Saturday, 28 January 2012

27th January - Rough Shooting

Without the right frame of mind there is little point in going out shooting. It is meant to be a pleasurable pursuit, yet how many times in the past have I lost sight of that and spent days in the field frustrated with my bad shooting, worried that progress is too slow or angry with the dog. Something has changed, whether becoming a father has put things in context or whether it is simply a result of getting older, I have no idea, but I do know that I prefer it. I just feel more relaxed, happy for the day to take its course whether it leads to success or failure, more able to revel in the unpredictability of rough shooting which let's be honest, has never been changed by worry, anger or meticulous organisation anyway.

A light frost lingering in the cupped  leaves of autumn past, below a bright sun and blue skies is enough to make any mood light and Dad and I chatted as we walked the long row of gnarled poplars to the first pond. Drawing close I made my final approach where the waterside bank is highest, thus concealing my stalk and peered over the water cautiously. On the far side, in amongst a fallen tree black with damp and decay two tiny ducks sat apparently unaware of my presence. Getting down again, I signalled to dad to be ready and crept left aiming to drive them back towards him. Reaching my position I released the dog knowing that if she startled them and not me, oblivious to human presence there would be a better chance of them flying over one of our two guns. Trusty Treacle completely failed to notice the pair of teal and instead piled into a heap of brambles behind the water. Concluding that the element of surprise was lost after my shouting and whistling, I got to my feet which was enough to make the ducks leap into the air and take flight. At first they headed towards my father, gun at the ready, but then while still low, banked right and climbed, looping some way out past my position. Being too close together to take individual aim, I drew my bead on the pair, swung through and fired. The lead bird faltered and began to fall and for a moment I fancied the other was also coming down as it checked its flight but then recovering it’s senses beat hard with it’s wings and was gone. I have observed this phenomenon several times, when ducks in flight will stay with a shot bird momentarily, even diving with them sometimes before they realise that it is dead and not flying.

The rest of the farm yielded one shot for dad, which straight into the sun, he missed and we carried on to the block of land about cottage. On such a warm day the pheasants were bound to be out in the hedgerows, but a long walk around the perimeter produced nothing and although a fox, a woodcock and a pheasant issued from quarry wood, the bag still remained at one teal. The pear orchard, a favourite haunt of pheasants when there is still rotting fruit on the ground, held three birds.  Two flew out of gun shot but the third, a hen pheasant sped down a line of trees passing dad like a partridge. I didn't see him fire but heard the discharge and saw the dead hen when I eventually reached his position with the dog. The next wood was empty and whilst we chatted idly at the top of the ridge, Treacle bounded off along the hedgeline. Next thing we knew there was a whirring of wings and pheasants exploding in every direction. At least half a dozen must have flown back before two hens broke on our side heading low across the field. Dads cartridges were out, but mine were in the broken gun and snapping it shut I pulled on the nearest bird knocking it from the air with a puff of feathers.

After lunch we tried Release-pen Wood and Triangle Wood without success and ended the day with 20 minutes under some tall oaks shooting pigeons. The final tally for what was probably the best day's shooting of the season was one teal, two pheasants, four squirrels and three pigeons.

Friday, 27 January 2012

26th January -Where's Betsy?

Not a great deal to report.  I was on baby duty today and in between dealing with the fallout from an upset stomach which continues to dog him (well dog us really, he doesn't seem to be in any discomfort) I learnt music for forthcoming concerts. Youtube is an invaluable resource for getting to grips with new repertoire.  It's like having the Guildhall music library in my house, only without the difficulty of trying to recall the alphabet every time I want to find something. You think I'm joking but once a dyslexic always a dyslexic.

Whilst inside working on the computer I took the opportunity to research my forthcoming role as ' Betsy ' for the Morris. Essentially I get to dress up as a woman with the excuse that it’s a Morris dancing tradition. It certainly is traditional, that is confirmed numerous times on the internet and in various books but further information is hard to come by. So, in the true spirit of Morris I will have to devise my own way of being ridiculous.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

25th January - Early Blooms

Despite my complaining about being cold and wet yesterday, the weather is essentially mild for the time of year and everywhere flowers are creeping out of winter hiding. Crocuses and snowdrops are in full swing on the lawn, whilst in Cranbrook I noticed two large camellias, one pink and the other a crimson red, both in full bloom. Seeing those beauties served as some consolation for my visit’s purpose - a trip to the police station to surrender my driving licence. I didn't even manage to do anything exciting for my three points and £60, just drove across hashed white lines on a motorway exit - a middle-aged driving offence if ever there was one.

Work continues in the vegetable garden.  The mild weather has allowed couch grass to creep in a tangled rooting mat across the beds and its removal is proving to be a time-consuming occupation.

