Sunday, August 31, 2008

Potatoes. Mine. The Bad News.

Well, in the world of potatoes it doesn't get much worse than Blight. Ask the Irish. In my case what the slugs haven't nibbled is slowly, but inevitably, destined to rot away thanks to the fungus Phytophthora infestans. Curses. Damn and blast. Grr.

Blight is a horrid, foul and fetid thing which spreads from tuber to tuber. My bucket of reject spuds had one or two bad 'uns - the stash in the garage on closer examination are dodgy too. There is no point bagging and storing them. Oh woe.

My mashed potato scheme now must work against the clock. Off I go to peel, boil, bash and butter what I can.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The good earth

Remember all that raking and sowing earlier in the year - the scanning of the earth for signs of life, the tender seedlings in danger of decimation by super-slugs, the nurturing and eager anticipation? It seems but 5 minutes ago. The bare brown earth greened and stuff grew. The hedgerows blossomed. The sun may even have shone. Now it's harvest time.

There's a sense of satisfaction won from putting your own vegetables on your own plate - I guess the same must be true about making furniture (or a house even) from your own timber or raising stock or poultry to feed your family. You have been involved in its production. The end result has involved your own hard labour. It has mattered. I am reminded of 'The Farmer's Arms' - 'God Speed the Plough'.
Let the Wealthy & Great,
Roll in Splendour and State,
I envy them not I declare it.
I eat my own Lamb,
My Chickens and Ham,
I shear my own Fleece & I wear it
I have Lawns, I have Bow'rs,
I have Fruits, I have Flow'rs.
The lark is my morning alarmer.
So jolly Boys now,
Here's God Speed the Plough
Long Life and Success to the Farmer.
This week I have mostly been dealing with the abundance of fruit and vegetables from garden and hedgerow and thanking the Great God of Deep-Freezing. Big ugly-sweet tomatoes have been simmered down with onion, garlic, herbs and seasoning to a rich gloopy sauce redolent of summer - to be savoured over pasta perhaps on a dark winter's day. Berries of all colours have been jellied. Their flavours intense and tangy - fine to set alongside a roast or game bird, the sharpness a perfect foil to a rich, maybe bloody, meat. We eat and give away those vegetables best eaten fresh, others are frozen. The pantry shelves are lined with shiny jars, labeled with what-where-when. I'm having more of those 'pioneer wife' moments - anticipating the coming cold and the failure of the wagon train to bring in much needed 'vittals'. Pretty soon I'll be eyeing up the neighbouring cows in case the children need leather for shoes....

Onions, red and white, are racked in the garage - as is garlic. Potatoes are waiting to be bagged and stored. This sorry bucketful will be cooked up and frozen as mash à la Delia - except these will not be 'Aunt Bessie's frozen Homestyle mashed potatoes' - they will be mine.

The little trees in the orchard - now in its 4th year - are laden with fruit. (Bless 'em.) Winter vegetables will remain in situ. I am
already planning where next year's crops will go and onions are to be planted fairly soon.

This is not a boasting-book of what we have grown - more a catalogue of amazement and wonder at what a handful of seeds can produce. I am also aware that what is perhaps a hobby for me was once a necessity and that without the summer's harvest a family could face a lean winter.

So it is with this in mind I reflect that it is a good earth isn't it? Fruitful, generally benevolent and for the most part forgiving. For this, sing praises.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Three Ha'pence a Foot

It's not quite raining yet. There is an inevitability about an imminent downpour though; the sky is of drearest grey. Should you wish to emulate these summer skies at home I'm thinking Pantone 423C or some optimistically named Dulux colour - Moorland Mist perhaps - though I think 'Depths of Despond' sums it up better.)

I'm thinking of suggesting to Alan - who has something of the look of Noah about him - that the hen house currently under construction could easily be converted to an Ark. The framework clamped together in the garage right now has the look of a wheelhouse and I'm sure with a bit of additional planking we could come up with a neat clinker-built vessel that's just the thing for when the floods come lapping at the bottom of the lane. I've started a bit of a list about what and whom to include on a prospective voyage - slugs, snails, wasps and grey squirrels are not on my manifest.

