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.