Wednesday 31 December 2014

New Year Trivia which I sweep out the last corners of the 2014 story cupboard, the last anecdotal dust-bunnies and cigarette end memories to give myself a nice clean, clear run at it in 2015. First though, anxious readers may like an update on our fox attack story and sheep debuts of yesterday's post. You'll be relieved to know that everyone survived the night. I still have ten of the young Buff-Orp poults and all the grown up hens, 5 geese, 4 rabbits, Min the (Guinea Fowl) Hin and, of course, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Buffton Tuffton (Sah!) , our splendid Alpha-chicken and rooster. I also have two sheep, which is handy, and they are delightful creatures, hand-tame and sorted on the human=good=feed bucket=grub thing. My 'babies' from Kenny in the past have taken 2 weeks at least before they'd even approach us and 4 weeks to be baa-ing for their food, these more mature (and definitely more frequently handled) ladies are in there from the get go.

While I'm on 'death and destruction' I'll do the slaughter-based stories sooner rather than later (Don't worry, not too traumatic). Sometimes when we are labeling stuff for the freezer, we don't stick rigidly to the rules, so we end up with packs labeled "The best curry sauce EVEH!" or some such lunacy. In 2014, when we went through the process of slaughtering the big Hubbard chickens, I was stretching their necks at 1, 2 or 3 a day depending on the pace at which the plucking and dressing department (Liz) could process them. From the start I'd had my eye on one particularly big, tall, broad, white rooster who I thought might make a good weight, so I'd go out each day to do the deed, intending to grab him, but each day one of the others would wander into reach (they never really sussed that I'd turned from the harmless man who fed them, to a much less benign force!) and I'd despatch that one, leaving my big boy for the next day. It became like Captain Ahab hunting the white whale, an epic saga of many failed 'hunts'. Unbeknownst to me, when I did finally catch up with him, Liz labeled all 'his' freezer bags "Moby". We'd long since forgotten this but it all came back to us yesterday when we went to thaw out one of the bags to eat the chicken pieces there-in.

The house's alpha-cat playing with the mouse.
Liz joins the 'onesie' Sisterhood
While we've been feeling the pain of a fox attack and chicken loss, we have been very aware of how fortunate we are compared to poor Charlotte of the Mini Horses who on the same morning as our bushy-tail visit, woke up to all her 10 ducks killed, badly injured or traumatised by a mink attack. Touch wood, we do not seem to get mink this far from the river; they are vicious and bloodthirsty killers. The fox will snatch a chicken in the open and run off with it leaving you just a few feathers (Yes, I know they will do feeding frenzy if they get into the chicken house or an enclosed space) but the mink will kill all your birds one by one by biting through the neck to get at the blood, sometimes taking the head off altogether and leaving you the bloodied, sickening corpses. The other birds just have to watch helplessly.

Charlotte's visitor killed 5, injured three more and left the other two so traumatised that they could only stand in a corner shivering, especially one poor little call-duck who had seen her life-long buddy executed. Charlotte was understandably upset and didn't relish the task of putting the injured birds out of their misery, so I volunteered. Nobody likes the job but I had no bond to these ducks, so I could do it quickly and cleanly, out of sight of Charlotte. Not nice. She is now, for the moment at least, out of ducks.

On a happier note, the last two days have seen some heavy frosts, with Sunday night getting down to -3ºC and Tuesday night -6ºC. Monday froze our big pond over and Tuesday thickened up the ice impressively. Step forward our big fluffy cat, Blue, who decided that some ice skating would be fun. On my feed and release round that morning I found him strolling around in the middle of the pond and on that first morning the ice was creaking under him; I had visions of him going through it and me having to wade out in the freezing cold water to rescue him. I have no idea where a cat gets the instinct to know that a pond might be a safe place for a stroll.

Torville and Dean, it aint!
On the 2nd morning the ice did not creak and he got quite confident, skittering about and looking like he enjoyed falling down, writhing round to bat the ice, or maybe his reflection, which had just 'got' him. He would not come off the ice to my call, but he must have known what he was at - when I walked off to go in to animal breakfasts, he was at my heel 'asking' to be let in. This morning we have a thaw and while the ice sheet is still there, it is now wet and melting on top, so I expect Blue's ice dancing days are done for now.

JD Bob gets comfy with the dogs, yarning by the fire.
We had a nice visit from our good friend and near-neighbour, John Deere Bob last night. We had the fire going in the Living room and he got sat down on the sofa with the dogs, a nice cup of 'tay' in his hand and settled down for a good aul' yarn. We thought he was going to doze off at one stage. He normally only stays 10-20 minutes but seemed to decide that warm and cosy was a good thing. We love it. He tells us that back in the day 'that' room would have been kept for best and only opened for special high days and holidays, visits from the Priest and so on, so that although he'd been in the house a few times, he'd never been allowed in the Living Room.

Amongst the gifts this Christmas came a very nice cheese knife set. I had not heard of the maker, though by coincidence, it was mentioned in the knife-making section of the Gubbeen book I described in an earlier post. Laguiole is, like Sabatier, a well respected and 'quality' knife maker and rather sweetly, their logo is a honey bee. See picture for details. Thank you, Santa.

