Mar 24 2006

Just Donkeys

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"Sal, she’s gone, you don’t have to ring the vet." A rush of grief and relief flooded through me. I knew it was inevitable. I had hoped so much she wouldn’t need help to leave. How could I have doubted her, such a wise, self contained, private old donkey; she knew her time was up. The change in her was so subtle just two days before she died. I was planning to ring Briony and say “come and see old Sweep, I think it’s time for her to go” but she just appeared on Wednesday evening. She took one look at the little figure in the stable and said goodbye, her eyes brimming with tears.

All donkeys went into stables as usual for tea. Sweep ate two helpings then quietly lay down and left us in the night. Dear old donkey, she must have been well over forty. When she came to live with us twelve years ago my vet shook his head and suggested I look for another donkey to keep Dandy company.   

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That’s how it all began! Six donkeys, whatever for? “Well, “ I say “it was like this….”. Way back Granny let her two meadows near Reading to “Miss Green” who looked after some donkeys for an elderly lady called Miss Philpin. There was Bill, charming to your face but quite prepared to bite any bottom as soon as a back was turned. There was Bluebell, a gentle grey, several others whose names I don’t remember and, of course, Treacle.

By the early 1970’s we were living in Granny’s converted stables at the bottom of her drive.  I was alone with two small children, Paul was sailing to Ireland. It was two a.m. when the doorbell rang. I ran down stairs in my nightdress and spotted the blue and white  hatband  through the glass front door. My stomach lurched, a storm, a shipwreck, a young widow, alone to bring up the children; my mind raced. I opened the door to a grinning young policeman. “Can you identify this donkey, madam?” Tears of relief, laughter all mixed up, I looked past him at a very small scruffy hunchbacked donkey, so like Sweep. “Yes” I said that’s Treacle. He used to live here but recently went to live with a pony up the road.” “Well, we found him coming home” said the copper. Treacle made his point and returned to his friends. I fell in love with donkeys.

In 1973 Miss Philpin died. Treacle and some 203 other donkeys rescued by her, went west to Sidmouth. She left this donkey legacy to Dr Elisabeth Svenson, who founded the famous Donkey Sanctuary. In her book “For Love of Donkeys” Dr Svensen mentions Treacle. Years later, despite his size, he became known as “The Boss” of the “Big Boys Group” at Brookfield Farm.

It wasn’t until 1994 that my turn came. I saw a small ad in a Smallholders News Sheet asking for a home for two donkeys. We drove east with our new sheep trailer and loaded the two sad little creatures. Feeling foolhardy, I remember wondering about future vets bills as we trundled home. Dandy was twenty two and had been with the same family since he was two. Sweep was much older and came free with Dan, a  sort of early “buy one, get one free”. She was thought to have been an unlicensed beach donkey from north Devon at some time but no one knew for sure. Both looked so thin and dejected with big bald mangy patches on their backs.

We hurriedly converted an old bullock shed into a stable, bought fresh hay and shampooed a lot to kill all bugs and clear the mange. Spring came, the grass grew, tatty winter coats vanished and suddenly they were transformed into sleek round little donkeys.

Sweep had a strange groove in her neck and never managed to lift her head properly. I’m afraid at some time she had been tightly tethered. But as she grew fitter and more cheerful it caused her no problem. We just remembered to put the hay on the ground for her. She was incredibly greedy and would shove us all in the back of the knees if she felt we were a little slow at teatime.

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The addiction had taken hold by now and very little time passed before I found the terrible naughty Nutmeg up the road at a leisure park. She is a beautiful woman with “attitude”, only slightly improved over the years. She simply knows she’s beautiful and has all the diva qualities to go with her good looks. Dandy fell slightly in love with her. I was so glad he was a gelding. Sweep simply ignored her.

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Some months later I noticed she was “bagging up”. I rang the previous owner and learnt that she had indeed been running with a stallion, unfortunately her own sire, hardly ideal. Another stable was quickly built and on Good Friday 1998 Friday was born. His night time arrival was as silent as Sweep’s departure.

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Despite being a small, frail, interbred little chap, he grew into a fine looking donkey like his mother, but, thank goodness, with a much gentler temperament. However I am absolutely indebted to the Donkey Sanctuary for his continued survival. They have taken mother and child into their wonderful veterinary clinic three times in the last eight years. |He has a very poor immune system due, I think, to that interbreeding and seems to have one problem after another. I doubt he’ll reach Sweeps extreme old age but right now he’s fit and happy.

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Bunty and Luke arrived next and are known here as the Lodgers or more accurately foster donkeys from the Donkey Sanctuary, my only way to thank the Sanctuary for all their care and kindness. Luke, a large gentle, obese grey, comes from Skegness. His previous owners send him a Christmas card every year which he eats if given a chance. He sends one back with news of his life in Devon and companion donkeys. Bunty is a Strawberry Roan with Eire on her notes. Even after all these years she still hates having her ears touched; I guess they were cruelly twisted sometime in the past. She too has a rather strange figure covered in lumps and bumps of hardened fat making her less than streamlined; but she is quiet gentle sweet natured little mare.

So then there were six!

