Only a short post today as we have been quite busy. February has not yet finished but the ewes have decided that Spring is upon us and it is time to start lambing. About 3 weeks earlier than usual and choosing, as is often the way with sheep, a cold day with snow showers as the most opportune day to bring new life into the world.
Here they are just minutes after delivery, still in the pink early sunshine and with the iodine stains on their navels. The two brothers look healthy but I am worried that this ewe had twins. We had hoped, by avoiding flushing, we might avoid getting twins. Singletons are easier births and put less strain on our limited pasture. In any event the two boys and their mum look healthy.
This week has also been busy as we dispatched the ducks. We kept one, even though we know she will probably be infertile, to remind us of how pretty the ‘muscberries‘ were. As an easily prepared supper we found this recipe ideal for the end of a day spent outside in the cold.
4 duck legs
1/2 bottle of red wine (stuff left over from a party because nobody really liked it)
2 cloves garlic chopped
1 punnet mushrooms sliced
2 onions chopped
water and cornflour
Place all the ingredients in a casserole dish. Add the red wine and enough water to cover the ingredients. Cook in the Rayburn at a low temperature for at least 2 1/2 hours. Towards the end use cornflour to thicken the gravy to your preferred consistency. Serve with mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage. This is a simple meal with plain earthy flavours but a comforting way to end the day.
This is perhaps the best time of the year as now all the
labour expended starts to show dividends as we can start to harvest what we
have grown. Even better, it is the time of year when the hedgerows are full of
free produce. Going on a walk at this time of year can be made much more
rewarding by the simple act of carrying a bag with you. Mushrooms, blackberries,
and windfall apples can make a walk very
interesting and add greatly to the pantry on returning home. I am aware my neighbours
are collecting likewise and sometimes you can tell you have been dilatory in going
for a walk as many of the ‘goodies’ have been taken. However, I have
been very aware that many people miss one of the best items to forage; nuts,
especially the hazel nut.
The hazel tree is prolific producer of nuts and for the past month it has been dropping its bounty on the paths and roads in heavy crops. The squirrels are aware of this and will manage to collect copious quantities. Indeed, as they work round the clock, they will manage to collect many more than you unless you are very diligent. One way to circumvent this problem is to collect some nuts even though they are green. You can empty your bag when you get home into a dark dry area, and they will ripen over then next few days.
Now it quite possible to eat hazel nuts raw and the only preparation you need for this is a nutcracker and a bowl for the shells. This can be an excellent accompaniment to a TV drama on dark evening. However, a better strategy, in my opinion, is to roast the nuts. This is simply done and adds to the versatility of your haul.
Simply warm an oven to 140 degrees. While it is getting ready sit and listen to the radio while you crack the nuts and lay them on a baking tray. Once the tray is covered put them in the oven and leave them for 20 minutes. When they come out wrap them in a damp dishcloth. This will steam the nuts and then, when you rub the nuts inside the cloth, help remove the slightly bitter skin that coats the nut. Put the nuts in an airtight jar and use as you wish – snacking, crushing and adding to muesli or yoghurt for breakfast, as a base for a variant of Nutella, or as a component of biscuits or flapjacks.
This is really simple foraging and something that is very rewarding. Indeed, as I think about it, you don’t even need a bag as it is likely that you will have pockets while out walking which will do just as well. And, if you are not wearing trousers on your perambulations through the lanes then collecting hazelnuts is not likely to be high on your priorities)
I don’t get on with Blackthorn, I never really have. There is a short spell in May when its white flowers, along with those of the Hawthorn, brighten up the hedgerows. But this is a very temporary pleasure and the plant quickly returns to its true nature as a dense, spiky and dangerous bush. It is no surprise to me that this is the wood witches prefer to make their staffs and wands. It really can be an evil wood, anyone who has had to try to work with Blackthorn will know that it is one of the few woods that actually fights back. After trying to clear a patch of this bush from our sheep field I looked as if I had spent the afternoon trying to pack angry cats into a duffle bag, my arms were so scratched, ragged and torn. So I don’t like Blackthron but I do respect it.
