Tuesday 27 April 2010

Escapee Beasts, Nettle Soup, Home Brewing.

We had a rude awakening this morning by Elder Son shouting from the milking parlour for the Farmer to get up as the young steers we had moved yesterday had escaped from their field and were now in the garden of the farmhouse! The Farmer leapt out of bed, donned his clothes in double quick time, urged me to do the same and dashed off downstairs. As I joined him, very blearily, with KT in the same state coming over from the cottage where she & Elder Son live, the boisterous beasts were trampling over the daffodils in the back garden and wondering where they could rampage next. Elder Son had come up from the parlour and headed them towards the garden gate while the Farmer had set off down the drive to guide them into their field again. KT & I were strategically positioned to prevent them going down onto the yard. However, being teenage males the steers had other ideas and clambered up the bank at the back of the garden, crashed through a fence and into the field above the house. At least they were now in a field albeit the wrong field. The Farmer & the faithful Molly (our sheepdog) went off  to put the naughty boys back in their rightful place.
How they escaped is a mystery; the gate that they had opened was secure when we left it yesterday. At least they came back to the farm buildings...it could have been a real nightmare if they had turned the other way and ended up on the main road, which has happened in the past and is not something we want to deal with again.

So, after the unexpected early start to the day the dogs & I went off to gather nettles for soup for lunch. I have found a good recipe for nettle soup and it seems such a waste not to use ingredients that are growing so abundantly in our hedgerows.

Lady Ridley's Nettle Soup                                       

1lb potatoes
1/2lb nettles (the young top leaves)
2oz. butter
11/2 pints chicken or vegetable stock
sea salt & black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons sour cream (Optional. Milk or yoghourt will suffice)

Peel & cube the potatoes and cook for 10 minutes in salted water.
Chop the nettles and saute them in the butter and then stew for 5 minutes or so until soft.
Add the potatoes and the stock.
Simmer for 10 minutes and then puree.

This soup is the most gorgeous green in colour and served with fresh wholemeal bread makes a good filling meal.  I have just served this lunch to our Soil Association inspector and  it is always very reassuring when second helpings are asked for.
Nettles are of course very nutritious and grow everywhere though one should not pick them them if they are growing near a busy road-side. From a field hedge or in a wood is ideal.

The Farmer is going to try making nettle beer. He's got very keen again on home-brewing and was delighted to find a stash of demi-johns up in a loft in one of the buildings the other day that had been forgotten.The warmest corner of the kitchen by the Rayburn will be full of bubbling glass jars containing a variety of concoctions that one hope will be drinkable. Its not always guaranteed though!

Monday 26 April 2010

Blackthorn & Blossom, Soil Association Inspection, Song Thrush Nest Building

The blackthorn is coming into flower now and casting its froth of lace over the grey hedges which are very slowly beginning to show a hint of green.
In our orchards the plum trees are in full blossom though the apple trees are still tight grey buds except, interestingly, the old variety of apple that is known as Marged Nicholas which is local to Carmarthenshire.
The hedge banks along the drive are full of flowers now, violets, wild strawberries, celandines, stitchwort and of course the great golden pennies of dandelions.

Having spent the morning baking, (Welsh cakes & chocolate cake) and then given the Farmer & Elder Son their lunch, I have just come in from doing duty as a gate, as a bunch of young steers were put out onto grass after their long winter in one the cattle sheds. Oh, how they bounced and kicked their heels before settling down to graze on the lovely fresh grass.

The Farmer is very busy getting ready for our Soil Association annual inspection which takes place tomorrow. Although the paperwork is all in order, it does all have to be gone through carefully to make no sure we have no glaring errors or ommissions. As well as the having to comply with the organic standards we also have to make sure that other assurance schemes are adhered to concerning animal welfare and that everything is recorded. We have to have herd health plans, soil management plans, livestock management plans, forage management plans, a risk assessmant plan and a COSH analysis. Most of these are then broken down under many sub-headings. It is very much a case of where one word would do please use 10, and do not use common sense and the knowledge gained by years of experience. And we have to pay for the privilege of an inspection. We don't actually object to the inspection per se, but over the years the amount of paperwork involved has increased and the pettiness of what has to be on paper that is required has become ridiculous. And this is a problem that is not only with the Soil Association but all the other bodies that farmers are required to deal with.deal with. We did choose to join the SA, but many of the other organisations we have no choice over.
Rant over!

