Last week Cercles was beset by funerals, family feuds and disputes between neighbours flying out of control, so a breath of fresh air was exactly what we needed. We had met Chantal and Isabelle at the fantastic New Year’s Eve folk night in Goûts Rossignol. Having kept in touch afterwards and exchanged a few organic gardening tips, we decided to visit them in their wooden chalet near Excideuil.
Chantal and Isabelle are very much into ecological living. Despite working for the CREATE Centre in Bristol for two years, I have never put the ecological lifestyle into action to anything like the same degree. Now that we live at The Barn, with our own renovation project ahead, we will have the opportunity to put some of it into practice.
The ecological awareness of most French people where we live is limited to their largely traditional relationship with food, eating with the seasons and preserving produce. Chantal and Isabelle, however, have embraced the modern low-energy lifestyle wholeheartedly: producing a dazzling array of organic food and drink, dealing with waste and keeping their house warm using very basic technology, if any at all.
On arrival we were treated to a tour of their ‘domaine’ (‘estate’ – actually a very manageable hectare). They proudly showed us the wood store, where the wood they cut from their own trees is kept for three years before being burned on the fire, so that it is really dry and burns efficiently, giving stronger heat for each felled tree. Their three-bedroom house is heated with just one wood-burner, positioned in the middle of the house.
The woods were very overgrown when they moved in four years ago, so they had a huge stroke of luck when they cleared the shoulder high brambles to reveal a hidden walnut grove of more than 30 trees. I am very envious as we only have one walnut tree, which has chosen to grow under a telephone wire. Later we spent a companionable half hour sorting crushed shells from walnuts, to be pressed into delicious walnut oil.
Passing by the luxury chicken pen, with a new natural bamboo shelter, and the compost heaps (which include human waste – more about that later), we returned via the cellar. Here was a huge storage space full of roots stored in sand boxes and jars of preserved fruit and vegetables on neat shelves made from old packing cases.
Back in the warm living room, our apéritif was a choice of ‘Ratafia’ made from their own cherries, or ‘Vin de Noix’, a walnut liqueur. Both were delicious and the Ratafia sparked a memory of the song ‘Marcelle Ratafia’ by the Négresses Vertes, a ska punk folk band with a North African influence who were very big when I lived in Toulouse twenty years ago.
After a cosy night’s sleep our hosts took us to see some amazing ‘cabanes perchées’ (treehouses) at the Moulin de la Jarousse. Here guests stay in an exotic range of shelters, from a Zen treehouse to a floating cabin on the lake, via more traditional yurts. Our visit ends in the future with the ‘LOV’NID’, an organic space age sphere that appears to float amongst the tall tree trunks where it is suspended on steel wires. Inside is a circular bed with a window to the stars. The name is a multiple play on words – ‘LOV’NID’, using the English ‘love’ and French ‘nid’ (nest) to make a ‘love nest’ that also stands for a UFO (‘OVNI’ in French).
With our taste for the unusual satisfied before lunch, we savoured more of Chantal and Isabelle’s home made culinary delights – preserved garlic, home made basil pesto, and pickled nasturtium seeds (‘graines de capucines’), with ‘sirop de sureau’ (elderflower syrup) to drink. Their preserved fruits are heated in the jars in a solar oven, made by Isabelle from scrap pieces of hardboard and lined with reflective foil to capture the sun’s rays. Temperatures slowly reach over 100 degrees to preserve summer and autumn delicacies for the winter and spring.
Not content with this and the more common solar thermal water heating, our hosts have installed a dry composting toilet, which separates waste and dries out the poo, making it suitable for composting so it can eventually be used to fertilise the vegetable patch.
Before leaving we take a brisk walk and Isabelle feeds the hens with a few broken walnuts – a snack they relish. It is truly admirable the way these two manage to make everything useful so that nothing is wasted (not even you-know-what).
Spending a weekend with Chantal and Isabelle has given us a burst of energy and encouragement for our own projects, so we are looking forward to visiting the Eco-building Centre of Périgord when it re-opens its doors in the spring.