Usually this time of the year the Blackthorn manages to annoy me again. In our patch of land, due to the elevation and climate, most soft fruits do badly. We get small crops of apples, plums or damsons. However, the Blackthorn teases us with its heavy crops of sloes. Every year they seem better, the bushes are laden with plump, juicy blue berries which grow without an ounce of help from us. There is an obvious warning here. The reason the bushes are so heavy with fruit is partially because no-one likes it. When the cherries, apples or plums appear the birds and wasps closely follow, but sloes are so disgustingly tart that everyone leaves them alone, leaving them on the boughs to taunt me.
There is a tradition of making sloe gin and although we have done this it is always a bit unsatisfactory. There is little cost saving, or increased independence, in a recipe that requires you to first purchase gin. Further, although you end up with a flavoured gin which might be better than drinking neat gin (which is very much like drinking perfume) it is still not truly a great drink. Sloe gin is the last drink to be drunk at the party when all the good popular drinks have been finished. Sloe gin, like Ouzo, Palinka or Unicom, is drunk when other drink has been taken in sufficient quantity to impair your judgement, encourage you to make rash decisions and has dulled your palate to a significant degree.
I was therefore delighted to find a recipe that might make sloes useful. Rather than making sloe gin or jelly I decided to make sloe kir. This is a sweet cordial that is incredibly quick and easy to prepare, the recipe is below. This is a sweet drink with a clear sharp kick to it. It tastes of plums and cherries and evokes the taste and smell of fresh ripe damsons rather than reveal is hideous true nature. Using it like kir in fizzy wine or water is very pleasant on a hot afternoon and it can also be drizzled over ice cream.
I can now look at blackthorn bushes benignly and hope they give a bumper crop of sloes. The tide in the battle has changed and for once we are on the winning side.
To make this juice add 1 litre or sloes and one litre of water to a pan. Add 450g of sugar and bring to the boil. Keep this simmering for three quarters of an hour then drain it through a sieve. Next pour it through a muslin to leave you with a dark red liquor. This can be kept in the fridge for a week or frozen for use later on.
After a long hiatus we have started milking again this week. Last year we gave our two nannies a break from milking as we felt they deserved a rest. This meant, for the first time for us, we had to arrange to get the them in kid so we could restart the milking process. Thankfully this did not require a lot of skills natural impulses and the billy goat managed all of the basics without any real intervention on our part. This week we have started to wean the kids away from their mother and to restart the daily milking cycle. I had forgotten how important this was to me.
I always feel that milking is like the heartbeat of the farm. Every day, come hell or high water, at the same times we go milking. Every other part of our day is organised around these times. As we only have a few animals we cannot justify the cost of a milking machine. Therefore all our milking is down by hand and thus it is very rarely that we can go away for more than 10 hours. When I worked we were world travellers, crisscrossing the globe for business and pleasure, this is but a dim memory now. Very infrequently, when we have friend who have been trained how to milk, we venture away for our annual holiday. For our most recent holiday we went to hotel 8 miles away (just in case we had to get back in an emergency) for “dinner, bed and breakfast” having come across vouchers on the web. I have to say that the holiday was as enjoyable as any we have had and a great deal less stressful.
My favourite is the morning milking. This occurs between 5 and 6 am in the spring and summer, and thankfully a bit later in winter and autumn. At this time of day the world truly is a peace. The only noises are the birds wakening and the animals calling for their feed. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to have roused and it feels like there is only me and the goats. Very rarely I might catch sight of our neighbour who has cattle on the other side of the valley as he goes on his early morning run to attend to them. It is too peaceful to do anything more than wave and nod.
