Monday 31 December 2012

The last day of 2012

After a succession of very windy and wet days, out of nowhere, we get a mild, warm, sunny, calm one. Liz gets to run some laundry through the system and even hang some on the line (all be it not 100% successfully - it gets showered on) and even has a crack at some ironing. I can get on the ground a bit to dig some more raised bed in the 'allotment' and I get in the 25 raspberry canes (13 summer fruiting "Malling Jewel" and 12 autumn fruiting "Autumn Bliss") which we got from Future Forests. They got heeled into the Kitchen Garden raised beds but I wanted to get them into their final position while it was still 2012 and before it warmed up and they started growing.

The young chickens made 10 weeks today. We have noticed a couple of times, that they sometimes square up to each other, chest to chest, cowl feathers (hackles) raised. My chums on the poultry forum ( ) tell me that this is a sure sign that they are males, so the stock pot may be looming for them, but cousin Win and I are still holding out hope that they will turn out to be gals, and can join the egg laying team. If it's the stock pot for them, then we have hopes that in the Spring, Broody Betty will do it all again and this time we'll know how to manage her properly (12 eggs into the clutch all at once, for a start!).

Here is another pic of the rabbits - the three 'babies' are in the middle, though you can see that they are now as big as our own buck, Rogers (on the right in this shot). These blighters all escaped the run today and we were out there in wellies with torches trying to round them up in the dark. Luckily, when threatened out loose by a roving human their natural reaction is to head home, often using (and giving away the location of) the hole out of which they have escaped.

And so to our own celebration of the end of what's been a brilliant year for us, including gutting and rebuilding the house, starting on the garden, hosting a few visitors and getting our roots down a bit in this far flung place. We have dined on steak (a lovely T-bone from our lamb-butcher, Ignatius Gannon), oven chips, peas and mushrooms, we have drunk some nice Rioja and we are now chilling in our lovely toasty warm Living Room in front of the real fire, chatting, reading books and wondering whether we'll bother to watch the Crosby/Astaire movie "Holiday Inn" to keep us awake till midnight (we may not need the movie). At midnight we will listen to a countdown on local radio and then stick our heads out and shout "Happy New Year" across the front lawn into the inky blackness. We will not expect any reply or any fireworks. We will then do the 'First Foot' thing with coal or turf, Greek fire-water, salt, a slice of bread or cake and a €1 coin to cover all the bases.


Saturday 29 December 2012

(Wild) Goose Chase

Talk about innocents abroad. There we were Christmas Eve chatting to the Vendor, Anna L, about this and that when she said "What you should do... what we used to do when I was so high (she indicated a 5-year-old's height with her hand) was to keep a few geese, one for Christmas Day, one for New Years and the rest for selling or giving away. As is our way we fell to discussing this after Anna had gone and agreed that it might be a fun idea and (as is also our way) dived into the books, especially our 'bible', the Haynes Smallholding Manual by Liz Shankland. Her chapter on geese starts off by describing geese in general and indicates that Chinese (variety) geese can be aggressive and 'boisterous' but then, in the section on Choosing Breeds, starts with the variety 'Pilgrim'. Geese come in 3 groups - the 'light', the 'medium' and the big heavyweights like saggy-bellied Toulouse and Embden. Pilgrim are in the light category, which suits us and, according to Liz S, "if Chinese geese are the rogues of the species, Pilgrims are the angels, much prized for their gentle temperament etc". At no point does Liz S say that they are rare, almost unheard of in Ireland, Show pure-breds and that they cost an arm and a leg. 

Our next move, then, was to start searching the internet for local suppliers and breeders. Maybe warning bells should have started to ring when there were none. My poultry-forum website started to suggest breeders and suppliers in the UK (East Anglia, Frome in Somerset etc) and bird couriers - guys who make a living ferrying poultry and waterfowl between the two countries. I ended up on emails and the phone to a few of these people and it started to look like we'd chosen a particularly expensive hobby here and an especially expensive variety of goose. These birds, it was being suggested, might be up to £100 a pop and we wanted a gander and maybe three geese. Further, the couriering from the east of England to the West of Ireland might be €60 per "crate" of 2 birds, so we were suddenly looking at £500+ just to get the birds here. There were, we were told, other varieties of light geese which might be cheaper, such as Pomeranian, Roman and Steinbacher, but none of these sounded like they'd be "cheap" as such.

It won't surprise you to know we have now retreated from this position and put Pilgrim geese back into 'if we win the Lottery' status (gonna be tricky as we don't actually do the Lottery) and we will be proceeding, more than likely, with some common or garden white domestic farm geese which we will buy young in the Late Spring when goslings start to be available. We Hope.

