Friday 31 October 2014

Was It Worth It?

Tamworth variety pork shoulder cut.
Was it worth it, then, our first 'go' at keeping pigs? The short answer would definitely be 'Yes' and the proof of the pudding, if you like, is that we will be doing it again next year, possibly with the Berkshire breed. Last night we cooked up our first roasting joint from these 'pilot trial' pair, a shoulder cut, butchered to be around 2 kg. Liz deliberately cooked it in just oil and salt so that we'd get the full, unadulterated flavour. It was a great success - delicious, succulent meat of gorgeous flavour and superb tenderness. The eating experience alone would probably have us trying again in 2015, but I'll give you a bit more waffle around that, if you're interested.

The same cut, resting from the roast.
You can see from the picture that the joint had the expected 'traditional breed' good inch thick layer of fat below the skin. These days we pretty much chuck that, so Liz would 'peel' off the outer skin to quick-roast for the crackling, and I'd be trimming off more at carving time, but that's just modern taste. These breeds were really all about putting on that fat layer to produce fatty meat and bacon , fat is flavour after all, and back in the day, your physically hard-working farmers would have consumed it all hungrily as a way of getting their 3000 calories a day sustenance. Now, with Tamworths, we know that you can reduce the pig's food amount at 16 weeks and put them on a 'maintenance diet' up to slaughter to stop too much fat being laid down, or you can fatten them up us baconers and happily take the 2 inch thick fat layer. We tried for a result closer to the 'slim' end, though I admit I was too much the softie to resist these girls loud squealed appeals that they were STARVING! I was probably over-feeding just to stop them plaguing me.

Carved  result. We did it justice!
Certainly in terms of enjoyment it was worth it. Regular readers will know that I was sure we'd not 'do' pigs because I wasn't sure we could fence them in, or feed them cheaply enough, or learn to love them. A friend (no names no pack drill) had ended up hating their animals and being so scared of being bitten or barged that feeding at the end was by chucking milled barley over a stable door without daring to go into their pen. Another friend, contrarily, thought we might fall so in love with them that we'd not be able to take them to the abattoir and we'd be left with these expensive pets for decades.

The young Buffs enjoy perching on the gate.
Well, I was totally charmed, I must admit, from the moment we set eyes on our two in a crate at the supplier's farm and I did learn to love them and was never scared. I could go into the pen throughout and scratch their backs, measure them with the tape measure, pulled a grass tick off one, rubbed their muddy ear-tags clean with my thumb and so on. I only got one bite and that when I foolishly waved 2 apples at 2 pigs through the fence but then focused only on getting one apple accurately into the one pig's mouth. The 2nd pig got impatient at her apple being waved vaguely in front of her while I wasn't concentrating, and took a snapping lunge at it. She almost ended up with some finger mixed in with her fruit, but she didn't draw blood and it was my fault. The pigs were superbly biddable through-out and easily trained to follow the feed bucket. So I loved them in the sense of respecting them, protecting them and wanting them to have a good, stress free, happy life and stopping anything or anyone doing them any harm, but I always got the impression that they didn't really 'love' me back; they seem to be 100% mercenary - if you had food or a back-scratch on offer, they'd stick to you like glue, but otherwise they'd have no interest in you at all. I was always sufficiently detached that the 'expensive pets' thing was never going to happen.

Warming stuff. A nice gift of flavoured
poitín "to sort my cold out" from the van
owned by a shopkeeper to whom I
got talking! Only in Ireland?
In terms of money, they worked out OK, all be it only in our 'Mickey Mouse' accounts system were proper farm costs like land, fencing and labour are ignored. Putting in the costs for the piglets initially, pig-nuts, fruit, slaughter and butchery, we came up with a cost per kg of finished meat, of €4.84. This is, I know, a lot more than Anne and Simon managed (they got most of their fruit for free and did their own butchery) but is still excellent against the current supermarket prices, even the cheaper 'commercial' (intensively reared, indoor housed) pork and is brilliant against anything high welfare, outdoor reared and traditional breed. We're happy with it, anyway and we have, of course, the added bonuses of knowing what went into our pigs and what a happy, carefree life they lived

Happy Hallowe'en. 
If there are downsides, I can think of a couple of unexpected ones. First there is the sheer amount of meat you get and have to then 'deal with'. I had gone through the process fending off requests for 'half a pig' or a whole carcass. We only had two, I said, and we want to get a good taste out of them, so we could try out the brawn, some bacon-curing, maybe a ham or some salami. I didn't want to sell it all and be left with none to 'play with'. As you know, I ended up with 7 boxes of meat (124 kg!) from the two animals and nearly ran out of space in the freezer(s) and now wish I'd found homes for some in advance. There was also the constant nagging worry that they'd tunnel out or break through the fences. All the advice we'd been given said you NEED electric fences but I was clinging to the paragraph in my Haynes 'bible' (Liz Shankland's Pig Manual) saying that a strand of barbed wire added along the bottom of sheep fence would suffice. I gritted my teeth and prayed that the pigs would not break out and send me running to the electric fence crowd with my tail between my legs. It was a relief to get to abattoir day with no escapes and to now trust the 'Shankland' fences at last. Finally there was that loud, insistent squealing for food. I wound up unable to go visit the geese or bees, or sometimes the yard without one of them spotting me and starting to shout. It's not a good noise and a bit annoying especially if you KNOW they have just been fed. I loved their quiet contented grunting when they were getting their own way, but I was happy to lose the squealing!

