Thursday 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en in a Small Way, Knitting in a Big Way!

I've never been that bothered with Hallowe'en. Growing up in England through the 60's and 70's we didn't really do it. There was nothing in the shops like there is now. You all did Guy Fawkes Night and then had the gap till Christmas and we were all amazed when the film ET came out and we saw all those American children out 'en masse' Trick-or-Treating. It started to creep in to Kent while we lived there (mainly the 90's and the 'Naughties') so we bought the obligatory tin of Roses chocs and carved a pumpkin for the front window to give notice that we were up for it, but we only ever got a couple of groups of very well behaved and shy, restrained kids on our street. You had to brow beat them into taking 'a decent handful' of the chocs, or you'd be left eating them for weeks. I remember one year where Liz and Mrs S (possibly before she was Mrs S?) tipping our tin out onto a coffee table so they could sort out sweets between ones we liked and ones we didn't. The good ones were then buried at the bottom of the tin so that the kids would mainly take the yucky strawberry creme centres.

The Silverwoods, on their 'young' estate with its million children go the maddest for Hallowe'en. The streets pretty much become no-go areas with great troops of little witches and ghouls in elabourate costumes being shepherded from house to house. Everyone gets involved, so the whole street(s) have all bought a truck load of sweets  and gazillions of Euro worth of decorations - big black billowing Death-mask figures which rise up on strings attached to the door when you open it, sound effects, lit up grave stones for the front lawn, dry ice smoke and so on. Real artistry is applied to the pumpkin carving (unlike mine, pictured, which took 5 minutes!) using stencils from the internet to do cats, witches, mummies and the like. Mr S's ones are brilliant. He must take hours over them. Special ghostly food is cooked and spooky parties are held for all the kids, who by now have returned to their own house several times with full carrier bags of sweets, their arms too tired to carry all the booty. Liz and I were there for one year and it was all brilliant fun.

Back here though, we live in a lane where there are only 2 families (2 brothers) with any children. so we don't go too mad. I grew a few pumpkins this year which we will put along the drive and on the gate piers when it gets dark. If last year is anything to go by we will get one visit (both the families, and one of another brother from outside the village) but they do a good job of dressing up and they get shepherded around by the Mums in hi-viz jackets. We are happy to join in as part of our getting known and accepted in the village. I'll let you know how we got on. When I say 'we', unless the kids are very late it is more likely to be me and the dogs because Liz is away.

She has gone to Dublin with her 'Knit and Natter' group in a 29 seater coach, to the annual "Knit and Stitch" Show which is held at the RDS, Ireland's big national exhibition space, equivalent to the NEC or Earl's Court in the UK. Knitting, cross-stitch and the likes are MASSIVE in Ireland and this show is a huge Trades Exhibition for the wool producers, knitting needle makers and anyone with new ideas or techniques or equipment to show off. We were up early (05:45) to get Liz and Carolyn to the coach pick-up point in Balla-D by 07:00. They have been at the Show all day and are just now on the way home, shopped out and loaded down with wool and goodies, returning via a stop for a burger in Enfield Services. Liz will text me when they get to French Park, so I should be able to  get to Balla just as they are disembarking the coach. That's the plan anyway but, you know, Witches are ABROAD!

Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Times they are a-Changing

Shallots become pickled onions
We were commenting only the other day on how much more the weather affects us in this life compared to our time working in Kent. Be it rain, hail, wind or stultifying heat out there, I 'saw' it only briefly on the run to work, sprinting from house door to car door, or multi-story car park space to the pedestrian 'bridge' into the depot. There after I was in an air conditioned office or one of the massive cold stores set to 1.5 degrees C. Just occasionally I'd feel the weather again when I had to visit network equipment outside this (roof voids, porta cabins or what have you) but really our only experience was to look up through an office window and comment "Would you look at that rain?" Clocks changing were even more so, largely an irrelevance.

Cassis under construction. Tastes good already!
Not so here. Here the weather  and the day length have a huge influence on what we are able to do and achieve. With the shortening day length I had got to the point where wake up time (which was around 08:15) had me doing my feed and release rounds before bringing Liz up her cup of tea. The sheep (and Cody) were getting a bit of supper at 5 pm after which I could chop wood and light a fire in a leisurely manner with a whole hour to spare before I needed to shepherd the geese home, give the dogs their half hour romp in the orchard. I'd then have a bit of a sit down till supper and either just before that or afterwards, start locking up chickens.

Now that we are on GMT, I wake at 07:15 so I have a chance to sneak back under the covers after releasing the birds and doing sheep breakfasts for a quick doze before proper getting up time, just like in summer. In the evening everything is now squashed together in a flurry of activity; feed sheep, light fire, shepherd geese, exercise dogs and lock up poultry all in one rush, after which there is now a gap till suppertime which is generally between 7 pm and 7:30.

Towsers back feet and legs get a trim.
It is also at about this time of year, I would clip the dogs for the last time, leaving them then to go shaggy through the cold winter months. This year we have an enthusiastic helper in this task our friend Charlotte from down the road, she of the miniature horses. Charlotte is now at college studying to be a Vet's Assistant and a part of this course is about grooming dogs, partly to give the students this useful skill should they choose to go that route, but also as a really good way of getting them used to handing other people's dogs.

