Oct 12 2017

Autumn in Japan


A soft autumn mist hangs over the river. From my Devon window I watch oak tree leaves glistening red in the persistent rain, they glow with warmth against the steel grey sky. The cherry trees try to compete, cornus, viburnum, acers too; pink, orange, yellow, everything in the valley is riotously fading into autumn. The swallows and geese have left. Apples cover the ground, a Labradors delight. Tomatoes are cleared from the greenhouse. Chutney is made. The vegetable garden is stripped of its bounty. Winter beckons.
Summer flew by in a flurry of garden openings, friends, family, rain, sunshine, fun and laughter. And suddenly it was autumn and time to go to Japan. Bryony arrived to house-sit, packing was completed, doggies and donkeys kissed goodbye, sheep checked, chickens counted and we were in the car en route for Heathrow.
A long flight and a two hour journey on the Shinkansen from Tokyo found us standing on Maiboro station in western Japan. Another hour’s car journey and we arrived in Hino in Shiga Province, just north east of Kyoto. The little old town sits on the flat plains under the shadow of huge black mountains surrounded by rice fields and spared, we were assured, from frequent earthquakes.

Six months ago our son, Tom and Nolly moved into an old merchant’s house, one of several in the town, built around 1780. The merchants stored their goods and housed their families in these beautiful old houses while they, themselves, travelled up and down the country following the Shogun.

The house has been empty some twenty years so very careful restoration was called for. By chance Nolly was at Art School with a local Buddhist monk who introduced them to a builder specialising in the old skills and traditional craft necessary to bring the house back to life.


The garden needs help too. Some lovely traditional planting has survived and some has not. We had a wonderful time planning and planting; part Japanese, part European. A busman’s holiday, you could say, but oh what fun we had!

I particularly loved the second hand plant nursery which furnished us with a large number of pot bound trees and shrubs just longing to be liberated!

We had wonderful days exploring too. A visit to a fishing village on the shores of the beautiful lake Biwa just north of Hino, a boat trip in the old town of Omihatchiman, Temples and Shrines, craft galleries and old traditional shops full of hidden treasures.




We visited Shigaraki, one of the five famous Japanese pottery towns up in the mountains. A tour round the old kilns ended with traditional green tea with a potter’s wife. And Hino itself boasts a gallery of sensational work by Bernard Leech.

And, of course, we ate amazing food! Nolly is a wonderful cook producing meal after meal without any apparent effort. We ate thin sliced local Hino marbled beef and sausages made from pigs fed on German cake! We had salads with figs, tomatoes and parmesan cheese, chicken grilled with soy sauce covered in leeks and mild green peppers.


We had yam with nori and soy sauce, octopus cooked with lotus root, hot red peppers and crushed garlic. There was salted and fermented Crucian Carp stuffed with rice and cured in barrels, delicious baked Sea Bream, plates of noodles topped with glistening fish row; I could go on!


Tyzo came to stay, the Bonito Man. We met him in Dartmouth last year at the Food Festival. He bought with him his special dry tuna or bonito and we enjoyed an extraordinary BBQ in the kitchen. The two storey room has a chimney in the roof. I watched in wonder as the smoke rose up through the rafters and out into the night sky without filling the room at all!


A second similar feast was arranged by the builder craftsman and his foreman who arrived with a huge ice box of deliciousness. They proceeded to light said BBQ again, this time with blow torch and hairdryer. A hilarious afternoon followed with much laughter, Saki and a taxi home for them at 7pm.

I visited butchers whose cutting skills are quite different to ours, wonderful fish shops offering fish from the Sea of Japan that I don’t recognise. I went to French patisseries with a Japanese twist. I bought homemade rice crackers from an old lady in a tiny purple shop and visited a friend with a shop selling beer, saki and Japanese wine. Hino has an enormous supermarket and the best home store I’ve ever visited. Nolly laughed when I came out with huge bags of gardening gloves and big, brown paper bags for storing rice: the latter beautiful enough to hang on any wall.

And then suddenly we were on that bullet train; in Tokyo again swirling around Shinagawa station in perpetual rush hour. We were in the airport, on the plane and six thousand miles later, home in Devon.

And now a brief respite, but not for long: some sixteen Japanese arrive next week for the Dartmouth Food Festival. This will be their fourth visit. They will run cookery workshops, a stall in the Market Square and host a Japanese dinner for sixty at Alfresco’s Restaurant. I can’t wait!


And finally they will join us for dinner here at home at Bramble Torre: my privilege to cook for them!

