Tuesday 31 December 2013

The End of the Year

Last of the cake
Our local lough, Lough Feigh, is full to bursting after recent rain and resounds to the beautiful noise of the 30 to 40 swans who spend their winter there. They are either Whooper or Bewick's Swans (I am not very good on the smaller swans and these two are very similar) and I have not been down to the lough with binoculars for a close look. We just enjoy the musical honking calls which come up on the wind to the lane as I walk the dogs along the top there, and to the front garden. We wonder whether our own geese feel some kind of 'Call of the Wild' yearnings as they hear them.

And so we come to the end of the year. Christmas left overs are starting to run out. The Christmas Day goose has reappeared in a number of guises since, sneaking back as cold meat, then a superb pie and most recently as small jars of 'rilette' (finely shredded meat mixed with apple, garlic and butter, a bit like a paté). The spiced cabbage has brightened up a few meals, served alongside a risotto and the pie. The cake will go a few more slices and the pud will supply a few more portions lubricated with the ice cream.

Chestnuts for the sprouts tonight.
I feel a bit of an urge to sum up the year but I promise to keep it short and sweet; just the one paragraph. In (very) short it's been a really good one for us. The small holding has moved on a-pace in the warm dry weather (the rain is only recent) and we have produced mountains of veg. I am particularly pleased with the onions and spuds and we have a freezer full of beans, peas and calabrese. We have produced a million eggs and plenty of chicken, goose, rabbit and lamb. We fenced the East Field, built the poly-tunnel and completed the pond. We made some new friends and consolidated existing ones. Liz got involved with the local knitting group and has got into knitting and has also expanded her cookery skills into a wealth of cakes and pies. Not everything went 100% to plan, of course. We lost the use of the 2CV. I killed one chain saw but inherited a perfectly good, and superior, replacement. We celebrated with a delicious Christmas. All in all a good 2013. Roll on 2014.

Our surprisingly good, well ripened
and now stored onions
One 'hin' however, will not be seeing 2014. She was one of our old original Sussex Ponte hens which have already given us a brilliant first year of egg laying but have lately gone off the boil. Yesterday this young lady managed to injure herself in a serious and debilitating way we believe, by pecking on sharp piece of wire or broken glass, both of which we have too much of in the soil not yet dug over and cleared. I am not going into any more detail in case you are eating your tea, but suffice to say that we had to cull this girl out and even as I type this, Liz is plucking her in the kitchen. She is going to be a tiny carcass despite being full grown. I doubt if she will be even one kilogram 'oven-ready', way smaller than the hulking Hubbard birds we have been processing most recently. She is a neat shape though, so she is 'petite' in the same way that Guinea Fowl and poussins make small carcasses, rather than scrawny or thin. It will be nice to roast a whole bird between 2 of us, rather than (as with Hubbard birds) having to dismember them first and make 4 separate meals out of them.

Ooops. Despite my care the tractor cuts up
ruts in the soft ground
Not tonight, though, Josephine! Tonight we are on the slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, in this case 'Dora', one of our ewe (they say 'yow' here) lambs.

Finally, I was in this morning to visit our lovely old neighbour, Una, who is still struggling with a finger injured on and infected by a rose thorn in her own garden. I nip round every couple of days to bring turf and logs in to the house from the sheds and today took her round some eggs, leeks, sprouts, parsnip and a beetroot as a mini food parcel. She sits me down in her beautifully old traditional Irish kitchen (range, painted wooden furniture) for 'tay' and home made scones and jam and today she was telling me all about the 'Wren Boys'

Naughty or Nice? Lego from Santa
The Wren Boys is an especially Irish tradition which my UK readers may not have heard of. We had heard of it here but have still not seen it in action and it is now fading fast and may soon pass into memory. It happens on St Stephen's Day (Boxing Day). In times past the 'Wren Boys' would capture a wren and then dress in motley clothing and hats and capes made of straw (like 'Mummers') and parade it round the village knocking on doors and persuading money and goodies out of house owners as a bribe not to harm the bird ("A penny or tuppence would do it no harm...." etc). They would sing special songs, make music and recite appropriate poems.
They would also call round the pubs and 'perform' for the clientele.