Tasting as good as it looked, but nearly all gone now.
That just about does me for 2014 so I will wish all my readers a Happy New Year. We are having the home made haggis and home grown 'neeps' plus, if it is thawed enough for me to get at them, the home grown 'bashit tatties'. The Christmas whiskey seems to have all vanished (thirsty mice!) so we may be out today to do a bit of re-stocking just in the interest of First Footing, you understand.

Happy New Year 

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Polly and Lily

In a shed, awaiting collection.
At last I get the phone call from Mayo Liz to say that my ewes are ready, separated from the flock, shut into their shed and waiting for collection. The original plan had been to collect them back in early December but this plan was scuppered by Mayo-Liz having to put in some extra pre-Christmas shifts and the husband and son(s) who had been about to help handle the sheep and separate off my two were always 'on a roof' (one son is a roofer) or 'taken to his bed' (which can mean ANYthing in Ireland).

The shepherds outnumber the sheep here - 4 people help
to 'gently' load the precious and delicate cargo.
We had to wait through Christmas in a sheep-less condition and I was beginning to despair of getting them before New Year. On our trip down to Silverwood's to do our present exchange, Christmas visit and consumption of a superb roast beef rib lunch laid on my Steak Lady, I had taken to jokingly shout "I want my sheeps!" which just had Liz helpfully pointing out all the fields of sheep on the 2 hour drive... "Look! He's got HIS sheep.... and so has he!" etc.

Safely home to Co Roscommon, Polly on the left, Lily
on the right. 
Today I was happily going about other business - actually doing a bit of logging in the 'apiary' (bee hive paddock) taking advantage of the frost to keep the bees hunkered down in the winter cluster and not keen to come out and investigate the buzz and bark of the chain saw. They stayed put as I was 95% sure they would, but when you are using a chain saw it is best to have 100% concentration on not chopping your leg off, not 95% watching for that and 5% keeping an eye on the hive entrance to see if anyone sticks an antenna out. We survived anyway.

Sad wet slew of Buff Orp feathers.
There was one other drama before the call - I spotted a sorry tuft of buff coloured feathers in the East Field and rushed to count my 'Baker's Dozen' young buffs, already down to 12 after a natural-causes death. Only Ten! Liz came out and helped me do a search and she found a suspicious animal track through the frost diagonally across to the eastern fence, where a sad wet slew of more feathers told the tale, Brer Fox had snatched at least one but I have to admit to not having counted them in or out last night, so I cannot say whether this was yesterday or the day before. I then took the dogs for a walk and when nearly home saw a big dog fox on McG's lawn (neighbour) which then nipped through a hedge, crossed the lane in front of us (the dogs were trying to dislocate my arm by then!) and loped off down to the lough. This in broad daylight at roughly mid day. Later, Bob told us he had also seen a fox yesterday and he could clearly see something pale in its mouth, which he thought was a hare but could well have been our other missing young hen. We think that these birds may have been snatched on separate days and possibly both in the East Field where at least the chooks will not now be able to go with the sheep gate closed but we will be upping the patrols and outdoor activity and double checking the evening lock-downs. I will also wait till full daylight before releasing the birds in the morning, I've been letting them out at 08:30 when it is still fairly gloomy here. These things happen, I guess, in a fully free range system. Annoyingly, it is 2 hen birds that our red bushy-tail chum has taken - why couldn't he grab a young cockerel? - they are coming up to the age where we need to cull them out anyway!

Lily takes off down the field.
Anyway, we got our call, I fired up Charlotte of the Mini-Horses (who wanted to go with us), and we headed for Mayo Liz's place with the trailer. We had a nice long chat, tea and biscuits, did all the paperwork and reversed the trailer up to the shed. You have to be gentle with these pregnant ones, they told us, so we stood back a bit and let the 'experts' at it. This looked to involve a rugby scrum with 2 bodies hanging onto and steering each ewe - they weren't going ANYWHERE but my trailer. We bade each other farewell and very gently drove home before unloading the sheep into our field - no man handling this time - we dropped the ramp and stood back blocking exits while the ewes slowly and warily explored the ramp and then the field entrance. We gently swung the gate shut behind them and there we were. I have since nipped in to photograph the new girls and we will now leave them to settle. The names, Polly (for the darker, Jacob x Hampshire Down) and Lily (for the pale, Suffolk x Hampshire) were provided by a literary chum of Liz's. When we were buying them and needing names back in October, she spotted that it was the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas (27th Oct 1914) so decided we should name them for the entertaining "leading ladies" in 'Under Milk Wood', Polly Garter and Lily Smalls. We wanted names evocative of fecund female good health, appetite for... um.... loving, and easy production of babies. Polly and Lily it is then, Good Luck ladies, may you by now be successfully in lamb and 'cooking' ready to lamb in late March or early April.

Friday 26 December 2014

IS(S) That Really Santa?