Yes, on balance it was definitely worth it and we will be back in 2015 for the 2nd chapter.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Choosing Ewes

Mayo-Liz's lovely hill.
Off on a mission on Tuesday (28th Oct) to look at some ewes with an eye to buying some 'keepers' from which we can produce our own lambs. This will mean leaving behind the simple, calm waters of "store lamb" rearing, and venturing forth into year round sheep, a whole new ball game. Store lambs you plan to get in already healthy, dosed up for liver fluke, trimmed of foot and dagged and your job is to keep them healthy for the 4-5 months while they grow up to slaughter weight. You hope to incur no vet bills or any need to do anything serious in the way of husbandry. Year-round sheep keeping, on the other hand, brings you round each year to the need to do that dosing, get them sheared and foot-trimmed, lambing them and so on. I was definitely going to need some help and advice.

"Our" two potential mums, the Jacob x Hampshire Down
on the left, HD x Suffolk Down on the right.
Step forward, then, Mayo-Liz, good friend of Carolyn of the Mini Horses who farms around 20 ewes on a beautiful hill in Mayo, near Kiltimagh (pronounce it Kill-cheh-mah, you have to pick up on the 'Kilti' bit actually being the Irish for forestry (coillte)). She had mentored Carolyn when they had their sheep and happily agreed to help me through my early stages as well as being a possible good source of some 'in-lamb' ewes and help when it came to lambing time, shearing and all the rest. She is only about half an hour from here, so it will be easy enough to load up and nip our animals over there at all the various stages.

Same again.
Mayo-Liz turned out, as we'd hoped and expected, to be a lovely lady, expert, knowledge-able and generous with her advice, as well as no-nonsense, practical and serious and passionate about her sheep. She was not going to let me anywhere near her girls till she'd checked me out, but I think I 'passed' and I hope this will be the start of a good and productive co-operation

Little cutie - a pure bred Hampshire Down ewe lamb, born
this year. Our optional third choice.
Mayo Liz has had sheep of various breeds and up till recently had two rams, one a Jacob but more recently she has bought a whole gang of pure-bred Hampshire Down ewes and a pure bred ram. Hampshire Downs are quite rare these days and she had to drive all the way down to Cork to find these, and they still cause surprise and amazement when ever she takes them to shows; the locals have never seen such a sheep! So the ewes I could see and choose from that day were mainly Hampshire Downs and crosses plus one last Jacob cross. After a good deal of advice taking and weighing-up, I chose the (5 year old) Jacob x Hampshire and a three year old Hampshire x Suffolk Down. Charlotte also nudged me in the direction of a little cutie, a pure bred Hampshire Down looking more like a teddy-bear x alpaca. I was only meant to be buying the two, but I could see the sense in getting the third to companion my two Mums and to watch and learn ready for her turn in the spring of 2016. I penciled her in as an option but needed to get 'sign-off' from my own Liz. That's now done. so we will be collecting all three.

3 year old Hampshire Down x Suffolk
Down ewe. 
The two intended in-lamb ewes now get separated from any clingy 2014 lambs, so they can dry off (finish their lactations) and come back into heat. They will be put with the HD ram who should be able to do what's intended by early December. Mayo-Liz uses strap-on chalk-block tell-tales to check that the ewes have been mounted by the ram, so we want nice big chalky blotches of colour on the rumps of these ewes, Mr Hampshire. The plan is that we collect them, 'with child', in early December. They are then pregnant for 5 months, round till April-ish where upon we start with the fun and games of lambing. We hope this all runs smoothly and to plan but it is good to know we have Mayo-Liz at the end of a phone or a half hour drive. It's going to be an interesting project.

Monday 27 October 2014

Another Project, Another Mentor

Brawn boil up. No pots big enough, so I invented these
foil cone 'hats' to keep the heat in for the 6 hours
Over in Darkest Kent, Liz and Mazy are doing Sterling service, I know, helping Diamond's partner John to go through her stuff (a lot of it is clothes so, like me, John would have been lost in all the instructions describing 'Windsmoor' suits, cashmere cardigans and 'posh' handbags). They are sorting out the known bequests and following Diamond's instructions re charity shops and getting money to the Friends of Kent and Canterbury Hospital, The Pilgrim Hospice and so on. I think the fierce need to be practical and the mountain of physical work are just what they need right now.

Rather gruesome brawn mid-point. Best not to ask.
Back here I have managed to catch a whiff of Liz's cold just as she was leaving, so I am dosing myself up on Lemsip and keeping indoors out of the wind and showers except when the needs of livestock and dogs dictate. I went ahead with converting the relevant bits of pig into brawn which is an amazingly faffy, messy job. Up to now Liz has done all this - the cutting, the 6 hour boil, the stripping out cheek-meat and other muscle, the reducing of stock, the assembly in a mould and the pressing down while refrigerating.

Product. Note fancy 'top' made by arranging sliced tongue
in the bottom of the mould. 
Having had a go this time, I do solemnly swear that I will not ask her again - what a pallaver! The washing up and general kitchen devastation, the gribbly bits, the fat and skin! If Liz volunteers, though, I will not be complaining as the product is just superb and delicious, a slice of that sprinkled with a little salt, wedged between 2 slices of good bread is just superb. It gets a little spiced up with bay leaves, juniper berries and peppercorns in the boil so I couldn't swear that outdoor-reared (in this case Tamworth) brawn is different from 'commercial' but it is certainly as good as any I can remember.

