Mar 27 2009

A Late Spring

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“Weed, weed, weed”. The words of the NGS Chairman still ring in my ears. Daily as I struggle to prepare the valley for public gaze I wonder why I allowed myself to be persuaded to open the garden in June for the National Garden Scheme. Then as I dig, weed, weed and dig, a quiet inward smile spreads through me until, laughing out loud, a picture rises up before my inner eye of the barren landscape I took on all those years ago.

I kick off my boots and go to the book shelf to seek out an old photograph album. Surely my memory must be playing tricks but, no; there it all is, just as I remember, my recall accurate; no garden, no garden at all. I find pictures of the huge tumbledown derelict greenhouses which had housed my predecessor’s chickens and threatened me with serious injury from falling glass, pictures of “garden fences” made from old gas cooker parts and corrugated tin, towering brassicas, as high as me, marching up the hill behind the house, a dark, dank tractor shed full of junk and buried treasure which crowded out the sun where the pond now twinkles.
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There’s our teenage son, Tom, knocking down the breeze block walls, our Aussie friend, Alan, building the pond, laying paths, building steps, a young Paul driving a digger to move earth from the back of the house to fight the damp, me chopping my way through the undergrowth, laying cobbles, digging flowerbeds. There we all are taming the wilderness.
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Then there are pictures of the felling of the great Wellingtonia in the front garden after the huge storm in 1989 and the eucalyptus swaying hazardously near the house, threatening the roof in another gale. We think we make progress but nature has her way and will take back the valley in no time when I step back and no one follows me.

I can hardly believe the photographs of flood water crashing through the valley devastating all in its path; pictures of the ravaged landscape when the water had subsided. I can still smell the rank mud as I look at the pages. I remember my old goose floating in his water filled house, banging his poor old head on the roof. Chickens quickly learning to swim, our huge old tractor sliding and aquaplaning in the yard. Sheep fleeing safely up the hill and donkey paddling in their stables, puzzled ‘eeyores’ filling the air.

But worst of all I remember the horror of rescuing my very elderly parents from their flooded cottage in the middle of the night. It took us nearly two hours to reach them, struggling through the water, just thirty yards from our own house which stands on ground just high enough to have escaped the onslaught. How cold and wet and frightened they were when we finally managed to get through the raging torrent to them, lift them into the Land Rover and negotiate our return up our collapsing drive.
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In the morning I woke thinking maybe I had had a terrible nightmare, then, despair overwhelmed me as I looked out of the window and saw the devastated valley and took in the extent of the damage; tarmac stripped from the road filling the mill pond at our gate, my parents home invaded by stinking mud and water, their possessions filthy and scattered, farmyard under water, sheds flooded and smashed by the rocks and debris hurled down the hillsides by the terrible force of the flood water. It took months to clear up the mess and repair the damage and years before I could grow anything in the vegetable garden without it turning sad and yellow. We never new what chemical horrors had been washed down the valley in the flood water.

So to have a garden is wonder enough, to have one deemed good enough to open by the NGS is truly extraordinary and a huge incentive to make it look as good as I can in order to raise as much as possible for such a wonderful charity, hence my smile!

The unusually cold winter held me in limbo for weeks until suddenly snow and sleet gave way to blue skies and sun. A swingeing north wind still whistled round us as we moved ewes and lambs to fresh grass up on the top fields but, sheltered by hedges on south facing slopes, they shook off winter blues and blossomed in the improving weather. Even Dinky, still as confused as ever about her identity, is exploring new territory and extending her diet.
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Exploring all possibilities
Soon she will join the other lambs and, I hope, realise she is indeed a sheep.
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Held back by the cold, all flowers exploded into bloom at once. The early double daffs of February hid underground, only emerging weeks late with their tender cousins.
I keep promising myself that one day I will try to count the different varieties of narcissi cascading through orchard and garden but I never manage it. Just as I think I’m there another few appear. I have no idea where they come from, who planted them or what they are called but as fast as we clear the undergrowth, more and more appear; a nodding blaze of yellow and cream, orange and white singing through the whole garden, standing above a glistening carpet of celandine and soft yellow primroses, nodding amongst leucojum aestivum, grape hyacinths and the last hellebores, clashing wonderfully and wildly with blousy pink camellias.
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Buds are swelling on all the trees. The first cherry blossom sparkles against blue sky and scudding clouds. Damson trees, covered in fine white snow, scatter their petals in the strong wind and caltha glistens golden by the pond.
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Big old chickens have returned to their refurbished summer quarters, bantams are re-housed too and cockerel numbers thankfully reduced. Donkeys climb happily to the top of the hill glad to stretch their legs and feel the wind on their backs. The kittens sleek now, fat and fully grown, sneak out at night on hunting expeditions. Fred, old and grouchy, growls as they pass reminding him of the feline haunts of his youth. Elderly sheep dogs gamble like puppies in the sun. And I do so miss little Min.

