Friday, 28 August 2009

Sweet corn

Two years ago I moaned and fretted about the bizarrely polkadot affair that was my homegrown corn on the cob. How nature has improved itself.
Can you spot a gap? Are they not perfect? Could you nourish yourself and armfuls of friends with this harvest? Oh yes.
So whilst the celery succumbs disgustingly to the slugs, I take comfort in my corn, my tomatoes and aubergines, my outrageously fecund cucumbers and the spherical yellow courgettes, known as the holy hand grenades of Antioch. The turkeys, much grown, are kept well fed on the surplus.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Owl pellet

This morning there was a flyover. There I was, minding my own beeswax, letting the geese out for the day, when poof! A huge air balloon was travelling directly overhead. I waved, as you do, but although I could see sandbags and the like, and someone or something was clearly operating the dangerous looking firey thing, I couldn't see a soul. My theory is that the navigator was three feet tall and that the passengers were so travel sick that they were bent over honking into the basket and all invisible from the ground.
A couple of evenings ago I had a rather different flyover. Out of the threshing barn window, just a few feet above my head, whooshed a barn owl. So much excitement! Barn owl boxes have been made and sited hither and yon, but perhaps a bird was really nesting? Certainly there are large white splats typical of the barn owl, and the following day we found a huge pellet, complete with fur, bones and a yellow sharp-toothed skull.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Bletting my medlars

Three years ago when we planted up the gaps in the orchard, two medlars were included in the list of "must have" trees. I'm still berating myself for having forgotten a black mulberry, but this winter I will buy one - there is a tree guard already up waiting to protect it.
The medlars are growing nicely in their contorted fashion, and in contrast with two medlar fruits last year, they are positively blooming having produced a couple of fistfuls.
The fruit is sitting in the scullery waiting to blet, or rot, just a little before I make some medlar cheese, not unlike a quince membrillo.
The place is full of bowls and trugs and baskets and trays of runner beans, blackberries, courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines and more. We start jamming and peeling and shredding with a vengeance but start to flag by 6pm. There will be more to bottle and preserve tomorrow.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Lacking Panache

Yesterday was spent exploring parts of the local town of Okehampton that hadn't been peered at before: the castle (a pleasure), the station (a Miss Marple extravaganza of time stood stillness) and the museum (a curate's/curator's egg).
Gagging for a cool drink as the station buffet is sadly closed on a Monday, we headed back into town, and nosed into one of the more salubrious looking cafes in Red Lion Yard, mere strides from the restaurant shamed in front of millions by Gordon Ramsay.
After half an hour in the Panache Cafe (swiftly renamed Pan-ache by my disappointed companion), it became clear that the Gordon treatment should have extended here too.
Oh lordy, where to start?
Its position is great - a long frontage of big windows looking across the pedestrian alleyway; a busy busy thoroughfare but no cars, peaceful and perfect for peoplewatching. Decor slightly dull but clean and bright. In we hop. It's half full, but we sit for ten minutes or so before a waitress comes to the table and takes our order.
Meanwhile a chap with a Scandinavian accent comes in and asks if they do lunch. "No" is the response, "we only do quiches, pasties and cakes". He leaves with his family of four. I suggest that the next time someone asks that question in ooh, ten minutes time, it being lunchtime and all, that the response is "Yes, of course! We do a small range of great home made quiches and traditional pasties, which you can round off with a cream tea, or one of our fab cakes - do take a seat and I'll be over to take your order in two minutes." Better? More likely to end in tips? Yup.
As we wait, a chap comes in asking if he can have help to open the second of the double doors so his mate in a wheelchair can come in. Thereby follows a lot of flap and pathetic explanation that the door is really quite difficult to open and would man-in-wheelchair please put himself in the role of second-class-citizen and use the other door that no-one else has to use. That gets rid of two more potential customers.
Meanwhile, about six people have stopped to ask a passing waitress where the toilet is. It's quite clearly marked if you happen to have the one seat opposite, otherwise it's invisible. Suggestion number two - make up a two sided sign (write TOILET on it, obviously - both sides now, no skimping) and hang it at ninety degrees from the wall, so that everyone can see it without having to bother the staff or fret that they cannot see if that most essential room exists.
Next. Our cheese and onion pasties arrive with the comment that our drinks are not ready but she doesn't want our pasties to get cold. As I'd seen these plates sit on the counter for five minutes, not realising they were intended for us, I unhesitatingly hover my hand over the dishes. Steam? No. Heat? No. I pick them up and take them back to the counter and ask for them to be heated up. We hear panicky mutterings about how difficult it is to get a pastie to the right heat. They return, soggy from the microwave. Nil points. Served with a small handful of crisps. Zero points. Not a garnish of a lettuce leaf, a tomato or cucumber curl in sight. Somehow, I expected more in a cafe (even for my £2.45) than a soggy version of the pastie I could buy in Endacotts bakery next door for half that. Charge an extra quid, but plate it up with style and a handful of lightly dressed salad, heat it in a proper oven (crispy is what you're after mates), and if you don't know how to heat a pastie may I suggest that you are in the wrong profession?
Drinks. Pot of tea and an elderflower cordial with sparkling water. For my £1.85 I expected a long cool drink - this is cordial we are talking about after all, not champagne. No, the glass is downed in one brief slug and I'm left entirely unrefreshed, even though a chunk of orange has been pointlessly attached to the rim and bangs against my not small nose.
As we roll our eyes at each other about this desperate lost business opportunity, and how sad it is that local people and tourists can't have access to a cheery cafe serving a simple range of really great food and intelligent service, an expensively dressed couple come in. They ask the lunch question and get the same answer, but they are alert and have noticed the blackboard signs announcing broccoli and cheese or tomato and basil quiches. "No, no," the waitress says, waving her hand about dismissively, we only have Quiche Lorraine left". The couple acquiesce, and take a seat. But when no-one has come to take their brief order in five or more minutes, they too walk out.
If ever a place was run for the benefit of the staff and not the customer, this is it. "No" is their favourite word. Excuses and explanations their bread and butter. When I get up to pay, the waitress asks if everything was alright. I take possession of their favourite word. "No", I say "I can't believe you aren't making the most of the opportunity here. The position is great, but the food is a disaster and you keep turning people away". Her jaw hangs open. Well, it's about time someone said something or at least four people are shortly going to be out of work. Okehampton deserves better than this. And so do I on my day out.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Another slow worm