Showing Charlotte how we are going to do ears.
We are, of course happy to oblige and our three Westies have taken to Charlotte anyway, so it seemed like a good solution to getting her lots of practise. Charlotte grew up with horses and loved the clipping and grooming side of showing them, so she is already familiar with the clippers and scissors; it was only the shape of a Westie which would be new to her. She got Towser as her first dog and I demo'd what I do on Deefer, so that Charlotte could reproduce this on Towser. I sketched out any detailed cuts and shaping on paper, so that she'd know what I was trying to achieve. I am in no way a professional quality groomer or highly skilled, but what I do works for me and, as I said to her, if she gets the practise in on my three, she can always fine tune it in her classes at college where the tutor is a regular dog-show breeder.

Poppy gets it in the neck!
In the event we had a great time, enjoying our clipping in parallel and passing the clippers back and forth as we swapped for scissors. She did a really good, impressive job on Towser, easily as accurate and tidy as I do and kept him calm and unfussed throughout. He seemed to love the gentle attention and looked quite soppily happy for the whole time. After we'd done Towser and Deefer in parallel, we stopped for tea and cake before Charlotte then clipped Poppy while I just sat back and watched, no need to intervene or supervise at all. All three dogs now look very neat and tidy and we are all 3 happy with the results.

Towser gets used to the idea.
In other news we have been getting on with our preserving and storing type tasks. The pea pod wine (made in early August) has fallen quite bright under its airlock, so I have racked that off into another demi-john and put it under a standard cork. We'll probably give that the full 6 months before we try it. We decided to make pickled onions with the shallots. They had been sitting in a paper bag because we were sure we'd find a Madhur Jaffrey recipe which might need them, but they are small and fiddly, so it is always easier to grab a 'proper' onion. Yesterday Rolo the cat, exploring the kitchen managed to get his head stuck through the (paper strap) handle of the bag and tipped the whole lot onto the floor, reminding us that we had not, in fact, used any yet! Pickled onions seemed like a good solution.

The cassis has also come ready for having its fruit strained out of it and the sugar added. Finally we managed to find a bargain bag (€1) of rather time expired chilli peppers and Liz decided to dry them for storage. They prove to be an extremely lively and hot version of pepper. I used the knife after Liz had finished preparing them, to cut my cheese for a lunchtime sandwich. I had given it a cursory wipe, but still got enough peppery 'zing' off the blade to pep up the cheese out of all proportion to its normal flavour. The chopping board had been washed, cleaned and put away by the time I went to make breakfast toast the next day, but managed to give a similar zing to the undersides of slices of buttered toast. That jar might need a 'Use with Extreme Care' warning label.

Saturday 26 October 2013

A calf called 'Dave'

We are obviously only amateurs at this 'farming' lark, with our rabbits grazing the front lawn. A lady just down the lane has a calf grazing hers. Well, grazing a bit, maybe - this one is so young he is still on the hand-feeding bottled milk. He is a Limousin born last week but one of twins, rejected by the Mum who seems to have decided that one is enough. He seems to be doing OK but must be a bit lonely judging by the way he bounces up to the fence even when I have three dogs on leads. I had a good idea that this lady might be as 'silly' as us with giving the little mite a name. Well, she told me rather apologetically, the grand children have called him 'Dave'!

Rain, wind and a blizzard of autumn leaves coming down. Round here that is mainly the ash and the sycamore now. The hawthorn is already bare to the heavy crop of haws. We are a bit short on pretty colours this year, no flaming reds or oranges. The sycamore gets that tar-spotting fungus before the leaves turn a muddy brown. The ash just goes pale yellow and pathetic looking before it falls, the leaflets coming away from the central leaf-stalk leaving you with a twiggy mess. The beech and horse chestnut have tried a bit of orange but really, the only colour is coming from the more exotic garden trees - Acers and so on - up and down the lane. Not a vintage year for indulging in that bizarrely named American activity, "Leaf Peeping".

We love the Met Éireann weather maps on line, showing us the predicted rainfall (of which there seems to be plenty over this Irish Bank Holiday weekend (Hallowe'en). Rainfall is quoted in mm per hour, so 'heavy' would be any green areas, more than 1 mm per hour, 25 mm or an inch per day. The massive storms (yellow, orange and red) seem to be saving themselves for the south and east coast this time. You click on, and slide the time slider at the bottom of the map in 6-hour chunks and you can see it all passing through like a slow-motion movie.

Big thanks for this gift of wine from a generous benefactor. No names no pack drill - we are not at all sure the friend would want to be 'named and shamed' but you know who you are and we have, of course, made contact to pass on our thanks separately. Thank you very much. We love the name of this firm, "Wine on Line" based near Dublin and using one of the many excellent courier firms which seem to exist in these rural areas. These guys always seem to phone first before they arrive to check you are in and to confirm directions, which gives me a chance to get down to the gate to meet them. We had no idea this was coming so our first reaction was "What parcel? What have we ordered?"