More recently no actual wren is used and it is more likely to be the kids going round rather as do Carol Singers in the UK, but at lunchtime in daylight, rather then in the evening. Our friend Charlotte of the mini-horses has done this as a teenager in a group and apparently done quite well out of it. Una tells us she can remember when great gangs of children would go, quite often driven round in cars by parents, but recently the kids have come to enjoy the pub-side of things less. They were, says Una, all quite sweet kiddies and sang and played their penny whistles and other instruments beautifully, but the local 'Herberts' in the pubs of particularly Balla-D, presumably 'with drink taken' would start heckling them and making rude and tasteless comments. The groups Una knows don't go there any more and, in fact, have now dwindled to a few pairs or singles of children being taken to pre-arranged 'friendly' houses to do their thing and get a €5 or so. What ever the story is, none came to see us, so we still have this only at 2nd hand.

Happy New Year! Bliain Nua Sásta Dhaiobh!

Thursday 26 December 2013

Red is not just for Santa

I may have already mentioned that, after 20 years married, this was to be our first ever real Christmas together on our own, as it were, not descending on some one else and not having the hoards descend upon us. We have up to now, most years, descended upon Pud Lady in Hastings for the 'traditional' (to our family) Family Christmas. I was always working right up to Christmas Eve (as was Liz, to 5 pm when those lovely trusting bosses would phone her work from the cosy firesides just to check no-one had bunked off a bit early! Happy Christmas, guys!) and I was often back in again for Boxing Day (St Stephen's Day) morning. The hour's drive to Hastings was about as far as you could go.

No 'Food Miles' on these. Just about 50 yards!
Just a couple of times (and once for me) Liz got enough time to get to Ireland and saw the wrapping paper storm as the Silverwoods children were at those magic ages. Then once we were over here, while we were house building we 'did' the Silverwoods again, and last Christmas they all came to us. Well that was all very lovely and appropriately 'Merry' but we were determined this time, now we have our own house and it is all settled down, to stay here, just the two of us.

Presents and papers from 'home'. We love that!
 We were amused to note that this

would mean we could do Christmas how WE wanted, at our speed, eating and drinking what we wanted and maybe starting our own 'traditions', cherry picking from the nice bits from previous years and walking on by the bits that weren't so much fun. Soft boiled goose eggs and toast soldiers for breakfast, anyone? Feed and release the livestock before taking tea and 'between us' presents up to bed? Your own goose? Ice cream with the 'pud' instead of the regulation custard or brandy butter? Time will tell whether all these bits are 'keepers'.

We also had some fun trying to list the bits of the feast which were home grown and less than a tenth of a food mile - just a few yards from the allotment or the orchard; the goose of course, potatoes, sprouts, any eggs of course, herbs like sage and thyme, onions, beetroot, broad beans. We are hoping to do even better next year possibly including red cabbage, apples and our own sausage meat. Liz may also MAKE the marzipan. She doesn't like shop marzipan but her objection is to the almond ESSENCE flavour - she can eat ground almonds and anything with the almonds flaked into it, so we think that marzipan made with real almonds, sugar and egg might work for her.

So, basically, we had a lovely day, just quiet and 'local'. We strolled round to neighbour Una in the morning to check she was OK. She is struggling to get over a finger badly infected by a rose thorn puncture wound, so we have been fetching logs, turf and coal in from the shed for her and she sat us both down for a cup of 'tay' and a chocolate biscuit. From there I walked the dogs down to the bridge, as usual, and called by John Deere Bob to check on him. I was immediately given the biggest tumbler of whiskey you ever did see. Both he and Una were being collected later by their respective families or loved ones and taken off for the meal, so they had declined our offer of goose.

Back home then for a relaxing afternoon of eating and drinking our fill, chilling and then phoning various family and friends, as you do. Later still we walked down to Carolyn's, invited down for drinks with herself, Charlotte, K-Dub and little Henry who was as proud as Punch with his new sit-in, push along the floor with your feet, car and a fancy 'tent' which had been erected in the living room for him. The girls were dressed in superb white "hoodies" made to look like snow men with black eyes, carrot noses and soft knitted "lumps of coal" for the 'coat buttons'.

 Everyone seems to have had a great time but several of them have suffered at the hands of the huge storm which blew through on the 23rd and 24th. We had a tree blow down but it was an already dead one which needed 'weeding' out anyway and it fell (mostly) inside our woods so no damage was done, just the spindly top of it hitting the stone wall and part blocking the Rose Walk. We hear that Mazy, in Kent has had problems with a 'lean-to' sun-room leaking rain badly, guttering ripped away by the wind and at one stage an internal power cut. The Angel B and Jim have had ridge tiles ripped off by the wind and our former garden fence is broken off and leaning into their garden.

