Thursday, 31 January 2008

Sharp sight and blurred vision

This morning, leaning into the wind, I called the llama to come and get his feed. Normally he waits for me by the gate but he was sheltering behind the high hedge and although he turned to look at me, wouldn't come. What with the howling weather, I was keeping my head down and my fleecy beanie had slipped partially over my eyes, and not being madly attentive to what was happening around me I was hoping to deliver a quick feed and achieve a swift getaway.
And then a scrawny and not particularly lithe dog fox lolloped across the field, heading away from the llama and the sheep and towards the pig paddock and the ducks. I skidded after him as a frightener, and although he kept away, his less than chubby state makes me think he'll be back.
Later, walking Fenn through the wood we disturbed a red deer stag with soft, velvety antlers, about a foot or so in length, about half their potential size. The stag bounced towards me and then veered off, easily reaching safety whilst Fenn panted by my side in excitement.
Coming out of the wood I noticed that one of the Torwen ewes was in the wrong field. She was quite happy, chomping on the rushes and new shoots of grass. If she had been one of the normal flock she would have been in a state of panic, separated from the others, running back and forth alongside the gate or pushing at the hedge to get back with the rest. But one of the Torwens, although otherwise healthy, is blind, and she seems happy enough although she spends some of her time away from the rest of the flock, usually eating close to the hedgelines out of the wind. As the ewe was so quiet and clearly not bothered it was obviously her. She must have dropped through the small gap in the hedge from the field above as she wandered along; the others wouldn't attempt this jump unless there was no grazing or hay in their field.
She was unhurt, and easily encouraged up to the gate and put back with the others. She might find her way back out tomorrow of course, but the sheep can't be moved elsewhere at the moment as the newly laid or coppiced hedges in their main fields need to be kept untouched by animal until the banks are earthed up and fences erected, all of which will happen in the next few weeks prior to lambing.
Careful watch will need to be taken with this ewe during lambing; she will be brought in early and checked regularly. If she fails to mother her lambs she will need to be culled. Otherwise, all that seems to be required is watching out for her particularly diligently to ensure she doesn't put herself in danger and that she gets plenty to eat.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The blog as book and the book as blog

The phenomenon of the blog being developed as a book is not new; publishers' attention has been drawn to blogdom for a while, and some have created an entire business from this approach. Bloggers in print often include a list of their published peers in their blogroll and the lists get longer and longer; a great way of finding new blogs you might really want to read.
And I may be very slow on the uptake, but I hadn't clocked that there are now books being published that read as if they were, in fact, blogs; a strange twist in the order of things.
I'm currently indulging in Nigel Slater's Eating for England, and it seems to me to be a food blog stuffed between hardcovers. The tiny chapters of 100-500 words are perfectly sized blog posts. There are more potential hyperlinks in it than in Wikipedia; every old fashioned biscuit and sweet, core brands like Bisto, Ribena and a hundred others are begging for realisation in a manufacturers or enthusiasts web window. You want the missing You tube links to bring to life the mock eroticism of the Cadbury's Flake and the boy scout jollity of the Jacob's Club. There are frequent references to farmers' markets, gravy, mock chocolate, toast and a host of other recurring food memories, all waiting not for a footnote but yet another link to where that ingredient was vaunted previously. And then there is the glorious cover illustration; a magic blog header if ever I saw one.
All that is missing is an array of readers comments: "I adore bourbons too", "What's wrong with tripe anyway" and "I dream of faggots every night".

See Nigel talking about his book here. If he's not related to Alan Bennett I'm a jaffa cake.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Lichens and fungi

This weekend I have thrown more weighty logs and chunks of tree trunk onto the trailer than my back appreciates. I did remember to bend my knees, but we are talking the equivalent of heaving the weight of hundreds of smallish persons here. Imagine carting every school child and all their teachers at your local primary school, and you just about have it.
I took lots of standing still and admiring the view breaks, and sat in the tractor cab as I drove from one heap of logs to the next for longer than was really necessary. I also gawked at a couple of extraordinarily beautiful specimens of lichen.
The vibrant purple one was hiding at the bottom of the log pile, really damp and dark. I worried that exposing it to light might mean the end of my aspirations to be the next Alexander Fleming, but as I don't own any petri dishes I took a photo instead.

The one that looks like orange ears is some sort of cup fungus rather than a lichen; my hunt for elucidation suggests it might be scarlet cup fungus.