The morning milking is quite quick. Sitting with your head against the flank of a goat listening to the rhythmic “whoosh whoosh” of the milk as it is pumped into the bucket is very relaxing. Once the milk is safely gathered I need to filter and bottle it. For this part of the procedure I have a daily podcast to keep my attention and I listen to the Bwletin Amaeth which is the short morning farmers’ program that keeps me up to date with agricultural issues and the weather. This is just long enough to keep my attention while I prepare the milk.
The evening milking is done as late as I can so as to try and keep the nanny from feeling overfull the following morning. It is the last task on the farm and I see it as the closing up aspect for the day. After collecting and preparing the milk I do a round of all the animal houses and make a quick head-count of the sheep. It is a reassuring and pleasant feeling to know that everyone is well and where they are meant to be.
Perhaps the best thing about milking is that it means we are again much more self-reliant. As we always have eggs and milk in the house there is never a pressing reason to go shopping. You can always prepare something to eat no matter how badly organised you have been. It used to annoy me when, in my previous life, I’d find we had no milk and would then ‘pop out’ to the supermarket which was open 24 hours. I’d go for milk but always come back with a bag of groceries as I’d be tempted by the 2 for 1 offers or I’d buy the end of date items which always seemed to be a bargain I could not forego. Latterly our supermarket became more of a department store so going out for milk could mean returning with trousers or a short as well. I should have been able to go and spend £1 but invariably I was gullible and came back spending over £10.
Goat’s milk is very versatile and can be used in many recipes but I feel the best thing to use if for (other than as milk) is to make yoghurt. There are few recipes as healthy as that for natural yoghurt. The ingredients are :-
and that’s it. I don’t understand why more people don’t make their own. All that is required is to bring the milk up to 195F (the temperature that it starts to boil) and stir it for a few moments. Then let it cool down to 110F, when it feels hot rather than tepid, and stir in a tablespoon of your last batch of yoghurt. Leave it somewhere warm overnight and voila you have yoghurt. I leave it in the bottom of the oven after it has been used and is still warm but switched off. Once it is ready transfer it to the fridge. It is possible to add sugars and flavours but natural goats milk yoghurt really doesn’t benefit from this.
The only downside of milking that I can currently see is that I now have two young billy goats I don’t need. We’ll see if anyone else has a desire for them, but if not I have plans that mean will need to start working in earnest next week.
At the risk of sounding big headed I would like to announce that I have solved one of the major problems facing humanity today: ‘What to do with the Jerusalem Artichoke ?‘ As everyone will know this is a cunning and devious vegetable which starts its nefarious plans by the very choice of its name. This ugly tuber has no special link to Jerusalem nor the Holy land. This is simply a trick to fool you into believing that it has saintly properties : it does not. The term ‘Jerusalem’ probably arose from the Italian name for the plant – “girasole” – the Italian name for the Sunflower. And herein lies the truth, the “Jerusalem Artichoke”, this dreadful plant, is no form of artichoke at all, it is a form of sunflower masquerading under the name Artichoke to suggest to the unwary gardener that it is pleasantly edible. However, early in its history people discovered that while is can be eaten there is a question as to whether it should be eaten.
The carbohydrate in the Jerusalem Artichoke is stored as inulin. Decent, pleasant root vegetables such as the potato or parsnip store their carbohydrate as starch. This is why we like to eat them; the starch is easily digestible and this is the reason that I, and millions of others, am overweight as the starch in these root vegetables are an easy way to get far too many calories into your diet in a single sitting. Inulin, on the other hand, can’t be digested by us so it is left to the bacteria in our large intestines to do the job. These bacteria do this with gusto, creating a lot of gases in the process which gives rise to flatulence and bloating. In 1821 it was written in Godard’s Herbal that Jerusalem Artichokes “which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men”. So we were warned many years ago !
