Jul 29 2018

Gardens Drought and Donkeys

This very strange year continues: snow in March, torrential spring rain and now soaring temperatures and the most severe summer drought for nearly fifty years. It’s as if we dreamt of our tractor stuck in snow drift, wellies coming off in the mud, water draining off the fields, the stream overflowing its banks and roaring through the valley. And now this: no rain for weeks, a parched brown landscape, no grass, nothing green at all. Straw and hay prices rocket; farmers feed next winters’ forage to livestock. The stream is drying up. How long, I wonder, will it be before the spring water feeding our troughs in the fields runs dry?

Each day Millie and I climb the hill to the top fields searching for dusty hot sheep and fat unshorn lambs. In the day they lie huddled in the shade of the hedgerow around the water troughs trying to keep cool.

They creep out at dusk to munch the dry chaff left on the fields in the cool of the night. I try to tell them the rain will return. Millie races across the fields chasing imaginary rabbits. They are gone; the fox was there first. I watched him pacing the parched landscape in the heat of the day. He’s hungry too I warn the chickens.

It was four weeks ago today that I went up to the yard as usual on a Saturday morning to see my two donkeys. They too had been grazing at night and spending the day in the cool of the big barn. Gemma, the equine dentist, was due to arrive at 9.30. I walked into the barn and saw a forlorn little Nutmeg. There beside her lay dear old Luke, dead in the straw. No warning, no sign of illness; just a very old boy who left us suddenly in the night: peaceful for him, shocking for me.
Donkeys are prone to hyperlipaemia when a companion of many years dies so it was important to leave her with Luke until we could arrange for him to be taken away on Monday. I spent the weekend back and forth to the yard checking her by the hour and on the phone to the Donkey Sanctuary. Ten days later a horse box rolled into the yard and my new boys arrived!

Nutmeg wasn’t sure; at first she eyed them suspiciously. But curiosity got the better of her. Her ears pricked up again at last, she tossed her head and cantered across the field with them. I held my breath but all was well. Then, for a week or so, she kept her distance eyeing them from afar. But bit by bit she moved in to have a closer look.

Slowly she is bonding with Christos and Tiny Freddie, two big gentle youngsters. A new era has begun.

Meanwhile as donkeys settled in together the days flew by to our Village Open Garden Weekend in aid of the National Garden Scheme Nursing Charities. The Community Bus was booked, the volunteer drivers recruited. The local garden centre, Garden Time, donated the scones. The Dartmouth Dairy gave us kilos of clotted cream and gallons of milk once more. Tea would be served in the Village Hall. Friends rallied round to serve and wash up and we were even lent a field as an extra carpark.

And of course the gardeners were the heroes of the hour. Without exception they had been working towards this moment for months through all the vagaries of this year’s extraordinary weather conditions: a challenge indeed!
Eight glorious village gardens, each with stunning river views and all quite different from one another, opened their gates to visitors from all over the country. And the people did indeed flock in. They came from far and wide clutching the NGS Yellow Book. We had nearly two hundred visitors and raised well over £3000, an astonishing amount of money for charity in the two afternoons; altogether a huge success.

It is said one should be careful what one wishes for: today, suddenly torrential rain glides sideways across the parched valley!

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May 25 2018

Then and Now

Bramble Torre 1982-2018

What a strange year it has been: March gave us snow…… in Devon! April followed with bitter north winds and plummeting night time temperatures tempered with occasional bursts of uplifting sun. Now at last May slowly warms us. The valley is exploding into colour, everything coming out at once, all rushing to catch up. Birds are shouting as they build their nests, chickens have gone feral, wandering nonchalantly through fields oblivious to the danger of becoming Reynard’s tea. Donkeys canter off delinquently across Sunday Orchard kicking their heels and eeyoring delightedly. Lambs are getting tubby feeding greedily on lush new grass, suddenly greening up at last.
At last, at last everything seems to be catching up. As a strange cold, wet spring edges us towards summer I find myself looking anxiously at the garden. In a few weeks’ time we will be opening for our tenth year in aid of the National Garden Scheme Nursing Charities. What will still be in flower, I wonder, looking at the chaotic cacophony of colour this strange year has already yielded; what will June bring?
Pausing for a few moments between liberating pelargoniums from the greenhouse at last and bravely planting out beans and dahlias, praying the while that all frost is indeed behind us, I found some old photographs: a sharp reminder of how things were when we arrived in the valley in 1982. How the garden has evolved over the years.
First, of course, we mended the house, next it was time for garden restoration. As we cleared and dug, chopped and cleared, the basic structure, long forgotten, began to re-emerge. Someone at some time had cherished it. But, by the time we arrived it had been unloved for many years. Farming had taken precedence.
As we worked, down fell the derelict old green houses, broken glass threatening to chop off our heads. Down came the great tin tractor shed, in went the pond, out went the fencing made of gas stove and corrugated tin. In went banks of shrubs, out went broken outhouses and bindweed and dead trees. In went roses and camellias, beech hedges. Up popped swathes of bulbs and wild flowers. Stifled for years beneath the undergrowth, they took their chance to break free at last.
Slowly, slowly a garden began to return once more to the valley. As we worked so a framework seemed to appear. We tried to follow its pattern. We planted trees, built retaining walls, levelled lawns, restored the barns and made a vegetable garden. Over the years it has evolved, grown and matured.
One day, some ten years ago now, the Devon County Organiser of National Garden Scheme came to tea with a friend of mine. She suggested we might like to open the garden for charity. But “Weed, weed, weed” she said and I’ve been weeding ever since……..

