Wednesday 30 April 2014

Trou Normand

Mussels fresh from Howth Harbour that morning.
Let's hear it for the 'Trou Normand', the 'Norman Hole', that deliberate gap between courses in the huge meals of Normandy which give you and your appetite a chance to recover. We discovered this excellent idea while on holiday years ago in our first 2CV doing a run round the WW2 Normandy Landings sites. You over indulge on courses 1,2,3,4 etc and then to avoid you actually bursting, you can retreat from the meal table for a sit in the easy chairs before saying 'Once more unto the breach' to tackle courses 5,6,7 and so on. We don't often eat as much as that but yesterday was an exception; we seem to be guilty of having over catered.

Three by 400 g sirloins.
This was to be our celebration meal with Sparks after 2 years living in the house. Sparks had volunteered to bring the starter, some fresh mussels from Howth Harbour collected that morning and brought down in his in-car electric chiller box. What we didn't account for was that he took a look at the 1 kg net and decided we might need 2. Liz had already been out shopping for steak and had done a similar thing with Lidl's 400 g Sirloins; shall I get 2 or three? Sparks had also been a bit later arriving than intended, so that we had had the lunch (home made bread and home made paté) only 5 hours earlier.

"Flump's Almost Flourless Chocolate Cake" to be
eaten with ice cream and ginger syrup.
The mussels were eaten with a lovely white-wine based sauce with tomatoes, celery, courgette, red onion and thyme. The steaks came with our own chestnut mushrooms from the poly-tunnel, plus oven chips and corn on the cob. None of us actually managed to complete the steak, so we have rather luxurious left overs today Next was the Trou Normand, then a house favourite known as "Flump's Almost Flourless Chocolate Cake" (Flump being the nickname of a chum of Liz's) which was lubricated on its way with ice cream and ginger syrup. We were done. We adjourned to the real fire in the Living Room for a good old sit down, chin-wag, reminisce, remembering all the buildering adventures and happening since and from way back. I don't think you can beat good food, nice wine and excellent company. We have sent Sparks on his way this morning well rested and after a light breakfast of bagel, scrambled eggs and bacon, though he was woken at 06:00 by one of the roosters kicking off. They do that.

Meanwhile, back on the 'farm', Goldie the Rabbit has now kindled, giving birth to her kittens overnight Monday. All we see for now are the puffs of plucked out belly fur on the grass of the run, which clue you in to take a peek into the 'bedroom' and there, sure enough is a bigger nest of the fur in among the hay. If you are lucky you may see the fur move as a result of tiny wriggling within and you will know that there is at least one naked pink blind baby in the nest. You must not touch yet or poke an exploratory finger in, as there is a risk that the mother rabbit, upset by the smell would kill and eat the babies. You must wait a week or preferably two by which time the bunnies are furred and probably visible having trampled enough of the fur nest down that there is no longer a furry 'roof'. During this time the Mum will pretty much leave the babies to it and spend 99% of her time out in the grassy run. She only nips in now again to suckle the youngsters and then quickly comes back out again.

Horse Chestnut from a 'conker' gathered
from by Cambria's Gravesend Moorings in 2012
We have now completed the 'Bee School' with our 6th training session on Monday, basically a session of Exam Revision which also included a visit by the Two Marys who came with a van load of hive bits, smokers, bee-keeper suits and honey frame parts for the members to buy. Liz had prepared for this a complete list of all the questions asked in both the 'Head Office' (Gormanston*) and the 'Provincial' rounds of exams over the last 3 years, so we were able to chug through those and nail down any subjects where any student was uncertain. Although bee keeping can be a complicated craft, ours are only the Preliminary (=Beginners') level exams, so we hope that we can cope with these basics on the day.
*The only difference between these two papers is in the questions which ask what plants the bees are currently foraging "in your area".

Sunniest seat in the house.
The exam is made up of the 25 questions 'written' paper, but also a practical session out at the apiary where the examiner will ask you to name parts of the hive. open the hive, lift out a frame, identify the various types of cells in the 'honey-comb', find the Queen and so on. We hope we will do OK and both receive our certificates. We are, anyway, both really looking forward to finally getting our bees in June (we hope) so we can do it all for real.

Sweet Chestnut from a Christmas 'nut'.
Other than that we are just enjoying the unseasonable burst of weather hot enough to weed in wearing shirtsleeves and to walk the dogs without coat or hat. All the squishy mud and the puddles are history now. The horses kick up dust as they run to the gate to meet us, instead of slithering about in the slop. I can wear crocks again instead of the wellies. We can kneel on the grass to peer into the pond without getting sopping wet knees. Surely summer can not be far away.

