we relished their rare “oak honey” with its faintly smoky taste.

honey seeping from the honeycomb

Monsieur Labaye said it’s hard to know why a colony suddenly moves.  Usually, their home has been disturbed; always to follow and protect their queen.

Hive at open window

Since the bees will follow their honeycomb, Labaye began cutting it away to fit into a shelf in the mobile home.

placing honeycomb pieces into shelf for temporary home

He placed the home on the windowsill.

Placing the mobile home

Then he made a little bridge to facilitate their passage.

Bridge to the mobile home

With some gentle encouragement.

Bare hands, bare ankles

No gloves, no mask, no socks.   Imagine the Pied Piper vibrations.

Moving the bees

And all this time he was looking for the queen.  He said she must be a virgin queen since the honeycomb had no larvae yet.  He picked up handful after handful of bees and gently brushed them, searching.

looking for the queen, brushing gently

He found a couple of large male fertilizing bees, but still no queen as the process went on.

found a male fertilizing bee

Suddenly there came a shriek from down below – a visitor almost stepped on a clump of bees.  Labaye picked up the furry, humming mound and began gently brushing.  There in the middle he found the queen. She had fallen out of the hive and been immediately surrounded by her protectors.  He placed her most delicately in the waiting carriage and off they went.

Bees flying

We sighed as Monsieur Labaye drove away with our refugees, and talked about colony collapse and the profits generated by pesticides.  Someone quoted Einstein –  “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Perfect Honeycomb

We’ll go visit Monsieur Labaye soon to see the honeybees in their new home  – set among thousands of buzzing companions in a field of sunflowers.

La Fête du Village 2

It carried me back to childhood days at my grandparent’s farming town in Michigan. Local farmers purveying their wares, in this case vignerons showing off their wines, and the villagers grazing from stand to stand, comparing, (secretly of course) greeting neighbors, exchanging news. On the square in front of the Mairie (Town Hall) tables heaved under sausages, frites and brochettes of grilled duck. Children tilted somersaults on the lawn and a 10 piece blues band wailed American oldies – imagine “Mustang Sally” and “When a Man Loves a Woman” with saxophone sexiness and an endearing French accent.  We leapt to […]

June – Linden Blossom Tea 8

Every June we’re brought to our senses by the ubiquitous perfume of the Linden Trees.  A hot Sunday afternoon, time out from chores, we sit under their massive boughs and synch into the hum of hundreds of bees. Someone is dozing in the hammock there, dreaming of Linden Flower honey. Under the soporific spell Henri toys with a flower and asks his Tata Claire if she knows how to make Linden Tea.  Nap time ends abruptly. First, John saws off several low branches that beg for pruning.  We perch inside a fragrant heap of leaves and flowers teeming with insects […]

New Vegetable Garden, and a recipe for Sorrel 4

The oldsters still check the almanac and wag a finger – “don’t plant your tomatoes until after the “saints de glace” – these 3 days in mid May when the last fear of crop-killing frost is over.  This period also coincides with Mother’s Day and John’s birthday.  Since he’s become such a mere poule over the years I like how it all comes together symmetrically on my calendar. Perhaps foolishly, but in tune with his cell deep “life is short” hard-wiring, we jumped the gun and planted a new vegetable garden this week on the hilltop near the vineyard.  Rhubarb, cucumber, […]

Unsightly Virtue (or Safe Houses for April Birds) 6

Stone huts, stables, barns, pig sties…. The oldest out-buildings of the vineyard weep for renovation.  Fortunately, I was reassured this morning that there is an upside to not having the time or means to make everything “nice.” One reward for living in semi disarray – the joy of sighting two “Huppes fasciées,” (Hoopoe in English) a protected species in Europe.  Their numbers have fallen as pesticide use has grown and killed off their meal plan, mostly big insects like slugs, beetles, snails, etc.  They nest in old abandoned buildings, piles of rocks, fallen trees.  There has been a family here […]

Signs of Hope 1

This week the vineyard abruptly woke up.  Baby vine buds everywhere. Heart breakingly beautiful.   And so fragile.  The farmers don’t smile at the beauty. They fret about a sudden freeze. Survival at -2 degrees.  -3, no. I can’t think about that this morning. Too full of hope.