While looking for the brighter side to this miserable summer I came across 'Three Ha'pence a Foot', one of Marriot Edgar's Lancastrian monologues immortalised by actor and entertainer Stanley Holloway way back in 1932. (The delightful illustration above of Noah and Sam is by John Hassell.) I remember my father reciting it to us - along with 'Albert and the Lion' - when we were children. I'm not sure we found it particularly comical even then - more of a curiousity - but the young Martin, his brothers Leo and Peter and sister June growing up in the 1930's obviously found it a real hoot. How they laughed. It's a period piece and has a certain charm.

Anyway it lasts just over 4 minutes - if you have nothing better to do on a rainy day, listen to the stubborn Sam refuse to sell Noah a piece of Bird's Eye Maple to panel the side of his bunk at any less than the going rate of three ha'pence a foot. The waters have risen and Noah drifts over the top of Blackpool Tower where Sam has taken refuge....

Noah cruised around, flying 'is pigeons,
'Til fortieth day of the wet,
And on 'is way back, passing Blackpool,
'E saw old Sam standing there yet.

'Is chin just stuck out of the water;
A comical figure 'e cut.
Noah said: 'Now what's the price of yer Maple?'
Sam answered: 'Three ha'pence a foot.'

Said Noah: 'Ye'd hest take my offer;
It's last time I'll he hereabout;
And if water comes half an inch higher,
I'll happen get Maple for nought.'

'Three ha'pence a foot it'll cost yer,
And as fer me,' Sam said, 'don't fret.
The sky's took a turn since this morning;
I think it'll brighten up yet.'
Anyway I'm off to look at some colour swatches - just looking at something the blue of the Mediterranean off Paxos will cheer me up no end. Pantone 313 I think.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


What's this I hear? No more money? They'll have to make do with - what is it? - £9.325bn - for the 2012 London Olympics. Poor sods.

I'm sitting here on a grey day, trying to be vaguely up-beat about life, the universe and everything. (Hasn't Team GB done well - all those Medals? Hurrah!) But I'm weary. Somebody work out for me how many Village Halls @ £400,000K can be bought with £9bn. That many? We'll settle for one in Marton. Fingers are crossed that our Lottery bid will be successful.

Kind of leveling though, isn't it? Will the British Olympic Association have to resort to the kind of desperate fund-raising all too familiar to the rest of us: Coffee Mornings, Table-top Sales, Prize Draws and the weekly 'Foot Clinic'?

Best of luck.....because that's what it comes down to.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nearly jelly...

Pick Black Currants. Simmer Black Currants slowly. Strain juice through a jelly bag. Enjoy dark, sharp juice trickling into white bowl. (Try not to get on pale limestone floor and remember to concentrate on job in hand i.e. making jelly and not photography.)

Add sugar and bring to a rolling boil. Experience nervous moments until mysterious 'setting point' is reached. Be amazed when jelly actually does wrinkle under finger as described by jam-making recipe. Put in jars. Put on pantry shelf. Feel major sense of achievement - not unlike Pioneer Wife.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Playing with my Food (3)

Here's 'Tallulah Does the Hula from Hawaii' - my entry in Vegetable Carving category of the Craft section of Belgian Waffle's Village Fête.

Delve down deeply into this blog. Enjoy the Post-It notes beard in the Office Stationery Section. Think of something to do with a marrow. Go on. You know you want to.

23.08.08 - edited to add:

A late entry for the Village Fête after interest from the National Press. hem, hem.

A très soigné piece of bling crossing the boundaries between vegetable sculpture and craft from office stationery.

Monday, August 11, 2008

After the Lord Mayor's Parade...comes the man with the brush and shovel (2)

Yep, it's tidy-up time. Time to finalise accounts, write the thank you letters and agree that 'Yes' it was a mighty fine evening but 'No', we won't be doing it again for oh, 25 years. At least.

The Committee charged with organising the Young Farmers' 50th Anniversary celebrations met for the last time tonight. The village hall's most uncomfortable chairs were scraped into a semi-circle and we sat on them. Our chairman took his seat at the front. The youngsters - today's members - judiciously chose to sit next to the door - this admin. business seriously eats into their 'down' time and they were itching for a quick exit. But there is business to be done, slowly and thoroughly, in this meeting to chew over the success of the evening.

