Sunday, 30 December 2007

Seasoned with sneeze

I know I wasn't alone this Christmas in seasoning my offerings with sneeze. Up and down the country competent cooks, tolerable trifle titivators and practised poultry preppers will have been struggling to juggle the ingredients for the multiple yumptious accompaniments to that special meal. I trained as a chef at one point in my varied career, so as long as the items on the list are on standby in the fridge and on the shelves, pulling off the annual feast doesn't faze me.
There I stand, up to one elbow in chestnut, the other in apricot stuffing. My hands couldn't be greasier and that is the moment when the phone goes and my nose twitches.
I am surrounded by raw foodstuffs: the goose, devils on horseback and pigs in blankets to my left; the bread sauce, leeks and peas to my right; cranberry straight ahead; parboiled spuds, parsnips and carrots behind me and my hands encased in stuffing. My nose is full of onion and pepper scents. There is nowhere to turn my head and sneeze safely. I don't have a cold, but you can't always ensure a dry sneeze. I look at the phone, still ringing and utterly incapable of offering aid. There is a tissue in my apron pocket (yes, I wear an apron, ok?) but with hands covered in forcemeat what can I do?
I lift my head to the ceiling and sneeze upwards, no doubt creating a cloud of unwanted spice to descend on every part of the deliciousness about to be cooked. I tell myself that this is the magic ingredient I was missing. I wipe the stuffing from my hands and answer the phone.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Chocolate rum truffles - for those small gaps left in your stomach

Here’s a present for the New Year - I strongly suggest you use rum or brandy and not Calvados as Hugh suggests. Green and Black’s Cook's chocolate (and their cocoa for sprinkling) is fab for this. The recipe is tweaked but based on River Cottage chocolate brandy truffles - makes about 50 and I doubt you could eat more than two at a sitting.

300g dark chocolate (2 x Green and Black's Cook's choc bars), broken up
200ml double cream
75g icing sugar
50ml dark rum or brandy
2 heaped dessert spoons honey
Pinch of salt
Sifted cocoa, for dusting

Put all the ingredients (except the cocoa) in a heatproof bowl and place over a pan of just-boiled water. Leave to melt, stirring only once or twice. When the truffle mixture is completely melted and blended and thick enough to spoon and not too hot to handle, spoon into petit fours cases on a big tray. You will get drips on your fingers - cook's treat - lick well. Leave to cool, then put the loaded tray into the fridge to chill truffles until firm. Sieve with a bit of cocoa before serving.

Amazing, easy to make, can be done from store ingredients (if you can keep chocolate in store) and gets the best compliments ever. I gave these as presents, making good use of my empty Bravissimo boxes - they take a good number in a single layer, and folks look temporarily aghast that you might have given them lingerie.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

A ghostly tale for the holidays

Down in the woods today there were no teddy bears picnicking, just the remains where Grizzlies might have been. Happy holidays.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Dressed to impress

On Tuesday, Hatherleigh had its live poultry auction for those happy to dispatch and prepare their own Christmas turkey, goose or duck. But for those of a more squeamish nature, today was the oven ready auction, all dressed not to kill but to impress. Rows and rows of trestle tables were covered in birds, from an 11 kilo organic goose (that's over 24 lbs in old money) to cockerels with no obvious provenance, there was something for every taste and purse. Each bird was auctioned individually, and I suspect some would be going home with turkeys too big for their ovens. Many of the birds still had their feet and heads, even if the innards had been removed, and some had brown labels tied to their legs declaring from which local farm they originated. I was particularly enchanted by the geese whose heads were wrapped in Christmas paper; it stopped you from looking it in the eye until you got it on the chopping board.
I wasn't buying - one thing I'm not short of is home-reared goose - but I couldn't resist taking a moment out of veg shopping to see the scale of the thing. The photo shows but a smidgen of what was on offer.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Love thy neighbour

There is a knock on the door. I think it will be the postman with some recorded deliveries I have to sign for. But no. There is a small smiling man holding out a huge bouquet of seasonal flowers, and they are smiling at me too. I fill my arms with this unexpected treat. "There's a card" says the small smiling man. The card has no signature, but it's clearly from the neighbours whose farm-sitting we are carrying out whilst they holiday en famille in Hawaii. "Thank you so much for making our Christmas possible...forever in your debt".
I am very moved. The small smiling man goes on his way to make more people very happy.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Walking the dogs in winter