But in addition to the tricks with its name there is another way that this loathsome plant continues to trick gardeners into growing it. Though it tubers are unsightly its flowers are rather pretty and, most importantly, no matter how poor a gardener you are, no matter how much you mistreat and neglect this plant, it will still happily grow and thrive. Dig a hole, drop them in, cover and then just forget about them, they will grow. Months later you will have large impressive plants with pleasant flowers for no effort whatsoever. If we just left it at this there would be no problem. But, unfortunately, people feel tempted to pull up the roots, reveal the tubers and think “how will I cook this ?”. The answer was it doesn’t matter, whether you fry, roast or boil, the result is a disappointing mush that doesn’t even repay the modicum of effort that you put in. That is until now !
I have discovered a way of using the Jerusalem Artichoke that is better than leaving it in the ground or tossing it directly into the compost heap. Firstly scrub the tubers to take of the soil that covers them. This will reveal the tubers in all their horror. They look like something from the “Day of the Triffids”, this is the way they are meant to look.
Next take a potato peeler and slice the tuber into thin slivers. Place these on a dehydrator tray and sprinkle salt over them. It is important not to omit this step. If one does one will be rewarded for your labour by something that tastes a bit like paper. (If you follow this step then, after all your work, you will have something that tastes a bit like salty paper). Next dehydrate the slivers overnight.
Once the Jerusalem Artichike has dehydrated you will have a subsitute for crisps ( or potato chips as they are called across the pond). It is not a great substitute but they have a couple of advantages. Firstly they are low fat and low carb which is helpful to some on diets like myself and secondly they are not that great tasting which helps with the tendency to overindulge that is so easy with real crisps.
A possible final advantage might occur if one has guests. Sometimes my more cultured guests turn their noses up when I put out the Cheesy Wotsits or Monster Munch as nibbles. These would look sufficiently homemade and rustic as to appeal to them (and there will be more wotsits left for me). As I said, I don’t want to be big headed but I suppose it won’t be long until that call comes from Sweden with the information about the Nobel Prize.
Our work in preparing the sheep has continued and through the last week we have been fleshing out the skins and salting them. In the last day or sowe have even started to put some of the skins into the tanning solution. At our present rate of progress we anticipate continuing with this work for another fortnight or so. However, earlier last week something captured my attention and made me pay more attention to the poultry.
Emrys, one of our cockerels, a White Sussex, was looking depressed and dejected. It also looked as if he had been fighting and not always winning. I then noticed that I had mis-gendered one of the “girls” that I had added to his harem after the last batch hatched. One of the girls had grown rapidly and was now as big as Emrys. He had started to crow in the morning, and on further inspection was clearly not a girl but another cockerel. None of our cockerels, at the moment, will tolerate other males around them and they fight viciously. Emrys and the new boy had started and it was only a matter of time until serious damage, or death, would result. We decided therefore that the new boy had to go and planned that he would be our supper that night (and lunch for a few days after as soup).
I find that the safest and fasted way to dispatch poultry is using a killing cone. This is made by using an old traffic cone, pared at the top at bottom and screwed to a large tree. This holds the bird firmly but not unpleasantly and allows you to use the machete, or axe, in a way that there is no chance of missing or just maiming the bird. From arrival at the cone to the completion of the deed takes about 10 seconds, it does not seem unduly disturbing for the bird, and death is instantaneous. This also allows you to leave the bird for a short period after dispatch, with a bucket below, to catch the blood which flows in a controlled fashion.
The next stage is to prepare your bird. I find that plucking the bird is best done as quickly as possible, it is an easier job when the bird is still warm. If you can not do the plucking immediately then it is best to wait for quite a while. Birds pluck easier when they are either still warm or are completely cold – a half warm bird can be difficult to pluck. Although there are ways to aid plucking by putting the bird in boiling water for a short spell, or by buying plucking machines, it is not a difficult job and most people can pluck a chicken within 15 to 20 minutes (The same, unfortunately, can not be said for ducks.)