Friday 28 December 2012

First one at Feigh

On the 4th day of Christmas etc. Well, we came through our first Christmas at Feigh and survived it all, and we can both honestly say that it was an excellent time, thoroughly enjoyed by all present. What I promise NOT to do, though, is to go at great length; Christmas is a lovely personal time and nobody really wants to read about everybody else's, so here are one or two pictures and a quick riff through the days to give you a flavour.

If you've been reading this a while you'll know that this is our 2nd Christmas living in Ireland but as we'd not built this house yet and only had the caravan. last year we retreated to Silverwoods and enjoyed their hospitality instead. All previous Christmasses since we've been together, Liz and I have always been invited away for the day, either to Pud Lady's place in Hastings, or to the Silverwoods. Hence we were determined that now we finally have the place to do it, we would be host and hostess and return the favour to the Silverwoods. We had all 6 of them plus 2 dogs from Christmas Eve round to the 27th. The short story is that it went brilliantly.

In terms of food it was a triumph throughout, with Liz and Chef and me serving as Sous-chef and washing up assistant, with responsibility for a few meals and some bits of others. The Monday evening we did a mild, yogurt-y beef curry with a Madhur Jaffrey Okra dish and our own home made Naan bread. On the big day we had the big fry up breakfast and, of course the massive turkey feast with an enormous ham provided by the Silverwoods and Christmas pud to Pud Lady's recipe (with an amusing omission of which more later).

 "Boxing Day" (which in Ireland everyone calls "Stephen's Day") saw us on a left-overs lunch and a supper of half-leg of lamb (no questions where that came from please) and on the 27th I did a lunch called "Flaming Bastard Fish" which came out of the Indy Magazine in 2004 as part of their series of celebrity recipes; this one being from Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet and featured stuffing and soaking a whole salmon in a mix of soya sauce, ginger, hot  fresh chillies and spring onions.

Naturally with the 4 children involved, Santa was very much in evidence and managed to deliver a nifty stocking to each bed-foot and a huge sack to the base of the tree for each child. The kids woke at 05:00 but were confined upstairs and not allowed to wake the grown ups till 06:00 earliest. They invaded us at 06:00 and 1 second with their excited cries of "Santa's been!" We all descend the stairs and fix the grown ups with a cup of tea before Liz let everyone through to the Living Room and tree in a ceremonial door-opening. There follows the expected massive 'feeding frenzy' of wrapping paper flying and delighted cries of children as they mentally check list what they got with what they'd put in their Santa lists as well as buzzing with all the unlisted extra stuff. Liz tried to keep up with a dustbin liner in hand, gathering discarded packaging before it overwhelmed us.

With the Santa gifts opened, assembled and a bit played with, we adjourn through to a major fried breakfast, before returning to the tree to open presents from friends and relatives. That's when it starts to slow down a bit and goes a bit quieter with children playing with new stuff, trying to work out their new "android" smart-phones and Mr S trying to get M's new 'tablet' computer set up, some reading new books. Poor Mrs Silverwood, still recovering from flu and now from her 06:00 rude awakening falls asleep at every lull and eventually gives in, wraps herself in a new 'Snuggy' fleece blanked and takes a nap surrounded by pups.

The big turkey dinner is ready for about 17:30 with M, who loves to get involved in the kitchen, having got involved in helping put together a salad of baby leaves, pomegranate seeds, goats cheese, pine nuts, peppers-in-oil and a dressing.

The pud was a story in itself, assembled from an old family recipe recited over the phone by Pud Lady, mixed, stirred up on Stir Up Sunday and then boiled way back in November AFTER WHICH, we found the voice message on my old English mobile phone saying Pud Lady was very sorry but she had forgotten to tell us about the 6 ounces bread crumbs we needed in the pud. Liz quickly consulted cookery-expert internet chums who re-assured us that it would probably be OK, and so it proved. It didn't come out of the basin very well, but we repaired that split before flambée-ing it with Greek fire-water and everybody loved it and came back for seconds.

Stephens's Day was probably The Perfect Boxing Day - everyone on good form, relaxing, lots of playing with the new toys and games with the kids, gentle eating and a bit of drinking, a quiet dog-walk, a lovely chatty visit from our Small-Holdering Mentors Anne and Simon. Good company, good food and drink, lovely cosy house. It doesn't really get any better.

And then it was all over, the final morning, a 'fun' breakfast of quail's eggs on toast (eggs courtesy of Anne and Simon) followed by more play and some packing up ready to go, dividing up the left overs to give the S's a decent "doggy bag", a final lunch of that hot spicy fish, then piling everyone and all the mass of stuff back into the car. The Silverwoods have a big car, one of those 7-seat people-carrier jobs, but it was choc-a-block. Poor J-M, who came up all the way with the ham on her lap, had to go home again with what was left of the ham back on her lap.