The short daylight hours see me trying to cram in daft amounts of activity. All the usual farm and work stuff, plus holiday cover farm-sitting for the neighbour's twenty something pigs, fifty something sheep, hundred and fifty plus rare breed chickens, geese, ducks, cats and dog. Everything takes much longer than usual as the water supplies both here and over the road are frozen first thing and by the time they start contemplating defrost mode to allow a mere trickle of the pure stuff, the temperature drops like a stone as the light fades and we are back to solid hosepipe.
But Bernese Mountain Dogs thrive in this dry cold weather; they are made for snow and seem to inhale energy as the thermometer plummets. They give me the Bernese nudge, an insistent and forceful snout thrust, and I put on a second pair of trousers and socks, not having been naturally endowed with a fur coat. Most of the sheep kept on the farm have been taken off the land so it can rest for a couple of months, so I don't even take a lead with me as we head out onto empty fields. But the fields are clearly not empty. The dogs stick their noses into every conceivable size of hole in the ground, up trees, in the earth banks, behind troughs, under leaves. For them, the farm is thrutched up with animal life, scent flags waving for those with the sense to appreciate.
The rush and push of the day drops off the shoulders and I stand and admire the scene, grateful to be here, now.

Friday, 14 December 2007

I might regret this, but....

...for years I have been saying that it's about time that the Arts Council looked at their historic patterns of funding and gave them an almighty shake-up. If you happened to be on the receiving end of regular funding it might not have been roses all the way, but unless you made a major hash of things it was unlikely that your core funding would be stopped. If you were an emerging company or artist it was therefore extraordinarily difficult to receive more than the odd one-off grant as the majority of available dosh was taken up by RFOs (no, not UFOs but Regularly Funded Organisations) and the status quo was steadfastly maintained.
Amazingly, surprisingly, bravely, the Arts Council has just announced that 195 organisations will not have their grants renewed in April 2008. 746 (or 75% of) RFOs will have funding increases of at least inflation, with 45 receiving increases of between 50 and 100%, and 41 in receipt of more than 100% increase in their grants. In addition about 80 arts organisations in England will be invited to become new RFOs.
The list of the inevitably very unhappy 195 (all of whom however have an outrageously brief window of opportunity to lobby against the decision) is expected to be made known in the new year, but the news is inevitably breaking as each organisation opens its black bordered letter. Once we know all the organisations at risk (and my in-box is already giving some indication of what is under threat) and just as importantly the organisations being invited to take their place at the funding table, I may come to regret my in principle admiration for this move, but the decision to rethink the funded arts landscape is one I must applaud.
What we will have to scrutinise is whether the funding decisions actually back up the Arts Council's stated aims of supporting artistic excellence, increasing engagement and participation, funding arts more equitably across England and increasing support to the visual arts (although I'm not sure about this latter aim considering how visual arts appears to be thriving like never before). If the resulting raft of RFOs don't reflect this, and if those cut are strong embodiments of one or more of those aims, the sector should claim scalps.

18.12.07 postscript - the Guardian leader seems to agree with me. Their arts correspondent doesn't. I fail to see why we should have to wait for the information on who is affected- surely it should be in the public domain now so that the decisions can be held up for external scrutiny before it's too late to reconsider what may be death blows to many?

9.1.08 update - Bungled seems to be the word being bandied about regarding the HOW surrounding these changes, and I have to say I agree. You would have thought that the Arts Council would have been scrupulous in following their own guidelines in disinvesting (ghastly word) in organisations in order to gain understanding if not actual support for carrying out what after all should be their role; ie making big decisions based on transparent criteria on who should continue to be funded and who should enter as new recipients of a regular grant cheque.

10.1.08 update - The ructions continue, and ACE faces the flack.

27.1.08 - The Arts Council backs down, a bit.

1.2.08 - The outcome.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Reasons to be cheerful - part 8

My 200th post and I can celebrate knowing that the West Barn (sounds like the Chinese Room or the Green Wing) is wrapped inside and out with scaffolding, that tarps have been secured over the cob, and that demolition has stopped and building has started. If you look very closely on the left side you can see just a few new cob blocks in place. Click on the photo if you want a BIG view.