Both these homes and many more are now struggling with the problems of getting hold of surveyors, repair men and insurance assessors over the Christmas break and Jim, we know is very fed up that after paying premiums for 30 odd years with never a claim, he is now dealing with Insurance staff who are trying to argue that his flying ridge tiles are 'just wear and tear'. You have to love these chancers, don't you?

Our hearts go out to them but there is, apparently more to come. Met Éireann have Red Alerts out all over the place for Ireland tonight and tomorrow, especially south and west coastal counties. The pink on this map is for average winds of 34-41 knots (Gale Force 8), the red is 42-48 knots (Force 9) and there are warnings of gusts up to 150 kph offshore Clare, Galway and Mayo. Batten down the hatches, people, extra rocks on the chicken houses. The only mercy for us, inland a bit is that Roscommon falls in the grey coloured bit ( Force 4 ) but no doubt we will get our turn soon. Look after yourselves. Happy New Year.

Monday 23 December 2013

6 Cents a Kilo

Basic white icing layer goes onto the cake
€0.06 a kilo! That is the ridiculously low price at which our most-used supermarket, Lidl's is currently selling carrots as a Christmas promo. They are obviously moving a good few too, and the sales 'gondola' is backed up by an 8 foot tall pallet of new trays sitting still on its jack-truck ready to re-stock the position as the stock is snatched up and the empty boxes tossed aside.

Making pastry.
Now, these 'loss-leaders' are nothing new. The technique of putting highly visible, fast moving 'staples' out at prices lower than cost has been in the retailers' armoury since well before anyone had heard of Lidl. It is common knowledge that this attracts in the 'footfall' and there is enough margin on everything else that the supermarket still makes a tidy profit across your whole basket. The marketing boys do occasionally get it wrong; Tesco famously added so many loyalty points to bananas, that people were buying them by the pallet and giving them away in the car park outside

The problem here is that Lidl have chosen to do it with an obvious farm produce line in a rural area. There is already enough flak coming in quite rightly from farmers for the well known squeeze being put onto farm gate prices on produce such as milk and meat which is forcing many farmers out of business. This is wrapped around further with the habit of the supermarkets for moving the goalposts after the contract is signed and the crop is in the field, or the animals half grown; they add 'marketing subsidies' and demands for the grower to help out on promotions by dropping the price still further. Then there is all the stuff around food waste - supermarkets are well known for demanding the correct size and shape of carrot and taking only 2/3 or less of the grown crop (sometimes none of it!).

Now, I am not suggesting that Lidl will have dropped the price to the growers of carrots, sprouts and so on, to 4 cents a kilo but that is the smell it gives off, and there have been howls of anguish from farmers and growers who are a big industry here and the social media networks like Facebook have seen a bit of this. People who know me will probably also know that I have no moral high ground to stand on, here, having been, for 29 years in working life, a part of the super-marketing industry. In my case it was Sainsbury, where I worked in chilled food depots and distribution, so you could certainly accuse me of working hard to promote this kind of behaviour and spending all day trying to make my supermarket ever more successful.

We also shop regularly in supermarkets, so we felt both sad and guilty when our much-loved local Indian cookery ingredients shop, Hidiyat's, went to the wall last month, throwing in the towel having been undercut by their local supermarket, SuperValu. The Balla-D branch of SuperValu has steadily been increasing its range of Indian ingredients and selling all of them cheaper than Hidiyat's. Again, this is nothing new and all over the UK town centres have been stripped of their small business shops as the big boys have swallowed up their customers. We're just a little behind 'over here' and the towns do not have the really big boys (there is no real Tesco presence and no Sainsburys out here). Plenty of small businesses cling on, even through the recession. SuperValu manage to keep it a bit local, maintaining ranges of local produce such as cheeses and bacon rather than having it all in Central Distribution. There is no equivalent in Ireland of the 500,000 square foot 'Fulfillment Factory' Distribution Centres run by Sainsbury's round the M25. Ireland does not have the population to support them.

Anyway, 6 cents a kilo was a silly enough price that we grabbed up 4 bags for the feeding of rabbits over Christmas, and maybe a bit of Christmas dinner for Cody the horse. It is cheaper than any rolled barley, oats or 'meusli' you'd buy for them in a feed merchant. It would be good at that price, to be feeding the pigs on carrots! To be fair we then bought a €2 bag at the next shop of old tired carrots and parsnips past their sell by date in what Liz and Diamond would call the "Salmonella Corner" (the discounted racks) so we have done our bit there to reduce food waste.

