Dec 15 2013

Endings and New Beginnings

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. T.S. Elliot.

The seasons rotate relentlessly, round we go and here we are again. Another year ends; a new year waits in the wings. Endings and new beginnings; the cycle continues. Last winter dragged its feet into a wet and freezing spring. Slowly a glowing summer crept up on us bathing the valley in sunshine at last. Autumn followed, gentle and mild, leading us round once more into winter.

Now naked trees swirl eerily in a wintery mist, days are short. We catch our breath in the freezing early morning air, in the half light of dawn, as we trudge up to the yard across fields white with frost. Christmas approaches oblivious to the tragedies and triumphs of the past year.

Things come to an end regardless of whether we are ready or not. Sometimes the end is abrupt sometimes gentle. Sometimes we’re left in shock and grief struggling with sadness and pain. Sometimes we see the end approaching far away on the horizon and have time to plan. This year we have suffered both; two loved ones dying suddenly and violently and then an old acquaintance leaving us on the other side of the world.

Yet another shock awaited us. Stephen left us suddenly to return to his Kentish roots after twenty years working with us here at Bramble Torre. We miss his quiet reassuring presence, his gentle humour and extraordinary ability to anticipate exactly what needed doing ahead of time. His departure was very abrupt which made things so much worse: the inevitable conditions of selling ones house means there is no room for manoeuvre if you want to hang on to a keen purchaser. The buyer calls the tune. So it was with Stephan and ten days from exchange of contract he was gone. It felt like yet another bereavement.

Dear old Bunty finally left us too some three weeks ago. I miss the gentle little donkey but her end was peaceful and the last fifteen years of her life here so much better than what had gone before. The two other donkeys watched her passing. They paced about eeyoring loudly but seemed to settle as they saw her go to her resting place in Sunday Orchard to be with her erstwhile companions, Dandy and old Sweep. It’s strange just having two little donkeys after all these years.

But it was not all negative. Old friends married each other, babies were christened , birthdays celebrated. We spent a lazy week in the Scilly’s gazing at the ocean and walking in the autumn sun.

And so to new beginnings: a skip graces the yard now heralding a fresh start. Methodically we work our way through the great sheds removing rubbish accumulated over years and years. Oh how cathartic it is to see it go !

The pigs have gone too. Theirs was a short but happy life !

pigs in mud from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

The rams have left the ewes, their job done. Now they stare wistfully at the Harem through the fence. The other day as I climbed the hill to the top barn I caught the girls gambolling like over grown lambs; great pregnant bundles of wool dancing round Quarry Field leaping in the air and spinning on the spot. Suddenly they spotted me laughing and stood quite still staring as if to say “qui moi”: so much for “the secret lives of sheep” I thought.

George comes on Monday mornings now. He speaks to the donkeys in Romanian, the sheep too, as, smiling quietly, he brings them gently down the hill to the farmyard.

Life changes, life goes on, lambing will begin soon, chicks will hatch; new life waiting in the wings! The cycle continues, soon it will be spring.

Happy Christmas once more.

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Oct 10 2013

Tarte au Pomme 2013

A beautiful warm enchanting summer has drifted into soft golden autumn. The geese have arrived once more flying in perfect squadrons overhead before landing clumsily on the creek just beyond the gate. House martins line up on the telephone wires preparing to leave; my shadow lengthens as I walk across the top fields checking the sheep.
Soon the ewes will meet Fred, our new handsome Whiteface fellow and the cycle will begin again. The pigs are turning into hippos now, big and pink and fat; roast pork, bacon, sausages on the horizon! There is lamb in the freezer too and the new chickens have started to lay: a bountiful harvest indeed.
The hedgerows are bursting with blackberries and wild plums and the orchard overflows with apples, far more than four fat Middlewhites can eat.
“How do you make those apple tarts, Sal” friends ask me over and over again.

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Oct 03 2013

Tarte au Pomme

Tarte au Pomme from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Sep 01 2013

Leftover Chicken Pie

A delicious smell of chicken stock floats into the study as I write, the very last vestiges of a delicious local free range bird I bought from the Pollards last week. We’re hard to please when it comes to chickens having spent so many years raising table birds ourselves. But this was as good as anything we used to sell! And it provided so many meals. First I cooked traditional roast chicken. The following day a wonderful cold chicken salad, then a chicken and mushroom pie with added Hogs Pudding. The latter made by the aforesaid Richard Pollard even won the approval of by my Cornish husband! This evening a risotto and still to go, stock for soup, even scraps as a treat for the dogs! Not bad for one small chicken.

