Wednesday 31 March 2010

Basket-making, Wind- damaged Daffodils, Australian Ginger Beer, Simnel Cake

Yesterday we had a basketry course held here on the farm. Last summer I spent time trying to teach myself how to make baskets with  reasonable success, but I really needed someone to show me how to do the thing properly, so when I met J., a professional basket-maker and basketry teacher, at a  local Transition Group meeting,(, it seemed the ideal opportunity to ask her do a short one day course. We offered the use of one of our sheds as a venue and a small of group of us spent yesterday in a very cold & damp shed with bundles of willow and sharp secateurs and made some rather good baskets, not perfect but attractive and useful.
I love making baskets. Once the willows, which come in lovely colours, are sufficiently well soaked to become pliable it is very satisfying to make practical items using a ancient skill. Even my first attempts, which are to say the least pretty 'rustic' looking, are useful. The Farmer uses them for collecting potatoes and currants and gooseberries and I keep my clothes-pegs in one of the smaller ones.
Of course one does not need to use just willow; I've used cotoneaster & ivy and I've been given some wonderful red dogwood wands which I'm looking forward to using.

Both the Farmer & I are very interested in tradtional rural crafts. The Farmer has made most of our furniture from wood harvested on the farm and we try to encourage the making of things as much as we can with visitors to the farm.
One of the favourite items with visiting school parties is when the Farmer demonstrates spinning sheep's wool with a drop spindle and explains how a sheep's fleece becomes a pullover. To see the children make the connection between sheep & clothes is encouraging, though of course most of them will be wearing synthetic fabrics. However, the explainations and demonstrations may make them think about natural fibres just as the tour of the farm makes them think about real food.

The weather today is quite hideous. March has lived up to the old saying this year with a came in like a lamb so beautifully but is certainly roaring its way out.
 I don't think I've ever picked daffodils in falling snow before. So many of my lovely golden host were dreadfully battered by the strong winds last night that I've brought them into the house rather have to look at them laying flattened on the garden.
I was going to put 'Battered daffodils' into the title of this posting but then realised that it might look as though I had a recipe for deep-fried daffs!

I do have recipe that I must try which was sent to me by a friend in Australia, for Ginger Beer.

Queensland Ginger Beer
8 sultanas
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tspn. lemon pulp
4 tspns. sugar
2 tspns. ground ginger
1 pint cold water

Put all the ingredients into a screw-top jar for 2-3 days while it starts to ferment.
For 7 days add 2 tspns. ground ginger and 4 tspns. sugar.

2 pints boiling water
Juice of 4 lemons
14 pints cold water
800g. sugar

Pour the boiling water over the sugar to dissolve it, add the lemon juice.
Strain onto the plant through a muslin, squeeze the cloth dry.
Add the cold water.
Bottle and keep for 3 days before drinking.
It is mildly alcoholic.
I think the making of this tipple is to be kept for long summer days such as we dream of at the moment.

I have spent the morning making Simnel Cake, rather late for it to have time to mature, but nonetheless with its lovely sticky marzipan in the middle it will be delicious and with my family's passion for fruit cake it will not last long once Easter comes.
I have a lot of baking to do over the next few days as I have all the family coming on Easter Monday. We will be about 14 for lunch I think. I do hope the weather has improved by then.

Friday 26 March 2010

Mid-Wales Holiday, Good books, Quad Bikes or Ponies

Well, the Farmer & I are back from our short sojourn in mid-Wales and lovely it was too. We were staying in a delightfully converted 17th century barn in a narrow valley near Llanidloes.( This photograph was taken half-way up the steep hillside that we looked out on to. We climbed up to the top on Tuesday and walked across the summit and then down and round to the bottom of the valley again. The intention had been that we then had lunch in the pub in the village, but as luck would have it Tuesday is the one day of the week that the pub doesn't open! So we continued our walk the 11/2 miles back to cottage and had a cheese sandwich, oh and of course, fruit cake! The rest of the day was spent recovering and working through the library of books that we had with us.
(Highly recommended; 'The Matchmaker of Perigord'  and 'Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo', both by Julia Stuart. Funny and whimsical with streaks of pathos and quite absorbing.)
On Wednesday we drove over to visit our friends H. & G. near Ludlow before they flew out to New Zealand on Thursday to visit their son who is out there working withYounger Son. They will see YS and give him messages from home. We then went on to have lunch in the lovely little Marcher town of Montgomery which we had never visited before. It is a gem and has the most superb castle with views such as are rarely seen.

