Tuesday, 30 September 2008


I seem to be travelling up to London on an almost weekly basis at the moment, usually there and back in one day, rising at 6am and falling back with a crash around 11pm. I come through the door surrounded by capering dogs and excitable kittens, head for the loo, squint at the red-eyed travel weary face in the mirror and fall on the pillows.
In the train on the way up I prepare for the day ahead, making notes, reading papers, gathering thoughts. But on the way back I'm desperate to concertina the hours of travelling into a moment, and ferret in my bag for the book of the day.
I seem to be in a world of Eastern European immigration; first with Lewycka's Two Caravans, which I warmed to (loved that Dog), and then Rose Tremain's The Road Home, which is fantastic.
As a novel moves its way into the final trimester, you don't necessarily expect new moments. Mostly you get more of the same, whether it be beauty, brutality, murder or machinations, but those last chapters of Tremain's both made me laugh out loud in the quiet carriage, and spout tears.
It may be predictable to enjoy plot quite so much, but I want a story, the revelation and development of character, pain and pleasure, hurt and happiness. I WANT the predictable AND the ridiculous, and I got both with Tremain; the old lady leaves a righteous legacy, and the Chinese asparagus pickers carry out an unexpected service.
There are many moments of recognition between the two novels, as if little windows of a shared world collide and then drift: the twinned Chinese characters; the hopes and dreams of the immigrant; the dodgy employment opportunities; the brotherhood of nations in a foreign space; the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy; the realism of old peoples' homes. Such different books, so many mutual presences.
I stroked the cover of Tremain's book after I'd finished the last sentence. I wanted to absorb her talent, share her gift. It was a feast.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Death at the weekend

It's harvest time. The number of surplus cockerels raised for meat is being diminished by twos each weekend. The Aylesbury drakes are fattening nicely and it'll be their turn soon. This week two of the pigs are off to the butcher. The remaining three Berkshires are booked in as are the second batch of lambs.
The freezers will judder into life and host a year's supply of meat and poultry, and the horrendous livestock feed bills will be cut dramatically. Poultry feed has jumped from £6.50 per 25k to £8.50 in less than six months. How organic farmers make any kind of living with their feed at Harrods prices, is beyond me.
We've heard a great deal this year about poultry farming and the real price of properly raised chicken. I suspect all the good awareness raising will be mowed down in the face of job losses, house repossessions and the general gloom of depression.
What I do know, is that my dressed weight 3.5 lb - 4lb cockerel tastes amazing, and that not even the poshest organic shop-bought bird can start to compare. Why this is, I don't know, but my birds head towards the guinea fowl in flavour (which I adore), have a density of meat that is really satisfying, and that every single scrap (excepting heads, feet, and colon) will be eaten.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Teeth, tits and toes

There comes a point in every ewe's life when she has to undergo the indignity of the teeth, tits and toes regime. Can she still nibble? Check. Is she free of lumps and bumps on the all crucial udder? Check. Are her feet in good order? Check. Those that don't pass muster are destined for the mutton wagon. It's a cattle market out there.
Every year, a month or two before tupping time, you go through this process, weeding out those not fit for another season of lambing. Today was the day and just one girl hasn't make the grade. Thank goodness that there are champions for mutton, and that there are pockets of interest in this delicious meat and the concept of long, slow cooking.
Toy-boy get his toes trimmed too, so that he can dance the fandango with the girls on the 1st November without worrying about bunions.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

No invitation to the ball

Someone had a party and didn't invite me. No reason why they should, but leaving celebratory markers to push the point home seems a little unfriendly.
I'd spent the morning cleaning duck, goose and hen houses and plucking a couple of cockerels for the freezer. I put some of her much loved tomato out for the tortoise, admired the KPs (kitten pusses - sorry), and watched the dogs stretched out in the autumn sun waiting for my call.
The lambs have been split into groups, with the ones destined for the next butcher batch chewing the best meadow grass by the river, at the furthest reach of the farm. This means a daily trog to the river no matter the weather, and the dogs love it. Starting off across the orchard I could see something cobalt and artificial bobbing about behind some gorse. I thought it was a rambler picking a few blackberries, and then decided to go and check just in case it was something that needed dealing with. Much of the helium had leached out, and trapped tightly between bramble and old fencing, this sad little offering wasn't going anywhere without a tug. There wasn't even a note attached to the long streamer. A bottle without a message.

