Sunday 31 March 2013

Freeze Dried

Neither of us have seen anything quite like this bizarre weather. We are not complaining that it is unseasonably dry after last summer's sogginess but we are amazed by the weeks of relentless NE cold wind. We used to get NE winds in North Kent, of course, but generally only for a few days. I think I am correct in saying that we had our much trumpeted drought from Valentine's Day round to early March (19 days) and then just a few days of wet before this NE wind arrived on 9th March. That has now blown almost continuously for the 3 weeks since, bringing plenty of clear skies, bitter, frosty nights and just very occasional dust-like frozen snow.

The soil is dry enough to raise dust and what small amount of water there is in the soil is frozen, so unavailable to plants. The poor things are suffering frost/wind-burn like you would not believe, even the known drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs like Rosemary and some hardy species like Verbena bonariensis (Purple verbena) and perennial wallflower. All the new growth, encouraged into motion by the warmth of our false spring is frazzled, curled and dead like the worst drought. It is one of those things - we assume the plants will recover and produce some new growth from still-dormant axial buds when a proper, more honest spring comes along, thawing the small amount of water that is here already and supplying a top-up.

So, yesterday we completed out dutiful paying of respects to the late James Harrinton. We were off down to the big, drafty, unheated church in Loughglynn for the service, which turned out to be a full Mass (I gather this is unusual for Holy Saturday). The church was packed with maybe 300 folk. We saw John Deere Bob in there sitting away to one side at the back, and we were joined in our pew by neighbour, Una C. I have my first Irish cold bug so I feel very bunged up and moopy, and sitting at the back of this church for an hour had me chilled down to the kidneys. Liz got on OK in a woolen suit and the vintage mink coat (those two thicknesses of 'cloth' even made the pew feel comfortable!) but we were both relieved when it was over and we could shuffle outside into the thin sunshine.

In matters of etiquette I take my cue from JD Bob here, and he had his black woolly 'Thinsulate' hat back on his head within seconds of stepping out into the car-park, so I did too. Also, he was not going out to the grave yard with the hearse and procession, so we took that as permission to also depart and get back into the warm, light the range, walk dogs, do shopping and, in Liz's case get into 'Domestic Goddess' mode baking and food prepping for our guests the next day, now today of course.

Today we are hosts to 2CV acquaintances John and Carol Mellor. I vaguely recognise John from 2CV events gone by, from his pictures in Facebook, but do not know them in any real sense. However, John is organising and fronting up a holiday tour 2CV convoy (They call them 'Raids' in 2CV land) for his Bristol-based 2CV club local group (The Bath Tub Club) in Summer all up and down the West of Ireland and is over here this Easter weekend to 'recce' the route. We saw his notices in the club magazine and, as their route is passing through Connemara, an hour or so away, we decided to offer our house and grounds as a port-in-the-storm, respite from bad weather if they get it, warm dry place to recover, fix broken cars etc. John is delighted with this and, although he agrees the official route is a way off here, has accepted the offer to call by on his recce to get fed and possibly stay overnight. We are doing him slow roasted lamb and assorted other bakery etc. Should be fun and nice to meet some new friends.

Friday 29 March 2013

Looking So Sharp?

One for my non-Irish readers but one which has amazed me since I have been 'over here' - Funerals are MASSIVE. When a funeral takes place, at least in the rural areas EVERYBODY goes - the whole village and for miles around. Everybody who is even remotely connected to the departed. It is just part of the culture. It is what you do, what is expected and how you have to show suitable respect to all those in your local area. In my 55 years so far I have probably been to no more than half a dozen funerals. John Deere Bob, our near neighbour has probably been to around 3 or 4 a month for as long as we have lived here and presumably for most of his life. Driving through the local towns and villages I am amazed at how often we come upon an obviously BIG funeral - scores of parked cars lining the streets around the church or cemetery and every church with a huge car park, maybe 40-50 spaces or so. There are whole websites for death notices and all the papers and local radio stations do big sections on funeral details.

With tongue in cheek, when I moved here Liz passed me a superbly amusing book, "How to be Irish (uncovering the curiosities of Irish behaviour)" by David Slattery ( Orpen Press, ISBN 978-1-871305-24-1, pub 2011). This very funny book gives lovely insights into what makes the Irish tick and has a long and detailed chapter on the etiquette around funerals. It covers the important stages of the process. First the corpse is 'laid out' and 'reposes' either at the house or in the funeral home. Second is the 'removal to the church' where the coffin is processed from funeral home to church. The next day will be the funeral service and burial (or cremation, but normally burial in rural parts; the nearest crematorium may be as far away as Dublin). David Slattery also divides the funeral 'guests' into levels of importance a bit like celebrities, the Immediate family being 'A-list mourners', wider family and close friends being 'B-list' and so on down to 'D-listers'. Today and tomorrow we are definitely D-list mourners.

Half a dozen doors down the lane lived a gent named James Harrinton, 100 years old when we moved in and 101 this year, living with retired nurse daughter whom we guess will be in her 70's. James (Jim) passed away on Wednesday evening and when JD Bob phoned us to tell us we took that as a heavy hint that our attendance might be expected. We have never met the chap, so we'd be D-listers but knew we had to be there.

The 'repose' and removal were this evening down in the local village of Loughglynn so we ate fairly early and then scrubbed up and headed out. I still have an old dark business suit which almost fits, plenty of shirts, a black tie and shiny shoes. Liz has a nice black Jaeger two-piece, dark tights and black shoes, plus the vintage mink coat.