Pork chops with brussel sprouts, carrots, red cabbage casserole and apple sauce. I was so hungry when I came in from the garden that in my rush to prepare dinner I forgot any potatoes. Never mind, an hour’s Morris practice is much easier on a light supper!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

24th January –Shooting -The End of Season Rush

 Today was the first of four shooting expeditions planned in the next seven days. The end of the season is rapidly approaching and to avoid despondency I intend to have had more than my fill by the time it comes. At least 15 years ago during my Christmas holidays I was a regular beater on the local shoot and since then a friendship has developed with the proprietors, a husband and wife team who being old friends of H’s often turn up on his shoot days. It was this couple who invited me on their shoot today and quite a privilege it was too as I have no way of offering them a return day, which is the usual exchange for such an invitation.

Being back on the old farm filled me with childhood memories: old man T espousing the history of chestnut coppicing and the decline of the brown hare whilst we trundled from drive to drive on the old trailer; the tractor adorned with scores of fox tails tied about its roll bar. One memory, perhaps the most vivid will likely never be invoked again - the smells and sites of the traditional hop packing shed where lunch was taken. Once up the open backed flight of stairs, the wooden floorboards, impregnated with pungent yellow pollen were tacky underfoot and from the corner loomed the ancient press, a great hulk of cast wheels and cogs. Like the old man the shed is gone now, burnt when drying hops were kindled by the kiln (a common enough incident in the old oasts) and has been replaced by a modern building, all concrete, profile sheeting, conveyor belts and automated machinery. Still as farms go nowadays, they don't get much more traditional. The Ts' small estate is something of a rarity, a true mixed set-up still producing hops, fruit, cereal crops, timber and sheep in the time-honoured fashion. This practice, carried on for generations, has resulted in a block of land filled with nostalgia and practical beauty, consisting of oak stands interspersed with hop gardens, old-fashioned orchards, small paddocks and fields of green wheat.

This entry was meant to be about shooting and I shall quickly mention that in the miserable wind and rain I shot with average ability at not many birds, finishing with a modest but satisfactory total of three pheasants and one pigeon. I say quickly because it is of far more interest to note that I nearly lost the dog, not through running off but dying! I have mentioned the trailer earlier and it is still in operation - a long flatbed with a double row of straw bales running up its centre to serve as seats. The dog, attached by a long lead to my cartridge belt sat beside me at the front of the trailer, then without warning decided to jump off.  The tractor, no longer hung with tails in these sensitive times, was moving at a fair pace and immediately the lead snapped tight and began dragging her in towards the trailer and its large wheel. Instinctively I leapt myself, being thrown violently sideways as I hit the ground, but to my great surprise I wasn't hurt and the dog was saved.

Mutton curry with rice and cabbage. I returned home to a fantastic meal, much-needed after standing around in the rain all day.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

23rd January - Jerusalem Artichokes


With the garden tidy and all the chicken in their respective pens attention has turned to the vegetable garden. Digging the artichokes is always a laborious task, as every earth covered tuber must be graded by hand then placed either in the premium bucket for selling, or the seconds bucket for ' seed ' and animal feed. You will notice there is no third receptacle mentioned for home consumption - the ferocious flatulence induced by the innocuous looking nodules is such that Em has imposed an outright ban on their usage. A few years back in a slightly unkind yet ingenious prank, I loaded Mr. C up with roasted artichokes on the evening before his first night at Kit's (his girlfriend's) house. The result was explosive in every conceivable meaning of the word - so I don't bother saving any for him nowadays either. The best specimens are now washed and waiting to be taken to the farm shop with the next consignment of quail eggs, the proceeds from which should pay our vegetable seed bill for this year. Naturally the rejects will not be wasted and I worked until dark planting row after row of them in the pig run. There is so much meat in the freezer we don't plan to have pigs again until early autumn, by which time the artichokes should be fully formed. The quantity I planted should provide a significant amount of free fodder and will undoubtedly supply hours of entertainment for the porkers as they root them out.

Monday, 23 January 2012

22nd January - Logged off with Apple

No real time to write, I just wanted to show off the large stack of apple wood that dad and I have produced. It's all done now and the prospects for a warm cottage next winter are looking good.

A busy weekend.  Em and I performed at a Burns night on Saturday, the first I've ever been to. Why don't the English have a day to celebrate fatty food, drinking and the delights of women? On Sunday we were up to Surrey for a family 60th.

The salt lick which I put just in the coppice close to the cottage finally appears to have been discovered by the deer. Although it had fallen from its metal holder, the red block was unmistakably licked smooth and in theory the local population of roe and perhaps even some fallow will visit regularly now. I noticed this development on a walk I took with Em and G down the hill to view the latest felling done by the coppice workers. It fills me with great pleasure to see the chestnut stalls cut down, for where the uninitiated see destruction I see assurance that this coppice will survive in good order for decades to come. Most chestnut stalls are hundreds of years old and only continue thanks to periodic cutting which allows them to regenerate. It is the areas of coppice which are not cut which face real destruction, as they succumb to overcrowding and being blown by the wind.

