Making Sloe Gin

It's pretty amazing what you can find in the hedgerows round here on your Autumn walks. A few years ago I would have just walked past everything, as walks were more about taking in the view and a bit of exercise. When you stop to look at what's around you, you begin to find the hidden gems that nature has to offer...for free!

Our mission recently has been to find sloes. Sloes are plump round large berry like fruits that grow on a bush. They look a bit like blueberries but the difference is sloes have a stone in the middle and don't taste very nice. Once we identified them we started to see them everywhere, usually not far away from rosehips. It may be a little early to harvest them as usually you wait for the first frosts, but many that I saw were starting to dry up and drop to the ground. So armed with a basket and a hook we recently set out to forage enough to make a bottle of sloe gin.

Sloe gin is so easy to make as all you need are sloes, sugar, and gin. Collect enough sloes to fill a steralized bottle and prick them before putting them in. Add enough sugar so that it fills half the bottle and top up with gin. It needs to be shaken weekly for at least 2 months but we're planning to leave ours for up to a year to allow the flavour to mature. You can see in the picture above how the pricked sloes are starting to do their magic in the gin after just one day.

Now that we've found our secret stash of sloes we can start a yearly harvest to make sure we have a steady supply of sloe gin in time for Christmas each year!

Autumn Walks

At the weekend my boys were in the garden pulling out weeds, picking the last of the summer tomatoes and turning the soil. The chickens were running around freely, scratching for worms and eating any abandoned produce they could find. When I arrived to join them Reuben and Jacob were both rolling around in the freshly turned earth, throwing it high and declaring 'I love mud'! I remember the days when I used to take Reuben to the local children's centre for messy play and how he hated touching anything that would stick to his hands such as shaving foam, that cornstarch gloop, or sand. The only thing I could tempt him with was the water table. How times have changed!

Autumn so far has been kind to us this year and the warmth of the sun has meant frequent walks around the village. I'm proud that Reuben can identify many different wild flowers and fruits along the roadside. He can spot figs, plums and blackberries. He comes home clutching bunches of sweet pea, cowparsley and dandelions which he likes to put in a small vase and keep in his bedroom. We were out at the weekend picking rosehips and sloes. 'We're going to make sloe gin' he explained to his little brother, 'it's a drink for grown ups'!

Our new sideboard has become a bit of a nature table with a bird's nest that I found whilst grape harvesting, conkers and acorns. We're finding leaves from different trees, berries (for the birds) and of course the ever favourite sticks!

Do you have a nature table at home? What's on yours?

Bruniquel - The Alphabet Adventures!

Our Alphabet Adventures kicked off in Albi and 'B' finds us heading to Bruniquel, a village a little closer to home. A 40 minute drive away alongside the l'Aveyron river, as we approached Bruniquel we admired the towering Chateaux that stands at the top of the village. Our boys are currently fans of knights which was one of the reasons for visiting Bruniquel as you can visit the Chateaux and imagine it what life was like in the 'olden days' as Reuben puts it!

The busy tourist season in this area doesn't really last long. For many businesses as soon as September hits they close or reduce their hours. Bruniquel was pretty quiet and there were a couple of places we would have like to have visited were now closed for winter. The Chateaux however stays open until mid November. The main village is just for pedestrians and we worked up a good appetite up the steep and narrow roads to find somewhere for lunch. We ended up right down at the bottom along the main road where we found a restaurant offering a reasonable three course meal that gave us the energy to walk all the way back up to the Chateaux.

The Chateaux is huge, with endless rooms to get lost in. It's in various different states of disrepair. There are rooms that have been tidied up for visitors to look round, and then there are many rooms out of bounds. Parts of the Chateaux are clearly being restored but there were no workers around so we did wonder whether we were supposed to be in some of the rooms as it felt like walking into a building site. I couldn't help think that if this were a National Trust place back in the UK it would be slightly more loved.

The boys loved walking around, imagining knights in full armour in the ruined knights room, past the huge pressing machine, and into the old kitchen where we found a huge wooden canon. We climbed winding stairs to the top of the buildings and took in the view, and ran away from the bronze dinousaur in the prehistoric room!