We arrived to find a huge queue waiting to go through the funeral home - there are two doors and you shuffle through the rooms and corridors, pay your respects to the departed (open coffin) and then pass along a line of seated relatives (15-20) shaking hands and mumbling 'Sorry for your trouble' to each. Then you shuffle out past the book where you write name and townland. On any other day than Good Friday, Liz tells me you adjourn to the pub to await the 'removal' at (in this case) 20:30 pm. Pubs are shut here on Good Friday though and there is a bitter NE wind blowing up the main street so the consensus seemed to be that you can hop back into your car and drive home, possibly returning for the removal or maybe waiting for tomorrow and the service and burial.

So that was that, for now. As I said, a lot of this is about respect between village folk, so we were pleased that we had a chance to sign an on-line condolences list, and to sign the real book at the Home, plus that we were seen by Mike the Cows and then, on the way home, by Tony who keeps the local shop/post office. Tony was amazed and delighted with us, saying to Liz that I "shine up well" and saying to Liz that he "had never seen her looking so sharp". Tony (and his wife and post office lady, Anne) have only ever seen us dressed in farm grunge. Finally, I wondered whether anyone would have thought to tell Vendor Anna so I texted her and she thanked me for the news. She went to school with "all of Mr Harrinton's children" and will be coming to the funeral tomorrow.

So, there you are. Our initiation into a great piece of Irish culture.


Monday 25 March 2013

Tunneling (3) Beds and Paths

With the cover of the poly tunnel finished and the door and frame built on the western end I can trim off excess plastic and start to think about what to do inside. Ultimately we may do a weed proof membrane and raised beds with planks around, but for now we have decided to do this season with a temporary layout of paths laid with sheet corrugated iron (of which we have plenty) and the soil merely ridged up into beds as in the allotment. We may obtain duck-board walkways for the paths, being more attractive and less likely to inflict cuts. We have laid this out in the intended layout of 2 side beds and a central bed with a stone 'floor' as you step inside to avoid us having to wade about in mud.

The soil has already been dug over, so we know it is a bit of a dog's breakfast of stones, old peat turf, clay and buried stoloniferous grass. As I shovel and rake the ground into beds I am getting a chance to haul out the stones and peat turfs and to break up the bigger lumps of clay. I am getting quite a nice tilth in which the tomatoes should do OK. We are also relieved that the relentless North East winds have only flexed the structure around, puffing the panels in and out and slackening it to a degree, not done any damage. This is good news and we hope means that it will survive a few of those Atlantic storms that come at us from the NW and SW. It is also much much warmer than being out exposed to the NE blasts and the boggy eastern end is drying out superbly. We are very optimistic. We have also been donated some strawberry plants by Mentor Anne (Thank You, Anne!) to kick off our planting. These are in the central bed - you can just see them to the right of the wheel barrow in the 2nd picture.

Outside of the tunnel, meanwhile, the NE wind and cold weather have stopped any Spring like growth in its tracks. Expanding fruit tree buds are the same as they were a week ago. It's not so much that we have hard frosts and we have only had the light dusting of snow seen in this picture, but it is cold over all and growth is on hold. My potatoes and artichokes, planted in sunny enthusiasm on St Patrick's Bank Holiday Monday are hunkered down below ground. Tulips in tubs and Granny's bonnets in the big pots in the yard stopped expanding and the half open show of daffs stopped at the half open stage.

Still, the NE wind will not blow for ever and when it stops everything is well set up to start moving again. Tradition has it that you must get your early potatoes in by St Patrick's and the rest in by Good Friday. Going into St P's I was not at all sure I'd get my earlies in, but we got there in the end. Now going into Easter I am looking at my main crop, the blight resistant Hungarian variety, Sarpo Mira, chitting happily in the Tígín and thinking it would be unkind to plant them into my cold soil. Maybe we will get another warm burst and I will get the chance.

So, there you have it for this post. Liz has been baking again today thanks to another part of Anne's generous gift - a dozen free range, organic eggs. We have a honey and ginger cake, a fruit loaf, plain scones and cheese scones. The range is burning with a good fierce red glow and we have that 'all is safely gathered in' feeling. I leave you with a nice picture of William the Conqueror just because he is such a magnificent lad.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Improving Cookery Skills.

The raw North East wind is with us for another day and is cold enough to drive us inside, but at least it is dry, so we can moan about the chill but be sympathetic to those poor souls in Cork, Dublin, Northern Ireland and the UK who are contending with floods, snow and 2 days without any electricity. We retreat indoors for the most part and catch up on indoor jobs. I do a bread making marathon, making yesterday a 1 lb soda bread, a 2 lb batch of wholemeal yeast-bread and a 2 lb batch of naan breads from a Madhur Jaffrey recipe. The thought occurs to me that we are currently enjoying a huge expansion in the cookery skills  we (but mainly Liz) use round here.

We have talked about this and mainly put it down to having more time to explore methods and to practice the more fiddly, time consuming recipes. When we were in UK and both of us were working, I'd be getting up on an 04:15 alarm to be out of the house in time to be in work at 06:00 and Liz would not be back much before half five and often considerably later. We were also fairly tired after the working day so food was, to a degree 'fuel' rather than anything creative or artistic. We are both good cooks and have always believed in steering clear of ready meals and using fresh ingredients and plenty of veg so it was commonly meat and veg but usually very simple, quick dishes - grilled pork chops with boiled or steamed veg, steaks with oven chips and mushrooms, etc. We would very occasionally stray into ready meals (usually pizza) or head for the chip shop

Only at the weekends did we have the time or inclination to 'bother' with more complex stuff like kidneys done in creme fraiche or a full roast.