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May 25 2018


1982-2018 from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Apr 21 2018

Spring at Last….. Maybe?

Warm sunshine for the first time for months: birds singing, butterflies appearing, lambs playing in warm green fields. We so nearly lost faith in spring. But even now after such a strange cold winter, I do still wonder if the warmth will really last; the forecast is ominous. Thick snow in Devon in March shocked and bewildered us all; a constant topic of conversation all over the county.

Rain and mud followed snow. Fog, sea mist, endless grey days fell one upon another.  Little Whiteface lambs arrived in the wet, almost immediately they turned brown as they suckled their muddy mothers then played in the muddy fields.

Suddenly all has changed. New grass is growing, celandine carpet the fields and orchard. Daffodils sing in the sun. Frosted brown camellias are replaced by blousy blooms of pink and red; Forget-me-not’s outline the world in blue. And the birds are shouting their heads off, building nests at last. I counted six swans on the creek today; usually we just have one pair.

Slowly water is draining off the high ground. Feet stay in boots as we trudge across the fields. The stream rages through the valley catching water as it runs off the hills.

And lambing is finished. Hercule has done a wonderful job siring strong, tough little lambs and many sets of twins. A big, handsome pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor boy, he joined the flock a little late last autumn.

Spring 18 from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Mar 02 2018


March 1st and heavy snow has been falling now for forty eight hours and shows no sign of stopping any time soon. I can’t quite believe my eyes; so unusual in Devon and Cornwall. The last time we had anything like this in the valley was in the 1980’s.

The whole of Briton is gripped by ice and snow. Red and amber weather warnings, grid locked motorways, trains and planes cancelled, countrywide chaos. And now Storm Emma joins in with gale force winds, whipping snowflakes into a frenzied dance and building huge drifts everywhere. My footsteps seem to vanish behind me as I walk from the farmyard.

This morning I brought the rams down from the top fields to the small paddock near the yard to find a little grass. I hope I will be able to feed them easily there despite the weather.

It was so wild that for once dogs and I didn’t walk up the hill to feed the ewes and yearlings. Instead Paul crept up in the big old Lamborghini tractor with oats and hay. There is still some grass up there but as lambing approaches they need a daily supplement. Fortunately we bought a large quantity of oats in the autumn from a neighbouring farmer; just as well as all the farm stores in south Devon have run out of beet shreds at this critical time.

The garden is suspended in monochrome; surrounding hills vanish in a misty blur of snowflakes. Water crashes down the stream between frozen vegetation. Crisp, collapsed daffodils fill the orchard, a sad sight, petrified and flattened.

Camellias marching us so joyfully into spring, are turning brown before my eyes. The pond is frozen. I wonder if my newly gifted goldfish will survive.

Donkeys hunker down in their big shed and chickens stay in their barn. Even Milly put her nose out of the back door this afternoon and quickly retreated to her basket again! Mr Porter, an old timer, didn’t stir from his!

Only the cat saw fit to play with snowflakes for a while.

March 2nd
We wake to a white landscape and howling gale. No footprints in the snow up to the yard. No tyre marks on the lane past the gate, no postman, no refuse collection. Snow has stopped falling. All is grey and silent but for the eerie whistle of the relentless wind.

We trudge once more to the yard in the early light, dogs following this time, dancing in the strange white dust which has thickly disappeared their familiar green landscape. Donkey’s eeyore loudly at their gate. Nutmeg bites my sleeve as I go to fetch their breakfast: what is this stuff, what’s going on?
Paul sets off once more in the tractor to feed ewes up the hill. I feed the ram lambs. The wind whips up snow, takes the oats and blows them away. Sheep stare at me and old Larry sounds his usual insistent, moaning baa. I must find a trough and feed them again!
Chickens fed, Milly and I trudge through Sunday Orchard to the quarry to wait for the tractor to re-appear. Nothing happens; we wait. Puzzled we climb the hill. The snow gets deeper and deeper till it’s over my boots. There is the old Lambo in a snow drift: snow so deep the gate will not open despite our best efforts. Southerners unused to this weather, we forgot to take a shovel!
Ewes fed now, the only way home is backwards all the way down the track to a small turning space. “Thank goodness for a vine gear” says Paul when he reaches the quarry. The old Italian was designed to have a special low gear for grape harvesting which enabled it to travel so slowly the pickers could walk behind and load the grapes.

