Thursday, 29 April 2010

April Smallholding Update

The much needed rain has come. Finally, a chance to get some long overdue jobs done in the house, and take stock! We've been here for just over a month now, and neither Phil nor I can believe that so much has happened in such a short time. It's been continuously sunny for the past month, with a couple of overcast days thrown in, and we've been busy outside in the vegetable garden almost every day. Perhaps it's time for an update:

The Vegetable Garden: From humble beginnings, the fenced-off area now boasts 10 deep beds for vegetables - mostly potatoes and onions at this stage, but we've also planted out some broad beans, peas, parsnips, spinach, and beetroot seedlings. We're crossing our fingers and willing the experimental row of carrots to sprout, and have sown a hopeful row of broad beans between rows of potatoes. The rabbits have already shown interest, daintily destroying half of the parsnip seedlings overnight, and leaving their telltale droppings. The battle has commenced. We were afraid we might have to invest time and money in rabbit-proof fencing, and it looks like that might turn out to be the case - but for now we have had to be cunning, creating makeshift protection out of odd bits of mesh, fleece and corrugated plastic.

The Orchard: We have planted 5 apple trees of different varieties, as well as a damson tree. They are still very young (two years old?), so we'll have a bit of a wait before we can actually harvest any fruit, but it's a good start. We are still debating the pros and cons of planting the soft fruit bushes between the fruit trees - I saw it done like that on a forest gardening documentary and it looked like a great idea, but we're not sure whether or not we should just bunch the soft fruit together in cages so that we can protect them from the birds... There are some really old apple (and some as yet unknown) trees which were already here when we arrived - they looked gnarled and moss-eaten and completely dead until a few days ago when they exploded with blossom. Their yield shall decide their fates... :)

The Polytunnel: The sheer duration of the demonstration DVD should have served as a warning to us, but our optimism knew no bounds... What should have taken a day (or two at the most) has become an ongoing saga. There have been several setbacks in the way of missing parts, but that still doesn't justify such a lengthy project! The digger came in and flattened the area, then we found we needed to gouge out more space by hand. The water and electricity pipes were laid at the same time, and the trough connected - so now we have water in the vegetable garden at least. The hoops have been screwed together and painted (so as not to absorb too much heat), and the hot-spot tape has been stuck on... Slightly prematurely... And now, finally, all the hoops are up, the crop bars have been attached - it looks like the skeleton of a giant metal beast who laid down to die amongst the freshly dug graves. Yes, deep beds look like graves. Which is ironic, given that from them life flows. It reminds me of when I was in Guanajuato, in Mexico, and we were walking up to the Mummy Museum when we stopped at a shop which sold both coffins and fresh vegetables. Clever, I thought to myself, they've got something for everyone, whether living or dead.

The Water Situation: We've got two options for water - the first is the borehole, which goes down about 300 feet and is serviced by a pump. This is the water which comes out of our taps in the houses, and it gives off a smell of sulphur and upon testing was found to contain rather high quantities of manganese. It is alkaline. Hmm. The second is the stream, which would need a good slow sand filter to purify it if you wanted it for drinking water, and due to its course through peaty valleys, it is acid. The seedlings we have been raising in my mum's house have started going yellow, perhaps due to being too alkaline, so we've had to start mixing the two waters to get more of a balance in pH. So far so good, but thank goodness it's raining, because all that carrying is hard work!

My dad just discovered that I am writing this, so has emailed me over a couple of pics (thanks Da'!)... Here's one of the men looking very proud of themselves after the first hoop went up:

And here's one of the women in action - preparing the bed for the beetroot seedlings. You can see the broad beans and peas to the left, and the dead area to the right is where the rabbits found the parsnips:

Wild Food: It turns out that we have some really pernicious weeds in the garden, and it just so happens that some of them are edible. I'm planning on cooking with ground elder for the first time, and the young nettles are looking radiantly healthy too. I have enjoyed nettle soups in the past (the trick being to use a handful of oats in with the nettle leaves - that way they don't tickle as they go down your throat!), but my dad has often spoken of nettle beer (only very mildly alcoholic) so I'm hoping to give that a go too. The bushes and trees around us are springing to life, so it's a really exciting time - in the next few months we'll find out exactly what the fields and hedges have to offer! Who knows, maybe there will be some elder trees, hazelnuts, wild damsons and blackberries, not to mention horse mushrooms, hedge garlic, and fish in the river!

Exciting times! :)

Friday, 16 April 2010

Jamaican Crunch Pie

Spent a good part of the day composing a very elaborate letter of complaint to Aviva Insurance regarding horrible mishandling of my car insurance. Stressful and beyond tedious.

So after going into town to get some plumbing bits for the polytunnel's water connection (a small plastic bag half full of plastic pipey bits cost over 70 quid!!!) and a quick stop for some essentials in Somerfield, I made a bloody lovely Jamaican Crunch Pie just like my momma used to make. (A fairly vague recipe can be found here, but I followed a recipe in a rather well-loved and ancient-looking copy of the 'Good Housekeeping Family Library: Family Cookery' book. Thanks mum!)

There was enough creamy topping to make a little baby one (though I was tempted to just scrape the bowl out and say no more about it), and they're both now chilling in the fridge. We can eat them tomorrow! Horray!