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Jun 27 2017

Bramble Torre garden June 2017

Bramble Torre Garden, June 2017 from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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May 17 2017

A Strange Spring

The driving rain of  winter finally stopped as mild March crept into April. Water drained from the top fields, grass began to grow and that thick red Devon mud gradually became a crisp brown crust.

Lambs arrived thick and fast bouncing out of the stock box on to a fresh green sward. They raced around the top fields in the new spring sun while their mothers grazed quietly regaining their strength.

And then the temperature plummeted. Cold nights held everything in limbo. Grass stood still, buds appeared paralyzed on the stem. The lack of rain threatened drought; dire warnings of summer water rationing filled the airways.


A cold Easter came and went, holiday makers putting on a brave face and many layers to keep warm. Then came the frost! The wisteria on the little bridge across the stream was heavy with buds, more than I have ever seen. Overnight it turned brown and crispy, leaves and buds hanging limply, burnt by the extreme cold. As I walked past the Katsura a strong smell of autumn toffee filled the air, every tip of new growth burnt off by the frost. I wonder still if the little tree will fight back.
Hydrangeas turned brown. The new lime green leaves emerging on the Coreopsis are copper coloured now and all the delicate yellow flowers simply vanished overnight.
Each time we walked to the farmyard we found another casualty. We usually have a mild late frost but never in thirty-five years have I seen one like this in April.
The wind followed, a freezing easterly, blowing the flowers from the Embothrium and turning the lawn scarlet with tiny petals.
Now as May advances the rain has returned, and the whole landscape is swathed in mist. But at least it’s warmer and I may even be able to release the tender plants from their glass-house prison at last! A strange spring indeed.


And here comes Sid again, swaggering down towards the house through the long grass, peering through the kitchen window as he passes on his way for an afternoon snack. He is our new visitor, “phasiamus colchicus” or just a common pheasant.


But how charmingly amusing he is and so dapper! Resplendent in an emerald and scarlet cloak, with tufts of feathers sprouting from his head like tiny horns, he struts down the lawn to the bird feeder everyday followed by his two drab, beige girls. His call rings out through the valley, as he beats his wings ferociously to warn of danger.

Our Labradors both look fixedly the other way pretending he is not there and Onion, our usually laid back cat, scuttles past him anxiously.

I read that some thirty five million pheasants are released on shoots every year. Many are quickly killed by predators and about 16% survive the shooting season.

Only about 10% of our pheasant population is wild. They live on the woodland edge of agricultural land and in shrubby wetlands and are, of course, a well know symbol of our countryside though not originally indigenous to Britain.


They probably originated near the Black Sea and opinion is varied as to when they arrived here. Some say the Romans brought them, or possibly the Normans in the C11th. But they have been here a very long time and have been our main game bird since the 1980’s.
One thing is for sure after meeting Sid I won’t be eating pheasant again for a long while! I will adapt the wonderful Pheasant Normand recipe to chicken, well maybe!!

Normandy Pheasant

This, without doubt, is one of my favourite pheasant recipes and is ideal for oven ready birds which have been commercially prepared. Pheasant like beef is better if it has been properly hung. If it is not it is inclined to be dry and dull when roasted. Apples and Calvados prevent the meat becoming dry and compliment the flavour wonderfully.

Brown a brace of pheasants in melted butter in a heavy frying pan then set aside on a plate. Melt more butter in the pan and fry a kilo of peeled and chopped apples till golden. A sweet apple is best such as Cox or Reinette. Choose a casserole that will snugly take the two birds. Put them breast-side-down on a thick layer of the apple. Pack the remaining apples all around the pheasants. Pour over 125ml of crème fraiche. Cook gently for about an hour at gas 4 or 180c checking after forty minutes or so. After an hour take them from the oven, raise the heat to 8 or 230c and pour over more crème fraiche with 4 tablespoons of Calvados. Return to the oven for five minutes. Leave to rest before serving. As with all meat resting for a while will make it easier to carve.

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Mar 12 2017

March Mud and Fat Ladies

Teatime

Dusk is creeping in a little later each afternoon now, stretching out the farming day minute by minute. It’s still just light till nearly six. Fat ladies race through the mud to the farmyard for tea as the light begins to fade. Poor girls, I cannot remember such a muddy March! Surface water runs down from the hills collecting in great puddles in the valley before seeping, oh so slowly, into an already tumultuous roaring stream.