Fire and ice

A winter wonderlandscape meets the eye this morning. Tiny stalagmites of starry frost stand on every fence post, on every surface. Thin sheets of ice seal the water in the troughs 'til I crack through with my boot, but with so much icy moisture in every mouthful of grass and hay, the sheep don't seem to mind. The dogs look into their trough and lick the ice forlornly. They can easily break it with their great paws, but they are slippers and pipe girls and wait for me to serve my purpose.
I look across to the pig paddock and in front of the ark is a flash of deep orange. I let out a low sound, and the fox looks at me and comes closer. And closer. And closer still. Its feet make small cracking sounds as it passes over the frosty grasses and iced puddles. It is full grown, in flourishing health, but there is something young about its features. It has a snowball tip to its tail, a recognisably large marking that I will know again if it reappears. I am about to let the ducks out into this field, and electric fence or no, I don't want a fox this close. I let Fenn through the gate to send it a message of unwelcome and it streaks off across the fields, scattering the eight month old lambs in its wake. It doesn't duck or jump under or over the stock fencing; it simply flies through the grid of wire as if it wasn't there.
I drop a few flakes of the goat mix that I feed to the llama, and spot a dark velvety vole shoot out of the log pile to take advantage. The survival instincts are on full alert today.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Pointless exercise

I remember the first time I drove from my then new home to Exeter. I got there, rang a local friend to ask for recommendations for parking, and ended up sticking the car somewhere I shouldn't because there was absolutely nowhere legal left to park. I thought it couldn't really be that bad, Exeter after all is a tiny city surrounded by vast tracts of land, and that I just needed to get to know the place better. I eventually found a huge multi-storey that only ever hosts a smattering of cars, and that was that.
This week I have to go to Exeter four times. This is highly unusual, never mind unpopular, and if I'd have had any say in the matter would have been organised very differently. But there you are. With masses of time in hand, knowing that there will probably be a bit more traffic due to seasonal consumption, I arrive and start to trawl for a space.
One and a half hours and five car parks later, including having to pay 90p for the privilege of driving up and down ramps fruitlessly at one car park that issues you a ticket on arrival and won't let you out again unless you part with coin, I turn my back on the city and head for home, meeting abandoned.
With no reasonable public transport options possible I am going to have to attempt this again each day for the next three days. I need a campaign plan, a large box of Nurofen and whale music (or is it dolphins?). I am contemplating painting my car white with go-faster stripes that might be mistaken for the cops or paramedics. If it didn't take three hours to cycle there, I might consider that. Perhaps I could go in at midnight and camp out until my meetings start, arriving with something of The Lady in the Van about me. Perhaps I could make some big signs saying "free turkeys this way for drivers" all pointing out of the city centre.
All I want for Christmas is a flying carpet.

Friday, 7 December 2007

My bag

Observer Woman made me spit and splutter last Sunday, and Kaz has unwittingly reminded me and sent the splutterings spiralling once more.
First we had the style awards for 2007, and nary an affordable pretty piece among them, with an award for the shoe that wouldn't die, an item that needs swift burial, and preferably cremation to obliterate the eye smacking colours first. The awards were all unbelievably inane; surely women don't actually care if Posh looks amazing or awful in hot pants?
Then we are expected to read billionaire Signor Armani's witterings: "I am lucky that I have built myself beautiful houses that I staff with people who really know me and what I like to eat". To add to the shallowness we have a woman sharing her views on men whilst posing like a porn star complete with no knickers and f-me pumps. At this point I want to scream. Thank goodness for Carole Cadwalladr failing to be taken in by Dame Westwood who should stick to designing clothes.
We have important journalism about the appalling levels of rape and sexual assault in Haiti and the contrast with the previous idiocy is so strong that it physically jars.
And thus to bags.
The bags we are told women are buying in their zillions, cost more than feeding a baby for a year. Or a complete household depending on your lack of taste. Now, I have been known to stroke a Mulberry bag longingly. I am not completely immune to loveliness and I admire craftsmanship. And I like their messenger bags (intended for men) precisely because they are made fit for purpose, are low key and avoid being swaddled in painful buckles or slathered in eye watering pink patent leather. The cost, although BIG treat time, could not feed the five thousand.
My own bag, pictured above, was from the local agricultural merchant. It is a game bag made of strong canvas, leather and brass buckles and has a rubberised pouch insert to keep your freshly killed rabbit or brace of pheasants from staining the outer. I have many, many compliments on my bag. All from men. All from men from Devon who wouldn't use the word "man-bag" if it was the last word they could utter. It cost me about £35. Yah boo.
However, I have to admit that the mag's extraordinary photograph of an almost naked Naomi Campbell had me more wide-eyed than a wide eyed frog.