Cherry blossom.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Two Years

Remember this? The Building Team's 'Last Supper'
Wow! Can't quite believe it is 2 years since we abandoned the caravan and moved in to this house. The house was technically not quite finished and was certainly not fully furnished, but we had bade farewell to our main man, Ace Builder, Brother in Law and All Round Hero, 'Sparks' with a 'Last Supper' on the 25th April 2012 (our first proper meal 'indoors') determined not to move in till we had ticked a couple more boxes; taking delivery of our mattress, mainly! However, at supper on the 26th with just the two of us we decided that we did not really want to go back to the caravan to sleep so we brought the duvet in and made up the king sized bed using 2 single bed mattresses. We were in.

Crystallized Ginger
We were already thrilled to have achieved so much in terms of serious DIY and buildering, way more than any of us (except Sparks) thought we'd ever be capable of. We had basically gutted the inside of the house and built a new, warm, efficient, dry lined and floor-insulated house inside the old shell. Sparks tends to just go for it; he's seen a mate on one of his building contractor jobs doing it so he gets the tools and says "How hard can it be?". His brain just works to that kind of clear, hard logic - this plumbing manifold is just a question of running pipes to all the taps and sinks and showers and getting a hot feed to every radiator and a return... what's the problem? If he hits any snags he has always got those same mates at the end of a phone to check - the plumber was called, rather unsettlingly "Jimmy the Leak", subject of many a funny story over wine in the evening.

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam
With the house pretty much 'there' and Spring 2012 accelerating towards us we could head outside and start to think about the garden and the smallholding parts of the project which had all been parked up while we played with Kango hammers, 'Spit' (nail) guns and Qualpex pipes. The rest, as they say, is history and has been well covered in this blog week by week. We have tamed the worst of the brambles and nettles, improved the pastures, created a nice lawn and erected good stock fencing. We have created the 'allotment' (vegetable area) and the orchard, erected a poly-tunnel and have dug, lined and planted our big dream-pond, 10 m by 6 m. We have created some raised beds for the 'pretty' stuff.

Stella cherry producing big masses of blossom.
We have started with the livestock - we have a nice established flock of chickens (11 hens and 2 roosters) and have bred some. We have a good trio of geese who produced goslings last year and (one of them is) currently sitting on eggs. We have successfully fattened up 2 batches of lambs (3 in 2012, 5 in 2013) and we and family and friends have thoroughly enjoyed the delicious meat. We have 2 guinea fowl, mainly for fun but we do hope they will breed and produce us some nice edible children. We have a series of rabbits and produced plenty of baby bunnies last year both for the freezer and for sale as living pets. One of these, Goldie, is currently pregnant, due to 'pop' over the next couple of days. In 2014 we are starting into honey bees and pigs.

When one pie is not enough, 2 sausage pies cooked in
stereo, one with added leek, one with caramelized black
pudding and apple. 
We are also well settled down now and have made a good few friends locally, with near neighbours and further afield, all of whom have been very generous with their advice and help. This is the kind of place where you'd never be accepted as a local unless your family had lived here for a hundred years but we think the locals have decided we are tolerable and 'mainly harmless'. Possibly a bit eccentric with our Guinea Fowl strolling in the lane and our tendency to sit out front on sunny days sipping coffee in  full view of the passing cars (gasp!) but so far no-one has come up the drive with pitchforks and flaming torches.

Hazel nut tree recovers well from goose damage.
We have, of course, also learned a lot both in terms of new skills and abilities and about our new home and adopted area. Liz particularly has enjoyed having time to get a bit adventurous in the cookery department especially as she has such easy access to the freshest, most delicious ingredients, our own lamb suet for example, for the crusts of pies and fruit, veg and mushrooms from yards away rather than always the supermarket imports. Most recently she has used the new season rhubarb to make rhubarb and ginger jam where, finding that the recipe needed crystallized ginger which she could not buy she decided to have a go and made her own. The crystalized ginger is definitely the most firey and flavoursome we have ever experienced. The resulting jam is also superb.

I love the apple at this stage - buds still closed and dark pink.
So, there you have it. 2 years of  our story in a nut shell. You are welcome, of course to read back through those 2 years on here just by clicking on the months in the menu. We will be celebrating the anniversary with Sparks, getting the old builder team back together and eating the same main course as we did back on that 25th April. Happy Anniversary.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Lookering (Sook sook sook sook)

Nothing to do with the 'story' at all.
In Sussex (UK) where I was born, especially down on the Romney Marshes, the farming is mainly for sheep (The Romney Marsh breed are famous for their resistance to foot-rot and have been crossed with breeds all over the world to improve this attribute) and there is a long tradition of shepherding, shearing and related tasks in the area. One of the less well known ones was 'lookering'. Men (Lookers) were employed to go and live among the sheep to look after them and check on them and they were provided with a very rudimentary, single room 'Looker's Hut' where they could get out of the bleak, cutting winds and sleep. Some of these huts are still there now as listed buildings. Plenty of the modern farmers now have sheep down on the marsh and would still use the word to describe the act of going down to check on your sheep. I've got to go lookering. Obviously now they'd be heading off from their nice warm farmhouses in a Land Rover or a posh 4 by 4.

