Saturday, 31 December 2011

30th December – That’s Snow Squirrel

That white thing is a squirrel - believe it or not

You will see that a week off from writing my blog has done little to improve my sense of humour but all the same it’s good to be back. I shan't try to recount the events of Christmas but the white squirrel I saw in my garden and the unseasonal warmth are certainly worth a mention. Albino squirrels aren't desperately rare but as I've only seen about half a dozen in my life they remain something of a curiosity to me. I saw the creature on the 27th, a day which was so warm, that having walked outside in my T-shirt I didn't even consider being chilly. A blackbird sung exultantly from the holly tree and with the sun streaming through the spindly ashes it felt disturbingly like a spring day. Above the dilapidated brick shed I noticed movement in the tall oaks and within seconds I saw a streak of white spiralling down the trunk. Recognising immediately what it was I grabbed the camera and went for a closer look. The white squirrel had three companions in normal attire, almost certainly it’s siblings and the four of them were absorbed in gambolling play which took them up and down the trees in hot pursuit, leaping into the canopy of neighbouring chestnuts and right down to the ground on occasions. I managed to remain unnoticed for some time but despite being rather close failed to get a decent photo with our rather small camera. The temptation to fetch my gun and turn the curiosity into a miniature rug was strong but I resisted in the hope of being able to watch it again another day. Em was also un-keen on the animal's destruction but I suspect she'll change her mind in a few months if it ends up eating her strawberries!

As already mentioned the weather has been warm, too warm and I was filled with a genuine unease to observe swarms of bluebottles sunning on the kennel door and bees flying from my hives on the same morning I saw the squirrel. It's not only that the maggots will ruin the ferret grub, or that by breaking their cluster and searching in vain for spring flowers my bees might starve, the weather simply feels wrong! The grass has barely stopped growing this winter and in the last couple of days I have seen a spring flowering Azalea in full bloom and the buds of our Camellia beginning to burst into scarlet bloom. Small surprise then, that 2011 has been announced as the second warmest year on record, with an average day temperature of 9°C.

The mountains of logs in our garden, covered with tatty tarpaulins are being eroded fast and Dad and I spent the whole day splitting and stacking Apple wood in readiness for cutting. If the image of two rustics swinging large axes sprung to mind, I am sorry to disappoint. There were two rustics certainly, but operating a mechanical splitter mounted on the back of a tractor. The machine is simplicity itself - a metal girder fitted with a wedge at one end and a hydraulic ram (a big one from a JCB) at the other. It may not be pretty but the fact it can crack a 3 foot length of knotted apple with the pull of a lever, makes it beautiful to me. Before we had the contraption made, everything was split by hand and although back then I rather relished the challenge of a four ton load, I'm afraid to say I don't miss it now.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

23rd December -Goose Guts and Ham (mmm…)

Big Ham!

Not a great deal to report really. The morning was spent pulling the inards from various poultry and by lunchtime my arms were so well oiled with goose fat I felt rather like a cross-channel swimmer, save for the condom like hat. Protection from cold water and roasting potatoes are not the only use for the yellow grease apparently and whenever I see the substance I am put in mind of a cold remedy recommended by a jocular farmer friend; slaver your chest in goose fat apply a sheet of brown paper to the sticky surface and remember to sleep on your back! I always believed it was Vick’s VapoRub which my mother scooped from the small blue bottles and rubbed onto me when I was a child -perhaps I was mistaken.

The focus is still very much on food. The goose and turkey (we like to show off and have both) are ready for Christmas dinner, the Panettone recipe has been dug out and dusted off for another use and this evening I put the Christmas ham on to cook. It is a colossal slab of meat reserved from curing our Large White cross Saddleback pigs last spring and promises to be a sensation. I have experimented with many ways of cooking ham in the past and have often been disappointed with the dry and rather crumbly result. For years I believed that this textural difference from shop bought ham was down to the home curing but it isn't. The way to produce a firm but moist product, which slices well and tastes fantastic is to boil the joint for a short while then leave it to cool down very slowly in the water, a simple but effective technique which has revolutionised our ham eating experience. This Christmas I boiled our 5 kg ham for one and a half hours and left it on the back of the Rayburn overnight. When cool the ham can be skinned and glazed in the oven for ceremonial purposes or sliced there and then for every day use.

You won't hear from me tomorrow so Merry Christmas everyone!

Creamy bacon, courgette and tomato pasta. Em reserved some double cream (from making her decadent orange ice cream) and it was combined with courgettes from the freezer, a jar of passata and streaky bacon to make a quick but rather good meal.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

21st December -Smoked Salmon and Gin

Things are damp and mild outside and really not very Christmassy at all. At least warm weather at this time doesn't induced the panic it once did - a few years back when we sold Christmas geese rising temperatures before Christmas was a serious business. We didn't have a chiller room back then and the dead geese, killed 10 days before Christmas (hanging is essential for the flavour and texture of the meat) were left to hang high in the rafters of my parents shed. I'm not sure there was really much chance of them going off but even the merest hint of risk was enough to make me feel extremely tense and the odd bluebottle putting in an appearance, the stuff of nightmares. This year's handful of geese and turkeys are safely behind sliding doors, but it doesn't pay to be too complacent. Last summer the chiller room broke down with a third of a tonne of bullock hanging in it - that really put worrying about a few geese into perspective!

Christmas birds in chiller

My days have largely been spent inside of late, preparing for Christmas with the family, and in between learning Hayden’s St Nicholas Mass for a concert early in January, I managed to finish the gin and trim up the sides of smoked salmon. Producing smoked salmon for Christmas has become something of a tradition and although the raw product is another brought in ingredient, it is a way of getting the finest quality luxury food at a fraction of its normal price. Surprisingly perhaps, smoked salmon is one of the simpler smoking projects, especially in the winter when brining can be done outside in cold weather. The only real barrier to most people is having a cold smoker, but they're easy enough to make. Mine consists of a large plywood box with a concrete base, a door and simple vents top and bottom. Sawdust is piled on the concrete, lit and allowed to smoulder filling the box with copious amounts of cool smoke. Other designs include a wood burner with the chimney rooted into a whiskey barrel or other suitable wooden container - anything will do as long as it results in a large amount of cool smoke in a confined area.