Off they went back to Silverwood to get ready to receive Mr S's own parents over from the UK for a few days. We were left with that "and... relaxxxx" feeling you get when you get your house back and a goodly amount of clearing up, putting rooms back into 'between visits' mode, a little washing (only lunch really) and then some catching up on the computers. We work an "all computers off" rule for these occasions - it's what Mrs S does in her own house and it works well.

So. That was that. I hope I have not been too long-winded. Now back to that small holding, where it is, almost inevitably, raining again.

Sunday 23 December 2012

First Christmas Visitors

Christmas "Eve Eve" today if you like and we have started to receive visitors, ready or not, though we're not expecting the Silverwoods till tomorrow. Poor Mr S has to work on Christmas Eve (Ahh, how I remember those days, almost last man out, first man back in and all that) all be it possible working from home, so they will not be able to set out at a sensible hour. Mrs S, too, has her own packed pre-Christmas schedule what with children and Santa visits etc, but we're hoping to get her in the front door and then wait on her hand and foot, give a proper break and rest, feet up, force fed cups of tea and so on.

Our first visitors are our mentors, Anne and Simon who drop in for tea, mince pies and a good long chat. As is now the way of things, they come bearing gifts and go away with something or other in return. They have recently got into quail as a new form of live stock ( starting with three hens and a cock who have only just arrived but are already settled down to the egg laying. Anne's gift to us was therefore these 10 lovely quail eggs which we will have fun using up. We are also now toying with the idea of doing quail ourselves. From us, they got a jar of our Blackberry and Apple jam and (don't ask) an ostrich feather duster.

We get chatting and with their encouragement, Liz starts to talk very positively about the possibility of us keeping pigs. I have always veered away a bit from pigs because I know nothing about them and worry about fencing and housing, but it occurs that the 'Secret Garden' might be the perfect place to 'do them' as it's under trees so there wouldn't be the sun-burn or weather problems. I need to go off and read around the subject (as ever!) but my mind's eye is toying with those lovely gingery Tamworth, long-snouted dudes strolling in the dappled sunlight under the spruces. Whoa! Let's research where to buy them and how to get them slaughtered first. Our man Ignatius is only licensed for cattle and sheep. (NB Pig pictures here blagged from the internet - we don't have any to photograph yet!)

Today we have Vendor Anna and Partner Paul drop by on their way to the Knock Airport - they are off to Kent to visit the Bexleyheath-based Sister (the three Sisters live in Carrick on Shannon, Dublin and Kent) so they call by us with a card (plus one for John Deere Bob) and gift and take tea and cake. In the course of this chat we find a lovely coincidence, in that one of Paul's cousins is also a friend of mine in the Thames Sailing Barge world but also Anna gets talking about geese and how we should keep them, fattening them up for Christmas. Pigs, Quails and now Geese all over the course of two days.
In terms of existing animals, all three dogs get a shampoo after their walk this morning, much to their disgust, mainly so that they do not 'ming' quite as badly for the guests over the break. This was not the pups' first ever bath but it was close. I've done them before in the Utility Room sink but we now find it easier to wrangle them in the big shower cubicle and use the power-shower on them. The three little clean faces here are, in order, Poppy with her pricked up ears, Towser with his floppy ears and Deefer still not quite dry.

The other picture, the view down into the bucket of oranges, onions etc is, of course, the turkey brining mixture prior to the turkey being dropped in and the brine being made up to cover the bird with water. The whole is now back out in the Tígín marinading gently in the coolth. We have turned our attention to blitzing the fridge, cleaning the leather sofa and so on.

Christmas Eve? Bring it on! We are nearly ready!

Saturday 22 December 2012

Of Brewing and Brining

This was a new one on me, 'Brining' your turkey prior to cooking it. We hear through a number of Liz's friends on various cookery discussion groups that brining is an absolute must-do for moist, tender turkey meat and apparently it is also favoured by various celebrity chefs such as Nigella Lawson. I have done 55 Christmasses now and have never heard of this or seen it done but I do admit that turkey, especially the breast meat, can be a little dry in the mouth, so it will be interesting to see what brined meat is like.

Basically brining involved submerging your turkey, defrosted but not yet stuffed, in a cold 'brine' of sweeteners, herbs and spices for 24 hours plus prior to placing it into the oven, and the turkey thus enjoys taking up water and the flavours, like a marinade, from the water. The 'brine' comprises enough cold water to submerge the bird but also 500g salt, then peppercorns, bouquet garni, cinnamon sticks, carraway seed, cloves, allspice berries, star anise, mustard seed, caster sugar, quartered onions, sliced root ginger, oranges, maple syrup, runny honey, parsley stalks, eye of newt, leg of toad, hubble bubble etc. (OK I might have invented the amphibian body-parts).