Pluck by grabbing small amounts of feathers between your index finger and thumb and pull sharply. I find pulling ‘against the grain’ – from bottom to top – works best. Don’t be tempted to take too large clumps as you will risk tearing the skin and will also find you tire more quickly and the job ends up taking the same length of time. After you have plucked the chicken use a cleaver to remove the feet and scissors to remove the remains of the wings.
Remember, as always, don’t waste anything, even the feet are edible. I find that the chicken feet recipes often call for a lot of work, and often spices that I don’t carry all the time (star anise, for example). However, my two assistants are not bothered by all that culinary pfaff and prefer their chicken feet raw. Also the feathers should have been collected as these have their uses while I will describe in a future post. Now onto the next stage.
After plucking we have to dress the bird. This can be a messy and smelly task but it is not a difficult one. Firstly it is important to cut around the bird’s anus. This will allow is to pull the intestines out without them bursting or leaking which is something we obviously want to avoid. Having done this, make a cut from this cut up to the birds breastbone this will allow you to put your hand in and remove the innards. Having got the intestines out it is important to put your hand back in and up as far as you can manage to pull out the heart and windpipe. Once these are removed you have largely dressed your bird ready for the oven. Remember to wash the heart, gizzards and liver for use later on. These can be used as the giblets for making gravy, or the liver is an excellent base for pate, and the meat from the gizzards, once fried, is excellent in a salad (salade gésiers).
About three quarters of an hour after starting the task the bird is ready and can be used in any of your favourite recipes. This one, however, was going to be very simply treated and roasted in the range. Before going in, it was laid on top of a bed of onions and root vegetables (parsnip & carrot) and seasoned with tarragon and garlic. It was cooked for the usual time and the juices reserved for making gravy and the cooked vegetables were used as a side dish. Once roasted it was ready to eat.
Be prepared, chickens you rear and prepare yourself will not be like the conveyor belt chickens you have come to expect. It will, in the first place, be smaller – a free range chicken which as been active and enjoyed its life will never be as large as its factory counterpart. All the exercise it has enjoyed also means the meat will be firmer and less tender. These two signs should let you know that you have done better by the bird and you let it have a better, more natural life. The biggest difference, however, will be in the taste – it will taste of chicken. It will not be the bland white meat devoid of interest but instead it will be full of flavour and this will more than make up for any lack of size.
our small holding. Along the boundaries of our main fields, and in our woodland, we had majestic oak trees which gave heavy crops of acorns. I have tried some of the recipes for using acorns, and I’ll write on this at a later date, but noticed while I was collecting them that there was another potential crop – oak leaves.
After a bit of research I discovered that wine made from oak leaves was a local specialty in Wales and had a long tradition. I noted also that it was said to be fairly potent and also palatable. Therefore in autumn of last year we took a crop of oak leaves and this afternoon we bottled our first eight bottles of oak leaf wine or Gwin Dail Derw.
The recipe was fairly straightforward. We collected two bucketfuls of oak leaves directly from the tree. These had turned brown but had not yet fallen to ground. We covered the leaves in boiling water and left them for 5 days just stirring occasionally. At the end of this time we strained the dark liquid through a muslin and brought it to the boil. We then added a grated piece of ginger (about1 cubic inch), 400 grams of chopped sultanas, and 2 kg of sugar. We simmered the mixture for a period then added general purpose wine making yeast and left it for three weeks in the demijohns to ferment. We racked it once but it cleared without any assistance.
At the end of fermentation the change in the specific gravity suggest that our wine has about 12.7% alcohol. It certainly tastes as if it does. At this early stage if presents as a clear amber liquid with a warm, spicy taste; an excellent winter wine. It is very palatable at the moment but the advice is to let it rest for a further six months to a year and we will try to do this to allow its flavours to develop.
In summary oak leaf wine has been considered to be a success. Unfortunately our experiments at making acorns palatable have been less fortunate, a set of failures I will describe at a later time.