No rest for the girls on the 25th.
The boys at the International Space Station must have thought that all their birthdays had come at once in (British Isles) PR terms. They managed to get the beast to fly over Ireland and the UK not once but twice in full view of the excited Christmas Eve, Santa-obsessed children at a perfect time in the evening. For those who have not kept up to date on this project, the ISS is still 'up there' 16 years after the first bits were 'launched' (via a shuttle), all estimated $100 bn of it and is now 98% complete with just a couple more bits of laboratory to be banged up (this time in a Russian rocket). It 'flies' round in the lowest possible orbit, 242 miles above the earth (modern commercial long-haul jets fly at about 40,000 feet, or 7 and a half miles but in a series of loops like the wires on a balloon whisk, tracking a bit further north over 'you' at each pass. It takes about 92 minutes to orbit.

The geese survive to see their own Christmas Dinner of
spent sprout plants. 
It is so big (356 feet 'wide' and (soon) 240 feet long, roughly football pitch size) and it is made of shiny metal so it reflects so much sunlight back at the earth that, when it is there, it is the brightest "star" in the sky and it moves across the whole sky in 4 minutes or so, so it is moving as visibly 'fast' as a commercial jet, dead easy to spot even by the smallest 'Santa spotter'. With superb timing and by complete coincidence, it would be visible high in the sky at 5:20 pm on a clear, cloudless Christmas Eve night (!), going from SW, pretty much straight over, and then pass over again at 2 minutes to 7, lower in the sky. Parents everywhere were taking their kids out to show them 'Santa' flying past once to check up on them and warning them that he'd be back in 92 minutes to check they were all in bed. He's making a list, he's checking it TWICE. Excellent. We 'grown ups' were out there too, with a glass of wine watching both passes and raising our glasses - we two are in awe of this technology and knowing that it "is us up there". Fair play to them.

Comfy PJs for the 'duvet' days. 
Well, no obsessions and over-excited kiddies for us; we had a nice quiet relaxing Christmas planned and that is what we achieved, but I'm not about to bore you with all the details; you will probably have done your own thing and once was enough. We were sensibly restrained, though, in the event, with no obligation to eat more or drink more than we wanted to (nothing to prove, nobody urging us to take seconds or manage just one more drink, No forced jollity and certainly no games). I did get Shanghai'd by Bob, mind, who pounced on me when I was out with the dogs and forced me to drink a glass of Whiskey. Rough job this 'being neighbourly' but someone has to do it!

Tígín and the house from the back I nice inviting plume of
 smoke promises a toasty warm Living Room. 
Even our main meal was not the 'obligatory' turkey or goose (the geese were delighted!) - we did a baked gammon/ham with new potatoes and a mix of greens (yes, sprouts did feature); there was no starter and pud was our homemade Christmas Pud with just double cream ( I can't abide brandy-butter). Even our "Christmas Movie" was the not-very-seasonal 'Casablanca' with Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid. We turn the internet off for the whole day, adopting the Silverwood's policy of actually talking to each other! I know. We lit fires at both ends of the house, so the place was toasty warm. Very relaxing. Just what was needed.

Geriatric bunnies Ginny and Padfoot get whole carrots with
the leaves still on for Christmas. A firm favourite - they eat the
leaves first. 
Boxing Day (they call it 'St Stephen's Day' here, or more unusually "Stephens's Day" as if the guy was Mr Stephens already with an 's' on the end) was equally relaxing and unplanned, no visitors and no visits out. We'd done the 'in' visit earlier week with The Airy Fox and we are not due down to Silverwoods for a day or so. We woke up to a heavy fall of big wet snow flakes, but no laid snow. We wandered along to our friend and little aul' lady, Una and were plied with excellent home made mince pies and porter-cake (porter as in Guinness), 'tay' and brandy. We nipped out for milk and bread; Una did not need any shopping. I then walked the dogs along in the other direction and got Shanghai'd by Bob again (only tea this time).

A goodly selection of excellent books.
This time he asked me had we "seen any Wren-boys?" (he says 'Wran'); at that stage we hadn't but this reminded me of the Wren Boy tradition locally which I have, I am sure, described before. The local children would dress up as Mummers in straw costumes and parade round with a wren in a cage, demanding money and treats with menaces lest they kill the bird. I think, though the rhyme that Bob told me sounds like the intent was quite opposite

"Up with the kettle and down with the pan / now give us a penny to bury the 'Wran'! "

Mid-bake, the gammon joint gets its skin sliced off, the fat
cut into diamonds and dredged in brown sugar. A clove is
pressed into each 'diamond' and then it is back into the oven
for another 25 minutes.
These days of course, the wren is a protected species and anyway, the children are a lot less murderous (we hope!) so the kids come round ready to sing or play music for their donations. They don't seem to do the dressing up, either. Bob had had two lads who "played the mouth organ" to him. As I type this we have just been visited by a young lass being driven round in a car. She had on a Santa hat and played us a tune on a penny whistle. It was not that sure-footed a rendition and we think we heard strains of 'She is handsome, she is pretty' in it, but we clapped her vigorously and dropped a stack of Euro coins into her fist. She declined the Clementines. So, we have now officially been "Wran-boy'd" all be it by the female of the species

