Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Playing with apples

For the first time ever, in October 2006 there were enough apples to make it a genuine crime not to use them properly. Hiring an apple crusher and press from the local commercial makers was simple, and the apple picking was a joy - filling barrels in the tractor link box making sure that each different variety was kept separate and labelled on a cold but sunny autumn day was a novelty. They got a quick bobbing in clean water and then were put through the electric crusher before putting the pulp into the press. The smell of the crushed apples was heavenly. The pulp is put into a kind of stocking (very high denier!) bag, wooden blocks hold down the lid and then you turn the press until the juice flows. It comes surprisingly quickly and clean food-safe buckets have to be at the ready. We made over 100 litres of apple juice and 4 barrels of cider. The cider was a mix of bittersweet and sweet cider apples with some Bramleys for extra flavour. The juice was a combination of blends and single juices and now, some months on you can determine which ones should be incorporated into blends when juicing next years load and which are best kept as single varieties. The orchard has a lot of Blenheim Orange apples - very sweet, in fact too sweet as a single variety juice - but just fantastic when blended with Egremont Russet and Bramley (ratio of 1:2:1). The best single varieties were Allington Pippin and Ellisons Orange. I didnt want to pasteurise so had to freeze the juice - in new 1 litre plastic milk bottles that a goat-keeper in Milton Abbot had surplus to requirements. The cider has been racked once and now needs to be bottled, ready for tasting in the summer. Cider making and apple juicing has been happening in and around Dartmoor for hundreds of years - it's nice to know that you are part of a tradition and that there is a lot of advice around for novices.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Beenleigh Blue

I'm still mid-lunch but this is just so yummy I have to share! I have blogged on cheeses before but I'm increasingly knocked over by the quality of Devon cheeses. The fab cheese shop in Hatherleigh Market, only open on market day (Tuesdays) has a small but perfectly formed collection in a space that can accommodate 3 shoppers, tops, and two if they have bags of market veg with them. Having a particular love of ewe's milk cheese I went for a slice of the Roquefort-looking Beenleigh Blue, made by Ticklemore Cheese in Totnes. It is crumbly, perfectly salty, and mouth-fillingly delicious as the tiny taster I was offered, proved. The taste lingers and although it is distinctively eweish in nature, not so pungent as to put off the more conservative cheese eater. You can buy it on-line from the Teddington Cheese Company or from their own Ticklemore Cheese Shop in Totnes. Even Nigel Slater and Gordon Ramsay sing its praises. This is a real find; perhaps cheesemaking can be my last career change.

Monday, 18 September 2006

Pork brings pleasure

"We have started on the pork- it's better than any I've had before! ". When you get comments like that you know you are doing something right. Those 6 Berkshire pigs are being feted in kitchens from Cardiff to Bristol and Devon to Warwickshire. The grass in the pig paddock is making a swift return, following the fabulous ploughing that six unringed noses made throughout the summer. They unearthed mounds of sizeable stone which I am slowly picking up and chucking in the link box, carting it off to use as much needed hard core in gateways. The absence of the pigs is quite tangible - they made plenty of affable noises, pungent smells and being so many of them, spent most of their time playing in a sizeable space, learning how to hoist themselves into the water trough and create wallows to cool themselves off on hot days. Sentimentality bows out though, when the freezer needs filling and it is months since you were offered a decent bit of pork.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