Soon the first lambs will be born. Each year we wait with the same excitement and anxiety as we watch the ewes bag up with milk. How will it be this year? How many singles, how many twins? How much joy, how much sadness?


Each morning dogs and I trudge reluctantly up to the top fields to check the rest of the flock. We hang around waiting for the rain to stop, willing it to stay away long enough for us to get right round before it starts again. But, alas, we reach halfway and a momentary blue sky gives way to a steely grey canopy, the wind begins to roar and once again we are battered by a sideways curtain of stinging hailstones.


We feed the little wethers by the tiny, top barn in the field we call “Dainty”, named after that erstwhile naughty pony. We move on to count the yearling ewe lambs in “Five Acre” pausing to look across the valley at far off Dartmoor dancing in the distant mist. Finally we have a word with big Larry and the rather grumpy rams, on their own now in “Steep Field”, before we retrace our steps down to the valley, squelching our way back to the yard.

At last we are allowed to let our chickens out to peck happily in the rain again. After months of imprisonment, they are free once more to slide around in the mud too! The Avian Flu restrictions were finally relaxed here last week. Not all are so lucky as high risk areas remain in many parts of the country. But at present we are in the clear. Let’s hope it stays that way.

As we march into March snowdrops and crocus fade.

They are replaced by a carpet of primroses, by swathes of daffodils tumbling through the orchard, by the gentle nodding heads of hellebores. Huge camellias flowers are buffeted in the wind spreading their petals like confetti. Spring is exploding everywhere.

Evenings are still damp and cold though. Warming food is a must after a day outside in sleet and rain. Hearty bowls of homemade soup are welcome. But better still lamb shanks cooked very slowly all day in a very low oven make a comforting supper. To carrots and celeriac, shallots and garlic, chicken stock and red wine, I add a teaspoon or two of Harissa to give an extra spicy warmth. Delicious!
Big plates of pasta with prawns, tomatoes, olive oil and plenty of parmesan quickly warm us too when we’re in a hurry. And a fish pie with fennel and potato in a creamy Béchamel topped with breadcrumbs, lemon, butter and garlic is wonderful when I have enough time! Finally, of course, it is still cold enough for cauliflower cheese, a baked potato and Richard Pollard’s wonderful Dartmouth sausages: comforting food indeed!
And suddenly the weather changes; wind drops, rain stops and our first baby arrives!

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Jan 09 2017

January Days

Christmas floated into the New Year on a white cloud. Crisp sparkling hills rose eerily above an ethereal mist that hung over the river filling the valley. Shadows grew long in a winter sun, so low in the sky, it seemed to struggle to see over the brow. By mid-day a golden orb was sinking below the top fields leaving us to await an early dusk.

A perfect frozen spider’s web greeted Millie and I as we set out to feed restless donkeys extra hay in the yard.

And each day we take what we can from the freezing vegetable garden to the incarcerated chickens. These free range ladies are not used to being confined to barracks but, confined they must be by law, until the Chief Veterinary Officer gives the all clear from the dangers of Avian ‘Flu. A new timer keeps them in artificial daylight to cheer them in these short dark winter days, as they remain in their shed week after week. We are fortunate to have a very big space for them but despite all our efforts they have stopped laying altogether at present. They crowd me as I go in; one even made a break for freedom yesterday but I caught her and explained she must stay inside with her companions till we get the all clear. At present we are told that is another six weeks away at least, poor little birds!

Work done, Millie and I moved on from the yard, grass crunching under foot and paw as we crossed the crisp fields and climbed the hill to count the ewes.

We found them grazing quietly in the frozen landscape; tough Dartmoor girls bred for so much worse than this. It won’t be long before our first lambs arrive. Already I hear tiny cries across the fields on our neighbour’s land. Little black lambs with huge dark ears, so different to our Whiteface Dartmoor babies, call to their mothers in the mist.

The garden is asleep too, or almost. On New Year’s Day I found the first snowdrop pushing up among dead leaves, a tiny white spike reminding me that spring will arrive if only I can be patient.

The little pink and white flowers of a camellia sasanqua somehow defy the frost and the beautiful browned heads of hydrangea pulmatum stand majestically in the shadowy light.

The coloured stems of dogwood give a splash of winter colour by the stream and water droplets twinkle on acer branches in the low sunlight.

Gradually the days get a little longer, darkness falls a little later day by day. I go through my packets of seeds, line them up ready for planting. I clean out the old propagator glued together all those years ago after the flood. I buy seed compost and put it in the potting shed. I rake up leaves, stare at the rose bushes waiting to be moved, check the geraniums still flowering valiantly in the greenhouse, water cuttings begging them to stay alive till spring. I tell myself to wait.