Smoked salmon

1 fresh salmon around 5 kg in weight
1 lb. 14 oz. salt
1 tbsp white sugar
1 gallon cold water

  • Using a sharp knife remove four patches of skin from each side of the salmon where the flesh is thickest to aid salt penetration.
  • Fillet the salmon allowing the rib like bones around its cavity to come off as part of the fillet.
  • Make the brine by mixing the salt, sugar and water in a plastic bucket or something similar (must be non-metallic).
  • Place the fillets in the brine and put a non-metallic plate on top to ensure they are properly submerged.
  • Put somewhere cool and leave overnight.
  • In the morning (or after 12 hours or so) put the fillets on plastic or wooden drying racks (I use the blue vegetable trays thrown away at farm shops, market stalls etc) and leave somewhere cool and well ventilated to dry off. Putting the trays at a slight angle will aid the brine dripping off.
  • When the fillets feel tacky to the touch place them, still on their trays, in the smoker and smoke using oak sawdust for 24 hours or until they had developed a light golden hue. (Smoking time is really a matter of taste, but this works for me)
  • Wrap the fillets in cling film and put in the fridge to mature for 24 hours.
  • Trim the fillets by cutting away the rib like bones and fins.  Pull out the line of bones which are buried in the flesh two thirds up towards the back and start were the fishes head once was. They can be found by running a finger from the head end towards the tail.

Carrying on from my entry on 13th December detailing how to distill unpleasant wine into useful spirit here is my recipe for gin. 


1 L single distilled spirit
zest of one lemon thinly sliced
10 juniper berries crushed
1/2 inch of cinnamon stick bruised
5 cardamom pods crushed
6 plum kernels crushed (or six drops of almond essence)
1/4 of vanilla pod bruised

  • Setup the still and place the spirit and other ingredients in the bottom.
  • Heat slowly and gather the distilled spirit as it gathers in the bowl.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

20th December -Deck the Hovel

Apologies for yesterday's no-show.  My parents have been away visiting relatives so I have been playing shepherd. Only one ewe lambed on my watch, giving birth to a healthy single without incident, which is exactly the way I like it! Lambing always reminds me of my childhood when, during spring half-term, it was my job to look after the expectant ewes and new arrivals whilst my parents were at work. I haven't had cause to actually put my hand in a ewe and help with an awkward birth for years but I’d still feel confident if I had to do it - it's one of those skills you just don't forget! The process of interpreting what your fingertips are touching and using the information to create a mental image of the problem deep inside the ewe, must fire up all sorts of neural pathways and my recollections of tackling breech presentation, legs back, heads back, three feet and one head etc remain exceptionally vivid.

G changing broken bulbs on his first Christmas

We don't have a hall to deck with evergreens but Em works hard to pack as much of the surrounding woodland as possible into our small dwelling. Holly berries, though not abundant are not as scarce as most years and I managed to find a couple of well endowed boughs whilst out checking the non-lambing contingent of my parents' flock. The hardest part of my annual foliage collection ( save for the violent barracking meted out by the wife when I bring home the wrong Christmas tree) is the painstaking process of peeling creeping ivy from tree trunks. There is a beam which spans the width of our Rayburn room and Em likes to cover this with a single length of ivy - in a couple more years there won't be an unmolested plant in the whole wood, as the evergreen creeper is so brittle that at least half my attempts result in failure. Still I managed to find a suitable length eventually and after working late into the night Em has adorned the cottage with holly wreaths, a twinkling Christmas tree, hanging bouquets and of course a bushy length of twisting ivy. I'm a grumpy old bugger at heart and probably wouldn't bother with decorations if it fell to me but I'm glad to be forced out of myself at times which is the beauty of sharing a life with someone completely different from oneself. She does have, it must be said exquisite taste in all things decorative and adorning (though I am loathed to admit it, after she accused my taste of being on par with a wombat) and I must confess to feeling a welling up of pleasure and emotion on seeing the finished effect and a lifting of the spirits to a level which might even be considered festive!

Monday, 19 December 2011

18th December - Catching Mice and Killing Poultry

Behind bars - guilty mouse

The broad bean seedlings which are still bravely emerging despite the colder weather are being destroyed by mice. I inspected the patch yesterday afternoon to find that nearly half the crop had been dug up to gain access to what remains of the original seed and it was intensely frustrating to see the strong green shoots, severed from their roots and discarded beside each hole. I own a very effective live mousetrap which I bought in France about 20 years ago and within half an hour of darkness falling I had already caught the first yellow necked mouse, lured in by a plump raisin. They are beautiful creatures.  Large with sleek chestnut coats and shining bead like eyes, which are so alert and sit so proud of the face they seem as though they might pop out. The ' yellow neck ' which gives the mouse its name is only visible on the creature's underside and takes the form of an amber band crossing from one foreleg to the other. Despite their visual appeal they are a menace in our garden, hemmed in as it is by woodland and in the past I have caught up to 18 on consecutive nights in an attempt to protect beetroots, sown peas or other vulnerable crops.