The Olympic bandwagon

Absolutely NOT a sports fan (if you hadn't already guessed), my prime unpatriotic groans about the 2012 olympics are that they are: a) going to create havoc in London and jealousy in every other city in the UK; b) that huge amounts of public money is being chucked at a pipe dream; c) that sport will play an increased role on a world stage already saturated with the tedious stuff; d) that hosts of private finance initiatives and their top brass will retire to the Bahamas on the proceeds, having hugely over-charged a government apparently unable to get value for money from the private sector; and e) that funds will be diverted from real good causes and the arts. In the last year, the London Olympics has become a sexy hook for the widest possible variety of projects, schemes and organisations in the private, public and not for profit sectors. If they can just make a link, no matter how tentative, they might just cream off some of that lovely sloshing-about lolly. You can just hear the Chair or CEO coming in on a Monday morning, rubbing their hands together and shouting "olympics!", just like they shouted "Y2K" back in 1999; it makes them seem up to the minute, hot to trot, thinking outside the envelope or any other daft cliche you care to think of. Today however, I open my regular Involve newletter from the Sector Skills Development Agency to read that "The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London represent a real and significant opportunity to drive up skills not only in London, but nationally". Apparently, "The Department for Education and Skills is responsible for maximising the benefits of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the field of education and skills, so that 2012 has a long-term impact on the lives of learners, particularly young people of the 2012 Olympic generation." Is it uncharitable of me to say that this is a load of old guff, and if it takes the Olympics to get government to do its core work, then we truly have our priorities completely twisted? The Olympics is not a once in a lifetime opportunity - what is once in a lifetime is every individual's opportunity to develop and thrive. It makes me incandescent that this is linked to something so peripheral (yet so high profile) as sport in the noughties. Olympic and paralympic sport is elitist by definition - the best competing with the best. It is not about access, or that old saw about taking part, but about winning. To dangle this vision in front of Jo and Joe public and suggesting it will specifically enhance their skills in any way is bonkers. Jo and Joe need great schooling and education, great skills development opportunities and a real, interesting life, not lived vicariously through feted sports celebs viewed on the box.
(Sept 2006)

Saturday, 2 September 2006

Little grey rabbit time

It's harvest time and as it's been throwing it down and the outdoor tasks put on hold, the preserving pan has been gurgling away all day. The two small plum trees were stripped of their bounty and the fruit turned into goodies for immediate and long term pleasures. Plum tart will go into the oven for a late supper, but for the months ahead 2 different sorts of plum jam - same recipe, different plums (fruit, sugar, nothing else) - are now on the shelves. A tray of halved and stoned plums have been frozen and bagged up to make a couple of winter crumbles. Kate's chutney gets made every 2 or 3 years as it gets better with age so I make enough to last that long, and this year is the first time it's been made in Devon. The recipe comes from a great grandmother from Norfolk (I think) and has been adapted this year as there weren't enough dates, so dried apricots and figs made up the lack. The apples and plums for the chutney came from the orchard, the tomatoes from the polytunnel, and the carrots were blagged from next door from the sack used to feed their breeding water voles. Tomorrow it's time for tomato relish and if the rain holds off, there are heaps of sloes and blackberries to pick for cheese and conserve. The shelves are starting to fill again, my hands are discoloured from stoning the fruit and socks are being worn for the first time in months. It must be heading for autumn.