A carpet of apples still lies in the orchard. I should, of course, have gathered more in the autumn but in these cold January days they prove a wonderful source of food for the wild birds. The dogs love them too. I do have a big bucket of huge green apples in the kitchen awaiting attention and of course the Seville oranges have just arrived. So I can curb my gardening impatience by making marmalade and wonderful sparkly apple jelly!

Oh and now snow is forecast for the weekend!


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Nov 05 2016

Back to Bryher


The old Scillonian pitched and rolled her way along the Cornish coast, past Land’s End and beyond Wolf Rock lighthouse. Onward she ploughed into the vastness which is the Atlantic Ocean. White horses became rolling waves, whipped into magnificence by the roaring wind. As quickly as giant raindrops pelted the deck, brilliant sunlight steamed them away. A perfect rainbow bridged the sky framing the disappearing cliffs. We were on our way back to Bryher.

Each year we vow to explore somewhere new, each winter I find myself booking a cottage at Hillside Farm again! Azure blue sea and white sand have something to do with it. But there is so much more.  There is silence, no traffic , no bustling streets, just one shop, one  art gallery, one hotel, two cafes and   green, treeless hills rolling down to the sea. Boats ferry everyone everywhere. Boats take children to school, boats become doctors surgeries, boats take farm animals to market, boats bring all supplies to the islands, boats catch fish. Boats do everything. And everything boats do is dependent on the sea, the wind and the tide.

No night time predators stalk the island. Chickens, ducks and geese stroll around nonchalantly at dusk, no sign of a fox or a badger to threaten their sleep. Seagulls are the main annoyance and, for me at least, source of amusement. Not everyone agrees!

While sparrows queue in ordered battalions ready to pinch your pasty off your plate or eat it out of your hand, the seagulls have no such manners and simply move right in crash landing on the table and grabbing what they can with varied degrees of success!

Ruth and Graham have been at Hillside farm just over a year now. We met them last year and, of course, the top topic was farming; what new plans for Hillside farm? As we return a year later we are amazed at their progress. Beautiful Red Ruby cattle graze a hillside on the edge of the ocean. Gradually Graham is restoring the little fields and improving the grass. He trails great bowsers full of water across the rough ground to each little group; cows feeding with their calves here, bullocks there; no mains water to the fields.

Hillside Pigs have arrived too. We can see Babs and Betty from our cottage, noses down, foraging in the mud or sunbathing together. I love pigs and miss the days when I used to keep my own. They have to me something of the charm of dogs about them! But Ruth assures me this does not apply to grumpy Babs!

Away across the farm of perfect little hedge lined fields we meet the big boy, Jerry. “We called him after you” said Ruth. Paul and I look puzzled. “Well” she laughed “Graham thought your name was Jerry…..! “ A compliment of sorts, no doubt! Dina is the favourite sow who likes to have her ears tickled.


And then of course there are all the children.

Farming on Bryher requires a great deal of planning and lateral thinking. No farm store down the road. No garage to repair farm machinery. No vet on the island when things go wrong. No market or abattoir on the Isles of Scilly. The only way to get to any of these is by boat.

Animals are loaded into a stock box or trailer on the farm. The old land rover tows them down to the quay to meet the boat.  They cross the water for the forty minute trip to Hugh Town on St Mary’s. Then together with everything and everybody, it’s onto the Scillonian. Three hours later, weather permitting, they reach the mainland. That is in spring and summertime: the boat only sails to the mainland from March to the end of October; no winter crossings at all. From Penzance the trailer is hitched up and the animals are off to their final destination be it abattoir, market or farmer. It makes our road trips to Ashburton, Exeter and Kingsbridge seem very simple indeed!

Our week passed quickly and quietly in autumn sunshine. When we weren’t talking farming with Ruth and Graham we walked around the island by Great Pool, Gweal Hill and Sinking Porth up to Hell Bay and over the hill to Fraggle Rock Bar for fish and chips and a glass of wine. We had delicious take-away paella from “Island Fish”, and huge crab sandwich lunches in the sun on the terrace of the lovely Hell Bay Hotel looking out across the ocean to America.

We crossed the water to nearby Tresco and visited the famous sub-tropical Abbey Gardens. We’ve been there many times but the planting never ceases to amaze me. How different the climate is here, just thirty miles from the main land. Planted by Augustus Smith in 1834 over 2000 tender plants thrive in the seventeen acre garden all year round, not a glass house in sight!

