Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Mud Pies for Grown Ups

Lime plaster with hemp fibres
We are sopping wet. It has been raining pretty much all day as we 'enjoy' the back end of the skirts and train of Hurricane Gert. A big vigorous frontal system sits just off the NW coast aligned SW to NE and sliding slowly along that line. For most of the day it has been a heavy drizzle but occasionally it gets all inspired to downpours of almost Biblical proportions.

Lime-plastering the wall behind me the 'old' way.
As I was leaving SuperValu in Castlerea this morning I was not so much hopping between the puddles but walking with very flat feet across a sheet of water hoping that nowhere would the depth exceed the vent-hole 'draft' of my Crocs (about 18 mm if you're interested). Don't usually need wellies for Supermarket shopping here but that would not have been a bad choice today.

Smear a 'patty' on with the palm/heel of your hand and try to
level the lumps and bumps of the pointed stonework. This was
just the first "coat". 
I have been feeding the birds indoors today (the layers' pellet in particular turns to mush on contact with water and the birds will not touch it), in the sheds with the lights on. The pigs have long since mushed up the dirt inside the bit of fence over which I was passing food, so we have moved along a bit to dryer ground and moved along again this evening. The half apples would just plop into a foot-print and vanish, tho' I dare say the pigs' powerful noses would soon root them back out again, truffling-style.

Pinned down by the rain and feeling a bit 'meh' a blog post on "mud pies" seemed appropriate. Archery coach, Con and his good lady (Niamh) are doing up an out building like our Tígín and as part of this, they are plastering the inside with a trad old mix of white lime mortar and hemp fibres. They are doing this by encouraging the likes of me along by organising a free 'workshop' where the volunteers get to learn and try out the skills and hear all about the history in exchange for all that fascinating info, the fun of it and an epic salad for lunch.

First coat applied to one wall. The plaster is finished by applying
 a thinner, smoother coat and finally polishing it, when nearly dry,
with the heel of your hand in little circular motions.
I had seen the results of this method and material before (much of Con's place is plastered like this and Anne and Simon have a straw-building lined with at least the lime, if not the hemp fibres), but had never met it as a wet building material and a technique. It arrives as a 350 kg pile of lumps in a plastic-lined bulk builder bag, in this case from Monaghan.

A least the thoughtful cats leave their mice neatly stacked
among the china on a shelf. Thanks Blue!
It looks like very pale grey mud flecked with the (very short) pieces of hemp fibre, like "wholemeal" mud, if you like. It is pre-mixed (as a powder?) by the company, then wetted a bit and left for weeks, months or years to 'make'. Our job was to soften it in the cement mixer to roughly the consistency of sticky sausage meat (no lumps!). This involved a fair amount of stopping the machine and slicing through the bigger lumps with a pointing trowel. (Health Warning for the new builder - NEVER put your hand, arm or tools into a cement mixer when it is going. It will happily twist your arm off).

Does my bum look big in this? Lizzie tries
out the three cat-power insulation for bum and
back of legs while curled up on the sofa.
I was singled out (OK, I volunteered) for cement mixer duty as we also needed standard cement/sand mortar for some of the pointing etc and the machine had to be cleaned spotlessly between each of the 4 mixes as we didn't want nasty grey cement in our lovely white lime, or vice versa.

At 8 and a half weeks, Connie's 3 "chicks" are well grown and
fully feathered. More like half-scale hens than babies now. 
The plaster now at suitable wet consistency (you squish some 'patties' of it in your hands to check for no dry, hard lumps) it is time to stick it to the wall. First the wall gets wetted with a watered down slurry of the mix. The technique for applying the actual stuff is to scoop up a palm-full and smear it onto the wall with the heel of your hand, flattening your palm as you push. You try to leave it thicker over the dents (and squished into any cracks) and thinner over the peaks where stones stick out proud. It needs to be fairly flat, though it will be rough textured. The 2nd coat will sort that and finish with a rather more 'polished' (all be it rough to the touch) outer surface.

Back in the Feta cheese game. These the curds
from 8 litres fresh goat's milk, a gift from Sue
and Rob.
I love all this stuff and the old techniques anyway, but it was a superb day working with my co-volunteers, Ivan and Paul, swapping stories and banter and at one point breaking off completely to hear a 45 minute Master-Class (by Con) on the history of the material(s) and their use including all the history of hemp as a source of fibre ("retting" and the like), later as a chill-out weed (so all the fascinating chemistry of cannabinols and stuff) and most recently as a possible alternative to 'chemo' in cancer treatments - I will let the reader look for those him/her-self if interested enough). An epic salad lunch followed. Thank you very much Con and Niamh for sharing you knowledge, skills and food with us. I can't wait for Lesson 2 (Top Coat).