21.12.07 Postscript: my bag (well, not MY bag, but new ones just like it) is now being sold for £62.50! Do you think I have conferred some mini fame upon it and created some local inflation? Nah.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Smile please

I don't think I can match the jobsworth of the week award over at Katy's, but I had very brief dealings with a pair of prime examples this morning.
I had an early appointment at the dental hygienist, and was hurtling towards town (within the speed limit, obviously) when I got caught up in a rare snarl of traffic. I know the dentist makes you pay if you miss your allotted session, so two minutes late I rang from my handsfree to reassure them that I was on my way, and that I'd be with them in just two more minutes.
I could feel the receptionist winding herself up beyond the call of duty to say "you are late and...", so before she was able to complete her little piece of spiteful daily joy I cut her off with "I'll be with you before you put down the phone."
I parked (first time ever) right outside the surgery, leapt into the rain and into the building before she could say "but".
I announced my arrival to a different woman. "Oh", she said, checking the screen, "you're late...." (all of 4 minutes behind for a twenty minute slot), "I don't know if..."
Are they on commission for latecomers and no-shows? Deep breath, girl. "I rang", I said, "just a moment ago."
"Oh. I don't know if you can still....."
"It's a 20minute slot, and there is NO-ONE ELSE IN THE WAITING ROOM".
She sees the look on my face.
"Take a seat".
Five minutes later, now nine minutes late, the hygienist comes down looking for me... "Why didn't they send you up?" she asks.
Sometimes the look works better than words.

I love that image of the chattering clockwork teeth; it reminds me of one of my favourite items in my parent's joke shop.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007


The watery theme continues, just as the weather forecast dictates. But with a twist or perhaps a twitch.
Somewhere amongst all these great works there is a water leak. This is an un-ignorable situation; the cost both monetary (the meter is whizzing round far too fast) and environmental is unacceptable to wallet and principles but where do you start? Even those most familiar with the farm in the last twenty years are baffled by aspects of the water supply and the number and placement of drains, taps and troughs are confusing and sometimes deliberately unhelpful. There are multiple possibilities and hours are spent eliminating options until it's possible to arrive fairly safely at a logical conclusion. It's clear which length of pipe must be leaking, but where exactly does the pipe meander on its route from A to B?
A neighbour renowned for his dowsing skills is called. His rods twitch definitively. Red paint is sprayed along the ground. A pit is dug, and there is the pipe. Sadly, dowsing can't tell us where the leak is, and now Scoopy will be called upon to dig yet another lengthy trench to by-pass and remedy the leak with new bright blue pipe that coils and springs like an overactive serpent.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

In praise of damp

As there is nothing you can do about the weather you might as well revel in it and shrug off categorising it as good or bad. It just is.
The last three days have been very stormy; if I didn't know better I would think I was living in a crow's nest, what with all the creaking and moaning and shivering of timbers, shifting of slates and the whistling of the wind in the chimneys. The rain water is gushing down the lane, brown with clay, creating ephemeral waterfalls that dump their load behind the gathering of leaves and twigs blocking drains and ditches. The lunar landscape of the yard now resembles the Lake District as viewed from a passing satellite, and the field ditches are being swept clean by the deluge.
The sheep shelter behind the feeders and hedges and when the rain softens shake their fleece free of the weight of the water. The ducks churn their grassy daytime sward to sticky clay and quack at the wind. The geese splash in the impromptu stream that courses through the orchard.
The mill leat that runs the length of the north boundary of the farm has gone from trickle to flood, backing up where the wood sits alongside, carrying off the leaves that have collected below their parent trees. The ferns at this northern edge thrive on getting their feet wet, and they grow not just in the crevices at the foot of the trees but high up in the canopy alongside mosses and lichens, a whole ecosystem of green dampness. It is not too hard a leap to imagine Moor Wood as an underwater world, the surface above the tree tops, me and the dogs picking about on the water's bed admiring the whorled and fantastically patterned plant exotica; fungi for coral, moss for seaweed, frogs for fish.

Apologies for the poor quality picture - it was getting dark and raining for Devon.