Threadbare in heavy moult. One of
last year's Hubbard hens
Meanwhile we chug along happily into Autumn and the clocks change to bring us early mornings and long, long, dark evenings. The shortening days put the brakes on egg laying and the chooks all come into moult to varying degrees. From 9 hens we get two or maybe three eggs a day if we are lucky - often it is just the one or none. John Deere Bob still shows up regularly for his eggs and we don't disappoint him but, unbeknownst to him he is often clearing us out, taking our last 6! The days of glut and making pickled eggs with the surplus seem a long way away just now.

12 young Buff-Orps. We think, 4 roo's and 8 hens. 
The young Buff Orpingtons (the "Baker's Dozen", as was) continue to thrive. Being still a bit smaller than the adults they tend to get bullied off any food or corn thrown down 'centrally' but I have started to distract the grown ups in one part of the yard, and then sneak round to where the Buffs are hanging around and feed them out of sight/earshot of the adults. Happy youngsters.

Empty pig run. 
All quiet now in the pig department, of course. They didn't actually do as much rootling and clearing as we expected them to do, probably because there was enough space and variety of herbage for them to be choosy. They seem to have cleared dock, ground elder and some bramble, but have only done the edges of grass and nothing very deep. They messed around at the bottoms of fences but were successfully deterred by my bottom strand of high-tensile barbed wire and never looked like tunneling out except down in the ditch, where I have described my preventative measures in a previous post.

A little pig-damage to re-seed. 
Out in the open by the orchard they have stripped some of the turf and then chopped the soil into mush with their sharp little feet, so we have re-seeded that area; we hope the weather is still warm enough to get that seed going.

In the sheep department, as you know, we need to obtain some more freezer space before we dare get the sheep slaughtered and butchered. I am waiting for the 'Catering Manager' to come back and decide what we do about that. All in good time. There's no rush. The existing sheep are big enough but only just.

Shepherd's Pie and black (Tuscan) kale
We are now going to try buying in-lamb ewes which we will look after through the winter and then, we hope, see some new baby lambs out of in Spring. In this we have had an excellent result. We have found, via Carolyn and Charlotte of the Mini Horses, a lady in Mayo who is a friend of theirs, a small scale sheep farmer (about 30 ewes, I think) who is willing to let us visit and ask all manner of silly questions while she shows us around their set-up, but can also sell us ewes of various ages and crosses (including Liz's belovéd Jacobs). She is also willing to hold 'our' ewes back till she puts them to one of her tups (rams) in about 6 weeks. This will suit us perfectly as it will give us a chance to get a freezer and move the existing 4 sheep on.

Some of the 'O'Hara' craft beer range from Carlow Brewing Co.
Finally, I was delighted to find our local supermarket, SuperValu in Ballaghaderreen, selling a relatively new (since 1996) Irish craft beer, 'O'Hara' from the Carlow Brewing Company. They do a good range through from pale coloured beers to stout and I can now vouch for three of them, anyway. I raised my glass in the direction of Darkest Kent on Saturday, Diamond's Birthday. Rest in Peace, Di.

Friday 24 October 2014

Up at the Crack of Sparrow's....

Long term readers will know that in working life, I worked in the rather rough-tough world of cold store, warehouse distribution where the culture and language were rather more 'fruity' than you'd use in polite company. We didn't really do 'swearing' in our house - I think the baddest word I ever heard my Father say was 'ruddy' and that was very rare. You pretty much had to swap modes on the drive to/from or you'd have been a bit shocked every day. Now in these rural parts in the soft spoken 'wesht', I am back surrounded by clean language once more but I do remember some of the choice warehouse expressions with affection and amusement. I used to love one in particular for describing getting up early for a shift which was "I was up at the crack of sparrow's fart"; the idea that sparrows wake up early anyway and the first thing they do is break wind, and even at the start of that there is the first cracking open of their rear.

I only gave you all that because this morning was one such morning - with Liz booked on an 0800 flight (Ryan Air to Stansted this time) so us needing to leave here at 0600 and alarms set to 0520; not quite as early as my work day 0415s but bad enough. There were no sparrows about, certainly none with any flatulence issues, the rooster had not even crowed yet and the dogs were mighty confused as to why they were being walked around in the pitch dark. Liz is off to Darkest Kent again. This mission had been planned to share Diamond's 58th Birthday with her and John and to enjoy her moved into the new house and 'holding court' from her posh hospital-supplied all singing, all dancing, anti bed-sores mattress bed. Sadly, as you probably know, Diamond lost the battle with cancer on Tuesday 21st but we had the flight booked, so Liz has gone over anyway to spend some time with John, Mazy and the Kent contingent who worked so hard to support Diamond in the last days.

I don't know if you are involved at all in internet chat groups, Facebook or Twitter, but I know Diamond and a lot of her friends used to 'hang out' on both FB and on the chat forum which was originally the Guardian Newspaper's group "Guardian Unlimited (GU) Talk". That group has since been officially closed by the paper but was reborn privately as "Not the Talk" which has since morphed into "Just the Talk" with a lot of the original gang still hanging on. I love that this group of friends have come together in a private discussion group on FB and had what has been a lovely, happy, story-telling, memory sharing, pictures-of-Diamond posting, memorial inventing, on-line wake. Friends from all round the world (Australia, Bogata etc) have joined and rejoined in their various time zones to keep this chat going for over 60 hours and 700 posts now. Diamond, who loved all this stuff, would have been delighted and thrilled. It is internet Social Media at its best. I know some people don't 'do' social media, Facebook and so on but I think it has its moments.

