Nov 06 2014
As autumn tumbles into winter clocks go back and the evenings are long and dark once more. But the weather is mild, the temperature strangely unseasonal and the garden still scattered with colour; the last roses, cosmos, salvias, a few astrantia and the tiny delicate blooms of a camellia sasanqua. It feels slightly ominous as if Nature is playing a trick and has a nasty surprise up her sleeve.
Since returning from a wet week in Portugal while the rest of Europe sunbathed, October has flown by in a haze of visitors; from South Carolina, Adelaide, Brittany and Japan, all friends and family enjoying this fabulous balmy English autumn. But now it’s time to knuckle down to reality and prepare for harsher things to come.
Harvest safely gathered in, fields are being ploughed once more. Across the valley in the distance I watch my neighbour’s tractors turn the soil in neat lines, rioting seagulls in pursuit, white specks against chocolate. Barns are being cleared, animals brought in, hay and oats stacked up for winter fodder.
Chickens are tucked up in their winter quarters. Dead trees are cut down, logs stored for winter warmth. The greenhouse is full to the gunnels with tender plants in anticipation of that first deadly Devon frost that creeps up without warning. So as the garden prepares to hibernate, the farming cycle begins again.
Fred is in with the ewes once more clearly hard at work as evidenced by his bright green raddle. We have just a small flock of White Face Dartmoor’s now, plus a couple of Border Leicester X’s, some 30 mature ewes in with Fred. A fine looking bunch of last springs ewe lambs graze quietly, alone now, far up on the top field. Old Larry the Lamb is still with us too, of course, companion to a small, as yet unnamed ram lamb, who we hope will make the grade by next year.
Last night found us up on the Moor for the Annual Dartmoor White Face Sheep Breeders Association Dinner; a disparate group of some hundred and fifty people, farmers and smallholders, drawn together by their love of this gentle strong moorland breed. We’re all crazy about our sheep! Huge plates of food were consumed; toasts and speeches made, cups and rosettes presented and raffle tickets drawn. And Paul, my husband is the President. We ponder often how it came about that a Cornishman should be so honoured on Dartmoor!
As I said last time, life on a farm is wedded to the seasons, spring lambing, summer growth, autumn harvest, the austerity of winter.
I said too that I sometimes try to imagine the urban oblivion to the changing landscape. As I trudge through lashing rain and mud up to the top fields to count the sheep, how comforting the image of the uniformity of street and pavement across the year! No need to battle with the elements in order to make a living. How appealing the memory of that erstwhile indoor job becomes, that warmth within, as winter weather bites and rain trickles down my neck inside my coat and I realise I’ve forgotten my gloves again and my boots are leaking. Then I remember, too, the M25, the long commute, struggling on the Tube and I’m wet still but happy again!
But alas, one reader was not happy with my reference to the “bland urban landscape”: and instructed me to “take down this post and delete the sentence …. before some unknown reader writes a tart comment in response. People connect to the seasons in all sorts of ways wherever they are living and of course millions of people simply have no choice about where they can live…..”
I was saddened by this response, the first of its kind in ten years. But how lucky am I, never before a tart Tweet or a Facebook snipe! It was, of course not at all what I was referring to and I received no negative comments, quite the reverse, in fact.
But it is true that very few people are fortunate enough to have a choice of lifestyle whether rural or urban. Some farm because their forebears have done so for generations, some because they must, some because they can and some because they are lucky enough to make that choice.
Whichever way, farming is strangely addictive despite the constant rigours of the elements. Some people cannot imagine any other way of life. Many more would simply hate the farming lifestyle and choose to enjoy the countryside in a million other ways, while wishing well to those who do farm the land and provide their food. And many, many more simply have no choice at all and are just grateful to have a roof of any kind over their head somewhere, anywhere and a job to go to.
I smiled to myself as I leafed through Country Living magazine in our local surgery last week, so prettily idealised, so clean, such lovely hazy photography; a really pretty thing so delightfully divorced from real country life; even dare I say, an urban dream. As I flicked through the pages I remembered a recent BBC Country File; Adam Henson racing breathless across a huge field with fire fighters and all emergency services to rescue the driver from an exploding harvester and quench a burning crop; not at all the image the film makers had anticipated, but harsh reality, no romance here. Life in the country as it really is. Or maybe reality is mostly somewhere in between. As my son said ten years ago: “Why not write a blog about what you really do on the farm, Mum.”
Even though the weather is so mild I find the dark evenings start me thinking about warming winter comfort food: big soups with ham hock and lentils and lots of root vegetables, rich casseroles, pot-au-feu, Lancashire hotpot, steak & kidney pie, bangers and mash…….or Maiale al Latte
Slow cooked Pork Shoulder in Milk
No more pigs for the time being so the last pieces in the freezer are hugely treasured! I cooked a rolled shoulder for friends last week, so good, though I say it myself! There are, of course, many versions of this Italian classic. Here is my take on it.
Brown a boned and rolled piece of pork shoulder weighing about a kilo in a little hot oil in a heavy casserole. Make sure it is nicely coloured on all sides then remove from the pan and set aside.
Add more oil to the pot and gently soften a couple of chopped shallots, 3 or 4 sliced cloves of garlic, a handful of sage leaves, the zest of a lemon and a sprig of rosemary. You can add all sorts of other herbs and spices according to your preference. Then pour in 300ml of white wine and 300ml of full fat milk. Gently simmer for a minute or two, take off the heat and return the browned pork to the pot. Most recipes say simmer gently but I prefer to cover the casserole with a lid and place in a slow oven 170-180 c for about 2 ½ hours. Be sure to check it regularly and stir the liquid which will, of course, curdle. This is the classic essence of the dish. Add more milk if it begins to brown. When cooked the meat should be soft and succulent and fall apart. The cooking time will vary a little according to the quality of the pork. When you are satisfied it is ready let it rest for ten minutes before cutting or tearing the meat with two forks into pieces. Spoon over the remaining liquid and serve with mash or crusty bread and a crisp salad. This is not an elegant dish but, oh my, it’s so delicious!