The newly planted daffs by the drive are starting to emerge. 
The incoming gifts this year included a nice healthy stack of excellent books (Thank you all concerned - we will be thanking you properly, of course!) with a good leaning towards food growing and cooking as well as a toehold into my 'new interest' of exploring history. It is only Boxing Day, so I've not done much more than open and flick through most of them, but I have delved into 'Gubbeen' and am very impressed. The 'Gubbeen' here is the famous artisan cheese which comes from the farm and dairy in Co. Cork, way down almost on Mizzen Head by the Fastnet Lighthouse. The 'team/family' there farm dairy cows and outdoor pigs as well as running a kitchen garden and all four main characters have contributed to the book. Hence there are sections by the main farmer and cattle-man, the pig products and smoke-house charcutier (who also makes kitchen and butcher knives), the wife who is also the main cheese-maker and the kitchen gardener and herb grower. As well as covering all these subjects (which fascinate me anyway), the farming and production is done in as sustainable and chemical-free way as practicable/possible - soil fertility has always been mainly by collecting sea-weed from the rocky shores; the kitchen garden is run on 'bio-dynamic' lines. I thoroughly recommend it if that's the kind of thing that floats your boat.

Muddy parsnips, dug for the 'day that's in it'.
Meanwhile, I hope you all continue to enjoy your Christmas and the run in to the New Year. Ahh, the Haggis.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

A Visit From Airy Fox

These slid down very nicely in Connemara
Picture by Airy.
Off to the Airy-port this morning to drop back off our house guest of the last few days, our good friend whom I will call, for the purposes of this blog, The Airy Fox, or 'Airy' for short. This visit was one of a string of drops for Airy who had come to us from one set of friends and was heading home to some family for the big day, then off to visit our other chum, Mazy in Kent and on and on. We had the pleasure of her company  from Saturday lunchtime round to today lunchtime and we thoroughly enjoy the chance to do 'host'; especially Liz loves the chance to do 'hospitality', bedroom, facilities, food, drinks.

Towser relaxes at 'tay'. Picture by Airy.
We both love the chance to show a newcomer this place, the livestock and garden and the local environs; we have the lovely scenic area of Connemara on our doorstep and two nice towns and lots of pubs in easy range. Obviously, if you are coming to 'the Wesht' in December then you should expect a bit of rain and the forecast promised that Saturday would be dry but that the rest of the stay would feature that local speciality 'soft days'. Roscommon does a type of rain which we never really saw in Kent, a heavy drizzle which falls on windless days. It is not "lashing down" or raining in any way which you'd call 'heavy rain' drumming on the roof or bouncing off the road, but it is quietly, insidiously, quickly and thoroughly wetting. Nothing we could do, of course, but get on with things where the soft day did not matter.

Another 'Airy' pic - fooling around at the 'Quiet Man' statue
in Cong village in Connemara. 
We try to be very relaxing hosts. We are happiest if the guest feels completely at home and not obliged to "do stuff" all the time. If they want to relax, do nothing, and read books then that is fine by us. 'Port in a Storm' is the effect we are aiming for, so no insistence on entertainment, busy-busy, worrying that people might be bored and certainly no forcing anyone to play Charades or what ever. Horrors! So, by mutual consent we settled on a little nip out to see a Craft fair / Farmer's Market on the Saturday afternoon, a trundle round Connemara on Sunday and a visit to Strokestown Park house and National Famine Museum on the Monday.

Airy's 'clever' camera can do these sepia
'monochrome' effects. This one she called
"Cosy Evening'
The Craft Fair went down OK and we found a nice pint of Guinness at Val's Bar just across the road. We came home to get fires going at both ends of the house so that we were all cosy for a lovely meal, drinks and chatting. Good food was a definite part of this visit; on Saturday we'd had home made soup and bread for lunch and supper was a lovely chicken curry, chickpea and pepper dip, carrot salad and a dessert of clafoutis. The Connemara mission suffered a bit from the all-day rain; with the low cloud shrouding the tops of the impressive mountains, so that full scale scenic photography was out. However, Airy loved the bits she could see - glimpses of hill side, impressive roadside outcrops, heather, swollen torrential streams and waterfalls and we were all amazed by the light.

Sticky toffee (date) pudding. The pudding rose so well that
there was no room in the dish for the sticky sauce, so Liz
served it separately. 
The cloud layer must have been a thin one and transparent enough that an intense light powered the oranges, russets and 'straw' colours of the Autumn vegetation to such a degree that you could believe that they were lit from beneath like an old fashioned colour-slide (transparency). It accentuated, too, the blackness of the lough water which was getting quite a 'chop' from the wind and had 'white horses' on its waves. You wouldn't have been able to do any of this justice with the camera, but we all agreed that we need to bring another chum of ours (Helbel) out there, who does weaving with a very sophisticated loom, and would definitely enjoy the combination of vibrant russet and orange, grey and darker colours.

Chilling with (l to r) Towser, Deefer and Poppy
The Strokestown Hall and Famine Museum were a real find - we'd not been before and we did not know what to expect from this famine-era "big house" not lived in since the 1980's and now owned by a transport company (the lorries are parked out of sight!) and also given to events like the current "Victorian Christmas Experience" (yoiks!). We did not time our visit very well as we arrived at the Museum with only 40 minutes to spare before the afternoon's guided tour of the house (after which we'd need to dash home before dark - this was Winter Solstice, the shortest day, dark by 16:30).