Now, ours is a 9kg bird, so here is Liz, struggling first thing in the morning, still in dressing gown and slippers, plus gloves (frozen turkey, very cold!) to see will the bird fit in the new 5 gallon fermentation bucket which was part of an early Christmas Present from the Silverwoods. We don't need the bucket till day 6 of the wine task, so it is being pressed into service as a brining bucket. Thank you, the Silverwoods. The bird did fit, so it's now de-frosting gently in the Tígín in its bucket and will get brined up tomorrow, assuming it is thawed.

"But what of brewing?" I hear you ask. Having enjoyed the boxed set of The Good Life and Tom and Barbara Good's fun and games with 'Pea Pod Burgundy" we were thinking about this as another thing we could do after a gap, in my case, of 35 years+. I used to make gallons of the stuff but admittedly never grape wine - all manner of fruits, birch-sap, barley and so on, but never vine fruits. We were delighted then to receive from Silverwood as an early Christmas present, a starter kit for merlot wine including a 5 gallon fermentation bucket and a 5 gallon fermentation barrel with air locks, hydrometer, etc.

We got cracking on this today having bought the required 4 kg sugar, boiling water to dissolve the sugar, adding the gloopy red concentrate, then cold water, then the yeast and nutrient plus, amusingly a bag of oak saw-dust (for that "barrel aged" quality, it says here). The instructions are dead easy and all the ingredients come in packets labelled A through to F. The oak sawdust/wood chip is bag B.

The plan, roughly speaking, is to start the brew in the barrel on a chair near the Utility Room radiator. It is probably the most consistently warm place in the house which is not in a main thoroughfare or high-traffic room and will not be in the way over Christmas while we have all the guests. It sits there for around 6 days frothing wildly to start with and then settling down to a steady blip-blip-blip through the airlock while the specific gravity falls from heaven knows where to below 6 (0.996 kg/litre) on the hydrometer as the yeast burns through all that sugar.

At that point you stop the ferment with stabiliser (sachet C), add the essential Merlot-ness (sachet D) and start to fine it down (clear it) using finings (sachets E, then F then G). When it's all clear you syphon it off into your "turkey-brining bucket" from which you can taste, sweeten if need be (Can't see that happening here!) bottle and cork. Amusingly, given the number of times we have to go to the bottle bank, and how many "corks" (tough springy plastic these days) the pups have chewed on while teething, we are concerned we may not actually have 30 bottles and enough corks in which to bottle it, so we have Mr Silverwood out buying corks from the home-brew shop in their town, and we are saving 2 litre milk bottles and caps in case of emergencies.

Well, we had some fun with it, and it's now starting to blip in the barrel. 6 days takes us round to 28th Dec, so we might just be able to sample some on New Year's Eve. Bottoms up! Sláinte!

Wednesday 19 December 2012

The Old Familiar Road

This Christmas has been organised to within an inch of its life. Anyone who knows Liz will know that she loves a good 'list', so the laptop has been humming to the clicketty click of keyboard as lists of ingredients, shopping lists, menus, thawing and cooking schedules are laid down. She's making a list; she's checking it twice?

Unlike Liz, who often wakes up during dreams and is able to recall them and talk about them, I very rarely remember any of mine. One, a couple of months ago, had me waking up in a cold sweat and able to remember vividly, because in it I'd been doing the weekly shop in Lidl and had somehow managed to spend €185.89 so was trying to explain the amount away to Liz (panic!). I'd long forgotten this dream but today, when we put the hard-pressed Laser card to work doing the Big Christmas Shop it started to look like it might come true, and Liz said she'd have "laughed and laughed" had the total hit that magic figure.

Tuesday the 18th sees us driving down to Silverwoods on that old familiar road - Castlerea, Roscommon, Athlone, Tullamore. We did that every day for that first week in Ireland, a year ago this week, and then every weekend through January, Feb, March and April, driving down on the Fridays grimy and exhausted from a week's buildering, and then back up again on the Monday all clean, fed, dried out and with the car loaded with cleaned laundry. We still thank the Silverwoods mightily for their hospitality, hot water and food, keeping us going through the caravan-living, renovation phase. We'd intended to come down to see at least one of the 'smalls' in their Nativity Plays, but we managed to miss M's (14th Dec) before we even planned the trip, and R's was early morning Monday (17th) before we could realistically get there.