Not a very helpful sleeping place, Rolo!
Over here the word is not used and I was telling John Deere Bob all about it. Bob is currently without tractor as he has killed the clutch and it is in the repair shop, so I have been driving him about to the shops, Post Office and Doctor's clinic but also out to check on his cattle. He has a group of 13 young bullocks recently back out in 12 acres on the far side of the village, by the 'Swally Hole' about which I posted recently, so we nip out there to check on them. Bob is a gentle, quiet, calm man and it is lovely to see him with these cattle. He calls them over to him with just a quiet repeated calm call, almost whispered, saying "Suck suck suck suck" but in the local accent it has the longer vowel sound (as in forsook, or look). The first 'sook' is quiet enough, but the other three fall away to a whisper, as if he is calming a crying child with a 'Ahh hush now....." The cattle all come over and line up to look all doe-eyed at Bob while he counts and checks them visually.

Larch in flower
I have never seen him get excited or angry or loud with them  and I have never seen him engage in that popular pastime among local farmers of walking along behind them whacking them gratuitously with a length of flexible water pipe across the rump to keep them moving. Liz and I both grumble about this and we know it is an issue but it is widespread. We saw it a lot in the Castlerea Agricultural Show where it seemed to us that the cattle were moving well enough to or from the show ring and the lads driving them were maybe just putting on a bit of a show for the public of being the big man, in CONTROL of his beasts. We have seen in farming papers, items written from the slaughterman's and butcher's angle saying that these whacks leave bad bruising right where the most expensive cuts of meat are - the rump steaks - and can reduce the value of the killed out carcass, pleading for the herders to abstain. My cattle experience is based around dairy animals but we never used to whack them. You could carry a stick if you felt the need, and tap the back of a cow's hocks if you needed to, but you'd never whack them. I'd go with Bob's way every time.

Absent Without Leave. Blondie
Meanwhile, our re-homing project Guinea Fowl, Blondie has gone AWOL. She wandered off eastwards towards Una's (again!) on Tuesday at about 6 pm. She strode up and down the gate looking like she wanted to be let through but we know by now she can fly and sure enough minutes later she was gone, away to roost, we assumed as it had gone dark and cloudy and looked like rain. We noticed her absence very early on Wednesday morning, the way (like "The Silence of the Lambs") you miss a noise you've got used to, rather than hearing a new one. At first light, before we were even up we were both aware that we could NOT hear the strident, distant 'Buckwheat' calls coming from across the field. Blondie is as loud and carrying as a good rooster-crow; we could hear William and Buffers OK. The silence gave us a sinking feeling, fearing the worst.

Bee Heaven, hedges white with blackthorn, grass yellow
with dandelions. If only we had a few bees...
All that day we listened out expecting her to pop back up. I called, whistled and tapped my plastic feed beaker on the gate-piers. I walked up the lane and round those gardens to look and even walked the dogs deliberately eastward to Shannon's Cross instead of west to the bridge. No sign. No sad squashed body on the road and no pathetic slew of feathers among the grass. The previous owner (Dawn R) tells us that she "has form" and is a bit of a wanderer  and has also at some stage in her past, been found sitting on a stash of 32 unfertilized eggs, so we are clinging to those hopes but we may never know. Has she been snatched by a predator? (Fox, mink, pine marten, dog, cat, car driver with an appetite for roast Guinea Fowl, local farmer with gun? Who knows?) Is she just plain lost or even exploring, still looking for her late mate?

Hornwort in the big pond
Our work here is mainly about weeding those bits which we have not been able to get onto due to the wet but which are now running away with weeds, the 'allotment' and the raised bed by the car port. We are also gearing up for some imminent happy events. We add a 'lip' to the rabbit's bed chamber to stop the baby kittens from being able to fall downhill out onto the grass, and also to make sure that when Goldie gets up from her nest having fed the babies, any kits still clinging to her teats are gently rubbed off as she climbs out.

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam under construction.
We have also had to cut a larger hole in the former-rabbit Maternity unit 'bedroom' wall because we will let the Buff Orpington broody have her hatch in there (where she is) but she's a big girl and would not be able to get into the open mesh-fronted bit of the 'hutch'. The doorway as it was was only rabbit sized - 6 by 6 inches - that would be a tight squeeze for our rather Mumsy Mum-to-be. We have also heard from Anne and Simon that they are doing the Hubbard Run again this year - they drive all the way to the border to a commercial hatchery where they know the people and are let take away our relatively tiny order of a few dozen one-day-old Hubbards.