Rather sponge-y curds. It looked to have 'risen' better than
my bread!
Other than that we have been plodding along with everyday life. We received a nice gift of goat's milk from Sue and Rob which we have tried to turn into Feta cheese. For some reason this formed excellent curds but then stayed a bit sponge-y, like last week's puff-ball fungus. Still, we went with it, did the dry-cure and have now drowned it in 15% brine for 3 months shelf-life. When we use it, we dunk it for a while in clean water to soak off the worst of the saltiness.

TOPP left-overing! Sausage meat, bacon and apple PIE. 
I've been carrying on with the bread making. Liz has been building slowly to her involvement in the 'Ros go Run' half marathon etc (Sept 3rd) which this year will include for the first time a little Treasure Hunt / 'forage' walk for the kiddies; clues tied to gateposts etc. Should be great fun. We are thinking we will do rhyming couplets for the clues. We have also had another promising 'tickle'  on the Help-X website so we may be getting another volunteer but more on that when it is really happening. Good Luck now.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Ploughman Homeward Plods.......

I have read that we 'artisan' bakers are meant to sign our work
with a trademark signature. I'm claiming this 'M' if no-one else
wants it.
With the boys from Help-X gone, the place settles back into a more sedate rate of progress, like Gray's 'Elegaic' ploughman (not sure if that is actually a word?). I love that poem and the homeward plodding ploughman image comes into my head often as I make my way back from any particularly wearying job or day.

Is this cat queue-ing up to get plucked next?
Main task this week has been 'plodding' through those Hubbard birds which we do by killing 2 early in the morning so that Liz can pluck and dress in the afternoon when they are completely bled out and the rigor mortis is leaving them. By now she is very good and skilled at this and the carcasses look very genuine, cleanly plucked and with no tears in the breast-skin. I have already given weights for the first half dozen, which made 2.2 to 2.9 kg. The last half dozen which we finished today stayed within that range. These birds are/were still not even 80 days old yet so we continue to be amazed at the growth rates of this strain.

The end of the rainbow is in the Hubbard run. No wonder we
get such good chickens. 
We now have a freezer well stocked with chicken portions and the raw materials for patés etc. It is a relief to get through this - it is quite hard work as well as the fact that I hate killing these birds. In some years we have done a 2nd batch starting about now and killing out just pre-Christmas but this year we will not need to do that. We currently have 22 small chicks/youngsters running around still undecided whether to grow up male or female.

Typical farm yard scene. I can see at least 12 poults here. We
have 22 now.
The Law of Averages tells us that 11 of these are likely to be roosters and will come to their moments of truth around Christmas. 12 Hubbards and 11 random 'coq's would surely be too much of a good thing. As it was Liz found she was wearing grooves in her hands pulling the bigger feathers and invested in some rubber-palm gardening gloves as protection.

Plum glut solutions (1). Plum vodka
As a nice coincidence (which also gave the chicken plucker a nice change of scene) our Victoria plum tree has come ready and is heavily laden with fruit. So laden in one case that a branch broke off under the weight of its bounty. We stripped over 4 kg fruit off that branch alone which had Liz scouring t'Internet for recipes.

Plum glut solutions (2). Preserved in syrup
and Chinese style Plum Sauce for those crispy
duck moments.
She made a plum vodka (like sloe gin), did a 'preserved in syrup' for dessert use and a Chinese style plum sauce for those crispy duck moments. The vodka should be ready, rather neatly, on 16th Dec. The remaining kgs left on the tree will probably become frozen halves or good aul' jam. We are almost out of jars, though, so we are looking for cheap sources of Kilners or honey jars before we dare start boiling.

Ooops. Sparrow-hawk 'snot'/blood and a feather on the kitchen
 window.
In a brief interlude, the well-used new kitchen nearly had a not-so-welcome (or careful) visitor. We were sitting in the Dining Room when a loud thump alerted us to a bird-strike.

Sparrowhawks are jink-between-the-trees ambush predators and this juvenile bird had obviously thought he could zoom in one window, shoot through the 20' kitchen and whistle out the other end into the yard, maybe catch a chaffinch napping. He came a real cropper on the new window and fell, stunned, to the path. We rushed up for leather gauntlets (and camera) ready to rescue him if need be but Liz was with him for only a minute before a curious hen wandered over and he came to, took off vertically and flapped away round the trees of our pig-pen. That was a relief but I would have liked a few pics.