John Deere Bob's new cattle on some silage aftermath.
The 2CV saga rumbles on and I probably know more about 2CV carburettors and the emissions tests now than it is healthy for one person to know. Ignore this paragraph if you have not interest in this! I will not bore you with a wealth of detail but the car is now back in the garage and being attended to by the senior guy (owner?) Keiran who is a whizz on these detailed tweaks and the gas analyzer. It seems that both my existing carb AND the spare I got from 2CV Llew have worn 'holes' where the hard metal of the butterfly spindles slot in. They do a smoke test apparently and can watch the smoke leaking out of what should be an airtight bearing. This means that they can set the mixture up but as soon as you tread the accelerator the butterfly opens but then can fall back into a different closed position. The air leaks around it and the jet has to be set rich to compensate for the air leaks, which can push your HC (hydrocarbons) out of kilter. Keiran thinks he can fix it but I am not confident.

Gladioli enjoying the mild autumn in the yard
In 2CV-Land there is an expert 'go-to' man we all talk to on line, named Ken Hanna. Ken thinks that the limits I am being asked to stay inside are set up for modern cars and engines with catalytic converters and clean exhausts. In the UK, he tells me, old cars are given exemptions and concessions. Even the new spec for a 2CV ex factory, he says would over-top the limits here (and fail) so I may be on a hiding to nothing. If this is the case then it is definitely not worth investing the (gasp) €240+ in a reconditioned carb. Ah well, we will find out on Thursday 14th Nov which is last chance saloon for this car.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Small Obsessions

Back before we actually bought these geese we had read that they have nice, amusing personalities with their own idiosyncratic and funny ways. Simon had told us that they get funny little obsessions for no apparent reason which they then cling to like a terrier with a stick, returning time and again to that specific place and thing. If it is a particular fruit tree and maybe a loose flap of bark, they (or maybe just one of them  who has got the idea into his/her head) will worry and worry at it making the tear bigger and bigger till, potentially, they have ring barked and killed the tree. We have tree guards round our orchard trees for that reason. Many trees now have thoroughly chewed lower branch tips.

Goose 'worry-hole'?
We have also had them nibbling and nibbling at a particular bit of ground which looks, to me, like any other. Maybe there we a worm there once which they fancied. The work away at it from all angles till they create a little conical hole in the mud, roughly goose-head size and as deep as they can reach. Obviously when it rain the hole fills up with water and they seem to leave it alone but when it's dry they are back. In the case pictured it is right where I throw down their breakfast grain so, inevitably, some falls down the hole and then there's great excitement as they gather round, heads lowered over the hole, honking loudly.

We love their personalities, too. They are a tight knit group. The 'goslings' have now grown up to the point where they are difficult to tell from the adults. We know, of course, that Goosey and Goocie have black markings in particular places and Gander is the big, wry-tailed, upright boy, usually at the back, but the only real way to tell them now is that the grown ups have that saggy belly between their legs which older geese get, while the 'babies' have tight, smooth under-carriage.

Blue (left) and Rolo at breakfast
These guys, regular readers will know, are our first attempt at breeding geese and all has not gone well because the 'parent birds' we bought as a breeding trio turned out to be, we are sure, fully or recessive 'wry-tailed' as well as being, almost certainly, a sibling group, i.e. brother and two sisters. Unfortunately, therefore, we have been wickedly in-breeding and our first batch have, in many cases, had hatching or subsequent developmental problems and have either died or been culled out, leaving us with only these 2 'babies' from 17 eggs. Not a good score! We have been a bit dispirited by this and frustrated by our "inability to keep them alive" and have doubts about whether we want to be 'in' geese at all. We have a possible option on replacing the gander with one named George, hand reared by our friends down the road (if he turns out to be a boy) but if not we may just keep them for the eggs. Apart from anything else, I am not happy having to slaughter them. I'm not 'happy' doing rabbits or chooks, to be truthful but I can manage it well enough when it needs doing. I think maybe I love geese in a more complex way and cannot, in my head, see them as just food. My problem, I guess, not anything I should be unloading on the reader.

Bubble with her 'bum' feathers in pin. 
Ah well. Enough of this. Today Liz is back from the UK having done her stint of house-minding for Diamond and John. I must walk the dogs now and then grab some lunch before nipping out to Knock Airport to meet her from the plane. It will be good to have her back in the fold.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Day 84. A Good Day to Die?

Hubbard chickens at Day 83
For our Hubbard variety chickens, tomorrow is Day 84 from hatching. In the cut and thrust, hard nosed world of commercial free-range and/or organic meat production, this would be the target slaughter date; game over. Hubbards are the variety now widely used in Ireland for this type of system produced in commercial hatcheries (in this case one up by the Northern Ireland border) in their hundreds of thousands and sold to growers as day old chicks. They are then kept in conditions which pass (maybe only just) the minimum standards of welfare and feed to earn a 'Free Range' or 'Organic' certification to produce a big breasted, broad chested, heavy looking but still tender, oven-ready carcass. Even a small amount of research will tell you that 'Free Range' here does not quite mean happy chickens scratching in the sunny farmyard; these are still fairly intensive, crowded systems in which feeding is closely controlled and, although chickens must have 'access' to the run outside, they do not necessarily get out much.