Only now we are here and settled in, semi-retired, do we find we have all the time in the world to explore around the types of food which we could not contemplate back in the UK. Liz has found herself buying 'Jus-rol' frozen pastry and making pies and tarts. She gets a baking 'bug' and spends afternoons making scones, fruit loaves and cakes. It is lovely, when we do get visitors, to be able to offer them more than tea and ginger biscuits. Liz also sometimes creates desserts, which is not anything we used to do - tonight's chocolate/coffee/whisky mousse being a good example. Our chickens (and soon, hopefully, our geese) sometimes have us in a glut of eggs and baking is a good way of getting through them.

We are also enjoying a different and broader range of ingredients, partly by being in Ireland where the local taste is for some fare not common in the UK, and partly by producing our own meat and dealing with entire animals. We used to buy lamb sometimes in England, but it was generally a leg or shoulder joint. Chops seemed ridiculously expensive lying there, all straggly, in their expanded polystyrene trays with their cling film. Here we have had three whole lamb carcasses to get through so we have tried out several chop recipes, as well as dealing with main joints, shanks, breast meat, hearts, kidneys and livers. The suet from around the kidneys and hearts gave us our first real try at meat 'puds' (suet crust puds). We cooked one of the young rooster chicks and have also used the hearts, livers and gizzards of both.

The shops here regularly have all the meat commonly 'forbidden', or too 'low-grade' for sale in the UK; ox tail and gammon shanks for example. The local 'Lidl' supermarket regularly has quails, pheasant, duck and goose. and sometimes frozen lobster, all at easily affordable prices. The Madhur Jaffrey book has us exploring interestingly spiced (but not fizzingly hot) Indian food and our big collection of favourite cook books is now getting taken down from the shelves and used regularly. The internet is an easy source of recipes if, for example, you suddenly have bulb fennel and you are not sure what to do with it. Tonight the bulb fennel was tossed in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, then roasted for 20 minutes before the quail were put in on top. They were as sweet as chocolate. We find ourselves regularly trying these new things and saying, 'Mmmmm - we can DEFINITELY do this one again!'.

We (mainly Liz, as I said) are thoroughly enjoying this new exploration of cookery skills and both of us are loving eating the products!

Saturday 23 March 2013

A Bit of Culture

Pictures in this post are by Keith Nolan Photography, first published in Facebook.

On Friday evening we were invited by Vendor Anna to attend an evening of choral singing performed by Carrick on Shannon's Millennium Choir in which Anna sings. This was a lovely opportunity to get out of the grungy farm clothes for a change, scrub up and go and do 'posh', or at least 'respectable'. These evenings are very popular and the tickets (only a €-tenner) sell out; the choir which has been going since 1998 is very highly regarded locally and has attracted some high class talent. They regularly get to sing with invited professional singers, they have a very good quality orchestra and are even getting pieces written especially for them.

Having said all that, readers who know me will know that I do not normally 'do' choirs, I am not a great fan of operatic warblings, especially up in the soprano range and was very undecided whether I would enjoy the event or whether it might become a 'duty'. I am also badly ignorant of the music and will not remember half the names, and there was no programme or song-list. I am, therefore rather nervously going to try to do the show justice in this blog-post but if anyone (especially Anna) spots any howlers then please do comment or email me.

Anna and Paul had set us up well - we had tickets, instructions not to bother trying to park in the main street but instead use the Landmark Hotel's car-park, and an offer by Paul to hold seats for us. The latter we should have accepted but we declined - we don't want to be any trouble, we said, we'll manage; we'll sit where we get put. If anyone was put off coming by the vile wind and rain, then it did not show - the church was crammed with all seats taken (I'd guess around 6-700 souls) even by the time we arrived (19:45) so we mucked in helping bring some stacking chairs to the back of the church before nabbing 2 of these! Even so, there were still plenty of people standing at the back leaning on the walls or the baptismal font. We sat at the back by the font. This was not ideal as there were to be a couple of inset pieces by small children singing, traditional musicians including a harpist, 2 dancers and by a couple of little ones doing trad Irish dancing. None of this could we see except for the boy-dancer's head bobbing up and down. Neither could we see the orchestra.

 Well the choir definitely looked the part, the gents in best bib and tucker with purple bow ties and the ladies were in purple robes. An energetic MC lady in orange did the honours on introducing songs (and, as I said, Thank Heavens for that, as I would not have had a clue. As it is I am typing from memory; you couldn't really take notes!).

(The 'show' included a huge range of types of music and styles. We started with a romping rendition of 76 Trombones and worked our way through some religious stuff ( for example a Vivaldi 'Gloria'), old show tunes  and film songs (Talk to the Animals), the lovely 'Barcelona' by Freddie Mercury, with a really fine coloratura lady taking the Monserrat Caballe part. and there were pop songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water and older ones including If I Ruled the World. We loved the timeless Old Man River which made good use of the bass section. There was a beautiful anthem about Carrick town written for them by a local professional musician (a young lady but sorry, no memory of her name) which was very catchy and had lovely echoes of a Chris Wood English folk song (Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all. Long live the day that is dawning. And I'll crow like a cock, I'll carol like a lark. For the life that is coming in the morning). There was a whole section out of the musical-du-jour Les Miserables which I must admit is not a favourite, but they were all well done and I did like the march "Hear the People Sing". 