Lovage coming up well in the
Kitchen garden
These places do most of their sales by the tens of thousands and would not generally entertain Joe Public, but A+S were in the business and are known, so they make the exception. We benefit by being able to buy just the 12 and Anne collects in one go for a number of 'customers'. These birds are due next Thursday afternoon, so we need to be ready with a warmed brood-box (Infra red lamp etc) although we are half wondering whether we might be able to work a fiddle with either Broody Betty, who has shown no broody urge yet this year, or Mrs Buff who is sitting on 7 eggs, due date 7 days later. Would she notice if she suddenly went from 7 to 19 chicks, 12 of which were a bit bigger? Ah well. Watch this space.

Monday 21 April 2014


If you could see what I can see.....
As I sit and type this in on a beautifully sunny, blue sky Easter Monday (only the chilly stiff NE breeze stops it being perfect!), our newest recruit, the pale coloured, widowed Guinea fowl 'Blondie' is sitting on the dining room window sill not 4 feet from where Liz is working at the laptop. She (Blondie, not Liz) is standing erect, surveying the front lawn and uttering her repetitive 'Buckwheat buckwheat buckwheat' call which we think is her trying to call up her late 'husband', sadly killed in a car accident a few days ago.

Readers of my earlier posts will know that we agreed to re-home this poor tragic figure thinking that she might get over her grief and fall in love with our cock bird Henry, making up a neat trio, and that we took delivery of her on Good Friday. We have been bimbling through a kind of integration process but she has given us a bit of an emotional roller-coaster.

Our style here is generally one of minimal intervention. The birds (except our orchard-confined geese) are fully free range and not wing-clipped, they are almost 'guests' here by choice although we do try to keep them rounded up off the lane outside and try to stop any fights; we try to adhere to that high welfare mantra of allowing them to exhibit natural behaviour. We tend to contain any new bird for only a short while so that they can identify this place with its noises, skyline, smells and we humans, as home, and to ensure that none of the existing birds see red and try to attack the newcomer. Previously this has always worked. We then release them over a couple of days into bigger and bigger chunks of the place, till they have it all. You'll know from earlier posts that this did not go so well.

Blondie gets a dust bath in
Blondie, released from her rabbit run on day 2 wandered around for long enough for us to relax and then suddenly hit the road eastwards towards Una's place, threading her way across fields and through hedges with Liz tracking her and trying to keep up. Blondie proved to have a full set of wing feathers and is well able to fly like a pheasant. She will 'explode' up 8-12 feet into the air and then choose a direction and whirr away for tens of yards in a fast-flapping shallow glide, hit the ground running and zoom off in an ostrich-like, skirts up sprint across the grass. You'd never catch her. The genie was out of the bottle on this one and we were going to have to persuade her home rather than force her.

She loves high places like this gate pier.
That day we rounded her up and persuaded her home half a dozen times; we were exhausted from hopping over the eastern gate and nipping up the lane and then invading the gardens of the empty house next door and Una's, trying to shepherd her back. Steered in the right direction she had no problem flying over fences and hedges but we had to open the horse's gate a couple of times and drive her through. But last thing at night (9 pm) Henry, who had been trying to dominate and mount her had one last go and she whirred away east into the dusk. We looked but had no idea where she'd gone to roost, so our hearts sank. Had we failed to keep this bird safe for even the first 30-odd hours? We had even failed to show her that we feed you if you stay around. She had no reason to think we were a nice place to stay

Easter Monday's male Emperor Moth
Relief then, on day 3 (Easter Sunday) to be woken up by the sound of her 'buckwheat' shouts from the direction of Una's, loud enough that we worried she might be disturbing our very good friend and neighbour. I nipped round to shepherd her home. This time she sprinted down the lane and back in through the front gate, which was reassuring to see.

She spent the lion's share of Sunday on site, exploring, getting fed grain, bonding with the chickens, dust bathing with them and occasionally interacting with the Guineas Henry and Min. Min basically ignores her but H will at least run at her and try to mount. His technique, though, is hopeless. She willingly squats low with wings spread. He hops on but then seems to just slide off without doing anything. Or he chases her around clinging to her rump feathers with his beak. You'd not call it tender love or even passionate sex. Just once she wandered back round to Una's as if she thinks her late mate might be there. We had hopes that she'd find the pop hole and the chicken house and roost with us at last, This was not to be, and at dusk she once again whirred away across the East Field. We decided to leave her to it.