And then there was this nifty little trio; as poisonous looking bunch of fungi as you would wish, all phallic and starting to develop a gelatinous sheen.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

The woman who swears by the tissue

When I was a teenager, my nose was a constantly streaming article. Allergic rhinitis was not a lovely condition for a girl with fresh hormones; the accessorizing of every outfit with a lump of tissue stuffed up the left sleeve was not guaranteed to get the boys interested.
I remember going to girlfriends' houses and gawking disbelievingly at their small cube boxes of peach coloured paper hankies, decorated with swirls and flowers that matched the décor of their rooms. First, I thought anything that girly was truly yuck in the taste stakes (snobbery was always at the fore, although I have no idea why as I'm sure I had nothing to be superior about), and secondly, what were you actually going to do with anything as physically challenged as those tiny squares of stuff? Mansize was the only thing that did it for me.
As a child we had cotton hankies. My mother would get out the Burco Boiler and boil those babies for an age, swirling them through the snot infested water with a wooden paddle. The dry hankies would be folded and put in the airing cupboard from where you could help yourself. In Goldilocks fashion I avoided the huge ones that were my father's domain, and the lacey jobs that my mother favoured, and the recollection of peeling the freshly laundered hankies apart where some lump of mucous had maintained its grip is horribly real even now.
Life eventually became too short for the Burco boiler, and at the same time as I was sent off to the launderette, pulling the overstuffed shopping trolley of dirty clothes behind me and desperate not to bump into anyone I knew, my mother started to buy paper tissues. Being a family of snufflers with a serious bronchitis sufferer in the mix, there was a box in practically every room in the house.
These days there is always a tissue in reach, if not jammed up my sleeve. I have wads in my handbag, a box in the car, my suitcase is kept well supplied and so on.
In my house there is a theory that if there was a nuclear explosion, I would reach for a tissue to wipe up the spillage. That might be a step too far (or perhaps not), but I regularly dust with one. No, reword that. On the very few occasions that I dust, I'm more likely to be found waving a tissue, possibly unused, possibly not, over the item being tackled.
I scoop up cobwebs with them, even though a new crop appears overnight. I swab my desk with them as they are at hand and I have no idea where a duster might be, or even if there is one. I wipe the eye bogies from the dogs and their earwax with said tissue. I'll remove a tapeworm from the cat's tail, mop up spilled liquid (cold) and pick up anything a bit yuckety with one. If I can't find a scrap of paper I'll use a tissue as a bookmark. A tissue gets swiped over the tv and pc screens to remove the woodfire film of dust that collects on every surface, and I have been seen using one to dab at the milk slurp marks on the kitchen window (the cat sits on the windowsill to munch and drink out of dogs reach).
So, although I declined to do the full Lady Thinker tag, I have at least written about my slatternly household ways. My tip? Never be without a 3-ply mansize tissue.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Thou shalt have a fishy

When you rear your own sheep and pigs and have access to neighbour's beef you can overdose on red meat. Lamb on Monday, gammon on Tuesday, pork chops on Wednesday, mutton stew on Thursday, steak on get the picture. Free game is plentiful in the winter, and then there is duck, chicken and goose.
But woman wasn't bred to live on meat alone. No matter what mountainous platter of leafy green veg is served alongside, you know that variety should be spicing your life, and as I don't do red wine (and so don't benefit from its antioxidant effects) I need to be conscious of ringing the protein changes.
Tuesday is market day. Dan the fish man is always there with his quips, his flirt mode turned on high, and a grin for all. His traditional multicoloured painted signs are things of beauty and utility. Every last fish, crustacean and mollusc is caught in the South West. Today's crop of lovelies included plaice, sprats, mackerel, lemon sole, grey mullet, conger eel, prawns, mussels and skate wings.
Brain food on Tuesdays then, served with the first of this year's purple sprouting.

Friday, 18 January 2008

A time for firsts

It's been said a million times or more, but as each new year cycles on, the human cannot help acknowledge the various firsts; the frog spawn, the primrose, and now the first duck egg.
I have a faithful troupe of Aylesburys, a fabulous meat breed but not so generous with their eggs, unlike the highly productive Khaki Campbell. Even so, these Jemima Puddleducks have been holding on to their eggs as if I might want to eat them; there has been not one egg for several months.
Having got used to the fabulousness of a duck egg, I really don't enjoy the comparative blandness of a hen's, so it was with glee that I retrieved this from the duck house this morning. And no, ducks don't lay cob nuts or almonds; I was trying to achieve a sense of scale so that you too could enjoy the glory of this king sized special.