The start of a new clump of Horse Radish.
I was on Twitter recently when I spotted that a friend had posted a pic of some horse-radish which she was digging for kitchen use. That is a plant we do not yet have, so I summoned up the cheek required and asked her if she might post me a root or two. She was happy to oblige and slipped some into the post that same day. It arrived safe and sound (Thank You 'An Post') yesterday and is already planted in a couple of tubs. Thank you Margaret G. She tells me that her plants actually started in Mayo and came to her (in Co. Meath) via a garden in Dublin. She says that she'll be very happy if I share it on in the future, a much travelled horse radish for sure.

Lidl Supermarket "cheapie" Glads
That is about it for this one. I will leave you with a few pics of flowers. The gladioli were from a bag of bulbs on offer in Lidl a few years back. They had long since out-grown their tub so I 'released' them into the edge of our woods where they are thriving.

They are so tall this year that they are getting knocked about a bit by the recent restless wind and rain. Like the rest of us they are probably longing for a snatch of 'proper' Summer but there does not seem to be any hint of that yet. Maybe the bog fires and forest fires of May were our Summer. Ah well. Till next time, then. Good Luck.
Very pale yellow hollyhock
Rudbeckia (Goldsturm)

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Mind the Bike

Dan and Dan sign the Register in a gently rocking
environment. 
Friends of the Blog, frequent visitors and happy couple, Dan and Dan(ielle) were last seen about to take that stroll up The Aisle on board a cruise ship somewhere in the Med. Congratulations you guys; you obviously nailed it and sent us a rake of pictures to prove it. You both look splendid and look to be having a having a whale of a time. The very happiest and brightest of futures to both of you and we hope to see you again soon in your new guises and Mr and Mrs Dan. Thank you for sharing the day with us via social media.

Meanwhile, back in Roscommon, we are all feeling a bit quiet and subdued after the departure of "our Spanish lads", the Help-X pair, Manu and Pedro. They have moved on to a smallholding with horses near Blessington and we hope they are enjoying themselves  (almost) as much as they did here. They tell me there is no broad-band there, though, so they are reduced to text messaging and so on. We have written them a good review on the Help-X website and they may well write one about us. It should all help both parties find work or workers next year.

2 kinds of Spanish ham
We have been enjoying the wonderful 'stuff' the boys left in their wake and not just the 2 kinds of Spanish ham they surprised us with as their final act before getting into the car for their run to the railway station, one a big fat salami sausage, the other finely sliced 'Serrano' type ham.

Totem man carved by the lads
We've also been wandering round with big grins on our faces at the extremely tidy, parkland type look of our place and at the 'Easter Island Man' totem pole fella just inside our gate.

Back to normal for us, then (or what counts for normal round here), tidying, post-visit blitzing (tho' the guys were very tidy and generated very little mess) , a mountain of postponed laundry and ironing, repairing a couple of tools which did not survive the boot-camp, shopping and that sort of thing.

Puff balls
The old redundant, grassed over cow-muck heap behind what is now our goose house, celebrated by yielding half a dozen nice fresh white puff-balls. These have appeared before but we have never bothered with them and left them to go 'puff' with their dark green spores.

Lentils with sliced runner beans and puffball as part of a curry
menu. 
This time, I dived on 3 of them and brought them in to see if we could do a 'Food for Free' forage recipe. Liz quickly rattled up some recipes off the Internet and the puffballs have appeared for a couple of nights now as the 'mushroom' part of various dishes. We agree with the Internet advice that they have a very delicate (absent?) flavour and are best used "as tofu" as a creamy bland base for other flavours.

Beeblebrox's ever bigger chicks. 
I suppose I should quickly add a Health Warning for anyone reading this and trying to follow suit. Wild mushrooms and toadstools can be very poisonous and can be difficult to ID one from another. Small puffballs can look a lot like the scary 'Amanita' toadstool when it is still inside it's 'cowl' so you should always slice your prospective puffball in half down the middle to check that you have an amorphous white lump, not an embryonic mushroom- shaped structure about to burst out of it's ball-shaped cover. Also, make sure you are eating these guys fresh and white. Any discolouration of the flesh and they have gone over and may not be safe.

Honda Gold Wing under cover
Just for a change, we have been minding an enormous motor bike for some friends. It has gone 'home' now, so I am safe to reveal the fact. These are new friends, Les and Jean who are just starting in the Irish Smallholding game. They have bought the place a few km due south of here and have dropped in a couple of times to drop stuff and do a few bits, but they have not yet nailed down the immigration/changing jobs/money side of things. Jean is still working in the UK and Les is only at leisure because his work involves a school, so he is on Summer Hols.