George likes to share a bath with Smudge
Today has been similar. She woke us with her 'buckwheat buckwheat' at 0600 over in the hedge and when I'd done my 0730 feed and release rounds I went to collect her. Spotting me from her nice high perch, she took off and whirred across the eats field towards home. I nipped back and into the East Field thinking I might have to show her the gate. Not a bit of it. She sensed that I was trying to move her towards the boundary and took off again, flew over the chicken house and landed in a group of hens in the cattle race.

Asparagus spear.
She has been around all day since then, with no more eastward exploring, staying round the house and, as I said, often sitting on window sills preening and looking in at us. She seems un-bothered by you being a few feet away as long as you are inside the glass. She has done plenty more exploring and running rings round the house but neither of us has actually seen her go in through the pop hole. We suspect that tonight she will do her eastward nip and find that reassuringly high perch in the hedge at our east boundary; it's a well overgrown hedge which includes mature ash and sycamore. She was about ten feet up this morning, so nice and fox/mink proof, we hope. Tomorrow, I may try leaving her to come 'home' by herself, rather than going over and rounding her up.

Damsel fly nymph case from the pond today. 
When I feed the chooks here I give a distinctive two-tone whistle and also tap the plastic beaker (I use as a feed measure) on a handy post. She has had this a few times now and immediately stops 'buckwheat-ing' and takes notice, coming running with the other chickens if she is hungry, so I may be able to bring her home from here. Wish me luck.

Ultimately we wish she'd get friendly properly with Henry and Min and also start to roost in our chicken house. We hope too that the grief which has her 'buckwheat-ing' so often dulls. It is a heart rending noise and one you can do nothing to relieve. Poor old Blondie.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Bee-ing Practical

Ireland's Royal Canal
Easter Saturday and we wake up to lovely weather and a few bits of good poultry news. While I'm still doing my 'feed and release' walk about, Black Feather hops off the eggs and goes for a walk allowing me in, at last, to gather the extra eggs again. She had gone from an unconvincing broody who we had thought would fail this time, to sticking like glue. I don't like to chase her off, so I was waiting for a chance to gather up the more recent, undated eggs to bring her back to the 12 we want her to incubate. Blondie, our new Guinea Fowl survives the night and in fact wakes us up with her strident calling from first glimmer of dawn - her temporary hutch is just below our window and we sleep with the window a-jar (not for long!). On that first walk about I also find Henry and Min at her run talking to her through the wire, the first sign that they want to know her. Later we discover a stash of 10 chicken eggs in the woods, all different as if 10 different chooks have all contributed one.

Fetching attire.....
So far so good, but today is really all about bees. We must visit our friend Elspeth in her gorgeous lock-keeper's cottage for our first practical training session around her hives. We had been a bit nervous of this. We have read and heard that you can be an expert bee-keeper "in theory", reading all the books and scoring top marks in the written exams, but that you might then still freak out when faced with a buzzing 35,000 bee hive and surrounded by potential stingers. A small proportion of people also show a bad allergic reaction to bee stings, which can lead to anaphylactic shock and be life threatening.

Liz examines a brood frame.
We 'book experts' were therefore keen to get hands-on and see if we could cope. Not quite so keen to get stung and see if we react, but that'll no doubt come. Thanks then to Elspeth who is on the Committee of the Longford Bee Keepers Association and volunteered to do us in her own home apiary. There is a club apiary but it has had some health problems and they are trying to keep visitors out while they isolate and sort it. She is a wonderful person and a good friend so we were treated to excellent hospitality too - coffees, cakes, sandwiches etc, as well as being loaded down with helpful literature, back copies of the Federation magazine "An beachaire" (The bee keeper), as well as being able to enjoy her perfect, bee-friendly cottage garden (along with attached farm, chickens, ewes and lambs etc).

We got togged up in our shiny new suits, gloves and (not so shiny) wellies, Elspeth lit the bee-smoker and off we went to find her three hives. This is the start of swarming season and we needed to check every frame in every brood chamber for sneaky queen cells, so we had real work to do while we were getting trained; plenty of practise at all the moves. It was very enjoyable and fascinating. We learned to crack apart the hive boxes which get glued up by the bees (the glue is called 'propolis') and then to prise apart the frames of brood and honey.

More importantly, maybe, we learned to reassemble the boxes without crushing any bees between the parts - bees getting squashed upsets all the workers and you can fast have a problem of angry bees on your hands. Some boxes are heavy but you must learn to be gentle, controlled and slow. Clonking about knocking bits together upsets the bees. You also need to be aware of where on your hands or body there might be bees. No good squatting and squashing a bee between thigh and calf, or leaning on a fence with a bee on the palm of your hand.