Friday, 20 January 2012

19th January - Rain

I couldn't resist experimenting with attaching a video, so I’ve started simply trying to capture the mesmerising drip of water from tiles on our roof. If it works at all, I suspect the effect will be a dark clip of a grotty roof, but at least I’ve tried.

With Em at work, I was on Chub-Chub duty but after a monumental breakfast he very obligingly went to sleep for 3 1/2 hours, enough time for me to busy around in the torrential rain getting the new chicken enclosures ready. Finally this evening I was able to collect the various poultry from my parents' house and sort the different breeds into their respective pens.

After Em got back I took the dog and gun down to the Bramley orchard for a few pigeons. There were thousands to look at, literally swarming the skyline, but in the absence of any wind few came my way and after a couple of shots the immense flock had departed. Earlier on I did have three good shots - buoyed up by my recent success and a pep talk from B yesterday I made a point of picking the birds up fast and swinging through hard. The results surprised me as I connected with birds I would usually consider beyond range and I must try to preserve the feeling and mental image of how I achieved it!

Pizza served with potato salad and rocket. Though I struggle to admit it Em bought a couple of pizzas which were reduced the other day and as I spent most of the evening outside messing around with chickens, one of them made a simple meal. It was very nice in fact and a real treat to have the first ' baby ' rocket leaves from the greenhouse.


Thursday, 19 January 2012

18th January – Tally ho!

B dropped round for lunch and just as we were finishing our sausages and eggs, the sudden arrival of muddy four-wheel-drives outside the cottage reminded me that the hunt was out today. From the vehicles emerged a distinctly odd looking group of followers, all puffy red faces, green plaid and Barbour jackets, so grasping our coffees we joined them at the top of the field opposite. A red jacket appeared at the bottom of the hill and employing my best hunt lingo I enquired if the hounds were drawing the cover there. They were indeed and having ascertained that they were not pursuing a piece of cloth soaked in aniseed, I asked if they had caught up with any today. ' None yet, ' came the reply as we looked on. After a few minutes during which time pale dogs from the pack could be seen working the woodland, a horn sounded to indicate a blank to which the hounds obediently trotted from the cover in file. The hunting ban has been fantastic for hunts.  The anti-s and saboteurs satisfied with their victory no longer turn out, leaving the men and women and hounds to get on with their drag hunting. That's what they do of course, but as one huntsman put it to me ' Charlie usually gets the job of putting down the trail '.

I've never been involved in hunting, probably because I never got on with horse riding as a child but I enjoy the spectacle when I see it. Those impossibly tall, lean horses topped with figures which could have ridden straight from a Hardy novel and the hounds, tough and fit enough to run all day, yet possessing a kindly, lolling demeanour.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

17th January - Fish Supper

Another frosty start.  ‘A shooting day,’ I thought to myself as I watched thick smoke pour from the chimney into the frozen sky. Pigeons were moving and as a cock bird issued its challenge to the new day, I noticed the moon, still bright in the west and cushioned by disparate cloud warmed with pink. Alas I had a chicken house to build and spent the whole day being taunted by the noisy winging of woodies as they flopped to feed on acorns around the cottage. The weatherboard box is of typically robust construction, dramatically over engineered from demolition timber and though I'm satisfied that a chicken will never escape from it, I have no idea how to transport it to the run. My strongman Mr. C remains in France under the pretence of work (we've all seen the snowboarding pictures) so help from him is sadly not an option.

Lunch saw another assault on the formidable lump of Stilton in our fridge but perhaps more notable were the pears we ate for dessert. I believe the variety is 'Winter Nellis ' and those which didn't rot in store have turned golden, sweet and juicy. Also on the edible front, the Damson port which I have been sampling regularly to gauge the correct sweetness, was racked off today and topped up with spirit. I'm rather excited about the new recipe (given in detail somewhere in my virtual scribblings).  The ' port ' already tasted excellent and the spirit, as planned has stopped the fermentation dead in its tracks. When the dark liquid has cleared I shall bottle it and allow it to mature -for a couple of weeks at least!


Pan fried whiting on a bed of potato and leek rosti, served with provencale vegetable sauce. My vomiting sickness has left me with an unfortunate aversion to thought of eating large quantities of meat, so my Dungeness whiting fillets have had another outing.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

16th January - Frosty

Frozen veg - sprouting broccoli leaf

The sky remains clear, permitting a frost which night by night penetrates the soil with its fingers of cold, so every morning the ground is harder and takes longer to thaw.  Shaded by the cottage, the dull powder of trampled frost lay unchanged all day in the back garden and ice on the water-butt is thickening. The sun is strong though and after a dawn which infused the East with a fleeting crimson, departing through mauve and watery pink, the rotting bench before the house exuded tendrils of steam, where only 20 minutes before it had been encrusted with ice.

