Saturday 29 September 2018

Farewell to the Help-X

Teamwork. Sonja and Asbjörn help Elizabeth laying weed proof
membrane across the big flower bed.
This post brings us to the end of the current fortnight of Help-X and our hosting of Sonja and Asbjörn. They are up. packed and breakfasted, and Elizabeth has just now set off with them and their huge hiker back-packs for Castlerea station. They are off up to Dublin to spend a few days relaxing and touristing before heading for the airport on Tuesday for their flights home (Berlin and Frankfurt). They have been great and we will miss them a lot, but more on that story later.

Jean with Molly and the new pup.
I am sorry to bring sad news, but we heard this week that our UK friend Jean had to say goodbye to our own #1 bitch Deefer's birth Mother, Molly, who would have been 14 years or so old, a good age for a Westie. Jean is widow of my very good friend and closest colleague, Steve, who is also no longer with us and much missed. Steve and Jean bred 3 pups, Deefer, Ellie-Bez (still with us) and Archie (RIP).

Deefer's birth Mum, Molly.
All their dogs were named after characters in the Scottish TV series "Monarch of the Glen" (remember "Och, Don't be silly, Molly, 'Tis only Golly the Ghillie!" ???). I still love to hear from Jean occasionally with news of the dogs. She is carrying on the Westie tradition with a new pup recently purchased. Her dogs always look pristine, clean and white compared to our poo-encrusted farm mutts! Good luck, Jean.

Lucifer planted down the fence.
So the Help-X-ers served out their time and have now departed. They were good hard workers and got stuff done way and above the call of duty, often working well into the afternoon. The unwritten "contract" such as it is, says you feed and house them for about 24 hours work a week.

A small mountain of thistles.
In the last few days of the stay they helped lay the membrane across that flower bed, they divided a huge clump of Crocosmia 'Lucifer' and planted chunks all down the driveway fence and pulled/dug a gazillion thistles out of the East Field. They cleared a pile of fallen, rotting wood (optimistically called the "Habitat Pile") from the woods and piled it on an ever growing bonfire heap. They mowed the orchard and down the pig 'race' and created a dog-proof "kerb" from concrete blocks under the pig gate. There was no stopping them - they hated to leave a job unfinished. On their last day (Friday) we give them free choice of the jobs on the "to do" list, but they still chose mowing and thistling. The Lady of the House had to nip out for more petrol for the mower.

German style apple cake with a nutty base layer and the set-but
-creamy custard 'roof'
They have proved very useful in the kitchen, they took over the table laying task and were quick to clear away and fill/empty the dish washer as soon as a meal finished. They also did more cooking. Sonja is a dab hand at the sweets, and created a superb German style apple cake. We have also been enjoying Elizabeth's more impressive end of the repertoire. The 'unlucky'*** rooster became a delicious pot roast (and then a pasta sauce) and the 'Last Supper' for these guests show-cased traditional "Dublin Coddle" and an Elizabeth David choc-mousse (just eggs and chocolate!).

*** That rooster. He was the white one who featured as 'lucky' in my 4th Sept post; he'd been saved from the usual fate of spare roosters by archery friends Con and Niamh needing a replacement bird after a fox strike. However, the month of pig-harvest and other busy-ness went by and C+N did not get round to building their bigger, stronger, more fox proof chicken run, so they decided not to take him after all.

In the pot he went then and deliciously tender he was. He was this year hatch, so would only have been 6 months old. He was, anyway, another in that fine Feigh tradition of our never being able to breed FEMALE white birds. 6 years we have been at the 'Sussex' chickens and the law of averages has still not delivered any hens. Every white chick we have ever hatched turns into a rooster. We have three little (white) half-grown newly feathered chicks out there at the moment and even they have been seen squaring up to one another in that baby-rooster, play-fighting way they have  so all our money is on them being roo's too!

Tom hanging in the shed.
'(Un)Lucky' was joined this morning on the chopping block by the Turkey-Tom. I have posted before about him starting to attack me and getting himself a verbal warning. Yesterday I went out to check on progress by the mowing Help-X crew and he started doing the karate kicks in the orchard. I'm a bit breathless at the minute, and Sonja had to fend him off with a broken rake handle while I made good my escape. He was definitely playing a dangerous game. The next part of this story is also ME playing a dangerous game and for the first stupid time, pushing my luck well outside of the Doctor's "Take it Easy" advice. Silly, reckless me. (I have been properly told off). Read on.