How much dashboard do you need on a bike?
We got the bike to mind while they were both going to be away from their new place. We are not bikers but I had, at least heard of this beast, the Honda Gold Wing (Lead Wing to its detractors because of the weight).

Thunbergia.
It is a huge 'touring' style beast with very comfy leather armchair seats and a cocoon of panniers, boxes and storage baskets. The dashboard is a ridiculously well equipped panel like a plane cockpit with stereo speakers included. The engine, at 1500 cc is 50% bigger than the one in our car and the bike has a reverse gear! Launched in 1979 (Les tells me) these beasts are still for sale new but with an 1800 cc engine and costing around £24,000 (Sterling). So, a lot more than a new Fiat Panda then! No thanks, Bikers, you can keep that one. Les's isn't new, of course but he tells me he sold a classic old convertible Jag to find the money to buy this one.

Liz is producing some lovely clean carcasses and the birds are
making good weights. The last 4 have been 2.2, 2.5, 2.8 and
2.9 kg respectively. Not bad for 72 day old fowl.
Finally, as the Hubbard birds come up to 70 days old, we have started "harvesting" them in earnest. This is rather early compared to the advised age for full free-range ("slow grown") ones but we want to off them all by Liz's Birthday, so we have been sorting 2 a day. By now Liz is skillful enough at the plucking and dressing that the birds come out a lovely clean carcass and the last 4 have made very good weights oven ready; 2.2, 2.5, 2.8 and 2.9 kg.

These Lidl supermarket "cheapie" lilies have been a revelation.
In their tub just outside the front door, Liz tells me she can smell
them 15 feet away while pruning the roses and if we leave the
front door open, their scent fills the house. 
Amazingly, this batch of 12 chicks contained only one rooster. The chances of that would be 1 in 4096 (0.5 times 0.5, 12 times) but it doesn't really matter when you are only growing the birds for 70-80 days. The roosters may go slightly bigger but not much and we are more than happy with our 5-6 lb birds. 5 lb is way more than we two need for a meal, so most of them end up jointed up and the freezer fills up with bags labelled "4 Hubbard thighs" or what ever. It is, as ever, the most delicious, meaty and succulent chicken you are ever likely to eat. If you can, you smallholders, try to get hold of these Hubbard day-olds as your raw material for chicken-meat birds.

That is about it for this one. Catch up with you next time.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

En Alabanza de Help-X

Pedro giving the hardcore yard a bit of
punishment. 
(In Praise of Help-X) In which we sadly come to the end of an epic, amazingly superb time, our 16 days of hosting our first ever Help-X volunteers, Manu and Pedro. If those two lads were typical, then the whole Help-X organisation from website to man-hours on the ground is praise-worthy indeed. They were THE BEST kind of guests (happy, friendly, easy going and very appreciative of our hospitality) as well as being brilliant, untiring workers for the "agreed" 4-5 hours a day. They also thoroughly enjoyed all the down time and leisure stuff, exploring, fishing, shopping and wood carving.

'Sparks' would be proud of us - measure
twice; cut once!
We are both delighted and impressed by how it has all gone and the place has never looked so good over all, all at once. Everywhere I look I see baize-short immaculate lawns, fields devoid of tall weeds, new woodwork and concrete scraped clean of invading grass.

New dog pen
It is quite a 'legacy' the lads have left behind, not only for the fancy bamboo pens and the lovely "Easter Island Man" totem pole head which they completed in the nick of time on their final day, yesterday. If I list it the old fashion "bullet point" way beloved of working life meetings, we have....


  • A cattle race scraped clear of invasive grass
  • The East Field devoid of tall weeds, mainly docks, rushes, nettles and thistles
  • 'Back of the Goose House' razed nettle patch
  • Huge veg patch back under control and 100 sq yards of it under plastic sheeting
  • Hedges and big willow pruned behind same.
  • Grass mowed everywhere, even into bits I have never mowed before AND all of it done with the grass-box on the back of the mower and the clippings carted away to composts or pigs (i.e. all better and tidier than I normally manage)
  • Orchard scythed and brush-cuttered to within a few inches.
  • The yard mowed. 
  • 2 lovely anti-chicken cages now protecting 2 strawberry beds
  • A lovely new 'picket' fence dog-pen leading off from the old back door.