Mid-Wales was looking beautiful though spring seemed even further behind than here. There were lambs everywhere and our cottage was surrounded by sheep and farmers on quad bikes checking them constantly. From the top of the hill we had a splendid view of the farmers working on the hillsides below us. The stability of a quad bike is amazing, they will go on the worst slopes without any problem. Presumably in the past little rough hill ponies were used for the same purpose, though they cannot haul a trailer of feed behind them, so the sheep were not fed out on the hill as they are now.  Once or twice have I seen farmers on ponies rounding up their sheep on the open hills above Tregaron but I think it is rare sight now.

We came home today rather hurriedly as I had guests due to arrive in the holiday cottage this evening, only to find that they had cancelled this morning, due to a tummy bug. Poor them.

Elder Son & KT have held the fort while we were away with their usual efficiency and everything is now back to normal with the Farmer out in his workshop sanding the new bookcases I think ( I hope). There is certainly a horrible whistling noise coming from that direction which usually indicates some major power tools being in use.

I am going now to sort out laundry and then will go to get the firewood supply replenished for the house and try to warm it up after its four days of chill. After that I will take the dogs off to check the gardens and the progress of the daffs.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Spring Birdsong, Holiday Half-Pound Cake Recipe

A beautiful spring morning after a couple of grey wet days.
We needed the rain, especially after having put the muck out and already the fields are have a flush of green about them.
The birds are singing away and the resident population of hedge sparrows are squabbling in their usual cheerful manner in the garden. They provide a constant background chorus to the farm activities from now on and they are fun to watch especially when the ground is very dry and they take dust-baths just outside our kitchen window. The blackbirds are beginning their courting trills and there are wood-pigeons with their velvety cooing sitting in the ash tree in the garden.

The sheep have been moved to fields further away from the main farm and I walked the dogs this morning the bleating of the lambs was echoing across the valley through the early morning Sunday silence. We have still got one or two ewes to lamb and they are being kept down here on the yard until they have produced and then they can go out to the fresh grass with the rest of the flock.

The Farmer and I are going away tomorrow for just four days brief holiday. We have not had any time away for about 18 months and now that Elder Son & KT are back from their long trip we can leave then in charge of everything for a few days. We are going up to a cottage near in the Marches near the Shropshire/ Wales border and will visit some friends there who are flying out to NZ this week to visit their Younger Son and will be seeing ours as well, we hope.
I have a bag of books already packed (I have had to restrain myself from reading them before we get away) and the Farmer & I shall have lovely time with no phone and no computer, just reading, walking and generally being pretty anti-social.
Having organised the reading matter ( I know how to prioritise our needs!) I really ought to think about packing some clothes and food.
 It has become something of a family joke that one should never go away without  good fruit cake packed into the corner of a bag somewhere. Admittedly I did not send Elder Son & KT off to New Zealand with a large Dundee cake hidden in their baggage, but the Farmer has insisted that we take cake with us this week, so I have made him a good old traditional Half-Pound Cake. If anyone is interested to try it here is the recipe;

Half-Pound Cake

8oz. butter
8oz. sugar ( I use brown sugar, but granulated is okay)
4 eggs
8oz. raisins
8oz.currant & sultanas
4oz. glace cherries
8oz. plain flour
1/2 level tspn mixed spice
1tblspn. brandy (or milk, but I prefer the brandy!)

Cream the butter & the sugar until pale & fluffy. Add the eggs a lttle at a time and beat well after each addition.( A spoonful of the flour will help it stop curdling).
Mix the fruit, flour, & spice and fold into the creamed mixture. Add the brandy and mix to a soft dropping consistency
Turn the mixture into a prepared tin (8") and bake for about 21/2  hours at Mark 2 (300 degrees), until a fine warmed skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Turn out and cool on  a wire rack.
This cake keeps well.

The Farmer has just gone off on a tractor to help a neighbour move some trees that have been felled and this afternoon he and the neighbour will be planking them.
I have just taken a couple of bookings for the cottage which is great and now I am off to start organising some lunch.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

The First Daffodils, Frog Spawn, Not So Fantastic Mr Fox

At last we have daffodils in flower...they have been such a long time opening, but well worth the wait. Today has been so much warmer, despite a frosty morning again, and the blackbirds are starting to sing. An even more significant sign of spring is the mass of frog-spawn that I found this afternoon down in a pool on the side of the small river  at the bottom of our wood. The Farmer tells me that he has also seen some up in the top pond.