The audience loved it. The Irish do  have a passion for their music. One big solid old boy leaning on 'our' font as if it was the local bar had tears in his eyes as a youthful female soloist sang a Puccini piece. The applause was loud after each song and massive at the end. The final song was The Easter Hymn and by then it was approaching 11 pm so I will admit we slipped out at that stage, sprinting for the car rather than be caught in traffic. If there was an encore, then we missed it, but the orange MC lady did say "Safe Home" so we think not. So that was that - home by midnight to a nice welcome from the dogs, a warming shot of whisky and a coffee.

So, Thank You very much for thinking of us, Anna and obtaining tickets. We had a lovely evening and you were all brilliant. Thank you, too, Keith Nolan Photography who has granted me permission to use these pictures. 

Wednesday 20 March 2013

It's Not All Hard Work

I sometimes worry that all we talk about on here is the next bit of hard work digging ponds or erecting the poly tunnel. I wouldn't want you to get the idea that we are wearing our fingers to the bone :-) here and not taking time out to enjoy just being here and living this life. OK, you weren't worried. You know me too well!

Every now and then I get the urge to fire up the beloved 2CV and just go for a 'blat' around the local lanes purely for the sheer joy of driving a 2CV. The lanes round here are superb for the car and the words 'bowling along' come back to me as we (Clara and I!) bounce over the undulations and roll gently round the corners. I love the feel of the car, the soft suspension, the engine note and, if the weather is good enough, being able to roll the roof right back to the top of the rear window.

We were determined (OK, I was and I talked Liz into it!) to bring the car over to Ireland so that I could continue to enjoy this 'hobby' and regular readers will know the fun and games we had trying to get it imported on paper, registered, taxed, insured and NCT'd (=MOT'd). The insurance has been a bit of an issue still because the firm we went with (FBD) for the house and Liz's Fiat will not insure  any car more than 15 years old at any more than 3rd party level; not even 'Fire and Theft'. I am not comfortable with this as I like my 'fully comp' cover as I used to get in UK on agreed car-value and limited mileage. We have now found a firm are happy to do comprehensive cover, so I can move at next renewal.

Another fly in the ointment was that although it was a fun hobby, it ends up being a rather pricey one 'over here' what with that insurance, the road tax and the fun we had getting it through the test and when we found we were never actually needing to use the car, and only 'playing' in it I began to doubt that if our money had started to be under pressure I might have had to think about whether we should be a 2-car family. The 2CV is the car with the tow hitch and trailer so in theory it is the useful car around this small holding but in fact the Fiat has a surprisingly big load capacity - it will happily take 8 foot lengths of wood, hay bales, coal and feed sacks etc, so the trailer last got used for dumping some thermal panels at our local 'tip' (Barna Waste) at the end of the build-project. We had an option to keep the car registered but actually take her off the road, signing all the necessary paperwork to create what is known as a 'SORN' (Statutory Off Road Notice). The car is 27 years old this year and in three years becomes a 'vintage' car not (legally) requiring testing. I could have SORN-ed it for those three years.

Happily that financial situation has not arisen (so far!) and we are both agreed that we should hang in there and keep her running for the moment. I am very happy to report that I can continue to indulge my desire to 'play'.

In 'other news' we do still do a bit of work around here. Liz has been getting on with her 'Jam and Jerusalem Hedge' in between the Domestic Goddess-ery and I have finished the exterior of the poly-tunnel (the end and door plus tidying up spare plastic sheeting) and started on shaping the floor into paths and beds.

All enthused by another lovely sunny, spring like day
I also got my salad potatoes (var "Ratte") and First Earlies ("Foremost") into the ground. The new raised beds are becoming beautifully dry and crumbly so that hoeing them with my shuffle-hoe is pure joy and I know that those decapitated docks and creeping buttercup will wilt and die in the sunshine instead of merely rooting back into the (previously) waterlogged ground and laughing at me behind my back as I plodded home my weary way.

Keep it air-cooled and keep it boxer-engined!


Monday 18 March 2013

Tunneling (2) The cover is on!

Out of nowhere a beautiful, warm, windless morning has us galvanized into action! We must grab the opportunity to play with the poly tunnel cover. You don't get many windless days here and we know that once we have started we really need to finish as we don't want any unfixed ends of plastic able to flap about should the wind get up tonight. First real job is to stick the anti-condensation "hot spot" tape to the arches and the ridge pole. We are pleased that the supplier has given us a roll for each arch and a roll for the ridge. We use up plenty of off cuts doing an extra pad around the diagonal stress bars and other areas where we are slightly worried that the plastic cover may chafe.

However, the plastic sheet has been in the carport being chilled by the frosty winds, so we decide that we will spread it out on the front lawn while we do the taping. It is 37 feet long and 22 or so wide. The plan is then to gather it up into a series of longways pleats from which we can launch the leading edge over the ridge followed by the rest of it.

Despite our bed making skills, we are 37 feet apart trying to make the pleats, so it is a bit of a struggle. Liz takes charge at this point; one 'boss' is enough for this stuff! With it pleated we then fold in two so that we know where the middle is and then roll ends to middle so that we can put the middle at the central arch and have, in theory, equal amounts of spare at either end. It is a fairly simple matter to launch the sheet across with me standing on a chair on some corrugated, to manage the high ridge-pole.

There is a handy 'ironed' pleat near the first edge to wrap around a lath as a start. We then pull it a bit tighter across the arches but then we must fix it at either end to make it taut longways before fixing down the northern side to another long lath. We now know why the instructions advise a three foot space all around - messing with big box pleats in acres of flappy plastic is a pain especially when we have only dug over (and drained) the boggy soil INSIDE the tunnel; the outside at the caravan end is still a quagmire and we have some fun falling in and out of that and squelching about while we play pleats.