Chestnut Mushrooms grow for free in the Polytunnel
You will have noticed that I have been waffling on for 6 paragraphs about carrots, but all my pics today are from today's Christmas Cookery operations, nothing to do with carrots. Liz has been on the mince pies, this time with homemade shortcrust pastry. The 'Jusrol' brand 'puff' which got used last time proved to be too puffy. I have had a first go at marzipan-ing and icing a cake and I am quite pleased with the results.

Sharp eyed readers may note that this is a 'Happy Hogswatch' cake, not actually a Christmas Cake. Hogswatch, for the uninitiated is the spoof version of Christmas which appears in the Terry Pratchett 'Discworld' series of books but if you need to know any more about that, then I'd ask you to go look it up. TP is a writer who both of us and all of the Silverwoods follow, and as it is likely that we, collectively, are the only people likely to see or eat this cake........

The mushrooms are a goody crop of chestnut mushrooms now coming out of the 'spent' mushroom compost in the poly-tunnel. I gave it all a good water and then closed the door on it and in this mild weather, it is keeping good and warm in there. The only problem I have is that the bales of compost we brought back, I found it easiest to invert them onto the ground to tip the contents out and pull off the plastic wrap 'tray', so the wads have gone down upside down. The mushroom fruiting bodies do not seem to be able to cope with this and are growing downwards, so you only see the crop to harvest, when the base of the mushroom pushes up the substrate enough to break it. Finally a nice pair of Panda slippers which Liz spotted while out shopping for presents in Carrick.

That is probably my lot pre Christmas, so I will sign off but first, wish all my readers the best possible time over the break and a Happy and Prosperous New Year. Happy Christmas, or possibly Hogswatch. Look after yourselves.

Saturday 21 December 2013

The Shortest Day

A thin Winter Solstice sun rises behind the trees
The Winter Solstice. Now there's an event worth celebrating. Never mind all this commercialized, Santa and sleigh bells, possible birth date (?) of the Infant Jesus malarkey. The shortest day, the turn of the year, the official beginning of winter. From now it is onward and upward into spring, days getting longer, sap rising and summer beckoning frantically. It's pretty much forgotten now of course; most 'townies' do not know what it is, do not know its date and would not be able to tell you its significance. They would care less, too, in the rush to Christmas, wrapping paper and mince pie cookery.

Winter Iris breaks surface
We are starting to see some signs of spring already - pictured is a good sized clump of Winter Iris emerging in one of our big tubs in the yard. These were bulbs generously given to me by Pud Lady when I was over in September. In the 'Rose Walk' a good show of new daffodil shoots reminds us of the net of mixed bulbs which came to us from the Steak Lady; both the 'Mums' have made their mark on this garden. Thank you Mums.

Some early bud expansion is also making an impression - in this case currant bushes in the Jam and Jerusalem hedge and on a flowering currant (Ribes) in the raised flower bed. Ribes are probably the easiest and earliest way of getting food to the bees in spring, so we will be planting plenty and then trying to strike cuttings from these bushes, all part of our wildlife gardening push. We are both enormously looking forward to how the pond, in particular, will fare. Will we get frogs and newts? Will the aquatic plants which we had mail order from the UK and which have mainly died back in autumn, leap back into action with spring?

Meanwhile we had to smile at this bizarre sleeping position by the boy-pup Towser. Wait till 'Daddy' puts his boots in front of the range, let them warm up a bit, then sink your nose down deep inside like a person drinking in the scent of a rose flower, and FALL ASLEEP. Daft beggar.

Happy Solstice!

Thursday 19 December 2013


I'm Dreaming of a White..... and all that Jazz. A heavy weather warning tells us of 100 kph winds on the coast and we are once again battening down the hatches, putting big rocks on the roofs of rabbit hutches and, if we'd followed Mrs Silverwood's advice, nailing the chickens to their perches. There was some talk of wintry showers on high ground but we normally ignore those here at our huge 76 m above sea level. Well, the wind came through all right and the trees were rocking and rolling up aloft like Noddy Holder's Granny; we even got some fence-post sized dead bits falling down onto the lawn. By the time I was locking up the house, though all was calm and the skies were clearing.