Home at last we warm up with cups of coffee and busy ourselves with indoor tasks till it’s time to go up to the yard and feed again. We watch the sky darken. The forecast says sleet at four o’clock but alas, it is snow!

Housebound my thoughts turn to food, of course. A trawl into the deepfreeze reveals a forgotten pheasant bought from the butcher a few weeks ago. Gone are the days of a well hung pheasant from a local shoot. Now they are bought in by butchers and supermarkets alike, from huge commercial shoots. Once defrosted, this one doesn’t look too great; only partially gutted and badly damaged, poor little bird, obviously not a clean shot!
I complete the gutting before thoroughly rinsing all traces of blood away under cold water to avoid it rendering the meat bitter during cooking. It is important to be very vigilant whilst doing this to avoid contamination to other food.
I pat it dry and wrap each piece in a rasher of streaky bacon which I first stretch with the back of a knife. This will make it shrink tight round the meat as it cooks. I add a little olive oil, some stock and a dash of white wine to the roasting dish as well as couple of cloves of garlic and some small slices of chorizo sausage.
Covered with foil it goes into the oven for about 25 to 30 minutes. Once cooked, I take the pheasant from the pan, keep it warm and let it rest. I make a little sauce with a teaspoon of cornflour stirred into some stock, a dash of crème fraiche and salt and pepper. With potato and celeriac mash and a few garlic mushrooms it certainly cheers up the poor old bird!

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Feb 03 2018

February 1st

rainingswys.1.2 from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Dec 21 2017

Long Shadows Winter Sun

The early morning sun struggles over the hill slowly lighting the frozen valley. My boots crunch on the grass as I make my way through the glistening garden to the icy farmyard.

Cobwebs sparkle on shining rosehips, the last little rose shimmers as its petals warm; a winter camellia is covered in perfect tiny flowers impervious, apparently to the cold. Mist rises from the stream.

Donkeys hear me and Eeyore’s fill the air. Chickens tumble out of their barn sliding across the concrete.

I feed handsome young Hercules and Fat Larry, his greedy wether companion. Poor ram, as he busied himself tupping ewes he developed an abscess in his foot. Retired from duty he is recovering slowly in the big barn. Alas, I fear we will have few lambs this year!

As Millie and I climb the hill to check the rest of the sheep the white fields slowly melt into green and my shadow stretches out before me; I’m elongated like a man on stilts!

By the time we reach the top the sun is up. The fields unfold all around, rolling green hills in a silent land. How I love these winter mornings alone with my dog on the top of the world

Dartmoor in the distance, the river glowing a deep blue below us. I never tire of it.

But I do love the occasional visit to the big city; my world of long ago. A recent visit to London to stay with dear friends: a Frederick Ashton ballet at Covent Garden, a walk in the sun along the Embankment jostled by a huge happy crowd. Modigliani at the Tate Modern and then the Borough Market!
We filled our bags with treats for Christmas: Iberico ham, whole French salamis, big fat green olives, a huge rough chunk of Parmesan, balsamic vinegar and so, so much more. I could have stayed all afternoon!
Eventually we tore ourselves away back to West London where Jill cooked us a Sea Bass, fresh from the Solent and brought up to Putney’s own little Saturday Market that day: so delicious!

Then, after a wonderful weekend it was back to the tranquillity of our Devon hills refreshed and exhilarated!

And so as Christmas creeps ever closer, last minute shopping is complete, presents wrapped, cards sent, tree decorated, turkey ordered. And soon there will be the Carol Service, the Nativity, and the wonderful camaraderie of Church on Christmas Day, family, friends: the joy that is Christmas all still to look forward to!

Happy Christmas

Baked Sea Bass

There are so many ways to cook Sea Bass but I agree with Jill; simple is best.
Par boil some sliced potatoes. Drain and place in a roasting tin. Toss in olive oil.
Make two or three cuts in the skin of the fish and rub with more olive oil. Fill the fish’s cavity with Fennel fronds or finely chopped fennel. Place the fish, covered in more fennel, on top of the potatoes, drizzled over Pernod or white wine and cover with foil. Bake for 20 minutes in a hot oven. Check to see if the fish is cooked : it will be just opaque. Don’t be tempted to overdo it !
Serve it at once with Hollandaise sauce or a simple mayonnaise and a crisp green salad of watercress and rocket. Quite delicious!