Poultry killing day always looms large in my mind and although I far from relished the thought of killing and plucking dozens of birds today, I slept fitfully last night, waiting for the alarm to sound in the darkness. Having completed my animals, I was plucking the first cockrel at my parent’s house by 7:15 AM and the early start was just as well. Em and I finished the final goose at 4:30 PM allowing us to join the Morris men's carol evening, albeit late, down still in our hair. The day's activities as well as providing poultry for Christmas and the coming year should go some way to alleviate the rapid decline of our wheat store as 12 cockerels, 15 quail, 3 muscovy ducks, 4 turkeys and 6 geese shan't need feeding in the morning. The quality of the carcasses was very pleasing and seeing as everything, save for the muscovys, were homebred it is good to see that plans and schemes for producing better meat birds is paying off. Using an Indian Game cockerel on my flock of hens appears to have been particularly beneficial in plumping up the cross bread cockerels, the finest example being (as far as I can make out) a naked neck cross Indian game, which despite its free range existence and being predominately wheat feed (most meat birds are reared on high-protein pellets) had a decent frame and plump rounded breast.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

16th December -North Wind

Holiday to consumer-ville

The weather has changed. Cold wind sucked in by a storm over the continent has bought snow to parts of our little isle and miserable sleet to Kent. Still if you're going to spend the day Christmas shopping in Maidstone it would be a shame to waste a good one. High-street shopping is something almost entirely alien to me.  I have made it my business to shun the consumer culture, yet every year I gladly swallow my principles and enter the lion's den. Our family and friends are unimaginably generous to us and I have come to realise over the years, that whatever my personal beliefs maybe, it is right to spend money on presents that they will really appreciate. After all there is a limit to how many wooden whistles, jars of honey or bottles of homebrew anyone wants! Perversely, I am probably a very good shopper. I have spent so many years purposely retarding my desire to possess fripperies (for the benefit of my wife a billhook is not a frippery) that I am totally unmoved by advertising and temptation (in a shopping sense at least), which allows me to set about the job with the detached efficiency of an outsider.

A busy weekend waits, with shooting tomorrow and poultry killing on Sunday. As I have said before, in a ' kill the fattened calf ' kind of way, slaughter precedes any notable celebration in this household and Christmas is no exception. Although we shan't be shooting woodcock tomorrow (like many shoots we have a voluntary ban on shooting them) I shall be interested to see if there are more present in the woods and cover. With freezing conditions and snow further north, there should be an influx to the area as the birds seek viable feeding sites. The woodcock's long beak is used to probe soft ground, largely for earthworms and if the ground becomes frozen they must move on or face starvation. I realise as I write this line that I dreamt about a fall (the correct term for a group of woodcock putting down to rest after migratory flight) of the birds last night and having accurately predicted a cold winter last year, with a dream depicting a frozen blue tit preserved in its final act of trying to extract food from a equally frozen seed head, perhaps I am developing powers of prophecy!

Friday, 16 December 2011

15th December - 'Domestos'

Christmas preparations

After days of manly endeavour shooting and ferreting, I have slipped seamlessly back into my alter ego, Domestos - god of childcare and household chores. My primary function of the day was to look after Chub Chub whilst Em applied herself fully to making a pair of stunning Christmas cakes, one for us and one for a gift. In between baby duties I did have time to produce some Christmas fare of my own, as well as a few other things and as all of the recipes were made up, I would like to record them all for next time.

 The bullace liqueur (sloe gin basically, made with home distilled spirit and bullaces - a stone fruit very similar to the sloe) doesn't really require the full-blown ingredients and method treatment. I simply two thirds filled a wine bottle with bullaces, (which amazingly are still hanging in mauve clusters on my parents tree), poured in granulated sugar up to the same level as the fruit (with a little encouragement it falls into the gaps between the fruit) and finally filled the whole thing up with strong home distilled spirit, though 40% vodka would work just as well. Usually I prick the fruit with a needle to encourage the colour and flavour to come out, but the fruit was so soft owing to the lateness of picking that I deemed it unnecessary. The bottle will sit in the larder now for six months to a year (depending on when I remember it) and then should be ready for drinking.

Self Sufficiency Mincemeat

It is always our aim to produce as much of our own food as possible. Christmas more than any time is a period when food is bought in, and every year I am torn between the pleasures of traditional Christmas fare and the feeling that we should be using our own ingredients. This time, as an experiment I have devised a self-sufficiency mincemeat, only utilising those things which we produce ourselves, save for the spices. The pear treacle mentioned in the recipe is produced by simmering pear juice until it reduces to a thick, black syrup very similar in appearance to its namesake.

1 lb    chopped Bramley apples (small pieces)
4 oz    grated suet
9 oz    chopped prunes
9 oz    chopped dried pears
6 oz    honey
2 oz    chopped walnuts
4 tbsp pear treacle
8 tbsp plum wine
4 tsp   mixed spice
1 tsp   ground cinnamon
½ tsp  grated nutmeg
3 tbsp strong spirit

  • Combine all of the ingredients apart from the spirit in a heat proof bowl, stir well and leave to sit overnight.
  • Cover the bowl with foil and place in a cool oven (120° C) for three hours.
  • Remove bowl from oven and stir the mincemeat regularly as it cools down to coat the fruit with suet.
  • When the mincemeat is cool, pour over the spirit, stir thoroughly and pack into sterilised jars ready for use.


Spiced Damson Cordial

Carrier bags of damsons have been cluttering up our freezer for months and finally we have got round to making our spiced Damson cordial. The recipe was dreamt up to produce a non-alcoholic winter drink for Christmas presents and is best served hot.

Damsons (fresh or frozen)
Cinnamon sticks
Cardamom pods
Grated nutmeg tied in a small piece of muslin
Granulated sugar

  • Place the damsons in a large stock pot and add enough water to reach half way up the level of the fruit.
  • With the lid on heat the fruit slowly until it comes to the boil, turn the heat off and leave the damsons to steep until they are completely cool.
  • Strain the fruit without pressing it (which would release unwanted sediment).
  • Add the spices to the strained liquor at a ratio of roughly 3 cinnamon sticks, six cardamom pods, 10 cloves and 1 tbsp grated nutmeg per 5 L of liquor. More can be used to produce a stronger flavour if required.
  • Heat the spiced liquor until it is hot, but not boiling and maintain the temperature for as long as possible, to allow the spices to infuse. (I left mine on the back of the Rayburn for 24 hours)
  • Strain the liquor to remove the spices and add roughly 3 kg of sugar per 5 L of liquor.
  • Bring the cordial to the boil, stirring occasionally so the sugar dissolves.
  • Seal the cordial in preheated sterilised bottles for keeping, or use immediately.