Nice surprise then this morning when we woke up to a light, but still picturesque, dusting of snow which let me nip round getting these pictures on the camera. It also reminded me to re-instate "The Porridge Season". I do like a porridge for breakfast but only when I feel like I am setting myself up for some work. The 'recipe' of choice here is the oats cooked in just semi-skim milk and a pinch of salt, but then served over a sliced banana in the bowl, with a dribble of our not very well set home made marmalade over the top, maybe a splash of cold milk too. The marmalade is nice and sharp and citrus-y. The whole goes down a treat.

The job I was "setting myself up for" was a bit more calf-muck shoveling for John Deere Bob. He has 4 big 'calves' (more like young bullocks by now) in a non-slatted barn and he likes to clean them out and bed down anew several times through the winter, rather then leaving them all through the cold, wading around in an ever deeper mix of muck and straw. He very generously allows me to take the muck for the garden and allotment, especially when I am willing to shovel it up myself. My reward is that I get to drive the tractor between his farm and our place. Big boy's toys!

Lamb stew and dumplings made with
our own lamb suet.
Meanwhile we are on the gentle run in to Christmas. We have done what we hope is our final food and drink shop today, out in Carrick on Shannon. All the Christmas presents are sorted. We do not really 'do' cards since we have been in Ireland. In Faversham we used to send 60-80 cards out, often to people with whom that had become our only 'contact'; often we didn't even write anything in them, we would grab a stack each and just sign them 'Matt and Liz' or 'Liz and Matt'. We decided that once in Ireland and now with most of our 'surviving' friends either on Facebook or reading the blog, we would no longer support the card-making industry in this rather silly way, nor spend all that money on postage to the UK. Sorry if you have missed our cards but we will honestly not be at all put out of you decide to reciprocate.

Liz has been at the baking again. A batch of mince pies has been knocked up but then eaten (it was the mice, honest!) but Liz is not 100% happy with the pastry which was 'Jusrol' brand puff pastry and puffed rather too well. She is determined to try again with some home grown pastry. Meanwhile, one of the ladies at 'Knit and Natter' club turns out to be a sufferer from Coeliac Disease (Gluten intolerance) which is, apparently, quite common in the Irish because of their history of not eating so much wheat or wheat-flour. Liz got all inspired and decided to bake them a cake for their mid-knitting-session tea-break. She has a lovely gluten-free recipe based on polenta (a cornmeal 'porridge').

The cake was a real hit with the ladies. Needless to say 'the mice' didn't get any. The Coeliac lady came back for second helpings and the girls, between them, cleared the plate. Never mind, 'the mice' have been cooked a superb banana cake as compensation, with a lovely light texture and a lovely flavour. Liz is still thoroughly enjoying being able to bake and becoming really good at it. When we lived in Kent and both worked, there was never time to start baking cakes by the time we'd got indoors. Now we have a bit more time it has all become possible. I, for one, totally approve!

Sunday 15 December 2013

Santa and the Bunny Rabbit

One little girl in the village is going to receive a nice surprise on the 25th; this little daughter of either Ginny or Padfoot. Money has changed hands to secure the deal but 'Santy' (as they call him in these parts) is hanging on to the little bunny for the moment and she will be collected on Christmas Eve once a hutch, a bag of food, some hay, a drinker and a book on how to keep rabbits has also been secured. I sense that these people intend to look after the rabbit properly. A pet is for life, not just for Christmas, as they say. I did not, however, manage to persuade Santa to take the other female bunny on a "Buy Two for the Price of One and a Half" deal even though I pleaded the case for not leaving the poor sister-doe all alone, but maybe Santa will relent on Christmas Eve.

Multi tasking. Plucking while
chatting to Diamond on the phone
Meanwhile there is one job that we will NOT be including in the portfolio of Enjoyable Tasks, Living the Dream and all that. That is Plucking Geese. We have got quite good and fast at the chickens by now - we can pluck and dress a chook in 45 minutes without breaking sweat. Geese turn out to be a whole different species (as you'd expect, I guess!). They have a gazillion feathers, many of which are very well glued in AND under that they have a complete layer of fluffy down which puffs chokingly into the air at every twitch of your feather collecting bag.

Oven ready at 3.8 and 4.0 kg respectively.