We settled for a visit and catch up instead on a day when Mr Silverwood was working from Home (so we'd see him) and by coincidence, the two older girls were off sick from school with flu or Winter-Vomiting bug. We left the house at 09:15 with the dogs loaded up. The dogs love it down there, especially the pups who love to see their birth-Mum and Dad and their first human 'Mum and Dad' plus the kids. They charge about trying to meet everyone all at once and get completely exhausted in the process, so that they sleep soundly all evening. It also meant we could sneak a load of parcels into the car for the journey home which certain small children do not need to know about but may expect to appear in their bedrooms on a certain day coming up soon. Nuff said.

There was very little spare space in the Fiat for the return journey, and even less when we shipped the two 5-gallon fermentation bins which are part of a wine-making "starter kit", part of our Christmas present from the Silverwoods. My family will know that I was mad into wine-making when a boy and at one stage had 36 demi-johns arrayed around the shelves in my bedroom and brewed an amazing range of non-grape flavours from barley wine, apple and elderberry, citrus, birch-sap, blackberry, pear etc - anything we could get hold of the fruit for and pretty much do for the price of the sugar and yeast. Happy days!

Some of you out there listen to me, and bless Pud Lady who takes note of my comment about increasing our number of tree decorations year by year and includes in our Christmas Card, three lovely 'angels' for the tree. Thanks, Mum!

For now, our cold snap seems to be well and truly over and the mild weather with rain is back. This has been the wettest year anyone locally can remember so we are all hoping for no repeat of it in 2013. The warmth, though, has encouraged some first daffs to break the surface of the ground - these being the bulbs from the huge net which Steak Lady gave us way back along with numerous cuttings from rampaging plants in her own garden. We love 'rampage' - we have the space so little prissy things get lost in our big spaces, but these various bits have gone into the Steak-Lady bed with the hundred or so mixed narcissus and daff bulbs planted beneath them. It should look nice down in there between the tractor-tyre planters and the hay barn roses.

Monday 17 December 2012

"Here a Year" and Logging Games

With the passing of the 12th Dec, comes the Anniversary of our moving here. It was on the afternoon of the 11th, through to the morning of the 12th, that we made the long run here across UK, on the overnight ferry and then the morning drive west across Ireland to arrive at the solicitor's office in Strokestown (Co. Roscommon) for 09:00 in the morning to collect our front door key. It's probably all here in the blog but I must admit I've not been to check. With the keys clutched in our fist we completed the journey in the Fiat and 2CV plus trailer convoy, creaking open the rusty gates and slithering the cars up the drive, then coated with 15 years of rotten pine needles. It feels like a long time since then and we have certainly achieved a massive amount - more than we ever dreamed we'd be called upon to achieve.

By happy coincidence it was on the 12th that we found ourselves back in that same solicitor's office, but this time making our Wills. We had Wills in the UK, obviously, but these can only cover UK assets, not the Irish house or the now-Irish cars and any other stuff or bank accounts.

After all the frenetic hard work stuff of that first 12 months, we have also now settled down into a more sensible routine, the business of just living here, settling in and making friends. Our main local contact is John Deere Bob, a local guy who has adopted us and we are happy to now think of as a good friend. He calls by once or twice a week and comes in sits down and chats, tells us his latest news and answers our queries (where are local Doctors, who would you see for fencing etc). You can see from this picture that the dogs have also adopted him and consider him a bit of a soft touch on the ginger biscuits. Not so the cats. Bob doesn't do cats, and if any of them try it you hear Bob's superbly accented "Gooworrrn! Get away!" We love his twinkly eyed breathy laugh, which is usually his response to Liz teasing him that he will have the young ladies chasing him at the Dance he's off to tonight, or some such joking.

In the garden, as we approach Winter Solstice (Dec 21st) we have been attacking the seed catalogues. Our mentor, Anne W, has received her catalogues for Thompson and Morgan and for a local supplier who are local agents for same and who can supply the blight resistant varieties of seed potatoes which we probably need to grow round here, Sarpo Mira. Mira is due to be in short supply this year as a result of the poor season, so we are advised to get in there a bit quick. We converge on Anne and Simon's place to rattle in our order (we are combining forces to save postage) and while I'm on spuds, I include the kale and greens, carrots, parsnips etc as well as the nasturtiums and marigolds that I like to grow alongside for pollination reasons. It is good to do this job each year as you start to get a real feeling that there is going to be a 2013 season, Spring WILL eventually come, the rain might ease off and this winter will be history.

In the animals dept, the 'baby' chicks are now 8 weeks old and are out and about all day with the main flock and William the Rooster. They are coping well and doing OK. My on-line 'experts' (the Irish fowl discussion forum) have seen the pictures and have been telling me since these guys were tiny, that they look like roosters, but they do admit it can be a bit hit and miss sexing baby chicks. If they are roosters then I am afraid they will end up in the freezer as William will not put up with them (and we do not want to be paying for food for non-productive birds), so I am hoping that the experts have it wrong, and that these two are in fact pullets who can join the egg-laying gang when they get to 21 weeks or so (mid April).