Damson Port

The damson port was intended for Christmas, but I never got round to it in time. The idea behind this recipe is to use spirits to kill the fermentation when the wine reaches the required sweetness, this will produce a fortified wine which does not contain chemicals (commercially sulphites are added to stop fermentation, a technique also practised by many home made wine producers).

6 lb      damsons
7 pints boiling water
3 lb      granulated sugar
wine making yeast
strong spirit (or vodka)

  • Place damsons in a non-metallic container which can withstand boiling water (a plastic bucket with a lid is ideal).
  • Pour boiling water over fruit, cover with a lid or a tightly fitting cloth and leave to cool down.
  • Whilst the fruit is cooling down activate some wine making yeast.
  • When the fruit has finished cooling add the yeast, cover the vessel and put somewhere warm. If it is summer, care will have to be taken that vinegar flies do not enter the container and contaminate the wine.
  • Fermentation should begin in a couple of days and after a further four days strain the liquor from the damsons into a demi-john which already contains the sugar. Don't fill the jar right to the top, but leave a couple of inches gap.
  • Shake well to dissolve the sugar, put in an air lock and leave somewhere warm to continue fermenting.
  • Taste the wine periodically and when it reaches the required sweetness pour it into another demi-john, leaving behind as much of the sediment as possible.
  • Top the demi-john right up with spirits, cork and allow to settle.
  • When the damson port is clear, pour it off into clean wine bottles, leaving behind the sediment.
  • Leave to mature before drinking.

N.B - If fermentation continues after the spirit has been added there is insufficient alcohol present to kill the fermentation and more spirit must be added.

Fermentation begins

Dinner - Game pudding, mash with celeriac, carrots, cabbage.  Dessert - chocolate mousse.

Game Pudding
S and S came to dinner and it seemed only fitting that I should feed them the game which I had procured on their farmland.

8 oz shredded suet
1 lb self raising flour
1/2 pint cold water

Streaky bacon finely sliced
Leeks sliced
Pheasant diced
Pigeon diced
Tomato purée
Winter herbs
Plain flour
Beer (which has been heated to remove alcohol)

·        Mix together the suet, flour and seasoning in a bowl and stir in the water to create a soft dough.
·        Roll out two thirds of the dough and line a three pint pudding basin with it.
·        Fry the bacon until the fat runs, add the leeks and stir until they are thoroughly wilted.
·        Combine the bacon and leeks with the pheasant, pigeon, tomato purée and herbs in a large bowl and mix, adding enough flour to make the ingredients just stick together.
·        Fill the lined pudding basin with the mixture and pour in the beer until it nearly reaches the top.
·        Rollout the remaining suet pastry to create a lid and having wetted the edges, place it on the pudding then crimp it down.
·        Cover the pudding with greaseproof paper and foil, tied down with string.
·        Steamed the pudding in a large saucepan for at least five hours.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

14th December -Mr. C's Woodcock

Just a quick entry to record the fact that Mr. C shot a woodcock yesterday - a notable event considering his reputation for missing them. The historic event took place near Rolvenden where my father, C and I were shooting on another of H’s rough days. Treacle put the bird up from thick brambles and having flown low over one gun it banked, climbed high and headed over to the oaks by which C was standing. I was already rehearsing the jibes in my head as the first barrel was emptied without effect but to the report of the second the bird halted in mid flight and glided down, wings still outstretched.  It had been a good shot and, although he denies it vehemently, C's first woodcock.

No quarry makes one question the ethics of shooting more than the woodcock. They are beautiful birds which have survived a perilous migration to seek refuge in a temperate climate - so should they really be shot? My response to the question is that I would never shoot one for ' sport ' and would only take one if I knew it would end up on my dinner table. Even then I would never shoot more than one or two a year regardless of how many I saw. Woodcock on toast happens to be one of my favourite dishes and the annual hunt for my Christmas breakfast is something of a tradition. I haven't even shot at one this season so I might be joining Em in her panettone this year.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

13th December - Moon Shine

Weren't expecting anything elicit I hope

Today's entry should have been about C and I’s epic pigeon shooting day but I haven’t the heart to recount the hours spent freezing in a hide, watching two decoy pigeons rotating above a windscreen wiper motor, or more hours getting equally cold standing in a wood, so I shan't. For anyone who is intrigued by the rather cryptic description of the rotating decoy pigeons, do a search for pigeon magnets on the internet.  C has made rather a good one but still the day was largely a failure.