Left over chicken pie

Strip the last pieces of meat from the carcase. Use the bones to make stock for soup.

Finely chop a small onion or shallot in a little butter and oil (the oil stops the butter burning)

When the onion is soft but not coloured add sliced mushrooms, a little chopped bacon and Hogs Pudding if you can get it. It tends to be available only in the West Country.

Cook gently for a few minutes then stir in stock or left over gravy to a creamy consistency. Thicken with corn flour if necessary.

Add the chicken and some chopped parsley. Taste and season accordingly.

Tip into a pie dish. Cover with ready-made puff pastry. Brush with beaten egg and bake for till crisp and golden in a hot oven 200 c

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Aug 14 2013

Summer Gardens

Weeks, months have flown by as gardens, gardeners and gardening dominate my life! No time to write, no time to read, just “weed, weed, weed”!
This year the National Garden Scheme declared June 15th & 16th would be their first National Garden Festival Weekend. It put us all in a flurry; some 800 gardens would open on the same weekend nationwide. After the worst sodden winter and freezing spring on record how on earth could we bring off a Festival of any sort by June! Gardens up and down the country had been devastated by relentless rain, snow, flooding; how would we all pull our gardens round to something worthy of a visit!
The incessant wet and cold made the ground impossible to dig, rotted roots and held plants in limbo in the ground for months. My heart sank and I was not alone, every gardener I spoke to talked of years of work gone by the board. Very slowly, tiny signs of spring appeared at last, our spirits rose, well, just a tad. Then suddenly everything burst out all at once. Daffodils so late, lingered with the primroses while snowdrops, still fading, sat defiantly around them. Rhododendrons mixed with forget-me-nots and the first blue geraniums. The embothrium sang scarlet against the heavens for weeks right into the middle of June, azaleas loitered but cold roses kept their buds tightly shut till well into July; how strange it was!
Despite depressing weather forecasts we finally downed tools and opened our gates in mid- June breaking our own record in this our fifth year of opening. We welcomed more than160 visitors to our garden over the two afternoons. Wind did bend branches and clouds scuttered across the sometime blue sky but, contrary to Met office warnings, the storm never happened and cream teas disappeared at an amazing rate: big fat scones freshly baked and donated by the wonderful Anchorstone café were topped with strawberry jam and thick clotted cream kindly supplied by Stuart at the Dartmouth Dairy.

When the July sun burst upon us burning down at last, the reluctant roses were more dramatic than I can ever remember. Seagull cascaded over the pond, Margaret Merrill bent under great clusters of flowers, the new regosas’s flourished and Rosa Mundi stole the show. Even the feeble little Icebergs, planted in such terrible soggy soil, rallied stoically. Delphiniums opened somewhat coyly at last, poppies of all varieties sprang up uninvited everywhere even hostas were extraordinarily slug free.

And now at last the vegetables are finally catching up too. Planting was so late into cold water logged ground. Beans have reached the top of their canes at last and sweet peas decided to put on a brilliant show after all.

Red Cabbage is statuesque, a glut in store which will at least thrill the chickens! Only the tomatoes continue to look a little less robust while aubergines are flourishing, the largest I have ever grown!

A funny year indeed.
And now after months, nay seasons, of record breaking rain fall, the recent drought has already turned the lawn brown. We watch anxiously at the browning valley as we move our sheep from field to field to share the sparse rations. The sprinkler is working overtime as borders wilt in the heat. And yet we cannot but celebrate summer and sunshine at last.

At the end of July six gardens in our beautiful village opened their gates for the second time to visitors in aid, once more, of the NGS. Meetings were held, plans were made, signs were put up, a beautiful map produced, an extra car park and community bus made available, scones donated once more by the Anchorstone Café, cream from Dartmouth Dairy, jam from Kendricks Bistro. Gardeners gardened nay manicured for the occasion. Volunteers manned the car park, helped with the teas, took the money at the garden gates, sold plants. Artists and Craftspeople displayed their work.
And it paid off! Saturday was busy with a steady flow of visitors but nothing prepared us for Sunday. People began arriving by car and by ferry at least an hour or so before the gardens opened. They had obviously heard Paul Vincent on the Potting Shed on Radio Devon in the morning. Or maybe they read about us in the Western Morning News or were simply loyal followers of The NGS Yellow Book; one things for sure they arrived in droves. Gardens filled with admiring, aspiring gardeners, cream teas flew out of the kitchen, the bus trundled breathless people back and forth. “How do you manage these steep hills?” they asked time and time again; villagers just smiled while our wonderful gardens and their hard working owners glowed in the sunshine! All in all it turned into the most incredible weekend