Friday, 19 September 2008


It is SO autumn. The Virginia Creeper that drapes the cottage on the way to town is ablaze, the leaves are dropping from the young fruit trees in the orchard, the bedspread was slung onto the bed to warm my shivery shoulders last night, and the squirrels are nicking all the nuts.
The acorns are ripe, and a gentle tap sends them cascading to the ground, leaving their school caps behind them. But can I find any hazelnuts to munch? In 11 kilometres of hedgerow on the farm I found a smattering of samples, the evidence of a good crop nicely gnawed and lying empty on the ground. No doubt there are snug hoards hidden from view for winter snacks, but none for me.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Roof update

More than a month after the clever breathable membrane was put in place, we now have a fully slated roof. The weather has been ghastly and it just ain't safe sliding around up there in the wet. Just two bits of roof left to do now: the stable roof in the same reclaimed slate, just to the left of the photo and attached to the threshing barn; and the round house roof, behind the barn, also attached. The round house will be thatched which is a process I've never really seen up close and personal, so there will be reports and photos. Soon the oak for the huge barn doors will have to be ordered and there will be feverish carpentering, flying sawdust and ringlets of paper thin timber paving the ground and the workshop.

Saturday, 13 September 2008


There was a joke in the paper a while back that's had me chortling on and off for weeks: "Testiculate. Definition: to talk bollocks whilst waving your arms about." Bizarrely, it really IS a word.
But I have yet another use for it. Unless you want entire ram lambs for breeding, most folk ring the testicles in the first few days of life to make sure they don't start impregnating mothers, sisters and who knows what else prior to their going off to the butcher. But Badger Face are smaller than commercial breeds and the ubiquitous rubber ring comes in one size only (unlike condoms which I've just learned really do come in micro, large and liar). This means that there is a small risk of a testicle popping back out...and the result? Testosterone, and horns, like the chappy above. So, I suggest that he has testiculated: by virtue of sheer will power over husbandry he has maintained his machismo.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Old Foxwhelp

It conjures up a gnarled character with a mature history and a way of telling the tale, or a field name in some forgotten corner. But Old Foxwhelp is an ancient cider apple and I make it into pinky perfect apple jelly to go with the pork and gammon.
I hoiked myself inelegantly over the tree guard with the help of a step ladder and filled the trug with red striped crab apple sized fruits, gave them a sploosh in the sink and then cut them into inexact quarters. One pint of water to every two pounds of apples, and blitz in a preserving pan, being careful not to burn the bottom as it simmers and froths. When all is soft and mushy, into the jelly bag to strain for hours, jelly bag emptied and more sloshed in. To every pint of the baby pink juice you add a pound of sugar (yes, you wouldn't want to brush your teeth with it) and heat to jam setting temperature and then pour carefully into hot jars and seal.
There wasn't enough to last all winter so the tractor was taken down the lane where a wild crab apple beamed with pride at its own harvest. Balanced on the arms of the front loader, and with shepherd's crook in hand, another trugful was tumbled down and is now simmering happily and scentedly before its overnight stopover in the jelly bag.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Glut and gluttony

It's been a weird growing year; all that water and not enough heat has suited some stuff and not others. So the orchard is heavy with apples but nary a plum, gage or damson in sight. Sloes are conspicuous by their individuality; literally one or two on a tree rather than the usual laden branches. I've been blackberrying three times now and perhaps it's a little early to expect otherwise, but although there's been enough for a fool and a crumble, I have yet to find the trug-full required to make the pots and pots of jam necessary to keep the household happy year round.
The polytunnel has been the star of the show: my aubergines are the best ever; the chillis will have to be dried or they will rot on the plant (you can't chomp on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner); the big boy tomatoes are gracing salads with their accompanying basil; the yellow courgettes are this month's staple; the cucumber surplus has gone to the pigs; the peas are still going (that's a long pea season in my book); and the pak choi was brilliant. Outside, the hispi cabbages have been forfeited to pigs and hens; the slug damage has made them beyond the human pale/pail. The onions did ok and today is the day for stringing them up. The swiss chard, artichokes, parsnips and red cabbage are all thriving, but it's the raspberries that have once again cheered the days; huge, sweet, beautiful and creating a jungle of unruly canes.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Who leaves a mound like this?

I have an animal that has human toileting inclinations. If I hung a roll of the quilted stuff from a branch on a convenient tree, he would likely use it with pleasure and appreciation. He produces neat heaps of nitrogen rich pellets that cause the grass to burst with energy, outdoing everything around it for greenness and vigour.
He moves along a little each time, so that the heap gets longer and longer, and for a fastidious beast this means no danger of stubbing your toe in yesterday's delivery. I often wonder whether he'd insist on the seat left up or down, and whether his paper of choice would be of the pastel persuasion. Reading matter would likely be something uplifting and improving; a biography or historical volume. Definitely no fluffy mat round the pedestal, and soap would be something swish from Penhaligon's.
Who produces a mound like this?

Monday, 1 September 2008

Rain stopped play

Next to the almost completed cob barn is the linhay, an open fronted barn originally used for storing hay. With the barn looking so shiny, the linhay sulked alongside, and worse, had started to drip onto the feed bins stored underneath. It was time to give those lovely granite posts a new hat. One weekend was nearly enough, finishing touches to be sorted today. But rain, of course, intervened. It might be another week, or two, before it's safe to clamber about up there and tap the last sheet and the capping sections into place.