Our 'Mini-Buffs'. 2 hens or one of each?
We got our birds on August 1st (as day olds), you will recall, mainly in order to give Broody Betty something to 'mother' when we took away 'her' ducklings. We took 8 of a batch collected by Anne and Simon from the hatchery, Anne kept a further 8 and the remaining birds went to a friend of Anne's. We had, therefore, the potential for a small scale simple comparison between the groups under our three different systems. We do complete free range (they can go where they like around the 2 and a half acres and beyond) and mixed with the other birds but have, as a result, limited control over diet. Anne does organic starting off indoors but then in a large pen, separate from her other birds so they have a lot less freedom to move but she can give them generous amounts of cooked rice and potato etc. At any given date they seemed to be a quarter to a third bigger and heavier than ours and feathered up much more slowly. The third batch are even more confined and we believe would be legally 'Free Range' but not organic and, says Anne, have put on a deal of weight even more than her birds and possibly been slaughtered by now.

Pure bred Buff Orpington cockerel and hen.
You can see from our first picture that ours look decidedly 'adolescent' and lanky rather than fat and wide-chested. Their legs look massive and out of proportion to their slim shape as if they have a lot of growing left to do. Just for the record we weighed some of them and got a weight range (live, obviously) of between 6 lb 3.25 oz (2.81 kg) and 7 lb and a quarter ounce (3.18 kg). We have decided not to slaughter any time soon. We will keep these as a living larder while they put on some more weight. Anne has warned me that because they are 'designed' (yoiks!) only to go the 84 days they may over run their 'tender' spec and become sinewy and tough, only fit for casseroles and coq-au-vin but that is not an issue for us - we LOVE a coq au vin! I know Anne is off weighing hers today or tomorrow, so it will be interesting to see how the little 'trial' went.

My 2nd and 3rd picture here are of the 8-Ball birds, now approaching 25 weeks and well into lay if they are of that persuasion. Our 'mini buffs' (some kind of bantam-y cross) turned out, we are sure, to be both hens. That is to say that we are both sure we have seen both of them being 'trodden' by roosters and I am fairly sure they are both laying eggs and neither has crowed. My uncertainty today is just seeing them both in this picture the bird on the right seems to have pink legs rather than yellow, maybe a bigger comb and wattles and a more upright tail? Doubts are creeping in!

The 2CV saga moves on one step. I managed to get my official form signed and stamped by a nice lady Guard in Castlerea Garda Station. Now I just need that mixture tweaked one last time by the boys in the garage for our real last, final, ultimate, tail-end, conclusive shot at the NCT emissions test. I have promised myself that this will be it. If it fails this time then I will take it off the road officially (on Statutory Off Road Notice (SORN)  and it can become an interesting garden feature till a better offer comes along. I may sell it. I may keep it till it is 30 years old and doesn't need an NCT. I will have run into the buffers, defeated by the system and fed up with having spent more on tests and re-tests than I have on the car.

The ex-Hastings fig cutting
A quick catch up on the gardening. This pic shows the current state of play on the ex-Hastings fig tree cutting. Grown in Faversham for a year or two in a half barrel, we decided to bring it over with us when we moved, so it was coppiced hard and root-washed. The remains lived with me at Pud Lady's in a fertilizer sack in her front garden till we moved. We planted it in the gravelly soil at the top of the front drive here but then it got driven over by a JCB laying drains. We thought we had lost it but Liz did some detective work using early photos and found it. It languished for a while, then just about managed to produce a few leaves where upon last years sheep browsed them all off and it went into winter as a bare, inch thick 'stick'. Again we were sure it was a goner. Spring came and no leaves emerged till way into June but then it suddenly put on a spurt of 3-4 small branches reaching the 18" or so you can see here. We will give it special protection through this winter. We dream of a bright future for this tree. May it do as well as it's parent which now fills most of the gap behind Pud Lady's garage and over-tops the roof gutters (OK it's a bungalow). I want to see it shading our terrace corner on the SE corner of the house, clearly visible as you come up the drive.

And finally, I know it has been a weird late season and I know these raspberries are Autumn Bliss, but I never expected to be starting to pick a decent crop on October the 22nd. They are not the sweetest raspberries, so maybe lacked sun, and they are very juicy (plenty of rain!) but I am hoping they will stay sound on the canes for just the next couple of days till Liz returns and can enjoy them with me.

Monday 21 October 2013

The Slough of Despond

Poppy curled up with Rolo
Unusually for me and for this blog, a post of unremitting misery and gloom. Those who turn to this blog for its up-beat cheerful outlook on life and optimism, look away now. I just feel 'meh' and fed up. The reasons for this seem so pathetic and unimportant compared to many friends who I know have proper, grown up reasons to be a bit down, but that just makes it seem even more self indulgent and silly. Liz is away and it has done nothing but rain since she left. I can't really complain about either but both are adding to the mood. I feel like one of my wet hens hunkered down under the car port roof waiting for the sun to come back out.

Towser claims the back of the sofa
The rain is currently that heavy type made up of big, blobby, splatty drops which quickly soak everything and create big puddles. My water butts (even the 1000 litre pallet-sized ones) are long since filled so the water is just overflowing back down the diverters into the gullies but, as I said, we can honestly not complain as we have had such an unusually brilliant year so far, well peppered with droughts and sunny spells. A wet week in October is hardly cause for claims of unreasonable behaviour by Met Éireann but it does pin you down rather when most of what you'd like to do is outdoor work. My knee pads work very well for keeping my knees up out of the damp soil when I'm weeding, but can't cope with actual puddles, and climbing aluminium ladders to cut side branches off spruce trees in the wet is probably not wise.