Despite the radiator in G’s room, it is rather chilly by the morning. In response Em has cocooned our little boy in fleece baby grows, sleeping bags, blankets and covers, but despite the amount of bedding the grub nestled at its centre seems quite content, sucking away at his middle and fourth fingers as he dozes (a trait apparently inherited from his mother). At the risk of sounding like an over enthusiastic parent we fancy that G is attempting his first words. ‘Gog’ seems most popular, applied to Treacle with an excited toothy grin, especially when he sees her for the first time in the morning. Then there is ‘dada’, used occasionally when I play with him and make him laugh - sorry mum!

Beef casserole with mashed potatoes followed by apple crumble and ice cream. We had our main meal at lunchtime with a friend in Iden. We supplied the casserole and she the rest, a relaxing meal totally removed from our usual surroundings.

Monday, 16 January 2012

15th January - Ferreting with the Boys

I can recall few things more irritating from childhood than an adult who promised to do or give something and then never followed through but recently I have been in danger of becoming that very adult! Back in the early summer I gave S and S’s oldest boy two jill ferret kits and twenty purse nets with the assurance that come winter I would show him about using them. I see him every fortnight when he comes beating and since November I have been telling him, ‘I’ll sort something out soon’.  Well last time I really did and this morning Em dropped me at his parents' farm near Marden. I mention Em dropping me off because she was on her way to Tonbridge with Treacle and a fat cheque, to visit Drake. The dirty date went well, though Drake, being a little shorter than Treacle needed a bit of a leg up by all accounts.

Like most field sports ferreting is 99% work and waiting, 1% action and excitement and having had some experience of working with youngsters at school, I wasn't sure how well the 12-year-old O and nine-year-old younger brother M would take to the experience. With age comes the appreciation of your surrounding - the sun on your back, frosty grass underfoot, the wood pigeons rose pink in the bright winter light - but to kids it's action which counts. As it turns out I underestimated the lads and though of course they couldn't care a dam about the splendid morning, save for it being cold, set the nets diligently just as I had shown them. There was some excitement, as one apiece they entered the jills, then in accordance with my instructions both retired to their waiting places and stood quietly. Presiding over the netted bury, watched so intently by the two young boys I experienced something between premonition and recollection. Logically I suppose that would be called the present, but what I’m getting at is the combination of strong resonances from my own childhood and the knowledge that in years to come I will likely be doing the same thing with my own children.

Usually a new jill takes some time warming to the task of pursuing rabbits, but not O’s ferret Razzle (or Dazzle, I can't remember, one had previously deceased).  She's a super little thing and pushed out the first rabbit which balled up perfectly in the net. I could have jumped on it myself, but why deprive the boys of the 1% action and instead shouted at O to grab it. His excitement about the whole thing was palpable and a demonstration of how to kill the creature with a strike to its head from his new priest (given to him for Christmas) was studied with fascination. I knew then he would carry on for the rest of the day and likely the rest of his life, for I recognised well the unbridled thrill of chase and kill, which lies at the heart of any sportsman.

The day was a great success. No ferrets lost, no digging and four rabbits from three buries, with three others bolted but not caught. Back at the farm a skinning tutorial went down well but not so well as my party piece, the juggling of three severed rabbit heads.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

13th January - Logging on with Apple

Stag beetle larva found in apple wood

The un-resisted cheap pun will alert you to the fact that I'm feeling better and just in time, as today has long been set aside for splitting more apple wood ready for next winter. The weather forecasters are making much of a return to winter weather and admittedly I did wake to a stunning hoarfrost, silently glistening in the moonlight. However thoughts of spring have pervaded my soul and are hard to shake. I fancy I am not alone in this as the piping and chattering of songbirds, unmistakably charged with the ardour of courtship, babbled about the oak stand where we worked. Family friend L, who is currently staying with my parents, lent a hand and with him on the splitter, dad cutting the buts to length and me loading the splitter and stacking, we processed an impressive amount of firewood.

The source of the wood, a traditional bramley orchard, was grubbed some years ago now and the large butts, haphazardly heaped on the ground have over the time attracted residents. We often come across wood boring grubs but today we cracked a log to find a colony of stag beetle larva, not fully grown, but bearing all the hallmarks of that species. I needn't be told it is sacrilege to destroy such creatures but once they were discovered the deed was done (they do not relocate well) and they are the first we’ve come across. Adding even more excitement to the proceedings was the discovery of four hibernating queen hornets, torpid but clearly alive. These we relocated to a sheltered nook and should hopefully survive until Spring proper.

Grubby - my dirty finger for purposes of scale

Stilton and bacon pasta bake with sausages, brussel sprouts and runner beans. A hearty aroma, which greets the nose whenever the fridge door is open, serves as a persistent reminder that there is Stilton to eat!