I am constantly delighted that after so many years wed, Liz and I can still work brilliantly as a team and it definitely paid off here. You could not have done this single handed in anything like as little time. We'd started at about ten and by quarter past 1 we had all the pleating done and could retreat in for a coffee. My electric screw-driver battery was pretty much tired out anyway and needed a charge. We had intended to go to see the Patrick's Day Parade in Loughglynn, the local village, but that was due for 13:30 and we were muddy and tired at it was 13:15. We'll do that one in 2014, maybe.

After a dog walk (poor dogs had been so patient but we daren't let them out to watch as they'd be chasing roosters or geese or vanishing over the horizon!) and some soup for lunch, I had another little bash at the door, hanging it and giving it a plastic 'window' but then the screw driver died completely so we wedged the door shut with a stone and decided to call it a day. We will do all the fine tuning. bolt, trim off excess plastic and start worrying about paths and beds tomorrow.

So. There you go. You can see from the pictures that it is not perfectly taut but we are quite pleased with it for a first effort and we can take up some slack in the summer when the plastic is good and warm on a hot day by lifting the arches up to the next 'hole' on the foundation tubes. Meanwhile it is already a lot warmer in there than the outside world. Tonight the wind has got up and is blowing a chilly breeze from the West, so tomorrow I hope that we will find it still standing and also nice and warm inside. How's that for entertainment on a Monday morning?

Sunday 17 March 2013

The Best Laid Plans

St Patrick's Day, so Beannachtai na Féile Pádraig to all our readers. Round these parts it is traditionally the day by which we should have our spuds planted, at least the Earlies. However our lovely burst of springlike weather is currently parked and we are getting the chilly North Westerlies instead. We have freezing fogs and white rime some mornings alternating with cold wet ones where the forecast carries wintry showers and other miseries not conducive to planting spuds. So the potatoes sit in their trays in the tígín chitting happily out of the frost. When we do get a few nice days I have a raised bed 'ridge' ready for them. They will do OK.

Also on hold because of the broken weather, is poly tunneling. I was out there today in the morning creating the door frame and finishing off the ground boards to which we will attach the plastic. We have decided for now to go with no door at the other end but we will pleat up the plastic sheeting at the end in such away that we can undo it and fit a door-frame if we decide one is necessary.

We are remembering last summer and it's single week of OK but not particularly hot weather in August and thinking that the ventilation from one door will be adequate on a tunnel only 20 feet long.
I don't mind working in light rain so even with the wind a bit raw I worked away till lunchtime but when the rain turned to sleet and snow I decided I was just being silly staying out there. I retreated indoors for a coffee, then the dog walk and then came in for good for homemade soup and to light the range.

 Held up too, but not by the weather, are the plans for the local conservation group's 'Plant a Million Trees in a Day' project. They have the trees, bare rooted and in cold store apparently, but their clearance to distribute them hit the buffers when Ireland suffered an attack of the 'new' fungal disease, Ash Die-Back (a fungus called Chalara fraxinea). This disease is making the Irish forestry industry very nervous as ash is an important crop here, not only because ash wood is used in making the hurley stick (camán) used in the traditional, fast, hair-raising sport, 'hurling'.

The Irish Government has therefore stomped down hard on anyone trying to move ash stocks around the country and as the Million Trees project was going to include the planting of a fair amount of ash saplings, the organisers have had to find suitable substitute species and get all their paperwork cleared again which has knocked them back a month. We are now planting on 27th April instead of 22/23 March. The tree will be OK, apparently as they are in cold store and this is normal in the industry, we are told. This is a bit of a pain as Liz will be out of the country, so I will be planting them all myself.

Never mind. When the sun shines it is still lovely and spring is creeping along. The geese, now very happy, healthy and settled here have started to explore beyond their old secure 'home land' of the orchard and pond garden. They are often now out on the front lawn, frequently come into the yard and have now started looking at the East Field. We have also seen some 'nuptial' activity so we suspect either one or both of the ladies may soon come into lay. The 4 hens are now regularly back up to 3 eggs a day and today we had a very thin-shelled (broken) egg in one of the boxes. This is sometimes a sign that  a hen is coming back into production so, if that is Broody Betty finally coming back on line, maybe we will get a 4-egg (100%) day.

Meanwhile it is St Patrick's Day so I have just been handed a Guinness by Liz, who is sipping on a chilled glass of Prosecco. We are having 'bacon and cabbage' with mashed potatoes and parsley sauce. The 'bacon'  is in the form of a gammon hock which is currently driving the cat(s) mad as they try to rob it from the kitchen, but Liz is more than a match for 2 moggies and the hock is being defended well so far.

Happy St Patrick's Day everyone.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Tunneling (1)

The bitter NE winds fade and we can get back out into the garden and, although it is way too cold to be handling the plastic sheet yet, we can assemble the poly tunnel structure so that we are ready to throw the sheet over on the first warm day. Plastic sheet is easier to handle and to get taut if it is warm and supple.

We have decided to position the tunnel in what was the westernmost bay of the three-bay former hay barn. In this part of the world it is pretty near impossible to grow tomatoes out of doors, or anything tender, for that matter, so anyone who is anyone in gardening has a poly-tunnel. Everybody tells you this. Neighbours, friends, the lady in the local charity shop.... Everyone is also an expert and advice comes from every direction as soon as anyone gets wind there-of. Some of it we welcome and value, some we take with a pinch of salt.