And as a wee postscript, and with a mind half on primroses, my Good Things in England book has a recipe for primrose vinegar:
Boil 30 quarts of water with 12lbs of brown sugar for ten minutes. Before it is cold add a peck of primrose petals. Cream an ounce of compressed yeast with a little sugar and let it work for a few days before adding it to the primrose mix. Put the mix in a barrel and keep it close and near the fire. Let it stand for a year.
If anyone knows a good use for this, do let me know. It sounds a bit like the recipe that says boil a cormorant with a stone. When the stone is soft, the cormorant is cooked.

Thursday, 17 January 2008


After reading Paula's entry, I was a woman on a mission. I hadn't spotted any jelly in the ditches in the last few days, but then I hadn't truly been looking. On the lunchtime dog walk I checked all the slow and no-moving ditches; the ones that merely trickle rather than cascade. And there it was. A first clump of frog spawn; massive, undeniable evidence of amphibian sex, the whole thing one big wet patch. It glistens and winks with promise, each of those black dots a potential tadpole.
So, it's official x 2. The frogs are at it in Devon.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Utterly buttery

Since going on the cheese and butter making course I have been simply itching to have a go at making some at home. My long term plan for sourcing a cream separator happened much quicker than I anticipated, and I've also had the OK from a local dairy farmer to come up and get some milk whenever I want.
I still need to clean and sterilise the separator which hasn't been used for years, and because I have put this off, haven't yet trotted up the extremely steep hill with my 21st century churn (plastic milk cartons) in hand.
But I went shopping today and Waitrose had large cartons of double cream reduced. I bought the last three. Now, this is NOT an economic way to produce butter. Making it from your own surplus milk seems to be the only financially sensible method, and I mean from your own cows, not breast milk, obviously. I will have saved mere pennies in comparison to the cost of top quality butter, but I was impatient to put my new knowledge into practice. In particular I wanted to check if I had taken proper notes or if I had forgotten some key stage.
So. Ancient Kenwood receives 1.5 litres of double cream. It whisks until the cream is scrambled and pale yellow and is chucking sploshes of buttermilk out of the bowl and all over my front. I line a colander with muslin and pour the mix into the colander. The buttermilk flows through and is put in the fridge for scone-making. I wash the scrambled cream with ice cold water until the liquid flows clear. At this point I can't remember if I should be whisking the almost-butter between washes or not, so I give it a further whizz for luck. One more wash and the dough hook goes on the Kenwood and the mix has a final whirl. It looks like butter! I don't have any scotch hands so I measure out 8oz clumps and use wooden spatulas and a clean chopping board to bash nine bells out of each lump. A bit more water leaches out. Then the butter is banged into four reasonable shapes, bagged, dated and frozen. One chunk goes straight into the butter dish. As you can see, it has been photographed for posterity.

Saturday, 12 January 2008


This morning was apparently a brief respite in the continuing Devon downpours. I take advantage and Fenn and I explore the plashy fields whilst Mopsa wisely decides to stay in the dry.
The ground is sodden, and the clay noisily sucks at my boots making it difficult to walk at any speed. Small patches of turf give under the feet like sponge and ooze air bubbles. The ditches flow fast, washing silt and leaves further downhill and revealing a glistening stony bottom.
We head for the river which is full and fast, the waterfall which I can always hear but never see, hidden as it is by trees and assorted scratchy greenery, gushes and gurgles below our feet.
One of the trees in the big stand of oaks has fallen. It has been dead for some while and now horizontal I can rub some of its fibres apart with my hands. There may be some decent bits for making small pieces of furniture. Salvage operations will have to wait for a dryer day when tractor and trailer can be brought down here without damaging the ground.
Turning into one of the green lanes fenced now from poaching hooves, the primrose leaves that never seem to die in this sheltered spot have been joined by the first pale flowers. Fenn stands impatiently by the gate to be let through to the next field, up to her elbows and belly in mud, and streaks off as I follow, clumping in my boots.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Guess the object...