A fair old haul then!
Back home I have been left to deal with the pork collection from our pig butcher and we have got quite a haul. We had estimated that the pigs, alive, had reached 91 kg each so that, with the 'industry standard' conversion figure of "around" 72% yield, we should be expecting 64 kg of joints, belly pork, chops and sausage meat. Rather laughably (or alarmingly, perhaps) the commercial boys will regularly inject water and preservatives up to around 11%, returning their yield to almost 100% and our pig training guy told us that he has known of cases where carcass weight actually exceeded 'live' weight!

More Pork.
None of that nonsense for us, we don't want our pork chops to shrink in the grill or our bacon to leave grey wet sludge in the frying pan! Anyway, in the event we got an impressive 129 kg of meat from the two girls (plus the liver, heart and heads), 64.8 kg each and the Butcher and I had to carry 7 heavy boxes of meat out to the car. It quickly became obvious that I might struggle to fit all this in the space we have available in the 2 tall freezers and 2 fridge/freezers.

Will it fit in the freezers? Pirate the cat
is sniffing around. 
I just about made it, trying to sort it into categories all the while, weighing sample packs and then scoring how many such packs were going away. Liz had asked the butcher to cut the big shoulders into more manageable sized joints, so we got back from our 2 pigs, 22 shoulder joints at about 1.7 kg each, 14 leg joints at 1.79 kg and so on. We got 48 (!) packs of (3) chops at about 0.8 kg, 11 slabs of belly and 3 big bags of sausage meat. I just about got it all into the freezers, slotting the final chop packs away in all sorts of nooks and crannies and evicting Liz's bag of chicken stock-bones to a fridge along with the heads.

There is nowhere left for the lamb for the moment, so I have held off sending them on their final journey. We need to move some of this largesse on to friends and family, eat some, salt down some of the bellies for bacon and turn the heads into brawn to make some space. It would be silly to buy a 5th freezer, now, wouldn't it. Nobody needs 5 freezers, surely. Next year will will have to un-synchronise the 'harvests' of pigs and lambs.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Diamond RIP

Diane and Ragwoth
Very sad news today, I am afraid. Good friend to this blog and Liz's best friend 'Diamond' passed away yesterday afternoon after a long battle with cancer. She died peacefully at home in her own bed having just waved off another good friend who had come down to visit, and seen husband John off to walk the family dog, Ragworth. Diane was a lovely, lovely person and we will all miss her terribly. She was a huge part of our lives for the 20 years or so when we lived in Faversham and has remained so now we are in Ireland, she was actually our very first overnight visitor at this 'new' house.

Mazy, 'Diamond' and Liz in Feigh last year. 
Farewell then, Diane. We will never forget you and we are pleased that this place is full of memories and bits and pieces passed between good friends over the years. Sympathies to anyone who knew Diamond (real name, Diane Walsh (formerly 'Riches')) or has come to know a little of her through reading this blog. Our thoughts are also with John, Ragworth and the 'Kent crowd' who were all so supportive and generous right up to the end. Diane was just coming up to her 58th Birthday.

Rest in Peace, Diamond.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

If the Weather's Middlin'......

"If the weather's middlin'...", says John Deere Bob over the weekend, "I'd like you to cut down a couple of ash trees for me...." meaning on Tuesday (21st); he knew we were doing all the pig transport stuff on the Monday. Well, the weather was nowhere near "middling" as the tail end skirts of Hurricane Gonzalo roared through lashing us with a Sou'westerly gale and massive rain, which then veered to the North West and kept whacking us with squalls. The North West is our least favourite direction for winds, and the one which scares us most with its worrying rippling of our old out-building roofs. It has me racing around trying to think of new ways to shore up the weaknesses and lash down any potential flappy bits with wire and concrete blocks.

SW winds come at us all across Galway and finally come up against our massive black spruce trees in our 'woods' out front. The house itself is (we sincerely hope!) sound and the roof itself looked to us like one of the strong points in the property as purchased. At 2 storeys high it does a good job of shielding the outbuildings from the SW. It is the NW winds, thankfully not that frequent, which roar at us out of Clew Bay and in across Mayo, Kilmovee and the fields on that side of us, that have us having these conniptions. They hit the big concrete and rock gable end of the goose/chicken house and are pushed up and over like the wind on the leading edge of an aircraft wing. This puts all kind of lift on the dodgy corrugated iron and corrugated perspex sheets that make the South-facing roof slope, if not tied down, ripple along like (as Liz described it) like the keys on a cartoon piano.

I have shored them up to a degree but it is real bodgery, and if we ever win the lotto, we will be replacing that roof with new. Failing that I need to buy and install about 12 feet of some nice strong two by one and a half, which I can screw all the panels in that area to as a kind of 'not-fixed-down' top plate. That will replace what is there, in bits, mostly rotted out. You can not, of course insure these out buildings without the man from FBD wants to come and inspect them; I am sure any sensible insurance risk-assessor would take one look at ours and laugh like a drain. I wouldn't blame him! Anyway, Hurricane Gonzalo, as I write this, seems to have largely passed through leaving us with our roof panels shaken but not stirred. We appear to have gotten away with it this time.

