Jan 15 2015

January Days

At last, day by day, sunset creeps on a little later into the afternoon. I go up to the yard in fading sunlight punctuated by blasts of icy rain, my feet crunching hail stones in the grass. I find chicken still pecking around outside, sheep still grazing in the fading light. Even donkeys stay in the field a little longer before trotting in shouting “teatime”. Mornings are improving too; the alarm goes and I peep out to see a tiny glimmer, a hint of daylight, just creeping through the curtains. Hurrah, I think, no more struggling to feed the animals in the dark. Maybe winter will not last for ever after all.

And yet as I walk through the frosty sleeping garden or wander down the road to the muddy creek taking in the bleak beauty of the winter landscape, the sunlight in the bare trees, crisp white fields, sharp reflections in the water, I realise how much these harsh winter months  lift my spirits in anticipation of the coming spring.

Snowdrops cascade down the orchard slopes. I spotted a white camellia bursting into flower today. Broad beans have germinated in the greenhouse and the sweet pea seedlings are racing ahead. Tomato seeds wait in the wings; very soon their time will come. I feel impatient, so much to do but all in good time! Hard frosts may sneak up and wreak havoc in the garden for many weeks to come.

The ewes on the top fields are beginning to look a little plump, a good omen for March lambing. Each afternoon dogs and I trudge up the hill. We creep past the tiny top barn and quickly close the gate to the little yard in time to fill the troughs with grain before the stampede. Sometimes they are already queuing, sometimes we must walk a little way calling “tea” and they appear over the brow as if by magic kicking their legs in the air and spinning their fat woolly bodies as they run.

Yesterday they beat me to it, cantered to the empty troughs and came back into the field staring at me reproachfully, as if to say “well, where’s tea then”. Laughing, I managed to tiptoe round behind them, slam the gate and fill the troughs without getting mobbed. Who said sheep were stupid!

The yearlings are growing well too. Last week it was time to dag and drench. “What exactly is dagging and drenching?” e mailed our son from Japan. He’s studying sheep husbandry with a view to coming over to help us lamb this spring. “Simple” I lied “just squirt worming medicine into their mouths and trim away all the dirty wool around their tails”, “Ah” he replied.

Sunday Orchard is a very big, very steep field, yearlings are very skittish, so we took our time to gently walk the teenagers down the slope. As they ran through the gate at the bottom I took off as fast as I could go to slam it shut it behind them. As I raced down the hill I remembered that sensation as a child of legs on automatic, whizzing one in front of the other as the hill becomes steeper and steeper. Laughing, out of breath and out of control, I so nearly catapulted into the yard after them, only just managing to stop by hurling myself onto the closing gate. But they were in! An hour later everyone was dagged and drenched and safely loaded into the trailer and off to pastures new.

Barney was particularly interested in all of this, indeed he is interested in all things farming now particularly if it means racing round fields, sniffing the hedgerows and finding something disgusting to eat. Well, he is a Labrador, though our neighbour pondered recently that maybe there is a tiny touch of basset in there somewhere. Barney was out of earshot at the time fortunately, checking out something worthwhile tasting in the hedge.

But there is no doubt he does have funny big front feet, rather short legs and ears like Dumbo; so who knows. One thing is for sure, he is without a doubt one of the sweetest, funniest dogs with a huge personality. After a dramatic start with us, an emergency operation and a long stay at the vet, he is a new slim line, healthy boy and a really good pal to Mr P. He has been with us now for nearly three months since his owner, our dear friend, became ill.

Sam is now with a new owner. After nearly five months we finally had to concede that things were not going well. As he matured he became more and more headstrong and difficult. Not only did he continue to chase sheep despite professional training, bark aggressively at the children, bully Mr P, but he suddenly turned on me as I sat quietly one afternoon drinking a cup of tea in the kitchen; no warning, no provocation.

His unpredictable behaviour continued to get worse becoming increasingly frightening. Eventually I rang the charity; they know us well. I asked their advice. They collected him the next day, we were devastated.  We had put our heart and soul, time and energy into giving him a new, safe, loving home. The experts at the charity said his behaviour was almost certainly down to the terrible cruelty that he had been subjected to before his rescue and  so much worse than we had been aware of; poor little dog. Last week I learned that he has been rehomed with a retired doctor who lives alone; no other people, no other animals and, most important, no children. I hope so much for a happy outcome, he deserves it, as does every dog.

Long dark indoor afternoons drive me to my huge collection of cookery books collected greedily over the years. My grandson gave me “The Greedy Italians Eat Italy” for Christmas; somehow so appropriate from a very hungry teenager and a wonderful book, positively filling the kitchen with the Mediterranean! I read cookery books like most normal people read novels, my mind racing with ideas for the next meal. Strange really because I have a very small appetite; if I ate what I read I’d be huge!

After gorging myself on pages of deliciousness I turned to the simple option for supper last night; What’s- in- the- Fridge Tortilla and it was one of the best!

I found three cooked new potatoes, six tiny tomatoes, a couple of rashers of streaky bacon, a wrinkly red pepper, a couple of shallots, a scrap of good cheddar, a Jerusalem artichoke and a small bag of last summer’s frozen spinach from the garden. The chickens have started laying again as the light increases, so eggs are plentiful once more.

I softened the chopped shallots in a little olive oil in my big old cast iron frying pan which goes safely into the oven. Then I added the bacon and the rest of the chopped vegetables stirring over a gentle heat till they just began to soften. I took the pan off the heat while I beat six eggs with a splash of water, a good pinch of salt and black pepper. Then, putting the pan back on the heat, I melted a nob of butter and poured in the eggs. I grated the cheese on the top and put the pan into a moderate oven until the eggs set and the cheese melted. It rose magically like a soufflé; we ate quickly with crusty bread and watercress.

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