So I was letting all the birds out this morning, on my own, with everyone else still in bed, when the turkey put in his most determined attack yet and chased me, fending him off with the feed bucket, into the Tígín. I was safe enough but cornered, so I decided if I was going to off him, then it might as well be now. I grabbed a big plastic dog bed and dropped it over him upside down, pinning him down. I reached in and grabbed his legs, swung him out, grabbed the wood axe with my other hand and brought the edge of it down on his neck. Bye bye turkey BUT he is about 8 kg and the axe is a good weight so I was way outside 'light duties' and was suddenly coughing enough to nearly be sick. I was in real trouble for a while there and had to sit down a bit smart-ish to get my breath back. There was no way I could lift the bird up to tie twine round his legs and hang him up to bleed out, but at that point Sonja heard me struggling for breath and came down to see if I needed help. Lesson well learned, Readers. Apologies. It will not happen again.

Once the guests are gone, it does not take long
for the dogs and cats to take back over "their"
Enough drama for this post, I guess. It's all nice and quiet here now (except for the "weeping") female turkey who is wondering where her boyfriend went. The females make a repeated 'Pew-pew-pew' noise which we are, of course, now blaming on her grief. We hope she will get over it. Turkeys form a very close pair-bond and we have experience in the past of a 'tom' pining away when he lost his hen to a fox. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Ready for the Membrane

Sure sign of Autumn - the porridge!
As I type this it is still quite early (7 a.m.) and I am the only one awake. Don't worry - it is not another of those 'woken-up-by-coughing' nights - I slept like a baby and I am 'sleeped' out and well rested. As the Autumn starts to bite, these mornings are increasingly dark and gloomy, so I need to crank the livestock release/feed round back from 8 o'clock, or the fox will still be about when the birds come bursting from their houses all full of the joys.

Asbjörn and Sonja supervise the incinerator watched by the
ever present turkey, 'Tom' 
Sheer hard work by many people over the last few months has finally brought our big raised flower bed to a state of well dug over-ness and levelled out-ness where Elizabeth has declared it fit to have its weed proof membrane cover fitted. This is her baby, her decision and she very much wants to be there for this job, but today is Day 5 (of 5) of her hard land-scaping course which will go on to at least lunchtime. We therefore decided to give everyone a late start and lie in and we will do the Help-X hours in the afternoon, so that everyone can play.

Pruning and re-weaving the arbour over the 'Darby and Joan'
It has been a marathon job to get this far. The bed is about 16 m long by 10 m at its widest  and is quite clay-ey, being the spoil from the big pond with subsequent compost mulch layers added over the years. It can be heavy work to dig if it gets wet. We were going to do all this digging in Summer when the soil is more manageable. We used Help-X-ers Emma and Flora to clear it but then I got sick and our August Help-X blew us out, so the dig over was down to Elizabeth helped by 'Sparks'.

More Help-X product. 6 huge bags of
As the wet season started we looked on in increasing despair thinking we'd missed the boat and would have to wait till Spring. But then, as Asbjörn and Sonja rocked up and proved very capable, it also stopped raining and the ground started to dry out. I asked them to give it a go at just an hour a day. On this basis, skimming lumps off with a shovel, moving soil with wheel barrows from peaks to troughs, and with much cloddy raking, they have prevailed and we are delighted to be able to get the membrane down THIS year. Even if we do not plant anything through it, that is a huge landmark and consolidation.Well done A and S.

A lovely full moon and a bit of mackerel-sky for the equinox.
The week, though, has not been all about the raised bed (Thank Heavens!). Asbjörn and Sonja have been everywhere and doing every kind of job all with the same keenness, enthusiasm and application. In the last post, they were just off to their weekend trip to Sligo to find their friends and the Celtic arts festival. I collected them back on the Saturday afternoon, we fed them pork chops, and that was the only time they wanted off.