Your instincts were right - picture of pot-still

Far more interesting are the preparations for Christmas which fill the cottage with the smell of orange zest, mixed spice, brown sugar and of course alcohol fumes. The festive period wouldn't be the same without a bottle of home distilled gin and to date no one has fallen ill or even gone blind which to me is proof enough that I'm doing the job of making it successfully. Distilling is a very useful (albeit illegal) way of using up home-made wines which have gone wrong and there is no shortage of raw material around here! Today's reject was a 2009 vintage rose made from the neighbours grapes which turned out so acidic that you dared not swill it round your mouth for a taste lest it began dissolving your teeth. The apparatus I use to build my extremely crude pot still is nothing specialist and consists of a large stock pot, large metal bowl, tall glass jar and a shallow small bowl. The lidless jar filled with water stands in the centre of the stockpot and on top of that balances the small bowl. The must (reject rose) is then poured into the stockpot, making sure it does not reach the level of the small bowl and the large bowl is then placed on top of the stockpot, creating a lid which bellies down into the pot. Finally the large bowl is filled with water and ice and the whole assembly placed over a slow heat. As the must heats slowly, alcohol fumes rise within the stockpot, hit the cold concave surface of the large bowl, condense, run to the lowest central point and a drip into the small bowl below held aloft by the jar. Simple but effective! The small bowl needs emptying from time to time and the iced water refreshing as it warms up but in a couple of hours two wine bottles of strong clear spirit can be distilled from a gallon of 12% must. There is one very important point which I haven't mentioned yet and that is how to avoid collecting the methanol which is inevitably present. The wood alcohol (methanol) has a lower boiling point than ethanol and for this reason by discarding the first fraction (the first half bowl full or so) most of it can be eliminated from the finished product. Making the crude spirit is the first step in making gin and the second distillation with aromatic ingredients will be covered another day.

There is a great satisfaction in seeing Em labouring over a huge bowl of mincemeat, my mother has always made her own and the sight and smell conjures up all the happy memories of childhood Christmases. One day I hope G will have his own treasure trove off recollections and at the centre will be his mother, stirring the bowl whilst inviting the family to have a go and make a wish. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

12th December - Two Men and a Dog

Frosty morning before shooting

The day started in what you might describe as a stimulating manner. Whilst I checked how much food Mace (my new ferret) had ferreted away in his nest, the little b*****d clearly got bored of being held and decided to take direct action by seizing my middle finger. When a ferret bites there are no half measures.  The needle sharp canines go in hard and don't stop until they reach bone and having instinctively released my grasp on him it took me a few moments to work out what to do. During this pause Mace obviously decided that my finger tasted rather good and as ferrets do when they are given food, began heaving my hand with all his might back towards his nest. There is a conflict-of-interest when a domestic creature is painfully attached to your person, be it goose, cockatiel or ferret (I have experienced all three). Instinct suggests killing the attacker swiftly with a mortal blow from the other hand, whilst something deep inside calls for calm and keeping the creature alive. On this occasion I mustered every ounce of self-will, gently pulled the marauding Mustalid away from his run and gently put my foot on it. The sound of cracking bones would have been music to my ears, but with perfect restraint I pressed down slowly, just enough to distract him from his intended breakfast and my finger was free at last.

Having completed the animal round, trailing blood over every surface I touched, C and I headed out for a walk round with our guns. The weather was everything a hunting man could wish for and when we arrived at the far end of S’s farm, a hoarfrost still clung to the tusoky winter grass below a clear blue sky. Usually on such a day we would expect to see ducks, woodcock, pheasant and pigeons but on this occasion the first two were completely absent. Pheasants and pigeons were everywhere but a combination of bad luck and bad shooting meant that by lunchtime I had shot one woody and the only other creature in our game bag was a hen pheasant caught by Treacle between a double fence. Results aren't everything though and for once we cared little that our shots were wide and the pheasants low. It felt right to be out, two figures wandering the copses and hedgerows with the dog scampering here and there between us.

Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs (I'll be smoking more salmon soon and it seemed prudent to use up what was already in the freezer) set us up for the afternoon and we headed out to the other half of the farm to try our luck. Even more pheasants were to be found there but alas few flew within gunshot once they were put up by Treacle, save for one hen bird which rose through the wood and reached clear sky above the canopy before falling to my single shot. The day ended with two hen pheasants and two pigeons. I have already mentioned whence the pheasants came from and if I tell you that both the pigeons were mine you can work Mr. C’s success for yourself! 

Monday, 12 December 2011

11th December – Brilltong!

Finished Pigeon Biltong

As you will have deduced from today's witty title the biltong is brilliant! It has only taken 48 hours to dry and the finished product is dark and glossy and far easier going on the teeth than it looks! The flavour is salty, as it should be and the coriander is subtly present in all three types (I did three flavours remember) giving the cured meat an authentic 'that's exactly how it should taste' quality. On balance the Worcester sauce and chilli variety is probably my favourite but they're all exceptionally good.

The festive countdown of activities rather focuses one’s mind on the fact that Christmas is only a fortnight away. Myself and the other Morris Men danced at Marden's Christmas spectacular on Saturday which turned out to be rather pleasant. The main event was nothing too special (though it was wonderful to see the children enjoying themselves) but an envelope placed in the hands of our treasurer by the organisers resulted in a leisurely afternoon in the working men's club drinking beer and port. To Em’s delight, some time after we had settled in, two huge black, flat coated retrievers were led into the bar.  On arrival they were presented with a packet of mini cheddars each and we watched transfixed as each dog took their own yellow packet, gently opened it with their mouths and ate the contents in a systematic but unhurried manner. They reminded me of my old retriever, a constant companion through my early shooting days and a far cry from the manic dog I now call my own.

Today it was Christmas tree gathering that kept me mindful of the impending festivities and where once my father and I visited our small plantation with a pruning saw, we now take a chainsaw. The trees are well past their commercial sell by date but by cutting down the 20 footers it is still possible to get something which will fit in a house out of the tops. It has become a tradition that certain friends also come and choose a Christmas tree and it so happened that one family arrived just as we were leaving. There was lively debate amongst the children as to the merits of individual specimens, but to my alarm it was the mother who had the most exacting standards and as I watched them make their selection, I wondered if this might be another year when my tree is rejected by Em and I'm sent back for another!

