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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