Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Food, fizz and French hens

May 12th, 2018

I’VE LONG maintained that May and September are the months to see Scotland at its best although the recent unseasonal weather has tested the theory somewhat.  The old adage of cast not a clout till May month is out looked as though the clout casting should be postponed till the end of June.

But nature has a great capacity for coping with setbacks.  While we humans have been bemoaning the poor weather the garden birds have got on with nesting and hatching their eggs.  I’ve been watching starlings and blackbirds pattering across the grass in the garden, hoovering up beakfuls of worms for nestlings.  There is activity, particularly in the mornings, at the nest boxes.  It can’t be long now until the sparrow chicks hatch.

Threesomes

You can’t really confuse the dainty five-petaled wood sorrel, which is coming into flower now, with six-petaled wood anemones which have been flowering for the last month.  And the sorrel has distinctive heartshaped leaves, similar to three-leafed clover, which fold up at night and open again in the morning.

Our ancestors regarded three as the perfect number.  All good things in the world came in threes – hence the three natural dominions of earth, sea and sky.  But now there are the three little pigs, three French hens, the three Graces, Macbeth’s three witches, three blind mice (not too good for them), the rule of three – to mention but a few.

Once in a lifetime you may find a four leaf clover which is supposed to represent God’s Grace and bestows good luck on the finder – but you won’t find a four leaf sorrel.  Nor will you find a four-leafed version of that other three heartshaped-leaf member of the clover family, shamrock, the symbol of Ireland and its patron saint, Patrick.

Rolling stone

I wonder how many readers thought, like me, that drystane dyking was a skill practised only in Scotland and the English northern counties, areas of high sierras and a ready supply of stone.

I’ve always admired the grey ribbons of walling built patiently by hand, striding miles across bleak upland hillsides and windswept moors, the only evidence of man’s imprint on the landscape, marking out sheep grazings and estate marches.

The stone for new dykes had to be gathered from further and further away as local supplies were used up.  It was carted uphill on horse-drawn sledges and where the gradient became too steep, then carried by hand.  It was laborious work carried out in all but the very worst weathers –  not an occupation for the faint hearted.

So it was a surprise to meet Frenchman, Vincent Leynaud, repairing stone dykes near Fettercairn.  Always keen to hear what people have to say I stopped to talk to him.

Vincent is from the Ardèche départment, the main sweet or edible chestnut producing area in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of south-central France, named after the River Ardèche, a tributary of the River Rhône.

He explained that the Ardèche is steep, hilly countryside, difficult to cultivate.  In past centuries they built dry stone terraces, or terrasses, infilled with earth to grow vegetables and black wheat for the local dark bread, and seigle or rye.  Although this type of farming largely ceased sixty years ago Vincent learned his dry stane dyking skills working on maintenance and repair of the terrasses.

He has led an outdoors life, having been at times a tree surgeon and a shepherd.  Ardèche, in the south of France, is very hot and in the summer months there is no grass for the sheep which are moved from the low ground to high summer pastures in the Alps – known as transhumance.  For four months the shepherds look after their sheep in these remote grazings.

Vincent has been a bit of a rolling stone.  He and his partner Annabelle met in Thailand.  They came back to the UK and lived in Norfolk but both wanted to see Scotland.  Last winter was spent near Oban and now they think they have probably settled on the east coast.

I asked how he found Scotland and he diplomatically said the food is different.  I can associate with that.  We’ve spent a number of family holidays in France and I have fond memories of French charcuterie and patisserie and their cheeses and wine. With their traditional and regional cuisine they have mastered the secret of slow food.

Bit of fizz

And while on matters French, here is a favourite Whitson family recipe for what my father would have called a hedgerow cordial, to add a little je ne sais quoi – actually, I know exactly quoi – to summer barbecues.  To a bottle of inexpensive still (not fizzy) white wine add an equal amount of lemonade.  Add four tablespoons of Cointreau, and plenty of ice and thinly sliced orange and cucumber.  Bruise a handful of mint leaves (spearmint if possible), between your palms to release the flavour, and stir in.

Summer feels a bit more summery after several glasses and the cucumber and orange slices are delicious when the juice has all been drunk!

Written on Saturday, May 12th, 2018 at 2:35 pm for Weekly.