Wednesday, 30 November 2011

29th November - Dash For the Henderson


The hedge at Peasmarsh before starting


The site at Peasmarsh could loosely be described as a farm.  At the top of the hill sits the house surrounded by outbuildings and along the valley the once vast arable field has been divided into still large paddocks by hedge plantings (which we are now laying). On the high ground along from the house, oak standards can be seen above the chestnut coppice and considering also the typical East Sussex scene in which land sits, the place is very attractive. Perhaps this was one of the inspirations for the owners to set up eco-camping or glamping (I'm not quite sure on my expensive camping terminology) on the land to help make it pay. During the winter months there is little evidence of this summer enterprise but near the end of our current stretch of hedge stands two compost toilets grandly signposted ' The Henderson ' and ' The Mountfield '. No doubt there are some amusing connotations attached to the names but I'm afraid they are lost on me. Today for the second time since we've been at the job, I found myself dashing for ' The Henderson ' before it was too late! I shan't expose you to yesterday's episode, but this afternoon the tall weather board tower became my target before nightfall. Again C managed to keep astride of all non-laying activities and I reached my goal having put down over 40 m of hedge. This morning's frost felt like a distant memory as we left in high winds which swept mild air in great gusts across the field to test the C’s binding. The completed hedge, snaking downhill didn't move a fraction which is a testament not only to good workmanship but also to a system which was developed hundreds of years ago.

Dinner
Slow roasted shoulder of mutton with mashed potatoes, roast squash, red cabbage casserole, carrots and gravy. Followed by Peary Pudding and custard. Dinner was undoubtedly today's main event and should have taken the lead in today's entry. However Em has discouraged me from blogg titles with unrelated pictures and as I was far too concerned with eating tonight's food I totally forgot to take a photo! Mutton has negative connotations for most but the product my parents produce from their small flock is stunning. A couple of wethers (castrated males) are kept each year and left to run with the ewes until they are three, feeding entirely on grass. There is plenty of fat on the carcasses, but this only adds flavour to the dark marbled flesh which is closer to beef than lamb in looking and  texture at least. Em cooked the half shoulder for about seven hours in a low oven and the meat was so yielding I was able to pull the shoulder blade straight out. Rich, tender and crunchy on the outside, it was the best piece of roast meat I have had for a long time (which is saying something considering we are blessed with no end of fantastic meat). Pudding was something a little special to mark the fact that C and Kit were dining with us - a recipe which I invented years back to use us seasonal ingredients. It is a take on figgy pudding and turns out dark, rich and rather boozy.

Peary pudding

Ingredients
5 fluid oz plum wine (or sweet desert wine)
4 oz dried pears
5 oz plain flour
2 1/2 oz grated suet
4 oz honey
1 egg beaten
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Method
  • Put pears in a saucepan and cover with plum wine.
  • Warm gently for half an hour until the fruit is soft but not too squidgy.
  • Drain pears and cut roughly.
  • Combine pears and half the reserved wine liquor with all the other ingredients, adding more wine if necessary to make a thick batter consistency.
  • Pour mixture into a greased 2 pint pudding bowl, cover with foil, tie down the cover and steam for at least two hours.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

28th November - Hedging Again

Brash fire rekindling in the darkness

Naturally I need only mention in my virtual scribblings that the weather is mild and we receive our first heavy frost of winter. The cold was sufficient to freeze the outside tap and to see the fields powdery white filled me with a strange delight. I suppose like everyone I like the season to feel like the season.

There was no real time to admire the beautiful morning (a sad confession to make). C arrived at daybreak and there followed a mad rush to do the animals, make lunch and gather tools. At the rather late time of 8:30 AM having made our way through a good but very generous bowl full of porridge each (I told you Em likes to keep people well fed) we were on our way. Next stop was to collect stakes and binders from Square Wood and having lashed them roughly to the trailer it was on to Peasmarsh to start hedge laying. The job in Peasmarsh is an ongoing affair, this being the third year I've been back and C's second. In some ways it is rewarding to see how the laid hedges have progressed year-on-year, but equally it can prove frustrating when they have not been properly trimmed or managed to promote thick growth - which after all is rather the point of having them laid. In this case no attempt whatsoever has been made to inhibit the vertical growth and soon the mixed hedges will be as tall and straggly as they were when I first arrived.

There's always something unsettling about starting a new job and anxiety, however unfounded, lingers all the same. The beauty of returning to familiar ground is that there is none of that and within half an hour of arriving the sound of two chainsaws rang out across the steep sided valley. Unlike the hedge at Rolvenden, today's hedge was a far more straightforward beast.  Despite being heavily stocked with hawthorn, the plants are only six or seven years old, all double planted through membrane. In such circumstances a rhythm can be found and good progress is possible.  Of course I am the limiting factor in how much hedge we lay (and therefore money we earn) in a day and although C can't actually wield the chainsaw for me he does a brilliant job of doing everything else. By working extremely hard he trimmed the sides, staked and bound, trimmed up and even burned the brash, allowing me to plod slowly along the headline cutting and laying, cutting and laying. As a result we walked away at the end of the day with 40 m of completed hedge behind us dimly lit by a huge mound of brash rekindling in the darkness.

Dinner
Italian style duck soup. Em combined the duck stock from last night's carcass with passata, carrots, Cavolo Nero, parasol mushrooms, a little chilly, broken spaghetti and roast duck to make a wonderful all in one soup -we ate gallons.

Monday, 28 November 2011

27th November -A Long Autumn



The absence of heavy frosts has resulted in autumn extending almost to the end of November. The grass continues to grow, many trees are still scattered with green leaves and insects, including bluebottles which lay eggs on my hanging game, are still extremely active. Last night the wind blew fiercely and soon after daybreak I was watching pigeons negotiate the swirling currents as they made their way for the wood behind the cottage. The flock had formed into a sprawling ribbon of birds which snaked arduously across the meadow, their path bisected by dry leaves which having been torn from the boundary oaks streamed across them. When the first individuals reached the lane, they flared up to catch the draft and setting their wings like falcons, allowed its force to propel them into the waiting shelter of the wood. As I suspected, wood pigeons are becoming increasingly numerous and every evening flocks, several hundred strong can be seen moving across the landscape to their roosting sites. If the weather turns cold as promised even more will arrive to feast on the acorns, still thick beneath the oaks and there will be some fine sport!

My morning was spent cutting logs with dad and finally we got to the end of the willow left behind by the cricket bat company. In late summer Gray Nicholls harvested eight willows from the bottom field plantation and having taken the trunks, left enough cordwood to produce eight, four tone trailer loads of logs. Despite not being a particularly good fuel owing to its lack of substance, once properly dry willow burns well and certainly does the job of keeping the Raeburn's insatiable appetites sated.

After a spectacularly busy period which culminated in Em and I  sleeping for 12 hours straight (save for a few disturbances from G) on Saturday night (hence no blog) we found time for a leisurely walk this afternoon. I needed to stretch my legs after the lunch of mutton sausages, bacon and Yorkshire oatcakes which Em had prepared and it felt idyllic to stroll lazily through the woods and fields with my family. Strange how as two, you are just a couple but with the arrival of one baby you feel like a family. On returning home we glanced back up the lane.  The way between the old orchard and the avenue of pines was bathed in sepia light and illuminated by the rays, hovering clouds of midges milled lazily in the sun's warmth - truly winter has not yet arrived.