I have also been out logging again as the wood store has been depleted a bit by our burning wood, especially during the recent cold snap (which lasted a few days but has now been replaced by mild but wet weather). Partly this is in association with John Deere Bob who is convinced we should be harvesting the lovely ash trees growing in the land owned by the Three Sisters (the bit we didn't buy). We have, of course, checked with Vendor Anna for permission to do this and she has let us take wood as long as the tree is free standing and not part of a hedge.

There is a small row of half a dozen coppiced ash trees down in the NW corner of the property, so I have gone down, felled and logged up a first one of these trunks, but I am not convinced Bob will get his tractor down there through some of the very muddy field gateways, so I have stopped for now and started work back 'home' where logs can be gathered up in a wheel barrow. This has also involved me nipping down to Bob's farm to cut up some gnarly, bottom-of-tree bits which are too tough and knotty for him to split with his axe.

In the process, I have badly blunted a 2nd chain-saw chain, so that filing them sharp no longer really works. It gives you a few minutes of 'edge' but what chain saw blades really need every now and then is a proper sharpen with a special angle-grinder disk 'rig'. Now, it so happens, that when I first got the saw and Sparks needed to pay me for some petrol, I got him to pay me with a spare chain but also one of these angle-grinder rigs which good old Lidl's (Supermarket) were doing on special for about £30 to go with their saws. Over the intervening months I had got as far as un-boxing this machine and setting it up but had never actually switched it on or used it in anger. If I'm honest, I was a bit scared of it having seen and heard the screaming violence meted out by Sparks's various angle-grinder-based builder's machine tools (stone cutters, rip saws, the metal-cutters) when we were house-building (demolishing actually).

I needn't have worried! This thing turns out to be so quiet and 'gentle' you don't actually know it's running unless you look, and , because all it was doing is putting the edge back on each 'chisel' tip of the chainsaw chain, there is little drama when grinding, and a tiny 'shower' of sparks a few inches long (see picture). It works though! The saw was like new! When chain saws lose their edge the 'saw-dust' they throw out goes from being coarse wood-chips up to a cm in size, to smaller bits and then finally actual dust. Obviously they also start to take a lot longer to go through the tree and eventually they start to glaze over the cut ends (scorching them) rather than making a clean cut with its normal parallel lines where the saw blade has buzzed through. These things I have been told but was pleased today to prove them to myself. The belovéd saw is now blasting through the spruce and the ash in the Secret Garden, showering me with big wood chips and slicing through foot diameter trunks in seconds. Wish I'd done it sooner!

Tuesday 11 December 2012

At Last! At Last!

Hallelujah! At last! At last the 2CV gets through her NCT test. (Irish equivalent of the MOT) See also the 'Thorn in my Side' post from a couple of weeks back. It is a year to the day (this evening) since we set out on our long convoy with the Fiat and the 2CV and trailer, leaving Faversham behind and off on our big adventure.

We got the cars here OK but then started a whole series of ups and downs with trying to get registered in Ireland, sourcing a windscreen from the UK, failing the NCT on a wheel bearing, non-compliant tyres and play in the steering, getting all that fixed and failing the re-test on tracking.

You only get 28 days grace at the 're-test' status and we were so long getting bits we ran right up to the wire, so when we failed again I had to go back to square one, the full test at full test price. In theory the guys are not meant to take account of any 'old' passes when they start again but my guys in Castlerea seem to be a bit friendlier than that and a bit intrigued by this bizarre old French car, so they read the old sheets and maybe, just maybe, were a bit lenient. Maybe not, maybe we were 100% compliant even to the toughest tester.

I knew that the drivers side seat-belt can be a bit 'sticky' and hard to pull out if the car is at the wrong angle, and when I saw the guy struggling with it I thought I was doomed. You are tucked away in a waiting room watching your car go through - you can't go into the test area or hear anything, so you feel very helpless.

You have to wait quietly with everyone else, feeling a bit like a naughty boy sitting outside the Headmaster's office, till your man drives the car out of the other end of the 'sausage machine', walks round to the reception and comes to the window to call you and you are hoping desperately that in his hand will be the monochrome printed results sheet but ALSO the green and yellow pass sheet with it's attached windscreen-insert in his hand. When your eyes fall on the green and yellow the relief is immense. Of course, you try to be cool as you take the sheet, joking casually with him and smile sympathetically at the other people in the waiting room, accepting their "Well done!" comments but by the time I was outside and texting Liz (and the garage in Balla-D and 2CV Llew) my news, I was shaking all over. I flew home to a round of applause from Liz out of the kitchen window.