I don't know if the blogging is going to be all about food from now on (pregnancy does funny things to one's appetite!), but for anyone interested, the goats' cheese was absolutely lovely. It was a little less goaty than one might imagine, and quite subtle (so next time I might add some fresh herbs such as chives), but I was well pleased. Even Phil admitted that it was a success.


Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Yogurt and Goats' Cheese

This morning I felt like I ought to get back into the habit of yogurt making - it's so quick and easy, as well as cheap. Two pints of organic whole milk cost about £1, so you get a pint of yogurt for about 50p (plus a bit for the gas to heat it!) as opposed to the £1.50 or so you'd pay in the shop. Living next door to my mum (who taught me the simple art of yogurt-making and bought me my yogurt thermometer) means that we can each take it in turns to make it - it's no extra trouble to make twice as much and pour it into two separate containers than to make just enough for one.

It's so simple (though you must be careful to wash and rinse everything first to keep a good level of hygiene) - pour your two litres of organic whole milk into a pan along with a milk saver (so you can hear when it reaches simmering-point), heat until it simmers, then remove from heat. Put your yogurt thermometer in with the milk, and wait until the temperature has dropped enough (between 43-49 degrees C). Then put your starter (a teaspoonful of live yogurt) into an insulated container, thoroughly mix in a tablespoon of the warm milk, then stir in the remainder of the warm milk. Put the lid on the insulated container and leave for 8 hours or so - that's it!

The goats' cheese was a new experience for me. A week or so ago, Phil insisted that we buy a litre of organic goats milk (so that he could try out making some cheese), and it's just sat there in the fridge making us both feel a bit wasteful and guilty. So I asked if he didn't mind me using it, now that it was almost out of date, and he readily agreed.

I had a look in our new Cheese Making book (bought as a Christmas present for all four of us on the smallholding, in the hope that it might be useful as some kind of a textbook) and couldn't find a recipe which simply required goats' milk and lemon juice - the book wants you to buy some sort of cheese starter for everything (first fail right there), so I did a quick Google search. I came up with this - English is definitely not a first language for the author of this site (judging by the references to the "Diary Goat") but the milk and lemon juice recipe was there. You heat the milk until it simmers, add some salt (and any herbs you fancy), take it off the heat and gently mix in some lemon juice (half a lemon for a litre of milk) so that the curds separate from the whey, then pour the mixture into some cheese-cloth (lovingly draped over a colander) and drain. Then you can bunch it up in the cloth and squeeze - makes for a deeply satisfying sensation! The book might have come up trumps with its note regarding being gentle with your goats' milk - if you pour from a height or stir too violently it will end up tasting goatier than ever - uh oh!

Hmm, I shall be reporting back on how the cheese turned out - though it doesn't look like there's going to be very much of it after all that... I must apologise for not having any photos lately. I think what been happening is I've been getting really involved with the things I/we've been doing, and completely forget to take any before or after pics... I shall work on it! :)

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Feels like Summer!

What an amazing day - an example of how the warming presence of a full-bodied sun can really make a huge difference to everything... My day started with an early awakening as the sun crashed blindingly through the skylight and burned holes in my eyelids. I washed quickly and put on my new (charity shop) dress, which made the day feel special from the very beginning, then took my tea and muesli outside onto the patio. It was warm enough to sit in short sleeves! :)

I raked all the leaves off the lawn and revealed the huge horse-hoof holes beneath. Hmm, at least the grass will get some light now, and some air, but I will have to get around to filling in the holes if I don't want any twisted ankles in the near future. The tonne bag of leaves started off our leaf compost project - we plan on composting as many leaves as possible annually so that within 3 years or so we'll have our own seed compost.

I spoke with BT and ordered our phone connection. Apparently these days you have no option but to sign up to a 12 month contract :( The actual connection will take place next Tuesday - much later than the 24-48 hours which had been promised in earlier conversations, but the Scottish BT call centre guy assured me that "never in all creation has it been 48 hours, let alone 24 - it's a three day turnaround" which made me snigger, despite feeling somewhat annoyed. As if BT had been around since the very beginning of time.

Feels so good to be working outside, as well as being able to relax in the sun. We were prevented from sitting outside while we lived in our previous house, as the neighbour had a horribly aggressive dog which would launch a snarling attack every time we tried to walk to the end of our garden. It's been two, almost three years of being confined to the house (or brief forays into the park) on sunny days, so you can imagine how heavenly it is to finally have the chance to enjoy being outside in our own, private space! :) We've been busy digging and weeding beds in the vegetable garden too, there's plenty (read: mountains) of work to be done down there if we are to be able to plant out the seedlings we have grown, and sow the seeds we are itching to get in the ground, but many hands make light work.

I have caught myself searching the recesses of my mind for something stressful - until Ember ended I was so used to there being great threatening shadows of deadlines and stressful tasks at the back of my brain that it seems like a dream to search and not find anything of the kind... Phil says he's found himself doing the same thing, thinking "what am I supposed to have done/be doing?" and then realising (with surprise) that those things have gone now, we can chose what to do day by day. There is so much to be done, but we have the rest of our lives ahead of us in which to do it all. That's the idea, anyway! :)