Langoustines or "Dublin Bay Prawns" if you prefer.
We had to whizz through the Museum a bit and didn't do it justice. It was fascinating if a bit 'awkward' learning more about the Famine while running into our own extravaganza of food and drink, Christmas! I am also a bit wary of reporting on anything to do with the Museum and the Famine, being a Brit, and a newcomer to these shores myself, but I will try to give you a flavour. The family who owned the house during the Famine were not the best landlords and were much hated in the village; one of them actually got himself assassinated, they used to sound a coach-horn as they were loading into their coach and horses, and the villagers had to run for cover back into their houses because the Pakenham/Mahons did not want to see the 'peasants' as they drove out of their gate in all their finery.

A fried breakfast for the final morning
of the visit.
The local Catholic leaders managed to build 2 new church buildings during the worst years and had 3-day parties to celebrate them being completed and opened, while thousands died in the streets and village of hunger. The Family kept copious records and accounts of estate transactions at the time, rents collected and defaulted, evictions, wages paid to Estate workers (including many Irish, obviously) and the winners and losers, and this excellent archive of documents has survived through to today, hence the siting of the National Famine Museum in that estate. Historians in the present day do a lot of hours researching this treasure and what they publish can make uncomfortable reading - the accepted truths, the good guys and bad guys do not always turn out to be those expected. We will definitely be returning to the museum when we have more time.

Exhibit A.
The "Victorian Christmas Experience" was all gone away and packed up (mercifully) when we arrived (it must have been a Saturday or morning-only thing). Santa's "car" (an ancient Talbot) was parked in the rain, his sleigh was vacant and a few sorry beads of fake (soluble) snow were being washed into the drains by the drizzle. We had an excellent guided tour of the house to ourselves by 'John' who had an easy, amusing manner and a fund of well practised knowledge. The house is full of the original furniture, toys and equipment, threadbare carpets and time-worn wall coverings which was used by the last resident, Olive (88) as she slowly went broke, selling off the original (priceless) paintings and replacing them with fakes and copies which try (and fail) to cover the darker patches where the original frames had protected the walls from sunlight. The feature which caught our attentions most was undoubtedly the huge 'galleried' kitchen


with its bread ovens, spit roasters and smokers. Apparently the 'toffs' did not want to actually speak to the servants, so they'd come to the gallery and lower menus and recipes down on a string to the staff working below, or simply bring the guests to come and watch the work like some kind of spectator-sport! This (kitchen) had been boxed in (luckily without being ripped out!) by the end so that the old lady had only one servant and a tiny kitchen built within the old galleried room. It is worth a look and we will be back to that one too. Mazy will love it,

Well, all good things must come to an end, and we had to feed Airy our 'traditional' last breakfast before taking her to the airport and bidding her farewell. Guests always seem to enjoy our 'fries' and they feel well set up for avoiding airline fodder and the long wait till they can get to a proper kitchen again. I hope she won't mind me saying she was a real joy to 'have'. Thank you, Airy. We meant it when we said you could have stayed Christmas if you'd fancied it and you will be most welcome back when you come back; perhaps we will pick a less rainy day to try Connemara, next time!

A nice Stilton at last!
Meanwhile, just one complaint about Christmas. We like a good Stilton in this house and at Christmas we are happy to pay the extra and buy one of those ceramic lidded 'jars' which hold the cheese, sometimes under a white wax airtight plug; you lift the plug to let the air at the (white) cheese and allow the blue veining to develop at room temperature, in time for Christmas. Lidl supermarket's "Long Clawson" brand seemed just the ticket; I was sure I could remember Long Clawson as being a reliable, good quality name. Apparently not. What they call 'Stilton' is not a hard cheese at all, but a Stilton flavoured soft spread, as if the cheese has been whisked or beaten, creamed or abused some other way to make it spread-able and softer than baby food! I feel there should be a regulation making sure that this gets described as 'creamed' or some-such. Luckily, I was bemoaning this fact on Facebook and not one but two of our friends happen to live within a stone's throw of REAL Stilton country, home of "Cropwell Bishop Creamery" and other proper manufacturers of good cheese. One of these (Thank you, Sarah) offered to rescue us from cheesy hell by posting us a pot of the good stuff and this duly arrived, safe and sound this (Tuesday) morning courtesy of Ireland's wonderful postal system, 'An Post'.

Well, this is likely the last post I write before the big day, so please all my readers have a brilliant and memorable Christmas. Good Luck, Now.

Friday 19 December 2014

Birdwatching Treats

Sorry for the bad pic, which was taken in increasingly poor
light and increasing rain - taking a chain saw to the hedge.
Every now and then this lovely area where we live dishes up a bird-watching treat and this week I got 2 on consecutive days. On the Wednesday I was decapitating the gnarly , overgrown hedge that runs along the East side of our lawn, stopped to rest the chainsaw and heard a short, repeated 'kip kip kip' call from high up in the black spruce trees. Looking up I could see some birds acrobatically clambering and fluttering about the highest branches (60-70 feet up!), apparently ripping off cones and stripping them of seed. I was intrigued and nipped in for the binoculars and then took a few minutes trying to get a good, well-lit, clear view of them (I was looking straight up, so all I could get was a back-lit silhouette.