Hopefully they will continue to restore the Chateaux as it's sad to see historical buildings like this one fall to ruin. The Bruniquel and it's Chateaux are worth a visit and we look forward to visiting the village next summer to see the the village in full swing!

Have you been anywhere recently beginning with the letter 'B'?

Grape Harvest 2014

Sunday evening I collapsed on the sofa with a cup of tea and an aching back. I had spent the good part of six hours throughout the day harvesting grapes at Domaine de Merchien. It's harvest time here in France and the rows upon rows of crops in fields are being cut down by hand or by machines, and vineyards in the region are calling upon help for the yearly vendange or grape harvest.

We did a little picking on the Saturday and took the boys along with us. The weather was kind as the sun shone, and the team of us snipped away at what grapes we could find, filling buckets until they were overflowing and handing them over to the tractor weaving it's way through the vines. The boys, being as young as they are, got bored pretty quickly. Too little to handle a pair of shears they watched mummy and daddy and helped tip the grapes into larger containers. They were treated however to their first proper tractor ride which they both absolutely loved!

As we arrived late on the Saturday we felt we hadn't earned our lunch, which is why I returned the following day in the rain. I dug my waterproofs out from the loft and had wellies at the ready, but luckily the rain held off for most of the day and the sun made an appearance at lunch. We started at 8.30am and picked till gone 2pm. A much needed coffee break with so many different cakes kept us going until lunch was ready.

And what a feast we were rewarded with for all our hard work! Soups to warm our cold aching bodies, salad with cous cous, chicken and ham pie (so delicious!) sausages in cider with mash and green beans. Then the puddings! I couldn't see much past the two big pavlovas with kiwi and chocolate! But there was also bread and butter pudding with custard and more cakes. All this washed down with wine from grapes picked in previous years and beer also made and sold on site.

We'll be back next year and hopefully the boys can get a bit more stuck in. if you fancy trying some of Domaine de Merchien's wine or beers you can find them at local markets throughout the year or visit their vineyard. Check out their website for more details!

Lou Messugo

Tilly's Brigitte Scarf

When my husband bought me a sewing machine, what feels like years ago now, I had dreams of making beautiful quilts that would be passed down throughout the generations. In London my sewing space was the kitchen table and although here in France I have a dedicated craft space up in the loft, my sewing journey is still so much slower than I thought it would be. I still consider myself a beginner and I'm still terrified of sewing anything other than straight lines!

The Great British Sewing Bee programme really opened my eyes to the possibilities of a gorgeous handmade wardrobe that has now become my new dream. (I have yet to sew my first quilt!) But how to get round the fear of sewing clothes...with sleeves, zips, seams and bias binding?! Luckily there are some lovely new books coming out to help beginners like me to get going. Tilly Walnes from the first series of the Sewing Bee launched her book 'Love At First Stitch' this year and I ordered a signed copy straight from her website along with one of her skirt patterns.

The first project in the book is the Brigitte Scarf. I raided my fabric stash and after a quick glance at the instructions cut my fabric totally wrong. Lesson number the pattern instructions through from start to finish before starting any project! I rectified my mistake and within less than an hour I had my first scarf! The layout of the book is great, the instructions are easy to follow, there are pictures to help you along the way, and suggestions on how you can make the project your own. It looks like I'm going to be turning a couple into pirate headbands soon as when I gave it to Jacob to wear he didn't want to take it off!

I'm now ready for project number two...pyjama bottoms! What's on your sewing table?

Painting Stones

My boys have been obsessed with stones ever since they were little. They tried to eat them as babies, have thrown them into water, dug them up with their trucks and dropped them into holes. We decided to get creative with our current stone collection and paint them. We sat on our doorstep and painted caterpillars, spiders, cars and butterflies. We left them to dry on the windowsill and then hid some in our neighbours plant pots as a surprise! I have collected enough small smooth stones to create a set of numbers and the alphabet. Jacob has been coming home from school singing the French alphabet recently so a letter set would be fun to help his learning. I also love the idea of painting some story stones to inspire storytelling.

What have you painted recently?
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