We also had to learn to tell the types of comb apart - are those storage cells for honey or pollen, are the brood cells for workers, drones or are they 'queen cups', do they have new eggs in or healthy white larvae, curled cosily round into their 'C' shapes. We had to become adept at spotting the drone bees and finding the queen bee in each hive. Your health checks now are all about is the queen there and laying eggs, and has anyone started trying to build queen cells -  a sign that half your hive may be about to depart in a swarm. More amusingly, I was also trying to suss out how to take pictures with gloved hands and with my face covered by the 'sword fencing' mesh visor.

As I said, though, it all went well and we are very grateful to Elspeth and her husband for entertaining us and for laying on this training for us. We were both delighted that we didn't 'freak out' and we feel like we may be able to cope with our own bees when they arrive (June?). All in all a brilliant day. Lovely too just to be near canals again and to see the picture postcard, beautifully maintained lock with its lovely flower beds and spruce black and white gloss paint.

Back home then to the continuing drama of the Guinea Fowl 'integration' if you can call it that. With the rabbit run doors open we sat back at a distance to watch Blondie's "escape". She was very reluctant to come out but eventually started to move about and soon came across Henry and Min. They seemed to get on OK with H accepting the new girl and even trying to mount her. We relaxed. I took the dogs for a walk leaving Liz well able to cope. Unfortunately, no sooner had I gone than Blondie suddenly took it on herself to make a drive east, a meandering path through various bits of garden and hedge, field and so on. Liz tracked her and called me over when I got back with dogs, by which time B was 2 fields away and almost at Una's. We rounded her up and sent her back home. She is a good flyer and whirrs over hedges with ease and can run like 'Road Runner'. There is no catching her but you can shepherd and marshal her. We then had an afternoon where she headed east several times and had to be rounded up but by roosting time she seemed to be hovering around the pop hole door with the rest of the gang. At that point Henry decided to have another go at her and she exploded into flight and whirred away across the east field, disappearing into the hedge. We went out with binoculars and walked the hedgerows but as we go to roost ourselves tonight we can honestly not say where she is or whether or not we'll see her again in the morning. She has a night outside to cope with. We are wishing her all the best, but we have to admit we have singularly failed to look after her as you should.

Friday 18 April 2014

Hungry Gap? (Blondie and Broody Buff)

The last knockings, 2013 spud store
Photographed here the very last of our stored Sarpo Mira spuds. They have done brilliantly and way above my expectations. Not only were they almost entirely blight resistant, but they yielded well - good total weights and some fine big tubers amongst them. Having read our grow-in-Ireland books (Klaus Laitenburger) I was also expecting some poor storage performance; it is normally too damp and cold to get spuds (and onions etc) properly 'ripe' and dry for storing. We did get a few tubers go to mush in the bags but as long as you tip them all out a couple of times through the winter to remove damp looking or obviously mushy ones, the rest seem to make it through. Because these are unwashed going in to bags, the bad ones are easy to find in the store as the mud round them never quite dries out, so you just pick put the obviously darker, 'damp' ones. So, here we are on Good Friday and have not quite run out of spuds.

Still a few parsnips in the ground
Not quite so stunning with the onions and garlic but I am equally impressed and delighted because the onions were the veg specifically mentioned by KL as being difficult to ripen. In the UK, everyone knows, you fork them out of the ground when they are ready, and leave them on the soil to dry out with their roots exposed. The hot sun bakes them ripe and you tie them into ropes and hang them in the shed. Here in the West of Ireland, generally, they would just get rained on and start to rot away. Indeed, when we were first here and bought locally grown onions they always seemed very juicy and sappy, as if they had not really been dried out properly for storage.

Leeks still going strong
Well, we got lucky, I guess, in our first season being 2013 with its hot dry spell just as my onions and garlic came ready, so we lifted them and spread them out in a single layer across chicken wire frames in the car port, rain free and ventilated above and below. They dried well and we tied them into ropes which we then hung still in the carport for most of August. All this fuss worked and we have been eating clean, ripe, firm onions and garlic right round to early April. At that point they had started to go soft and to show green shoots, so Liz brought them in to the kitchen, peeled and shredded them all for the freezer, where they lived on for a while till turned into a Greek style rabbit 'stifado' casserole (incidentally, also using up the last rabbit).

Globe artichokes going great guns.
We are presumably in what the old style small-holders would have called their 'Hungry Gap', with the last year's stores running out and the new not yet happening. We may be able to cut a few asparagus shoots (about half a dozen if we are lucky!) in a week but that is not going to give us the calories we need to keep gardening. Luckily we still have plenty of parsnips in the ground (all be it now starting to re-grow greenery and push out those tiny fibrous white roots from the sides of the big tap root) and leeks and, of course, freezers full of different beans. But we had to buy a 1 kg net of onions this week - that was a bit of a shock; first time since last summer.