It's a while since I saw my first slow worm, and today, whilst picking the first blackberries of the season for a crumble, I spotted my second, only a few yards from the previous sighting 16 months ago.
This time I pick it up. It is smooth, silky and cool. It sits calmly in my hand, curling itself gently through my fingers. I can feel its strength, its muscularity. It is not as bronzey coloured as No.1 SW, and has a distinct extended middle. A pregnant female perhaps. It also reminds me of Hard Hattie, although it is shinier and the scales are less pronounced and rough.
Suddenly it turns from a no-legged lizard to a snake; its forked tongue flickers, tasting the air. It can't be more than ten inches long, but it is feisty.

I carry No.2 SW back to where I found it, and it slides into the long grass as if greased with candle wax.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Mopsa, Elizabethan style

Mopsa is not a vain dog, although she is undeniably the most beautiful dog on the planet... (pause for remonstrations), so she wasn't bothered by a couple of eye warts. But then they started to scratch the surface of her eyeball and they had to come off.
Whilst under the double whammy of miraculous but ghastly anaesthetic, her teeth were seen to and one was removed with its associated epulis.
Poor old girl, it seems as though warty growths find you irresistable. But then, so do I. Even in a plastic Elizabethan ruff.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Early one morning

No, sadly, I still don't have cows, but there are cows on the farm which is nearly as good. And here is the first calf born on the farm in many a year.
I watched it steaming, moist and surprised at ten minutes, and the first giraffe-legged steps, the falling back on its haunches, the rest and the more successful attempt to stand. Freshly born, there wasn't that much difference in colour between mum and daughter, but now, fully dried, she is a pale cream.
I took this photo as the calf approached 24 hours on earth. Mum is a first timer, it's thought, and she was a little bemused by the whole business. But early this morning the heifer lowed gently to the calf, and it lowed softly back and trundled towards her on jelly legs.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Raspberry tartoise

When you have more raspberries than you can eat, it's only fair to share.
Hattie adores red fruits: strawberries, tomatoes, raspberries. I took a bowlful into the garden and sat with her. From half asleep to fully gorged and raring to go in three minutes. Raspberries are super-charged fuel for prehistorics.
Can you imagine the size of a fruit that could satisfy a brontosaurus?
I will give her face a wipe later to keep the flies away, once she's licked up all the remnants.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The abattoir that helps with slaughter

I rarely read The Times, but I was travelling by train yesterday and a copy was shoved into my hand. Flicking through, there was yet another article telling the urban world how they could have their own good life with the aid of a back garden (and tolerant neighbours).
I read it in the light hearted fashion in which it was offered to the reader. I love the thought of hen coops scattered across urban sprawls, providing eggs and entertainment for families, and an insight into animal welfare and food production, but then Tom Whipple moved on to the marvellously bonkers notion of keeping pigs, cows, sheep and goats in a city backyard.
It was the piggy bits that had me rolling my eyes and hoping none of Tom's readers would contact me for a weaner.
Pigs DON'T reach meat weight at 12-16 weeks. 26 weeks is the minimum, and I take the Berkshires to 32 weeks. This means large animal in small garden, not cutesy wee piglet that would fit on two plates. I can just see the happy couple picking up an eight week old weaner in the back of the car (illegal) and carrying it through the house to pop it into an old dog kennel in the garden, and then the scratching of heads 18 weeks later as they contemplate huge beastie having to be corralled through french windows, past the sofa, negotiating the hallway and front door to a trailer they don't have to an abattoir they can't find.
The best bit was the comment that "most local abattoirs will help with slaughter". I had visions of said couple girding their loins to stick pig with knife as the slaughterman helpfully holds pig still.
Ah well, knock the good life if you must, but in the right environment (so NOT the city garden), with the right information and skills, it's a great life. In the city, keep to bees, hens and ducks unless you have a city farm.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Making money