Unrelated - the photo for yesterday's unwritten blog

Thursday, 12 January 2012

11th January – An Awakening

Rolled sirloin

Last night an overwhelming nausea woke me and before I had time to properly come round, was charging down the stairs, unsure whether to kneel or sit on my arrival at the bathroom. Crashing through the door a spazamming gripe forced me to my knees and I retched and coughed until I was left empty and running in a cold sweat. Poor little G has been ill for two days now with a similar affliction and we fear the bug might have been picked up at the care home.

Regular readers of my blog (of whom there are at least four) will realise that I write in the morning about the previous day's events, save for the above paragraph which really did happen last night - confusing hey. Anyway, I hope under the circumstances I'll be forgiven for not describing in much detail ' today's ' butchering as I still feel more than a little fragile. I will say however that it was a marathon event, which saw me on my feet from 9 AM -7 PM slicing, dicing rolling and stringing.

Skeletal remains

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

10th January - The Birds and the Bees

Spring has arrived! Whether it remains or gets nipped in the bud by a twist in winter’s tale who knows, but crocuses on the lawn, bees feeding on dandelion flowers, pigeons cooing from the copse and a blackbird, infusing the early dusk with it’s intoxicating strain cannot be argued with.

I currently have eight different varieties of chicken all of which need penning separately to ensure the eggs are of the correct parentage, so it was a day of make do and mend to create pens from the ramshackle hopper huts opposite the cottage.

I'm off to butcher a cow now - wish me luck.

Spaghetti Bolognese served with wilted spinach. No need to ration the beef mince now –we’ll be swimming in it tomorrow! 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

9th January – Slaughtering a Bullock

There is something very disturbing about having to slaughter a domestic animal. The mental journey from innate concern for its well-being to the conviction that it must be killed is a difficult one to make, especially with the knowledge that forcing its transition from living creature to meat, without stress or pain is solely your responsibility. Most people are blissfully detached from the idea of meat being part of an animal but I like to look at my dinner in the eye before dealing the fatal blow. That way I can enjoy eating meat without the concern of having sidestepped the unsavoury fact that ' meat is murder’, to use a popular slogan. I have sworn, that on the day when I don't have the heart to kill an animal to produce meat, I will become a vegetarian and know it’s the right thing.

Bullocks are daunting because of their size but the process of slaughtering, skinning and gutting is really no different than it would be for a sheep or deer. Having penned the beast in a corner of the shed I put down a bucket of food and as it lowered its head to eat I delivered the 12 bore charge to its brain. The bullock dropped instantly and with a movement which has become second nature, I seized the knife from behind me, knelt down and cut deep into its throat, until the dark blood rushed into the straw. Once the thrashing had stopped (all animals thrash after they had been killed as the muscles and nerves are still active for a while after death) I attached chains round its back hooves and H, using his tractor and fore-loader, lifted it out of the shed and transported the carcass to a quiet corner of the yard. The next step was skinning and lowering the bullock once more I  sawed down the breastbone then made cuts through the skin from the  back hooves to it’s groin and another along the belly to meet the cut in the chest cavity. Having made these initial cuts I began pulling and freeing the thick hide with long strokes from a curved knife and the skin began to fall away. I wouldn't claim to be an expert at the job and it took about an hour of careful pulling and cutting until finally I reached the head and having cut it away, was left with the gingery hide crumpled below a glistening carcass.

Getting the guts out is easy. A cow’s innards (especially after a good breakfast like this one appeared to have had) are immensely heavy and with gravity on your side the danger is their coming out too fast. I put my fingers behind the knife blade to ensure the sharp point didn't pierce the intestines (you're in real trouble if that happens) and cut the stomach wall from groin to chest holding in the grey mass with my forearm as I went. Having reached the cut made in the sternum it was a case of standing back, as the huge stomachs ballooned out followed by the intestines and, with a bit of knife work and pulling, the liver, lungs and heart came through the cut, dragged out by the falling gut. The carcass was clean and there only remained the painfully long saw cut from tail to neck, splitting the carcass in half and the job was finally done.

Stilton stuffed pheasant breasts wrapped in bacon, with mashed potatoes, cavelero nero, purple sprouting broccoli and cabbage. A late and very generous gift arrived from C  (via Kit as he is working in southern France) in the form of a big lump of Stilton, hence its addition in tonight's dinner. The other anomaly was the purple sprouting broccoli from our garden, weeks and weeks earlier than we would usually expect it.

Monday, 9 January 2012

8th January - Singing and Socialising

Unfortunately essential maintenance on the Rayburn has ranked over blog writing this morning, so it's going to be a short one. I couldn't really ignore Bertha much longer, as every time I opened the door to fill her belly with wood, the room instantly filled with smoke, forcing the doors and windows to be flung wide to release the fumes and the precious warmth with it.