Friday, 1 September 2006

Ornithology made easy

A casual conversation about bird feeders, £5.95 on a peanut feeder and £4 on one for suet balls spent in the local agricultural store, a length of ash cut from the firewood heap, feeders dangling in the breeze, and there was years worth of education and entertainment all set up less than a yard from the kitchen window. That was in March. Since then there have been: nuthatches (look, look, there's one that prefers to eat upside down...); a wren or two - a personal favourite; blue tits and great tits; house and tree sparrows; chaffinch, goldfinch, bullfinch; and a pair of great spotted woodpeckers. The woodpeckers were spectacular: large, dominant and shy with brilliant red patches under their tails and on the back of the (male) head, they successfully reared two young that later learned to feed themselves as juveniles after sitting on the iron railings getting their parents to loosen peanut after peanut from the feeder and pass them on like a parent doling out smarties to toddlers. Apparently woodpeckers also feed their young on baby blue tits and there are no shortage of those.
Fledglings of all kinds have hovered about looking fresh and fluffy and unsure, and the type and age of birds visiting have changed as the months have passed. The time of day also dictates who eats when. Early morning, before anyone is up, magpies take advantage. I really don't like these birds as they eat the duck eggs and have a raucous and insistent call. They have gone further down in my estimation by not only nicking the peanuts put out for the smaller birds, but tapping loudly on the windows hours before any sane person would consider setting their alarm clock. The vigour of their tapping initially made me rush out of bed wondering what someone could possibly want at that hour - sheep out on the road perhaps - but no, it's just the magpies having their fun. Their brothers, the rooks, are equally irritating as they build nests in the chimney pots causing great clumps of twigs and mummified birds to fall into the chimneys and woodburners, so I light small fires during the summer to dissuade them.
Some of the birds haven't eaten directly from the feeders but pecked instead at the suet and nut crumbs that dusted the grass below like hundreds and thousands. These crumbs also attracted mice, and inevitably, the cats, although surprisingly few birds have been caught. Until yesterday that is. At breakfast there was a whoosh of feathers as a cloud of sparrows dived under the broom bush for cover. A few seconds later a sparrowhawk emerged, sparrow secured in its yellow claws with black talons. He stood for a few moments, just 4 feet away, whilst I had a really good look, and then took off, leaving the remaining sparrows distinctly and understandably nervous for the rest of the day.
The yard has also seen a lot of other birds not attracted to the feeders. Wagtails bounce their way along the ground, or at least the constantly wagging tails make it look like that. House martins have built several of their muddy nests under the eaves around the house, stealing bits of cob from the crumbling barns and swooping in flocks of twenty or so in circles across the yard in the late afternoon. Some are more successful nest builders than others, having watched one make a feeble attempt whilst others were finishing their elaborate structures just inches away. Swallows and swifts are also frequent visitors, sitting on power cables and joining the house martins in their circular exercises. In the evenings you can hear and sometimes see the barn owl, a truly gorgeous creature, and the tawny owl too with its hooting call which if you mimic will get you a response. Then there are the robins which appear from late summer; the cuckoo, although you hear it close by I've never seen it; many buzzards who are incredibly bold round here and can land fairly close to you; the pheasants that shared the pig paddock, eating any rare leftovers; the grey partridge that hatched and reared its young in the middle of Mopsa's Meadow; the snipe that paddle about in the wet drainage ditches with their young. The list goes on, and on.

Tuesday, 25 July 2006


OK. This is going to be a paeon to retail possibilities; I apologise, but only a little. Having a comfortable bed is one of those things that's pretty baseline on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Pocket sprung has always seemed to me to be a euphemism for lumpy, poky, uneven and unrestful, so something smooth and supportive does it for me. Horribly allergic to goose feathers (that particular fab and pricey duvet is now luxuriating on the guest bed), I hunt out the squashiest non-allergenic quilts and greedily steal as much of it for my side of the bed as possible. I thought I had it sorted until I spent the night at friends; it's Jane and Richard that have got it sorted. I got into a great big bed kindly vacated by one of their children to discover a kind of duvet-under-the-sheet deliciousness. I was the filling in a duvet sandwich. I spent an age scrunching it in glee with my toes and wriggling my shoulders deeper in a state of disbelieving comfort. What was this thing? Why hadn't anyone told me about it? Why wasn't Annalisa Barbieri writing about it every Saturday? Does everybody else know about it? WHY HADN'T SOMEONE TOLD ME? My world didn't include mattress toppers, enhancers or pads. I'd never heard about, seen or slept on one before. Once you start hunting on the web they are everywhere, costing from a few pounds up to £400 and no doubt even more. Being out in the sticks I can't just pop into my local M&S for instant bedtime gratification, and after some entirely useless email correspondence with that famous store trying to replicate the Jane and Richard experience but getting precisely nowhere, I waited till a looming meeting in Bristol would get me in spitting distance of shops. There, in John Lewis, hiding nonchalantly and without ceremony among the duvets was the holy grail. £55 for nightly bliss is a small price to pay.