Elder Son has started on the spring ploughing, preapring one of our top fields for a new ley of grass. Having got the muck out, he will be busy with much field work for some time now. He enjoys ploughing and there is great satisfaction in seeing a field turn from its dull and faded winter green to a rich chocolatey brown corduroyed expanse.

Younger Son rang us this morning from New Zealand and was telling of a riding trip he and some friends made up in the mountains near Wannaka, I think. They had hired some horses and had gone trekking through marvellous and spectacularly beautiful countryside
I was very surprised to hear that he had gone riding; this is a boy who thought the only means of transport worth considering had to have an internal combustion engine, a steering wheel and was preferably made by John Deere. I hope he has taken some good photographs!

Last night one of KTs' hens was taken by a fox. It was one that had been laying outside the electric fence and presumably had not managed to get back to the flock in time. Despite the fence a couple of the hens have learned to fly over and have made nests in secret corners rather than laying in the nest boxes provided...a hen with a streak of independence is a determined and foolish creature and must just take the consequences of her actions I fear. Lets hope the fox does not think he has a supply of easily obtainable ready-meals. War will be waged.

Monday 15 March 2010

Ancient Hedgerows, Darwin, Cleopatra & the Earthworm

A cold frosty morning but with the sun shining and the first daffodils have begun to open. These fine mornings with a promise of a glorious golden day somehow seem to infect the dogs with such joie de vivre, they bounce about the fields on our walks and go tearing in and out of the hedgerows.
In Wales hedges are often planted up on stone banks. We have several miles of old hedges on the farm and running along inside the hedges themselves are narrow paths that the dogs use as their own private routes around the fields. These paths were originally used by farm workers to walk along as they trimmed  the hedges back with sharp hedging knives. The Farmer can remember the old farm servant of his childhood, Davey Tom, doing this work in the winters. Now it is all done with flail mowers mounted on tractors in a fraction of the time and the hedge paths are used by only the rabbits & the dogs.

The Farmer & Elder Son have been busy with the muck-spreading for these past couple of days and today they had the help of a local contractor to get the job finished. The fields are now all nicely covered with muck which does make going for walks rather smelly and sticky under foot. I can see that for the next little while my dog walking will be restricted to the lanes on the farm and the more steeply sloping areas where the tractors do not go.
It is amazing how quickly the muck will disappear thanks to the worm activity once the soil warms up. A healthy worm poulation will drag this muck, into their burrows (it has been estimated that there could be up to 1,000 miles of worm burrows per acre) thereby incorporating it  into the soil.
It is a little know fact that it was Darwin who did much of the research into earthworms and published it in his last book with the snappy title, 'The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms with observations of their habits'. ( It probably won't make it onto Richard & Judys' reading list!)
Cleopatra declared worms to be sacred and ordered their protection so important were they to the fertility of the Nile Valley.
As with the bees, we imperil the worms at our own risk.

Friday 12 March 2010

Lambing Live BBC2 , Muck Spreading

We do not have television and have not done so for twenty years, but we have just heard about a programme that has the nation gripped, called, I  think, 'Lambing Live' on BBC 2. Elder Son said it was even talked about on Radio 1 today. How marvellous that programmes like this are being made and that the public response is one of such enthusiasm.
When we have visitors to the farm at lambing time we often invite them to watch a ewe lambing and to see the first struggles of a new lamb to get to its feet and find the milk bar. It is a truly memorable experience particularly for children and one that is difficult to make more available, but if a tv. programme can do it that is just great.
Even for us as lambers of sheep for many years, there is still a thrill seeing newborn lambs and their mothers bonding and thriving. We rarely have bottle-fed lambs these days as we've got the adoption process well worked out, however,  if we happen to be lambing at a time when we have visitors, orphan lambs are very good way of getting children close to animals and gaining a better understanding of them. Also they are great fun; when our boys were little they loved bottle-feeding the orphans and became quite attached to them though not in an overly sentimental way...they knew what the final destination would be and accepted it. The fact that these sweet little lambs are ultimately food on our plates should always be kept in mind and made clear in a sensible way.

Over the last couple of days the valley has been resounding with the clatter of muck-spreaders as we and our neighbours took advantage of the dry weather to get muck heaps cleared.. Today it is damp so maybe the worms will start to do their bit to break down the muck on the fields. Once the weather warms up the grass will start growing well after its dressing of good old fashioned FYM.

Having given my lovely new floor three coats of varnish I am now about to set to with brush and roller to paint the walls of our dining-room and hopefully by this evening we will be back to normal with a clean sunny room . We shall have to give a dinner party to show it off!!