The weekend was a social extravaganza. On Saturday Em and I sang solo roles in Haydn's St Nicholas Mass and were treated to a cosy tea in P's stylish home/art gallery before the performance and afterwards invited to another friend’s extraordinary house for supper. This was Em’s first bit of oratorio work since having G and I (and I hope she was as well) was proud and gratified that her exceptional voice had been recognised instantly by our dauntingly well educated, opera going hosts. A simple but delicious meal, served on turned ash plates, was made sophisticated and memorable by the company and a fine Rioja, the latter having done a great deal to restore my innate belief that I enjoy red wine.

Saturday was only the warm-up and on Sunday we encompassed a visit to G’s ailing great-grandmother in Essex, his great-great auntie’s 80th birthday party near Windsor and a friendly do in Horsmonden, thrown by one of the Morris men and his wife. Great-grandmother did not look well, but the mere fact she has met her great-grandson (and several other of her great-grandchildren) is a marvel to me, as I never even knew my grandparents. There were no moving scenes or deep conversations but we stayed for an hour singing wartime songs with her, which made G smile broadly and talking when she had the energy. Before leaving we sang a two-part arrangement of Rutter’s ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’ and although tomorrow we suspect our visit will have been forgotten, we hope the sentiment will remain.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

6th January – Pea Souper

Hard won - Dried peas

Once again the garden was filled with thick, pungent smoke as four years worth of damp chipboard and MDF, sorted from the deliveries of demolition timber, were thrown into the cleansing flames. Another area of the garden has been reclaimed and though the place will never be smart or particularly tidy, it is starting to look a lot better.

 The main highlight of the day was eating, and all the cutting wood and hauling things around gave me a serious appetite. Every summer I negotiate with Em for a few peas to be left on the bushes and harvested dry to make my favourite ham and pea soup. I say negotiate, as she guards her fresh peas jealously, falling into sensual rhapsody's about vegetable linguine every time the pale green pods are ready for picking. Back to the point. Dried peas and ham stock (from cooking the Christmas ham) were simmered yesterday until the peas were swollen and tender then liquidised today to make a thick, khaki concoction from heaven.

Spicy pheasant meatballs in a tomato sauce served with pasta. The quest for novel game dishes continues as the shooting season enters its final weeks. Today's invention was pretty successful and certainly went down well with Em, who I noticed, dipped into leftovers every time my back was turned!

Spicy pheasant meatballs in tomato sauce

Boneless pheasant meat from breast and thighs
Belly pork (roughly half the quantity of pheasant meat)
Dried oregano
Crushed garlic
Tomato ketchup
Worcestershire sauce
Plain flour

Tomato passata
Chilli powder

  • Use a food processor to thoroughly ' mince ' the pheasant and belly pork in batches.
  • Put the processed meat in a bowl and combine thoroughly with other ingredients in the first group, using only a little flour to bring the mixture together.
  • Fry the finely cubed onion, then add the other ingredients in the second group when the onions have become soft and translucent, adjusting the amount of chile used to taste.
  • Bring the sauce to a simmer, then forming the meat mixture into small balls, drop them in.
  • Put a lid on the saucepan and simmer for roughly 3/4 of an hour.
  • Remove meatballs and thicken the sauce with cornflour if necessary, then recombine to serve. 

Friday, 6 January 2012

5th January – Duck and Drake

Seasoned duck breast ready for the pan

This morning it was off to a breeding kennels near Tonbridge so Treacle could meet her new boyfriend. He's a handsome chap, completely black and a bit shorter in the leg than treacle, which is fine by me if it results in offspring which run a little slower than their mother! Chris, Drake's owner was friendly and helpful and a quick glance around his back garden suggested that he took his dog breeding and also working them in the field very seriously. one look at Drake's pedigree only confirmed this, the page being crammed with unintelligible names in red writing (names written in red on a working dog's pedigree indicate field trial champions). Whilst the two dogs flirted and belted round the garden a bit, Chris offered advice about whelping and when to return for the mating and we left with a date in the diary for a week Sunday.

The weather remains mild with strong winds and I was startled to see that a crocus bud, full-sized and ready to open has emerged on the lawn. Round the back of the house work continues tidying the place up and today Em and I tackled the huge stack of demolition timber, cutting three ton bags worth whilst Chub-Chub slept. Through the fumes of my knackered old chainsaw I noticed H coming up the drive. Such a visit means one of two things, a counter signature is required or an animal needs killing. On this occasion it was the latter and on Monday I’m booked in to slaughter a year-old bullock with a bad leg. Goodness knows where the meat is going to go as each of our three chest freezers is already filled to the brim, what with the half mutton sheep, whole pig, chickens, geese and turkeys which recently joined the existing stockpile.

