Jan 15 2010

New Year for Old

Snow has melted, now sleet drives sideways across the valley. As early afternoon January darkness falls, icy shards bounce off frozen ground. This is our twenty eighth Christmas, twenty eighth January in this beautiful valley and it is the very first one without the reassurance of a New Year snowdrop.

Rain fell relentlessly all through November. We slid muddily around the farmyard, squelching through soggy fields crushing any precious remaining grass despite our best efforts. Then it froze. Muddy farmyard turned to ice rink. Tractors slid around and so did we. All pipes ceased to yield water to thirsty animals. Thick ice sealed off all water troughs . At first a good kick shattered the surface, it got colder:-
A hammer became necessary to render a trickle, then eventually ice welded to plastic and the whole became a solid shining mass. We rigged up a bucket on a rope over the still flowing stream and laboriously heaved out gallons morning and evening. Sheep eating oats, beet shreds and haylage instead of grass sucked it up thirstily as fast as we could scoop.
Then the snow arrived. We don’t get snow in South Devon, at least not often. The last really bad winter here was 1986! I had forgotten just how upside down it turns our unaccustomed lives. Dogs, cats, donkeys, sheep have never seen anything like it.
“…..never seen anything like it!”
Chickens crowded at their pop hole, tentatively placed an outstretched claw on the strange shining white stuff, squawked and flew clumsily into the air. I laughed as I watched them dare to land, peck gingerly then retreat hastily into their shed in disgust only to try again minutes later in disbelief.
Dear old Dandy with his faithful friend Humphrey
The donkeys have been in their big barn for weeks now. Rain, ice and snow are no friends to them. Dear old Dandy finally gave up the fight on a cold December Friday just before Christmas. He died quietly in true stoical donkey fashion, no fuss, no struggle. On the Wednesday evening he eeyored to me across a wet field, warm inside his big blue coat, reluctant to walk down the slope into the yard for tea. I coaxed him and talked to him and, oh so slowly, he tottered stiffly into the big barn. On Thursday I kept them all inside. He seemed a little better but on Friday morning we found him lying in the straw exhausted. We propped his head on a thick bed of straw, covered him with his coat and took it in turns to sit with him, his head in our lap, stroking his big soft ears, tears gently rolling down our cheeks as we came to terms with his inevitable departure. He simply faded gently away and by evening he had left us. Dear boy had a wonderful fifteen years here and although very, very old indeed, about thirty eight we think, left us a well fed happy donkey, a far cry from the skinny , mangy fellow we loaded into a trailer with his balding friend, Sweep, all those years ago. We buried him beside her and once the ground allows, we will plant a walnut tree nearby to give him summer shade. He was the sweetest, most gentle fellow, friend to so many children, frequent star of Nativity and Easter Procession. We miss him badly.
“…..we will miss him badly”

Christmas came and went, happily despite Dandy’s demise, with all the fun that children bring to the yearly ritual; decorating the tree, hanging up stockings, Father Christmas, unwrapping presents, struggling to church on Christmas morning on the ice, roast turkey, mistletoe, Christmas pud, friends, laughter, love, happiness, five dogs, crackers, chaos, treasure hunt, champagne, regular sorties to the farmyard to feed animals, kiss donkeys, play on the climbing frame, try out new roller blades, trudge through muddy icy fields, sing carols, eat too much. New Year found us with our dear old friends once again for a quiet delicious dinner; a good omen for the year ahead.
…..a good omen for the year ahead?
This is the time of the year to gather friends around for long warming delicious lunches.; to eat comforting food, and drink wine by a log fire, to exchange stories, love and laughter till the snowdrops finally arrive and the first daffodils peer nervously above crumpled grass assuring me that spring really will roll around again.

Chicken with Garlic, Chorizo and Fennel

The Dit’sum Players came to lunch just before Christmas, some twenty two of us in all squashed up in our dining room. I cooked a huge dish of chicken with shallots, fennel. celeriac, pancetta, chorizo, potatoes, olives and whole cloves of garlic; a kind of Orvieto with Spanish overtones. It was delicious! We ate it with baked vegetables in cheese sauce, boiled potatoes and green salad followed by apricot and apple tarts, ice cream and cheese and biscuits.

For four people:

1 plump chicken thigh or drumstick per person ( allow a few extra for second helpings!)
Two or three fat chopped shallots or a large sliced onion
3 bulbs of garlic ; about20 cloves left whole and unpeeled
2 cloves of garlic crushed with salt
Large head of Fennel and 400grms celeriac both cut into match sticks
400 grms cooking Chorizo sausage sliced thickly
150ml dry white wine
150ml chicken stock (stock cube if you must!)
A few black olives
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Brown chicken pieces in olive oil. Stir in chorizo, crushed garlic and shallots ; sizzle for a few minutes to soften. Add stock and wine, stir well to deglaze pan scraping gently with a wooden spoon. Bring to steady simmer and put in a moderate oven for thirty minutes.
Meanwhile blanch fennel, whole garlic cloves and celeriac for 2 minutes , plunging all into fast boiling water.
Drain thoroughly and add to chicken and chorizo. Cook a further 10 minutes. Test chicken is cooked through.
Drain off juices and use to make veloute sauce. Melt 25gms butter in a small pan. Stir in 25grms flour off the heat then slowly add 300ml of pan juices stirring continuously till smooth. You may need to make up the quantity with extra stock. Stir over heat till thick and very hot. Continue for a couple more minutes to make sure flour is cooked.
Pour the sauce over the chicken, scatter with olives and serve.

Turkey Pie

Friends and family sat down to a huge Turkey Pie for a post Boxing Day lunch.

I chopped some shallots, a few sticks of celery and a big handful of mushrooms before quickly sautéing them in olive oil and a little butter. To this I added a handful of dried herbs, the remains of the gravy, bread sauce and chestnut stuffing with dregs of red wine from the bottom of a Christmas Day bottle. I stripped all the turkey meat from the carcass and put it in a big pie dish. I tasted the rich hot sauce, added salt and pepper then poured it over the meat. I rolled out some ready made pastry, covered the meat using my dear old blackbird chimney to let out the steam as it cooked. I decorated it with pastry flowers and leaves in the traditional way, quickly brushed it with beaten egg and put it into a hot oven 180-200c for 30-40 minutes till crisp and golden: great way to use up the turkey

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