Warmer weather at last means work in the garden is beginning in earnest. Stephen has nearly finished the new wall which will hold back the hill should it rain like last year. Ali and I are digging borders, splitting plants, reshaping, redesigning. I go through a bed only to turn and find her working over the same place; I must improve my weeding technique! Paul is fixing pond pumps, painting chicken houses, mending, making, moving, mentoring!

Sweet peas sown last October are planted out. Broad beans are ready to follow. Courgette, gourds and melons wait their turn to be liberated from their pots and tomatoes and tomatillos are germinating rather slowly. Peas are starting in the polytunnel too, together with mixed salad leaves, lettuce and early carrots. The herb garden has suffered very badly from the cold and some plants will have to be replaced. My treasured new tiny box hedge which I planted with such trepidation last year does seem to have survived the cold. Oh my, there is so much to do I can hardly sit still to write this.

But it’s time to stop anyway and cook meatballs in tomato sauce with garlic and shallots and red wine for supper. We’ll have it with spaghetti before we rush out to a meeting this evening. Cooking is a pleasure once more with my terrific new cooker. After years cooking on my erratic old range it is a joy to know that the temperature is not only what it says it is but stays there too! Last week I cooked pheasant with celeriac, cider and cream slowly in the bottom oven for two hours while I went out. The result was delicious and so easy; meat was cooked and tender but not dry and the sauce slightly thickened. We had boiled potatoes, garlicky flageolet beans with mixed herbs, and some of last summer’s frozen runner beans followed by local cheese then black currants, strawberries and ice cream.

I even managed a quickly cooked rare roast beef in the very hot new oven recently, the first time for years. My old fellow never reached a high enough temperature to seal the meat and leave the inside pink. I sliced it thick and served it with a dressing of fresh herbs crushed in the pestle and mortar with garlic and olive oil. , stir fried vegetables and, I’m ashamed to say, out of season new potatoes. It was nice though! I poached pears in white wine, reducing the syrup until it coated pears and ice cream with a sticky golden shine.

Tomorrow I think we’ll have sausages with Puy lentils. I’ll cook the lentils with shallots, garlic and finely sliced carrot and I’ll stir in fresh wild garlic leaves from the garden at the last moment…..when I’m gardening I daydream a lot about cooking….
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Daydreaming a lot

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Feb 22 2009

Rain Snow and Lambs

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No time for writing, no time for cooking or gardening, no time to plan next summers planting, no time to keep in touch with friends, no time to read, sit still, just be, not time to sleep, no time for anything except lambing and fighting the elements. Lambs were born in record time this year, never have we had so many so quickly, all entering such an unusually cold, dismal world. For several weeks before the first babies were due we started bringing the ewes down from the fields every evening. We were so glad of our big old sheds in the farmyard where they could find food and shelter each night, protected from the wild weather.
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Every year after they have lambed we move them into individual pens and leave them there for a day or two to get them started and make sure all is well. Then they join the other ewes in the “nursery” were lambs play together and mothers eat hay and rest before going back into the fields.

This year was different. Snow followed by sleet followed by rain and gales forced us to keep everyone in for weeks instead of days. Despite heavy snow falls, little settled, and snow flakes quickly turned to sleet, whipped up by an icy north wind. Then the old familiar “stair rod” rain returned ; nothing “sideways” about it, just a relentless pouring torrent transforming fields into muddy swamps; grey days, cold and dark following one upon another. We are not used to this weather in Devon and Cornwall.