From the UK arrives a new pig-sign, OSB for 'Oxford Sandy
and Black', of course.
A popular job was burning all the prunings from the raised bed shrubs, plus the brambles from the East Field plus some more recent rose bits (The Rambling Rector had been getting a bit up close and personal with the poly tunnel canopy!), in our dustbin style incinerator. I like this job and can get quite 'Zen' tipping away, cutting the prunings into short lengths and dropping them in, trying to keep a good fire going, and Asbjörn is obviously the same. Sonja had done her 4 hours or so of helping, but A went out again after lunch and stuck at it, even through light rain, till 6 pm - 8 hours of lonely Zenning (well, lonely except for the ever-present Turkey-Tom). Between them they cleared the whole pile - very useful.

Cheese and Dillisk Biscuits.
While Asbjörn worked away, the catering department had gone into full swing and the night's feast was to be a Madhur Jaffrey inspired feast of creamy turkey 'curry' with side dishes of potato and cauliflower and of "dry okra" plus a good range of yogurt-with-cucumber and tomato salsa style coolants for those who found the spuds a bit fiery.

Black Spring's Nan's pork hock under construction.
Dessert was a trad sticky toffee pudding (with extra sauce in a jug!), to the delight of Sonja. The following days saw some cheese and dillisk biscuits (dillisk (dulce) is an edible seaweed) and the family favourite recipe "Black Spring's Nan's pork hock", a gorgeous Chinese slow-simmer. The meat from the hock gets served with steamed shredded cabbage (or pak choi if you can get it) and noodles. The left over sauce sets like a jelly and can be eaten that way as a "cold soup".

New neighbours - this suckler herd. Sometimes the calves even
stay on THEIR side of the fence!
Other jobs done by the Help-X-ers have included pruning and re-weaving the living willow 'arbour' over our 'Darby and Joan' chairs on the far side of he pond plus moving some of our kitchen extension rubble down to fill gaps under the fence at the north end of the East Field.

Daily job. Re-salting the 'Parma' ham legs
Here the sheep wire is nice and tight between the posts and stapled to the very bottom of each post, but in places the ground dips between the posts and foxes (and little white dogs) can slip under. We have a pile of rubble that needs a 'home', so 2 fit wheel-barrowers are just the ticket. They have also gathered up the dog-end of a stack of split firewood from the far corner of the yard, and barrowed it all up to the wood store just outside the kitchen door.

In other news, I am taking another turn as curator of the UK version of the small holders' Twitter account (@smallholdersUK). I am the voice of Brit smallholding from last Sunday evening round till this one coming. These accounts work on the basis of the followers hearing from a different smallholder each week, which keeps it nice and varied. Our Irish one is currently parked up for lack of volunteers - it ran out of steam after a couple of years, but the UK has a bigger catchment and is still going strong. It is not restricted to people who do their small holding in the UK.

Towser rolled in goose-poo and attracted some unwelcome
attention from Sonja.
That is about it, I guess. I will post again on Friday which will be the last working day for these Help-X volunteers. They are back off to Dublin on Saturday, ready for their flights home on Tuesday. We will miss them. They have been great.
Luck ran out for the 'lucky' rooster. Ah well.

Friday 21 September 2018

Too Many Cooks?

These yellow pokers are flowering away despite the weather
and despite sitting in a 'rescue' bucket awaiting a new
proper position. 
I am just back indoors from dropping our current Help-X couple, Sonja and Asbjörn, to the bus-stop in Ballaghaderreen, for their bus to Sligo. They have earned a weekend off and there is some flavour of "Celtic" music/arts festival on where they will meet up with fellow Help-X-ers who they know from New Zealand and Iceland. They get about, these volunteers! They are away just the one night, then back with us for next week, but off to Dublin ready for Tuesday flights home to, variously, Frankfurt and Berlin.

Bramley tree temporarily propped back
upright after it was lent over by the wind.
They have proved to be brilliant and helpful hard workers, and worked way over the hours we would expect. Every day they have gone back out after lunch and carried on because they "just want to finish this last....." This even with the skirts of Storm Ali blustering slowly through so that on some days they were restricted to under-cover jobs, mucking out bird houses, clearing the poly-tunnel and splitting up kindling in the car port.