Meanwhile we have had our Buff Orpington hen go broody on us. We love the way that she spreads out when she sits on eggs; she is almost spherical when standing up but collapses to look like a cushion. She gives the impression she'd be able to cover a dozen or more eggs, but we have just left her on the 7 eggs which were to hand when she got the urge. They will, if successful, be a motley old mixture from our 2 roosters (Sussex Ponte and Buff Orp) mating with any one of our hens (SP, this Buff, the 'mini-buffs, our Jersey Giant, the Hubbards and just possibly our Marans). We'll let her go with these for her first try, but really we are interested in slowly moving the flock over to pure-bred Buff Orps and allowing the Sussex Ponte to fade away by 'natural wastage'. She went broody on the 17th, so all being well her 21 days 'cooking' will be up on the 8th May. Wish her luck.

Blondie - the new Guinea hen.
Finally, we have a new recruit, having taken in a waif and stray, a friend of Liz from Knitting Club had a hen Guinea fowl which was widowed by the cock bird being hit by a car. Guinea hens are very plaintive and strident in their distress and mourning and this poor thing was apparently 'mooping' around rather over-dramatically, perching on an old lady's window sills and shouting her distress in through the windows. Rather than try to find the hen a new mate they decided to off load her and there we were. She is a nice little thing (OK - she IS noisy, calling her buck-wheat, buck-wheat shouts all day long) and very pale in colour compared to our previous Guineas, so we have called her Blondie.

Happy Easter
Today she just gets to settle in, in a rabbit run where she can see and hear the place but no-one can beat her up. Tomorrow at some stage we will release her into the Kitchen Garden (more space but still separated by chicken wire from the gang) and on Sunday, all being well, we hope to unleash her on the place. So far Min and Henry have found her and seen her but not gone anywhere close. When a cat walked by her and made her shout in alarm, Henry shouted back and moved towards her rabbit run, but we've not seen any close buddying up through the wire. More on this story as it develops.

Have a great Easter and Happy Birthday to Mrs Silverwood who is trying to enjoy having her kitchen taken over by 'helpful' kids and husband as they do their best to spoil her rotten.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

One Swallow....

Not all presents are sensible; loved this mug and coaster!
The Birthday is done and dusted all over for another year. We now turn the corner into proper Summer type jobs starting with thoughts of the 2nd coat of whitewash on the barns. This job was (and is again) traditionally done over the Easter weekend which is 2 days away. Last year we developed a mix of white cement and the hydrated lime but we have since been told that we might not need the cement. We have a little of the White Rhino left over, so we must try a mix over the next day or so before we rush out and buy the materials for this task.

Lovely hand made card from Carolyn!
As if in celebration of these Summer-thoughts our swallow(s) are back - we saw the first one yesterday (15th April) zooming along parallel to the lane and later nipping about overhead while we sat by the pond taking a breather from that other perennial Summer task, weeding. I was in the veg plot pulling creeping buttercup, self sown rush, grass and nettles out from between my emerging raspberries. Liz was in the raised beds cleaning up around the perennials and in the kitchen garden where we also noticed the first little tips of emerging asparagus. These are very young plants and will probably only do us one portion for cooking before we need to rest them and let them build up the strength from photosynthesis in the fronds.

Confused looking sheep! Loved the bees.
We get a text from the Beekeeper Group advising us of another extra session in which 'The Exam' will be discussed and revised for and practical, hands on apiary sessions will be organised for those of us (11) in the class (of 23) who are so beginner-ish that we have never handled bees or cracked open a working hive. For us this is going to be very generously laid on by one of the ladies on the Committee at her home apiary down by the Royal Canal, weather permitting - you need warm days or there is a risk of any brood in frames you lift out getting chilled, especially if you are a bit slow and disorganised, as we will inevitably be.

Last night saw me torn between two masters - the Organic folk who do not approve of the use of chemical fertilisers and the desire to be a good neighbour and help a friend in need. I was helping to get some good old fashioned pelletized nitrogen/potassium spread onto John Deere Bob's pasture land. You would have laughed if you had seen us - a modern, efficient, lean, mean agricultural operation we were definitely NOT. Bob, bless him, is 70 now and was able to clamber up over the trailer tailboard but was only really helpful grabbing empty sacks to stop them blowing away. Mr McG had volunteered his enormous tractor and his fertilizer spreader which will take a tonne of the pellets, but his back is damaged at present and he is not able for the 50 kg sacks in which Bob had bought the stuff. So then there was me, already aching from the gardening, trying to manhandle the sacks sideways from pallet (on trailer) to the hopper rim, slit them open and aim the flow of fertilizer into the hopper. Not too hard when the top bags on the pallet were higher than the hopper rim, not so easy when we were working uphill.