Back in November I was all excited about learning new things. And then I found myself committing publicly to learning something new, something substantial.
And now, sitting in the kitchen, is one of these. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it roundy and shapely and solid? Isn't is pleasingly old fashioned and homely and almost museum-like in its charm and antiquity? Don't you just yearn to turn on that little Bakelite switch and see if it works (it does) and what noise it might make?
I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have brought this home courtesy of placing a small wanted ad in the local smallholders magazine.
So your task for the day is to either:
1. guess what this actually is, or
2. make some daft suggestions as to what else it might be used for.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Sign up for a free range future

Just the thought of a battery or intensively reared chicken makes me ill. It's time the practice came to a complete stop. Cheap food is not always good food (and never when it comes from an animal). Go and visit Hugh's site to sign up if you feel strongly about this.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Wishing on a star

Le Chip has tagged me so that I am now forced to make public the eight things I would like to have happen in 2008. Just eight? And do I have to be modest in my requests? Can I be outrageously self-pleasing? Why not?
  1. I want the farm to thrive and for me to learn how to make it more income generating and less money gobbling
  2. I want the bevy of arts funding/policy making senior wonks to sort themselves out and discover honour, judgement and openness
  3. I want to be able to party at the end of 2008 in fabulously waterproof, structurally sound and beautiful barns, so that post-party they can contribute to the life of the farm
  4. I'd like to have a happy year please, not too inundated with life's difficulties and woes and
  5. then I'd make the time to appreciate the good things, of which there are many and be satisfied
  6. I want to lose the podge that has slowly crept up on me and get back to my 2005/6 relatively slinky self
  7. I'd like to have my faith in politics renewed, but THAT ain't gonna happen any time soon - in the meantime I hope for a democrat president in the US and a positive trickle-down effect
  8. I'd like to learn something new, something substantial that will engage me in thinking interesting thoughts that have never yet popped into my head.
And I must of course pass on the tag, so if they fancy sharing their hopes for this year, I pass the tag to: Swearing Mother, Rilly Super, Locks Park Farm, Field Day and Yorkshire Pudding.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Self sufficiency goes Haute Barnyard

Thanks to Jay Rayner, son of this country's best auntie, (and brought up round the corner from me in NW London), for letting me in somewhat belatedly to this intriguing phrase. So Islington/Notting Hill it's actually New York.
I can sleep soundly knowing that the pheasants I plucked and then cooked last night are absolutely at the cutting edge of eating. If local provenance is all, then I am secure in providing nothing less than ambrosia on my table; my food miles are measured in yards. I take a bow.
But if this, as Jay suggests, has been the age of the pig, then I will cock a snook at his suggestion that the Gloucester Old Spot is king. I have raised and chomped on the GOS and insist that it cannot match the Berkshire for lusciousness. This hairy black prick-eared pig was made for roast pork, crispy pork belly, chops to caress. The gammon and bacon made from this year's bunch is supreme. One of my gammons taken to Lille by friends as Christmas fest food was pronounced amazing. And it is. I have just devoured the proof courtesy of the last chunk of the holiday joint.
I think I will have to go commercial soon so more hairy black pig fans can try it for themselves.
Perhaps Jay could write an article about my pork and Hugh Fearnley Wotnot can look to his much admired laurels.

Keeping up with the Badgers

Keeping up with the Badger faced sheep that is. Toy-boy the tup has had his fill, or at least I have dictated that he has. He is young, this is his first time as sole ram, and he is feisty. In his exuberance he has rammed the side of the field shelter and broken several planks, and has now taken to slamming his head against the hay feeder. In this state of tormented testosterone he needs to be removed before he starts to butt the ewes he has so keenly impregnated in case he triggers an abortion.
He has had his annual couple of months with the girls and will now sulk for the next ten in splendid isolation. His paddock gives him views of all the comings and goings in the yard, the dogs go up to his gate and strut their freedom and visitors stop and admire him.
All the ewes were brought into the barn for a good once-over before being sent back out into the fields. One was hopping on three legs after having been fine the day before. Not able to turn over a pregnant ewe without causing potential harm, I picked up her foot as if she was a horse. It was clean, if slightly warmer than it should be. It seemed fine until I poke my fingers a little higher. A twig the width of a pencil and a good two inches long was wedged high in the claw. I removed the twig, sprayed her foot to deal with any minor infection and there she was, a four legged beast once more.
Lambing doesn't start until the very end of March, but the countdown begins now, with fresh hay every day, the feeding of concentrates starting mid February and generally hanging over the gate to observe for longer periods and being more alert than usual to coughs, sneezes and odd behaviour.