Tidier and better lit!
I am sure it was crossbills I was looking at, which are a new species for me here and, I think, anywhere - they ticked all the boxes I could rake up from memory and books - beefy looking finch, russet-red colour (in the males), the calls, moving as a group of 7, acrobatics, feeding on pine cones. However, I must admit I had to nip in to the biodiversity website to see if I was "allowed" them (I have come unstuck before with crows (we only have hooded crows), swans (only Whoopers here, not Bewick's) and owls (only Long Eared, no 'shorties' here)).

When we come back on lay, we don't mess about! We are looking
for a cross eyed chicken after we found this 118 g ridged shell
monster! She'll settle back down to normal eggs now. 
The next day, I was walking the dogs along the lane and got my best view ever of a bird I need nobody to confirm for me, the sparrow hawk. We both know this raptor well, having enjoyed a regular resident female bird for many years in our garden in Kent. This one was a male who I saw coming towards us (the dogs and I) down the middle of the lane about 2 feet off the tarmac, probably looking left and right for unsuspecting wrens or blackbirds in the hedges, rather than looking where he was going.

He came in from a good 100 yards away; he came on and on and was getting closer and closer. I was starting to think he'd hit me at about knee height and I might have to duck out of the way! About ten feet away from me he suddenly seemed to notice us and veered off through a gap in the hedge, but he was close enough that I could see every feather on his back and the gorgeous yellow iris and yellow eyelids of his eye. What a handsome chap! I love a sparrowhawk. Both these sightings have obviously gone onto the (National) biodiversity database and the crossbills are also now in my garden bird survey which, for us here, runs continuously for the 13 weeks through December to March.

Having a go with Royal Icing. A reasonably tidy job. 
It's my job, these Christmases to marzipan and ice the cake. I can't claim to be an expert, but I do enjoy it and this year I decided to go with a sheep theme; I do not seem able yet to go collect my real sheep, but at least I can have them on my cake! I was going with a design similar to that used on the dustbin lids (see earlier post)  so I had already scrounged a nugget of black fondant icing from that ace and experienced cake maker, Mrs Silverwood. I just needed to sort out some green icing (for the grass) and white (for the sides of the cake and the sheep themselves)

I did OK, but must admit to a couple of rookie errors which nearly spoiled the day. First up, I thought it was 'Royal' icing I needed to be rolling out sheets like I did the marzipan, and to be sticking them on (it isn't, as cunning cake makers will know; it is 'fondant' icing). 2nd up, I knew I had to pro-rata down the icing from the recipe; that was using 675 g of icing sugar (!) but instead of pro-rata-ing down from three TEASPOONS of lemon juice, I did it with "the juice of x lemons" so I ended up with a very sloppy and lemony mixture. No matter, we rescued it and I was able to smear the icing on with a 'pallet knife' (well, sort of) and got a good finish both with the green top and the white sides.

Christmassy touches about the place. 
Then I was into making up some of the correct kind of icing (fondant) for the sheep bodies and rolling out Mrs S's black icing for legs, ears and faces. I used some left over Royal for the lettering (which I must admit to being not very tidy at, the icing syringe is not a very easy 'pen' to hold steady and guide accurately) and then bashed up some more for the fancy piping round the top and bottom of the sides. Bingo, an unusual cake which we are very pleased with.

Finally today, a family Christmas mystery which someone somewhere may be able to help us with. Among the Christmas decs we faithfully pull out each year and pack away each 12th Night, is a terracotta crib which you can put a tea-light into to make the windows light up. It has managed to get cracked somewhere along the lines and the sheep on the bottom left corner is broken off, so every year we promise to glue it back together and every year we fail and pack it away again, unfixed. Our mystery is over 'where did it come from?'. Neither of us can recall buying it or receiving it as a gift and yet we have had it, as far as we can remember, for as long as we have been together. I was convinced it was Liz's but she, equally was convinced it was mine. So if, reading this, you can remember giving it to us, then please comment. We will love it no less, but at least we'll know where it came from!

Newbridge silver tree decoration. 
Ah well, tomorrow I am off on an airport run; we have a house guest for a few days. We have been mad busy today and we are nearly ready. We are hoping for a break in the weather so that we can show the lady some of the local environs. I am secretly hoping that we will get the call from Mayo-Liz to say our real sheep are ready for collection; it would be so much fun to take our guest with us to collect them! Not holding my breath on that one, though.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Au Revoir, Mademoiselle?

The shell back on the chassis. Andy B on left, me seated.
Readers who have been with me for donkeys years may recall that back in the winter of 2007/8, I was one of 4 members of our 'local group' of the Citroën Club of GB who got involved in the complete nut and bolt rebuild* of an ancient, non-running 1961 2CV car. The car was found by the club on one of our camping convoy events which took in Dover Transport Museum and turned out to have been a twinning gift from the newly twinned town of La Chapelle d'Armentieres in Northern France, to their new twin, Birchington in Kent in 1989. It was all sign-written with heraldic crests from each town and the regions. Birchington gave them a red phone box, being suitably British and 'iconic' which has stood ever since, outside the town hall (Mairie).