The official instructions which come with this tunnel say that to get the plastic sheet taut you must dig a trench around the tunnel perimeter. Then you drop the sheeting over your frame and tread it down into this trench before back-filling with soil. The weight of the soil holds the sheet down taut. Our Mentor Anne and partner Simon, however, have played this game before (they used to have a 60 foot tunnel or two when growing organic salad crops commercially in a former life) and Anne tells us that the wind and weather will tend to wreck your plastic cover in 5-10 years and you will need to replace it. You do not want to be digging that trench again and again so it is more sensible to lay a big timber (a 5 by 2 for example) all around the perimeter, fixed to the ground-tubes by metal brackets. You then wrap the sheet edges round long wooden laths and screw these down to the timber, gripping the sheet and keeping it taut but making it easy to dismantle should you need to move the tunnel or replace the cover. Sounded good to us, so we have gone with this method.

We have also been advised that things can get very hot and humid in a tunnel, so that you risk cooking the tomatoes. It is best, apparently, to plant the tomatoes at the sides so that they never reach the hot sweaty apex - you do your more tropical stuff in the centre bed there - melons and cucumbers. More advice has us warned that placing the tunnel in the hay-barn bay, so that it is to the north of the big front garden trees and the barn wall, might mean we are a bit spare on bright sunlight, and this might affect whether we can ripen toms. However, here we stopped listening to a degree.

The barn bay is the most useful position and is, we think, open enough to the sky to be in full sun through July, August and September. If we do suffer any light loss then this might also mean less over-heating and, certainly, being snug in against the wall and the trees will mean that the wind and weather's tendency to shred the plastic will be reduced. Having made all these decisions we then found that just down the lane, one of the McG's also has a poly-tunnel in a similar position with its plastic held down by the wood and laths method and his has lasted 11 years so far except where his dog chewed through one panel (!). Ah well. We will live and learn and if it all goes wrong we will do it differently next time.

You can see from the pictures that we are well under way, with the main arches and now the diagonal bracing installed. This being the floor of a former hay-barn of great vintage (50 years?) it has soil as you might expect - the local subsoil with boulders compacted down into a pan by the passing of generations of feet, animals, carts, tractors and machinery thinly covered with rotted straw-bale debris and the peat turfs they all store in barns here to keep them dry. The local stoloniferous grass has also moved in to create that frustrating rat's nest of roots and stems which stop you swinging a shovel about. It is a wet bog-hole and has been a mush since we moved here, never seeming to dry out.

We decided to dig across the whole floor first to cut through the pan and get some drainage going, second to extract the stones and peat turfs and third to mix the layers and bury the straw mush and stoloniferous grass. This should help it all dry out and might give our tomatoes a better substrate in which to put down roots. We may have to import some top soil from the nearby bank (source of rusty fertilizer spreaders and current home of the horse drawn hay rake). We are hoping that once the cover is on the area should no longer get too wet. The eventual plans may involve a weed-proof membrane and plank-sided raised beds but for this season, while it settles and we are still 'learning' we will just tread some paths and plant into the dug beds in between.

One area of confusion remains. Generally these tunnels seem to have a door at either end to allow ventilation on hot days. This one came as a kit with only the one door, and only the bits for a door frame at one end. That is also how the display model in their yard is set up. We assume that users who require the 2nd door either bodge one themselves or pay extra for the 2-door version. Because our 'other end' is just the caravan 'site' we will probably bodge an opening frame and a removable panel which can be replaced with a chicken wire version in hot weather.

Part 2 of this story when I have some pictures of the finished tunnel.

Monday 11 March 2013

Personal Taste

Growing up in Hastings (Sussex) with our Mum (The Pud Lady) as an excellent cook we tended to be fed good UK fare - meat and 2 veg, steak and kidney puds, roasts, stews, grilled cod and so on. We had an excellent butcher in Ore Village (nearer to us than Hastings Town itself) and a fine game supplier within easy range so we occasionally went in for venison casseroles but never cared to venture into spicy 'foreign' stuff like Chinese food or curries or chillies. I don't remember ever sending someone out for a take-away or even fish and chips (though surely as three boys we were in a chip shop individually now and then). The most adventurous we seemed to get was a lovely spaghetti bolognese recipe. At one stage Mum was Librarian in Hastings College of Further Education and had access to the staff-shop which sold some of the output from the college's most excellent chef-school so there were sometimes exotic fare like dressed crab and the more exotic casseroles. I might be remembering this inaccurately and the brothers or Pud Lady will correct me if I need it, but it all seemed to be good stuff and it never did us any harm.

As a result, I grew up very shy of anything spicy or hot. Once I'd left home and was looking after myself through Uni I did get into Chinese cooking and made some nice chillies but never went too hot and I still steered clear of Indian restaurants. In those day, for University lads anyway, getting a curry was all about lager as Dutch courage before a macho-test of who could eat the hottest curry. I was always going to lose those contests and would always be asking trusted friends who knew their way round menus, to choose me some mild stuff which I'd then dilute further with as much rice, yogurt or tzatziki (mix of yogurt, mint and cucumber) as I could get hold of and a glass of water. It all seemed a bit pointless to me. The courses seemed to be largely a very small quantity of meat in a lot of very spicy sloppy sauce. I couldn't identify the meat half the time and wondered why I was there. Maybe I was just in a succession of poor restaurants? I kept hearing that this wasn't REAL Indian food, but just some spiced up fare cooked to suit the appetites of the westerner lads on the way home from the pub.