Well done Clara Bow! We got there in the end. I have celebrated by finally sticking my Irish 2CV Club (2CV na hÉireann) sticker to the boot, which I'd been holding off doing in case I jinxed anything.

Monday 10 December 2012

Ignatius G Victualler

This then is the second and final post which should be avoided by anyone who thinks the detail around slaughter and butchery of the late lambs is "too much information". If you don't want to know about such things, look away now. Normal service and happy animal stories will resume with the next post.

"Ignatius Gannon (Victualler); Beef Mutton and Lamb as in Season. None but the best quality stocked". So says his paperwork and we can vouch for the fact that Ignatius G is an excellent butcher, a small local business in Castlerea thriving and surviving despite being almost opposite the SuperValu Supermarket. He is a tall, strong bloke with brawny arms, grey hair, a white shop-coat well smeared with the expected gore and a ready smile and jokey wit. He was also very good to us 'newbies', helped us a lot through the process and answered all my myriad questions as we went along. His prices also compare very favourably with the Supermarket prices, so that, in this exercise, we have used his as our estimate of the carcass's worth even though it would have looked even better at SuperValu rates.

Readers will know that we have already had back the 'offal' last Monday (hearts, livers and kidneys) but the main carcasses have to hang for a week, so we were back today to collect the main event and 'supervise' the cutting up - we had to choose, for example, whether we wanted shoulder joints or the much more popular (locally) gigot chops. We did. You then have to choose how big to leave the 'shoulders' - how far up the rib cage do you want the 'chopping' (for shoulder chops) to come before you stay stop, and keep the rest of the shoulder intact.

Ignatius and his 'oppo' and slaughterman of 34 years, Joe set to work sawing and cleavering and in this case they agreed to bag it up as they went along as if it was meat for sale, so that we could have all the bits labelled and we could know the price per kilo of the bits (from €9/kilo for breast meat and neck, through €11 for leg, €12 for cutlets, €13.50 for shoulder and up to €17/kilo for loin chops; this comparing to €21/kilo we have seen in Supervalu. The labels also showed the final price of the bag, so for example, a shoulder might be €32.83, 'half legs' up to about €20 and bags of 4 loin chops around €7. The output from one animal was then loaded into a tough white dustbin liner so that we could work out some numbers per animal. They charge, incidentally, €30 per animal for the slaughter and butchery though we gave them a bit of a tip too for being so brilliant.

So, having completed our other shopping we headed home with the little Fiat very well loaded down with meat. We excluded all the animals from the living room and sorted all this booty out on the Dining Room table. We were able to tap all the numbers into a spreadsheet (I can hear anyone who knows me muttering "Typical!" at this point. From this we know that for example....

1) Our three girls had carcass weights of between 17 and 18.2 kg respectively
2) The total weight of meat (excluding offal) was 52.9 kg
3) The carcasses would have cost us €213, €218 and €227 over the counter, a total of €659.24
4) Our most expensive cut is a 2.56 kg shoulder at €34.56
5) A 6 foot tall, €400 freezer will just about fit three carcasses of this size (which was a relief).

In terms of finances and 'did we make a profit' the following figures might be interesting. The sheep originally, back in September, cost €80 each. They cost €44 in supplementary feed (the grass was free as we have not yet had to worry about cultivation or fertilizer!), we paid Kenny €20 diesel for haulage to the butcher and paid €100 for the slaughter and butchery, total inputs €404.

The meat was worth €659.24 as we only used Ignatius's prices (we could have quoted Supermarket prices and we could almost have said they were organic - Heaven KNOWS how much organic lamb is worth - our grass has had no chemicals applied and these ladies had no growth promoters or other unnecessary drugs, only our bought in feed was not organic, and we cannot answer for the first 5 months of their lives. We are estimating €9.75 for the 'offal' so our outputs are €668.99, so effectively we made a profit of €264.99 which makes a nice contribution to the €600 fence we had to erect around the paddock. Mentally we were depreciating this over ten years but at this rate it's more like 3 years!. Our own man hours are not charged as we had so much fun doing this. It's been a blast and a lovely bit of learning to be small holders. Yes, we had to do the sad slaughter bit at the end, but that comes with the territory and we coped OK; we know how much love, respect, care, good food and shelter had gone into these animals and we chose our butcher with care and you can't say that if you buy stuff you've not reared and kept yourself.

Thanks to everyone who had a hand in this, especially our sheep mentor, Kenny O'C (who pronounced our results as "mighty"), to our small-holdering mentors, Anne and Simon (who found us the butcher and reassured us that we were getting good growth rates) and to Ignatius and Joe, the heroes of this particular post.