Dinner
Roast duck with potatoes, parsnips, brussels sprouts and red cabbage casserole. Despite the number we produce, duck still feels like a treat! We like to cook them long and slow until the meat falls from the bone in moist tender flakes and the skin is golden crispy and of course the parsnips and potatoes are put to roast around the bird in its copious fat.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

25th November - Bowes-Lyon Pear Cake

A photo which does not do justice to Em's Splendid cake

Carolling at the Winter fair was slightly less harrowing today. The crowds were less than yesterday and a few people even stopped to listen! One of the event sponsors, who dutifully spent the morning manning the ‘Priceless People Area’(a rather lonely pursuit) turned out to be a local man and a shooter to boot. Needless to say a good half hour was spent tracing back mutual connections before the conversation turned to boar management and shooting ducks. It turns out that on Romney Marsh it is traditional for ' everyone ' to go duck flighting on the opening day of the season (1st September). Shooting starts at 3 AM and the coordinated effort ensures that the wildfowl are kept flying and moving about the area so most guns get a shot.

Em always likes to have cake to offer guests and when C is around it becomes a necessity. Like other large pieces of machinery he uses a lot of fuel and if he’s not kept topped up is liable to break down - not in tears usually, he just gets bloody grumpy. The latest baked offering is a variation on the theme of Queen Mother's cake, replacing dates with our dried comice pears. It has become an instant favourite -satisfyingly dense and moist with a mysterious moreish quality which no one can quite put their finger on. If I record the recipe there is no excuse for her not to make it again (soon!)

Bowes-Lyon Pear Cake

Ingredients:
8 oz sugar (brown preferably)
3 oz butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
10 oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
8 oz dried pears
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the topping:
5 tbsp dark brown sugar
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp milk (cream if you have it)

Method:
  • Add the bicarbonate of soda to the dried pears (cut up into small pieces) cover them with the cup of boiling water until the fruit is soft (just while making the rest of the cake is normally enough).
  • Melt the butter and sugar.
  • Add the vanilla extract and then combine this mixture with the flour and baking powder.
  • Add the soaking liquor and then lastly fold in the pears.
  • Spread mixture into a lined baking tray.
  • Bake in a medium oven until a skewer pushed into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
  • Melt topping ingredients together, stir until partially cool and thickened and pour over the cooled cake whilst it is still in the tin.







Friday, 25 November 2011

24th November – Ding Dong Merrily?

 The new singing enterprise

Becoming parents has forced Em and I to consider more seriously where money will come from in the future. We still maintain that working all the time would be a travesty, so over the last few months there has been an effort to maximise the better paid aspects of our minimal work lives. Our existence will always be modest and if our plan works out the various schemes will bring in enough cash to keep us going, whilst leaving plenty of time to pursue those things we find fulfilling and enjoyable. In the past this lifestyle was designed to accommodate writing, singing, shooting, poetry, walking, fishing, etc and though all these things remain important, now the thought of having real time to spend with our children is the main inspiration.

Between us Em and I have invested 10 years learning how to use our voices (Em six and I four) and singing work is one of the areas we are trying to expand. Today our mini campaign took us to a ‘Mid-Winter Fair ' hosted by a local magazine to perform Christmas carols. A package of traditional carols is offered on our website and we were confident that performing at such an event would lead to a few engagements over the Christmas period – now, I at least am not so sure. Neither of us has ever sung in a worse environment.  Everything which made the fair itself a roaring success spelt doom from a performer's point of view. The heaving mass, predominantly women in waisted tweed and slouchy leather boots, were solely intent on shopping and barely looked up from their baubles to acknowledge our presence. The noise generated by the feeding frenzy was also oppressive and combined with the non-existent acoustic provided by the marquees, made the temptation to over sing and tire the voice almost irresistible. The original plan was to circulate around performing 15 minute sets, but the space was so overcrowded that in the end we took up residence by the ' Priceless People Area ' - an exclusive lounge, set aside for members of the readers' club. The lady in charge of the pink lined tent was certainly ' priceless ' and despite neither of us having ever paid the £37.50 annual subscription, kept us going with cups of hot fresh coffee. In fact, had it not been for her hospitality and friendly chat, the whole event would have been rather miserable. A few people did pick up cards and flyers and several small children defied their consumer centric mothers by stopping to watch, so perhaps some good will come of the ordeal.

I could barely wait to throw off my gladrags (even though they comprised of a much loved tweed suit) and one hour after the last carol's final cadence I was scruffy old me again, on a tractor trundling down the road to pick up the poly tunnels promised by A. They looked well used, but will certainly come in handy even if they end up being used to cover our row of cherry trees with netting. Roy, the last worker still employed on the farm spared my blushes by reversing the tractor full of metal pipe work out of the shed for me and reported that there were ' plenty of birds about ' for Boxing Day before heading back to continue loading an arctic with apples.

I needed to unwind and once the poly tunnel frames were away in the shed C and I walked up to the ridge with our guns. Despite it being late we bagged three pigeons in quick succession and then settled down with an excuse of waiting for ducks or geese flighting to the reservoir and watched the pipistrels silently hawking along the woodland edge. As the darkness beneath the trees extended into the field a movement caught our eyes and looking up we saw a woodcock in perfect relief against the pale sky en route to its nocturnal feeding site. It is still early to see these migrants around here (though there are a few residents) and to encounter one before cold weather has gripped the North is something of a rarity.

Dinner
Sausages with fried potatoes and beans.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

23rd November - Droving



The first sign of day appeared as a redy-orange strip which widened slowly along the horizon, gradually revealing the dark shapes of distant trees. Looking up past the small ash opposite the cottage, a crescent moon pierced the retreating darkness and I stood for some time wondering at the scene. This was a tranquil start to another busy day.



By 8:30 AM C and I had a crackling fire engulfing the mound of brash left at the hedge laying job and as always there was a vengeful satisfaction in seeing the spiny branches burn, which on Monday had punctured our skin so many times. Before the frost had even lifted from the ragwort crowns dotted amongst the rough grass, most of the clearing up was done and by 10 AM we were leaning against the car waiting for our money. The motivation for working so quickly had been a plan to eat an early lunch and then go out shooting but a phone conversation with S soon scuppered that. The cows from across the lane needed herding down to the farm and the local hedge layers were drafted in to walk on behind and blocked gateways when necessary. We were glad to help in fact.  We derive so much pleasure from using S’s land that it’s always good to have an opportunity to give something back. Besides from my point of view, as someone who revels in all things rural, it doesn't get much better than pushing 40 cattle down a country lane with the birds flying and a stunning view rolling out into the distance. Bringing in the herd can be a frustrating business some years, as the surprisingly nimble creatures often enjoy a last run around before taking up their winter quarters. This afternoon however they processed in a calm orderly fashion along the tarmac (under the gaze of 10 or more drivers backed up at their rear), passed H's house and with minimal intervention on into the barns, freshly littered with straw. S was taken aback by the exceptional performance. "Perhaps they recognise us!" suggested C and it is true that the last time we had been in the yard it was to turn one of their number into beef mince and steaks! Whatever the reason, the operation had been a success and H (S's father) drove us back to the cottage in time for a quick walk around with the guns.

