Sep 18 2009

The Arrival of Mr Porter

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Year after year the seasons roll reliably along just as they always have since time began, moving in such timeless momentum we hardly notice their passing. Spring blends into summer, summer slides into autumn and suddenly we wake up and realise that winter is breaking over us again. It all feels so predictable and yet each day, week, month that passes, unfolds, unwraps in its own unique and inimitable way; the same but not at all the same, the same but absolutely different.
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August raced past in a mizzelly, damp wave of family birthday party, regattas, Red Arrows, judging sheep at the Totnes Show, judging cakes at the fete, picnics in the rain, dingy sailing, rowing races, making bread and pasta at Manna from Devon, camping in the garden, climbing in the old barn, running in the fields , riding bicycles, barbecuing swiftly between showers.
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There were damp forays to the beach, icy dips in the paddling pool, noisy, joyous family meals around the kitchen table, talking, laughing, washing, cooking, oh and so, so much more. Days and weeks rolled along in a very English-Summer sort of way. Then family returned home, children returned to school, holidays ended and we were left, tired and happy, basking briefly in the illusive sunshine we had longed for in the previous weeks. Autumn had crept up on us again.
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And suddenly it’s September. Warm sunny autumn days are encircled by that zing in the air. Sharp mornings and raw evenings foretell what is ahead. Leaves begin to change colour and a certain tiredness seems to sweep over the landscape bringing with it just a hint of decay, of early signs of the ensuing hibernation. Geese fill the sky once more, buzzards conduct loud flying lessons teaching their young how to rise and fall on the warm thermals as house martins swirl overhead preparing to leave.

Combines rumble in the fields along the valley bringing in the last of the harvest and a very new ram eyes up the girls over the gate. Funny little newly shorn lambs stride like skinny, awkward teenagers up Sunday Orchard trying to look cool and grown up. They are alone now without their mothers who, relaxing for a while up the hill, prepare for the cycle of lambing and motherhood to begin all over again. Plus ca change mais toujours le meme chose etc.

But there really is something different or rather, someone different in our midst this autumn. Mr Porter has arrived. In fact he’s been with us now nearly ten weeks, a sort of mad spontaneous birthday present for me. In July, gripped by another of those recurring waves of sadness, missing the terrible, wonderful Min, I googled Cairn Rescue only to be reminded almost at once of the countless hours, days, spent searching for the dear departed delinquent cairn. On the spur of the moment I typed in “Labrador Rescue” instead and the rest is history. Mr Porter is here.
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I’m OK now
We were visited, viewed and vetted, carefully, closely questioned about our doggy credentials. We both recounted the many dogs we’d loved together and separately since birth, produced photographs of ones past and brought forth the present incumbents for interview. We all passed.
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The daft daughter Wellie
All four of us, that is to say Paul, me, Border Collie Meg and, her dear, daft daughter, Wellie, climbed into the land rover and drove some fifty miles across the county to meet the possible contenders. A beautiful yellow lab curled his lip and backed away growling; perhaps not that poor fellow. A gorgeous puppy bounded up to us. Alas, he was blind and with tractors and farmyards, we decided our lifestyle would be far too dangerous for him. Another chap limped up with a very bad hip, again a no on the farm. We sadly prepared to leave when out came a small, wobbly, painfully skinny black, half grown pup with beautiful soft kind brown eyes.

Papers signed and we were in the car travelling home again. No room in the back, so he sat at my feet gazing at me nervously, licking me and making appalling smells. He was so thin we could count his ribs, he didn’t seem to have any tummy and the muscles in his back legs were so weak that when we let him out of the car he fell over. We fed him with the other dogs then took him through the garden and farmyard into a field. I feel certain grass was new to him, so was the lashing rain, but he sniffed and wobbled his way across the field running in a zigzag between us, never for one moment letting us out of his sight.

With regular meals, morning and evening, he is turning into a beautiful strong Labrador with a handsome broad head. He is about eighteen months old , we are told, and is determinedly catching up on the puppy hood he hasn’t had. We have been very careful not to over walk him in order to give him a chance to build up strength in his back legs. Now he bounces around the garden, has no brakes, hurls himself through the air as he races across the fields. He tries so hard to make the older ladies play and ignores them rudely if they tick him off.

He adored playing with the children in the summer and was ecstatic to find their spaniel puppy would play too. He fell in the pond not once, not twice but three times and found, to his surprise that he was a great swimmer in true Labrador fashion, and raced round the garden, tail tucked under tum, in mad celebration of his new found skill! He was amazed at the chickens and had a go at chasing them, which was terrific fun, for him. He stopped abruptly when he discovered this was not a very popular sport!
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A beautiful strong labrador
He licked the donkeys’ noses and made good friends with all three cats licking them and entreating them constantly and without success, to play. As for sheep, well they will keep running away in such a satisfactory manner that he must wear a long lead in their company, until he may, maybe, perhaps, one day, realise they just hate the idea of playing with him and have much better and more serious things to do and see to.

A neglected, starved, caged, pathetic little dog has turned into the most delightful, happy, sweet natured chap I could possibly imagine. He’s even quite intelligent, well, for a Labrador who, as we know, are more famous for their love of food and love of love than intellect!