Now I can see Mentor Anne leaping for the keyboard at this stage to give out to us for our incompetence and we KNOW there are options around dipping the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers, and even using melted wax in the manner of a ladies' beauty treatment to de-fluff the carcass but we'd gone with cold straight plucking and it took AGES. We were easily into 2 and a half hours per bird including the gutting, our hands were raw and Liz at one stage resorted to gloves and a pair of pliers. If people can do a goose in less time then they are 'better men than us' and we are quite happy with that. So annoyed were we by the job that we both decided that it is not anything we want to get involved in long term, or to any great degree, into the future. If we do breed geese in the future (as opposed to just collecting the eggs) then we will be trying to sell them 'live' for finishing by someone else and most of what we keep will probably be skinned and cooked wrapped in bacon or some such. I went into this thinking the actual killing would be the worst part. We survived that but never dreamed the plucking could actually be worse!

We got through the plucking task in the end and the singe-ing and the gutting out and produced 2 nice looking, oven ready birds which weighed in at (we think) 3.8 and 4.0 kg respectively. The cat managed to knock our nice digital kitchen scales off the worktop and kill them, so I was weighing these by jumping on and off the bathroom scales with and without birds. Good weighty birds anyway, more than enough for our Christmas table, one staying here, the other being delivered to Steak Lady in Portmarnock (Co. Dublin) tomorrow. Other seasonal catering includes a huge batch of braised spicy red cabbage. Liz likes to do these kind of foods in big batches and freeze 4/5 of the product. Today's task is the first batch of mince pies.

Rolo (l) and Blue (r) looking handsome at 18 months
We love a good Olde Fashioned cook book in this house, and Liz finds good ones on the internet, recently also downloading them from 'Project Gutenburg' down to her Kindle e-book. One is old enough to include instructions like "Smite thee the lamb into gobbets" (I love that!) but today's is by one Elizabeth Moxon who in 1764 wrote the snappily titled  "English Housewifery exemplified (in above 450 receipts giving directions for most part of cookery)". From this tome comes the rather breathlessly punctuated "To Make Apricock Pudding:" as follows "Take ten apricocks, pare, stone, and cut them in two, put them into a pan with a quarter of a pound of loaf sugar, boil them pretty quick whilst they look clear, so let them stand whilst they are cold; then take six eggs, (leave out half of the whites) beat them very well, add to them a pint of cream, mix the cream and eggs well together with a spoon full of rose water, then put in your apricocks, and beat them very well together, with four ounces of clarified butter, then put it into your dish with a thin paste under it; half an hour will bake it". From reading these in the context we know that 'whilst' would be written 'until' nowadays, and the 'paste' is a 'pastry case'.

Big wild mountainy trout. 
In a previous post, I spoke of a high quality fine porcelain table cruet in sheepy form, generously given to us by the Silverwoods. We actually came away well laden with gifts for which we are very grateful. As well as the cruet sheep, we were handed a 2CV badge for my collection of 2CV bits and pieces, two orange tear-drop shaped squashes which we need to identify and find a "receipt" for (Perhaps E Moxon can help?), and three very fine, big wild river trout caught by one of the Silverwoods' neighbours in the nearby mountains. One of these has been used up already and was so big when cooked that we managed only 3/4 of the 'meat' between 2 of us at Dinner.

Friday 13 December 2013

Henry and Min Re-United

In a recent post I might have worried you by finishing with a story that one of Henry or Min had gone AWOL at 'bed time' and we'd been out hunting with torches. Well, next morning  the pair were happily and noisily reunited. The missing bird had run for cover into the collection of bikes, cement mixer and other junk in the goose end of that building and kept his/her head down and kept quiet. That explains why the other bird was so contented to be up on the perch alone and also stayed quiet - he/she was presumably well aware of where the hidden bird was keeping quiet. In the morning they just had to each find their separate way to the yard and give each other a load of telling off. Not so silly after all.

Haggis mixture
In the kitchen we wind steadily on towards Christmas and even beyond. Liz converts a huge quantity of lamb "trimmings" (bits like the breast meat which the butcher would normally cut away and discard) and offal (including this year the lung which we specifically asked Ignatius to keep for us for this purpose), into home made haggis mixture. We love our haggis in this family and last year Liz found a recipe where you bake the mix in a baking tray instead of stuffing it into a piece of gut or sheep's stomach, or some kind of plastic 'cover' and it was easily the best haggis we had ever eaten. This probably because it was made with real ingredients instead of 'commercial' heaven knows what, so it is bagless haggis for us in 2014 too.