Pan fried wild duck breast on a bed of leaky potatoes, served with cabbage, carrots and cherry conserve. This was the duck I shot last Saturday and as it might well be the only one we eat this year I wanted to make the most of it. In my opinion, the way to get the best out of a mallard is to pan fry the breasts, leave them to rest well in a warm oven then serve them pink with a rich sauce. This way the meat is succulent and tender and the unique rich flavour can be truly appreciated.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

4th January - New Year's Purge

It may be too early for spring cleaning, but it's never too early to have a big bonfire of all the old crap which had been cluttering up your life! Em’s been on at me for months or possibly years (it's been so long I can't quite remember) to sort out the outer extremities of the garden, a belt of dumped cookers, bags of scrap, old fencing, roofing sheets, general rubbish etc etc which gives the place a distinctly traveller-esque feel. It's my own fault.  I am a great gatherer of things which are being thrown out and in fairness I often put them to good use, but tidying up has never been my forte. All that changed today though and every bit of flammable rubbish and detritus was rounded up without mercy and burnt on a huge pyre which raged long into the night, and I must admit it felt good!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

3rd January - A Left and A Right

and a couple more!

Strong winds woke me last night and continued all day, driving bands of slanting rain across the fields and bowing trees with its tremendous force. Unsurprisingly we found some inside jobs to keep us occupied, one of which was to find a stud dog for Treacle who, after three years of waiting appears finally to be coming back into season. The £300 fee will be something of a blow to the family finances but if Treacle has puppies successfully we should cover our costs and more importantly I will have a shooting companion when Treacle is too old to come out. A pause in the racing clouds above the cottage revealed blue sky for an hour this afternoon and the opportunity was seized to tie up the raspberry canes and clear the runners from the strawberry bed. Autumn and early winter are times of acceptable neglect in the garden as winter vegetables are harvested and (in a normal year) weeds die back, but now starts the long build-up to spring with weeding, digging, manuring and the preparation of seedbeds.

Indoor weather

Despite only going shooting yesterday I couldn't resist a couple of hours this afternoon taking advantage of the high winds. I have written before about stormy days bringing pigeons to roost in the sheltered wood below the cottage and sure enough, when I arrived at 3pm hundreds flared up from the trees to be blown like chaff across the oak canopy. Quickly taking up my usual position by the pair of oaks surrounded by chestnut stalls I leaned against one of the thick trunks and waited. Within seconds the displaced birds were back, meandering up the torrent of wind and I wasted a couple of cartridges as they banked above to find perches behind my position. Part of the problem was the sheer amount of branches obscuring my view and shots and after another miss I hatched a new plan, moving a few yards out of the wood into the Bramley orchard. The old-fashioned trees with their knobbly arching bows made rather effective hides despite their recent pruning and standing within one close to the wood, I waited once more. From this vantage point the view was much better and I watched vast flocks of pigeons approaching from the far distance to congregate in the valley below. Some moved ponderously against the air currents, seeming to probe then pour into slack air to make their torturous progress, whilst others arrived at speed, hurtling down wind before arcing back to face it. From there the assembled mass broke again and one detachment, several hundred birds strong, moved up the long spinny at my front and began crossing the orchard to reach the wood behind me. As is always the case with pigeon shooting I wasn't quite in the right spot and I watched patiently as swarms of powdery grey birds swooped low over the apple trees, until one small group came into range. My natural hide allowed plenty of room to swing and picking my target I fired, the pigeon crumpled in mid flight, its head flung back and knowing it was dead I took another which being higher than the first fell deep into the wood. The dog was clearly as stunned as I was at the success and waited with uncustomary obedience for the command to fetch.

The next shot at a lone bird twisting downwind resulted in a miss but the report startled a cock pheasant which, getting up to my right, made off towards the valley. Having fumbled to reload in time I snapped the gun shut as it came to my shoulder, swung through and fired, checking the birds flight but not killing it clean. I couldn't see where the bird had landed so hurried down the hill with an excited spaniel in tow and set her to work. She scampered here and there apparently following scent at times, but to no avail and after a few minutes I wondered if the pheasant had not come down at all but flown on. A hopeful shot at a passing pigeon bought treacle back to heal and deciding the search was futile I headed back to my apple tree. As I walked, it dawned on me that treacle had been some distance away, out of sight when the shot was fired and realising I might have disturbed her work I turned back and  sent her on once more. My instinct was right, she disappeared straight up the other side of the valley and was gone for some time. She isn’t the best of retrievers, but has her moments and this was certainly one, as she appeared through the Orchard, tail wagging with the cock bird lolling in her mouth.

By the time I was back in position the half moon was out above the oak trees and the light dwindling fast, but a single pigeon breaking from its companions provided one last shot. It flew fast above the edge of the wood falling through the wind with its wings folded, then caught mid-pattern, was a tumbling ball of ruffled feathers which smashed through the waiting branches and fell with a thud. White plumage plucked by the chestnut twigs streamed past like snow in the wind and I sensed a hard romance about it all, the drifting feathers in the moonlight and the dark trees fretted by the relentless gale.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

2nd January -Shooting - A Change of Fortune

Unexpected frost - a good omen?