The Stonemason’s Hands 2

Many years ago we thought a diagnostic of the house stones would be wise. Did that crack in the façade presage a catastrophe? Or normal settling after a few centuries? Acknowledging that reading stones was like reading runes – interpreter required – we looked up the most reputable stonemason in our region. I was expecting an iron booted, massive sumo type covered in rock dust, but it was a smallish fellow in canvas sneakers, hopping out of a truck nimble as a goat who extended his hand.  His eyes burned a bleached out blue against the worker’s tan, framed by […]

Not All Green Is Good 1

Ever since the time I caught head lice when the kids were little, I’ve been slightly insane about parasites.  Hospitality is a delicate custom and in my ideal universe, giver and receiver should get a fair shake.  So when the vegetation is laid bare in winter and I spy prettiness that isn’t what it seems to be, I get a little crazy. Take ivy.  Okay, I admit I’m biased and I know ivy is not a perfect example, but since I’m on a rampage, I’ll begin here.  This centuries’ old acacia boule has been the setting for an ongoing battle for […]

Hunt, Cook, Eat (and a recipe for Wild Boar) 3

We found their guilty hoof prints where they were digging in the vineyard during the night.  Denis saw a culprit in September, lollygagging on a compost pile in the middle of the day.  Last summer we came upon one in siesta, splayed out on a cool pile of mud in the woods.  Normally the wild boar only venture out in the dark.  But as they grow numerous they get comfy, and when they travel in packs the havoc they wreak is considerable – to young trees and especially to young vines. Almost makes you long for the days of the […]

The Abandoned Orchard

All night long I dreamed about tree roots.  Specifically the fine little hairs that reach down into the rhizosphere and commune with the surrounding micro organisms in the soil.  Since it’s the season to plant trees, perhaps it was subconscious and conscious trying to fashion an equation:  desire for luscious boughs of future fruit + fascination with the mysterious symbiosis going on below the surface of the earth. With two harvests behind us, we can lift our eyes to acknowledge the old fruit orchard.  It was planted decades ago by some wise person, in the middle of the vineyard.  Before […]

Pumpkin Soup

A neighbor asked me for our Pumpkin Soup recipe after I brought a small pot to her son who was home alone with a terrible flu. Our conversation went like this: me:  “First you make your soup stock:  Put 2 chicken carcasses in a large pot of water, add several cloves of garlic, a whole head if you like, especially in winter. Garlic is great against colds and flu. Salt, pepper and several bay leaves.  John adds a couple of onions and a few carrots, but if you’re in a hurry, don’t worry about that. Bring to a boil, then […]

Rolling through the Vineyard

There is nothing like a bike ride up and down the hills of Juillac. I wave to my neighbors in their fields, the poignant September light reminding us that summer has ended and harvest is near. I always finish my tour with a roll through the vineyard for a quick, reassuring check; pluck a few warm, fat, juicy grapes to quench my thirst.

Stinging Greens that Heal

One of the best things about May is stinging nettles. Yes, the famous sting means it takes a bit of courage to make friends with them, but once you do, these “weeds” have a reputation of curing whatever ails. Aches and pains, coughs, colds, fatigue (lots of Vitamin C, iron and magnesium) diarrhea, arthritis… You can make herbal tea, “decoctions” (brews), lotions, soups, vegetable platters (blanched in boiling water just long enough to neutralize the stinging whiskers, trickle olive oil: sweet, and better than spinach!)… Or ferment it in buckets of rain water and make the awful/wonderful “purin d’ortilles” (smells nauseating, […]

New Born Calf

The farmer’s daughter is 7 years old, a high frequency impish thing, all pixie in high rubber boots covered with mud. She’s on a first name basis with every creature at the farm, has captured every wild heart, prances between horses, cows, dogs, chickens, taming the wariest with some child deep magic. Every evening she’s at the barn with her father at feeding time, and recently she lured me into her impatient waiting game for the birth of the new baby calf.  A few days ago while mama ate, we caressed the full sphere of belly, gaped as the shape […]

March 12th 2012 – Daffodils

Up at the tomb this morning, bearing the first daffodils of Spring.  The indefatigable maitresse de maison planted the bulbs years ago, but she was rarely here when they popped up.   March has always been a month of happy birthdays in our family, but it took on a different tone last year when Maman et Papa came to their final rest here.  I like to think they would have been pleased to see their granddaughters standing in the March sunshine, enormous bouquets of yellow in their arms; glorious, indefatigable daffodils to honor their memory.


Newspapers declare that time in Aquitaine has stopped. Unlike the other glorious seasons, winter here is on the whole mostly mud and comfortingly unremarkable.  So we were unprepared for this unusually fierce cold snap; weeks of sub zero, broken pipes, snow that doesn’t melt, ice.  Without salt or sand, we’re using cinders from the fireplace for traction on the driveway, but the hilly road is impassable.    We hike through the woods to the village for bread.  Wrapped in silence, over ice covered creeks, crossing animal tracks.  From deeper in the brush comes a mysterious sound like faint elfish bells. […]

Wild Boar

I am up to my elbows in blood and wine.  Monsieur C. paid one of his visits last week and after four days of serious marinating I’m ready to slice his massive thigh of wild boar into fine strips.  It’s raw and cold but smelling wonderfully of burgundy and juniper berries. The boar have been pesky lately.  We hear them rooting in the thickets at night and witness their destruction in the morning.  When I’d gone out eager to see them at work the other evening, our elder son collared me; they charge if they feel threatened especially if it’s […]