'They' are not really meant to sell this stuff in 50 kg sacks, modern manual handling lifting limits are down on the 20-40 kg area. Mr McG no longer buys his fertilzer by the 'small' sack, but takes his tractor to the depot and gets them to hoist a 1 tonne bulk bag above his hopper with the forklift, where they slit the bottom and bingo! A tonne loaded without anyone having done any physical stuff. But Bobby is Bobby and he has always done it by the bag, so we sigh in a resigned way, cast our eyes to Heaven and get on with it. At least the spreading, once it's in the hopper is modern and efficient, Mr McG races off up the lane, swings in through one of Bob's field gates and has each 5 acre field done in what feels like about 10 minutes. In 30 minutes he is back for another tonne, the 2nd and thankfully final one. Home to a supper of Greek style rabbit casserole and a nip of my Birthday present Bushmills. Happy Birthday.

Sunday 13 April 2014

The Boys are Back

The field has had a few weeks to recover a bit and the grass is now 'moving' well and giving it a lovely new green 'pile'. I have had to mow the lawn its first cut and the other two miniature horses are getting through the hay we made last June and stashed away in the barn at Carolyn's, so today we get them back. They (Bob and Romeo) are delighted and, says Charlotte, as soon as they turned right out of her drive and realised they were coming here, they were pulling like mad down the lane to get here.

Once released into the field and cleaned of all tack, head collars and so on, they went completely giddy, racing round the field in big figures of 8 and loops, bucking and playing and stopping now and then to munch big mouthfuls of grass. It is a pleasure to see horses so happy and we are delighted to be able to give them this fun and pleasure just by having a spare field which needs a bit of mowing now and then till our lambs arrive. Carolyn is, meanwhile going to fertilize her own field and let it grow to hay again so that we can do the hay-making, hopefully in June and then put the horses out on the aftermath.

20 years of gardening - our first
successful fritillary!
The third amigo is still confined to home awaiting his appointment with Aoife the Vet. He needs 'doing' in between the risk of frost and the start of the blow fly season, which is a tight window but his other problem is that the months of separation have led to him no longer being able to get on smoothly with Bob and Romeo. He, an entire stallion, is convinced that he should be top dog but Romeo, backed up by Bob argues this point quite forcefully. At the moment, he can't go back into the field with them but he could now go into our pig-field which is also horse-proof, so we're waiting to see in his case how the operation goes and the reduction in his testosterone levels which will follow.

Concrete pig-drinker.
In the pig department we have had a nice result as a gift from former pig keepers, Carolyn and Charlotte. As we now know from our pig-learning, pigs are devils for destroying any plastic bowls or buckets you try to use for feeding them and providing water - they are playful, boisterous animals and they will happily grab up the bowl and go for a game with it, hurling it around, fighting over it, doing tug of wars, climbing into it and generally messing. K-Dub's solution to this was to build a bowl shaped mould out of wooden shuttering and fill it with concrete, thus creating a heavy robust concrete bowl which the pigs could not move, never mind play with. We have inherited this (Thanks very much, all three of you!) and hefted it into the car to bring home. It is currently being washed and sterilized with Miltons fluid prior to being installed in our own pig-run.

Tarte tatin with pâte brisée.
Meanwhile, Happy Birthday to me.  Not a significant number but one with a rather neat symmetry, I was born in 1957 and I am (tomorrow) 57 years old. Tomorrow though, we have an extra session of Bee School thrown at us, so we decided to do the special meal tonight. In our family the rules are that the Birthday-boy (or girl) gets to choose the menu and the other person has to cook it, but is allowed to interpret too. I 'ordered' steak and chips, apple pie and ice cream but this being Liz, it was not your standard apple pie with shortcrust pastry.

Steak, chips, peas and chestnut mushrooms.
Nope. She got out the Darina Allen books and went for a rather special Tarte Tatin (a French upside-down apple tart). The pastry is a superb fragile, rich, 2-egg-yolk job called Pâte Brisée (Broken or 'crumbly' pastry) which is allowed (nay, expected!) to break up as you try to turn out the pie. The apple you start by getting butter and sugar to foam in the frying pan till it turns fudge-golden, then add the apples and cook till the whole is caramelised to a dark brown colour. "Hold your nerve" advises Darina in the book, you will think you have burned it all to blazes but , no, you will have created a superbly sticky, sweet, apple-y version of heaven which your husband will be very very impressed by and grateful for on his 57th Birthday.

Spoiled, I am.