Meanwhile, the Longford Bee Keepers group hold another of their monthly meetings, where a speaker will talk to us about swarm control but also about the training and exam for the next stage of our 'Bee School'. Coincidentally, they will also be able to give us our smart certificates for the last stage, our "Preliminary" certs. Most of 'us' got them last month but we missed that meeting, it being the day I flew home from the UK. Apparently there was an official photographer an' all, but we won't be in that one!

Extreme gardening - trimming brambles around the bee hive
Liz has already decided not to proceed on to the intermediate stage, which comprises three exams in a lot more depth than the first step, a written bee-science 'paper', a written method/process paper and a practical exam taken at your own apiary. She is happy, she says to stay on the nursery slopes. I am in two minds. I like the idea of going on, climbing through the official levels of 'expertise' up to the grand sounding "Bee Master" but some of these beekeepers get way more involved in their hives, more interfering, more 'control freak' and more fussing than we like to be with our own hive.

Liz gets to grips with our first
'pork' output.
We listen to our 'Two Marys' advising us to stop fussing, to leave the hive alone and let the bees get on with it. A lot of the fussing, the weekly (or even more frequent) cracking open of the hive to inspect it, is all about trying to squeeze every drop of honey out of the task. We are not that fussed about honey or maximising production, squeezing the assets as it were. We are more focused on the 'green' gardening, ecosystem, healthy population of pollinators aspect. I worry that to pass these exams and certainly to show sufficient experience with hive manipulation to convince the examiners that I am skilled enough to get the ticket, I will be forced to 'fuss' more than I am comfortable with. There's a conundrum for you.

Pig liver and heart. 
We dropped by the butcher today to collect our livers and hearts. The kidneys, apparently, one is still in each the carcass, the other gets cut about extracting samples for the trichinosis tests (which we have apparently 'passed' (i.e. negatives). The meat hangs in his fridge till Friday afternoon. Not having seen this before we were both amazed by how big an entire pig's liver is. They weighed about 1.75 kg each! They have now been cut up and bagged up as 9 sensible portions.

Finally, I am delighted to see that 'our' Whooper Swans are back, the first half a dozen have arrived at our local lough for their winter stay. I can now hear their fluting calls drifting up the ridge as I supervise the dogs in their off-the-lead session in the orchard. They must have flown in last night, so they have presumably had their own fun and games with Hurricane Gonzalo's skirt-train. Unless they were over on the Mayo coast, which would have given them quite a tail-wind, they would have been either skirting or battling into the storm. Autumn is definitely here.

Monday 20 October 2014

Practise Makes Perfect?

Pigs loaded during one of the practise runs.
This may be one of those posts that you don't read if you do not want to know how those charming piggies you love to see running around, wind up on your plate as pork chops or sausages. Yes, I am afraid Mapp and Lucia came to the end of their particular road over this weekend and are now handed over to the slaughter-man and butcher, Webb's in Castlerea. You'll know from previous posts that as they came up to 6 months old and had achieved live weights of over 90 kg, we started to prepare for the end game. We had built the pig-race to run them up from the pig-paddock to the trailer, and now needed to get them used to trotting up and down the trailer ramp.

Breakfast in the trailer.
I was looking to do this at their breakfast times on the Saturday and Sunday, so that they might be ready to go for real on Monday (this morning). In the event, we hit a problem on Saturday morning, with Mapp taking to the new feeding location like a duck to water, but Lucia stubbornly refusing to go up the ramp despite a good half hour of cajoling and coaxing. Liz had suggested doing all meals that way, and that, in fact, is what we had to do, and it worked well. You would have laughed, though, at our amateurish fumblings on the Saturday.

Mapp was done and dusted in no time, but Luc' was still not playing, so I ended up hooshing Mapp out so that she'd not distract her sister, then climbing into the trailer myself where I sat rattling the feed bowl under Luc's nose, tempting her to put one, then two, three and finally, finally all four feet onto the ramp and then into the trailer. All the time I was cooing to her softly and tickling her ears and neck and flanks so she'd relax and know it was safe. We got there in the end. For supper that day I adjusted the height of the dolly-wheel so that the floor of the trailer would be slightly sloped, but the ramp at a more gentle angle, and then there was no stopping them. Supper and all three meals on Sunday went like a dream and the pigs were as good as gold, so it was looking bright and optimistic for this (Monday) morning. I even shut the ramp on them each time so that they were briefly caught in the trailer, so they'd not spook on the big day.

It had been a tense couple of weeks coming up to 'the day' and I'd invented in my head all manner of imagined problems which might go wrong - would the trailer break? Might the pigs not load? Would I suddenly lose my ability to reverse when I got there? Now I'm not a religious bloke though I suspect that, in common with many, I keep what faith I have in the back pocket like an insurance policy, pray occasionally under duress (There are no atheists in the trenches?) and avoid 'dissing' any deities just in case. If I am anything, I am (low) Anglican so when I get involved at all with any of the local Catholic activities I always feel a little fraudulent and awkward. None the less, Liz and I happily headed off to local RC Holy Centre and icon-gathering, Knock Shrine, which is only about 45 minutes drive from here. Liz needed to look in the book shop for a specific gift item for a friend, but wanted to light a candle too, in the special roofed area for another reason. I decided that I would too, for a similar reason but also to pray for a calm, respectful, painless, stress free end for the pigs and a problem free run for us on the Monday.