Unlike Barclays bankers, no-one is paying me any bonuses, so earning money is nearly always on my mind. Will enough consultancy opportunities come in now that the economy spurns those of us on the outer edges of employment? Am I selling the farm produce effectively? Am I minimising inessential costs? And so on. I'm not the only one to be preoccupied in this way (although I'm not about to lay my balance sheet out for you).
So when I read this story, the end of the farming game for Rosie Boycott, I had cause, yet again, to stop and think - is it possible to farm on a small scale and not subsidise it from other earnings?
Possibly, possibly, but only with some major caveats:
  1. Small scale will never cover the mortgage payments, so live in a caravan, a hovel, a cave, under the stars, or buy outright with the moolah from some previous existence.
  2. It will never pay you a wage, but you may be lucky enough to live in a way and in a place that minimises expenditure (just don't go wearing any holes in your jeans, and don't forget you can't pay your Council Tax in beans or the water bill with eggs).
  3. It will certainly never allow you to pay someone else a wage (I think that's where Rosie went wrong), and because of this...
  4.'s a full-time thing; even when you're doing something else to earn some cash, farm necessities must be dealt with - life and death and welfare issues can't wait until it's more convenient - the farm dictates, not the diary.
  5. Some daft bugger desperate for short term cash will try to undercut you all the time - stick to your guns and prices or you really will be heading for doom and gloom, subsidising other people's lifestyles and choking on it.
  6. It's a business, not a flaky hobby. That might mean registering for VAT, producing accounts, keeping records, analysing the finances, planning for the future, investing lots of time and appropriate amounts of money in the right places.
  7. There is a lot of capital outlay, even if, like us, you make a huge amount of stuff yourself. You need equipment, tools (from a sledge hammer to a welder), almost certainly a tractor, animal handling facilities, animal shelter(s), the list goes on.
  8. Work out how much stock you and your land can handle - all kinds of grief comes from overstocking (disease, exhausted fields, huge feed bills to make up for the lack of grass), and other grief comes from having more on your plate than you can cope with.
  9. Don't fanny around being precious about farming subsidies - if you're eligible, get those papers in - you can't afford not to.
  10. If you want a hobby rather than a business, smallholding is great, but if that's your limit, stick to producing enough for yourself and one or two friends...and leave it at that.
I am so far from getting this right; I'm learning all the time, and moving cautiously. But I do know, for example, after two years of keeping records, that selling fertile hatching eggs really does cover all the poultry feed bills, provides us with meat, eggs and entertainment, and produces the kind of surplus that matches the costs of their breeding, fencing and housing (just), but it's very time intensive. I know that it's not yet the moment to invest in a second breeding sow, and that the notion of cows has to be parked. Having increased the flock I don't know if I will be able to sell all my fabulous lamb boxes direct to discerning carnivores this autumn, but I do know how much the abattoir will pay for them as a second best resort. I know that I can't afford to pass my wool through the British Wool Marketing Board any longer and that I have to market my fleeces directly to spinners and weavers.
But the biggest caveat of all is that you have to see the point of it, because you will be spending 24 hours a day at it.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The early birds

I have records for everything. Lambing dates, live and dead weights for lamb and pork going back years, breeding records and statistics, lists of ducklings on order, incubation setting and hatching dates, hedgetrimming and laying schedules, you name it.
I check the poultry and livestock spreadsheets and note that today is the day to turn on the hatcher and move the next batch of duck eggs across from the incubator as soon as it's up to heat. In two days time the hatching will begin.
I go into the old stable I use as the incubation and hatching room and I hear cheeping, and it's not from the swallows or housemartins in the roof. Seesawing gently as the automatic turning cradle tilts to and fro are two early birds. A pair of black indian runner ducklings have not waited to be moved into the non-swaying, non-tilting, flat as a pancake hatcher, but have emerged in the incubator leaving neatly excavated shells.
I hurtle into the boot room, turn on the heat lamp, chuck sawdust into the brooder, put in a drinker and some feed, and gallumph back to extract the ducklings and put them into their new home for the next two weeks.
With the world no longer turning under their feet they look a little dazed. I present the early birds - just a couple of hours old. More will be joining them shortly. Before they have time to catch a worm.