Hubbard hen at 19 weeks
Our two remaining 'Hubbard' chickens have amazed us over the last month by filling out from the rangey, gangly, big-legged adolescent shaped birds of October, to squared off, filled out, solid chicken-shaped birds now. They are 19 weeks old at this stage so they are approaching the standard 'Point of Lay' age where you'd normally buy them if you wanted them as laying birds, but these ladies are of a fast growing meat breed which the commercial boys would normally be 'finishing' at 100 days or so. Mentor Anne is keeping 2 of hers round to a fully mature age and is going to try a bit of breeding with a La Bresse rooster.

White Hubbard hen
Ours are still here for looser and more "happy chance" reasons. We had gone through a phase of 'harvesting' them, especially the roosters which were getting troublesome, and were finding them dead easy to catch because of their habit of gathering round my feet as I scooped feed from the feed bins, especially if it was raining outside. With just 2 to go, I wanted to 'do' these on the same day so that neither would be left lonely. I never got that chance and then the weather dried up and they stopped doing the under-foot thing. Also, we now had 4 birds in the freezer and needed the space for the lambs, so these two got a stay of execution and are still with us. A living larder, maybe, or perhaps we will see how they do as egg laying birds.

We've now done the run down to Silverwoods, so the lamb is all distributed to its final users. The Silverwoods have pronounced it excellent and, being as loopy as we are, found this lovely piece of lamb based 'tat' during their recent holiday in Bulgaria and thought of us. Fine, elegant tableware, I think you will agree, fit to grace the most elegant Christmas table. We have no idea why the lambs depicted are cuddling tiny teddy bears. Our lambs never had them. Perhaps it is an animal welfare thing?

Castlerea prize draw sign

We finally came to the point here where there was no longer any escaping a job which I'd been putting off and rather dreading, that of slaughtering the young geese for the Christmas table. These geese are now 6 months old and full adult size. Well, we girded our loins and got on with the job this morning with Liz, for her first time, actually getting involved and in (watching) at the kill. It went well, better than I had feared, and the boys (we are sure both these are ganders) met their end quickly, cleanly and with as much respect and as little distress as we like to ensure and they are now hanging in the Tígín awaiting the plucking and dressing job tomorrow. The relief is immense - we are now pretty much through the autumn slaughtering 'campaign' which we appreciate we have to do but cannot claim to enjoy.

There is just the one more goose to 'go', but this is our current parent bird 'Gander', he of the genetic wry-tail abnormality which he is sadly too able to pass on to his sons and daughters, so the plan is to swap him out with an unrelated gander called George who currently lives down the lane with Carolyn of the mini-horses. We get George and we deliver Gander to them but we are currently not sure whether we need to deliver him alive or whether he will be collected and despatched by K-Dub.

Finally today, we loved this Prize Draw sign seen in Castlerea (picture above) where 1st Prize is a Charolais heifer. She looks a lovely big girl from the pictures we have seen and is worth about €1000. You have the option of taking her home if you win, or immediately selling her at the Mart and going home with your money. We were laughing about what we'd do if suddenly presented with a strapping young female beef-cow. We'd have to give it to John Deere Bob to look after. We are not set up for cows' we don't even have a cattle herd number.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Is It Really Two Years?

Waiting in the lanes in Holyhead Docks
The 12th of December. It was two years ago today (and probably to the hour) that we completed our heroic convoy trip for 500 miles across the UK and Ireland in the 2CV and trailer and the little Fiat. About now we were arriving at the solicitor's in Strokestown to collect our keys before driving on the extra half hour or so to our front gate. We had driven through the afternoon and evening across Britain and caught the overnight ferry from Holyhead to Dublin's North Wall.

First arrival in convoy. We have MOVED!
We were still at that stage, 95% terrified that we'd done the wrong thing and made a big mistake. The house, once we'd got a chance for a proper "owner's" look round (where we could start ripping up bits of floor and breaking into stud walling!) was not getting any better than we'd feared. It was going to be a big job to get it live-able, never mind 'nice'. We laugh now, of course, at our naivity. We'd looked at the cake-icing "concrete" (Ha!) of the floors and wondered if spongy-lino would cover it. We looked at some wood-wormy floor boards and wondered if a few patches might fix it. (Ha! again). We also laugh a bit about the "survey" which had to pay for for our own peace of mind (Ha!) ; the guy had managed to find central heating (there was none) and had failed to find the septic tank which we had specifically asked him to confirm the presence/absence of.