Friday, 7 April 2006

A letter to all the people who used to live on the farm

When you move into a new house, if you are lucky and the vendors thoughtful, there might be a list of where you turn off the water, a description of the careful handling required for the loft hatch, and a note of when the bin men collect. Moving into our previous house we received reams of instructions, a list of all the plants and trees, and notes and jottings hidden behind skirting boards, under floors, on corrugated tin roofs and in the hen house giving dates for when things had been attended to, plus a commentary on that day’s entertainment – the success of the Christmas panto at the Belgrade Theatre was one example. But when you move into a farm that hasn’t been lived in by farmers for the best part of a decade, you have a million questions, and only local lore to supply just a fistful of answers. There are so many things that I want to ask you all.
That stone-faced banking at the far end of the farm, just running for a matter of yards, so carefully made and where only the sheep can see it; was it something your parents got you to do as penance for some minor misdeed? That enormous well in Little Stone Horse Field; did it ever feed water to anywhere or was it a white elephant, an unfinished project that ran out of cash? Did you use donkeys or horses in the now derelict roundhouse for the threshing barn? That room at the side of the house that you can only access from an external staircase - was it where transient farm labourers slept, away from the temptation of the daughters of the house? Where do all the drains run and why are there at the last count four separate water supplies? Which of you took out and flogged the slate flagstone floors in the house and put in concrete? Who put in the Aga in such a way that you can't use the bread oven anymore? Why is the old cider room floor creased in the middle; was there an mini-earthquake? Who screwed down the floorboards so that they cracked as they shrank? And why are there one inch gaps between the boards so that coins, earrings, pens and other small items both cheap and expensive are lost?
Do you mind that we gave new names to three of the fields when neighbours couldn’t quite remember all of the old ones; the naming of fields felt like an exercise not to be undertaken lightly. How exactly did you make and manage your hedgerows and banks in the 17th century and how long did they last? And this century, that low fencing wire you put along the top of the banks – what was the point of that – even our small sheep breed can hop over it without a second thought. Did you allow your livestock to drink all along the mill leat or only where it wouldn’t interfere with the flow to the neighbouring mill?
Didn’t you mind the smell of the pigs in sties so close to the house? Where did you salt and store the bacon? Did you make your own sausages and have as much fun as we did? It was much, much easier to do than we had expected, even more hilarious, with fabulously tasty results.
Did you ever get to see the dormice that we know live in Langan Meadow only by the evidence of precisely nibbled cobnuts? It’s even illegal to photograph them now. And why is Langan Meadow that strange rounded shape? Were the buzzards, bats and barn owls even more plentiful? Was there ever any wild boar here? When was that veteran oak by the river blasted by lightening and lose its top? It has a rowan growing out of its crown now. Which of the ditches have disappeared and need to be re-dug to get the ground less “drought-resistant” as the estate agent described the more sodden fields? Where on the farm did you dig up the clay to make the cob walls for the barns that are melting away now the roofs have gone? What types of apple grew in the orchards and was the cider any good? We heard that when one farmer here told a son to fetch a jug of cider, that he be sure to keep whistling the whole time – but did you ever manage a secret slurp? Did you ever think that the farm is shaped along the lines of a mini South America?
Did you ever run out of things to do and did you ever get enough sleep? Did you ever write a to-do list? Did it look like ours? What have we forgotten?
We feel the weight of your absence as we move across the farm, mending this, patching that, planning the next ten years of work. By the time the hundred oaks we want to plant come to maturity, someone else might be writing a similar letter to us, but before then perhaps one of you could tell us the whereabouts of the socket for the radio aerial?