Feel free to mock if that is how it takes you. We will never know whether the car dying through a flat battery on the Thursday morning after our Knock prayers and needing the local garage called out and a new battery was "the guy upstairs" answering to help us from having no car issues on our Monday! When my two brothers and I were teenagers, we used to love the Welsh rugby-based comedian Max Boyce and had a recording of his song "The Lord, he said, doth often move in Strange and Wondrous Ways!"

Anyway, enough of this waffle - this morning went sweet and smooth and the pigs were as good as gold, loading in minutes so that I could shut the ramp on them and Liz and I could push the trailer across the damp grass to the hard standing and the car. We hitched on by 08:00, grabbed our (Pig Movements) paperwork and the money, checked the trailer, the hitch, lights etc and headed gently for Castlerea, about 20 minutes away at that nice gentle pace. I easily reversed onto the butcher's 'driveway'. the pigs trotted happily down the ramp and slowly into the lairage pens. We did all the paperwork and Liz talked butchery, mincing, sausages, roasting joint sizes and so on with the man. The ladies will apparently be killed today but samples have to be sent to a vet in Kildare to rule out the infectious pig disease Trichinosis before the butcher can cut up the carcasses and give them to us. He has never yet had an infected pig, but if they are, the whole animal must be dumped as Trichinosis can cause blindness in humans. That would not be good!

We did not, in the end, need to avail ourselves of the help offered by Simon. We had him on standby waiting for our panic stricken phone call, but as it all went without hitch, we were able to text him at 08:30 to stand him down, but thank you very very much, Simon for being there for us. As I said, these were nervous days and it was very reassuring to know that another pair of hands could be brought to bear.

A  very welcome gift. 
There's a focused post for you, now! 7 paragraphs all on the same subject. Pigs seem to have taken all our attention lately, but there have been some nice distractions. With the car dead on Thursday and no shopping possible, we were, as Liz wrote in one of her posts "just resigning ourselves to NO WINE when a white van turned up bearing superb gift from a heavenly creature". Thank you, that very generous and timely donor, you know who you are.

Tall 'new' fridge/freezer, short-leggedy
And finally, with the huge 'crop' of pork meat imminent, we needed to start up our fourth freezer, this one a fridge-freezer hand-me-down gift from Steak Lady (Thank you SL!) who had renovated her old kitchen in Portmarnock just before deciding to move house completely. Thanks to Mr Silverwood also, who hauled it all the way down here in his big people-carrier; there was no way it'd fit in our little Fiat Panda. We did that job on Saturday, swapping it for the shelving (which is now in the Tígín) and giving it a thorough nut and bolt clean before setting it running. We are now ready for our Pork.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Autumn Tidying

Red Kuri Squash and yellow courgette
Our amazing run of rainless, blue sky, sunny days is still managing to hang in there, though the forecast tells me that a front may nip through and interrupt this happy situation tomorrow. Let's hope only briefly. The clear skies at night though, have given us the first few frosts and crunchy grass in the morning and so, inevitably, have done for the foliage and stems of the most tender crop plants - our bountiful red kuri squash and yellow courgettes, the borlotti (runner) beans and the French and 'Gaucho' drying beans. Surprisingly, however, not the nasturtiums yet; I expect these to turn into a soggy black, stringy mess at the first whisper of frost but they are untouched so far.

'Autumn Bliss' raspberries still giving us some good two-person
dessert sized pickings
Nothing for it on these collapsed plants but to pull up and cut out the stems and foliage and to collect up any 'fruit' for storage in sheds and the polytunnel. The latter was for the drying beans both of which varieties I am not 100% convinced by despite the claims of the heritage-variety seed company we bought the seed from. They (Brown Envelope Seeds) tell me that these beans are all proven in County Cork, so should 'work' here but I think our season is just not long enough.

That lovely pink-pig scarf gift. 
Both the 'Borlotti' runners and the 'Gaucho' French-style did the growing, flowering and podding up well enough but despite our Indian Summer they have not really completed the end stage, the ripening and drying. These beans are meant to move all the moisture and goodness from the pod-skin to the bean seed, leaving the beans big and hard enclosed in a papery thin, rustling, desiccated pod by about September. You pull the pods and easily rub out the seeds  so that you can store them and further dry them as an over-winter dry ingredient in stews and so on. These pods are still fleshy, thick skinned and moist, though I can feel full bean seeds inside, so they are in the poly-tunnel on a wire frame to see will they finish the drying process away from the bines.

Pig Party. A splash of the black stuff in their wheat and
milled barley. 
The pigs came up to their 6 month Birthday on the 10th October, so we decided that they should be allowed to celebrate and finally try out some Guinness. For their lunch I replaced their usual pig-nuts (which I thought might turn to mush when the Guinness touched them) with a 50/50 mix of whole wheat and milled barley with a generous glug of the black stuff stirred into it. They were mightily impressed.

Very interested in the empty tin!
Not only did they scarf down this new food, but also they kept trying to get at the empty can just outside their fence where I'd put it down while I took some pictures. I also swear they were looking at me a bit 'old fashioned' at their supper time when the exciting new flavours were replaced back with boring old pig nuts and apples. With Autumn in the pig-keeper's world comes the annual Ministry census. We get a sheep census too, but we've only ever had a zero count to record and we've had to avoid the option where zero might mean you are no longer a sheep keeper and you would like them to close your herd account.