When buying fish the flesh must be firm, the eyes bright and the gills deep red. If this is not the case and fish smells “fishy” then I would rather cook something else!
Fresh fish cooked simply and quickly is my rule.

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Oct 12 2017

Autumn in Japan

A soft autumn mist hangs over the river. From my Devon window I watch oak tree leaves glistening red in the persistent rain, they glow with warmth against the steel grey sky. The cherry trees try to compete, cornus, viburnum, acers too; pink, orange, yellow, everything in the valley is riotously fading into autumn. The swallows and geese have left. Apples cover the ground, a Labradors delight. Tomatoes are cleared from the greenhouse. Chutney is made. The vegetable garden is stripped of its bounty. Winter beckons.
Summer flew by in a flurry of garden openings, friends, family, rain, sunshine, fun and laughter. And suddenly it was autumn and time to go to Japan. Bryony arrived to house-sit, packing was completed, doggies and donkeys kissed goodbye, sheep checked, chickens counted and we were in the car en route for Heathrow.
A long flight and a two hour journey on the Shinkansen from Tokyo found us standing on Maiboro station in western Japan. Another hour’s car journey and we arrived in Hino in Shiga Province, just north east of Kyoto. The little old town sits on the flat plains under the shadow of huge black mountains surrounded by rice fields and spared, we were assured, from frequent earthquakes.

Six months ago our son, Tom and Nolly moved into an old merchant’s house, one of several in the town, built around 1780. The merchants stored their goods and housed their families in these beautiful old houses while they, themselves, travelled up and down the country following the Shogun.

The house has been empty some twenty years so very careful restoration was called for. By chance Nolly was at Art School with a local Buddhist monk who introduced them to a builder specialising in the old skills and traditional craft necessary to bring the house back to life.

The garden needs help too. Some lovely traditional planting has survived and some has not. We had a wonderful time planning and planting; part Japanese, part European. A busman’s holiday, you could say, but oh what fun we had!

I particularly loved the second hand plant nursery which furnished us with a large number of pot bound trees and shrubs just longing to be liberated!

We had wonderful days exploring too. A visit to a fishing village on the shores of the beautiful lake Biwa just north of Hino, a boat trip in the old town of Omihatchiman, Temples and Shrines, craft galleries and old traditional shops full of hidden treasures.

We visited Shigaraki, one of the five famous Japanese pottery towns up in the mountains. A tour round the old kilns ended with traditional green tea with a potter’s wife. And Hino itself boasts a gallery of sensational work by Bernard Leech.

And, of course, we ate amazing food! Nolly is a wonderful cook producing meal after meal without any apparent effort. We ate thin sliced local Hino marbled beef and sausages made from pigs fed on German cake! We had salads with figs, tomatoes and parmesan cheese, chicken grilled with soy sauce covered in leeks and mild green peppers.

We had yam with nori and soy sauce, octopus cooked with lotus root, hot red peppers and crushed garlic. There was salted and fermented Crucian Carp stuffed with rice and cured in barrels, delicious baked Sea Bream, plates of noodles topped with glistening fish row; I could go on!

Tyzo came to stay, the Bonito Man. We met him in Dartmouth last year at the Food Festival. He bought with him his special dry tuna or bonito and we enjoyed an extraordinary BBQ in the kitchen. The two storey room has a chimney in the roof. I watched in wonder as the smoke rose up through the rafters and out into the night sky without filling the room at all!

A second similar feast was arranged by the builder craftsman and his foreman who arrived with a huge ice box of deliciousness. They proceeded to light said BBQ again, this time with blow torch and hairdryer. A hilarious afternoon followed with much laughter, Saki and a taxi home for them at 7pm.

I visited butchers whose cutting skills are quite different to ours, wonderful fish shops offering fish from the Sea of Japan that I don’t recognise. I went to French patisseries with a Japanese twist. I bought homemade rice crackers from an old lady in a tiny purple shop and visited a friend with a shop selling beer, saki and Japanese wine. Hino has an enormous supermarket and the best home store I’ve ever visited. Nolly laughed when I came out with huge bags of gardening gloves and big, brown paper bags for storing rice: the latter beautiful enough to hang on any wall.

And then suddenly we were on that bullet train; in Tokyo again swirling around Shinagawa station in perpetual rush hour. We were in the airport, on the plane and six thousand miles later, home in Devon.

And now a brief respite, but not for long: some sixteen Japanese arrive next week for the Dartmouth Food Festival. This will be their fourth visit. They will run cookery workshops, a stall in the Market Square and host a Japanese dinner for sixty at Alfresco’s Restaurant. I can’t wait!

And finally they will join us for dinner here at home at Bramble Torre: my privilege to cook for them!

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Jun 27 2017

Bramble Torre garden June 2017

Bramble Torre Garden, June 2017 from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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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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