Recently, I am delighted to find that this might actually be true, and that you can eat Indian food which is just 'interestingly' spiced, not lip-tinglingly hot. It can have plenty of good, identifiable meat in it and real fresh vegetables. It does not have to be drowning in sloppy sauce. Meet Indian celebrity chef and cookery book writer, Madhur Jaffrey. Admittedly most of you probably already have and are well familiar with this stuff and you may have kitchen store cupboards full of tupperware and jars stuffed with sachets and packs of cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, black mustard seeds, termeric, cayenne, tins of coconut milk, and fridge-door shelves full of fresh ginger root, fresh chilli and so on.

We treated ourselves to the book last August (for Liz's birthday) and have since been on an exciting voyage of discovery through the spice and ingredient shelves of our excellent Indian shop in Balla-D, "Hidiyat's" and through the recipes in the book. We have done some veg dishes (including an okra one) and no end of different stuff involving our own lamb; the 'meat', but also the liver, hearts etc. We have done some excellent rice dishes and egg dishes. Without exception they have been delicious, interesting, 'bright' and fresh. Not once have we had to recoil from anything too hot and to decide to try again with smaller quantities of chilli or garam masala (and not once have we been asked to include "curry powder").

Yesterday was Mothers' Day so I decided to treat Feigh's own Mother-to-Many to a day off cooking and, further, that I'd do the whole day out of Madhur's book AND cook nothing I had ever cooked before. A bit brave, maybe? Well, I am delighted to say it all worked well, all be it, there were two small lapses away from this original plan. Breakfast was Madhur's "Spicy Scrambled Eggs" which I had done before. Then the lunchtime snack plan for her Goa style mussels fell foul of lack of mussels, and I subbed in a savoury-bite recipe using anchovy, cheese, olives and cayenne pepper which wasn't actually out of the book.

The main meal, however, stood up to the ideals and we a great success. Liz said it was so nice that she could have kept on eating away snacking on it , returning all night for a wee bit more if only we had one of those hot plate things. It was in three parts, a chicken course, a cabbage/peas recipe and a mushrooms and rice thing. The chicken (Chicken with roasted coriander in a coconut curry sauce) involved browning the jointed chicken in oil flavoured with mustard seeds and cinnamon, then simmering it in a coconut-milk based sauce with all the other stuff in it. It was mild, tender, meaty and gorgeous. The chicken was actually our first home grown bird, one of the young roosters hatched before Christmas. The cabbage and peas thing involved shredding the cabbage finely and then sweating it in oil flavoured with bay and cumin, with turmeric and cayenne. The rice dish involved frying off mushrooms and onions, garlic, ginger, garam massala, then adding the rice and then the water so that the rice boiled to soft picking up the flavours of the rest.

All very yummy. Hard concentration work but not that complicated (I managed it!) and a delicious reward. Indian food without blasting your taste buds. What's not to like?

Sunday 10 March 2013

Too Cold for that Caper

As predicted (but not with any credence from us!) our poly tunnel is delivered this (Sunday) morning. This unlikely event, a bloke doing a delivery of building materials with a lorry on a Sunday is only happening because bloke's Mum and Auntie both live in the nearby village of Loughglynn, it's Mothers' Day and he is bringing his wee daughter over for lunch.

Daughter is fascinated by the rabbits and geese but declines a look around because it's lovely and warm in Dad's lorry-cab and 'out here' there is a fierce Nor'Easterly charging through at what feels like about minus 4 degrees and the forecast is for snow. Donegal, a couple of counties north already has snow. If you stand in the Tígín with the east side door open, the wind chases in behind you and howls out through the gaps around the west door with a noise like a Scott of the Antarctic sound-track. Lawrence Oates quotes resound in our ears. "I am just going outside and I may be some time".

What ever, it's way too cold to play poly tunnels and would be downright dangerous in the wind, so the bits and pieces come off the lorry and will pretty much stay put till the weather improves. Not only do you need it reasonably still to be handling huge sheets of plastic, but it is much easier to get the plastic correctly taut around the frame if the plastic is warm and supple.

Meanwhile, a new complication develops in our gardening, and that is in the pond department. We had hoped that the apparently sticky, heavy Roscommon clay might be gloopy enough to give is a waterproof lining to our intended and half-dug big pond. I have posted in an earlier post about digging a test-pit, filling it with rain water and slapping it about a bit to smear out any obvious worm-holes before leaving it to the geese. Well, to my amazement I woke up on the 2nd morning after creating the test-pit to find it drained dry, so not that waterproof at all! So much for all the 'living in a bog' no drainage nonsense.

Liz and I decided to research this 'puddling' a bit further and the methods as described in our internet searches involve scooping up tennis ball sized lumps  the clay, squishing it in you hands, forming it into hamburger shaped 'tiles' and then creating multiple, interlocked layers of these tiles to 6 inches thickness. This is all totally impractical on a 20 foot by 30 foot pond as is the commercial/industrial/contractor method involving 20 tonne excavators etc. We had a little poke about with our own hands and shovels and discovered that the 'clay' when wetted is actually quite gritty, more like a silty-clay than a pure clay. It definitely did not feel as smooth and clay-like as the stuff I can remember trying to spin on the potters wheel at school. When you try to puddle it with water it falls apart and, even when squished into a ball-shape it splits and breaks apart when kneaded.

The net result of all this mud-pie puddle-ducking is that we now think that a clay liner would not work and that we will have to go for the butyl rubber liner. Butyl rubber round these parts comes at around €8.50 per square metre so you can probably do the sums and see that we are talking about a several hundred euro spend. We have seen the advice which says length is pond length plus twice depth plus 500mm margin but we have also seen the little footnote which says 'if you have dug your pond already, lay a hose pipe along and down into the pond hole and then measure the hose'. The latter is much more efficient and will result in much less waste of expensive rubber sheeting. So I am back in the pond digging game but not in this wind.