Thursday 11 March 2010

Welsh Quilts, Empty Hills

Yesterday afternoon I walked the dogs down what had been the original farm track 150 or so years ago. It is quite steep and a deep gully with wooded banks on either side, leading to a little, mossy, concrete footbridge over the Siedi, our small river. In the past there must have been a ford giving access to the farm from the road, which is still several hundred yards walk up another steep bank. The farm must have been quite isolated when considering the distance from the road. Now with the 'new' driveway which was opened up about 150 years ago in completely the opposite direction to the old track, we are about 1/4 mile from the road and have a pretty little stone bridge over a small stream before we get onto the tarmac lane leading to the main road, and not really isolated at all, though many of our holiday makers think the farm is very remote which always makes us smile.  Compared with a number of places we know, our farm is almost too near habitation.

The Farmer & I were in Lampeter again yesterday and visited a fascinating exhibition at the Jen Jones Welsh Quilt Centre ( in the old town hall. A marvellous gallery has been created in the building which houses the most beautiful collection of old Welsh quilts and shawls. The work undertaken to create these items is staggering and although these quilts were made for utilitarian purposes, they have now become collectors items and an important part of Welsh cultural heritage.(
Textiles were a very important part of life in West Wales, particularly in the Teifi Valley where the river Teifi powered a great number of woollen mills. In our small village alone 300 people were employed in the mills. The woollen fabric was used to make quilts and garments and even the uniforms for the British Army at one time. Now most of the mills are either derelict or used for other purposes.

From Lampeter we had to go to Llandeilo to deliver some of the quantity of 'red tape' paperwork to the necessary offices. (We should not complain too much...its the red tape that pays us to farm as we do, though we would farm organically anyway). Driving over the hills we were amazed to see that there is still a lot of snow lying on the Breacon Beacons and  in pockets on hillsides a little nearer home. The countryside was looking very beautiful with clear blue skies and the sun shining but very cold. The land is looking bleached by the cold with grass flattened by the snow and all colour faded to shades of cream and grey. Apart from the dark green of the conifer plantations, the uplands are looking very bleak and lonely. All the sheep have been taken down off the hills for lambing and the only signs of life were the occasional red kite or buzzard wheeling around in the sky or a small flock of crows flapping like black rags against the blue.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

New Floor & Fresh Paint-work, Two Staircases, Varied Visitors & Border Collies

Another cold & frosty morning but with a clear blue sky and sunshine, a beautiful day.

Taking advantage of this fine weather that we are having at present the Farmer & I have embarked uopon a major decorating job in the house. For years we have talked about sanding the oak parquet floor that the Farmer's father laid in the dining-room. Having cleared all the furniture out and several hundred books, we hired a floor sander and set to. The result is lovely, the oak has come up a beautiful golden colour and has transformed the room. However, as is always the way with jobs like this we then realised that a lovely new look to the floor made the rest of the room look so shabby, to say nothing of the fine layer of dust that has settled upon every surface not behind closed doors (though the dust will probably be there too if I look for it!). So I will now be wielding a paint brush for the next couple of days  and trotting up & down a step-ladder. It will be worth the effort though...I do find decorating a satisfying thing to do and over the years I have become quite efficient about it and it is a good job to do when the sun is shining I find. It must be spring in the air that gets these jobs done.

Thank goodness we live in a house with two staircases! The dining-room is a room of passage; it leads to our sitting-room, office and main staircase, and now, with a floor we cannot walk across for at least two days we have restricted access to these rooms. I have been carrying bags of fire-wood up the other stair-case, through Younger Son's bedroom, through the bathroom  and down the main stairs. I then have the obstacle course of piles of furniture stacked in the passage-way outside the sitting-room to negotiate with my bags of logs. The lengths I will go to to have somewhere warm & comfortable to sit in the evenings!

As well new clean paint and new golden floor the Farmer has decided to build some oaken bookcases as we have had a problem with woodworm in the old pine ones his father made.( Apparently woodworm doesn't attack oak which is good to know) so the whole room will have a  'makeover' (horrible phrase). And then I want a holiday!

While I spend time varnishing the floor the Farmer & Elder Son are busy up in one of our top fields doing some drainage work. With the frosty weather it means the fields are dry and tractors can get on the land, which for so,much of the winter is not the case. To be able to make a start on work that has had to wait over the winter is great.