The notion that, ‘it’s the taking part which counts’ doesn’t really extend to field sports. Whilst it serves as a useful consolation for the losers of competitive games, where by definition some participants must always lose, it offers little to the shooter or fishermen for whom failure is not inevitable. The exception to this would be wildfowling where the participant is in competition, not with another human but with the natural world, employing every trick and enduring every hardship for the prize of a few ducks and geese. The marshes and mudflats are treacherous places though and it is a sad fact that many wildfowlers have played and lost - not only the game but their lives. Back to my point.  It would be wrong of course to suggest that there is no value in simply being out shooting - there is, a great deal, but the sun seems so much brighter, the views longer and the company more congenial when you're not downcast by continual failure. From this little spiel you may correctly deduce that I have had a change in my shooting fortune. Before Christmas I was plagued by an impending gloom at the very thought of going out to H’s shoots thanks to my miserable performances but happily things have changed. A couple of birds taken on a rough day with my father on Christmas Eve restored some confidence and confidence being everything, I managed three more in the Boxing Day shoot. Today I was a changed man, bagging four pheasants and a duck with not too many misses. Even the dog had a good day by her standards, definitely showing a little interest in my commands and retrieving a good pheasant and the duck which had fallen into thick cover at Netters Hall. The final bag for the day was 29 pheasants, three mallard ducks and a pigeon, not bad at all for a post-Christmas shoot.

I was reminded of troubling news whilst out today.  A, the head beater had half of his ferrets and all of his nets stolen over Christmas whilst away visiting family. Unusually the police took some proper interest in the crime and even did a forensics blood test on a smear wiped across the door frame. A had hoped that one of his less than friendly hob ferrets might have meted out a little justice but sadly the sample turned out to be from an animal, probably brought home for ferret food. To complete the local ferret news update I should mention that young O’s pair of ferrets, which I gave him in the summer are a pair no longer, the smaller Jill having consumed the larger. There are several possible explanations but what actually happened remains something of a mystery.

Despite the day starting with an unexpected frost, evidence of the warm weather is everywhere. Rape fields are turning yellow with the bloom of charlock (a common weed species amongst oilseed rape plants), the first snowdrops and snowflakes can be seen in gardens and this morning as I fed the poultry, the first undulating coos of courting pigeons came drifting through the coppice. The tantalising question is, will the mild weather continue and bring on an exceptionally early spring, or is a cold snap on the way to knock back those forward plants and amorous animals?

Sweetcorn fritters with fried eggs, cabbage and bacon and baked beans. We are finally coming to the end of leftovers and meals out with family and friends, so cooking has resumed.

Monday, 2 January 2012

1st January - Pram Racing

The Cup Cakes

Welcome to 2012 the year of austerity and Olympics - hard to know which to look forward to least really! Far more upsetting than the prospect of a year centred on liquidity and lycra though, was the discovery of an empty hive in my apiery this morning. To loose a colony or two over the winter is not unusual but it is early yet and I fear for my other hives. If they are also running out of stores, the warm weather (which continues unabated) will compound the problem, making them more active and as a result in need even more food. The feeders have gone back on, filled with sugar syrup and that is as much as I can do, besides hope. It is possible that some of my hives are even more susceptible to dying out than would ordinarily be the case, as I am conducting a rather unscientific and possibly fool hardy experiment. Since the spread of varroa (a nasty parasitic bee mite which spreads various deadly diseases within colonies) the beekeeping community has rushed to find chemicals and management techniques to control the number of mites on their bees but my approach has been different. When varroa first arrived there was a total collapse of wild bee colonies and for several years after that I didn't notice a single one. As it happened I wasn't beekeeping during that period but when I started up again it was with a swarm which was , I believed,  from a wild colony as I collected it some distance from any apiary. After that I saw more and more wild bees reoccupy hollow trees and old buildings and collected more swarms from this resurgent stock. Six years on I have expanded my apiary from 4 to 10 hives without once using chemicals to control varroa and I am beginning to think, na├»vely perhaps, that my bees are in some way special. An expert with whom I discussed the phenomenon was very dismissive, but the fact that wild colonies have died out and then re-established is surely evidence that some bees can survive with varroa and my bees descend from those wild colonies.

What I was meant to be writing about was the pram race in Sutton Valence today. Every New Year's Day the archetypal Kent village, with its quaint pubs and half timbered houses, plays willing host to this celebration of English eccentricity. The rules are simple.  Each three-man team must negotiate the circular course with a wheeled contraption containing one of the team, drink half a pint at each pub en route and finish first to win. I'm not sure that dressing in drag was compulsory but most of the male entries appeared to have seized on the opportunity to adorn tights and make up anyway. Having arrived late the start/finish line was already crowded and we took up position on the long hill leading to the Swan where we could enjoy a good view of the tired, partially pissed competitors hauling or pushing up the hill. Amongst the other onlookers was Hugh Robertson, Minister for sport. Perhaps he was on a fact-finding mission to elevate pram racing to an Olympic sport - now that would be worth watching!

Dead Tyrants

Long Drag!