Oct 25 2007

Difficult Times


Standing on the top of the hill, I watch my neighbour turn fields of stubble into rich, rolling acres of dark chocolate once more. Gulls mob his tractor in a huge white cloud taking advantage of an easy meal. As I walk on with the dogs to check the sheep a lazy wind blows across the fields. Too lazy to make it’s way around, it goes straight through me with an icy lick. In the past few weeks we’ve had some golden, glowing, autumn days but now the sky has turned slate grey. The valley seems suddenly to be hunkering down and preparing for the swift decent into winter.

Welly and Meg bound on ahead, but little old Min is getting slower now, fourteen next month. The new kittens have taken to cross country walking too which is a little unnerving as they’re still so small. They race along behind me meowing every few yards to make sure I’m still with them. Once home they lick tiny paws and collapse exhausted, for just a little while! I had forgotten just what fun kittens can be! Thank you Phil! ( OldTraditions, New Skills; July 2007)

Kittens1 Img_0210_2

On the other side of the valley they’re cutting maize; a huge spume of green pours from the funnel of the forager and, blowing in the wind, tries to fill the following trailers. All is being gathered in. The hills are alive with the sound of tractors!

Old Thomas Tusser’s words float into my mind……

“The rye in the ground, while September doth last:

October, for wheate sowing, calleth as fast:

What euer it cost thee, what euer thou geue;

Haue done sowing wheate before halowmas eue”.

The Whiteface ewes graze quietly on our hillside alongside this year’s ewe lambs. The recent Foot and Mouth problems have prevented us form buying a new ram to introduce fresh blood into our flock. There will be very few lambs for us next spring. The two young Whiteface boys, progeny of our ewes, are in with the cross bred sheep to give us just a few cross bred lambs to sell next year.


The annual Whiteface Sheep Sale finally took place in Exeter last week after two cancellations. The repercussions of the recent outbreak are nationwide and the gloom at the market was tangible. Old friends gave a cheerful, warm greeting to each other on the day but, caught in repose, worry and sadness was etched across so many faces; how to get through the winter with the low stock prices, soaring feed costs and unsold stock to feed for the cold months ahead. “If I don’t sell my sheep today the twenty day stand still will prevent me getting my cattle to the next sale” and so on and so on.




Our spirits lifted briefly as we won first prize for the best pen of shearling lambs.Firstprize

This pushed the price up a bit for us but was short lived when we came to sell, or rather almost give away a ram. Our only consolation was that we new he’d gone to a good home; not much help to our bank balance though. At least we didn’t have to bring unsold animals home and had an empty trailer to hose down before we were allowed to leave the livestock market.



On a happier note we visited the Rare Breed poultry sale a couple of weeks ago where prices were higher and faces happier. We replaced the old friends lost in the great Midsummer Murder in June, with three fine large Light Sussex hens with huge white petticoats, three pretty, speckled Welsummers and two handsome Rhode Island Reds. Last night as I shut them safely into their fox proof (I hope!) shed for the night, a loud cheeping led me to an old crate high up in the implement shed where a black bantam was fiercely guarding ten tiny newly hatched chicks. We don’t sell eggs any more after the massacre but nevertheless nature is replenishing our chicken population for us. The foxes, fat and full, must surly still have a very well stocked larder. I hope they stay away for a while.


The apple harvest has been wonderful; branches weighed to the ground with abundance. At last our new orchard is bearing fruit; old varieties planted with the help of a matched grant by our local council several years ago, in an effort to stem the flow of disappearing orchards across the country. But, alas there are fewer and fewer people crushing apples for cider and juice now. So we’ve bought our own little kit; oh, such hard work! For two days Paul gathered apples in a wheelbarrow, chopped them, crushed them, and then pressed out the juice.

Img_0553 Fillingpress Pressing

A five galleon plastic drum sits in the warm kitchen. Each time he passes it he peers at the air lock trying to detect a sign of fermentation as he dreams of delicate, gently sparkling Normandy cider! Meanwhile I rack off juice into old screw top bottles and pasteurise the apple juice in a giant saucepan.


This is the time for pickles and preserves; a comforting way to fill the larder for the cold months ahead. Tomatoes in spiced vinegar to add a summer zing to winter meals, green tomato and apple chutney to cut through the richness of cold pork. The unctuous, velvety smooth jam made from those wild plums growing near the top barn, will add luxury to toast and coffee. Pickled eggs come round again, so does apple and quince cheese and huge piles of apple puree to freeze for pies and crumbles.

Tomatoes in spiced vinegar

I have never preserved cherry tomatoes in spiced vinegar before so this year is a bit of an experiment. I filled sterilised kilner jars with tiny, freshly picked tomatoes which I pricked with a wooden cocktail stick. I added basil leaves, lemon zest and black peppercorns. Then I covered them with hot spiced vinegar. I push the tomatoes down with the handle of a wooden spoon to get rid of air pockets and made sure the top ones were well covered with vinegar. Then I covered them with a wax disc and sealed the jars at once. I used new seals on the kilner jars. .

To spice the vinegar I brought distilled, clear white vinegar and a little clear apple juice to the boil, took it off the heat and infused it with a bag of mixed spice; cloves, black pepper corns, dried chilli, coriander seed, allspice berries; you can make your own mix. But one thing I have discovered is if you boil the vinegar with the spices it will go cloudy and spoil the tomatoes. So I let it cool, take out the spice bag, reheat and pour over the tomatoes.

Apple and Tomato Chutney

My chutney making is very random. I simply use whatever I have a glut of each year. This time it was, of course, tomatoes, red and green and loads of apple. So I chopped 250 gms of onion, with 500gms of peeled and cored apples, 750gms of tomatoes and a couple of lemons and threw them in a large stainless steel pan.

As the fruit softened gently I added 250ml of cider vinegar, 500gms light brown sugar, a couple of finely chopped chillies, a tablespoon of mustard seeds and a tablespoon of coarse sea salt. You can add raisins but I’m not keen on them in chutney. I added a spice bag with the apple skin and cores, some peppercorns, coriander seeds, cloves and allspice berries.

I let it all cook gently for up an hour until the liquid has evaporated and the mixture is thick and rich but not too jammy. Then I take out the spice bag and ladle the chutney into warm sterilized jars being careful not to burn myself and seal  immediately. I label the jars and keep them in a cool dark place for a few weeks to mature.

Chutney adds deliciousness to so many things; cold meats, bread and cheddar cheese, warming winter curries! Wonderful!

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Difficult Times”

  1. ali & rogon 25 Oct 2007 at 8:57 pm

    yet again , a nice read on such a horrid raining evening, well done and please give sage & onion a big kiss from me x
    A & R.

  2. tomon 01 Nov 2007 at 5:01 pm

    well done on the lambs!
    That kitten on the gate is a winner too.

    (don’t suppose you can send some cider to tokyo?)

    love, tx

  3. Travers Mikeon 06 Nov 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Always a wonderful read and beautiful reminders of home – love to you both

  4. roseon 06 Nov 2007 at 9:08 pm

    lovely to hear about your new hens… and chicks already. thanks for another vibrant picture of your life and the area around. great chutney receipe too, lots of love, Rx

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