Deefer looks a bit grubby after a wet walk.
Liz is away currently with Diamond. The girls were going to Poros Island in Greece to attend a funeral Memorial Service of an ancient and venerable friend called Nicoletta who (with Bro in Law Andreas) ran a taverna up in some lemon groves just across the sound in (I think) Galatas. This was for all the years Diamond used to visit in her younger days, and then as Nicoletta grew old and infirm, Diamond would visit anyway though the taverna was long shut, just as an old friend of the family, taking Liz along in recent years when Liz started accompanying Diamond to the islands.

Well, old Nicoletta has now passed on and in Greece they bury the dead within 24 hours but then have a special service and event 30 days or so later. (See what I mean about 'grown up reasons to be down?). The girls were flying out to this and had bought the flights, planning to meet up and fly together from Heathrow to Athens. Well some who know Diamond may also know that she is not at all well herself (the gang joke that you should never play "Medical Top-Trumps" with her; it would not go well for you!) and in the event she was not well enough to travel plus new husband, John got his dates for a long awaited hip operation right that weekend too, so the girls just wrote off the Greek leg of their journey and decided to stay in Kent, with Liz house keeping for John and Diamond. There again, a perfectly good grown up reason for Liz to be away, and I should not be mooping around here feeling all bereft.

Plenty of food
The sorry tale of the 2CV also carries on. She was due her 2nd full NCT test on Saturday, having failed the last one (1st re-test) only on exhaust emissions. We had bought carburettor parts and our man in the garage (Aaron, who looks about 12 but seems to run the place!) had worked his magic with mixture screws and the gas analyser. "It's well within tolerances" he assured me, so I was fairly confident even though this is a whole new test, so the guys could potentially find new stuff to fail me on. Off to the NCT centre at Carrick then, for my 10:50 appointment with their 'production line' of pokes, prods, wiggles and hydraulic floor bouncing.

I was bitterly disappointed to fail AGAIN, first on the emissions again (the CO level was 0.704% instead of the allowed maximum of 0.450%) but also now on a new one. My 'VIN' (Vehicle Identification Number) plate (equivalent to the 'chassis number' on a modern car) is fixed to the bulk-head / firewall and not to the chassis. It always has been and I hear from the 2CV forums on the internet that they have been all over the place through the (60+ year) history of the car and my car is, anyway, a dog's breakfast of bits from other cars. But it was good enough for the Irish registration office when we first moved over, and has passed many NCT tests (and re-tests) since. However, this gentleman 'KNEW DIFFERENT' and failed me on it. I have to take a form he gave me to the local police station and get them to stamp and sign it to agree that this car, with this, registration plate and this VIN number on the bulkhead is OK on the Irish roads. That and take the car back into the garage for another tweak of the carb plus book another retest for another €28. Only 2 minor issues with that. First Aaron is in the USA for a month playing mechanic to the Irish Kart team, so I have to use another lad, named Keiran who "is pretty sure he can fix it" and secondly the police stations round here seem to be be manned by only one Guard with one car, so when they whizz out on call the station is all locked up and gone away. Trying to arrive at one when it is occupied by an actual Guard seems to be a bit of a lottery.

Ah well, the above clouded tale of woe had its own silver lining to mollify me. My run to Carrick is 35 minutes down beautiful country lanes in bright sunshine (that lunchtime); perfect 2CV country where the words 'bowling along' are perfectly apposite and a 2CV driver would find it hard not to be wearing a huge grin. As I said at the top of this post, I am feeling just 'meh' and a bit bluesy rather than truly depressed and down. I have the 'farm', the animals, plenty of food, coal and wood to burn and, as I look out the window as I finish typing this, it might even be brightening up. Blog posting as therapy! Thank you for listening to my self indulgent burblings. Let he who has never felt a bit like this cast the first stone.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

As Sharp as a Tack

I have been helping John Deere Bob with a few jobs, most recently stripping some ivy off his cattle barn, which had got a firm grip and some 2 inch 'trunks' clinging to the block-work. Being a climber and not needing to support its own weight, ivy is never that tough and I made short work of it with a billhook, loppers and a standard hand saw. I had to cut it off at ground level and then rip it off as far as the top of the block wall. Bob had no ladder available so he told me to 'leave that top stuff to die by itself'. He was delighted and came by the place later to bring us a sack of his good dry (local) turf for the fire; he was all full of beans having sold some beef animals to the 'factory in Ballyhaunis' for a very good price.

Buff Orpington rooster at 25 weeks. 
We love ol' Bob - he's a really sound old boy! We think he's about 72 but he's as sharp as a tack and full of mischievous humour and a ready, breathy laugh. He gets about on his tractor (his only vehicle) and looks after his 20 or so cattle. He is one of these guys who you get the impression is ready to retire but is frightened that if he stops he will seize up, so having sold one lot of cattle he's quickly off to buy the next lot. He loves his politics and is delighted that, in Liz, he has met a worthy adversary in debating his opinions.