So, what's for supper then? That'll be chicken and chips because we had some to use up!

First Fruits and Suet

I promised to warn you if I was going to post on the subject of the late sheep, so that those of a sensitive nature, for whom detail about the butchery and meat production side of things is "too much information" could look away and ignore this post. This is the first of same.

We are in that week between the slaughter date for the sheep and the cutting up or the carcasses after they have been hung for a week, but the need to hang did not apply to hearts, livers and kidneys, so we were able to collect those on Monday. Hearts, livers and the actual kidneys are in the freezer, but the kidneys came back still encased in their fatty 'suet' cauls (coverings) which the butchers often clean off completely. We have been enjoying being able to buy kidneys "in their jackets" locally, which means that some of the caul is left on and this adds beautifully to the flavour, in our opinion, of the cooked kidney.

The whole caul, however, would be way too much fat round your 'meat' so Liz cut away most of it before freezing the kidneys. She 'whizzed' up the resulting hard fat with flour to make cookable suet and we have been enjoying this in a couple of meals which are, in fact, the First 'Fruits' of meat production on this 'farm', our first edible livestock. The suet pud here has the lamb suet crust but contains roast pork (from that enormous joint we featured recently) and an Italian mix of tomato and garlic known as 'sugo'.

The third picture is a traditional Spotted Dick which I was able to advise on from good old School Dinners, when Liz had never met one before and had no idea what to expect or whether this one had come out OK. I assured her that it was indeed, perfect and very nostalgic served with Birds banana custard. What other way is there?

Beginning to Look

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. We are behind the curve a bit locally, as the McG's down the road already have their tree displayed in the front bay of their house, all twinkly multi coloured lights and tinsel, clearly visible from the road. Our problem is that we can't find any for sale. Unlike Kent where very garden centre, every farm entrance and everything even vaguely like a craft market or boot sale had trees by the dozen from late November and the verges seemed to be littered with roughly made cardboard notices saying "XMAS TREE'S!" (or some such apostrophe'd up grocer-speak) we had seen not a whisper. Even the guy running the Christmas wreaths, yule logs and table centre-pieces stand in Balla-D market "didn't bother with them any more" and didn't know where you could get one. I asked in a variety of shops. No joy.

Fortunately we subscribe to the news-feed in Facebook from ace local (half hour away) garden centre Ardcarne and they were suddenly advertising them "From €29!"). That was our Saturday morning sorted. Admittedly we were a bit horrified by the prices - needless to say the €29 ones were all the threadbare, thin, short and damaged ones. These were all the newer, more fashionable 'Noble Fir' which apparently sheds its needles less, rather than the Norway Spruce we always bought in UK and seemed to be around €55 for a 6 footer.

We baulked and went to look at artificial ones thinking they might be cheaper in the long run. Indeed they might in the VERY long run. Anything at all realistic and large was €169 up, and often €299 up. Yoiks. We bit the bullet and got us a real one. We needed a decent tree to go in our Living Room bay and be tall enough to be visible from the rather high-silled window from outside.

Trees round here are subject to 'style police' rules. Amusingly, given that Christmas tends to be about overstatement, garish, tat-ness and lairy colour, the Style Police here dictate that the tree must be mainly silver with a bit of red and only tiny amounts of other colours. Tinsel is silver, the lights are clear rather than multi-coloured and baubles are 99% silver. A few red ones are allowed if they were gifts. Toys of course can be any colour but end up mainly red.

We do have stuff of other colours but this gets used up in other rooms, so gold tinsel, for example, goes round pictures in the Dining Room or the stairs balustrade. The small strand of old multi-coloured lights, which pre-date the style police, get draped round book shelves. We also work a system where we try to each buy a Christmas Tree decoration for each other each year and welcome any gifts there-of, so we love this year's heart shaped 'stuffed toy' decs from Mazy Lou. Thank you Mazy!

We think it looks nice. We were worried that the pups and kittens would wreak havoc, pulling over the tree and so on but so far the only damage sustained was to the feather boa you can see at the base of the tree in the pics (shredded by pups), the tinsel round the picture pulled down by a kitten (and this is above the hot range!), and a dangly bauble-on-string-of-gold-pearls disentangled from the stairs and chucked on ground. The kittens do not seem to be able to resist the slithery, pearl-over-pearl rattly movements of this as they attempt to grab it and can't quite grip it. Hours of fun. Luckily it is a cheap old thing with the plastic 'pearls' welded to the string, so there's no danger of a string-breaks, pearls rolling around like marbles style accident.

Merry Christmas.