Pigs' ears and tails become dog treats.
They have achieved so much and we are delighted with them - it has quite restored our faith in Help-X after that French lad upsettingly blew us out for the whole of August. We have that mountain of kindling sacks, a clear poly-tunnel and 2 full buckets of (volunteer) spuds out of it. The geese and chickens do not know themselves for the pristine state of their houses and the new bedding. The five railway sleeper beds are either cleared or weeded and one has been top dressed with the goose muck.

Starting to prune the living willow tunnel.
Asbjörn helped Elizabeth on a mission to buy feed sacks. When Storm Ali bent a couple of trees over and knocked down all our apples and pears (fruit, not trees!), the volunteers were on hand to stand the trees back up and prop them with old fence posts, pending me being able to buy proper tree stakes and ties.

We were not quite so successful on the rescue of windfall apples, especially of the soft-ish 'James Grieves' which we had intended for frozen purée. By the time we got out there the orchard was full of rather smug looking hens and the ground was clean of all apples! We were reduced to picking what was left off the trees. Most recently we have had S+A pruning and tidying up the living willow tunnel which now puts on metres of growth each year as it tries to achieve 'willow trees' status.

Bread and carrot cake by Sonja.
When not working in the garden, they have shown as very keen to take over the kitchen and cook stuff. Sonja started this off with 2 loaves of bread and 2 carrot cakes. Asbjörn wanted to cook our Thursday supper of a very rich beef in Guinness with a topping of "scones" (not quite the same as a British dumpling or 'cobbler'; a German variant, I guess.

2 left over quarters of that beef in ale topped with scones
The beef-in-ale was made with one of the new 'retro' Guinness types, called "Foreign Extra Stout". At 6.5% this would be stronger than anything I'd choose in a pub, but gave the stew a beautifully rich flavour. The scones were actually made by Sonja, they cook in the steam rising from the stew. There was a lovely Waldorf on the side.

Just for a laugh, and because Asbjörn's most distinctive feature is his magnificent ginger beard, the shoppers had to buy a bottle of an alcoholic ginger beer by an English brewer (Wychwood, of 'Hobgoblin' fame).This beer is called Ginger Beard and the label features, as you'd expect, a man with a ginger beard. It was a good laugh but perhaps not the ideal accompaniment to the beef in ale. It was rather sweet and very gingery, more like a kiddie's 'alco-pop' and the ginger flavour conflicted with the stew's deliciousness. The real 'Hobgoblin' would have been a better choice but hey....

German style carrot-cake. 
Our kitchen is rather small, even though now extended to twice the bought size so by the time we had Asbjörn in there stewing, Sonja scone-ing and the Woman of the House still trying to nail that days lunch and that night's (stir fry) supper, it was getting very busy and there was a fine dance going on for space, movement and available time slots on the oven. Luckily not a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Everything worked and was cooked to perfection and at the correct times.

Dry cure salt/sugar mix for pork legs. This mix included cloves,
chillies, garlic, thyme, star anise, coriander seeds and cumin
seeds, cloves and black peppercorns.
I had steered clear during the busy times (4 cooks in there might have been pushing it!) and my main 'cooking' job, applying the dry cure mix to the 'Parma ham' style legs of pork, could be done out in the Utility room where sits the fridge which will protect the legs during the 21 days of dry cure.

All you need for a game of Ten Thousand. 
We have also been enjoying the company of Asbjörn and Sonja during the evenings, when we have been invited to sit down with them for a few games of the dice-rolling, bidding game I described in the last post, "Ten Thousand". We have now got quite used to the intricate rules and scoring system and I can report that last night, with Elizabeth off at her evening class on furniture restoration, I won all three games handsomely. I was on fire for some reason, and neither of the visitors could make any points score 'stick'. All good clean fun.

