What I mean is that after much careful research and many stressful decisions we have a good stock of ‘bois de chauffage’ and should now stay reasonably warm for the next few months. That might sound like a simple thing to those of you who don’t live in rural France but the whole business is far more complicated than you could ever imagine from the outside.
The first facts for ‘campagne’ dwellers to face up to are that it does get cold here in winter and that all forms of heating other than wood are out of the question. The electric heaters popular with landlords dry the air out to such an extent that by the middle of our first January here I was suffering nosebleeds with a regularity that would have been familiar to Francis Rossi and his Status Quo chums when they were busy destroying their septums in the mid-80s.
Anybody entirely dependent on these heaters for the whole winter would just be a pile of dessicated skin by the end of March. They could possibly be used to replace coconut in some recipes but that isn’t really a fully productive role for a human.
The other alternative in rural areas is ‘fioul’ which is often referred to as oil but is actually red diesel. This is a bit cheaper than diesel for your car but that hardly makes up for needing to provide an extra room for the colossal boiler that is a about the size of a juggernaut or the tank needed to hold the couple of thousand litres that might get you through a couple of cold months. As long as you never have baths and make your children wear enough layers to prevent their arms from straightening.
Only insiders know this but the popularity of the ménage a trois in France is nothing to do with the sexy antics of libertines. On the contrary, what appears to be an exciting and free alternative domestic arrangement is actually the only way anybody with fioul heating can afford to run it at a reasonable temperature all winter – two wages just aren’t enough to feed the boiler so you have to get a third earner in to help.
The problem is that once you opt for wood you have to embark on a very steep learning curve before buying any. Measurements present the first obstacle.
Wood is sold by the ‘stere’, an ancient measurement originally used by hobbits. Nobody now knows exactly what a stere is. Some vendeurs claim that a stere is a cubic metre of one metre long logs but others advertise cubic metres of wood on the grounds that these are bigger than a stere. It is best to work on the basis that a stere means some wood but that the exact amount will vary. Streres also shrink if the logs are cut smaller than a metre. If you want 50cm logs you pay more and the stere reduces by 20%, 33cm and it goes smaller still. Fans of the tiny 25cm log have told me that a stere can sometimes fit into a child’s backpack. French kids do carry a lot of books but that has to be wrong.
The next question is how moist is your wood? If that sounds a bit too personal don’t be offended. It just means that the moisture left in logs will have an impact on how well they burn. The lower the level the better but under 20% is pretty much essential. Given that most wood sellers say that their product has been seasoned for two years this shouldn’t be a problem but, unless you buy an instrument to measure the moisture with, you can’t really tell until you chuck it on the fire. If it sizzles and moisture drips out of the end of the logs your wood is far too moist but best of luck returning the minimum order of five steres without a fairly substantial tipper truck and a crane. Easier to leave it to season for another year.
A local wood expert told me that all French people assume that they will need to do this and wouldn’t expect to be able to burn a delivery straight away even if they had paid more to get wood that was ready to burn. This explains the need for all homes to have at least one, and possibly four, crumbling outbuildings that are stuffed with neatly stacked logs and the presence of little mounds of logs in the middle of fields. They are all at different stages of seasoning. I’d always thought of that as something TV chefs did with salt and pepper but it turns out to mean drying wood too.
Luckily, you’re now approaching the end of your wood experience and chopping it up is the easy part. Simply equip one of your children with some gloves, a warm hat, a powerful chainsaw and a huge axe. They have to be young enough to feel enthusiastic about the challenge facing them but old enough to handle the tools. I’d say between 9 and 13 is about right. Offer them 10 euros to sort it all out and then go and have a sleep on the sofa. Some people have criticised this approach and suggested that it could be dangerous. Perhaps, but it works for me, as the photo proves, and we shouldn’t mollycoddle the young. If they want to stay warm they must learns the ways of wood.