Having driven out one shore (which proved to be empty) we took up positions with the idea of intercepting some of the large numbers of pigeons which were flying across the valley to the far wood. I couldn't wait long as I was needed up the hill to look after Chub-Chub but I still had time for a couple of misses and to admire the fence post which I found before me. The top and wet sides were plastered in downy  black bird feathers and had clearly been used by a sparrow hawk for plucking its prey.

Our C is getting on well with his new gun and returned as darkness fell with three Woody's, tail feathers protruding from his shooting jacket.

Dinner
Leftover pork casserole and pasta.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

22nd November - More Mushrooms

Lunch

Despite whisperings about cold weather on the way, the temperature remains extremely mild for the season. For days, every morning has been shrouded in thick fog and though the nights are clear there is no sign of frost. Such conditions appear to be benefiting boletus fungi in particular and the coppice is rife with them. Brown Birch boleti surround nearly every silver stem, Larch boleti can be seen pushing up the dead needles below the scots pines and Slippery Jacks have emerged everywhere glistening with slime. It was not these species that C, G and I sort this morning however.  Our attentions were focused on the gourmet's choice, Ceps. I should mention that G didn't really pull his weight at all on the foray but I certainly did, right from the valley bottom, up through the steep orchard and on through the steeper wood to the cottage. Though not as numerous as the other varieties there were a few chode mushrooms (as C likes to call them) to be found, mainly under beech and the addition of a few parasols from the ' park oaks ' made the modest collection enough for lunch at least.

Dinner
Whiting goujons with rosemary potatoes and coleslaw. I'm not a successful fisherman and my annual excursions to Dungeness have traditionally yielded very little. Small whiting are the only regular catch and after a couple of years I realised that by filleting these tiddlers I could actually produce some usable fish. Once battered, the fillets are just like mini fish portions from the chippy.  Often we make chips as well, but not today.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

21st November - Hedge Laying

Finished hedge

A touch of indigestion which feels rather like a turnip has lodged halfway down my oesophagus, suggests that I'd been worrying too much about recent events. I have often reflected with Em that if I had a ' proper job ' in the city say, I would likely go to pieces but at times I wonder whether this life isn't even more hectic. With conventional employment the boundaries are easier to set and the consequences of problems or failures are once removed from home life. For me (and Em) there is no real difference between work for money, work for subsistence, and work for pleasure and for example on a day when I practice singing, look after G and go mushroom gathering I will have performed all three! In almost every respect this is a fantastic situation to be in (and one which we have worked very hard to attain) but earmarking time to ' relax ' can be a challenge. Strangely the arrival of G has helped a great deal in this respect for although he requires large amounts of time in which nothing else can be achieved the duty feels totally unlike work and I relish my time spent with the little ' Chub Chub ' as he is affectionately known. His repertoire of party tricks has expanded from clapping on demand to include waving and ' feeding Daddy '. The latter is a thoroughly entertaining game whereby the little monster puts food (or anything else) in my mouth or simply hits me in the face depending on how he's feeling.

Hedge laying is another activity which blurs the work pleasure boundary rather. On the face of it C and I went to Rolvenden today to earn money but to sit chatting and taking in the country scene at lunchtime was an experience I'd been looking forward to for months. The assignment was to lay a 13 foot predominantly hawthorn hedge to let light into the small garden and open up the view which extends over rolling fields of wheat, interspersed with domed oaks, small woods and marshes. Several layers of old rusty fencing delayed starting for a while but by 9:30 AM it was all out and I was making the first slanted cuts into the privet which dominates one end of the hedge. Hedge laying is like most countries skills - it takes moments to learn and a lifetime to perfect ie the theory is simple but the practical application takes practice. I shan't give a lengthy explanation about the process but essentially the first hedgerow tree (called a pleacher in hedge laying speak) is cut diagonally through the stem towards its base until only a thin section of wood and bark remains. The whole thing is then bent down to roughly 45° away from its fellows but still in line with the hedge and the special cut forms a living tongue which keeps the pleacher attached to its roots. The process is then repeated with every suitable stem until the whole hedge is leaning over and to hold it all securely together a row of stakes are knocked in along the line and bound together with the spiralling ' rope ' of hazel wands. Finally it is trimmed back into shape and voilà -a tall unruly hedge is transformed to something neat and manageable. Originally this process was carried out by farm workers to create a stock proof barrier but nowadays it is more often done to regenerate neglected hedges, reduce hedge height or create habitat for nesting birds, rodents etc.

Before

After

Today's hedge didn't turn out to be the easy lay Mr. C was hoping for and I battled all day pulling out dog rose and brier which bound the pleachers and had to be meticulously removed before I could pull them down. There is only one way to approach such work - like a chainsaw wielding maniac - and I sweated, tugged, sawed and swore my way through the whole 20 yards in around six hours. Mr. C was right behind me with the stakes and binders trying hard not to make me feel slow and by 4:30 PM we were trimming up with our billhooks one each side of the finished hedge. A well laid hedge is a thing of beauty and a source of great satisfaction and we took time to stand back and admire it before heading home. We'll be back on Wednesday to burn up.

Dinner
Pork casserole and mashed potato. The novelty of actually going to work is compounded by Em taking over the cooking. She's very good and I returned home to a hearty meal which set me up for an early night and a very deep sleep.

Monday, 21 November 2011

20th November - Spit Roast

Turning a pig by the light of the moon

Today's blogging is really just an excuse to post a few pictures of a pig turning on a spit, though I shall try to fill in the last couple of days a little bit as well.

Shooting on Saturday morning was fine, but marred a little by the knowledge that I had a concert to perform later. I had one appalling attempt at a hen bird which left me wondering if I'd ever been able to shoot the dammed things but I did knock down a jay as I waited at the end of a shore. I regretted that really, for despite the shot being a nice bit of snap shooting, I already have blue feathers in my hat and what harm do they really do?

Practising at D&G’s is a rather civilised affair and an Earl Grey blend, taken with a slice of fruitcake was just the thing to alter my mindset from country boy to performer. The concert, despite being a modest affair, was very successful. I genuinely believe that people were entertained and that being the sole objective negated concerns over voice trembles, cords not meeting and other singery worries. Old Man River went down particularly well and I was rather embarrassingly showered with compliments as I ploughed through two complimentary plates of beef casserole (the beef wasn't saying I had done well, it was just free).


The spit roast was, as spit roasts always are, tiring, hot, a little stressful and ultimately satisfy. Kindling the fire pits in thick fog at 4:45 AM proved a challenge but after the embers had built up the cooking process was rather uneventful save for a couple of big fat flare ups. The meat proved to be rather good and though to my shame I cannot claim it was ‘cooked to turn’ (we could have done with a couple more hours) when C and I carved the beast at 1:30 PM there were mounds of succulent pork. The taste was superb, but whether that was due to the acorns, the breed, the age or the copious fat on the thing I shall never know.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

18th November - Really Nice Chaps

Slow cooked chaps - hairy but good!