Refreshed and restored once more we returned home, flat sea and sunshine all the way! Next September we are off to Japan again but somehow I feel sure we’ll fit in another trip to Bryher!

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Sep 21 2016

Wooodpeckers and Chutney!

Suddenly our shadows lengthen as Millie and I climb the hill to check the sheep. The sun sinks lower day by day. Cobwebs glisten in the morning light by the back door. Geese fly by in huge noisy squadrons, house martins line up on the wires and leave. There’s a chill in the morning air. Autumn has arrived
And so has Western Power Distribution; oh, thank goodness the birds have left!

“When’s the tarmac lorry arriving” says our neighbour with a wry smile. He’s spotted our devastated fields from his farm across the valley. He’s seen Steep Field, the name is explanation enough, a motorway ploughed right across it. Huge diggers have levelled the ground to make way for monstrous machines to trundle back and forth.

Holes, taller than a man, have been dug, rocks and boulders flung sideways, earth moved! No wonder all local building is of stone, what else to do with it!

“Woodpeckers, is it really woodpeckers?” I ask the digger driver hesitantly ”only my neighbour said…..”
He smiled “Yes, they cause us awful problems. They drill away at the poles looking for insects, get right inside sometimes. Then the poles become so badly damaged we have to replace them. They’re no longer safe to carry the huge weight of the electricity cables.”

He’s talking about the entire power supply to Dartmouth; all because of beautiful little woodpeckers. The great spotted, the lesser spotted and the green woodpecker; we often watch them all with delight as they feed on the poles or hang from our bird feeder, their wonderful colours glistening in the sun. Till now we had no idea of the damage they do. Can it be true?

Well, yes it is. The last weeks have proved it so. For days now a team of men have been going aloft in huge cherry-pickers skilfully erecting pylons and swinging cables weighing tons across the sky. We watch in horrified fascination as our farmland is turned upside down, the landscape changed overnight. Hurriedly we move sheep up onto the highest fields and confine the donkeys to barracks. And the whole valley resonates with the constant whirr of mighty machines and men’s voices raised above their rumble.

How will they put it all back? They promise they will restore everything: replace fencing, fill the vast craters, level the ground, re-seed, plant new trees. I wait in wonder and make chutney to keep out of the way! I will never take electricity for granted again!


Tomato Chutney


After a wonderful tomato crop, blight suddenly arrived in the greenhouse. It spread from plant to plant like wild fire, devastating everything almost overnight. I quickly picked all the remaining sound fruit before pulling up the withering plants and burning them. I made tomato sauce and roasted tomatoes with olive oil and basil and put them in the freezer. More are sitting in the kitchen in a basket waiting to ripen.

The rest are chutney. It is so simple to make and will cheer up a Ploughman’s Lunch right through the winter.
Though I search for a new recipes year by year I always seem to return to Rosemary Hume in my battered old ConstanceSpry Cookery Book! So simple and so good:

3kg sliced tomatoes         350 g sultanas large piece of root ginger chopped
I kg chopped apples          30g salt generous litre cider vinegar
I kg chopped shallots       I kg brown sugar

Put all the ingredients in a large preserving pan. Simmer gently for a couple of hours till thick and delicious. Stir occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking. If it is, turn down the heat.
Then pot up, cover and store for at least 2 weeks before eating.

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Aug 01 2016

A Breather in Brittany


As July dawned we climbed into our car and fled to France. We left a hectic June behind us: our wonderful Open Garden weekend, the tragic loss of two good friends, the referendum and a country in political chaos. Wearily we boarded the great “Amorique” in Plymouth bound for Roscoff. We set off for a quiet week with friends in northern Britanny. It seems we were just in time, the calm before the storm, before terrorist attacks across France and Germany left even more pain, distress and uncertainty. We were lucky, our busy Sunday night channel crossing ran like clockwork. By late morning on Monday we were relaxing in the beautiful La Ville Douallan just south of Lamballe.

We laughed together, went for long walks, visited beautiful little villages and towns, ate wonderful food. We relaxed in their garden in the evening sun, amongst the roses, enjoying the “aperitif”.

Les Eglantines

And of course we went, as usual, to the Moulerie de la Baie at Jospinet, a tiny bay, on the coast just west of Pleneuf-Val-Andre. Every time we visit we make the little pilgrimage north to eat Antoine’s wonderful Bouchot moule.