Hey ho. Well, as I said, the pair are now off to Sligo for some R+R and, as I type this, I am just waiting for the boss to return from her 'Hard Landscaping' course, so that I can go have a lie down. It's bushed, I am.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Sonja and Asbjörn

Happy Birthday Deefer, 12 years old on Monday. She's only 7
in this 'memory' picture dredged up by Facebook. Many more years
old lass.
Welcome aboard, then, our 2 latest Help-X volunteers, a German couple in their early 30s, Sonja and Asbjörn, much travelled back-packers with experience of Help-X-ing in Iceland and New Zealand as well as closer to home. He a trained chef and she a pastry chef. Very welcome, in fact, after we'd thought that Help-X was all done with the August blow-out French lad. These two are excellent, capable, workers as well as happy, friendly and relaxed - easy company and a joy to host.

Sonja clears an old spent strawberry bed.
I collected them at 7 pm from the bus stop in Castlerea. Dead easy to find, of course. Castlerea bus stop does not have that many young back packers getting off buses at 7 o'clock on Saturday and I already knew my man (Asbjörn) sported a magnificent gingery beard from their Help-X website "advert". They had been hiking and back packing around and were looking forward to some days based at a single place, where they did not have to pack everything, tent included, each morning and move on.

Asbjörn bones out a pork leg.
We fed them a soup and cold buffet supper and told them tomorrow (Sunday) was a rest day, so they were not to set any alarms or come down stairs suited and booted at silly o'clock. Monday was also going to be a bit weird but time enough to start proper routine work on the Tuesday. Elizabeth and I were off to Sligo on the Monday for me to have another chest X-ray, then dropping down to the pork butcher (Webb's) in Castlerea to collect our pig carcasses. So I showed Sonja the 'livestock rounds' on the Sunday, so that we could leave at 08:30 with the birds safe from Brer Fox, and the Help-X-ers could get up at their leisure and feed and release the birds.

A car full of pig
These guys are both trained cooks but had not, before, had to deal with a whole pig carcass. Sonja was not keen, and opted to go to work in the kitchen garden, clearing an old strawberry bed and weeding a newer one, but Asbjörn fancied a try at the butchery which is way 'upstream' from his normal experience. Brilliant for me, still on 'light duties', and good for the Lady of the House too, as this freed her up to onward process the heads, hearts, livers, tails, ears and so on into excellent brawns, patés, dog-treats and there was even talk of brains soaking in milk (I avert my eyes at that level of offal).

Splitting a pig head for the brawn.
With me 'training' him and his dexterity with knives and the bone saw, we soon had each half carcass reduced to lumps that he would be familiar with, and then there was no stopping him 'running with it' into areas we have not yet explored here. He was soon boning out the 'H' bones (pelvic bits) at the top of my 'Parma' ham legs, completely boning out other legs, rolling and tying them, extracting good looking boneless pork 'steaks' from the shoulder meat and so on. A master-class in food prep. I was just able to take it easy bagging and labelling the cuts for the freezer. I just need to salt down my 'Parma' ham legs and we are all done, all safely gathered in.

Boned, rolled and tied leg.
As I said, while we all played 'pig' indoors, Sonja was working her way down the 5 big 8 x 4 foot railway sleeper beds to brilliant effect, weeding, clearing old, spent, strawberry plants, cropping where appropriate (carrots, spuds, broad-beans-for-seed), teasing out the few volunteer spuds from among the new asparagus "spiders" - a delicate job because of the shallow, horizontal roots on those bad boys.

Cheek meat
Into work proper on the Tuesday and Sonja and Asbjörn prove to be those kind of workers who get stuck in, don't really want to stop for coffee and then carry on after lunch "just to finish off this....." We are delighted. They clean all the pig-poo out of the trailer, and clean the big 1010 litre water butt (IBC) inside and out. Asbjörn then starts chopping a big heap of fencing pales into kindling, while Sonja starts clearing the poly tunnel of volunteer spuds and an enormous fennel plant. The spuds prove to be quite a significant crop with some enormous ones - 600 grammes plus.

600+ gramme spuds. Volunteers from the tunnel.
Other than the work, the couple have settled in well and are much enjoying our food and hospitality. They are proving to be very helpful about the place. They have also introduced us to a fun, 6-dice counting game belovéd of back packers (because the whole game only weighs six dice!), called 'TenThousand'. The scoring rules are good and complicated and the skill is in 'gambling' whether to 'bank' your points or risk rolling some dice again and losing those points. Entertaining.