Rump steak with cream and peppercorn sauce served with cumin potato wedges, leaks in white sauce and carrots. Previous to killing and butchering one of S’s bullocks last summer we hadn't had steak at home for years. Now it is wonderful to be able to dip into the freezer and choose between fillet, sirloin or rump.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

9th December - Ferreting and Pigeon Biltong

Pigeon Biltong hung up to dry

The conditions seemed perfect for a good day's ferreting. Last night's raging storm had blown itself out and the day broke revealing cloudless blue skies and the lightest of frosts. Having the sun on your back does nothing to improve your chances when ferreting, it just makes the experience more enjoyable but having a calm day is essential as rabbits are reluctant to bolt in high winds. I realise how unlikely it sounds that a rabbit, presented with a choice between biting ferrets and exiting to wind, would choose the former, but it’s true. I have learnt from experience and remember thanks to a good deal of digging that this is one old wives tale which is worth taking heed of. Our destination was an organic pear orchard a couple of miles through the lanes where I put a couple of hives in the spring to pollinate blossom. I don't get paid for this service but I'm perfectly happy with the arrangement as after a casual enquiry I am now able to shoot and ferret over the land. The place is generally swarming with rabbits and for some time C and I have been looking  forward to a bountiful day working the small open buries which are typical to old orchards. As expected there were plenty of rabbit signs when we arrived - muddy paw prints in leaf lined holes, fresh droppings, runs in the grass and tufts of fur - but the ten or more buries which we netted yielded only three bunnies. The lack of quarry was mysterious and we theorised (as we often do when faced with failure) that perhaps the fierce storm had caused the rabbits to quit the open orchard and seek refuge in the vast, ancient warrens which pockmark the wooded quarry pits at its periphery. Tackling these strongholds without a dozen ferrets and a lot of time was not an option and we went home for lunch, taking consolation from the fine weather and stunning views we had experienced.

Jills in there travelling cage

After a fortifying lunch of north country oatcakes (fried oat pancakes made with a yeast batter rather than those detestable dry, salty biscuits), black pudding, eggs and sausages, we headed out again to try our luck at Green Lane. Things were little better there and despite an abundance of signs again, we only managed another two rabbits. To compound our bad luck a netted rabbit managed to shuffle back down the hole on the last bury. This resulted in an hour spent locating and digging out the ferrets which, having taking advantage of its compromised position were busily attacking the poor creature.

Real oat cakes

I am always experimenting with new ways to eat game and yesterday’s bag of six pigeons presented an opportunity to make biltong. I have never done it before and having read up on the theory, rather followed my nose. Firstly I took the breasts from the birds and sliced them in half as if butterflying, but then completed the cut. Next the meat went in to a cure of predominantly salt, with added crushed coriander seeds, black pepper and sugar where it remained for one hour. Having thoroughly rinsed off the salt I finished the half breasts in three different coatings. The first batch red wine vinegar, the second red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, the third red wine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and chilli powder. Finally I threaded the three batches onto lengths of string, knotted to prevent each portion slipping down and hung them by the Rayburn. I will report back on how it goes.

Slow cooked belly pork with roast potatoes, apple sauce and brussels sprouts. Yummy!

Friday, 9 December 2011

8th December - Gale Force Pigeons

Despite the phenomenal number of pigeons in the area, they have presented few opportunities for good shooting. C and I have had the odd one here and there, but on the whole the vast flocks are feeding away from here and though they often roost in woods to which we have access, one shot is enough to scatter hundreds of birds which don't return. The high winds which are rolling over buses and tearing off library roofs in Scotland are not quite so ferocious down here but still impressively powerful. We should have been out at lunchtime taking advantage of the adverse conditions levelling the odds in our favour but putting together dinner kept me in till three and by the time we arrived at Release Pen Wood oak bows were already dripping with grey birds. They usually favour the taller more open trees of Bowling Alley Wood but with the chestnut and birches bending and thrashing violently above us it was easy to understand why they had chosen the lower wood, sheltered by the steep hill and thick coppice. Seemingly reluctant to leave at first, they then exploded from the branches wave after wave after wave, until it seemed impossible that so many creatures should have been packed into so few trees.

Before many moments the first few Woody's were circling back and one, alighting near C fell victim to his first shot. After a quick walk to Bowling Alley Wood and finding it completely devoid of activity, I walked back to Release Pen Wood and took up a position below to mature oaks surrounded by slender chestnut. Soon the action began in earnest and it was pigeon shooting to be remembered, not because the session ended with a big bag but because the birds were numerous, the shooting hard and the conditions exhilarating. Movement was everywhere the writhing canopy, the churning grey cloud flecked with scudding swirls of white, leaves blowing horizontally and amongst it all the winged outlines of pigeons threading their way through the invisible currents. There was an almost constant stream of them, mostly in small groups of two or three which had lightly been separated from their flocks by the blasting wind but occasionally in vast groups which made the heart beat fast. I have lost faith in my trusty side-by-side (naturally a bad workman blames his tools) and today took out my old over and under with which many years ago I was a dab hand. It felt too long and cumbersome to begin with, but once I'd reacquainted myself with the pistol grip and single trigger I made a couple of good shots swinging through for fast birds which screamed across the wind. As I said there was no big bag.  We ended with six pigeons and one crow between us, at the expense of at least 30 cartridges. Bad odds by anyone's reckoning but we weren't disappointed.

Pheasant and spinach curry with rice. The spinach, or perpetual beet as it really is, has been fantastic all through the autumn and into winter. Until we have hard frost it will continue to push up fresh growth, providing welcome greens which aren't of the cabbage family..

Thursday, 8 December 2011

7th December - The Final Pleacher


I lay the final pleacher at midday bringing a close to hedge laying for another season. In total we laid 248 m of hedge in seven days and that feels like quite an achievement. As in the final day tradition, we cooked our lunch over the fire.  Last year it was jacket potatoes topped with beans and Stilton with roast duck on the side.  This time C provided pitta breads stuffed with home cured ham and cheddar. The heat from the fire was intense and it was a struggle to get close enough to the grid to flip the Panini's with a billhook but they didn't burn too badly and were absolutely gorgeous. It was a perfect day for pictures, with blue skies and bright sunlight and today's blog is devoted to some of those images.