Outside one of my kitchen windows we have a song thrush nesting behind a thick curtain of ivy that drapes over a wall. The thrushes have been very busy and bustling bringing nesting materials for the last couple of days. They arrive with enormous beakfuls of moss and then dive behind the ivy where a lot of activity ensues as they weave the moss into their beautiful nest. It will be lined with mud and will be very snug for the rearing of another generation of thrushes. We won't take closer look at the nest until the end of the summer when we can be sure that we won't disturb the birds.
We were watching some goldfinches this morning while having elevenses. They were feasting on some dandelions that I had intended to remove from the terrace at the back of the house. I shall have to leave them now for a while.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Last Lambs, Persephone Books, Farmhouse Cheese-making

This morning I walked the dogs out to the letter box and on the way back came through the field where the sheep are at present and discovered that the last of the ewes had lambed producing a pair of very healthy twins, probably only an hour or so before I found them.They were sticking close to their mum who was very protective of them. She was stamping her feet at the labradors who were very unimpressed and not particularly interested in her or the lambs. They know better than to even contemplate looking at the sheep.

This morning in the post came that bi-annual treat, the Persephone Books newsletter. I love Persephone Books (http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/) and through them have discovered such lovely reads as 'Miss Pettigrew lives for A Day' by Winifred Watson, 'A House in the Country' by Jocelyn Playfair and 'The Making of a Marchioness' by Frances Hodgeson Burnett amongst many others.
The reprinted books on housekeeping are wonderful, such as 'How to Run Your Home Without Help' by Kay Smallshaw, giving a glimpse into a time when having to manage without 'staff' was a real challenge. Now we do it without thinking and I think methods of housekeeping have changed hugely because of the advent of washing machines, refridgerators and vacuum cleaners. How many people scald milk jugs now or beat carpets?

One of my favourite books, not published by Persephone and out of print, is 'Farmhouse Fare' which was published by the Farmers Weekly originally in the 1930's. It is a collection of the most marvellous recipes sent in to the Farmer's Weekly by farmers wives from all over the country. Many of the recipes we would  no longer would consider making, such as rook pie or lambs-tail pie*. The Farmer says that's because no-one is hungry now. However, I use some of these old recipes quite often, particlarly cakes & puddings and over the past couple of days the Farmer has been using the recipes for making cheese. We have experimented with cheese making before with no great success I  must admit, but the Farmer decided to have another go at it so we now have several rounds of a cheddar type sitting maturing in the larder.

* Lambs tails; Younger Son has eaten them out in New Zealand, deep-fried I think. He said they were disgusting!

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Piglets, The Loneliness of the Tractor Driver, Transatlantic Flights Visible Once More

KT & Elder Son have acquired two of the naughty Saddleback piglings we met on the road the other evening. They are about the same size as their corgi, Cadi and move like greased lightning. They were very suspicious of the labradors and rushed in to a corner to hide, though their curiosity soon got the better of them and there was a lot of grunting conversation about them. They have been named Pandora & Percy and should prove great fun to have on the yard. They will be allowed to roam around the fenced of area of the yard as soon as they are big enough not to escape through the bars of the gates, which won't be too long. Meanwhile they are in a large airy pen with lots of straw and  spend a lot of time making nests and burrowing.
We have had pigs before though not for a few years now, and they are great entertainment. We never have have more than two or three and they do well having a very easy happy life.
Having visited a commercial pig unit in Brittany and being quite shocked & horrified by it, we would never keep pigs in confined spaces with no access to the outdoors and natural light.

The Farmer has been very busy with field work while this lovely weather continues and has been out till dark these last few evenings rolling the fields preparatory to sowing grass seed which was delivered today.
It is long and lonely work sitting in a tractor for hours on end just driving round and round the fields in ever decreasing circles, but it has to be done. Thank goodness for tractor cabs with radios fitted.
I walked up to see how the job was progressing last night about 7 o'clock and it was a beautiful  but cold evening and the Farmer didn't come back to the house till after 9pm having been in the field since about 5.30pm. It is very tiring work and a degree of precision is needed even when towing a roller as every inch of the field needs to be flattened to make good seed bed.