Last year we raised a wonderful £2400 but nothing prepared us for this year. Gradually I collected the money from each garden, I counted the tea money. I counted it again. I counted all the money over and over. I couldn’t believe my sums! This year we have broken the county record for any group village garden opening. We raised an astonishing £3036!!! All the money goes to the National Garden Scheme who pass it on to Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Cure Cancer Care, Help the Hospices and The Carers Trust plus related guest nursing charities. For the last 86 years NGS has worked with garden owners to improve lives, over the last ten years NGS has raised a staggering ten million pounds for these charities; well worth the anxiety, effort and hard work of doing something we gardeners love!
As Assistant County Organiser for NGS South Devon I must say a huge thank you to all the gardeners and people of Dittisham who made the weekend not only possible but such a huge success : months of hard work, generosity and good cheer, a community effort overflowing with goodwill. And particular thanks must go to Marina Pusey. Without Marina’s help, I could not have even begun to make it happen.

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Jul 15 2013


dragonfly from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Jun 11 2013

A June Garden

garden June 13 from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Apr 12 2013

April 2013: Surely the Coldest Spring

Mid April and still we wait for the gentle warmth of spring. For weeks now, just as we looked forward to the end of a long hard winter, a searing east wind has held us in its grip. It howls through the valley, over the hilltops to the sea, across the Moor carrying lashing rain in a freezing sideways curtain in its wake. Plants stand in limbo, camellias brown on the bushes, daffodils bow their heads in submission, no blossom yet, no greening on the branches. Our drive was washed away again, fields waterlogged, grass nowhere to be seen. We pumped for two hours to get rid of a foot of water inside the sheep shed yet again. A digger arrived and stayed a week redirecting the underground stream, a one-time ford we are told, by our gate. Land drains were dug, the stream dredged and still we squelch across the fields and welcome brown muddy sheep into the yard for tea.

But we’re not in Wales, Cumbria or Scotland. Hard and wild as the winter has been for South Devon, we have not had to face the unbearable tragedy of the hill farmers whose flocks have been lost under snowdrifts so huge, in winds so strong they had to abandon their search or be lost themselves. The heart break, the hardship, the sadness and the cost are almost unbearable to even think about but those farmers have had to face it all and many now face ruin as well as a result of this extraordinary winter. A winter only matched by the national farming tragedy all those years ago in 1946/47.

Down south we’re all in it together too as we ask each other who has grass, who has some straw, who has hay. Our hay was baled damp last soaking summer so it emits clouds of mould when each bale is broken open. Sheep and donkeys are not impressed. “Water it with liquid molasses” said Keith, our farming neighbour, “it washes off the mould, makes it palatable and does them good”.

It’s these tips from long term farming friends which help so much. “Don’t go buying hay” says Farmer Phil “have a bale of mine. No, I don’t want anything for it” So I’ll be at the Farmers Market tomorrow with some of my own sausages and bacon for him; he’s a sheep farmer so I hope pork will make a change.

Farmer Phil

It’s twenty years since we bought our first sheep but we’re still nowhere near these boys whose families have been farming for generations. It takes a long time to be accepted into the farming community but once in the support is wonderful. Paul has just been voted in as President of the Whiteface Dartmoor Sheep Breeders Association. And as if that’s not enough of an honour in itself he’s a Cornishman in Devon; some achievement!

Mr President!

The Association was formed in 1950 when farmers on Dartmoor realised the breed was on its’ way to extinction. They realised too, the value of these ancient sheep that can withstand the freezing conditions of the Moor surviving on pastures between 500 and 2000 feet above sea level.  In better times, way back in the C18th when they were also known as Widecombe Whitefaces the breed spread right across the Westcountry but as their numbers diminished they retreated to the Moor. Today they are listed as “Breed at Risk” on the Natural England Register.

Our Girls!