The finances were reviewed; by some miracle and hard drinking (meaning the bar made a nice profit) the evening didn't plunge the Club's finances into the red. Everything has been accounted for except the cost of the mobile toilets - it was suggested that a 'special deal' had been arranged and we all agreed that - 'even if it cost £100' it would be worth it'. (Now readers - would you turn out to deliver, collect and empty toilets used over a weekend by nearly 1,000 people for a paltry £100? Bargain.) Whatever. The evening was a success financially as well as socially and pats on the back were generously distributed to everyone who played a part.

Eventually there was nothing left to discuss and the young members darted for the door. Chairs were scraped back and stacked and off we went into the night.

On the slow drive back up the hill we call Marton Mountain I consider this meeting. The military might call it debriefing. I think in education it was what used to be called a plenary session. We'd all shuffle back into an overheated lecture room after working in small groups on whatever initiative was currently in vogue to hear one of the inhabitants of the adminisphere sum up our 'cascaded' findings by using as many 'buzz' words as possible. There may even have been a Power Point singalong too. Soon, being a purveyor of education was no longer sufficient for our College and we found ourselves with all-consuming audits, action plans (remember them?) and targets with tick boxes. And all this after wading through the mire of the once fashionable TQM - Total Quality Management. It was time to go - and to cut a long story short, I left.

Which is why I find myself with time to sit in a Village Hall and consider the value of a mobile toilet. Like a virtuous woman, it's above rubies I think.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Reds in my beds...

Enough of chickens and raucous cows and sheep - let's bring some colour into our lives. The day is grey and damp. In the heavy air a twist of cloud drifts slowly across Badnage Wood. Let's inject a shot of heat - some fire, some passion. Let's do RED:

Before embarking on this garden - recently made out of an old concrete yard - I'd never had much time for hot and exotic plants. No - that's not quite true. Not brave enough maybe to use a few discordant high notes amongst the restful pinks, whites and lavenders which were in my previous garden. I had yet to discover the wonderful Christopher Lloyd. There was nowhere to let rip. Here, space permitted and I have made a 'hot' border and the making of it has been tremendous fun. Reds and oranges, purples and yellows have melded into what I hope is a vibrant fiery mass.

I've a vague memory of some fashion writer's edict that it is possible to wear two, three or four different shades of red at the same time - and carry the look off successfully. I guess anybody bold enough to dress from head to toe in red is not going to be afraid of making a statement.

I digress (again). Enjoy the flowers.

At 7 weeks

I suspect that anyone out there watching the development of a handful of chickens on the top of a low mountain needs to get out more. That includes me too. (Note to self: get out there, grasp the nettle. Get a life.)

Alan has observed that they look a bit New Zealand-ish. Quoi? If any NZers would like to challenge his observation and feel it is a sleight on any national trait - or can even explain it - then please get in touch.

Anyway, here they are; free-range and strutting their stuff. These are 2 of the pullets, darker and now slightly smaller than their brothers. At this rate they will soon be bigger than their bantam 'mother'.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Measuring separation in decibels.

I know I've written about weaning before - that process whereby young creatures are accustomed to something other than their mother's milk; and as I've said before, it sounds as if it should be a gentle and gradual process of mutual benefit to mother and offspring. Hmm, you can tell that to the Marines.

I returned home from a good day out yesterday - a meet-up in Shrewsbury with 2 fellow bloggers, a brush with the world outside the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan and ending with a slow drive home across the spine of the Long Mountain - the glorious landscape of Wales ranged to the west and that of the Shropshire hills to the east. All very self indulgent but good battery-charging stuff. I'm delighted I had such a good day because the following 24 hours have been less than restful.

In the yard over the garden wall was much activity. Cattle were being 'sorted'. It became apparent that cows were going in one direction and their calves in another. They were being weaned. Henceforth ne'er the twain should meet. The calves went off down the road in the wagon to their new home where grass grows long and lush in the pastures alongside the Camlad. Their mothers found themselves ushered back onto the hill and the realisation that their lumpen adolescent calves had gone became apparent. It's no consolation to them that before long the new calves they already carry in their bellies will be born and the cycle will start over again. They bawled and wailed and paced and searched, but of course their offspring are long gone. They wanted those calves; their loss was unfathomable and pained. One of the more enterprising beasts (a Belgian Blue with stubby horns and wild eyes) leaped a couple of hedges and a fence to further her search. She was returned to her field and we hoped they would all settle down.

