food


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.

14474378_1684526681874935_4684043839269240832_n

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.

Advertisements

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.

12715670_10154604743164488_8946734422210968409_n

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.

p03m99g6episode 1

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…

IMG_20150716_183411

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.

IMG_20150720_190821

IMG_20150720_190703

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.

IMG_20150717_215953

IMG_20150715_212440

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.

 

IMG_20150701_112617

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.

IMG_20150720_220920

(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.

IMG_20150524_134900

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

IMG_20150531_150519

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.

IMG_20150529_193249

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…

moon

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.

IMG_20150516_115917

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.

IMG_20150517_213431

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.

IMG_20150302_191407

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.

IMG_20150403_134349
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.

IMG_20150403_134211

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.

 IMG_20141217_181132

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.

 santaclausiscomingtotown

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…………

Next Page »