French sausage cooked with beans in a tomato and herb sauce with jacket potatoes.
Last time we made sausages I experimented with a French recipe for garlic and cumin sausage. Continental sausages differ from our own because they don't contain rusk and this lends them far better to being boiled. The improvised dish was very successful, rather like a simplified cassoulet and the sausage certainly gave it an edge of authenticity.

 Smoke over finished hedge

 104m of laid hedge in perspective

 Wood chip left after stake sharpening

 Handy Spatula

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

6th December -Bean Ages

It must have been weeks ago that I hurriedly sowed the end bed with broad bean seeds but finally stout, green shoots are pushing up through the manure mulch. Though on reflection it is rather sad to have one, broad bean seedlings are my favourite. So many other vegetables start life as minute, fragile structures vulnerable to everything, but not the bean. Few things eat it and the moment a leaf unfurls the thing looks like a real plant. On the subject of things which are a little ‘sad’, after two or three weeks of near continual contact C are really scraping the barrel for conversation. A good 20 minutes was spent on the way to work ranking native trees in order of manliness and demonstrating what response you might expect from each if you hit them with a stick. It’s not as crazy as it sounds really when you consider it was an off shoot from a perfectly sensible conversation about what a moaning hedge might sound like! Oh yes and if you're wondering, oak was the manliest, sounding rather like BA Barackas when hit and spindle, owing to its smooth bark, slender form and pretty flowers was deemed the botanical Julian Clary.

Another successful day at the office and despite not putting saw to wood until 10 AM again, there is only 25 m of the original 150 m left to go.

Steak and ale pie with potato and onion layer and baked beans. For some reason baked beans are one of the very few ready foods we buy. Extravagant I know, but there's nothing like a can of beans to bring together a meal of leftovers.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

4th December - Jam Sponge and Custard

The temperature has dropped considerably over the last few days and although little frost has penetrated the woodland clearing which serves for our garden, this morning the fields opposite were veiled in white once more. I was reflecting on the fact that winter seems to have put in an appearance at last, when I noticed that only the cock from my pair of Old English Game was waiting for its food. My immediate thought was that his mate had somehow escaped and being eaten overnight but a quick search inside the run revealed my fears were unfounded. Behind a palette, a spot which she has used twice before, I found her sitting tight on a clutch of eggs. I have never known a chicken to go broody so late in the season and it surprises me even more with an Old English Game hen, as they are a primitive breed and presumably more influenced by natural instincts. Perhaps the unseasonal warmth, which prevailed for such a time and had my apple trees blossoming in November was the culprit. I shall let her sit and take her chances.  The spots she has chosen is dry and sheltered and I suspect she will be successful.

C and I’s previous hedge laying record has been utterly smashed. 40 m in one-day was our previous best and today thanks to the favourable conditions which I mentioned previously, we managed an astounding 60 m. To make the achievement more surprising we didn't even start until 10 AM, due to picking up materials from Green Lane and a  break out by my parents' sheep. It's too easy not to look up when you work hard in this way and when we do stop, I'm reminded of all the things which are being missed which previously I sought time to admire. Laying a hedge opens up views one never realised existed.  As we drank tepid tea from our thermal mugs we looked out across the Sussex countryside, where the sepia tones of an early sunset gave the oaks, still crowded with withered leaves, a warm glow. Having patrolled a nearby hedgerow, a kestrel stopped to hover over a likely spot and it put any achievement of ours to shame to see the creature's skill. She held her body in perfect stillness despite the wind and her rapidly flitting wings. C is a good friend, one of the few with whom I can discuss my love of the countryside with without feeling stupid.

Slow roasted mutton chops with potato and onion layer bake, cabbage and gravy. Followed by a steamed strawberry jam sponge and custard. It's almost tempting to get a job when Em cooks so wonderfully! The Peary Pudding has led her to rediscover the joy is of a steamed pudding and I am only too happy to encourage the revelation.

Monday, 5 December 2011

3rd December - Hang'em High

[picture coming soon]

The air dried hams have finished their 15 days packed in salt. After shooting on Saturday C and I dug them out, rinsed them and gave them a good coating of vinegar before triple wrapping them in muslin. A stainless steel skewer inserted through the thickest part of each ham to the bone came out clean and scentless - a great relief as both of us were preparing for the disappointment of one or both of them having gone bad. Using a boned leg makes problems less likely, but being extremely busy at the time we gambled, used two whole legs and seem to have got away with it. The next stage is to hang them high in the draughty shed by Square Wood, where according to instructions they should dry and reach maturity in four to eight months.

There is something horribly conventional about having a quiet Sunday, getting up late and pottering in the garden. Usually days of the week and sadly often days of the month have little bearing on our lives but with me working as well as Em, this weekend really felt like a weekend. I didn't fight the convention too hard and it was bliss to lie in till the slothful hour of 8 AM, the latest I've been in bed for many months. When I did eventually get up I was surprised to see two Roe deer walking up the hedgerow opposite the cottage. I have never seen deer in that field before and had the freezers not been so full with meat I would have been running for my rifle. On closer inspection through the binoculars they turned out to be a pair of bucks one old, his white rump stained to a dirty ivory, the other a young animal just in velvet. The second would have made good eating I'm sure but Em was quite categoric when she said shooting it would be a bad idea!