Now suddenly the sky turns blue, we see the sun again for a brief spell, there seems to be a hint of spring in the air. Even the white sugar sprinkle on Brent Tor, far away in the distance, has gone. It hung around long after the snow on the rest of the moor had melted, a crisp and lingering reminder of the paralysing cold so rare in this Gulf Stream warmed peninsula.
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It is half term and the children are here for a week. There is great competition to feed Dinky, our one bottle fed lamb. A beautiful little ewe, one of twins, her mother rejected her. Usually this means something is wrong but Dinky seems to be going from strength to strength, thriving on all the human attention.
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At last Harry and Paul were able to move the ewes and lambs up onto fresh grass this morning. They walked up the hill to the beautiful top field we call “Dainty” after an erstwhile pony of that name, a sheltered spot despite its height, looking towards Dartmoor to the north and the river to the east. A little old barn in the corner offers sheep extra shelter if the bad weather does return.
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Birds are singing. All sorts of tits, blue, long tailed, greater, lesser, are pushing and shoving each other on the birdfeeder. I watched anxiously this morning, ready to clap my hands in warning of advancing kittens, as a magnificent green woodpecker marched daringly about the back lawn. Huge swathes of snowdrops, unchecked by the terrible weather, tumble down the orchard in celebration, liberated by all Stephen’s hard work cutting and clearing in the autumn. Now that it’s dry he can continue building a stone wall to hold back the bank were rhododendrons and camellias grow.
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Hellebores are creeping into flower and the first daffodil is showing a yellow glow on its dropped head. A few early celandine and primroses poke their tiny heads through the tangled grass.
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A certain anxiety is beginning to grip me as weeks fly past and the bad weather prevents me from working outside. There is just so much to do in preparation for our first open day in June for the National Garden Scheme. We were strictly vetted last year and, although we passed, we were left with the words “Weed, weed, weed” ringing in our ears. Not so easy in a frozen or soggy landscape.

I have almost cleared the polytunnel and replanted the strawberries. Sweet peas, sown before Christmas, are looking promising. Broad beans are starting off inside in boxes this year, an attempt to beat slugs and rabbits. The vegetable garden needs digging and the tomato green house is a shambles, in need of a complete makeover after the eviction of a bantam squatter and her large and raucous family. Rosa Rugosa, pruned hard for their health on the advice of my gardening neighbour, resemble dead twigs and make me nervous. I examine them daily for signs of life. The fig tree is in line for a severe pruning too, in a couple of weeks in an attempt to tame its rampant growth, Herbaceous borders need digging and restocking; plants need splitting and dividing. I even dream, rather optimistically, of new, safe steps leading onto the grass from the back door, if time permits.

In the grape house the tender plants are hanging on to life despite the cold. A tiny heater holds the temperature just above freezing and seems to be winning. The olive tree looks alright, the avacados and the oleander too. But some pelargonium are suffering and the plumbago looks very sad and cold The banana has taken a turn for the worse and I’m not convinced that Ali’s Mum’s Datura is going to make it either. I rather dread telling her I’ve failed so soon after it was gifted to me!
Oh how I long for some warm spring sunshine.

Gay gave me some goose fat before she fled this freezing winter and flew away to the warmth of California. I keep imagining her sitting on her hill in the sun looking out across the treetops at Mount Tam, under a bright blue sky in balmy breeze……

In haste I used the goose fat to “confit” some duck while the children were here, forgetting I must climb the hill with them to feed Dinky. Time passed and on my return I found what I fear will be a rather crispy frazzled version of confit of duck to crunch with chips or disguise in cassoulet in weeks to come.

So time to cook something else to warm and comfort us all this half term; a traditional free range roast chicken maybe, with bacon and stuffing, bread sauce, gravy, roast potatoes, and a huge dish of mixed vegetables in white sauce, We’ll have plums fried in sugar and butter topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce for pudding and a big piece of ripe brie to finish.

Then tomorrow I’ll make chicken, sweet potato and tomato soup using stock made from the chicken bones.

We’ll have a giant chicken and mushroom vol au vent made from the leftovers for supper. And the very final bits of chicken will go into sandwiches for lunch.

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Jan 09 2009

Enter 2009

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“Mr Jones was strongly anti-pig”
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Despite the love and laughter of family and friends over Christmas and New Year I find myself entering 2009 with a certain gloom and trepidation that I have rarely, if ever, experienced at this time of year. Usually, with the dark days of November and December behind me, I find the first snowdrop, watch with anticipation the fat expectant ewes, and, walking over crisp sunny hills, my thoughts turn optimistically to an early spring.
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This year I am confused. On the one hand I am dogged by despair. War rages in the Gaza Strip, famine and disease is left unaddressed in Zimbabwe and all over Africa. In the US and Britain businesses and banks are going bust, people are losing jobs and homes. We are being urged to spend our way out of debt, and, by increasing our debts save the economy. How mad is that, or have I missed something somewhere?

And yet and yet at the same time I feel a strange niggle of hope for, well, maybe, perhaps a tiny hint of something changing, values shifting, ideas being challenged? .Just recently I detect a subtle change creeping in the use of words in the media. Words I haven’t seen for years are creeping back, words like love, kindness, friendship, caring, compassion, altruism or am I just caught in a trap of wishful thinking?