So, as I write this it is only 10:30 a.m. and I am hunkered down indoors waiting for the worst teeth of Storm Ali to blast their way through. Not the worst ever storm we have had here but plenty of bluster in the trees and some 'apocalyptic' rain squalls. I had delayed letting the birds all out and even held the dogs in for a while, lest they get soaked.

Further down in the 'midlands' the biggest agricultural show in the Universe (The Ploughing Championships 2018) is due to start today but it is, like a lot of these shows, really a massive city of tents, gazebos, marquees and other guy-roped canvas. The organisers have taken advice from Met Éireann and postponed the start while the wind dies down (this morning) lest they garrote or bury anyone under airborne tent-age.

Ah well. Enough for this one. Good luck surviving Storm Ali.

Friday 14 September 2018

All Quiet

All quiet now that the pigs are gone.
We are enjoying a quiet few days between the departure of The Dans and the arrival of the next Help-X volunteers. It is extra quiet here at the moment because we have now finished the pigs - a euphemism for taking them on their final journey (which is , itself, a euphemism for taking them to slaughter). It is not that they are especially noisy with squealing for food or craving attention. It is the very bass-y grunts they chunter out as they move about. The noise carries right across the garden so, no matter where you are, you'd know there were pigs close by.

The ark. Redundant now till next year?
The pigs were booked in for early Wednesday. We knew we could load the pigs into the trailer with no problem - these pigs were trained and would sprint up the race for their breakfast. We could snick the door shut on them before they'd hoovered up the tempting fruit.

However, in my current, weakened state, I was not at all sure we could push the loaded trailer, with its 180 kg piggy payload across the dippy grass to the hard standing where stood the car. Step forward our good friends Suzy and Rob who volunteered to donate their early morning muscle; they are easily our closest 'barter' partners when it comes to man hours of help. They were headed on to Castlerea afterwards, so they also opted to come to the butcher's and help us unload the animals, after which we'd adjourn to Benny's Deli for a coffee and croissant breakfast.

Blue among the hops.
That was the pigs "finished". The carcasses now sit in the butcher's cold store round to Monday while the meat sets. We collect them around mid-day Monday and have an afternoon armed with the bone-saw, knives and cleaver, breaking them down into kitchen-friendly chunks. By then, we should have the new Help-X volunteers with us (Sonja and Asbjörn), both chefs of a sort, so I am fascinated to see if they want to get involved or whether butchery is too far "up stream".

Work boots.
For the next few weeks, Elizabeth is calling Thursday her 'busy day'. Regular readers will know that she is currently on a once-a-week, year+ long Horticultural course which absorbs every Thursday.

Red Admiral.
For these few weeks, this has become a Thursday AND Friday outdoor module on Hard Landscaping. A gang of them are out by the church at Ballinlough finding out all about digging foundations, creating hard paths, building planters, erecting an arbour, doing stone-work and even learning about re-pointing walls with lime mortar.

On with the work-boots then, tough gloves and at least have your wet weather gear in the car. Elizabeth also needed a hi-viz jacket, so she grabbed one that had been hanging in the shed for who knows how long. She did not pay too much attention, but this one had my name and the name of "Exel" (logistics) on the front panel but "PROJECT MANAGER" writ large across the shoulders. This drew a fair amount of friendly flak and banter from the rest of the 'students' - "Come on then, YOU're the Project do we do this?"

Lupins doing well in the nursery.
Then, as if she'd not done enough physical stuff for that day, she signed up for evening classes on furniture restoration starting last night. I couldn't go to this one as she had to be there early to help set up and the birds here would not yet have gone to bed yet, but from the report back it sounds a fascinating course. Elizabeth had taken 3 pages of notes on tools and techniques and is now looking hungrily at a pair of old favourite blue chairs we have in the Sitting Room. Watch this space.... I sense a 'project' in the making.

Very slow cropping but tasty.
That's about it for this one.. I will just do a quick meander through a few other pictures. By the time I next post, we should have the Help-X couple on board and the pork in the freezer.

The 'Summer' 'Parma-style ham is only fit for the stock pot now.
Blackberries were a bit variable this year due to the drought.
We have not (yet) been out picking.