food


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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.

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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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