We have had a stream of callers over the past few days. Our friends the Fashion Designers from London came in on Friday and yesterday, as they had been in the area visiting a mutual friend. They give us country bumpkins a glimpse of a very different world and are good company.
On Sunday a friend brought her 9 month old sheepdog puppy for the Farmer to take a look at. She was wanting some advice on training it and as the Farmer trains all his dogs so well she felt she would get some worthwhile information. Not all collies are natural workers; if they do not show any interest in a flock of sheep then it is unlikely that they will be useful working dogs, but can however go onto be good agility & obedience dogs which gives them a purpose. Bored collies are a disaster!
We have also had delightful visitors in the cottage over the weekend and various friends & neighbours have dropped in and joined the conversation around the kitchen table. I love it.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Canadian Travel Writers, Canada geese

We can never say that our life here at Penyrallt is dull and lacking interest.
Today we entertained to lunch a delightful group of Canadian & American travel writers who were brought to West Wales by Visit Wales. Having been to see the Welsh Wool Museum at Drefach Velindre, about 3 miles from here, they were given the opportunity to see a real working farm and to meet real working farmers. We do like to encourage visitors to the farm and when they are as pleasant and interested as this group it is well worth it.
They were so appreciative of the the lunch I provided, particularly the selection of local cheeses (Caws Cenarth) and the bread made by our friend the Bread-Maker in his wood-fired bread oven (Mairs' Bakehouse).
After lunch the Farmer & I took them on a walk around the farm and ended the tour with a demonstration by Molly the sheepdog out in the field with the ewes & lambs, which is always a joy to behold.
We were sorry we were not able to have longer with the writers, to be able to talk in more detail about the multitude of topics that came up in the general conversation but they had to go on to their next port of call, Carreg Cennen Castle.

The last few mornings we have heard the lovely haunting cry of Canada geese flying through the valley to the bend of the river near our local town where they congregate in large numbers. Occasionally a pair will land on one of the ponds on the farm but I don't think they have ever nested here.

With the return of Elder Son & KT, I have relinquished my responsibility for the hens. I must admit I do not miss the collection, cleaning & boxing of the eggs. Though I quite enjoyed it for the five weeks I had to do it, I was quite glad to hand it all back to KT. Hens have never been my favourite creatures, though the little bantams are very decorative. They have taken to scratching around in the garden through all the dead leaves and the detritus of last year that I must get round to clearing up as soon as the weather improves.

While the snowdrops are glimmering beautifully in the hedgebanks, the daffodils are still no more than tight buds. Usually by now they are in flower all over the place.
With the longer days now I should be able to get out in the gardens...I have two seperate gardens to manage here and they are both looking the worse for wear after the hard winter and it will be great to have tidying up sessions and to see what has survuved the snow & frost. I have found hyacinths shooting up and some crocus have struggled through though everything else still seems to be waiting for some real warmth.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Silver Morning Frost, Closure of Local Post-office, Cakes Galore, Fire-wood Supplies

A glorious hoar-frosted morning with the sun shining and the valley full of mist. Mist in the valley usually indicates that we are going to have a beautiful day with blue skies and golden light, once it has lifted. Often we are above the mist and look down onto a sea of silver-grey hiding the valley bottom and as it lifts the view expands and the surrounding hillsides are revealed once more.

In the last week or so our little local post office has closed, sadly. This is not due to any government cutbacks but to the retirement of our postmistress who has run a tiny post-office from the front room of her house for forty years. What she doesn't know about the neighbourhood is not worth knowing.
With her retirement it means that we will now have to drive about 4 miles to get to a post office instead of the pleasant walk of about a mile, to buy stamps and have parcels weighed. It is unlikely that anyone else in the village will want to open a new post-office in their front room , or that they would even be allowed to, I suspect. Another link in the rural community gone.

The other day I was asked to do huge baking session for a coffee-morning being held in a local village hall and the Farmer has insisted that I put a photograph of  our cake-laden kitchen table into the blog. He loves cake and I do seem to spend a lot of time baking, though rarely in these quantities, thank goodness.

Elder Son & KT are settling back into normal life after their journeyings and are finding it very cold after the heat of Sydney. They have brought back 1,000 photographs (which will be edited down to a more digestible number) and they clearly had a marvellous time.
Elder Son has quickly got back into the routine of milking again and he and the Farmer have begun work on putting up new fencing on the edge of a wood and moving some large trees that were felled. They will be taken to the saw-mill that we have here on the farm, to be planked and stacked up for future furniture- making projects and the stores of fire-wood will be replenished. It a deeply satisfying sight, stacks of logs drying in readiness for the next couple of years requirements. We are very fortunate in being able to keep ahead of our firewood needs and having well-seasoned wood to burn.