Thursday, November 26, 2009

'Oi be a cider drinker me'. Not.

The driver didn't actually refuse to take his bus up the lane but made it pretty clear he wasn't going any further. Than. Here.

So get out and walk. The first 50m weren't too bad - a bit of an adventure. We jostled and giggled along, our way lit by the coach's headlights. Turning a corner though had us in darkness; pot holes and pitfalls avoidable when lit, suddenly became invisible man traps. And, oh! was that a drop of rain? Oh yes, another downpour.

The Cider Farm, allegedly only 100m away, was nowhere to be seen - not even a welcoming light flickered in the distance. Ever resourceful Young Farmers switched on their mobile phones and used the eerie glow of their tiny screens as torches. It was only when I got home that I remembered the torch that is kept in the deepest, darkest recess of my bag for just such emergencies - but I, like the rest, fumbled along by phone-light. How romantic that sounds. Not.

Eventually the farm came into view and avoiding more puddles, an old mattress (?) and a couple of discarded sheep troughs we arrived at the foot of a mountain of apples.

'We' are Chirbury and Marton Young Farmers and the 'Advisory' on a visit to Berriew Cider Farm. (When I find out what exactly 'Advisory' is I'll let you know - but I think it means we 'help' the YFs.) Always nice to be invited along and as I've said before I'll hop aboard anybody's bus-trip - who knows what wonders might be discovered along the way?

A shame about the pitch black lane, the evil weather and well, the overall level of light. Under a dim fluorescent tube our cider maker - a farmer who had diversified - donned rubber apron and sinister black rubber gloves and began to demonstrate his dark art. Take one wheelbarrow of apples from the aforesaid apple mountain and using what appears to be a red plastic coal shovel teem them into an elevator/chopper-upper thingey (cost £6k) which spits out a mush into another wheel barrow. He shovels this chopped mush into layers of 'cakes' on a press (cost £10k), flicks a switch and slowly, slowly as the weight of the machine bears downward, the juice comes running. It is pumped next door into a large tank in a room also used to process apple juice. I missed the next bit of the process as the heavens opened and I ran for cover, but I gather it is then put in wooden spirit casks which retain a vestige of brandy, whisky or rum which gives his cider a unique flavour. Bottling is the final stage.We tasted too - apple juice, bright and sharp in taste and made from a medley of local apples. The cider was still and dry and probably an acquired taste. I can't say it was universally popular amongst 'The Advisory'....the more fastidious had noted the cider maker's mention that it wasn't necessary to get all the dirt off the fruit - and if they were too clean then one could throw in a shovelful of orchard soil to get the natural yeasts into the mix. Or it might have been me recounting the tale (which was confirmed later in the pub) that in the old days a rat or a piece of beef would be added to get the fermentation working.....Perhaps this was indeed a process better seen in the half-light.

We moved on - stumbling back down the lane again and onto the bus. Then to the warmth and welcome of The Lion at Berriew; a proper pub and very drinkable glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Cheers.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Wet, grey day with bonus wet, grey hen picture....

Saturday, 6.15pm. The people who live in the little house over the way have lit a bonfire. It must be huge because even at the distance that separates our two homes it appears, in the darkness, to be substantial. It is a vast and flickering orange blob on a wild black night.

How grey it has been today - the glow of that distant fire is welcome. I shall make do with the warmth of our log-burner; sitting close by - with the dogs snoring at my feet - and finding images in flames and embers. Warmth is good.

At hen-letting-out-time this morning my mountain kingdom was swathed in a grey mist. A thin thread of cloud twisted across the dark conifers of Badnage Wood and my face (the only bit of me visible) felt a prickle of wetness. The weather was set in for the day and not inspiring.A bit of wet doesn't bother a hen though - it's the wind that ruffles their feathers. These two look particularly bedraggled after a day in the rain. (The hen in the front is, I think, starting to moult and will look worse still before she gets her new plumage.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Making mincemeat

Oh, my poor garden. It looks so sad and neglected - a combination of my procrastination, being busy, busy, busy and sodding awful weather. It's fine, I go out and hack about in the undergrowth for a while. It rains. I get wet. I come in.

I make mincemeat. Perhaps the inclement weather has made me more inclined towards kitcheny things. Had you noticed?

Anyway, making mince meat is one of those satisfying seasonal tasks which I expect well-organised folk got out of the way weeks ago. Well-organised folk probably have all their ingredients to hand as well - me? I have to rummage at the back of cupboards and under trees and make several trips to buy forgotten essentials. Still, eventually everything is lined up ready to be weighed and measured, grated or squeezed. I have big bowls, little bowls and my largest wooden spoon - oh, and because I can never remember from year to year which recipe I used last, a copy of Delia Smith's 'Christmas'.
It's a bit of a long-winded recipe and apparently will keep indefinitely - hardly likely when the Trelystan mince-pie production line gets under way. I stir all my ingredients together - except the brandy - and let the flavours mingle overnight. Then it's into the oven (at a very low temperature) for 3 hours to melt the suet. Finally that brandy goes in and I stir all together for one last time.

The day can be foul outside - and it is - but indoors the kitchen is imbued with such a sense of well-being. Sugar and spice and brandy scent the air better than any seasonal candle I think.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A quick meme

As if she's not busy enough already altering the sleeves of my winter coat and whipping up dear little felt animals, wipso has found time to forward this pesky meme. I'd better do as I'm told or I might end up with sleeves of differing lengths - and that would never do. Here goes:

1. Where is your mobile phone? In my bag, charged and ready for phone action.

2. Your hair? Blonde (ahem).

3. Your mother? dead

4. Your father? ditto

5. Your favorite food? Toast

6. Your dream last night? Travelling, always travelling.

7. Your favorite drink? Sauvignon Blanc

8. Your dream/goal? Time alone

9. What room are you in? Our study

10. Your hobby? Not sure I have one - maybe exploring the minutiae of the world around me. The devil is in the detail.

11. Your fear? That somebody films The Archers

12. Where do you want to be in 6 years? Here will be fine.

13. Where were you last night? Here.

14. Something that you aren't? Pessimistic

15. Muffins? English and toasted please.

16. Wish list item? Sunshine followed by long and balmy nights.

17. Where did you grow up? On a farm in mid-Warwickshire

18. Last thing you did? Ate a chocolate chip cookie. Felt guilty

19. What are you wearing? My vest, untucked. Live dangerously.

20. Your TV? Off

21. Your pets? Giving a good impression of being sleeping dogs but actually very much on the q.v.

22. Friends? Many acquaintances, but only a few true friends I think.

23. Your life? Good

24. Your mood? Content

25. Missing someone? Yes. And?

26. Vehicle? Audi

27. Something you’re not wearing? Right now or in general?

28. Your favorite store? Probably French Sole in Marylebone for pretty and impractical shoes.

29. Your favorite colour? Blue

30. When was the last time you laughed? Yesterday

31. Last time you cried? Can't remember.

32. Your best friend? That would be telling.

33. One place that I go to over and over? Paxos

34. Facebook? Yes

35. Favourite place to eat? Round the kitchen table

Phew, that wasn't too difficult. If you'd like to have a go at this just cut, paste and supply your own answers. Go on, you know you want to.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Trelystan Hoard

Psst. Don't let on but I'm a bit worried about the Glamorous Ass.

He's buying money.

He's discovered eBay and 'silver joeys'.

We all know what happens to men when they get a bee in their bonnet don't we? A chance acquisition becomes the start of a collection born out of loyalty. A mild case might mean the purchase of every Bob Dylan album ever (even the rubbish ones) or every detective story in a series while extremely fanatical cases might entail collecting franked postage stamps for every day in 1907 (for example). Or it might be tanks, or pistons, stationary engines, steam rollers......or Star Wars. Or worse if that is imagineable. It's the minutiae that seems important, that and the variety. An example of each and every variant is essential. It's just as well then that the G.A.'s current interest is a. fairly innocent and b. won't take up too much space.

It's not that bad yet, but each time the post van draws up another little envelope with silver coins inside drops into the palace's über-kool stainless steel mailbox. Ok, the coins are very sweet and very small and likeable. I don't think the old silver thru'penny bit was in circulation when I was young so my memories of them are of a tiny, archaic and useless coin. (I remember that clunky 12-sided coin with the young Queen Elizabeth's head on one side and the aptly named 'Thrift' plant (Armeria maritima) on the other. Half-crowns, florins, pennies the size of soup-plates... Ah, back in the day coinage was substantial wasn't it?) The Glam Ass, however, seems to have fond memories of them though....tomorrow I shall ask just what he did with his pocket money. The latest to arrive was minted in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. I'm quite impressed by that. It's battered, a little twisted and slightly worn - obviously showing its age but not bad for something around 400 years old. In the manner of an old-fashioned school essay title 'A Day in the Life of a Thru'penny Bit' I try to imagine the insides of pockets and purses it has seen.

I wish though he'd start collecting something more well, immediately spendable. Fivers say - how about 'buy one, get one free'?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Well known phrases and sayings - No 6

...In which I doubt that the game is worth the candle. (I've been here before, on a similarly long-winded culinary mission. This isn't quite the same. Hmm.)

As mentioned previously the Trelystan quince crop has been excellent this year. Jelly has been made, fruit have been given away and still we find ourselves with a load to process - and there are yet more on the tree.

I rootle around for inspiration in my big book of 'Things to do with Quince'. Quince vodka doesn't quite hit the spot so early in the day - and only requires 2 fruit. I could use another to flavour an apple crumble (that's 3) and maybe puree half a dozen to make a quince pie. That's maybe used up 9 or so. Could try jam or cheese - wait, Dulce de Membrillo: 'Take 4kgs of quince...' That's more like it.

Membrillo. The very word brings to mind the torrid heat of the Spanish plain, the click of cicadas and a plate of nutty manchego cheese served with a wedge of this deep red 'paste'. Perhaps a glass of something chilled too....

I follow Jane Grigson's recipe - probably because I am a lazy person and there is no mention of peeling and coring - I assume all pips and skin get lost in the sieving process. My slide show shows the process; the pictures are nothing to boast about - green sludgy purée turns into sticky red brick.

From start to finish, probably about 5 hours of simmering, straining, sieving, stirring and stirring and stirring. I do my best to interpret Jane Grigson - she is a cookery writer whom I trust - her words are both descriptive and amusing. Therefore I boil and stir until the mixture thickens and candies and leaves the sides of the pan and turns a deep red. I am not surprised when it explodes and pops with what J describes as 'an occasional fat burp'. The fruit and sugar spits ferociously at first and I have to put on my new and clean gardening gloves to avoid being burnt by molten sugar. The whole panfull is a bit volcanic except of smelling of sulphur the kitchen is sweet and perfumed.

After about 2 hours of bubbling and stirring I've had enough, got arm-ache, and scrape the now nearly solid paste into tins to set. Amazingly I've managed to avoid the pan or paste burning. Gosh, it's remarkably sticky and just a little chewy. The flavour? Well, it's sweet but there is also a little acidic tang - a brightness. It definitely tastes of Quince too, even after all that cooking.

Jane Grigson notes that it will keep, stored in granulated sugar in an air-tight box for up to two years. Just as well because this isn't something I'll be making again in a hurry.

Friday, November 06, 2009

My idea of the worst job in the world

The caption below the photograph on the front of today's Times read:
'For every fallen soldier, a poppy. Some of the 60,000 crosses planted in the field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey. For the first year there are dedicated plots for the 229 killed in Afghanistan and the 179 in Iraq, each with a photograph attached'.
The photograph caught my eye, it had a certain pattern - a closely cropped sea of little wooden crosses, each with its own red poppy and passport sized picture attached - each representing a man of woman killed in action. Each little cross had a soldier's name and age written on it too. I began to read.

(I should know better of course. The enormity of this death toll hits home soon and hard. I am devastated by such loss of life - the deaths of these young people; sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands, wives and lovers. All so young; most younger than my own lovely men for whom I feel boundless love - and cannot contemplate their loss.)

Those names were each carefully written in the same hand. What kind of day's work is that? Who had the job of doing that? Take a cross, attach a poppy, stick on a photograph, write a name and an age to left and right. Do it with care. Repeat 408 times, each time seeing a life stopped in its prime.

I would find that job very difficult to do.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Cake Fest

Marton WI held its AGM last night, here, around the kitchen table at my house.

There were only 11 of us so while it was a bit of a squeeze it was quite do-able and cozy. After the interminable business - the Minutes, the Committee, the Reports and the Financial Statements had been got out of the way we could get down to the real point of the evening. Eating cake.

It's true what they say about the WI I think - almost without exception members are damned fine bakers. If there was an Institute made up of 12 year old extra-terrestials, even their pastry would melt in the mouth and their Victoria sponges be as light as air. I'll bet the yummy mummies of the Clapham Common branch and the students from Goldsmith's College are no exception either. It's the way it is. It goes with the territory.

Last night then, when everybody brought a dish of food - savouries and desserts - we were in for a treat.

The little cheesecakes above were my contribution. They came from the Sunday Times 'Style' section - where I was so beguiled by the pretty picture that I took the trouble to tear out the recipe. I usually reserve an enormous amount of contempt for this part of the newspaper, considering it to be overly metro-centric and generally speaking full of tosh. If the truth were told the article accompanying my recipe probably falls into this category; viz: bijou London vintage couture shop serves cake to well-heeled fashionistas. I quote 'R. built a business from knowing what makes women feel good, so it makes sense that cakes and chocolate have filled the gap left by undies.' Blah. Blah. Blah.