Well, British airspace is open again and we are back to cross-hatched skies once more. For all those people around the world who are trying to get home and now have to wait for the backlog of passengers to be dealt with it must be nightmare and very worrying having to pay exorbitant prices for accommodation until such time as they can get a flight.
As a result of the flight ban I have an extra booking in the cottage from today by a family who had intended flying off somewhere for afew days but had thier flight cancelled so decided to take a break in the UK instead
I'm sure they are not the only ones to have made a decision to holiday at home which is very good news for the British tourist industry.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Escaped Piglets, Metal Detecting, Aeroplane Free Skies Force to Buy Local

It's not a great picture, but the best we could do, when last evening on our way to meet friends for supper at a local pub, we met this small group of saddle-back piglets on the road out for an adventure on a sunny evening. They were having a lovely time rootling along the verge and, fortunately, they were not too far from home and they soon scuttled back down to the yard where they belonged, but they were a very comical sight with a jolly air of porcine cheeriness.
A farmer once told me a old saying that on meeting a pig out walking one should always whack it because it was either on its way to or from trouble. I think these piglings were definitely out for trouble!

With the glorious weather continuing the Farmer & Eldest Son are getting on well with field work. The new grass leys have been sown in two fields and KT volunteereed to drive the tractor this afternoon to disc another field that has been ploughed preparatory to it being sown. With some fields having been put to the plough one of our neighbours who is a keen metal detectorist (?) has come over and is walking across the fields. She has found some interesting things here on previous occasions though they are quite mundane items being buttons  buckles and clasps and bits of agricultural iron work, though some of them have been very old. No hoards of Celtic gold though!

Our skies, as are everyone else's of course, are clear of aircraft and vapour trails and it is extraordinary how much this has been commented on in conversation with friends and neighbours and in the media. How long the flight ban will go on is anyone's guess but meanwhile it is bringing up some interesting topics of conversation and an awareness of just how much flying is done.The long term impact of this period is going to be very interesting. With so much fruit  & veg. unable to come ito the country, supermarket shelves are going to look quite empty soon so maybe people will have start thinking  more about buying & producing local food and also about local i.e. UK, holidays.
For those people stranded abroad and not able to get home it must be grim though.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Organic Milk Sales, Beach-combing, Clear Blue Skies

Yesterday the Farmer and I attended a meeting with representatives of OMScO  the organic milk co-operative that buys our milk.
The meeting was to give us, the producers, a yearly update on the state of the market in organic milk and how it is being sold.

20-25% of the organic milk produced in UK is being exported to Europe;
62 large milk tankers (1.5 million litres of milk) are crossing the English channel every week and the milk is then distributed to  throughout  France, Holland, Belgium and northern Germany where the demand is growing. In July 2009 the sales of organic milk to Europe were 1475 million litres, by February 2010 the figure had grown to 5425 million litres.
Here in the UK things are not so good. The sales of organic milk for cheese & yoghourt production have fallen, though the demand for liquid milk has remained about the same as last year.
The demand for organic milk in the UK is heavily reliant on promotion and the British government and press are not interested in organics. The Food Standards Agency report that came out last year did not support organic production and there appears to be active opposition to organics the UK. As far as the media are concerned organics are an old story.
In France the demand is growing and the French government is very supportive and encouraging of organic farming. In the USA is has now been ruled that all school meals have to contain an element of organically produced food and this is also happening across Europe but not in Britain. Our buyers are fighting an uphill battle to sell organic milk in Britain and it is the same, if not worse for organic vegetable growers and other producers.
There is a perception here that organic food is expensive. This is not necessarily true. In the larger supermarkets own brand organics are cheaper than established commercial brands such as Kellogs & Nescafe. The consumer likes organics, but sales are heavily dependent on PR in order to keep the public awareness up.
The other fact that was given to us was that the retail price of milk has averaged 82p per litre for the last 2 years, but the price that we get as organic producers has gone down over the same period. At present we are getting about 27- 28p per litre.
Despite all these facts & figures the atmosphere of the meeting was a lot more positive than last year when a room full of organic farmers who really believe in what they are doing, was not a happy place as the buyers were not particularly up-beat about the coming months. However, thanks to the export deals they brokered we are able to see an increase in sales and demand this year. We must hope that the demand will increase here in the UK as more farmers go into organic production on the Continent who will be able to satisfy their home demands and will not require imported British organic milk.