Steak and ale pie with mashed potato and steamed cabbage. With the division of labour which has evolved around making pies, the prospect of producing one is no longer as daunting as it once was. Em makes the pastry whilst I put together the filling and within half an hour of starting the finished pie is cooking in the Rayburn. This evening's effort was delicious and I had managed to incorporate the correct amount of flour and ale to result in a rich thick gravy which coated the generous chunks of beef.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

2nd December - A Schizophrenic Season

Cold bright weather returns

A quick look at the next section of hedge yesterday revealed that more stakes and binders are required. Normally we managed to find materials in the hedge to supplement our imported hazel but there looks not to be a single stake in the whole 150 m. The reason is obvious enough. The hedge is grown close to a chestnut coppice and its shade and suppressive influence combined with that of the large oaks which line the boundary, have stunted the mixed planting of hawthorne, hazel, spindle and maple. She will be quite a different beast to work with and whereas normally I spend a great deal of time reducing pleachers so there is not too much volume in the layed hedge, I will almost certainly be struggling to find enough with this one.

After finishing at Rolvenden last week we promised to return and lop another section of hedge for the client. The plan had been to incorporate the short job with a convenient half day at Peasmarsh but this never came to pass, so before coppicing today we were forced to make a special trip. I suspected the task would be irritating and it was! An hour and a half spent balancing on a pair of steps, swinging chainsaw at arm's-length followed by half an hour dragging the thorny hedge to the fireplace. The recompense was fairly meagre - but at least it should be sufficient to fund the forthcoming Wealden Hedgelaying Christmas party! This year's extravaganza promises to be big - all two members of staff will be there with partners, enjoying the glitz and glamour of a £10 curry deal at Marden's premier curry house. Such extravagance may appear rash amidst such austerity but we do like to buck the trend. Besides, last year's budget Christmas event almost ended in ugly scenes as C and myself clashed in the Korker sausage challenge at Jenpsen's eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet. From recollection I took the prize after reaching the high teens (that's well over two pounds of sausages!) thanks to C’s tactical faux pas of overindulging in breaded mushrooms -a schoolboy error if ever I saw one!

The weather couldn't have contrasted more with yesterday's and as we polarded the next section of my parents' hedge for materials, it was a bright and powdery frost that still lined the bottom field. As I write (remembering that I always write the day's entry on the following morning) the mild winds and rain have returned and such rapid succession of weather systems is giving the season a rather schizophrenic feel. The realisation that my trailer would be required on Monday to move stakes and binders led to some emergency repairs in the evening. Last Monday the trailer’s snaking motion became too pronounced to continue ignoring and pulling up by the green in Benenden, we discovered that the tow hitch was no more than a couple of wiggles from falling off. I suspect the rope lashing would have held for months, but C is right, it's far better to do a proper job.

Toad in the hole with red cabbage casserole, mash and gravy. It is such a treat to come home to a cooked meal very hard not to be a glutton. Food cooked by someone else is always more appealing and the physical work of late has left me with a huge appetite.

Friday, 2 December 2011

1st December - Rain

Wet gear after a wet day

There isn't a great deal to say about today, other than it has been wet - very wet! The rain began as we drove through Northiam and by the time we arrived on site, the handful of pet sheep which inhabit the paddocks there were already in their shelter. Always a bad sign I feel when animals are seeking cover, as they seem to have instinctive and uncannily accurate forecasting abilities. The mixed flock of South Downs, Romneys and Badger Face (a proper hobbyist's collection) were proven to have impeccable judgement and save for the odd foray to the adjacent hay feeder, stayed put whilst below in the valley bottom we toiled in sodden clothes, slipping on mud and struggling to grip our tool handles for greasy wetness. C even had to lend me his chainsaw helmet as the fine mesh of my visor held so much water from the torrential downpour that it was impossible for me to see.

Despite the adverse conditions the first length of hedge is now complete and all the clearing up done. Next week we'll be up the hill making a start on the next stretch of about 150 m.

G has discovered the joys of splashing! Last night Em was out watching some of her singing pupils at a concert and it fell to me to complete our son's bedtime routine, save for the breastfeeding, naturally. Bath time begins with him sitting up and shuffling backwards along the length of the bath, though how it doesn't turn to frustration I don't know, as his intention always is to go forward. However as soon as you lay him back the fun really starts.  Immediately his legs go high in the air and are bought down with such purpose that his little back arches right out of the shallow water with the effort. This process is repeated with exteme rapidity and the resulting plumes of water which cascade all across the bathroom are of great amusement to the little mite who, baring all six teeth in a gapping grin, giggles uncontrollably.
I feel a brief apology is in order with regards to my blog. My intention has been to produce good quality writing, conjuring up the pleasures of country life but I realise that of late my entries have become increasingly short and mundane. Bear with me and I promise an improvement when the hedge laying has finished and I have more time and energy to spare.

Ragu of mutton and tomato with pasta (a.k.a. spaghetti bolognese)  Just the thing after a long wet day.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

30th November - Very Rough Shooting

Too many shots - not enough birds

Everything was in place for an extremely enjoyable day.The company was good, there were plenty of birds about, the weather fine and yet I came home in a less than rosy mood. Why? That is an interesting question which I've been trying to unravel myself. By my own admission there are few things I'd rather do with my day, so it certainly wasn't the activity itself. My own skill (or lack of it) with the gun seems one likely source of frustration and my slightly hoarse throat points to another -the dog! Over the last decade my ability to shoot well has been extremely sporadic and even so this season is shaping up to be one of my worst displays in years. I had several chances at decent birds which I missed clean and I sense already that hard work will be required to stave off the despondency which is poison to any endeavour, particularly shooting. The dog is irritating on two levels; firstly and most obviously the constant shouting and berating from myself (necessary to maintain some modicum of order) gets me het up and angry. Secondly I am not so naive as to solely blame the dog  for her bad discipline.  I trained her and though she is undoubtedly very wilful, I carry a deep held frustration that I could have done better.

In general the rough day was a great success. 21 pheasants, 6 pigeons, 2 doves and a woodcock made up the final bag with Dad alone contributing five pheasants and 2 pigeons. I managed to cobble down a couple of pheasants and two pigeons (one of the woodies was in fact a rather nice bird) and C drew a blank -still at least he has his voice intact!