He had an opposite view to Liz in the recent Seanad (Senate) Referendum and the two of them sat poring over Liz's lap top as she flashed up results table and maps from the results websites. He knew the results for Roscommon and local counties but wanted to know the percentages for counties further a-field, like Waterford and the Dublin turf and talked about the 'panel' voting system which gets the Senators voted in. For me there is an extra pleasure in just hearing him talk away in the soft gentle local accent, where the stress is on the second syllable of 'Mayo' and where 'meal' becomes 'male' and where S's have an almost 'th' thud mixed up in them which is impossible to write phonetically (County S(th)ligo?). Then he decides he has been here long enough, jumps up rubbing his palms together. Well! Good luck Now! he tells us as he reaches for the door. Lovely old boy. I pray that I am as fit as he is when I am 72.

We've decided to try out a new type of animal bedding, replacing wood shavings with milled straw. Both come in bales of 100 litres at about €7, the straw a few cents more but being finer, you get more coverage for your money. We have been OK with the wood shavings but various people on the poultry forum and Mentor Anne have advised that this straw is better after use as garden compost as it breaks down faster than the wood shavings.

Marans looking all woe-begone in full moult.
I am mildly concerned that it comes "medicated" with some kind of chemical claiming to be a 'Salmonella inhibitor' (but being a bedding rather than a feed, it does not have to tell you what this chemical is). It just smacks a bit to me of 'preventative' medication which is one of the things we organic types are meant to be 'anti'. I also asked whether an anti-bacterial agent in the straw might also mean anti rotting on the compost heap, but I am assured that this is not the case. So far so good anyway, I have done my mucking out today and bedded everything (rabbits, chickens and geese) down with this stuff. It looks nice and fresh and clean. One of the claims on the packaging made me smile - it is 'screened to inhibit dust' I read through streaming eyes as I choked on the wafts of something remarkably like dust when spreading it around on the goose house floor.

One more laugh for today - having some meat left over from the huge Jersey Giant rooster we culled out recently, Liz made a version of shepherd's pie with a mashed potato crust and a fill of the meat, leeks and mushrooms. Delicious! But what to call it? Shepherd's Pie is obviously the lamb/mutton version, and Cottage Pie is the beef version. I put it to my Poultry forum to come up with a name and one lad who uses the name 'Jemsey' on the forum suggested the inspired moniker "Cull-a-Cock Pie". Excellent!

Saturday 12 October 2013

Green Tomato Chutney

We are a bit tied down this morning having to stay in earshot or sight of the front gate waiting on delivery of the new freezer from Euronics in Castlerea. The guy had said he'd phone, but they never do, they just turn up. Luckily, the dogs will generally have at least one of their number on look out through the front upstairs windows or from half way up the stairs and when they kick off barking you just know there will be someone at the gate. And so it went and the freezer is now doing its mandatory 24 hour stand upright before you turn it on, so that any airlocks and bubbles can clear.

Cherry toms and mango and kiwi chutney
So, rather than fire up the noisy chainsaw out round the back again, I opted for the quiet pottering job of stripping all the tomato plants in the poly tunnel of their fruit, either ripe or unripe so that Liz could get cracking on the green (and yellow) tomato chutney and some red tomato "jam" (more like a spiced up relish - delicious!). These plants were all cherry tomato varieties this year, either yellow or red and we have had some decent crop off them but now it is October and they are still producing flowers and looking like they will go on till Christmas. Enough is enough.

Liz had already had a go at one of our house favourites, kiwi and mango chutney and made that superb stock yesterday, which wound up also delivering a big yogurt pot of separated fat which will go very well in the roasting of spuds. Our local supermarket, SuperValue is very canny in this respect, producing 'kits' for prospective chutney makers (this being how we came to 'invent' kiwi and mango); you get a pack containing a mango, some kiwis, ginger, garlic and a lemon clearly labelled "Mango and Kiwi Chutney Pack". No recipe, so we guessed you are just meant to wing it but we were OK with that.

On the left green/yellow tom chutney, on the right red tomato jam
They also do a rather superb Guacamole pack - 2 deep purple Hass avocadoes, tomatoes, an onion and a chilli. In that one they may have stitched themselves up a bit, as the Hass 'avo's were quite expensive that day on their own, and it was cheaper to buy the two in the pack and get the rest of the stuff free. We guess they know what they are doing. Made lovely guacamole, anyway!

Having stripped the toms, I then got all carried away and completely cleared the poly tunnel of its jungle of rampant tom plants, pumpkins and squashes (Yes, we did find a custard squash, all of 2 inches diameter!) chickweed, strawberry runners, nettles, nasturtiums and flat leaved parsley. The strawberries I need to keep have been sheared of old leaves and runners, as has the parsley but everything else has been hauled up by the roots. It all got a bit embarrassingly out of hand this year as I did way too little weeding and pruning. Next year I will not grow anything even remotely rambling, spreading or climbing in there. I have compost heaps a mile high.

While I was in there, Liz converted my tomato haul into a green and yellow tomato chutney and rendered the red ones down as a 'tomato jam'; a 'slop' of toms, chillies, garlic and ginger which is like an extremely zingy salsa or relish. These will both be neatly bottled up in what is now our standard size and shape jar, the 454 g Lidl peanut butter or mayonnaise jar. We had a massive run to the glass bottle bank this week and got rid of mountains of weird and wonderful huge, tiny and odd-shape jars that we seem to have accumulated.