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Dandy, the most sociable of all the donkeys, went for his Equity card. He has starred patiently in Nativity Plays, standing for an hour or so while minute angels sat on his back and diminutive shepherds stroked his head and stuck fingers up his nose. He processed to church on Easter Sunday with a gloomy looking Sweep in tow. He adores children and, when younger, was happiest when he was giving rides on the “Ham” on Village Day. Even now he nuzzles grandchildren and stands quite still as they too sit on his back and stroke his long soft ears.

Right now I have a close eye on him to make sure he is not grieving for Sweep. Donkeys often go into shock when they lose a companion and fall victim to the fatal hyperlipaemia.  Dan was in the stable with her when she died and next morning  we  made sure all the donkeys had a chance to see her. They came one by one into stable sniffed her, stood for while and then went off to eat some hay. They live in small social groups in the wild and look out for one another. I won’t forget the day Sweep trapped her leg in a rat hole and the others shouted and shouted till I arrived to dig her free.

They needed to know that Sweep had left them.

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Steak and Kidney Pie and old fashioned Hazelnut Meringue Cake

Comfort food is what is needed on occasions like this. Dear friends to supper on that freezing March evening helped to lift my spirits. Steak and Kidney Pie and old fashioned Hazelnut Meringue Cake seemed to fit the bill as well as keep me occupied.

I always cook the steak and kidney filling first, then make up the pie. For this I brown 500grms of diced beef skirt or chuck steak in hot oil. Remove from the pan into a heavy lidded casserole pot. Next I brown the chopped ox kidney, having made. sure all sinew has been removed. The kidney goes in with the beef.  Next I heat a little more oil and soften three fat finely chopped shallots, add a piece of celery, a few chopped parsley stalks and a couple of rashers of streaky bacon. All these add to the depth of flavour of the finished pie. I sprinkle a tablespoon of flour into the pan, give it a stir, and add a spoonful of tomato puree, red wine and home made stock. As it comes to the boil, stirring briskly, I deglaze the pan, then simmer for a few minutes, pour over the meat, add a bay leaf, cover the pot and place in a moderate oven. I let it cook gently, stirring once or twice, for two and a half hours. Cooking time will vary according to the quality of the beef. Don’t be tempted to boil hard, this will only toughen the meat. While it’s cooking I slice 350 gms of flat mushrooms and fry quickly in oil and a little butter.

When it has cooled a little I put the steak and kidney and the mushrooms into a pie dish filling to the brim. I have a little old pie funnel which I put in the centre to let out the steam. Meanwhile you can make the flaky pastry if you’re really dedicated, I don’t! I buy ready made and enhance it with some extra butter, cheating I know, but so much quicker and really very effective. Simply roll out the pastry into a long strip, butter the centre section fold one third to the centre, butter again and fold again. Now roll out for the pie topping and as you do so, the extra butter will be spread throughout making a lighter flakier texture.

Next wet the edge of the pie dish and cut a strip of pastry to go around the edge of the dish, now wet this too. Roll out the remainder to a little larger than the dish; make a cut in the centre of the pastry for the funnel and, using the back of the rolling pin gently lift the pastry on to the pie. Lower it carefully onto the edging strip being careful not to stretch it. Press down round the edge and, holding your knife at ninety degrees, trim off the excess. Now seal the edges with the prongs of a fork, or crimp with your finger and thumb. Decorate your pie with traditional pastry flowers and leaves and brush with beaten egg. In days gone by when baking was done once a week the savoury pies were identified in the larder by their decoration. Put the pie in the ’fridge until you need it Bake in a hot oven until the pastry is crisp and golden, about thirty to forty minutes. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes, buttery vegetables or a green salad.

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For still more comfort I made an old fashioned Hazelnut Meringue Cake. So simple and delicious; just add toasted, chopped hazelnuts to a basic meringue mixture; four egg whites, ¼ tsp cream of tartar, 225 gms caster sugar, 1 tsp vinegar. Bake two meringue cakes in lined sandwich tins in a low oven. Cool in the tin, turn out, peel off the lining paper, sandwich together with clotted cream or whipped double cream and lemon curd or apricots poached in sugar syrup. Sprinkle with icing sugar and lemon zest and serve

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Just Donkeys”

  1. ali & rog & winnie & harryon 24 Mar 2006 at 12:59 pm

    a lovely piece about the donk’s. the food dosn’t look bed either !!!!!!!!!!
    love all

  2. Pamela Forgeton 28 Feb 2007 at 6:40 pm

    Hello I was wondering if i kind ask some questions on donkeys. How to take care of them and so on. I was thinking about getting my own donkey so if u have and informtion email me back please.

    Pamela

  3. Nanisayon 24 May 2007 at 2:50 am

    Dear Sally,
    In your hazelnut meringue pie, how many hazelnuts do you put in ~ a handful or two? Also, since I live in the U.S., I’m not sure what a sandwich tin is so I’ll try using a small round cake pan instead. Shouldn’t that work?

  4. ingridon 18 Jul 2007 at 10:47 am

    i have a dog called Truffy who is a 12 year old Staffy Keplie X.
    She lives in south australia and is the best dog in the whole world

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