Pig Census form.
It was nice this time, then, to be able to record a '2' - yes we do actually HAVE pigs and we intend to keep on having them. We are not sure how this will translate next year, but probably with a try at pure-bred Berkshires, the black pigs. The supplier of this year's Tamworths (, which 'resolves' to a website called PiggyWiggy's) impressed us with their set-up and the quality of stock so we may go back there for more. Last year they had Berkshires on sale too, though I can find no mention of Berkshires now on the website. Ah well. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Though She be but Little, She is Fierce

Liz's Aer Lingus flight descends into Knock Airport
The eagle has landed. Liz is home and we are together again for a brief while. Other friends are looking after our good friend, Diamond for the moment, though Liz will probably return for another stint in a couple of weeks. She got on well 'over there', they successfully moved Diamond and John into the new house and set up all the rooms ready for Diamond, though she was for the last part of the week not actually present, being briefly admitted to medical care for some treatments. She has not actually moved in yet or indeed even seen the new house furnished. Liz also enjoyed catching up with various UK friends from our Kent days.

While in Kent she also got a chance to call in at everyone's favourite deli, farm shop and purveyor of all manner of foreign foods and drinks (Italian, Deep South, African, Greek and many many more), that being Macknade's Fine Foods of Faversham Kent. Macknade sensibly have a presence on modern Social Media, mainly Facebook and Twitter where they do some of that advertising which attracts a big group of people who "follow" their posts, "like" their stuff. They run competitions where if you re-post (re-tweet) their stuff you can win Macknade's goody bags and it was in one of these that both Liz and Mazy not only re-tweeted but then got into an "outrageously flirty" (Liz's words) riff with them, but whether it was that which won them the goody bags, they do not know.

Kent Cob Nuts - we planted a few here just to see.
Either way Liz was able to call in and collect her prize when she went shopping in there for stuff it is tricky to find over here - Patum Peperium, Angustora Bitters, Bloody Mary Mix, Zatarain's (Deep South) mixes for 'Dirty Rice' and 'Red Beans and Rice'. The prize itself was well worth while and not to be sniffed at - one of Macknade's new jute bags stuffed with packets of nice things - Earl Grey tea bags, Kent cob nuts, a goats cheese 'Camembert', fruit, chutney, fruit juice, beer and so on.

Is Liz trying to tell me something?
Liz also inherited a nice variety of unexpected and very generous presents including a lovely scarf which features pink piggies which is now in the wash - I will photograph that for the next post; I have claimed that one! Also a very nice bangle for Liz which carries the Shakespeare quote "...and though she be but little, she is fierce". You can get away with that, Diamond. I will refrain from comment. Naturally with all this new 'stuff' it was necessary, but worthwhile too, booking her luggage into check in (we normally fly with just carry-on luggage which restricts you to 100 ml of any liquid and 10 kg total). Amusingly half a dozen eggs is allowed because each individual egg (a well know terrorist device?) has less volume than 100 ml.

That bangle. Don't worry; that 'damage' in the pic is only
to a plasticky waxy protective coating.
Well, now Liz is back here and has her feet back under the table for a couple of weeks at least so I've had to hand back the kitchen after my welcome-home meal of chilli which I cooked on the Tuesday night. I do like my cooking and enjoy the chance to get in there while Liz is away. I also quite enjoy the shopping and when I am in, for example, a fishmongers, I will always look to see whether they have anything 'new' (to me); something I have never tried or tasted. They say, do they not, that you should try everything once except, famously, Incest and Morris Dancing.

Pangasius (white fish)
So there I was at the fresh fish counter in a nearby supermarket (Supervalu in Ballaghaderreen) looking down at some white-fish fillets labelled 'Pangasius' at only €2 per fillet and asking the assistant what they were, fully expecting a look of confusion and a blustered apology that she didn't know, was only covering for the butcher, has never heard of it either. Fair play to 'SV-Balla', the lady proved to be helpful and knowledge-able. Pangasius is a freshwater fish (actually something called a 'shark-catfish') commonly farmed all over Asia, eaten a great deal in the USA (where it is in the top ten on tonnage) all be it mainly used by the 'service food' boys (so, I guess, disguised as fish fingers, scampi etc) but also sold intact as 'Basa', 'Tra' or 'Swai'

Surprised that this hugely 'popular' fish had slipped my attention for 57 years, I put this to some of my friends in the USA and, to a man, they either denied all knowledge ('Someone else must be eating all those tonnes!') or advised me to not go there because this fish was cheap and unpopular, and also known as the 'Vietnamese River Cobbler' (I can see why SuperValu would not be using that name). I will speak as I find, though. I baked the fillets in a wrap of tin foil with just butter and slices of beef tomato so that I could be sure to taste the fish, and served it up with ruby chard and salad potatoes. It was OK. Quite a mild flavour, like whiting, so you'd not want to be blasting it with any spicy sauce, but fishy enough and with a good firm, meaty, flaking texture.