In other news the Marans hens have finally come off lay because they have come into moult. They look very woe-begone with their feathers all sticking out in tufts at strange angles. Bless them, they are 5-6 years old now and probably shouldn't be laying at all, but they both crank one out every 24 hours when they are in lay and kept us afloat this summer while our own Sussex Pontes had a bit of a holiday. One of the sheep (16A) has now got tame enough that he (it's a ram) likes to come up and have his head, ears and neck tickled if I go and stand quietly in the field. If I stop he nudges my hand gently with his forehead as if asking me to continue. Another comes close but dances away if I try to tickle her and the others stand at a respectful distance. I then get very questioning looks from the dogs who smell sheep lanolin on my hands. Love 'em.

Friday 11 October 2013

The North Wind shall Blow

Cody finds the grass a bit white and crisp
I wake up this morning to our first frost, the grass white and crunchy as I'm going about my release and feed rounds. At this time of year that comes, of course, with clear skies, bright sunshine and, often that NE wind coming down from Donegal at us. The clear skies give us, in this land of little light-pollution, nights of a million stars. You can clearly see the Milky Way, which I never managed while living in Kent and it is actually hard to pick out the constellations you think you know, because they are surrounded and 'enhanced' by thousands of other stars. What I have not yet managed to get is any kind of a photograph of this magnificent star field but one day I am determined to get out there with my camera and tripod and see what I can manage.

This blog quietly slips through the 60,000 page view mark so there are still plenty of readers out there, for which I thank you. It is good to know that I am not just firing these posts off into the ether. I am not writing a best seller here, I realise and most of my readers are friends and family but I know from the 'SiteMeter' reports that there are a few other regulars who presumably just like reading these posts - it is fun to imagine them on the other side of the globe, looking in to this small part of Ireland through the window of Blogspot.

The chilly weather and, of course, the emptiness of the wood-store, have us back on the logging task. This has made me break out the 'new' chainsaw. It's new to me, though in fact is an almost mint condition saw from the 1990's once belonging to TK Min (former resident of this house) and then also Vendor Anne but neither of these owners have ever fired it up or run it for more than a few minutes. That at least, is the opinion of our tame Chainsaw expert, Felix-the-Fix who checked it over for me and declared it to have no wear and tear at all where a used saw would show wear.
Goldie dozes in the early morning sun

I had been a bit wary of this saw for various silly reasons. I had killed my previous one as you may have read, part-seizing the engine and damaging the piston through over-work and possibly incorrect fuel/oil mixture. The problem is, I don't know what killed it and I was nervous of doing the same to this one. Being an older type of saw it also has no rubber 'blister' easy-start primer, so you have to pull the cord 4 times on full choke, then drop down to a #2 position to start it, then quickly blip the throttle to remove the choke and put the lever down to #3 (warm running) position. All a bit fraught. Add to that the Main Dealer had told us scary stories of 'modern fuels' having all manner of highly volatile ingredients so you should drain the tank and run the carburettor dry before storing the saw for more than 3 months.

However, I had been out and treated myself to some Kevlar chainsaw trousers, so I could not just give up and buy wood, I had to steel myself and get stuck in. In the event I needn't have worried, the saw started perfectly and ran well, cut beautifully with its new, unworn chain and only needed that little tighten up which all new chains need after a few minutes of running-in. Liz came out and helped with clearing up the logs I was producing as I dropped three smallish (black spruce) trees in the 'Secret Garden', one of which was leaning at a jaunty 45 degree angle anyway. I also took the opportunity to cut up the pile of old door frames ripped from our outbuildings by K-Dub when he replaced the doors. That was a good bit of tidying.

Goose and Rooster stock
Autumn too, in the livestock dept, so some of the poultry are coming to the ends of their planned careers. Most recently this has included our Jersey Giant rooster who was starting to be a problem both for William the Conqueror (who he was challenging and getting the odd wallop from, so there was a risk of him getting injured) as well as for some of the girls. The JG is a very long bodied bird and was trying to 'tread' some of the hens, especially the mini-Buffs but when he was on board, his bits were a mile away from the hen's and he could not mate successfully. He just held on tight, crushing all the wind out of the hen, straining to arch his back end round. We could not allow this to go on and he was, to us, looking an attractive big bird for the freezer.

He was culled out on Wednesday and had a live weight of (what we thought was..) a huge 4.24 kg (9 lb 5 oz). Liz, who already does all the plucking, decided that he was going to be her first go at gutting out and cleaning, so in she went and created an oven ready carcase weighing exactly 3.000 kg (6 lb 9.75 oz) again, we thought impressive and certainly the biggest chicken so far. It's only talking to Mentor Anne since that we learned that these Jersey Giant variety birds are well named - they continue to grow till they are around a year old or more and can reach live weights of up to 15 lbs which must be some impressive bird! We would have had lots of squashed hens around the place looking like they had been steam-rollered! We are now watching his sister who, at 23 weeks is not quite the size of the rooster, but will presumably grow on too. William is going to be asking for a box to stand on so that he can cope. You live and learn.

As it was, the 'roo' was jointed up by Liz and for our first meal, just the legs roasted, separated into thighs and drumsticks. These were served with chunked Thai-seasoned spuds, artichokes and Romanesco cauliflower and, guess what, we could only manage a thigh each, so the drumsticks are back in the fridge as cold roast chicken. The remainder of the carcase is already portioned up into wings and 'oyster' bits, and breast meat, so we should get 4 meals for two off this one even though he was only half grown.