I knew something wasn't right this morning when I came downstairs to the sound of water hissing through the plumbing. Ours is a simple dwelling.  There are no heating pumps or appliances on timer, some if water is running its coming out somewhere! My guess was that a half asleep Em had left a tap on in the night and opened the bathroom door to investigate. The taps were dry, but in the light from the door way the tiled floor glistened with a film of water and below the wood burner there was already a pool half an inch deep. Five AM isn't the time for quick thinking, but in a few moments I had located the source and was wrestling with the cistern lid to try get it off. Inside, the ball cock was totally free, bobbing around on a level well above the overwhelmed outlet, whilst pressurised water gushed in at the other end. The problem was simple to fix- I just screwed the plastic float back on - but for it to have come off in the first place was rather amazing. Presumably touching the sides lightly on every journey up or down had been enough to unthread it over the years.

Putting in the spit

Party preparations continued apace today.  The spit area is ready, drinkable cider has been identified for mulling and the pig is mounted on a spit. I hope the 50 guests are hungry on Sunday as the animal looks fairly large now it has been stretched out and I wouldn't be surprised if there was enough pork to feed everyone twice. At 4 PM it was the usual trip to school, apart from this time the journey was somewhat different. Reaching the brow of the hill by the prison I immediately saw a black column of smoke climbing high into the sky. Tracing it down (whilst still concentrating on the road of course) my eyes alighted on a pile of brash crowding a tall crimson flame which wavered in its midst. I knew immediately what was happening.  The orchard which for me had ever been a feature of that landscape was being grubbed out and on further inspection a JCB could be seen, bucket down, pushing the double rowed trees into a tangled mass and on towards the fire. It's easy to be sentimental about fruit trees but the fact remains that for a farmer they are just another crop and if the variety or layout isn't profitable they will simply rip them out. This wasn't even a particularly beautiful orchard but still there is something unsettling about something so familiar going up in smoke. Perhaps more disturbing is the realisation that I had always considered the tight rows of dwarf trees to be rather modern, another sign of my ageing which would make my father laugh. Soon all orchards will be lines of twigs tied up to canes, tended by machines and producing high yields. It would be wrong to try and halt the progress but I dearly hope the fine Bramley orchard below the cottage survives long enough for me to show G a ‘real’ orchard before they have all gone.

There won't be a blog tomorrow as I'll be up at 4:30 AM lighting the spit fires and getting the pig cooking.

Dinner
Slow roasted chaps with mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts. The head meat from our pigs usually goes into faggots or brawn, so chaps are a new experience. They cooked for about five hours in a medium oven and that was enough to make the long fibrous muscles meltingly tender. Inevitably there was lots of fat, so I pulled the cheeks apart on a board and piled the meat onto warmed plates, topping each mound with a little golden crackling. G unwittingly donated a bit of his stewed apple to the meal and the whole thing was fantastic. The meat was intense, rich, yielding to the bite and definitely worth having again.

Friday, 18 November 2011

17th November - Ceps

Cep

Due to limited time and most of the pork being earmarked for the spit, pig killing hasn't been what it is normally. Every other time slaughtering the animals has marked the beginning of an intense 2 - 3 day period processing the blood, fat and meat into a huge variety of products. Inside Em makes black pudding, faggots, lard and brawn whilst outside C and I butcher, scrape intestines, make salami, salt down hams and bacon, make sausages and even produce the odd pâté. The old saying, use ' everything but the oink ' rings very true in this household and on reflection even that can be imitated to entertain the baby - so efficiency is improving! Naturally C and I couldn't entirely resist the temptation to turn Ginger pig (Bulgy Eyes is destined for the spit) into something other than just pork, so whilst I butchered, he knocked up a slatted wooden box to house a pair of air dried hams for salting. We have no experience of making ‘Parma’ style ham, having always been unwilling in the past to sacrifice our beautiful smoked English hams but Ginger pig presented the perfect opportunity to experiment -  a little too small and lean for traditional curing, completely free (see 19th of October) and frankly un-needed in the freezer. Having rubbed a dry cure of salt, sugar, black pepper and salt-petre into the belly to start the streaky bacon process (I couldn't resist making that either) we turned our attention to the hindquarters. Making air dried ham uses a phenomenal amount of salt and around 10 kg was needed to line the box then completely cover the meat. The only other ingredients were ground coriander and black pepper and as the follower and weights went in to begin pressing the hams the aroma was tantalising. Only fifteen days salting and eight months of drying left and we can have a taste!

All work and no play makes C a grumpy boy (I am in the habit of blaming him for things I want to do myself) so after a substantial lunch at Mum's we returned to the cottage for some pigeon shooting. Yesterday while we were busy scraping and gutting, woodies by the hundred came swirling into the oaks and scots pines around us.  Predictably we saw hardly any this afternoon. Walking down to my position though, I did find a few ceps growing under the majestic beach which dominates the ride and those fungi alone, with their curiously bulbous stems, were ample reward our efforts. The two-hour wait wasn’t without excitement and after C had taken his first shot further up the bank, a brushing and snapping of twigs which abruptly stopped  caught my attention. Peering round a clump of rhododendron I find myself eye to eye with a fallow pricket (young buck) some 15 yards away.  After standing motionless for several moments holding my gaze he turned, showing his black lined rump, and was off. After that a few wayward shots at corvoids left me frustrated and the dog confused, so as twilight turned to darkness we trailed back up the hill to add a single magpie to C’s bag of one pigeon.

Dinner
Pasta with bacon and ceps. Superb ingredients allow for simple cooking and whilst I finished clearing up and sorting meat Em fried onions and bacon, added sliced ceps and a little tomato purée to create one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

16th November - Pig Killing

Pig Scraping

An unscheduled power cut in the night has wiped the time memory from our alarm clock, so I woke up late and this will be a rushed entry.

There is nothing particularly enjoyable about the process of killing, scalding and gutting pigs but there is pleasure in a job well done which is something I suppose when you're up to your armpits in blood and gore. The black pig (or Bulgy Eyes as we called him) went first and it was a textbook performance. The point blank 4.10 shot to the forehead killed instantly and Chris was there in milliseconds plunging the double sided blade into its breast to let the dark blood gush out. Bleeding over, we wheeled the pig across the lane, head lolling from the side of the barrow and lowered the extremely hairy creature into a bath of hot water (165°F). As soon as the skin began slipping, we hauled it out and began a frenzied session of pulling and scraping to bring their hair and epidermis off in large swathes. After another couple of dips and a bit of a shave with a sharp knife, the carcass was clean enough to winch up to the bar for gutting. The acorns had clearly done a good job of fattening as Bulgy Eyes was surprisingly heavy and a good amount of fat was present around the kidneys. Ginger pig, being smaller, was even quicker and having only started work at 1 PM (due to G sitting) were admiring the carcasses hanging in my parents’ cool room by 5 PM.

 Dinner
Crispy fried duck and pancakes followed by prawn and vegetable curry followed by trifle. It's my birthday so, joined by Kit and C, Em and I went to my parents house for dinner. Mum is a staggeringly good cook and the food was memorably good. Em made the dessert which was not only memorably good but colossal! She's generous by nature and 30 guests would have struggled to do the huge bowl full justice!