Guinea Fowl Feather
Well done SuperValu for risking putting that on the display; the Irish do not generally do much in the way of unusual fish, sticking when they do fish at all, to the well known salmon, trout, mackerel and so on. At €2 per fillet or €4 for 350 g it is also quite a bit cheaper than most Irish fish. I'd buy it again, anyway.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Tag, Dag and Weigh

It's not meant to hurt 'too much'.
The sharp end of the tag is pushed
through the ear with special pliers.
At long last, sheep man 'Kenny' arrives to ear-tag my lambs. We love him dearly but he is the most disorganised lad and the most unconcerned about time keeping and deadlines we know. Last year we got lambs with no paperwork (which is no longer allowed) and this year he passed us the lambs and the ear-tag fronts separately, promising to swing by in 'a week or so' and fit them for us. That was August 2nd. In both cases, I would also be in trouble of course for having accepted the lambs in this 'condition' but we muddle along and it all sorts itself out in the end. So far we have not been inspected by any Dept officials.

Contained in the cattle race. 
Kenny texted first to say he'd be with me in 40 minutes (and he was!) but did not bring his son Oisín (a useful and expert sheep-wrangler) and I do not currently have Liz on hand, so the job was down to the two of us. I was a bit concerned that we might have problems persuading the lambs across my yard and into the cattle race; they had never been there. They were as good as gold, following my rattled bucket of grub. Once in the race they were easy prey, with only a confined space and no place to run. We just needed to catch each one in turn, tag them and "weigh" them. There was also one I needed to 'dag'.

All legal now - yellow tags on the right ear.
Kenny let me tag one of them with the pliers. The two halves of the tag fit one into each 'mandible' of the pliers, then you crunch them together forcing the sharp point of the one half through the ear and into the socket of the back of the tag. You try to avoid any obvious blood vessels and the punch must sting them a bit (they jump!) but it is supposed to not hurt them much or for long. They certainly seemed OK and unconcerned very quickly after we did the damage.

The messy end, reasonably clean after
having been 'dagged'.
While we had them contained, Kenny gave me a quick master-class in assessing sheep 'condition' (as in fatness or readiness for slaughter). Push 4 fingers into the back of the lamb either side of the spine. If you can feel the spinal 'processes' sticking up like the knuckles of a tight-closed fist, then we are too thin - the spine needs to feel like the knuckles of an almost open hand. Probe with your fingers either side of the tail - you should not be able to feel any bone here. Push a hand into either side of the lamb just behind the ribs as if trying to make your fingers meet inside the lamb's abdomen. If you can't get in at all you are fat, of you can get a little way in you are 'middling' and, Kenny tells me, if the lamb is in very poor condition you can almost meet your fingers 'through' the lamb's body. All our lambs were declared 'mighty fine' and only days or a week or two away from being 'fit' (ready).

The young Buff-Orps out and about. They will hit 21 weeks
('point of lay' for many chickens) on about Christmas Day!
The official hi-tech way of weighing them today, though I will leave this to Kenny who is way younger, fitter and stronger than I am, was to lift them and declare "Ah... he's ready". Kenny grabs them around the chest from above and hefts them off the ground clutched to his own chest as a child might clumsily lift a younger brother or sister. They want to be about 8 stone he says. I'll take his word for it!

Mapp and Lucia at nearly 6 months.
The final job on the lambs was that I needed to 'dag' one. Dags, for the uninitiated, are the messy, poo-ey 'cling-ons' which dangle behind some sheep, where the poo has not cleared the wool and is all stuck in between the fibres, unable to fall to the ground. Dagging is a regular part of sheep husbandry but (I am told) applies much more to some breeds, such as Suffolk Downs, than others (Texel, Mules etc). They are not 'scouring' (having diarrhoea) in any unhealthy way, they just do loose 'stools'. This may only apply to lush Roscommon grazing, I do not wish to impugn the Suffolk Down breed in general, which may cope perfectly well on the Suffolk Downs.

I have 3 lambs this year who all produce, all the time, hard pellets of poo about the size of marbles which rain down harmlessly from bum to grass, leaving the lovely clean wool of the lamb's rear end pristine and clean. No 4 lamb however has a 'softer' approach to life and always has had, so his bum is always in a terrible state and while Kenny had him in a firm grip, I was able to get round him with a pair of scissors cutting away as much dag as I could. He must weigh a few kg less now but Kenny didn't re-weigh him, he just commented that it was me that had the shi**y hands because I was the 'rookie' sheep wrangler. Thanks, I think.

Bust 1.07 m. Nice one, Lucia!
Kenny then stayed around for a while chatting. He fancies a couple of our Buff Orpington 'hins' because one of the farm dogs has recently killed 2 of his own girls, so I'll do him a deal when we can sex them with any reliability. We were also talking about our sheep for next year, when we rather fancy getting into year-round sheep, so we might buy a couple of in-lamb mothers. That way we can be there for the lambing and then have the lambs right round to this time of year. The only issue with this is that breeding-age ewes as a going concern are way more expensive than store lambs for fattening, more like €180 than €85. Hmmmm.

Meanwhile, the pigs are fast approaching their 6 month birthday (10th Sept) and are looking a lot like they, too, are "fit". I measured them today and they have now both aligned their weights - they are both 1.22 m from between the ears to the base of the tail, and they have bust 1.07 m, so by the 'bust squared' method of estimating weights, we have reached 90.8 kg live weight. They also, to our rather novice eyes, look big enough; we just try to imagine what that shoulder joint would look like separated from the glossy, ginger-haired lively young porker who currently owns it. I will soon need to be a-visiting that butcher-man.