As an antidote to the politics of the milk industry the Farmer & I went on from the meeting which was held in east Pembrokshire, to the lovely small town of Narberth and trawled the antique shops there and then drove over the Prescelli Mountains from where we had superb views of the Irish Sea and the hinterland of Newport  to Newport Beach and walked along the lovely expanse of sand in glorious early evening sunshine.
The tide was out but coming in quite slowly and we walked along the high-tide line through wreaths of bladderwrack and the ribbon seaweed known as furbelows. It is always fascinating to see what has become tangled in the seaweed and we found many hazelnuts and acorns, many of which had been opened by squirrels and even a sprig of holly. How these things end up on  large beach in the knots of seaweed is a puzzle. There were brine-buffed, sea-smoothed small nubbins of wood and a few small shells of musssel and razor and tellins which look like opened butterfly wings. We came across two or three very large jelly fish which had clearly been left by the tide and had dessicated in the sun. There was surprisingly little plastic in the debris, just an occasional bottle top or length of polypropylene rope which glared their vivid colours out of the muted sea-softened tones of the seaweed & sand.

Out walking the dogs in this glorious weather I noticed that the sky is completely clear of vapour trails thanks to the Iclandic volcanoe and the closure of the airports. Our skies are usually criss-crossed with trails of the transatlantic flights, sometimes we have counted as many as 15 or so separate vapour trails at any one time. Today we really do have clear blue skies.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Spring Turnout of Dairy Cows, Ladybirds, Home-made Ice-cream, Poly-tunnel Veg. Growing

Yesterday was Turn-out day for the dairy cows. It always a significant point of the year when the cows are put out onto the new spring grass after having spent the winter months in the yards and cubicle sheds feeding on silage.
 It is a marvellously comical sight to see them go out; the normally staid and plodding ladies go mad and leap about like young calves and bellow with joy of being out on in an open field. After about 10 minutes of exuberance they calm down and settle into cropping the fresh grass. Putting the cows out is good for the milk yield and the flavour of the milk will get richer as the days go by and the new grass grows well in the spring sunshine.

Working in the garden and walking through the fields over the past couple of days I have been struck by the number of ladybirds that are about. Usually I don't see many and then not until well into the summer, however I have seen several lately of various kinds, the usual red with spots though with varying numbers of spots, a beautiful orange coloured one with only 2 spots and a darker orange type with no spots. It will be interesting to see whether any variations on theme will be seen and if this is going to be good year for ladybirds.

Our friend the Climate Change Expert arrived just before lunch bearing a box of home-made ice-cream that he had used some of our milk to make. Having brought pudding he had to stay for lunch, and the ice-cream was delicious being flavoured with brambles and was a marvellous rich colour thanks to the eggs from his own hens, a rich creamy yellow streaked with purple.
Ice-cream making is great fun and over the years I have experimented with various methods and flavourings.
The simplest recipe  I found was to use just a quantitiy of cream, some icing sugar, lemon juice and  fruit puree. I just mixed it all to taste and then froze it stirring it every now & then. Strawberry, blackcurrant  and plum were the best, I think.
Maybe this summer I will make some again especially if the soft fruit crops well.

The Farmer has now rotovated the poly-tunnel where we had lambed the sheep and kept the hens over winter and now it is all ready for planting with the range of vegetables that we enjoy. The Farmer has a passion for lettuce of various kinds and there be will several tomato plants, sweet peppers, cucumbers, courgettes, runner beans, peas, beetroot, sweet corn and some cabbage and cauliflower and not forgetting a trellis of sweet-peas which do very well in the poly-tunnel. I often have sweet-peas through to November.
At the end of one of the tunnels we have a fruit cage with raspberry canes, currant bushes and gooseberries which all do well, though the blackbirds find their way in despite the netting.
The worst pest we have though is rabbits who occasionally get into the tunnels and mice. Slugs are not a problem because the ground is so dry as we only water the plants not the ground all around. Butterflies are a nusiance on the brassicas and we really need to put a net across the doorways.
The Farmer is hoping to get some of the planting done in the next few days, when we have time between the gypsy caravan, visitors, and farming.

Sunday 11 April 2010

First Spring Flowers, Canada Geese, Gypsy Caravan, New Milking Parlour, Tree Planting

I have just come in from walking the dogs on what is a lovely spring morning and I found the first violets flowering in a crevice of a wall. Everywhere else around the gardens and along the drive the daffodils are looking superb and although the hens have been put to range freely in the orchard they are not damaging the daffodils that grow there in profusion. I have also seen the first primroses and wild strawberry flowers. A few days of fine weather and everthing will be bursting into life. It is wonderful when the hedges start toget their first flush of green and the trees begin to have their stark winter outlines blurred by their emerging leaves. The birds are singing madly, I had a robin trilling away in an apple tree the other afternoon as I worked in the garden and the chaffinches and blackbirds are just filling the air with arpeggios.There are woodpeckers yammering away in the woods and the sound carries all around the valley.