The last days of autumn are with us and the snow on the hilltops suggest winter is not far away. The work on the smallholding has changed accordingly. It is this gently changing rhythm that makes life so pleasant. I recall my days working; when each day was similar to the last, the same challenges faced day after day, the same routines whether it was winter or summer, Monday or Friday.
However, one task I could happily avoid is the freeing of sheep from the briar patches. At this time of year one of the few sources of greenery for the sheep is the bramble. They love bramble leaves, almost as much as ivy leaves, but unfortunately as it is the end of the year they are also wearing their thick coats. While the sheep pushes itself into the briar patch its fleece acts as armour to protect it from thorns. However, this spurs them on to go deeper into the thicket when they them get stuck as the tendrils of the brambles get caught up in their wool. They get stuck sound, unable to move, and at risk of dying from thirst and starvation.
At this time of year we need to do four checks a day and to be armed with secateurs and thick gloves every time. We will try and clear these patches and the goats are great allies in this. They too like eating brambles but are more agile than sheep and don’t carry the thick fleece which causes them to be trapped. By the end of the month, after everyone’s work, we should be out of the woods as far as this problem is concerned.
Diet also changes with the season. Not just in the concerning seasonal fruits and vegetables but also our meats. It is always this time of year that we have a flurry of pheasant meals. Usually shot by ourselves but today courtesy of someone who enjoys the shoot but not the product. I can understand why some people are not keen on pheasant. The first few times we ate it I was decidedly unimpressed. I think the problem is that roast pheasant can often be a dry meat and sometimes quite bitter as well.
However, having tasted pheasant and other fowl in casseroles I have been converted and now it is something I start to look forward to in October, knowing in November and December there will be a surfeit of game fowl. The best recipe is probably the simplest and uses root vegetables and cider as described below :-
Skin the pheasants and take the breast and leg meat. Don’t bother trying to pluck them as this is unnecessary work and adds little to the final meal.
Brown the meat in a casserole dish.
Add whatever vegetables you have to hand. We usually use celery, turnip, parsnip, celeriac, leek and onion. Fry these with the meat to soften the leeks and onions. If you have any cooking apples add a couple.
Season with salt, pepper, thyme, parsley, and marjoram.
Add a can of cheap cooking cider and water to cover the whole things
Slow cook in a low oven until everything is ready.
Serve with creamy potato mash and cabbage
A perfect autumn or winter meal, warming after an afternoon in the cold pulling sheep out of the briars.
I think that Autumn is my favourite season; the hard work of summer is over, the fruits of the spring are ready to be collected and the harshness of winter is still a while away. This is particularly so this year, after what has been a disappointing summer. Mostly warm and wet, it has caused us problems with the sheep and meant we have been unable to take hay. Twice we have had sheep who have had fly strike. Though they have survived, by dint of debridement and Stockholm tar, this was a terrible experience for both them and us. And, barring a miraculous Indian summer (or Haf bach Mihangel as we say around here) in October we will have to buy hay this winter. So, I am keen to see October arrive and know that the damned flies, and risk of fly strike, will soon be gone.
However, perhaps the main reason for enjoying this season is because it is the time you can enjoy the fruits of your labours and sometimes fruits without any labour at all. This time of the year we usually get a good crop of chantrelle mushrooms in the wood and this year has been no exception. They provided us with a few meals which required nothing more than what we can make on our own plot of land. My favourite was the chantrelle soup the recipe for which is below. This is a luxurious soup, warm, smooth and filling and better than any mass produced soup you may buy. Wonderful when its cost is measured in pennies !
Large bag of chantrelle mushrooms
3 Cloves of garlic
Pint Chicken stock
3 tablespoons of butter
Soften the onions and garlic by frying gently for 5 minutes in the butter. Add the mushrooms and continue to fry gently for a further 8 minutes. Add the flour and mix to a smooth consistency. Add the milk and stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.