Today I am staying indoors for the most part, doing all the cooking to give Liz a Mothers' Day break and keeping the home fires burning. Love to my own Mum (Pud Lady) and Liz's Mum, (Steak Lady) plus to any Mums of our animals; Deefer's Mum (Molly), Towser and Poppy's Mum (Lily), the cats' Mum, and so on. Off to walk the dogs now, though.

"I am just going outside......"

Thursday 7 March 2013

Never Volunteer

Keep your head down and never volunteer for anything..... seems like good advice. So when the Irish poultry discussion website ( of which I'm a member was struggling under a barrage of fake new member names generated by a robot spam programme and the poor guy trying to manage it was working 70 hour weeks, why did I hear myself volunteering to help? At the time the guy (who owns and manages the site) thanked me but didn't take me up on the offer. Yesterday, though, he decided he could use me after all and here I am, "Global Moderator" for to go with my responsibilities as 'web-meister' for the Thames Sailing Barge Cambria website ( ).

The site is (obviously) mainly peopled by poultry keepers, breeders etc plenty of whom have interests outside of pure poultry; they are farmers, small holders, pest control people, writers and publishers, all sorts. They cross the whole rich brew of human life, all ages, 'classes', standards of education and strengths of opinion. They seem to go almost 24/7; certainly they can be up gassing way into the night way after I've gone to bed. It can sometimes get a bit heated but is generally harmless, just like a gang of friends bantering in the pub. There are a few muppets we need to keep our eye on but 99% of them are sensible. If anyone stepped over the lines in the past the Moderator had the option to "kill" discussion threads, warn offenders and ban them, sometimes for a fixed 'cooling off period', rarely permanently. A good few of them have given me their best wishes, some with a wry "Good Luck - you'll need it!" It should be fun, and, I hope, will not use up too much time. Feel free to look in on the website(s) if you'd like to know more.

Our drought is finally over. Overnight light rain on Tuesday 5th laid the dust and left us with a smeary, moist soil surface but no puddles. We have had drizzle on and off since then and enough quick heavier showers to fill up the car-port water-butt. The spring like weather, however, has set all the plants into motion and momentum for spring is building. We have now had a first daffodil open - this one courtesy of Steak Lady and her big net of bulbs given to us last Autumn. This whole net was planted in a curved 'drift' and promises to look superb.

Pond digging continues a-pace and yesterday I finally finished the first 'spit' (spade depth) all across the area so, for a laugh, I dug a small pit at one end down into the clay. I am hoping that the Roscommon clay will be sufficiently goo-ey that I can 'puddle' it into a waterproof layer so that we do not need to spend €860 on a butyl rubber liner. I was curious to see whether the geese might help me in the puddling process. I filled it from the water butt, scattered grain around the rim and whistled up the geese.

They were straight in, curious as anything, first dibbling their beaks into the water and then head-bathing. The sides of this mini-pit are rather steep so the geese were a bit alarmed when they sometimes slithered in down the bank. They made some amusing efforts to reverse out, but quickly learned that they could turn round and simply hop out. As well as the puddling thing, I want to know whether they will mess around too much and the water will never settle, especially as the pond gets bigger but that'll be for later. For now this pit does not seem like draining away, i.e. it seems pretty waterproof, so I will have to dig the rest around this pit leaving a dam to separate the filled bit from the digging. Slopping around in sticky Roscommon clay while trying to dig and push wheel barrows about is not fun.

There is little progress on the poly-tunnel front. The tunnel 'kit' was allegedly going to arrive either last weekend or 'middle of this week'. We have started to clear the site and the picture shows the two main horizontal wooden beams (5 by 2's) which will take the tension on the polythene sheet which we have bought so far. These are 20 feet long and , here, roughly 14 feet apart, which is the size of the tunnel ordered. The old hay barn floor is a mess of old peat turf, rotted straw bales and the old topsoil or underlying clay plus, inevitably, our local head-shaped, head sized boulders. The kit did not arrive and a chase phone-call today had the firm adjusting their ETA to 'Definitely this weekend, possibly Sunday morning'. This unlikely prediction is only credible because we know the main delivery guy has an Auntie in Loughglynn, our nearby village!

More successful is news of the return of my belovéd rotovator which you may recall died last summer (after I foolishly left it out in the rain without its cover) and then spent 8 months not being fixed by the tool hire firm Domac. I rescued it from Domac recently and entrusted it to the tender loving care of Felix-the-Fix (Chainsaw Genius) who has now fixed and serviced it. He tells me that Domac had tried to bodge on some lawnmower parts which were totally inadequate for the 3HP Briggs and Stratton motor. ("I love this engine!" says Felix).

Well, now I have it back and have seen it chug-chugging away in the sweet, relaxed, leisurely way it has. Diamond heard the noise while on her visit here last summer and, still in a half drowse in her bed, thought it was one of the small fishing boats putting out from Poros Island. Lovely. Felix being the kind of careful engineer he is, of course has also given it a huge clean up and oil and service, cleaning out air filters, fuel lines and the carburettor. He is also very careful to explain to me how the fuel tap and choke should be used. His charges were, as always, very reasonable and, as part of the deal, I'd agreed to give him the old dead Lidl chainsaw to strip for parts. In the event I was scrabbling in my pocket for the last Euro and he flapped his hands, grinned and said "Ahh... Don't worry... call it a trade in on the saw!" So, readers, the chainsaw was not a complete write off. I got €1 for it!