Horrors uncovered now we are in
Readers who were with us back in December 2011 will know that we engaged Sparks as Project Manager and Main Builder and ended up doing way more work than these first fumblings had suggested, ripping out every bit of wood below the rafters and going down 17 inches into the floor to come up again with gravel, modern thermal panel blocks, and a new concrete floor and floor tiles. We were sometimes in awe of what we needed to achieve but we'd burned our bridges, There was no turning back or running for cover back "home"; the house in Kent was sold, paid work was gone.

It's been quite a ride and we loved that we had this blog, internet discussion groups, Facebook and email on which to share the story with all our friends and the workmates and family we'd left behind. Was that really only 2 years ago? We are now so firmly established here that it feels as if we've been here way longer than just 2 years. Definitely the biggest, most daunting and scary DIY project any of us (including Sparks) had ever engaged in. As we were told at the time - "How do you eat an elephant?....... One bite at a time".

Monday 9 December 2013

Look Away Now

Another of those meat-based posts where I advise any of my readers who are not comfortable with the more intimate side of producing meat from livestock to 'look away now'.  Today was the day we had to head for the butcher's shop of Ignatius G and see our lamb carcasses cut up for the freezer. We watch, chat and choose cutting styles as appropriate; do you prefer the gigot chops and small shoulder, or the full shoulder? Do you prefer the rack of ribs cut into individual chops or left intact and so on. We love this stage - it has us feeling like 'proper' meat producers, not just someone who keeps a few chickens.

In this case we had done 5 sheep, 2 for our own freezers, one for Carolyn of the mini-horses and more recent half pig, one for the Silverwoods and one for Sparks. Ignatius and his 'oppo', Joe are good enough to cut each carcass up and bag it separately in tough white "bin liners" so that you can get it home assuming you can lift it into the car!

We had in our little flock, lambs all from the same father (sire), a Beltex ram, but we had ram lambs and ewe lambs from three different Mums (dams) and our sheep-man Kenny had asked us to get weights by sex and breed. We'd been expecting heavy weights because the lambs had been ready since October but Kenny had been sidelined by a broken collar bone; these babies had stayed on our nice grass and received their kg a day of Lamb Creep Crunch (a mix of cereals, molasses and minerals).

These guys had indeed gone way way over the weights Ignatius would buy for his shop, but that wasn't a problem for our home use. The 2 ram lambs in particular (both out of Suffolk Down ewes) had got up to 30.7 and 32.2 kg carcass weights (67.5 and 70.9 lbs). Ignatius put a standard leg joint on his scales at the shop price per kg and he would have had to ask €60 for it! Nobody would buy one that big he said. The ewe lambs were not quite that heavy. The two out of Galway mothers weighed 24.6 and 28.3 kg (54.1 and 62.3 lbs) and Dora the Explorer, out of the Texel ewe weighed 25.7 kg (56.6 lbs). Grand total 141 kg of meat or 311 lbs. We have been able to take more weight of meat from this year's two carcasses (for us) at 56 kg, than we got off the three last year (52.9 kg). Respect to Kenny for his choice of the Beltex sire for this year's breeding, rather than the Jacob's 2012 tup.

You will recall that we had already collected the offal (tongues, kidneys, hearts, livers and a lung for the haggis) the day after slaughter. Now we just had the job of sorting and bagging our own meat for the freezer and distributing the rest. Sparks raced down in his car from Dublin to collect his and stayed for a bacon butty, bite of pie and some cold roast pork and salad. We have dropped Carolyn's round to her house tonight and tomorrow we will be delivering the Silverwoods' bag to them. It's all go.

Not much else happening round here but tonight there is a minor hiatus as one of the Guinea Fowl has gone AWOL. At 16:30 tonight he/she managed to get lost between me turfing them out of the goose house where they had decided to roost for the night, and them finding the correct (chicken) house about ten feet away. When I came back having shepherded my geese home, there was only one in the chicken house and, search as we might with torches, looking up in trees etc, we can find no trace and they are, amazingly, not kicking up the usual ruckus at being separated. We've shut everyone down now without the missing Guinea. We are just hoping that as tomorrow dawns, the safe, sound, warm, dry, outdoor roosted, "lost sheep" will creep back into the fold for a happy re-union. I'll let you know.