Saturday, 18 March 2006

Organic veg delivery boxes rool

Is it a truism that as you get older the more you feel the need to complain? Me, I expect decent and friendly service and have been known to carp when it doesn't come as standard. I've mentioned Riverford before and whilst waiting for the new veg garden to become a reality, the weekly boxes have been a fab addition, bringing new varieties and mostly seasonal goodies at their best. The Guardian praised them last week with the acknowledgement that the soil on the carrots could be collected to create your very own London based smallholding; in my case, when I'm too lazy to scrape the soil into the compost bucket, it just clogs the sink and the less than organic Mr Muscle sink unblocker (the things that have websites!) has had to work overtime. But then we got the tomatoes. In January, February and March. Horrid, quickly turning rotten, tasteless. What else would they be in winter, and why were they in my box? My query was very swiftly answered; my local Riverford distributors obviously felt the same way although they were tactful. Then Adrian, Riverford's Customer Services Manager got in touch and apologised for the poor quality of the product: "Whilst our own tomatoes will not be ready for some months, we do feel that having tomatoes in the boxes brings a positive addition for this time of the year. We are therefore currently importing tomatoes but we are aware however, that the quality of some of them has not been up to the standard that we would expect. The taste of the product has actually been good but there have been issues with their physical quality including blemished skins and mould appearing very quickly." That made me have an immediate munch on one of the unappetising examples to test out the tastiness: My conclusions, shared with Adrian were that they don't even feel right in the hand - if I was selecting produce from a market stall, I would not be purchasing them - if I was picking them off a homegrown plant I wouldn't buy that seed variety again. The stalk end was showing signs of incipient mould and had been in the fridge ever since delivery (I rarely need or want to put summer tomatoes in the fridge - far tastier at room temperature or warm off the plant). The flesh texture was both hard and weirdly pappy - like a tomato out of season - although the pulp and seeds were quite flavoursome. As nice as the idea of tomatoes is, I just cannot square organic principles with this unseasonable (and importing) approach - although if the produce was fabulous I am as apt to drop a principle as anyone else. As they are so very far from fabulous, what is the point? I love tomatoes, but they need good hot sun for good ripening and taste. I appreciate that they feel the need to jazz up the veg boxes in the winter months, but the tomato thing just isn't working - the odd lettuce they have been putting in have, on the other hand, been fine. Adrian kindly said the feedback was useful and much appreciated, and in this week's box is a stop press note that they have been disappointed with the standard of their tomatoes, that they have tried to persevere with the grower on the promise of improvement of quality, but as this has not happened they have removed them from the boxes. I am sure I have not been the only one having a carp, but isn't is refreshing that the customer's views are truly taken into consideration to improve the quality of the service. Full marks Riverford.

Friday, 17 March 2006

First lambing in Devon (2006)

"It's warmer in Devon - let's lamb a bit earlier this year" has turned out to be somewhat wishful thinking. It snows, it hails, it's as windy as hell, but the lambs have started to arrive all the same. A quarter of the way through and we have had all ewe lambs - how weird is that? Never one for probability theory, I guess that each lamb has a 50/50 chance of being one sex or the other, so I presume that there is no greater probability that the remaining lambs will turn out to be rams. Perhaps the new ram, Toy-boy, has an intriguing chromosomal make-up. The old ram, Thoom (or Tomb? was never given the spelling) was put in with the ewes at the same time as Toy-boy and there is no proof of who did what and to whom. Raddles and all that malarkey seem too much trouble for our small flock. Reading Hardy's Return of the Native can put you off red raddle for life, but it's just a crayon or powder - originally red ochre or iron oxide - that is put on the ram's chest so you can see which ewe has been served and by which ram, using different colours for each ram. Some use a harness to attach a crayon block to the ram, but it all seems rather too S&M to me.
The new mothers are doing their thing admirably, seeing off dogs Mopsa and Fenn in no uncertain terms if they get too close (ie in the same field) and producing huge quantities of milk; I don't know how they manage to walk.

Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Today we have naming of fields

The farm is strangely shaped along the lines of a miniature South America, with the house on the eastern coast of Brazil, a bit of river frontage on the west coast of Ecuador and a mill leat across the top of Venezuela. Accordingly, and not much changed since medieval farmers were doing their thing, the field boundaries are all shapes and trying to describe where you will be is not as simple as saying 3 along and 2 up. The naming of fields feels like an exercise not to be undertaken lightly, and maintaining the historical names if they can be extracted seems appropriate for somewhere that has been around for so long. Even so, I suspect names change every few generations. Last weekend we walked the farm with someone who had grown up here and he knew names for all but three of the fields. So we have Big Stone Horse Field and it's neighbour, Little Stone Horse Field, both stoney and where the horses were kept. Then there is Pretty Field, so called because it has a regular shape. Big Furze Down and Lower Furze Down are the names for the two fields that had been covered in gorse before they were ploughed up for arable purposes; gorse still flowers in patches in the hedgerows and creates a very prickly and effective sheep fence. Long Lands was probably named for the fact that although not large (none of the fields are very big), it is a fair uphill walk to reach the end. Higher Down and Lower Down sound like a joke but they do what they say on the tin, and Big Oaky and Little Oaky have a few fairly spectacular oaks in the hedgelines. Bull's field was where the bull was kept with his cows, and so on it goes. Having only to take responsibility for a limited number, we have named the nameless fields. One is now Mopsa's Meadow and another Fenn's Field. Nice to think that long after the dogs have gone their field names will survive. And yup - that's South America, not the farm!

Sunday, 5 February 2006

In the eyes of the delivery men

When, last March (2005) I got out of the car and peered over the gate down the farm track, to the long whitewashed house with yellow window frames, I knew this was going to be my next and possibly last home. Peripheral to right and left were the old barns, roofless and in one case, covered in "dangerous, do not enter" signs, but they in no way detracted from the views rising above the house, nor altered the fact that the house sat sheltered in a dip surrounded by masses of space and enormous oak trees. The place felt untouched for decades and the quietness of the location was something I hadn't thought was possible to achieve. So love at first sight then. Living a long way from anywhere you make a lot of use of online-shopping; clothes, beds, tractor parts, and whatever else is needed. As a consequence you see confused delivery men (they are always men) frequently. The confusion is based on three things: there is no street name; they take pot luck in deciding whether to deliver to us or our neighbours because the farm names are very similar (but not the same); and according to delivery man lore, only sad, mad or bad people live so far from an urban sprawl. Last week was a prime example. A couple of chaps were delivering a new wardrobe and stopped outside the gate and phoned us to check if they really were in the right place - their drive down the grassy road and subsequent view of the derelict barns meant that they didn't see how it was possible that the place was actually inhabited by anything other than bats and rats. Even when they came inside the house they didn't believe anyone actually lived here permanently. I hadn't realised that to some eyes we appear to live in the equivalent of a rural slum. Me, I think it's beautiful, and rich with a life-time of possibilities and projects. It's clearly all in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, 23 January 2006

Tearaway Tamworths

Tamworths have got something of a reputation. I believe that they are a fairly primitive breed, with all the natural instincts that brings, and little of the softening of domestication about them. Known as flighty pigs, independent, and the Houdinis of the swine world, a few years ago a pair of Tamworths made national headlines for over a week when they escaped and trundled this way and that through the Wiltshire countryside, eluding capture for a considerable period of time. Yesterday morning I was making my way down the list of weekend chores when I heard my name being bellowed from the neighbouring farm. I downed tools and shot off to find out what was wrong and after a panted explanation of a new arrival Tamworth weaner having escaped up the road, we set off to head it back where it was wanted. Five of us failed in this task, and just as we were about to regroup, the alarm was raised that its sister had now also managed to leap from its new pen and disappear in the opposite direction. Throughout the day the few cars and tractors coming passed announced sightings of one or other of the ginger pigs and by dusk one had been recaptured and securely placed in its pen. Utterly exhausted by its escapade, it sank into fresh straw and fell fast asleep. As of writing, the sister is still out and about, but as our neighbours are currently the only folks round here with pigs I guess that it will be drawn back by piggish noises and smells and the desire for breakfast. Stop press! Great news - after 36 hours apart the Houdini twins are now reunited.