This time it was extra special. We arrived a little early. It was a beautiful evening so we strolled down the slipway to the sea. As we reached the water’s edge we watched large fishing boats approaching. A tractor and trailer drove past us to meet them. Suddenly the boats, one at a time, rose out of the water like huge dinosaurs and drove onto the slipway on great wheels. No mooring lines, no quay, no jetty, they simply drove up the slipway onto the road.


The first boat stopped briefly to unload part of the catch onto the tractor and trailer then off they all went down the road to their depot. We crept by later to see these strange boat-lorries neatly parked up in a line on dry land, fisherman’s wet suits drying beside them in the evening breeze!

Antoine fed us huge wonderful plates of moule and frites. He let us take photographs of his lovely restaurant as he explained how the mussels are sourced.
Bouchot mussel culture is an intertidal traditional aquaculture technique for farming mussels. The bouchots, French for pilings, are placed in the sea and the mussels are grown on ropes strung from these poles. According to a French C16th text, bouchot mussels go back to 1235 when a Scotsman, Patrick Walton was shipwrecked in the Bay of d’Aiguillon. He began to hunt seabirds, just as he had in Scotland, by driving wooden poles into the sea and stretching nets between them. He noticed mussels growing on the poles and he soon realised it was much more profitable to grow mussels than hunt seabirds. The modern bouchot technique took off in 1954 and Normandy and Brittany are the leading producers. There are thousands and thousands of poles in the bay of St Brieuc alone, owned by many different mussel farmers.

Anshorstone Cafe

Mussel farming is growing in our waters here in the South West too. There are sites in Lyme Bay, Exmouth and Brixham Harbour. Our own wonderful Anchorstone cafés in Dittisham, Dartmouth and Sharpham serve delicious Moules Mariniere. Claire Harvey, chef-patron, told me she sources her mussels from Brixham where the waters are clear and there is a strong tidal flow. They are a naturally occurring hybrid of the Mytilus Edulis mussel (the native or blue mussel) and Mytilus Galloprovincialis (the Mediterranean mussel) which is well suited to conditions found in Torbay..
The whole process is surprisingly natural, creating a local haven for all sorts of other marine life. Once the poles and nets are in place the wild spat or free floating planktonic seed mussels fix themselves to the structures. No special feed is required, no chemicals or fertilisers, just clean tidal waters.

By the time the seed mussels are about two centimetres long, usually in August, they need thinning. The seed collecting lines are pulled up and stripped and the seed mussels are fed into “sockings”, a continuous cotton stocking with a rope down the middle onto which the mussels attach themselves. They put out byssal threads and secrete a cement- like fluid which hardens in the water. This way they anchor themselves to the ropes and feed on the tiny micro-organisms in the tidal flow. When they are 18 months to 2 years old and 50 to 60 mm long the mussels are harvested from the growing lines. Cylinders with two open doors at the bottom are lowered over the poles. The doors are then closed and as the cylinders are raised they strip the mussels from the ropes. After grading and landing, the live mussels are placed in cleansing depuration tanks before being distributed to fish markets, wholesalers and restaurants.

Moules Mariniere
This is the classic mussel dish, so quick and easy to prepare and so delicious!
But first make absolutely sure the mussels are clean and grit- free. To do this tip them into a large bowl and cover with plenty of cold water. Scrape away the hairy beard or byssus which attached the mussel to the rope or rock on which it grew. Throw out any which are damaged or refuse to open in the water. Drain and rinse again in more water. Don’t be tempted to leave them too long in fresh water; it will kill them.
Allow at least 50 grams of mussels per person, more if you have them!
To feed four people chop two onions and a couple of fat cloves of garlic. Put the onion, garlic, 3 tablespoons of chopped parsley, 200ml white wine, 150ml water and a little black pepper in a large pan. Simmer for ten minutes then raise the heat and when the liquid is boiling quickly, tip in the mussels. Put a lid on the pan and give it a good shake over the heat for a few minutes until the mussels are open. Discard any that refuse to open.
Scoop out the cooked mussels into a warm bowl and keep warm. Strain the liquor through a fine sieve or coffee filter paper to remove any stubborn grit, then return to the pan and quickly bring to the boil while whisking in 30grms of butter. Serve the mussels in their liquor with more chopped parsley, crusty bread or, of course, the ubiquitous frites!
There are, of course, many variations on this theme! At Antoine’s Moulerie a couple of weeks ago I had a delicious version with tiny leeks, pancetta and cream. Others chose mild curry spices, both quite wonderful.
Next time it will be Brixham Moule at the Anchorstone café!

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Jul 01 2016

Unsettled Summer


Raindrops hammer against my study window as I write; a black sky sits ominously overhead; gloom fills the air. Early this morning Millie and I walked over the hills, heads down, she chasing rabbits, me checking damp sheep huddled in the hedgerow. Water trickled off my coat down my trousers and into my wellies; squelch, squelch. We walked in a strange eerie circle of mist, no sign of Dartmoor from the top fields; the River Dart just a faint watery shadow below us. Neighbour John’s big silo, a strange medieval turret floating in the mist across the valley. I felt I was walking through some strange metaphor of our country’s confusion and turmoil since the Referendum; nothing clear, everything blurry and uncertain, familiar landmarks taking on new ghostly shapes. Where am I, I wonder? The landscape seems so familiar, and yet?

This June has rattled through, wet windy and uncertain. For weeks politicians have been fighting their corner each clamouring for our attention, good or bad. But all the while everyday life goes on.

And the winners....!

The County Show came and went. Sheep were judged, alpaca too and cows, pigs and poultry .

All things agricultural were on show for all to share and much more too. Cider and beer flowed, food stalls fed us handsomely. Tractors, harvesters, hedgers and ditchers, all things mechanical could be found for the farm.

Dog shows, horse shows, pony trials even donkeys, hurrah, had their place!

My Donkeys!

The crowds flocked in day after day, happy people filled the showground. And the Hurdy-gurdy played on.

Next came sheep shearing, dagging and spraying. The relentless rain meant sheep had to come into the shed the evening before shearing to be sure their fleece would be dry.

Rams were sorted into pens well away from ewes and lambs. Next morning we separated mothers and children for the first time. The cacophony was ear splitting as they called each other across the yard.

Phil arrived as usual, setting up his shearing pen at midday. Paul man-handled sheep, one by one, pushing them through to Phil for their annual haircut. I folded fleece and placed them in the woolsack as they have been placed for hundreds of years. White, lighter, shorn and clean, the itch-free ladies went back to their children and more confusion ensued, mothers unrecognisable without their winter coats; more barging and baa-ing, then happy reunions   We finished at 6 o’clock, a long day.

And all the while preparations continued for our National Garden Scheme Open Days. We dashed out between storms and squalls to dig borders, plant vegetables, trim edges, cut grass, prepare the plant stall and complete a myriad of other tasks. Signs went up, the Anchorstone Cafe donated hundreds of scones, Dartmouth Dairy insisted on giving huge quantities of clotted a cream. Dear friends lined up to help at the gate, serve teas, marshal parking, sell plants; the weekend arrived.

Saturday was truly wonderful. Despite cold evenings, the roses did bloom in time. Even “Seagull” reluctantly opened her petals over the pond. The waterlilies exploded into magnificence and delphiniums reached for the sky. Embothrium held onto her flowers so late we had a scarlet shadow across the sky. And as always the astrantia proved to be star of the show.

Eighty people filled our garden, even the sun tried a bit of shining. Cream teas flew from the Hut and my head spun with plant names and happiness. But, alas, rain returned the next day. Even so twenty five stalwarts turned up braving the elements. Tuesday brought sun and a local gardening club and, to our delight, Jilly Sutton’s beautiful “Big Fish” sculpture sold, so all was not lost.

Despite the weather we were delighted to be able to send nearly £1300 to support the NGS nursing charities.

So life goes on as politicians ponder, prevaricate and procrastinate, world markets helter skelter, journalists try to alarm or calm. On Sunday we leave for a week in France. I wonder what the mood will be there!

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Apr 13 2016

Spring at Last

Oh how wonderful, a spring morning at last. Sun warmed my back for the first time today, as I climbed the hill as usual with the dogs to check the ewes and lambs and feed our shy visitors.

Slowly the valley is awakening. As the first day of Spring arrived the rain did stop for a while, even the sharp north wind dropped briefly, fooling us that winter was behind us. But, alas, it was to be just a temporary reprieve; storms, gales, icy rain and sleet returned battering their way through Easter holidays and beyond.

As waterlogged fields begin at last to drain we wait anxiously,well into April, for signs of new grass to appear up the valley. We need it badly to feed hungry ewes and lambs.

Maybe today will really be the start of Spring. The sky is full of birds busying about, shouting greetings to one another, house hunting furiously for a suitable place for this year’s family. The hedgerows are thickening and the orchard is a mass of yellow, a host, indeed, of golden daffodils. All so uplifting after such a long wet, muddy winter punctuated by violent storms and endless dark grey days. And, have you noticed, as the sun shines people begin to raise their faces from the ground, smile and greet one another in the street.

We lambed just thirty sheep this year; twenty-five pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor’s plus five cross-breed ewes, old timers we can’t bear to lose! We have thirty-four lambs including eight sets of twins, a record for us. All are grazing with their mothers in Sunday Orchard, the huge field just beyond the yard. We will continue to feed them until the grass finally begins to grow.

Each year we bring the ewes into the big shed in the farmyard for two or three days after they have lambed. The babies are tagged, their numbers recorded and their tails docked. They stay in the nursery until we are sure all is well and they are strong and feeding.

Then with Gheorge’s help Paul moves them up the hill to pastures new. They are loaded into our smart new stock box and driven up in batches to a south facing field. The babies soon begin to bounce and spin in the sometime-sunshine, playing in little groups watched over by the ewe on playgroup duty. Much time can be lost just standing and watching them play.

Rams rest up on the hill, their work complete while wethers eat quietly in another field until they go to market.

Today we will be selecting out a group to go to the local abattoir from our regular customers. Paul will take them there later this week, early in the morning. They will be dispatched immediately to avoid distress. Not only is this humane but also prevents a build-up of adrenalin in the meat. Our local butcher, Richard Pollard of Pollard’s Quality Meats in Dartmouth, will then collect the carcases. He will hang them for a week before butchering them to each customer’s requirements. Hogget has a rounder deeper flavour than early lamb, the meat rich and dark. And contrary to popular belief it is not at all fatty like our erstwhile images of grey, fatty school dinners; well mine anyway!! Indeed, Hugh Fearnly-Whitingstall waxes lyrical about hogget in his wonderful River Cottage Meat Book, and he’s right!

So this afternoon’s boys will have had a short but happy life and go on, in a small way, to feed the nation, which, after all, is a farmer’s job. We breed our stock to improve the blood line of our breed and to provide food for our discerning customers! The cycle continues.

. Vicarage Mutton

“Hot on Sunday

Cold on Monday

Hashed on Tuesday

Minced on Wednesday

Curried Thursday

Broth on Friday

Cottage pie Saturday”

Cooking Hogget

At last the rain may have stopped but I fear, only briefly! So I need to cook comforting food to restore my equilibrium, but it must be light delicious summer food.  Somehow I think it better be Hogget!

I’ll roast a shoulder with garlic and rosemary and serve it with young vegetables, some potatoes and mange tout peas perhaps. Or I’ll take a little more time and pleasure to prepare a traditional Navarin Printanier based on a recipe from my old copy of Jane Grigson’s wonderful “Vegetable Book”.

This is not a dish for stewing lamb. It calls for tender, lean meat which will cook gently but quite quickly. I prefer to cut up a shoulder or even use a boned out loin. Take a little time to trim off any fat and sinew before cutting the meat into fairly small pieces.

Melt a large piece of butter and a little oil in a heavy oven proof pan that has a well-fitting lid. Incidentally, the oil stops the butter burning and becoming bitter. Brown the meat quickly turning it over with a wooden spoon until sealed. Then take it out and set aside.

Chop a shallot and crush a garlic clove or two. Add to the buttery juices in the pan and, heating gently, allow them to soften slightly. Stir in a spoonful or two of flour scraping up the meat juices and mixing to a thin paste. Gradually add some stock and a little tomato puree.

Return the browned meat. Heat gently, adjust the consistency, which should be creamy, by adding more stock if necessary. Bring slowly to the boil, cover the pan with its lid and place in a moderate oven for about an hour. Test the meat with a skewer to see if it is tender. If not return to the oven for a little longer but don’t overdo it.

Meanwhile prepare some young fresh root vegetables; new potatoes, very young turnips and whole baby carrots. Once the meat is tender add these and cook for a scant half hour without the lid.  Top and tail some mange-tout or shell some peas and broad beans, slice your first runner beans or harvest the early French beans; use what you have in your garden or what you can find in your local farmer’s market.

Blanche the vegetables very briefly in plenty of boiling water, drain well and add to the lamb. Heat through, skim off absolutely any remaining fat, (there shouldn’t be much if you took time to trim your meat) taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve on warm plates with hot, crusty bread.

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