This morning as we walked to the farmyard, a chill wind swept wistfully through the valley. A dark grey sky began to split and curdle with the growing heat of a silvery sun eventually fading into blue.
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Older dogs walked quietly up the hill, poor Wellie still limping on her bandaged and stitched foot after her mysterious accident last week. We will never know what happened, only that we let dogs out as usual last thing in the evening. Two frightened dogs ran back almost immediately, then seconds later, a terrible screech of pain and Wellie limped in with such a badly damaged foot the vet had to remove her toe. No traps or sharp tin in our garden, so was it a Badger perhaps feasting on apples, who perceiving himself trapped, lashed out catching his claw in her foot? Usually badgers run at the very first sound of a dog and Wellie is no fierce little terrier like the erstwhile Min; she’s a bit of a wimp, in fact. So , who knows , a mystery and a very sore foot.

Porter, abandoning any hope of a game gambles up the hill inventing his own entertainment by tossing a feather in the air and catching it. Sheep go peacefully about their business, some graze, some doze in the long grass, all still eyed longingly by the boy next door. Pausing for a while, we lean on the gate to enjoy the sunshine and look across the fields to a misty blue-tinged Dartmoor in the far distance. Slowly we turn and walk down the hill, let out chickens, feed donkeys checking for warm feet before letting them out into a small fenced area. The grass is still growing fast and full of sugar which bodes ill for those prone to laminitis, so restricted grazing and straw not hay are the order of the day, much to their annoyance. Donkeys and Labrador have a similar attitude to food, neither have a built in stop button!
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Food has been on my mind too lately. An abundance of fruit and vegetables have been making their progress from garden to deep freeze for the winter. Raspberries followed gooseberries, followed red and blackcurrants. Figs in vanilla syrup will make rich comforting flans and damsons topped with breadcrumbs, oats, butter and sugar will turn into unctuous ,rich crumbles to cheer cold November days. November is the low spot of my year! October is golden, December brings Christmas, January delights with the first snowdrops, ditto February with daffodils, March is lambing and so the year unfolds; but, oh, tell me , what is good about November? Maybe its virtue lies in helping me to enjoy and appreciate the rest of the year.
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This years courgettes were, by chance, wonderful, pale and crisp, they held both texture and flavour when cooked. I’ll grow them again, good little Cavili F1.The round Di Nizzi looked pretty but didn’t cook so well. Ridge cucumbers, “Restini” were sweet and prolific, even the ones I missed and allowed to swell beyond their rightful size. Big orange pumpkins promise more chutney and maybe will sneak into a lasagne without Paul noticing. He is not a fan of that gorgeous gourd.
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Beans, broad, runner and French were wonderful this year, particularly the latter “Cosse Violette” who, in the chaos of summer were left till big and purple on the plants. Nevertheless snapped into pieces, blanched and served in a thick tomato and garlic sauce they are deliciously tender without a hint of stringiness. Sadly the tomato sauce was not of my making as tomato blight struck again despite my best efforts. Next year I will grow tomatoes in the poly tunnel and give the little greenhouse a rest .

It is a year now since a large supermarket appeared on our horizon, just fifteen seductive minutes from our once isolated front door. I try, I really do, not to be drawn in, but I do succumb. It does its best to be as eco as it can, windmills whirring to produce electricity for the tills. Local produce does appear on the shelves and, yes, it does give us greater variety all year round, bargains too sometimes.

Last week I spotted a “half price duck” on a high shelf . Being very small I often struggle to reach anything on the top shelves but I persevered to reach this bargain-bird. And what a bargain it turned out to be. Roasted with sage and a ham hock and served with braised celery, the aforesaid beans, my blight-free crushed potatoes, and a redcurrant enriched gravy, it fed five of us, deliciously, for dinner.

The next day we had a cold duck leg each with chutney, salad and baked potatoes. On the third day, this sounds faintly ecclesiastic, I stripped the remaining meat from the carcass, added it to a veloute sauce containing mushrooms and shallot and filled up some crisp vol au vent cases for supper. We ate them with Puy lentils cooked in stock made form the carcass.

Now of course all that remains to be made is “Duck Soup”………….!
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Sep 07 2009

A Veal and Ham Pie

Here is my Cordon Bleu Cookery School Student recipe of 1964; something we rarely make now but, if you have the will, is very delicious. I have brought it up to date at the end!

Despite giving quantities there are no instructions for making the required 8oz of flaky pastry, so buy it ready made! You can improve it by rolling out twice and adding more butter between the layers to make it a bit flakier.

Now here are my 1964 student instructions for the pie: are you ready!

Cut 1 ½ lbs of shoulder or pie veal into pieces 1-1/2 inches square….sorry nothing metric then…. Cut 4oz ham or gammon rasher into thin strips. If gammon is used remove the rind and rust (!?) cut in strips and blanche quickly in boiling water. Arrange meat, ham and 3 quartered hard boiled eggs, a desert spoon of finely chopped onion and the same of parsley, in layers till a pie dish is filled and doming slightly. Pour in enough stock to fill dish three parts full. Cover with pastry. Knock up edges; make a small hole in centre of pie. Decorate with pastry leaves and brush with a little beaten egg containing a pinch of salt.

Put pie to cook at Reg 7/ 425F for approx. 30 mins. Then wrap pie in double sheet of wet greaseproof paper; replace in oven and lower temperature to Reg4/350F. Continue cooking for 1hour or until meat is tender when tested with a thin skewer. Serve hot or cold. If cold add more stock to filling through hole in crust.

It is a delicious pie but maybe these instructions demonstrate why so many of us have lost the will to cook!! Now, without doubt, I would gently cook the veal and gammon filing first. Then assemble the pie with the eggs etc and simply put it in the oven long enough to cook the pastry; none of this wet greaseproof palaver.

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