'Rolling Chassis' in need of lots of work.
The car, in 1989, had been roughly assembled to look the part for photo shoots but below the surface the engine was dead, brakes not connected up and so on, so the car sat on a local garage forecourt for a few years but was then gifted to the museum to look after. Dover Transport Museum, though, is more interested in commercial stuff - old lorries, vans, trains etc, so as they filled up with stuff the car was relegated to a slot out on the grass in the rain, which is where we found it and took pity, so we made them an offer.

We called her Mademoiselle from Armentieres (like the WW1 song) just because the "Parlez Vous" song is the only thing most school boys know about La Chapelle d'Armentieres! We stripped that car down completely over the winter of 2007/8 and rebuilt it. I was writing this blog by then but was writing then as if from the viewpoint of Deefer (then a small pup) so some posts about the car appeared such as

I wrote up the car rebuild with the usual millions of pictures on the National 2CV Club website and was quite proud of the work, but unfortunately the club fell out with their internet service provider and various crashes of the site made them move onto a completely new site, abandoning the old forum archives and blogs and I lost the lot. I tried any number of the former 'webmeisters' but could get no joy, so that good record of our mechanicking is gone, not even on the internet anywhere, because the server was shut down and cleaned up ready for the next customer. Hey ho. This blog is on which seems to be made of sterner stuff.

Well we completed the car and all the time had been in contact with the town of La Chapelle who were coming up to the 20th Anniversary of the twinning and were going to do a massive celebration and carnival to mark the event (a 'do' that French towns seem to love more so than either UK towns or the Irish). They insisted that we bring the car; we did and got treated like celebrities for the weekend with the car on show by the Mairie and then one of 3 2CVs leading the Big Parade. It was a real treat. The car has been back several times on the anniversaries since, once with us but since then with our good friend Andy B, who was really the 'project manager' on the build.

Soon after the 2009 trip, 2 of the gang-of-four expressed a wish to pull out and use their money on other 2CV projects, so, with the car then worth about £2400, Andy and I chopped in £600 to each of them and from then on we have owned the car between the two of us (and it is now worth about £3100, we think). Well, now having moved to Ireland, I do not get a chance to drive the car or even see it and sit in the seats, so I have been wondering whether Andy might feel like 'buying' me out too - we are both still splitting the cost of housing it in the dry lock-up, insurance, MOT and repairs (it is exempt from tax). It is only actually about £100 a year total each. We have now done a deal where I stop paying my share and just slowly fade from view over how ever long it takes a rough ton a year to burn up my half of the value. It could be the longest 'au revoir' in history. I will enjoy, meantime, knowing "that there's a corner of a foreign 2CV that is for (almost) ever (mine)" (apologies to Rupert Brooke)

Meanwhile, we bloggers, like any other internet users are host to the usual motley crew of scammers and hackers, spammers and the like. Many of these arrive as fake attempts to 'comment' on your blog posts and most of us have the comment function set to make sure we get to see the comments before they go up onto the site. is very good at protecting you and parks them if various conditions are met and, in particular in my case, if they come from that famous spammer, (Mr) Anonymous. I have been amused recently by a pattern forming among these as if they may have all read the same guide on how to pull the wool over the eyes of the blogger - compliment him or her on the blog but be very general and non specific about content (do not mention the subject matter of the post!) and then suggest that he/she come and look at yours which is on this link here, guv. What could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately two other factors they have in common are very bad English (generally looking like badly translated English) and then bizarre names on the links - sites selling medical gear, sites offering to improve your sales on and even sites selling labrador puppies!

I give you the following examples (but with the links, obviously, severed as I do not want you getting into inadvertent spam-hell)

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and finally

"Advanced level course, you get to study joining emergency treatment, fitting utilization of Automated External Defibrillator (AED) when heart failure strikes at the ictimized individual and considerably more.But you can’t be so sure that there will be no such incident happen in your life. The AED pads that are applied to the victim's chest, while CPR is in progress, can also assess and determine the victim's heart (cardiac) rhythm"

* Not strictly true - we swapped in a complete spare engine and gearbox rather than strip that right down. 425 cc of silky smooth oozing power!

Tuesday 16 December 2014

100,000 Page Views

We made it! Thanks to all my readers, this blog passed the 100,000 page views milestone today. Better keep going then; cracking on.

On these long dark evenings, I find myself reading books as a way to pass the time, and enjoying it more than I thought I would - up to now I have generally read a book once and never touched it since. Compare that to Liz, the real reader in this family, who has hundreds of books filling half a dozen bookcases, many of which she has read dozens of times. This is particularly true of her favourite authors and series - the Lord Peter Wimsey series (Dorothy Sayers), murder mysteries, especially Margery Allingham's 'Campion' stories, PG Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer's stuff and currently various Nora Roberts and a batch of 50 books she inherited to her Kindle which make up the New York Times best seller top 50 (some good, some appallingly bad, apparently). My part in this, historically has been a small section of shelf by Maeve Binchy, a shelf full of books about Thames Barges, some natural history books, a lot on Westies, pigs, bees and small-holdering and the Terry Pratchett (Discworld) collection which we share.