Settle down they did. For a while. Around 4.00am the cacophony started again and this time our jumping cow was in the lane outside our window contemplating the garden - a flimsy wire fence away. I lie and think about it for a while. The thought of a massive munching cow working her way through the vegetables was almost too much to bear....Perhaps she'll wander back down the lane. Perhaps she won't. It is quickest and easiest just to get up and deal with the situation. Jeans on. Jacket on. Socks. Torch. Boots - if I'm going to face a distraught horned beast I need something I can run in....

Alan, bless him, gets up too - although I notice he stays behind a gate while I go and open another and usher her into the little triangular field. I'm only a little nervous as I walk up the narrow lane in the grey dawn towards her, muttering cow-friendly platitudes by way of a hand of friendship. To my surprise and great relief (I have no Plan B or exit strategy) she dutifully trots off into the field through my opened gate only a little skittishly and heads off to pace its perimeter. She is now confined and it will be bad luck if she leaps from here too.

We head back to bed and watch the dawn come up from beneath the duvet. Every so often our cow paces across our line of vision - which is reassuring in a sense as it means she is still there. The bawling continues from all corners. Each roar echoes against Badnage Wood's steep sides and bounces back into the morning's stillness. A few sheep bleat in sympathy and then the birds kick in....

The day has not been restful but it is quieter now. The cows will settle down and tranquility will be restored. Doesn't do to think too deeply about it. It's a job which has to be done - as I have been told.

In the meantime - ear plugs are a must-have accessory.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Tea for the Wild Indians (part 3) The final instalment. Thankfully.

As I write this I can see the lights of a truck in the gloaming. It's criss-crossing the fields to the front of our barn - it's the Thomases checking the stock. Most of the cows up there are in calf - indeed most days recently have seen a calving, a new beast on the field. Generally it's a straightforward affair; mother takes herself aside and gives birth, the calf suckles and all is well. These are animals bred for meat and muscular progeny is the order of the day - (remind me to photograph a Belgium Blue by way of example) - and problems can occur when the calf is a big 'un. It's always worth checking to make sure there are no problems out there....

Sorry - got distracted....

OK. The Day arrived - and with it an unnatural tidiness. The last lawn was mown, floors were swept, tables laid and dogs put behind firmly closed doors. The sun crept from behind fluffy clouds and the threat of heat was tempered by a gentle breeze from the south.Food arrived by the plate and trayful - the tables were soon laden. I feel most inadequate in the face of those WI ladies who produce such wonderful desserts, savouries and flower arrangements and who pitch in to make an event such as this run like clockwork. Blessed be the gatherers-in of crockery and washers-up. A heartfelt thank you to you all. I think I shall specialise in venues. I can do venues.
Guests followed shortly afterwards - some chose to sit in the sun and others to stroll round the garden. This was somewhat scary - we had some experts on the loose here. Granny Thomas can be seen below (3rd from right) pointing out the thistle in the little triangular field which her son had neglected to strim on Thursday's tidy-up.Tea was served - a frantic hour of eating and drinking and another of tidying and chatting. Then suddenly all is peaceful again - the last guest has been waved off up the hill. We are left with an empty house and garden. The dogs are released from their confinement and rush around trying to make sense of all the unaccustomed smells. Echoes of disjointed conversations ring in my ears. 'Pinch out the tops of your broad beans' 'Why do you have a tower on the back of your house?' 'What sort of dog is that?' 'There was a cow house and a muck 'eap there once' ....

....and in the midst of this partying, one of the 6 cows - the black one - gave birth during the course of the afternoon on our new little field. Later on as the light fell I went up to shut the hens in and saw the little calf, which is the curious colour of a field mouse, tottering along beside its mother. Box-fresh, brand new. Which is kind of where I came in.

Finally here's Chester looking decorative sitting on the folded Indian dhurries we bought to throw on the (as yet unfinished) floor of the 'hovel'/summer house. The perfect dog's bed. No - the perfect bed for a dog: