food


There is a joy to the bounty that is the autumn harvest, especially apples. For weeks now I have been eating bread and cheese sandwiches every work day and fried apples on toast at the weekend. Nigel Slater has a wonderful recipe for the fried apples on toast that is much tastier that it sounds. I also place a bowl of sliced apples, tossed with a teaspoon of lemon juice, at the homework table. It does not stay full for long. However, there is a creepier side to autumn harvesting.

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Every evening, either the lovely Sharon or I have to venture out between the raspberry canes to fill a colander. A daily colander seems enough for, raspberries with porridge (with maple syrup), raspberries for our break time snacks and raspberries for the little lady’s breakfast. A head torch is required as well as bravery. Nature can be rewarding but sometimes requires a high price. As soon as I step between the plants, the spider webs begin to accumulate on my head and face. There is no point brushing them off, it is a waste of time. I must embrace an attitude of stoicism, and just get on with it. Daddy long legs are disturbed, harvestmen fall on me from the higher leaves and moths fly straight to the torch attached to my head. Then there are the spiders. Little white and yellow spiders that crawl all over me. They often seem to become passengers on me and are discovered a short time later after having come in from the garden. I am sure I have been bitten by them, or something, on my arm, back and hand. Yet the little lady must have her breakfast. There is one reassuring thought in my foraging mind.  At least I know none of the spiders in the dark are the super big Huntsman spiders. No, at this time of year they have all gone indoors away from the cold, only to be seen as they run across the floor. Then our brains quickly try to figure out what it is seeing, before we scream and reach for a very heavy book to defend ourselves with.

I suppose it widens our experiences if we try something new.  With this character building in mind I decided to try something old; tree tapping. Collecting the sap of particular trees at Spring time is apparently something that humans have been doing for quite a while.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I did not know the names of the trees.  Then I  made a determined effort to try and be able to identify trees and plants.  It was a long process and I feel like I have only just begun with respect to plants. The trees seemed easier to commit to memory. Then one tree started to stand out as a favourite.  Not the Oak or the Beech; the Birch won my heart.  Its shape, its bark, and even the sound as the wind blows through the leaves. I think it was in an interview that Ray Mears once said that he could identify many of the Native trees just by the sound of the wind through them.  I adore the birch so much that I cut down a fair sized horse chestnut as it was too close to a younger birch. It was bullying the birch and adding the chestnut to the wood pile gave the tree space to simply be itself; be a beautiful birch.

Tapping a birch tree is something that I have been tempted to do for a while.  The window of time for tapping is narrow; only about two weeks.  I have sometimes wistfully looked at birch trees well outside from this critical time. Strangely, the thought of tree tapping never enters my head at the appropriate moment.  Until now.

I stabbed the tree with my knife and drops of clear birch tears formed on the blade.  I collected my equipment; hose, bottle, string and drill.  Three feet from the ground, and at an upward angle, I drilled a one and a half inch hole into my favourite birch tree.  Straight away the sap began to drip out and I plugged the hole with the hose.  That’s it. It seemed comically ridiculous to make a hole in a tree and get a drink out of it.  I collected a small amount  and proudly presented it to the lovely Sharon to share the first tasting. She looked at me quizzically. No, suspiciously. It was clear she had a lack of trust in me and my botanical identification skills. I tasted it myself, this rejuvenating tonic from nature and fortified with forest spring, life itself unfolding.  And it tasted…..of water with a hint of something strange.  No sweetness at all. Was it really a birch?  Had I drunk the poisonous sap of some strange tree?  Doubt dripped into my mind. No, my favourite tree cannot be a lie, it would never do that to me.

Later research revealed that some foragers do admit that the sap tastes pretty much like water with a hint of “earthiness”. The plan, if I collect enough, is to boil it down to make a syrup for pancakes.  I may have to cheat a little by adding sugar. It’s a bit of effort, and it may end up re-purposed on the compost heap, but I think it’s important to try new things.

The bread maker stopped working. Making bread has become a habit here now. Three or four times a week the machine would be loaded with flour, water, salt and yeast. By using the machine I am not fully cheating; it’s only used to knead the dough and heat it a little as it does its first rise.  I shape it by hand, let it rise again, and then use the regular oven to cook it (turned up to ‘can’t go any further’ on the temperature scale). The oven has been customised with a baking stone. To use a baking stone sounds a bit fancy, but it is actually a thick paving stone I cut down to size with an angle grinder and placed on the bottom shelf of the oven.  It is a permanent feature now as it is too heavy to move.

Of course, the bread machine  was a luxury item. It decided to stop kneading just before the third batch of dough needed for a family pizza night. The little people’s cousins were due to pour into the cottage that evening with laughter and noise. So much noise.

The loss has not been missed.  Kneading by hand has made me go back to a bread book for advice on the correct kneading techniques. I prefer the french kneading method. And inevitably, a few interesting bread ideas were only a few pages away.  An added bonus has been the enthusiasm of the little lady helping me make the dough. Anything that gets the little people involved in growing or making food seems wonderful. Although, the last time she helped me, involved keeping her eyes on the TV and occasionally punching the dough. Then with eyes still unwavering from the TV, the little lady added that the bread would be alright as she was helping

Then there is the silver lining of the aesthetics. The sight of the earthenware bowl sitting on the mantelpiece over the wood stove.  The living room seems to be the warmest place to encourage the yeast. And the smell of the dough after a sponge has been fermenting overnight. A sponge is all the water and yeast mixed with only a third of the flour and none of the salt. Made the evening before, it bubbles away and adds flavour to the bread. Kneading this by hand releases all kinds of sweet and strange smells.

So the failure of the old bread maker has forced me back to joys of proper bread making and brought it to the forefront of life here instead of whirring away in the corner of the kitchen. The mixer has been with us for so long that it was a little bit sad to decide to throw it out.  It sat forlorn for weeks until I made the move to unplug it and add it to the ‘take to the rubbish dump’ pile building in the garage. Just before I did, I futilely flicked the switch and hit start just in case. It sprang into life! What do I do now?

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Picking apples is a difficult game to play.  Too early and they can be inedible.  Too late and they are left bruised on the ground with the wind laughing around you.  For weeks now I have been gently twisting them on their stalks to see how much they are stubbornly holding on, knowing that they can just decide to give up in the time of only a few days.  The other problem is that different trees are ripe at different times.  One tree, who’s name we do not know, drops its apples in late August.  I deliberately let the wind tell me when these are ready as it gives such a heavy crop.  Once I see a mess of windfalls on the ground I decide that in one week I will strip the tree. These are the apples of crumbles, chutneys and frozen puree cubes to be dropped into cooking porridge on cold winter mornings.  Some of these apples are simmering away in the cottage tonight in a tomato chutney.  I could say that the place smells of spiced vinegar, but that is not quite the truth; it screams of vinegar.  Monty Don’s book  tells me that it must simmer for an hour.  Our experience of getting a decent consistency with chutneys is to take whatever it says with a pinch of salt (or a tablespoon of salt).  Double the time in the book, then add another hour.

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Fork to Fork – By Monty and Sarah Don

It is to be windy soon.  Tonight, after homework was completed, I passed out colanders*  to the little people and we ventured out for the annual apple harvest.  The little man inevitably gravitated to the bold red apples of the ‘Discovery’ tree looking like it was straight out of a child’s drawing.  I headed for my favourite, the ‘Katy’ tree, with its small explosions of autumnal flavour.

*bugs fall through the holes.

The harvest from the Discovery was good, and this is a crucial tree.  The apples are sweet and red with a white flesh that is marbled with red anthocyanins that have migrated from the skin.  They look strange and taste fantastic if sliced thin with a drop of lemon juice  placed on each slice.  Hungry from a long day of school, the little man and the little lady will quickly disappear a plate of these slices if it is placed in front of them.  Sometimes I have to take my hand away quick if I am to keep my fingers.  Unfortunately the third hungry person, the littlest man, just looks at me and shakes his head; not a fan of apples.

Things have begun at last. Buds are unfolding, colours are revealing and for a few hours today queen bumble bees zoomed about instead of sleeping.

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Seed potatoes have been watching the chilly spring from the window ledge for weeks now.  I enlisted the three little people in the process of planting them out.  This worked well as long as everybody got to do exactly the same thing.  If someone had a big potato in their pot, then everyone had to have one.  If someone had a tiny potato in their pot, then everyone had to have one. It even happened when one of them discovered a worm in their pot.  Everyone had to have a worm.  And it had to be exactly the same size.  All planting had to stop to go on a worm hunt.  After returning to the potatoes and thinking everything was going well, all hell broke loose when we discovered the new experimental purple potatoes had ten in the bag; not a multiple of three.  After the tears were dried and I delivered what I believe to have been an encouraging lesson on how life is never really fair, we carried on.  Twenty three pots and sixty seven potatoes later the little people decided the trampoline was a necessary compliment to gardening.

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When I was digging out compost for the potatoes I noticed some shoots trying to escape from deep down in the compost heap.  Had I accidentally thrown  in some bulbs from a pot? I carefully kept digging without finding them until I got to the bottom.  Daffodils! I must have built the compost heap right on top of a clump of them without realising. To be fair, this is an easy mistake.  The previous gardener here planted loads of daffodils. Lots of them!  Every spring they pop up all over the place and I wonder at the amount of time he spent planting daffodil bulbs. Where did he even get them all from? The bulbs under the compost heap had gone to so much trouble trying to grow up through the three foot of soil that I decided to try and give them a chance.  I delicately lifted them out and planted them somewhere with much more light.  Being long, weak and yellow, I tied them up to raspberry canes.  They might not make it, but I thought I would give them a bit of support.  Come on daffodils, you can do it.

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It has changed. The day length has changed; the darkness is winning.  It’s the fastest rate of daylight change. The air has changed, the leaves are changing. Autumn has arrived.  Even the word “Autumn” is believed to come from the Etruscan word “autu”, meaning change of season.  I used to think that I enjoyed all seasons equally; no favourites as a policy. I was wrong, this is it; a winner by a mile.

Now I feed and water the chickens with a head torch on and the air around the cottage has the faint smell of wood smoke.  With the darkness the evening sky is now my seasonal clock as I walk down the lane.  Cygnus, the swan, is beginning its annual migration across the night and, if its dark enough, marks the arc of the milky way. The swan reminds me to keep an eye out for the skeins of birds in the sky. I usually spot the during the commute to school.  Sitting in the static traffic gives me a chance to look up.

It’s strange to have an autumn without bees.  No syrup feed, no honey harvest. The hives were left empty in the hope that maybe a stray swarm might move in; no joy.  To add insult to injury I found a wasp nest in one of the old spare hives.

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Then there is the apples. The trees are older and the pruning, feeding and weeding is beginning to bear some fruit. James Grieves, McIntosh Red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Katy, Russet and some other unknown varieties. Although the Russet is not really a Russet. We bought it five years ago and planted it as a thin sapling.  Five years latter and we discover that it had been mislabelled. Should I have kept the receipt?  This is the consequence of growing trees, proper slow food.  The taste and textures of the apples are quite different and we eat apple and cheese sandwiches, baked apples, fried apples on toast (which is quite nice; thank you Nigel Slater), apple crumble and simply eat the apples. We have even filled a couple of boxes with apples individually wrapped in newspaper and hidden away in a cool dark place.  Yet, a little while a go I went looking for apples to buy at the market.  I wanted Russet apples as they add to the flavour of autumn for me.  I intended to buy them for my A Level class to try and convince them to branch out (sorry) and try other varieties that the supermarket keep hidden from them.  The market didn’t have any.  Later that day there was a knock on my classroom door in the middle of my A Level lesson.  It was a past pupil with a bag of twenty five russet apples. She works part-time in a fruit shop and when they arrived in, she knew I would like them; a thoughtful and wonderful gift. After they were distributed there was still one or two left to set on my desk.  Although it is nowhere near as neat as the clichéd teacher’s desk.

I woke in the middle of the night, dragged sleepily to semi-consciousness by thousands of bees.  The dream was one of worry; will they survive? A few days later I peeked into the hive and found them dead.  They had no stores left.  They had plenty of fondant, but it simply was not enough for them.  They starved in the local county Antrim definition of the word; they got too cold due to lack of food.

Did I dream their death through some spiritual connection as a beekeeper? To be fair, I dream this dream every spring and this is my first year of winter loss. Of course I am sad and I will miss having bees about the home. That said, looking after them last summer was problematic.  I had less time for them, and I promised myself that if they did not make it through the winter; I would take a year off beekeeping. In a fight between the bees or the little people; the little people win. I told the little man about the bees and he knew I was upset. He gave me a hug and told me it was going to be ok, we could buy honey from ASDA.

I’m shrugging beelessness off and refocusing my efforts into the garden and growing things to eat. The old buckets and bricks are already on top of the early rhubarb shoots, the potatoes are chitting on the window ledge and the seed packets are all purchased. I have plans. In the autumn I bought eighteen more raspberry canes to fill a vegetable plot that we normally grow lettuces in.  For the last two years all we have seem to have done with this is feed the slugs. These raspberries were supposed to be planted in November. The sodden cold earth and the winter darkness put a stop to that.  They are in little pots and have been added to the list of things to do.

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Last night I sat down with netflix intending to start House of Cards.  Then I remembered that Gardener’s World had come back to TV and iPlayer. Monty Don won and Francis Underwood lost my vote.

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This morning I stole away some time as the little people sat eating breakfast and feasting on saturday morning cartoons. I made a dent in some of the items on the gardening list: mulched the redcurrants and blackcurrants, split and spread the snowdrop bulbs, cleaned out the chicken coop, and had a fight with an unruly cottoneaster. Ever since we lost the pear trees to canker I have been keeping a close eye on the apple trees and clipping and burning any little signs of disease.  The little man’s tree seemed to be infected on the main trunk at about shoulder height.  I was a bit hesitant about doing anything harsh as it is called the little man’s tree as it was a gift for his birth from some friends.  All the little people have a tree of their own now. I pondered trying to spray it and then thought WWMD (What Would Monty Do?)  I cut out the disease and this resulted in a dramatic pruning of it’s height.  It had to be done and it does still look alright.  It seems to have opened it up quite a bit. I just hope I won’t have to hug the little man and reassure him by telling him we can buy his apples in ASDA.

The sudden need to harvest and make jams and jelly puts us under a certain strain this time of year…

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We noticed the redcurrants were ripe and needed picking.  I dragged out the our huge fruit net and tried to throw it over the redcurrants to give us time. I mistakenly tried to unfold it all in front of the little people who found the net to be a wonderful game.  The net gave us a few more days in the game we play with the birds.  Eventually we threw ourselves into the fruit plants with colanders and buckets in hand.

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The redcurrants surprised us as they seem to have taken over from the blackcurrants.  This must have happened over the autumn and spring by some sort of plant stealth.  Last year we harvested three kilograms of redcurrants; this year we have at least ten. Lots of redcurrant jelly and a bit of redcurrant wine is on the menu.

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Then there is the bees…. I marked the unproductive queen for death and waited for her replacement to arrive by post from a local breeder in Belfast. When he told me he was ready to post her it was the trigger for me to go in and kill the old queen. It is said that sometimes a hive roars when the queen is killed.  I had never noticed this and often put the queen aside in an empty box during inspections without any sign of loss or concern from the bees.  Yet, whenever I lifted her with the intention of killing her the hive roared. The sound of it caught me off guard and startled me.  It was as if I was under the bonnet of an engine and the driver dropped down a gear and floored it to overtake. The queen was dropped in some vodka (to become swarm lure) and the new queen arrived in the post, but the roar would come back to haunt me.

 

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The better queen, the good hive, filled two super boxes with honey. When the Mayflower (Hawthorn) was in full ‘flow’ I made a habit of going out to the hive in the evening.  From a few feet away the smell would hit me and then I could stand beside the hive and listen to the hum, like standing beside an unusually fragrant air conditioning system.  Then, as the tide of summer carried on, the good hive showed signs of swarming. I carried out the standard artificial swarm, yet took it a step too far. There was once wise advice that I heard and I try to live by with respect to beekeeping; If there is no decision or action to take based on a hive inspection then don’t do the inspection. Leave them alone. If is just about satisfying my curiosity and there is nothing actionable, then leave them alone.  I don’t know why I ignored this but I did.  I wanted to see that the queen was doing well and I carried out an inspection on her hive after the artificial swarm.  I also don’t think I was in a good state of mind during the inspection and rushed things, and got clumsy.  They roared. I heard the queenless roar that I had recently discovered.  I gently closed them up and naively hoped for the best.  A week later I went in to check the honey and they were very grumpy; flying off the comb and pinging my veil.  All this behaviour from a normally gentle hive just confirmed what I already knew; they were queenless. A few weeks ago I deliberately killed a queen and gone to great effort to achieve it, then I accidentally killed another queen in a fumbled moment. Now I really will follow the wisdom and leave them alone in the hope that they raise an emergency queen.

I lifted two super boxes (they are actually called supers) of honey. The only problem was that they were not fully capped. Capping is the bee’s way of sealing the honey for storage and it is a sign that the honey is ‘ripe’.  If a beekeeper just harvested the liquid in the combs there is a large risk that it is nectar that the bees have not removed the water from yet.  If nectar if put in jars it eventually ferments. From my regular evening visits I knew that the bees had stopped their ripening of the late spring flow.  My instinct was that the honey was ripe.  Geeky bit:  Using a refractometer confirmed my suspicions and I extracted 18 out of the 20 frames (two frames passed the ‘shake it does it drip test’ but failed the geeky refractometer test).

Last year we got no honey at all and I missed it. I can buy honey, I can even buy local honey. I missed the extraction. I missed the magic of it.  Previously I shared the experience with the little man as a two year old.  Now he is two years wiser and bursting with questions. How do they make the honey?  How does the extractor work? Why did you squash that dead bee?  And that one? And this year there was the addition of the two year old little lady perched near the honey tap and demanding that everyone feed her honey.  This year I had the little why man and the little diva lady and it was a celebration of spring, summer, boiling jelly, nectar and the harvest.

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(more…)

Tonight I walked around a corner and my eye caught the moon.  It pinned me to the spot, and for a moment I was startled and shocked.  The phase of it caught me off guard and shamed me.  Usually I keep a close eye on the moon and what it’s up to.  Yet it was nearly full and I didn’t remember how it got there.  Time had caught me and dragged me along for a week or two.  I had slipped out of the habit of moon watching and it feels like maybe spring has not been dragged along too.  The local beekeepers have noticed this; the paused spring.  They say, “ ...the spring plants are only starting to appear now hawthorn and sycamore as well as the horse chestnut are just starting so the spring flow will begin in earnest.”  Beekeepers talk in ‘flows’; nectar flow. The dandelion flow has stopped a couple of weeks ago and the bees do get noticeably sad, and a little grumpy.

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Today we took the little people for a walk in the woods.  While hunting for ogres I kept an eye out for the summer, and spotted the beginnings of foxgloves and willow herb.  They were only starting, but at least they knew the summer is around the corner

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A sense of the moon and plant watching are good habits if I can maintain them.  Another good habit I am trying to perfect is bread making.  Lately my experiments have settled on a recipe for the best bread I can make.  The key ingredient seems to be time.  If we need a loaf of bread we need to start at least twelve hours before we need it.  Before breakfast I add the yeast, water, butter, and half the flour.  Then much later in the day (usually ten hours later), I add the rest of the flour and the salt.  It is kneaded, allowed to rise for an hour, knocked back, then allowed to rise for another hour and a half.

 

A good habit that I am trying to begin is slug picking.  It takes a bit of self will, and I haven’t perfected it yet.  The idea is to put a head torch on and venture out into the garden in the late evening before bedtime.  When I have dragged myself towards doing this I collect about half a cup of slugs (assuming this is the accepted unit of volume of slugs).  I don’t want to put them in the bin as that would be too kind a fate, and I suspect they would escape and carry on eating.  Instead, I place them in an empty curry sauce container with a clip on lid.  Their fate is cruel.  I place the container in front of the coffee machine so that I do not forget their doom.  After breakfast I make the first espresso of the day and remember to take the curry pot out to the hungry chickens before heading off to work.  When I began this habit the lovely Sharon was shocked, “Leaving slugs in the kitchen is hardly hygienic?” I pointed out that if they were able to escape the curry sauce container then hygiene would be the least of our worries.  Logic and the unlikely prospect of supermollusc strength slugs moved her to acceptance.

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some more slug food to be planted

While out slug hunting my eye caught a dancing hair in the soil.  It looked other worldly and out of place.  I was mesmerised by its dance and wondered if that was the intention; to captivate and enchant some poor bird or small mammal.  I suspected it was a parasite.  I think I might have been wrong about the dancing, but my parasitic instincts were correct.

It is a horseshair worm; a parasite that people used to believe might be a horse’s hair coming to life.  Of course I kept this new found parasitic worm knowledge to myself and did not tell the lovely Sharon for fear that she might lay down the law on my new habit of keeping my slugs in the kitchen.

Tonight the cottage smelled of roasting chicken, prompting me to think about wheels again. I have been hunting for wheels for some time now. The chickens have a large run fenced in under the old beech tree, but this is not how we started. We started with a small coop given to us by the previous occupants of the cottage. It has served us well. We would drag it across the front garden every week or so to stop them destroying the grass. Their manure caused the grass to grow thick and darken. A careful and systematic movement of the coop would leave the whole lawn looking like a swatch of colours from sweet pea to vine green. The constant dragging took its toll on the coop, and occasionally my back. And this is where the wheels come in…

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The coop may be falling apart, but we still need it. We need it for the young chicks growing up, and we need it to keep them away from the main flock if the chicks turn out to be cockerels. The smaller run of the coop also helps them grow larger and less lean. The chicks are growing up fast and I need to prepare. It also seems that one of our hens has gone broody and we assume she is sitting on eggs. How many eggs? Are they fertile? We don’t know. All we do know is that there is truth in the saying; not to count our chickens until they have hatched. We need wheels on the coop, and a bit of repairing.

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For months now the idea of wheels has floated in the back of my mind. I have kept an eye out at market stalls and charity shops. I even thought that if I found a really cheap child’s bike I would salvage it for the wheels, but nothing was cheap enough. The fall back was the lowest priced trolley wheels off ebay. Today I was in the garden and the wheels started to turn in my mind again. I decided that time was marching on and I would have to buy them. Then I spotted the barbecue. It has wheels, and it hasn’t been moved in four years. These poor wheels have had such a purposeless existence and they have been under my nose all along.

A box of decking screws seemed to reinforce the coop and stopped its wobbling. The roof was re-felted, and…..it has wheels.

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Should I plant the potatoes before St Patrick’s day or after? Should they go in the ground under a waxing moon or a waning moon? It’s also said that they should be planted when there is no more risk of frost; which is impossible. There is an Irish saying that potatoes should be planted when the weather is such that a man can stand naked (translated to shirtless) in the potato bed.  The lovely Sharon says we had weather close to that last week…under her wisdom I decided to prepare the ground for the potatoes.  I decided this on a windy rainy day wearing my shirt, fleece and buffalo jacket.

In the past we planted a few potatoes and enjoyed new potatoes which had only a few minutes between the earth and the pot.  They were a novelty and and a welcome treat.  Now they have become a staple food, a necessary item for the dinner table; for the little people.

Last year I thought I was over-reacting by buying three bags of seed potatoes.  I thought wrong.  We consumed all the products of those potatoes before it was really necessary to store the surplus under clamps.  There was no surplus.

This year we have four bags of seed potatoes. Once we got them home the little man and I took great care in placing them in egg boxes on the window ledges.  We learnt what chitting potatoes involves, and that potatoes have eyes.

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As a result of so many seed potatoes, and the added need to rotate where we plant them, I have decided to experiment with digging in some potato beds in the grassy lawn under the young apple trees.  On good Friday I woke to a cold north wind and a drizzly rain.  I put on old clothes and grabbed my spade, fork and hoe.  The soil was muddy, saturated and thick with cold sleepy worms.  I cleared enough for one bed of potatoes then, after trying to heft a full wheelbarrow then slipping and falling in the mud, decided to move on and leave the new potato beds for the day.

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Covered in mud and back in the familiar vegetable patch and raised beds. I started to prepare the ground. About a year ago I must have collected a few buckets of chicken manure and thought to keep them for a rainy day.  This was the rainy day.  I pulled apart one of the compost bins that no longer smelt of chicken poo.  After a year of fermentation and microbial action, if was black, earthy, and smelt damp and fruity.  It was shoveled out onto the raised beds and will soon be folded in.  I had to stop.  I have no time to stand naked in a potato patch, or look to the moon’s phases.  All I can do is grab some moments when they arrive. We might need to feed and teach the little people how to chit, but our timetable is not dictated by the weather or the moon.  The little people control the tide in our lives and they soon called me in from the garden, away from the rain and wind and into the warmth of the wood stove and laughter and stories from books.

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It sometimes feels like we skirt around the edges of the winter days. We wake up in the dark and cling to the cold light of the stars and maybe the moon, before driving off to work.  Then we work.  On the way home I hate the light, the light of cars.  The density of city traffic is something I feel glad to leave, into the dark.  It’s with irony that I found myself working in daylight today; on the shortest day.  In between shovelling the sludge of fallen leaves and the foul fowl bedding in the chicken house, I would find myself looking up at the sky, the novelty of it; daylight.

 

The chickens also had their shortest day today as the car battery feeding them their false daylight was flat.  The electrickery of the LED lights seems to be working to some degree.  The two young hens still lay continuously; they lack wisdom and know no better.   From the older hens we have just received two eggs this week, something unknown until late February.

 

We used the eggs to bake a cheesecake.  The little man and I smashed biscuits into crumbs and mixed things in bowls.  This is a present for his teachers.  Baked things are the best of presents for teachers.  I received a gingerbread me this year from my A level class.  It’s nice to receive something that someone has put a lot of effort into, more importantly; took delight in making it.

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Overcharged with daylight and exhausted from baking, the little man, the little lady and myself lay on the sofa and watched the 1970 classic, ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town.’  Then I kept the light to a deliberate solstice low as we played lego by the woodstove.

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Later on I fell into my solstice tradition.  I opened up Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Darkness and Light.’  The lovely sharon looked at me with a little confusion and asked if I read that every year.  I ask her how could I not:


Mid-December, the still point of the turning year…………

Fifteen minutes of digging here, twenty minutes of weeding there.  A wee bit done on one day, then the next, then the next. All this time builds up and seems to get some sort of a job done.  The main vegetable patch has been cleared and a compost bin squeezed to capacity with buttercup, chickweed and nettles.  Sometimes my hands were stung all over from the nettles. Sometimes flurries of yellow and gold leaves would burst from the old beech tree.  Sometimes my back would ache and burn.  Sometimes hundreds of rooks would spiral and twist on the wind over my head.

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The postman brought a little bag of manure in the mail today.  This manure will take time to prepare itself and the soil it will live in.  This was Monty Don’s idea, not mine.  I cast the seeds according to the instructions.  It said that protection from mice and birds may be required.  I looked the cats and gave them a stern look; earn your keep.

The rain, wind, seeds, soil and cat were all left to sort themselves out.  All but the raised beds; they are thick with green weeds and another packet of seeds is waiting.

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As the little people played with their train sets, I sat beside them and de-stoned plums. As they watched Old Jack’s Boat, I watched and de-stoned plums. As they splashed and played at bathtime, I sat on the bathroom floor, and de-stoned plums. Once they were filled with stories and fast asleep in bed, the lovely Sharon and I cooked up some jam and mashed up a must for plum wine. In total we used up twelve kilograms of plums that night, and we were weary. All because grandparents, cousins, a sister and brother called to the cottage on Sunday and the lovely Sharon decided to put them to work picking plums. Step ladders were propped up the sides of trees and baskets and colanders were filled. At one point I thought I was clever and I climbed up into the branches of the oldest plum tree. I heaved and contorted myself into position only to find that I was still far from the high harvest and had only five more plums to show for my efforts. Those five plums will taste the best. Once the unplanned harvest was over I was glad I had made a cake that morning. We filled our cups with coffee and tea and devoured the cake; spiced plum cake of course.

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Making jam and wine seems to be all about killing and sterility. Boil away the water, sterilise the jars. Pour the thick hot mixture into jars and seal them with burning hands. Then pray they set, take the calculated chance. Plum jam is familiar territory, however the plum wine; there be dragons. Our research tells us that plum wine can be difficult. The problem seems to be the bacteria and wild yeasts living all over the plums. Special ‘Campden Tablets’ are often used to wipe out these unwanted passengers, at a dose of one tablet per gallon of wine. John Wright, of River Cottage fame, suggests trying to avoid using and campden tablets if possible. However, for plum wine he recommends using two per gallon. The huge fermenting bucket was sterilised and filled with nine kilograms of mashed plums, then an unhealthy dose of tablets. Only a few feet away in the kitchen another smaller bucket sits trying to do the opposite. It sits trying to catch wild yeasts and bacteria for sourdough bread. It is a strange joy to smell as it is always different; fruity chocolaty earth scents.

On the evening of the plum processing we stopped working late and exhausted. My hands were stained a light brown like I had badly applied fake tan. The full moon hung in the dark outside, heralding autumn in the sharp cold air. I curled up in front of the woodstove with the River Cottage preserves book, but I stayed curled up and the book stayed shut. At least eight more kilograms of plums sat un-processed and complete with stones in baskets in the kitchen. I declared the rest of the night plum free. Sorry Hugh, don’t think bad of me; the plum chutney will have to wait.

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I sat like a fisherman mending his net, although I would have been a poor fisherman letting them all get away.  I stitched the pieces of net together with long pieces of string knowing that the job would not need to be a masterful one.   I just needed the holes between the patches to not be big enough to invite the birds into the ‘catch’ of ripe berries.  It seems to be a bountiful mast year for all the berries and plums.  The lovely Sharon has already made eight jars of redcurrant jelly. Although, since this morning I am glad to report this is down to seven jars.  The concentrated flavour of summer brightens up the morning toast.  It balances out the grumbling I do as I stitch the net.  My back aches from kneeling and threading and kneeling and threading.  One thing that really bugged me was the fact that I needed to stitch it at all.  We needed a large square, but the net rolled out of the packet as one gigantic strip ten foot wide and forty foot long.  It was only after time spent on the monotonous meditation of sewing and back ache self pity that I realised that this sort of net is normal.  Of course it is one long strip for most people’s fruit trees are all neatly pruned and wired up in rows.  We prefer the more chaotic approach to the fruit trees; letting them do their own sort of thing.  We mulch and weed them in the early spring when it is possible to walk into them pre-foliage.  Then, over the months we watch in awe as they take on a life of their own.  When it comes to this time of year we wade through them and get lost.  The blackcurrants are about a foot taller then me, and the raspberries are two feet taller then the little man.  We can locate him from the commentary he gives as the raspberry monster; “AHUMM YUM YUM YUM, raspberry! AHUMM YUM YUM YUM.”  The only thing we don’t venture into until it is absolutely necessary, is the spiky gooseberries.  The crop is so large that we still have a few of last year’s gooseberry jam jars stored away.  This year we might be more adventurous; with talk of gooseberry wine.  I think I might need the promise of a glass of gooseberry wine if I am to face the gooseberry picking.

“Don’t let them touch water!” exclaimed the gentleman behind the counter, insisting a little too enthusiastically. I was waiting for him to tell me not to expose them to bright light or feed them after midnight, before I realised that for a Ballymena man; potatoes are not a thing to be mocked. He carried on passionately about how, these ‘sunbeam’ potatoes, are grown locally and are best steamed. Then he took another opportunity to remind me, “STEAMED! They must NEVER be boiled.”

The first job when I arrive through the door is to light the wood stove. I leave it with fistfuls of wood chips and some junk the postman has left for us in the mailbox; it’s so nice for big businesses to send us a daily delivery of fat glossy kindling. I’m glad that I can arrive home in some daylight now the days are growing by minutes. Under the steel grey sky I check the chickens and lift the eggs. With the smell of woodsmoke dissolving in the drizzle, I grab the axe and start chopping this evening’s fuel.

Just as the lovely Sharon arrives home with the little people I am guiltily chopping the potatoes. Slicing them into careful half moon pieces I am preparing them for frying. The Ballymena man looms in my mind; he didn’t say anything about frying them.

As I fry, I chop finely. Peppers, mushrooms, chorizo, onions. I cry a little for the onions. Poor onions, they didn’t know what hit them. The lovely Sharon blurs herself around me, making tomorrow night’s pie. When the onions are frying, I make bread dough for tomorrow’s lunches. The little man and the little lady play. Occasionally there is a scream for help; “She’s eating my trains!” “She’s eating my train tracks!” “She’s eating my tractor!” The lovely Sharon tries to prepare the ground for dinner and distract the little man from the his sister’s transport themed eating disorder. “Daddy is making Tortilla.” There is a pause of contemplation. “I not want tort-ee-a. I not like it.” I slave on regardless.

I call dinner time and tell the little man he has a choice; for dinner he can have tortilla or furby. A smile briefly flickers in him before he declares that he wants furby on his plate. He becomes more animated and the smile breaks through his face when he runs in to find a furby already on his dinner plate. He changes his mind and declares he does not want furby. It is quickly replaced by a slice of tortilla, but he knows he has been tricked. The lovely Sharon is also a bit of a critic when it comes to my tortilla. She declares that it needs more vegetables. I know exactly what she means by this cloaked statement; she is not a fan of potatoes. Sometimes I have my suspicions about her. She claims that her maiden name is Irish, and she has jet black hair, and dark brown eyes I could fall into. But, she doesn’t like potatoes? If the Ballymena man and the locals knew, we would be chased out of this place with pitch forks and flaming torches. I keep my suspicions to myself and instead call her bluff, “More vegetables? Alright, next time i’ll add more potatoes.” She glares at me. I crumble before those beautiful Irish eyes, “…or mushrooms, or peppers? Yes, more peppers.”

After dinner I enjoy a rare moment in my life, a moment when I am glad to be short sighted. I hate wearing glasses and I hate the need to wear them. I am so short sighted that I have to wear them during all my waking hours. Sometimes, when I slip out of habit, I get up out of bed and take only a few steps before I realise that I can’t go much further before turning back and finding my glasses. This curse is a blessing when, after dinner, I take the little lady in my arms. I take off my glasses and hide them out of reach; she’ll only try to eat them. I tickle her and we share strange faces at each other. Without my glasses my myopia can see her in beautiful detail. She wears her curious face as she investigates my teeth. No matter how hard her tiny hands pull she cannot get them out. I am glad.

After dinner we sit around an ordnance survey map and try to plan a mini-break away. The little man points out mountains to me, and beaches by the sea to the lovely Sharon. The little lady tries to eat the map.

Thomas the tank engine is called for as we tidy and work around the little people. Dishes need to be done and bread needs to be baked. I despair at my work shirts. I always wash them all together and they always come out of the machine in one heavy lump of knotted sleeves. I marvel at how the machine does it as I sit down in front of Thomas with my bleached rat king.

Just before bedtime the little man decides to help the lovely Sharon dress the pie with pastry. He covers his fleecy Thomas pajamas in flour. We brush the little ghost clean and assure him that he will be fine as tomorrow is bath night, which means new pajamas.

After topping up the chicken’s feed and changing their water, I take a look at the vegetable patches. They look miserable in the cold rainy light of my head torch, but I have to think of summer. I think about growing more potatoes, maybe growing some sunbeams.

Actually I have written posts in the last couple of months, but the internet doesn’t like them. They are still black lead on bleached wood pulp, folded away in a notebook and far from the digital.

So, the solstice passed and the sun came back. Even the chickens are feeling the barely perceptive march of daylight over darkness.  During the darkest of days we were reduced to a single egg every other day, until the unexpected happened. One dark evening we found a tiny little orb. Boiled the next morning we confirmed it was an egg. As small as a banty hen’s egg, packed to the edges with orange yolk and a creamy flavour. This has to have been from the one vorwerk hen, apparently a rare breed; producing a rare treat.

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Now they are slowly building up the daily egg count.

We seem to have let the days of Christmas pass us by. I think we all forgot about keeping our eye on the sun and just assumed the days will get longer and the new world prophets, the scientists, would let us know if anything is wrong.  But they did.  We could easily ignore it, or find it interesting but important; the sun is going to sleep.

It seems that that it is getting more and more likely that the sun’s activity is diminishing. The pulse that is the regular eleven year cyclic pulse of the sun has not behaved as expected for a couple of decades now. The scientific prophets have been running their computer models and analysing their data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the lonely spacecraft brave enough to hover too close to the sun for our comfort.  Confidence is growing that we are heading towards another Maunder Minimum; a period of solar slumber three hundred and fifty year ago that was called the little ice age. Ironically it is only likely to slow down global warming for us, but only for a while. This little news was quietly rolled up in the rest of the news.  I guess there is this earthly source of life, and then there is just getting on with life.

In the hope that the sun will be bright enough as we received our first packet of seeds for the coming spring. We even added a packet of fungal spores. It’s always fun to keep an experiment running.  In the freezer I have a few kilos of used coffee grinds from our friendly local cafe.  The intent is to sterilise them and attempt to cultivate oyster mushrooms.  I’m not confident it will work, but i am confident that it will be interesting attempting it.

The honey has nearly all gone.  One single precious jar remains for medicinal use. We have resorted to buying honey for the morning bowls of porridge and using the home honey for sore throats. The little man tries to convince us he needs more honey for his imaginary sore throat every few evenings.  This reminds me, I should feed the bees their spring candy soon.  I wonder if they have survived this far? A few weeks ago I dreamed that the hive with the older queen was just a pile of dead bees, while the hive with the younger queen had made it through and were busy being…. bees. If I believed wholeheartedly in logos, then I would shrug off the drew as utter nonsense.  If I think instead of the world of mythos and our spiritual connection with the earthly world, then I shrug it off as nonsense anyway; I’m sure I’m not that good a beekeeper to be in tune with the bees.

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the noisy one; the ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’

A death that I am certain has taken place is that of our rooster; the ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, as the little man calls him.  I think we missed his sickness for a few days as we never seemed to arrive home in anything but darkness.  All we saw of the chickens was them perching in their house. Then he wasn’t perching anymore. Lifting him up revealed a weakness in his legs.  The days went by and he got progressively weaker.  Soon he could not even leave the hen house to get water.  We tried leaving him water of his own but He did not seem interested.  I could see no other sign of illness apart from lameness. I can only guess that some sort of injury had been sustained. Being quite a large and heavy bird it was proving too much for him to make a recovery.  He’s gone now.  We told the little man that he has gone away, as euthanasia is too big a word for a three year old.  It’s too big a word for any of us. The little vorwerk cockerel who usually stayed quiet and hid himself away is now finding his voice.  He rules the roost now, and boldly stands proud in his new domain.  In the mornings he sort of crows, ish.  He’s not there yet, but he’s getting there. He is the little man’s new Crakkkk-a-crakkkkk-a-aghhhhh.

149480_10150968886164488_958088999_nThere is a one in three chance that this chick is the little man’s ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ a few years ago.

Many moons ago, actually only two moons ago, I found myself wandering in the mountains with a friend. We headed up to the summit of a small mountain under a full moon. The light was so bright that we crossed streams and moorland without our head torches. It was clear to us, but not quite as clear as day, why the full moon was used by our ancestors for hunting trips. Our overconfidence with the area meant we just glanced at the map briefly before burying it in a rucksack. It is fair to say that we knew our way with a vivid mental map, but we didn’t know how far. I think all our mental maps are too short. Maybe they are warped by the speed of our cars, or maybe they will always be warped if walked under the steel grey of moonlight. The mountain was clearly just in front of us, yet we walked on and on.

We found the summit at the end of what felt like a mythical journey. The top of this mountain flattened out into three small pools of water, three strange moon pools. On the edge of the flattened area we quickly got the bivvy bags out, and every piece of clothing we brought to keep out the cold. We spoke the usual fine nonsense and stories that feel like they should be spoken around a peaty fire on a dark night, yet the full moon and stars seemed an equally fitting setting.

I didn’t make any sort of conscious decision to note where the moon was in the sky. I just remember walking up and turning my head to see the moon in a different place completely. Then I remember visualising the arc of the moon and it’s path nearly unconsciously, and thinking; a couple of hours until dawn. Then I smiled and went back to sleep.

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summit sunrise – summit bivvy

For years now I have tried to know the moon and stars. These things can be read in books, but it’s not enough; they have to be lived. The seasons have to mean something and must be felt again and again before it sinks in and becomes part of us.  For years I was out of touch with the seasons and I simply drifted through them from a distance; sheltered behind the modern world and my ignorance.

This morning I caught the moon slipping behind the hills and red tinted sleet filled winter clouds. This full moon was waning; the Celtic dark moon. It’s appropriate. This time of year feels like the adjustment time, when the daylight feels chased and slips away into the colder nights.

The darkness brings with us and unexpected change that, if I had thought about it, I should have seen coming. When we first started keeping hens they were the hybrid variety specifically bred to keep laying constantly; an egg every twenty five hours without end. They did slow down a bit in the mid winter, but it never felt like we had anything but an abundance of eggs. Now our hens are all more traditional breeds who are more in tune with the light, and the lack of it. With no light there are no eggs. With eight hens we now only get one egg a day, maybe two, and I suspect they come from the same one or two hens. No surplus is sold for our occasional meal out with the precious ‘chicken money’. Instead, the eggs are carefully collected with thoughts of specific jobs already beckoning; pancakes, boiled eggs with toast, and french bread. Maybe a cheesecake if we save up for it. This is an unexpected joy. Like the following of  the moon, we are living in the seasons and we look forward to Easter. The Easter bunny doesn’t bring the eggs, the sunlight does.

All good intentions start well enough. I felt I had an epic amount of work to do this morning, so I left a little earlier with the grand idea of beginning work with time to throw myself into it. Then I slipped into work in what I consider to be just in time, having spent an extra fifty minutes more than usual on the M2 carpark.

I got what needed to be done, done. Then moved on with an extra knot in my shoulders and tension in my head.

I threw myself home after school and asked the little man to help me mow the lawn. There is nothing better to spur you on than a three year old chasing you around the garden with a wooden trolley shouting, “Cut the grass, cut the grass. You missed a bit. YOU MISSED A BIT!”

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After we turned off the ‘noise mower’, we stood under the last of the apple trees trying to fight against the changing season. This lone crab apple tree could not ignore the wind and the shortening days, and was beginning to drop its tiny apples. I remember how much work it was last year to get so little crab apple jelly. It tasted fantastic but seemed such a waste of time. Tonight I was reminded how wrong I was. How could it be time wasted if we laughed as we shook the trees onto big sheets on the freshly cut grass, letting the apples pelt us on our heads. How could the cold air in the golden autumn sun be a pointless time. The picking and reaching for stubborn apples untied the knots in me and I didn’t even mind that the little man stole some of our apples to feed the chickens. They probably won’t even eat the sour crab apples, but it still wasn’t a pointless thing at all.

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The lovely Sharon declared, “So, the good news is that the little man helped me make tomorrow night’s mince pie. And the bad news is that there may be some play-dough in it. It’s OK, it’s pink and blue play-dough, so it should be easy to spot.”

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