Well, if there is any space in your undies, any slack at all, eating any more than a nibble of these innocent cakes will put paid to that.

Cream cheese, sugar, eggs, white chocolate and double cream - and here's the healthy bit - fresh berries - quantities as below: I made mine in little cup cake cases and the mixture made 24. Some bright spark can work out the calorific content of each. (Probably a chastening amount. Sigh) Gratifyingly they did end up looking very similar to the ones illustrated above and even if I say it myself tasted yummy. The sort of thing where one is not quite enough and two, too many.

And that was the trouble. Last night there were just too many things to try; a bit of this and a bit of that adds up to quite a lot. Worth it though. Well worth it.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The wild weather of the past few days has made the season feel, well, seasonably and appropriately Novemberish. Looking down the dingle from my window as I type this I'm treated to a wide open space bounded by skeletal, now leafless trees - and while the sun is shining on the last vestiges of gold and green of the crinkle-crankle hornbeam hedge it's quite a pretty sight. I'm making the most of it.

I did have a thought though the other day, as the rain was lashing down, the wind was whistling round the eaves and the light levels were low, low, low - that this is it until the spring. Short dark, dank days when man and beast turn their backs to the wind.

There are still plenty of jobs to do in the garden. On one hand we are 'putting it to bed for the winter' while on the other, getting into gear for next year's crops. Spreading and digging muck in, mulching, tidying, burning and staking (sounds positively medieval does it not?). That's gardening and gardeners - what optimists we are. There's always the next season - whatever happened this year, whatever was blighted, slugged, snailed or failed, well, next year will be different. This year I did manage melons bigger than tennis balls - next I feel I will have ambitions in the swede department....

This week, and perhaps a tad late, I have planted the onions and garlic; that's about 100 sets of Sturon and a similar amount of garlic Germidor. I have also planted 3 nifty little whirligig windmills in an attempt to scare off the birds (damned pheasants) which delight in unplanting newly planted onions.

No gardening today though. Some serious housework is necessary. The WI is meeting here this evening as we are currently 'between' village halls - the old one has been demolished and carted away and the new one is not quite ready for use. I'm not going to get away with my usual laisez faire approach - so neatly summed up by this little button:

So just why am I sitting here touring the internets?.....

Monday, November 02, 2009

Post No 601 - Choosing the curtains for the new village hall

Or, as it happens, NOT choosing the curtains.

On reflection I think this was the only outcome possible when 11 people forgather (8 women and 3 men) and are faced with 3 big books of fabric swatches. An exercise doomed to fail from the outset. The fabric designs were, without exception, some of the most horrid known to mankind - either big 'n' bold or big 'n' bland. Throw into the pot a half acre of floor the colour of a mushy pea and a choice of chairs upholstered in blue, gold or claret and the potential combinations become mind boggling...

In truth I expect any of the fabrics would work - I mean, who actually studies the curtains in village halls? Very few people I expect - except when the evening's speaker is so dull that counting the floor tiles or repeats on the fabric is a more attractive option than listening. I have done that.

Tonight nobody could make their mind up or be assertive enough to insist on fabric 'A' with chair 'C' rather than fabric 'B' and chair 'D'. Should it be orangey-sand or sandy-orange with swirls. With a little green. Not blue. Definitely NOT blue. And nobody, but nobody, likes pink with orange. A lone voice pipes up in favour of blue. And blue be shouted down. Gold chairs. With black legs. It is after all a Big Decision. I really don't know what the answer is - I suppose I will go with the majority decision - this isn't the time and place for mouthing off design-wise, it's their village, their hall and I'm no'but a relative incomer.

Two hours in and with no decision made we are all losing the will to live and wilting - the heating system is running at full bore, being tested maybe. Little sub-groups of red-faced people have formed and cluster around open windows to gulp gratefully at the cool night air. (It's good to know that the heating is working so well. It is like spending an evening in the tropics without the luxury of the Indian Ocean to dip in.) One by one people drift away homewards, nothing chosen.

I leave too. Looking back as I climb the lane onto Marton Crest I see the new building in the valley below me, still lit against the night sky. The village's only street light which stood at the end of the old hall has been demolished so the new building is now the only source of light and this is probably one of the only times to date it has been lit at night. That's why it looks so unusual I suppose - we're not used to it being there, occupying this bit of space, not quite settled in the landscape. It's rather exciting, this wonderful new facility, seeing it take shape and looking forward to when we can actually use it and call it our own.

PS 601 posts since February 2006. I was in the village hall that night as well. Looks like I really should get out more....