Giant Trifle

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

15th November - Power Cut



I never tire of watching the sunrise and this morning the show was spectacular in an unusual way. In the white expanse which had replaced the usual view from the cottage, the sun’s huge orange globe hung seemingly motionless and that was it. No trees, no ground, no sky, nothing else and I stood able to hold its gaze without squinting. Within minutes the starkly contrasting tips of trees began to peer through the disbursing fog, preceding a grainy blue which intensifying above heralded the arrival of a perfect autumn day. Amber rays mingled with mist then a light frost yielding to seeping warmth and finally a bright day striped with long shadows which would rejoin the night impossibly early. A fantastic time to be outside and despite being out of the sun, C and I were as happy as larks on the wing, trimming and stacking materials. A big fire after lunch only added to the vibrant mood and saw Chris down to his T-shirt loading the blaze with a pitchfork whilst I drove the tractor and collected brash. As darkness fell we stood by the glowing embers talking and staring idly into the fiery hollows, whilst behind us cock pheasants echoed and re-echoed one another's calls as they settled to roost. We had earned a few quiet moments.  Heaped by the gate were 360 binders, 150 stakes, 100 pea sticks and a huge bundle of the twyling rods (used for making wattle hurdles).  Not the full quantity of materials required but a bloody good start.

Hedge grown hazel

Stakes, binders, pea sticks and twyling rods

Last week I relieved a confused looking man searching for a post box of a circular informing the residents of our road that there would be no electricity on the 15th between 8:30 AM and 5:30 PM. True to their word at 9 AM this morning the power went down but by the time D and G arrived at 8 PM for a rehearsal it had still not returned. Whilst our neighbours were almost certainly becoming incredulous and ordering takeaway, we rather enjoyed the experience. The cottage glowed with the gentle candlelight, the Rayburn still allowed us to cook and run hot water and we quickly realised that save for the freezers, life would be that different without electricity - a reassuring idea. G and D are rapidly becoming good friends and after a light supper we made good headway through the hour-long programme for Saturday.

Dinner
Quiche Lorraine (made with sheep's milk instead of cream) with potato salad and carrot rapees followed by mince pies, sponge fingers with damson jam and carrot cake. Very romantic and no one could even see that I still had my dirty work clothes on.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

14th November - Billhooks in the Mist

Billhooks

As scheduled coppicing, or more accurately pollarding, began this morning over on my parents' land. Many years ago the towering hazel hedge below Square Wood was cut down to around five foot using a tractor mounted circular saw blade (which, incidentally came loose and flew across the field like a lethal frisbee before burying itself in the soil, but that's another story). Since then the stalls (a coppicing term for the living stumps) have been managed to produce long straight wands - the vital material for hedge laying and a whole host of other green woodworking crafts. I shan't jump the gun by describing the process of laying a hedge now but in terms of materials, every metre of layed hedge requires two stakes and two binders. In rough terms this translates to C and I needing to cut and trim around 1000 hazel wands, which thanks to the sheer quantity and quality of re-growth on the stalls, isn't half as daunting as it sounds.

There is nothing quite like the clear chime of a billhook slicing through hazel or the pleasure of seeing the bevelled cut crowded with pale green rings and the work felt good and right for the season. The evocative sound travelled particularly well today owing to a heavy mist which hung thick and low all day, damping our clothes and making the oak trees drip. Besides those caused by our activity, other noises were amplified as well and periodically a tremendous clatter of wings would have us looking up at the looming shapes of wood pigeons. Blinded by the fog, flock after flock of them flew low over us before panicking and wheeling into the gloom. Although Square Wood still retains ruddy bundles of dying leaves, the huge poplars which line the opposite bank are all  but bare and it was for those sturdy structures which the startled birds headed. Pigeons have always liked those tall trees and throughout the day the lofty bows were lined with their hunched forms, dark smudges in the milky air.

The temperature remains cool but not cold and the frosts which had me so excited a while back have not returned. This is good news for fungi, demonstrated by the ink caps and parasols which can be seen everywhere poking up through verges and woodland edges. On occasion Dad and I have dabbled in growing our own fungi and last Spring we placed plugs inoculated with Wine Cap spores under a raft of straw. Despite being shaded by our overgrown Christmas tree plantation, the bed got extremely dry over the summer and seeing no activity at all we feared the fungi might have died. Apparently not though, as today C and I saw mycelium literally flowing out of the straw and invading the mulch around it. I shall watch with interest to see if any mushrooms are produced.

Dinner
Haggis with mashed potato and carrot, cabbage and gravy. Haggis turns the parts of a sheep which would otherwise be dog food into a delicious and hearty meal. Like faggots, haggai (probably not the plural - but it sounds good) get batched up when an animal is killed, then frozen to produce quick meals in the future.

Monday, 14 November 2011

13th November - Getting Rather Busy

Madness

I am daunted by the week ahead. Without doubt today has been the calm before the storm, a rare Sunday spent with family eating, chatting and relaxing. G was on good form and it's wonderful to see him well again and enjoying life. Tomorrow morning Mr C will be reporting for duty and the manic week begins, culminating in a hog roast on Sunday to celebrate my 31st birthday. To make things a little more interesting hedge laying is due to start next week which necessitates materials being gathered, my parents are having two mutton wethers(castrated rams) slaughtered, I'm shooting on Saturday and oh yes, Em and I have a concert in Udimore on Saturday evening. The calendar for the coming week reads something like this:

Monday-Tuesday - Coppicing for hedge laying materials

Wednesday -Pig killing X 2

Thursday - Butcher one pig and mutton weathers

Friday - Gather wood for the spit roast, mount pig on spit and general preparations

Saturday - Shooting a.m., practice in afternoon followed by concert

Sunday -  Start cooking pig at 5am to eat at 2 pm

Still, the pigs look calm enough about the week’s proceedings -so what have I got to worry about?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

12th November - Bampton to Bruckner



The arrival of A in his bright blue Subaru pickup could mean only one thing-we were going to receive an invite to his Boxing Day shoot! I have been a guest for something over 16 years and the event has become as much a part of Christmas as goose or mince pies. I shan't harp on about childhood memories and vast basins of steak and kidney pudding now, as there's plenty of time for that on Boxing Day. To add to the happy occasion he also offered me hoops for 80 feet of poly tunnel – that’s space for a lot of tomatoes!

For a yokel such as myself the day's events felt rather hectic. A’s visit coincided with the arrival of a three ton load of logs from my father, then Mum losing her keys kept me occupied until it was time to go to Goudhurst and dance with the Morris for ' Meet the Village '. Bells were shaken, hankies flicked and memories of my washing-up days in the pond side restaurant made me smile...leftover crème brûlées, fillet steak sandwiches and Bloody Marys after last orders on a Saturday night, the cosy chats with Teemo and Barry in the snug and pelting ducks with a tea towel sling loaded with boiled spuds. Then without even having time to mix with the great and good of the village I was off to St Leonards. The S.E. coast is not a place to venture without good reason and solo roles for Battle Choral Society singing Haydn’s Harmony mass and Bruckner’s Te Deum constituted mine. I am grateful to have such a wide contrast in my life - there was nothing highbrow about the engagement but to be with a totally different crowd performing fantastic music was a healthy change. I had never performed either piece before and the Te Deum in particular has left a lasting impression. The first movement has become a serious contender to knock Faure’s ‘In Paradesium’  off top spot for my funeral! The thought of ripping the quiet proceeds apart with the massive brass entries and unashamedly dramatic chord sequences amuses me somehow. Quite how it could be arranged outside, around the pyre of coppiced hazel (cut uing my favourite Bill Hook of course) I don't quite know.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

11th November - Fieldfares

Home made 'Rocket Stove'

Approaching mid-November, I would expect to wake up to frost having fallen asleep under such clear skies but the cloud has returned and below it a heavy drifting mist. This morning saturated air covered everything with a film of moisture, the muffled patter of water drops falling on leaf litter emanated from the gloomy coppice and cob webs about the door hung gaudy with tiny white pearls. The damp seemed capable of penetrating everywhere - even the post felt slightly limp having been in the covered post-box for only 20 minutes.

The first fieldfares came to the area almost a month ago but until today I had seen little of them. Once cold weather arrives, the Bramley orchards will swarm with the migrant thrushes and on Bunny Lane this afternoon I saw the first small bunch flighting from the woods to the orchard over the hedge. Around this time last year the ground was blanketed with a foot of snow and fieldfares were joined by red wings, starlings, blackbirds and pigeons to gorge on the fallen fruit. Hundreds upon hundreds of beaks made short work of the big apples and when the snow receded nothing remained of the autumnal feast save for a few hollowed out skins lying like cups in the grass.

I always drive along Bunny Lane on Friday afternoon, then on past the prison to the school with its big white windows, which stare across some of Kent's finest countryside.  I used to cycle the route years ago, noting the same birds and wayside plants as I do now though these days I go to teach rather than learn.  The term ‘teacher’ is perhaps a little grand for my employment, as I only run an activities group but it was still very unsettling to find myself on the other side of the fence when I first started.  Suddenly I was desperately trying to prevent the cheeky misbehaviour which six years previous I had bought to an art form, much to the amusement of the staff who knew me of old.  I even wonder at times if the most spirited boys are hand selected to torment me during my weekly sessions.  Today in 'Country Club' I demonstrated charcoal burning by turning peeled hazel sticks into artist’s charcoal using a biscuit tin over a wood-fired camping stove (known as a Rocket Stove). As usual the boys looked on with disinterest as I pointed out the white steam coming off first but became far more animated as I set fire to the alcohol and tars which burn like candle flames above the holes punched in the tin lid. Within 15 minutes the process was complete.  Everything except pure carbon had been driven from the wood and on opening the 'kiln' the kids seemed mildly impressed at its transformation to black brittle charcoal. Handing out the sticks I allowed the boys, as I always do, to go and create some artwork on the fallen trees and dead stumps which litter the wood, a task which they set about with an uncustomary willingness. Under no illusion I gave them 10 minutes before wandering over to admire their handiwork. As predicted every surface which would take a black line from the charcoal sticks was plastered in phalluses of every conceivable shape and size - another reminder that very little has changed since I left.

Dinner

Beef and mushroom pie with carrots, cabbage and gravy.
I still had a few field mushrooms left from the last picking and the meal turned out brilliantly, like a proper pub pie.

Beef and Mushroom Pie

Ingredients
Shortcrust pastry
Cubed beef
Mushrooms
Onion
Fresh thyme
Tomato purée
Plain flour
Seasoning

Method
  • Line pie dish with pastry.
  • Combine all other ingredients in a bowl, adding enough flour to make the mixture stick together slightly
  • Press filling into pastry case, put on lid and glaze with egg.
  • Bake for three hours in a medium oven.

Friday, 11 November 2011

10th November - Full Moon

Wood Smoke and Moonlight 

A chilly, damp start to the morning and so still that smoke from the smouldering fire tumbled down the chimney pot to hang below the mist. By mid-morning the Sun had burned through and was bathing me in warm fingers of light which turned the pear halves golden as I placed them on the drying racks. The baby was fascinated by these colourful lines drawn on nothingness and in his Nana's arms tried to feel them with gentle strokes of his tiny hand. After a miserable virus which has left him with a scarlet rash on his cheeks, he is finally returning to good humour. The clapping which he enjoyed so much before he was unwell has returned with a vengeance and now, if I smile at him and say, ' Can you clap for Daddy? ' he applauds deliberately with a broad grin. Complete chance or vague comprehension, it makes little difference - I'm still moved to my toes by an emotion which lies somewhere between exhilaration and weeping, and is I suppose total adoration. That he might be doing something for me, performing a deliberate act to make his father laugh and smile is, I think the dearest gift I shall ever receive. Being ill didn't stop him from eating, but recovery has left him with a ravenous appetite. Today he ate a tablespoon each of stewed apple and sheep's milk yoghurt at 6 AM, three cubes (everything is frozen ice cube trays) of sheep's milk porridge plus apple and yoghurt at 9 AM, two cubes of pigeon and pleasant casserole plus bread, pear and tomato at 1 PM, two cubes of casserole plus Apple and yoghurt at 5 PM and finally three more cubes of porridge at 8:30 PM all washed down with breast milk at three hourly intervals of course! Little wonder people keep saying that he is growing fast.

The wild cry of greylag geese had me leaping to the window in the afternoon.  A skein of perhaps 70 or 80 were flying south in a wavy line, almost certainly heading for the lake behind my parents land. They are wonderful creatures which stir my romantic sensibilities, reminding me of stories I have read about wild fowling and flighting in the rugged highlands of Scotland.  Their numbers have increased hugely over the past few years and in the correct season it is nothing to see several hundred flight across the fields opposite the cottage. I bagged a couple once as they came across my parents land, but since then many hours have been spent trying to repeat the good fortune but without success. Generally the skeins fly extremely high and well beyond range but mist or strong wind will bring them low and then it is ‘simply’ a job of predicting their flight pattern. Geese are, you might believe creatures of habit, but you'd be wrong, like most animals they are foremost creatures of necessity. There is no doubt that given long-term feeding grounds and secure roosts, as one finds on the coast, they will fly back and forth along the same flight lines but in land the situation is different. They arrived in late summer to feed on crop stubble and at night roost on a scattering of reservoirs and lakes. As cultivation begins yesterday's food source becomes today's bare field and in response, the greylags fly differently almost every day, even disappearing from this area altogether if another roost site becomes more convenient. By the first heavy frosts they are gone and an enjoyable three months spent weather watching and dreaming up stratagems has once again been in vain.

When the moon is full there is barely any need for light in the cottage. The pale rays glide through the windows and I enjoy nothing more than lying beside my wife, her smooth skin bathed in ivory and gazing out at the dark oaks which fracture the view with bows of leafless twigs.