A trio of Canada geese have taken up residence on one of our larger ponds but it is unlikely they will nest there as there is very little cover for them. The pond is only a year old and has yet to establish plants along its rim though we shall be planting flag irises and I hope to get some water lilies in the pond itself.

Yesterday KT purchased a gypsy caravan which is very exciting. She & her father drove up to Manchester to collect it and arrived home last evening when the Farmer helped to unload it into one of our barns where it will stay while work is done on it to make it suitable as a quirky holiday accommodation. The caravan is in very good condition and just needs some re-painting and the traditional queenie stove to be installed and for the soft furnishings to be renewed. It has a pull out double bed  and will be be a lovely space when we've finished the work on it. KT and I will do the painting and making of curtains and re-covering mattresses and cushions. The site for it has already been decided, in a small copse of trees looking out across our lovely valley. A little cabin will be built nearby to accommodate a kitchen/sitting room & a shower room which the Farmer is already planning.

It is weekend of a lot of travelling for some members of the family as Elder Son & KT (together with her father & brother ) have gone up to Halifax today to dismantle and bring home a milking parlour. Our current parlour is in need of renovation and Elder Son found a very good second-hand one that had all the necessary requirements but it is near Halifax which is very long way from West Wales. However, they left at 6 o'clock this morning and we expect them back late tonight. and very tired they will be, no doubt.

The Farmer & I have had a very busy day. We have just planted a row of rowan trees of various coloured berries, on the walk to the ponds and a copse of silver birch near one of the ponds. We have also put a good large walnut tree in place of a huge & very old conifer that blew down two years ago. I have still to plant a number of camellias to form a hedge at the end of the garden, which in few years time should look rather wonderful.
We have further plans for more tree-planting, mainly specimen trees on a grassy terrace overlooking the new pond and hopefully we may get that done before too long. Now is the perfect time to plant things though we must water them regularly for the first couple of weeks if we do not get any rain for a while now.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Easter Egg Hunt, The First Swallow, Field Work, Tooth Fairy

Yesterday, Easter Monday, we held our annual Easter Egg Hunt which is always popular with friends & family.
Fortunately the weather which had been so threatening all week and was forecast to be horrid on Monday turned out to be kind to us in the end. We very nearly cancelled the whole thing yesterday morning but by lunch-time the skies had cleared and we had a lovely dry and blowy afternoon.
The Farmer had laid a saw-dust trail around the farm and through the woods for everyone to follow with nests of chocolate eggs hidden at strategic points. Some of the nests were in strange places; up ladders in trees,under hedgrows and tucked behind gateposts, but it was the first one which caused a lot of shrieking from teenage girls as they had to canoe to the centre of one of our ponds to a small floating island with a nest of hay upon it and claim their eggs. However, the labradors were also there and being superb water-dogs and food fiends they sniffed out the chocolate eggs too and managed to tip the whole nest in to the water! General hilarity all round.
The teenage boys were sent off with a compass and a map to follow a seperate route devised by the Farmer (who is still a Boy Scout at heart) across the top of the farm, which proved very successful and there has been a request to make it more difficult next year.
After everyone had done the trail, which was a lovely walk for the grown-ups and choc-fest for the children, we repaired to the farmhouse kitchen for tea where the chocolate-filled kids were still able to pack away quantites of iced cake and gingerbread!

There was great amazement on Easter Sunday (4th April) when Elder Son announced that he had seen the first swallow. We have kept a record of when they arrive each year and they usually appear on or around the 10th of April, so this is very early. However, the Farmer says it is a good sign as they will only come when they know there is plentiful food supply, so despite all indications otherwise, temperatures must have risen a little and there must be good swallow food in the form of flying insects, to be found.

Today it is cold and grey but dry and the Farmer is getting on with field work. He is out harrowing the fields that have had the muck out on them for a week or so now and as soon as the weather warms up the grass will begin to grow so any tractor work must be done as soon as is possible.

Having had a house full of family over the weekend ( we were 14 for lunch yesterday), everything is very quiet today. The delightful S. family who are staying in the cottage, on their 8th visit here, have just gone out to visit Kidwelly castle, having joined us all in the jollities yesterday.
It is lovely having people come to stay year after year in the cottage. We have seen their children grow up and this is where their son learnt to ride his bicycle. When they first came their youngest daughter was only 5 months old and yesterday having tea in the kitchen with everyone her second front tooth came out. It was hoped that the Tooth Fairy knew where she was on holiday or maybe there is Welsh Tooth Fairy who looks after holiday-makers.