A strange thing happened yesterday. I was searching for some photographs for a friend when I came upon an old tatty photo album of my mothers, stuffed unceremoniously into the back of a bookshelf. There were indeed a few of the sought after old pictures but as I turned the pages out fell a copy of :-
Picture Post, May 3rd 1941: Morning After the Blitz, 3d.
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My morning disappeared as I read my way from front to back. Fascinating war time adverts for every sort of remedy, letters from readers, some touching, some furious. And then there were the photographs of devastation that was London. The account by Louis MacNeice is so moving, his walk through the wreckage the next morning fired by the sense of defiance, sharp humour and survival of men and women caught in the midst of it. But it was the photographs that really moved me. I grew up in London in the aftermath of World War 2. The bombs had stopped just before I was born, so had the guns and the air raids but London was ravaged, full of ruins, smog and desolation. Here were the pictures of how it happened when it happened and, to my horror, they were no different to the pictures of the Gaza Strip in my paper today. Hospitals destroyed, homes wrecked, people wounded, people standing in the street in despair, people coping, helping, clearing. What have we learned? Why is it still happening?
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Riveted, I turned the pages mesmerised by each article, until I reached the back; the farming page, written by none other than Anne Scott-James. “”Does Backyard farming Pay?” she asks.
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Mr Jones a “London businessman” started his smallholding after the outbreak of war and is keen to share his experience with Ann Scott-James. He says “If you want to be totally self-supporting in the matter of milk and eggs you need 20 acres of land. Remember, you need not only grazing land, but land for growing the feed”…food stuff may not be available with rationing and it is no good buying animals you cannot feed. On 20 acres, he says, you can keep 2 cows, a calf or two, 50 poultry and a horse for ploughing. Five of your 20 acres will be grazed upon, ten reserved for hay, four under a cereal crop, and one under root crops.

He goes on to explain in detail, the yield from each crop, feeding instructions for livestock, indeed every detail of smallholding. If you have a mere 2 acres then your approach will be different. Geese are good as are hens and goats. “Mr Jones is strongly anti-pig”, says Ms Scott-James, “all the time you keep it, it is eating voraciously…”
Everything you need to know to get you started is here on one back page of Picture Post 1941together with wonderful photographs of Mr Jones in action.
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I had to smile. As waiting lists for allotments grow and credit-crunched home owners are urged to grow their own, here is advice of sixty eight years ago which stands up, oh, so well right now! Indeed it has a lot in common with how we have been farming here in this valley, unfashionably, for the last eighteen years!lambs-450.jpg
And Thomas Tusser’s advice wasn’t so bad either in 1557 with his “500 Points of Good Husbandry”.
Well, Ok, we do have 1964 Dexter tractor and an old ‘70’s Lamborghini instead of a horse. Well donkeys don’t plough so well, or maybe I simply haven’t tried hard enough to teach them!
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How is it that as the post war years of prosperity have gone rolling by we have not only, by and large, lost many of these skills but the respect for those who still have them? Could it be that my funny little optimistic niggle is about a return of respect and a revaluing of these disappearing skills?

And that brings me naturally, as you may guess to the question of food. Will old fashioned straight forward food creep back onto menus too? Will we be spared a jus with everything, raspberry vinegar and sauce, sorry, jus underneath. Please may we have a properly cooked straightforward plate of locally and ethically produced, seasonal food? It must be the dreary dark days of January but no sooner had I finished Picture Post than I was shuffling through my 1964 box file of recipes from my student days of cooking.
Oh my, what’s this: Boiled Cod and Egg Sauce, oh no, memories of childhood! This sounds a little better; Cod Dimitri. Bake the fish and serve with a white sauce, anchovies and parsled potatoes. Not so bad!

Cauliflower Mornay, blanched cauliflower finished in the oven or under the grill with white sauce and grated cheese merits two cards. It is an incredibly complicated affair. The milk for the sauce is first infused with peppercorns, a blade of mace and sliced onion. The cauliflower is broken into sprigs, well washed in those pre hydroponics days; vegetables still touched real soil in 1964 and needed washing! Then it is boiled, so I say, for an incredible 12-15 minutes. Don’t do it!

What did I say about straightforward food? On go the instructions; “Butter a pudding basin. Arrange sprigs in basin, stalks inwards so as to completely fill basin, seasoning between the layers. Dot with butter and press down lightly. Now turn it out onto a fire proof dish, cover with the prepared sauce made with the infused milk. Cover with breadcrumbs and grated cheese and brown in a hot oven for 12-15 minutes. Was it Shirley Conran who said life’s too short to stuff a mushroom…..?But now I find delicious Gougere, and this next one sounds good………

Veal and Ham Pie, a rare and delicious thing these days.
Despite giving quantities there are no instructions for making the required 8oz of flaky pastry, so these days, best just buy it ready made! You can improve the ready made stuff 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. 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.

Happy New Year!
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