Dinner

Sausages and chips. A rare foray into the world of purchased food (not the sausages of course, that would be a step too far) due to Em, G and myself attending a swanky function in Ticehurst.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

9th November - Cider Working for Me

Dried Pears

The lack of rain in early autumn has been more than compensated for by the weather of late. The rain was so heavy this morning that I was forced to don my souwester and gaudy yellow PVC mac. The outfit isn't much to look at I'm sure but it keeps me dry and gives the weary faced commuters, heading to the station something to smile about. There is something peculiar about the weak light of a winter's morning creeping through a wet wood which gives everything an oily appearance. Nothing shines or glistens but leaves, trunks, undergrowth and particularly rhododendron take on a slippery looking lustre.

Outside a cock pheasant, still on the roost has uttered a guttural call and been immediately answered by another two further back in the woods. The sound reminds me that pheasants are visiting the pig pen every day now and I have begun to spread a little grain to encourage more. These game birds, despite having been bred in captivity for countless generations still retain sufficient wit to seek food around stock and more than enough, I suspect, to evade my eventual efforts to shoot them!

The cider has begun to work (ferment) and the gratifying sound of carbon dioxide gurgling through the convoluted airlocks will be our background noise for weeks. Despite the pleasure of free sugar turning to alcohol in my presence, the two barrels are a sad reminder that I have been unable to brew beer this season. Indeed the Morris men were most upset to hear that there will be no mince pies and homebrew this year at the cottage. This has been a Christmas tradition for some time now and a few things give me greater satisfaction than the sight of friends swilling back home-made brown ale, stout and Christmas Porter. Admittedly years of rigorous alcohol training means the lads will drink just about anything, but you can always tell if they're really enjoying something. The search for barley has been extended to Essex by Mr. C, but no news as yet and my dried hops, gathered weeks ago from the hedgerows, look destined to remain unused.

Fermentation air lock

The next wave of pear drying is about to begin and the last batch is safely packed away in a tall glass jar. I would hazard a guess and suggest that drying is the oldest method of preserving food, but it still seems miraculous that everything required to keep an easily perishable pear wholesome for years, is already contained within it’s flesh and requires only that the water be removed.

Dinner

Pork chops with jacket potatoes, cabbage and gravy. After years of choosing between overcooked meat and soggy rinds, I now remove the rind from the boned out chops and cook them separately. The skin goes in a hot oven whilst the meat is flattened slightly and flash fried. The result is perfect crackling and just cooked through meat, which is succulent and tender.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

8th November - Songbird



Not many people look at me, with my long hair and scruffy clothes and consider that I might be a singer.  Whenever it comes up in conversation with a new acquaintance the inevitable question is, ' What band are you in? ' From there on in the conversation usually snakes back to my time spent at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London studying classical singing, at which point thinly veiled disinterest generaly turns to great enthusiasm, as they deduce that I might actually be some good. Of course attending a world-class conservatoire means nothing eight years on, but it remains handy for getting people's attention!

One large feature of my life is its huge variety and another is the constant struggle to keep the disparate strands strong and somehow bound together. It would be far too easy just to submerge myself in the day-to-day work and pleasures of country life but that would be a great loss. Singing, writing and poetry are the means by which I step outside my everyday experience not only to inject vital contrast but also to achieve fresh  perspective. Although singing is not at the centre of everything which I do (a statement which adequately explains why I never became a full-time professional)  I none-the-less have everything to thank it for. It was during my time at music college that Em and I fell in love and although physically my life might have turned out the same without her, I would have been a different person, unable to appreciate the beauty about me or the subtleties within myself, for these are gifts only afforded to the contented soul.

Dinner

Pigeon and pheasant cooked in cider served with roast squash and cabbage with bacon and chestnuts followed by apple pie and butterscotch custard (again). Good friends D and G (not the fashion house, though G in particular is a very natty dresser) came round to practise for a forthcoming concert. Predictably more time was spent eating and enjoying their fantastic grape and rosehip wine than was ever spent around the piano.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

7th November - Pigeons and Fungi

Field mushrooms and immature parasols

The weather remains as it has done for days, overcast and cool with intermittent drizzle. The slight drop in temperature is almost certainly responsible for the large number of migrant pigeons which appear to be coming into to the area, but it will be the ready availability of food, mostly acorns which will keep them here. This morning, instead of the 200 strong flock I saw yesterday, twice that number poured into the oaks across the field and as I watched them my eye was simultaneously drawn to the far distance where thousands of pigeon-like specks of dust on the breeze drifted along the ridge. An exceptional crop of mast and the early arrival of pigeons in large numbers are the unmistakable hallmarks of a spectacular pigeon season in the offing and it is hard not to feel excited about the prospect. It was around six years ago when I last stood above the Bramley orchard watching big flocks, each containing thousands of birds, flow smoothly into a huge swirling torrent of Woodys which swept and twisted about the valley in search of a roost site. Every so often it was as if a plug had been pulled from the swirling mass.  Within the torrent,  eddies of counter-movement would begin and quickly develop  into spiralling cones of birds which drained without trace into the dark woodland below. It was a remarkable spectacle and I spent many afternoons admiring it, whilst knocking down a few acorn laden birds for the pot.

Following the pigeon theme, one of today's jobs was to breast out the three pigeons which I shot yesterday. They were in fine condition and the fat deposits below their crops spoke of mild weather and plentiful food. Other tasks included the long overdue planting of Aquadulce broad beans in the garden and bringing the cider inside to encourage fermentation but still Em and I found time to take G for a stroll to pick up a few mushrooms. Meadows where last year we gathered field mushrooms by the trug full were strangely devoid of fungi but more had emerged around the old muck lump site since I was last there and we didn't go back empty-handed. Beneath the line of field grown oaks we even found a handful of immature parasol mushrooms, common enough usually, but something of a rarity this season. We passed hundreds of liberty caps dotting the north facing bank above the stately trees, but they remained unpicked and we trudged on to enjoy our haul fried up in plenty of butter and served with warm toast.

Monday, 7 November 2011

6th November - Punt Shot

New hob 'Mace'

I maintain the traditional country view that the abstract concept of sport in relation to despatching animals has no bearing when it comes to putting meat on the table. Yes, the ‘potshot’ is still alive and well round here and when I saw a couple of hundred pigeons turn on the wind and land in the opposite paddock, I had no hesitation in grabbing my gun and rushing over. The feeding flock were over 80 yards from the nearest cover and knowing that an approach for a conventional shot would scatter them long before I was in range, I went instead for the ‘punt shot’. Sliding two heavily loaded BB cartridges into my side-by-side, I darted across the gap between rusty hopper huts and knelt by the old cook house’s crumbling chimney. Away towards the centre of the field the flock, still occupied with plucking clover, replaced the green sward with an exquisite dusty blue-grey sheen.  My plan had been to employ the old pan gunners method - make a noise then release shot into the rising birds - but shout and whistle as I did, not pigeon took flight or even looked up. Thwarted, I decided on releasing one barrel at the walking flock and another as they came up, so crouching down to increase the BB shots' spread, I prepared to fire. BANG - a tremendous shock into my shoulder, the clattering of wings and the dusty grey turned to a blur of white under feathers. BANG -  the flock shimmered up as one body, wheeled and made for a distant copse. Behind them lay three lumps in the grass and I ran out for the retrieve. Not the bag I had hoped for, but success nonetheless - three clean kills and poor man's steak back on the menu.