The bones, combined with those of the La Bresse 'roo' and the recent goose are now bubbling away in our huge stock pot creating what looks like a magnificent stock. The hearts, livers and gizzards are saved in the freezer for later. We don't quite use "every part except the squeal" but we come close.

Sunday 6 October 2013

As sure as eggs is eggs.

Having posted on Friday that Ireland had gone to the Referendum Polls on the 2 subjects of whether to abolish the Seanad (Senate) and whether to establish a Court of Appeal, it seems only fair that I now tell you the results. The Court of Appeal vote went through seamlessly so I presume that 'we' will now get that. The vote to abolish the Seanad had a more troubled passage and got a bit tangled up in arguments about how much money might actually be saved by getting rid of it. There were also some concerns about the double-negative wording on the voting paper which asked, more or less, 'are you in favour of the constitutional amendment' with in smaller writing in brackets added (which abolishes the Seanad) so you had to vote 'No' if you wanted to keep it. The amendment was narrowly defeated (51% plays 48%) so the Seanad stays and the Government gets a bloody nose plus, apparently a bill for €20 m which is how much it cost to stage the Referendum.

I should add, for my Irish readers, that I am not meaning to be at all superior about this, or belittling it in any way; I am fully aware that our own (UK) House of Lords is possibly even worse being made up of large proportions of people who are there by accident of birth (Hereditary Peers)  or by pure patronage (the 'Tony's Cronies', (Maggie's Mates and Dave's Faves?) thing and that there is no provision in our "constitution" (or precedent in law) for putting a possible abolition to the people in a Referendum. Nor can we vote our monarch in and out, of course, even if we wanted to. This statement probably just goes to show that I am no political scholar and should probably stay out of all this anyway!

I'll stick to the subject of eggs. There are all these eggs now starting to come our way. The geese are now laying one a day, the Sussex Pontes are still at it sporadically and the 8-Ball girls are starting to pump out eggs a bit too small for the Steak Lady's fancy box, so they live in a bowl on top of the box. So, it had to be done. Sooner or later we had to try doing the toast soldiers thing with a goose egg. Liz had been experimenting and reckoned that 6 minutes was the best timing bet. As to egg cups we put into action some small Greek coffee mugs which were a gift from Liz's (and Diamond's) friends on the Island of Poros, Vesalina and Maya. These are the perfect size for these big eggs. The results of this vote were wholly positive - the eggs were lovely! Possibly they might have done better on 7 minutes as the whites were not quite set but there were oceans of lovely soft yolk and we ended up feeling like we'd both had a 3-course meal and were completely put off any need for lunch!

We have had a further surprise from our allotment. I've been  nicking the odd leaf now and then from some big, vigorous plants I had assumed were some kind of flat leaved kale (very nice too). I went out a couple of days back to gather more leaves for supper and was surprised to find the spiky spiral shaped curds of Romanesco Cauliflower looking at me from the top of the plants! I knew I had sowed some Romanesco seed way back but had lost track of the plants or labels and assumed that they had been slugged , chicken-scratched or droughted out of existence. Liz was on-line like a shot looking for likely recipes (we didn't want to just go down the cauliflower cheese route) and found a surprising new way in the New York Times cookery pages, would you believe? The cauli got broken up into its florets, tossed in a little salt and hot oil, then baked in the oven (hot) for 20 minutes. They were beautifully savoury and different. Liz has also been getting into fruit-cake style tray bakes and sticky toffee puddings too, but that's another story. We are not starving here.

With the two existing freezers now nearly full of fruit and veg after a very good summer on the allotment and in the hedgerows it became obvious that we would need a third, 6 foot, stand-up freezer to cope with the lamb meat when that is ready. We nipped into town to our local 'white goods' outlet and ordered on (it was around €450) and met a whole new problem of which we had been blissfully unaware.

We had intended to stand this in the unheated concrete out-building we call the Tígín but the shop lady told us that you can no longer do that with domestic appliances. They now have fancy electronics in them which do not take kindly to the freeze/thaw/condensation of unheated rooms, so they quote a minimum working (ambient) temperature of between 10 and 16 degrees. Dryers are particularly a problem apparently, where the wash/dry cycle used to be controlled by a click-round, clockwork-style mechanism but are now electronic. Freezers for use outdoors are a whole different (and pricier) animal now. Ah well, back we came to shorten my bespoke shelving in the (nice warm) Utility Room to take the 60 cm freezer and its 10 cm breathing space.

In the garden we have now received our first batch of ordered Spring Bulbs via our joint-ordering system with Mentor Anne (saves postage). We are going this winter with some first crocuses  and fritillaries in the lawn, some more fancy tulips and a clump of our old Faversham gravel-garden chum, Nectaroscordum. We had already received a generous donation of daff and iris bulbs from Pud Lady. I also ordered some 'Electric' red onion sets for autumn planting so these too have gone in to the lovely warm soil of the allotment. It feels like my 2013/14 Season is well and truly started. We have also ordered 4 more trees for the orchard (we have space for 6, so I can cope with 2 more!) another Braeburn, a black sweet cherry, a crab apple and a mulberry.