Pirate Cat certainly likes his fish. This is all you get left if you
throw him a big salmon head, boiled up. Just keep your fingers
out of the way, is all!
Having got back into reading, I worked my way back through the Pratchetts but then decided I should spread my net wider and started plaguing Liz for books which "I might like"; I read a wad of  PGW (naturally including the 'Empress of Blandings' pig stories!) but then ran out of reading while Liz was studying a book by Diane Purkiss on the English Civil War. Now my family will know that I am not one for the History. I could not string 2 English kings together in the right order or give you dates to save my life. I hated the subject at school with a passion. It was taught in a dry and dusty way by a bloke who couldn't engage with kids for love nor money, just a series of dates, monarchs and battles which we were asked to learn by rote. One of the things that amazed me about Liz, when I met her, was that someone could actually love history, bubble over with a passion for its detail and could pretty much put every monarch onto a mental timeline, along with all the major events. She is currently coaching 2 young ladies, one on English Literature, one on History, so the books are out while she 'bones up' to get her facts straight before a coaching session.

Marzipan-ing the cake.
There I was, then, with an actual history book in my hand and found I was enjoying it as well as learning a lot. Purkiss's book approaches the Civil War from the angle of ordinary people struggling through it, their lives disrupted, their children off fighting or they off being soldiers and seeing their tiny perspective on things. You got a good idea of the mess and confusion of a war fought in the 1600s The 'big boys' don't get a look in unless written about by these 'lowly' letter writers or diary-keepers, unless Purkiss needs to slot in some detail by way of explanation or context. By the end of the book I felt quite happy that I knew a bit about history, all be it only the score or so years in the 1600s in which the war took place. Since then I have been handed a couple of novels which are from soon after, being Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders" and Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones". I have to admit that the 'Moll' was familiar territory-ish after the TV series with Alex Kingston, at least as to plot, but I was delighted to find that the real book was full of detail and context which I 'knew' from the Civil War book, especially around the way real life was organised, how people lived and ran the communities, law enforcement and so on. I have similarly loved Tom Jones, all 870 close-printed, garrulous pages of it. I am worried that I am becoming interested in history as well as a tiny bit 'well read' (!) I will be annoying Liz with my silly, simplistic questions. Perhaps I need some of this 'coaching'.

Strike is over. We are back in the egg game.
We run gently in towards Christmas. We have negotiated a settlement with the hens and they have started to go back to work on the egg laying. Thanks are due to Mentor Anne for an interim rescue - a quick dozen of her 'proper' organic eggs including one of her lovely dark-brown shelled ones now coming from her new Copper Marans hens. That let Liz go back into Christmas baking without us having to buy any more supermarket eggs. I now have 3 chooks in lay and more soon, I am sure. The 'negotiation' was possibly Liz walking round threatening them with the stock pot. It worked anyway, what ever she said to them.

Home made marzipan.
I have been marzipan-ing the cake. We have done this for this year with home made marzipan. The chef hates the taste of almond essence but has no problem with actual almonds themselves. We end up trying to peel the marzipan off the cake and then the icing off the marzipan. Not this year, we hope. The cake now gets a few days drying before we throw some icing at it. I have a design in my head based around the sheep 'logo' I used on the dustbin, but readers will have to wait and see.

Possibly a bit bigger than we intended.
They always look smaller in the 'shop'.
We have also finally brought the tree indoors. It had been outside, wrapped and sitting in a bucket of water, we believe that this helps with the loss of needles at the '12th night' end of things. We bought the tree on Friday morning but Liz then shot off back to Silverwoods for another quick burst of 'sitting' ('babies', school runs, houses, poorly parent in hospital, that kind of thing). She came back on the Monday and we like to 'do the tree' together, so I got as far as bringing it indoors to 'relax' from being wrapped up with its branches squashed upwards against the trunk.

We decorated it today. It may be a little bigger than we intended (especially width-wise); they always look smaller in the big perspective of acres of tarmac and big supermarket architecture, but it is OK. We don't really do 'tasteful'; the only house rule is that only white fairy lights and silver tinsel can go on the tree, no other colours and that the plain glass baubles are only silver or red. After that it all goes a bit wild with toys, bows, owls and stuff which we have accumulated down the years; we make a point of each buying one new one each year from craft fairs or what ever so our decorating is slowed down by exclamations along the lines "Ahhh look! Here's the crawfish one from New Orleans" and appropriate reminiscences.

I was off to 'bee school' for the last session before Christmas yesterday. This was going to be a very promising lecture by one of the National Committee boys on 'The Honey Harvest'. I was looking forward to it. I had the usual hour's drive out to Longford in the rain. Frustratingly, it all went a bit pear shaped, as the guy did not show and we all sat around wondering what to do. It turned out that the man got his dates wrong and came down on Thursday 11th but then, finding nobody about, went home again without contacting any of our people, which struck me as particularly dim. Our man had e-mailed him to confirm dates but he happily brushed that off with a "Oh, I never read my emails". Thanks, mate. We were left having a general discussion for a half hour or so before we all split up and the speaker has promised to try again in the New Year.