Besides running courses, another revenue stream comes from hedge laying and today I had two jobs to look over. The first was a nonstarter and the second, closer to home could be a useful gig but of far more interest was a paddock I passed, occupied by half a dozen pied traveller ponies with beautiful flowing fetlocks. I had to look twice, as after a single glance I was left with the impression of polystyrene fragments blown across the grass in huge quantities. Of course, the debris was in fact hundreds of field mushrooms. I had never seen a place so encrusted and immediately I was reminded to visit my own favourite spots! Further on towards Yalding a weasel hurried across the road before me and I couldn't help laughing out loud. There is something extremely comic about their frantic manner and tails which seem to whirl in time to their scurrying legs.  I am often asked by friends to advise whether they have spotted a stoat or a weasel.  To make the size comparison I always compare the latter to a stretched mouse and I never fail to be struck by just how small they are.

I omitted to mention yesterday that new stock has been acquired. My parents travelled to the poultry auction and bought a new bronze stag turkey to cover our hens and unexpectedly came back with five Muscovy ducks as well! The stag is a good-looking fellow and well covered in flesh, so next year's growers should be nice and meaty. After the shoot O and I went back to head beater A's house and having admired his menagerie and garden, emerged with a new hob, a slight, friendly ferret with black eyes and so-called silver fur - white with black tips. He has received the rather contrived name of 'Mace' so that one of the offspring from him and my Jill named ‘Nutmeg’ might be christened ‘Mixed Spice’.

Dinner
Sage and onion Toad-in-the-Hole with steamed cabbage. It’s always nice to do variations on a theme and the addition of a few stage leaves and onion slices before the batter goes over the sausages makes a delicious change.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

5th November - First Shoot

Spinach seedlings eyed by hungry chicken

The forecast was for torrential rain this morning but it never came and it was little more than a light drizzle which swirled around H’s yard as guns and beaters congregated for the first shoot. Old friends shook hands and commented on the swift passage of time whilst retrievers, labradors and spaniels milled about restless with excitement. I was just beginning my social rounds when H called me over to send me on ' a mission ', so with young O, whom I had brought with me, I set off leaving behind the talk of ferreting and stalking, guns and dogs. As I've mentioned before I have shot over H’s land for over 15 years and now my role lies somewhere between beater, gun, organiser and gamekeeper.  It is a position which suits me but does often result in these so-called missions, long treks to bring in a distant boundary or position a gun in a hard to find spot.

The first drive was through the cherry orchard and cover strip which early in the season produces good birds that soar over the valley below.  Mission complete, I stood in my back gun position and recalled years gone by, remembering a few fine birds which I have dropped, standing in line on that drive and scores which I have missed. The drizzle continued and as I watched a flock of chaffinches flow from the cover crop and a magpie dart from an oak, then hover clumsily in pursuit of a white moth (something I'd never seen before) the water beaded on my well oiled barrels. Then a whistle sounded, the beaters moved forward and immediately pheasants streamed from the light cover. Birds on the first day are renowned for their reluctance to fly, but no such problem today, cocks and hens alike rocketed up, sailing over experienced guns with impunity. One or two nice birds were taken and some less challenging shots secured a few more for the bag. Nothing flew back, but to see good peasants beating good guns was entertainment enough.

My chances for a shot did not improve all day and I bungled the only opportunity I had in typical fashion. As always the dog frayed my nerves and strained my voice with the continual threat of disappearing off, and generally the day unfolded in the normal way. Unusually Square Wood was used as a final drive and produced some good birds. Eleven were bagged and many more provided shooting but evaded danger - a good result considering the problems we have with the pheasants wandering. The day ended back in the H’s yard with a bag of 31 peasants and one pigeon.

The spinach seedlings in the greenhouse are a picture of health and providing I keep the door shut and the chickens out, I am confident they will produce usable foliage this winter.

Dinner
Pork Curry with spicy braised cabbage and rice, followed by chocolate mousse. Em slaved all day frying onion paste and trimming meat to make a stunning curry which my parents enjoyed with us. Inspired by a dish my sister cooked I got creative with another portion of the giant white cabbage with good results.


Spicy braised cabbage

Ingredients

Onion
Garlic
Sweet red pepper
Fresh chilli
Oil
Tomato purée
Anchovy paste
Shredded cabbage

Method

·        Liquidise onion, garlic, pepper and chilli to a smooth paste.
·        Fry paste in a generous amount of vegetable oil until stiff and dry.
·        Add tomato purée, a small amount of anchovy paste and combine.
·        Add cabbage, stir well, put on lid and braise until cooked but still crispy.




Saturday, 5 November 2011

4th November - Cider Making

The First Rush of Juice

At 5 AM when the sound of rain still emanated from the black windowpanes I knew that the easy days of summer were over. Mud is the bane of our winter existence, making every job difficult and as half the surrounding wood seems to drain through our garden we get plenty of it! To make matters worse the hunt always seems to appear when the ground is at its wettest and churn the drive into a sticky nightmare.

Having nearly slipped over several times whilst doing the animals I was reminded, as I am annually that smooth soled garden clogs are not suitable for winter, but whether I'll remember tomorrow - who knows? One improvement on last winter will certainly be the new ' quail emporium '. Kneeling on the cold wet ground to collect muddy eggs, always just out of reach was a hateful task and the main impetus for the new construction. This recollection of previous years still makes the daily collection of clean eggs from the dry enclosures a novel pleasure and this morning I was even more pleased to see eggs in with my young stock. They are only 10 weeks old - nearly to the day and despite having kept quail for several years I’m still staggered by their speed of development.

Cider making was the day's chief occupation and the long-suffering C was on hand once again to help with the proceedings. A simple mill and press are all the equipment needed to extract apple juice. Roughly grinding and crushing the fruit before pressing breaks cell walls and allows the juice to run, yet this essential step is often overlooked by newcomers to the activity, leading to lots of work for pitiful yields. Once the slatted press is full of apple fragments thick cover boards are placed on top and pressure applied by a metal head which is screwed down the central threaded bar. There is always a slight feeling of exhilaration as the first rush of sweet juice bubbles through the oak slats and runs in a torrent from the press's lip. The temptation to have a taste is irresistible and having done so today were convinced that the juice was considerably sweeter than it had been last year, most likely due to the hot September and warm autumn. By using the hydrometer (a device for measuring the sugar content of liquid) we discovered in fact that  this year's brew has the potential to reach 8.5%, a dangerous increase from last year's 5%. Working together the two six-gallon kegs were full of reddish brown liquor by lunchtime and when Em returned from work a well earned lunch of fried eggs and tomatoes was consumed with relish.

Milling Apples

Filling the Press

Later Em preserved some excess juice by boiling it briefly and sealing it into hot bottles whilst C and I added yeast to the fermentation vessels and fitted airlocks. A good morning’s work which in a few months should be rewarded with 96 pints of beautiful, strong cider.

Dinner
We dined at S and S’s house tonight and in between marvelling at their new home and receiving stick for my new blog, enjoyed a splendid lasagne, before being thoroughly led into temptation by a sublime ginger sponge smothered in 'butter-nut' sauce and cream.