The lads with their carved man. They think Liz
should knit him a little hat and scarf for the
winter. 
If I have forgotten any achievements, I will come back and edit them into the list. Either way it has been epic and the lads have also thoroughly enjoyed us and Roscommon and being out here in the West of Ireland. They have enjoyed a lot of new 'work' experiences and learned such skills as I could share with them around the livestock, gardening and woodwork. K-Dub will no doubt laugh at the thought of me teaching them scarf-joints and a love of DeWalt tool-ery.

The boys cook us 'cachopo', a recipe from Asturias (northern
Spain)
They enjoyed our good food and some local beers and took on a love of Guinness and, in Manu's case developed an addiction to whole-food style 'Meridian' peanut butter. They cooked for us twice, both excellent, and stretched Liz to the high notes of her cookery and provisioning. To finish with a 'bang', for example, our Last Supper was Hubbard chicken in BBQ sauce with a simple mushroom risotto, roasted toms and red peppers and an avocado-based salad. Pud was a rhubarb Pavlova and properly made Irish coffees to follow - black and white "like a little Guinness" in the words of the hugely impressed lads.

Miss Black with Manu-1 and Manu-2. Manu-3 appeared later.
I have already posted that when we collected the new lambs, we named the ram 'Pedro' after one of the boys. Then, to make sure the other lad didn't feel left out I told him that we had a black hen sitting on eggs, due to hatch on their (then) last day, Thursday 10th. We would name any successful hatches, Manu 1, Manu 2 etc.

Miss Black brings the babies out. They are so tiny; they are like
little bumble bees after we have got used to the previous clutches
of chicks which are now at least 6 weeks old. 
Good girl, Miss Black did the honours right on time, Day 21. Manu was able to see Manu 1 just after breakfast and later that day #2 and #3. The boys actually extended their stay till today, so they have also been able to enjoy the hen bringing the babies off the nest and out into the sunshine. Everyone's a winner.

Aughalustia Bridge, just south of Ballaghaderreen.
The boys also got into the fishing and finally started catching stuff. We had all been joking that this Irish fishing holiday thing was all a big con, the Lough Glynn Fishing Club was just a money-laundering scheme and that, in fact, there were fewer fish than snakes in Ireland. Having spent several fruitless hours at Lough Glynn, they moved to the beautiful Aughalustia Bridge up by Ballaghaderreen. At least there they'd be in easy pedalling range of the town's take-aways for a change of supper venue. The Bridge yielded no fish that time.

Teaching the Roscommon worms to swim.
Almost giving up on the angling thing Manu and Pedro biked down to the little local bridge as a last ditch effort and, Bingo! , started landing some roach. They caught more the 2nd day and then on Weds 9th, all encouraged, went back to Aughalustia Bridge to try again. They hauled out 3 more.

The lads are bottom right in this shot. It is a very scenic place
to fish. 
At that site there is a lovely wooden 'decking' platform with duck-board walkways etc where you are, we guess, "meant" to fish, but the lads found it all so weedy just off shore, they were frequently tangling their hooks in the submerged vegetation, so they moved along the bank to a less official place and we lent them two tripod "shooting seats". Hours of cheap fun for our budget travellers.

So, that was pretty much that. We fed them a breakfast this morning, retrieved all their dry laundry from our Utility Room and I ran them down to Castlerea station for their quarter to eleven train to Dublin. The 2nd fortnight of their tour is staying with a Help-X host farm with horses, somewhere over by Blessington, just outside Dublin, on the shore of the enormous 'Pollaphuca' Reservoir with its hydro-electric scheme and its water supply for the capital. If they can't find fish in there, we told them, then they are not trying hard enough!

We have joked with them that they will always be welcome back here so if they don't like it at Blessington, they will have to re-appear here under cover of darkness, tails between their legs. Please feed us, Lizzie, we want to come ba-ack! We didn't like it in Dublin. They didn't have Meridian peanut butter!

Seriously though, guys. You REALLY WILL be always welcome here, Help-X or not. If you are ever back this way then do get in touch and drop by.

Con the Archery Coach turns out to be a highly skilled exponent
of the mini-digger. 
What else is new? Only that in between all that I was over at archery coach, Con's place recently, when I was probably better off resting my damaged knee (almost better now, by the way), answering a call to come and help lay a land-drain.

Low point in my career. Down in the ditch trying not to lose
 a wellie.
He had hired a mini digger and had to give it back that evening, and they had all got a bit behind. So, out there for me, splodging about in wellies in a muddy ditch, trying not to lose my footwear, shovelling the drain 'fall' smooth, then building protective 'castles' out of salvaged blocks to protect the plumbing while Con back-filled the drain over the new pipe. Nice and restful on the knee, then? Maybe should have taken Pedro and Manu out there.