Happily now numbers are gradually beginning to grow as farmers across the country realise their value when crossed with other breeds. The great mothering instincts of the Whiteface crossed with a Teeswater or Bluefaced Leicester produce a very hardy mule capable of raising multiple lambs. Cross a Whiteface with a Suffolk, or, as we do sometimes, a Jacob and you will have truly delicious roast lamb!

And here we are lambing again in this coldest of springs. I like to think the ewes are holding on to their babies to keep them warm inside but I know the real reason is that Big Dez, our ram, didn’t show much interest in his task for the first couple of weeks of his “tup”. Two weeks into lambing and we have just three lambs. No doubt they will arrive in a rush all at once. As the east wind drops and the temperature creeps up this may not be such a bad thing after all. Maybe Spring will burst upon us at last and the grass will even begin to grow and there will be something for them to eat on the hills when they finally decide to be born.

Porter gets out of the rain!

Making the most of a small chicken!

Time is limited as we paddle up to the yard in the pouring rain, feed sheep, wait for reluctant lambs to born and return to the house soaking wet, hungry and tired.

On Monday I “spatch-cocked” a chicken; that is to say I turned it upside down, cut out the back bone and squashed it flat!

The expression Spatch-cock is said to have come from C18th Ireland; a farmyard chicken was quickly dispatched, split and fried or grilled to provide a quick meal for an unexpected guest.

Mine went into a hot oven for about half an hour having been spread generously with olive oil, crushed garlic, dried herbs, coarse sea salt, and black pepper: delicious, warming and quick.

On Tuesday we had a chicken and avocado salad with a baked potato and on Wednesday evening I put the bones in the pressure cooker with a shallot and made a quick stock. With this I made a simple mushroom and chicken risotto topped with Parmesan cheese.

Three quick meals from one small bird!

Spatch-Cock Chicken from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Mar 10 2013

March 2013 The Chain of Events: One Small Farmer’s Perspective

Gradually the land is draining, flood water subsides, our barns dry out, the stream slows to its usual sombre pace. Rain, gentle now, wraps us in a fine mist, the air is warmer, the wind has dropped. Maybe spring will arrive after all. Snowdrops fade as primroses and daffodils push their way through the sodden ground. Crocus wait for a rare flash of sunlight to transform their petals into silk. Camellias are late this year and early blossom hardly shows against a steel grey sky.

We fled to sunshine in the hills of southern Portugal last week for six days of silence. We gazed out across another world to a distant ocean under a blue sky. Bougainvillea flowered above the door, lemons, ripe for picking, glistened in the little garden, goats meandered in the neighbour’s field and the air was rich with the heady scent of oranges carpeting the ground.
Home again refreshed after such a dismal January and February; our hopes are now on March to cheer us up. Ewes are getting rounder as lambing approaches but grass is sparse. Excitement is tinged with anxiety this year with stories in the local press of ewes in lamb being slaughtered in the field just miles from here. And we will not be sure we have escaped the dreadful Smallenberg virus until our lambs are born. So bitter sweet weeks lie ahead as we face the inevitable exhaustion of lambing; that strange tiredness outweighed by the joy of new life. Let us hope that, after all, this year will be no different.

Rain, flooding, lack of grass, anxieties about the safety of our livestock, the horrors of the Smallenberg virus and now the food contamination scandal, all in just a few short weeks: farming is tougher than usual right now. It’s a lifestyle we either inherit or become addicted too, a way of being not easily abandoned. And yet farmers, who, contrary to an urban myth, are not the complainers the press would have you believe, are becoming ground down; the wettest winter for some hundred years, flooding, poor crops, rising price of fuel and fodder, and now the “horsemeat scandal”.

Personally I believe this exposure of the dreadful deception of food production and food labelling is a good thing. For too long the finger has pointed in the wrong direction or in no direction at all. Few people know exactly what they are eating or are aware of just how many hoops farmers have to jump through, how much legislation and control surround the breeding and movement of farm animals. Make a visit to the DEFRA website for a glimpse of the rules.
Before any animal leaves the farm all must have ear tags in place, one of which must be electronic. The tags must give the flock number on one side and the animal’s individual number on the other.
Four copies of movement forms must be completed before any animal is taken anywhere: the White copy must go to the Local Authority of the destination premises within three days of movement. The Pink Copy is given to the Receiving location and must record the Keeper’s Holding Number and Slaughterhouse number, if relevant, as well as arrival time and time animals are unloaded. This must be signed by the Keeper.
The Blue copy is for the haulier who must hold a City & Guilds NPTC Animal Transport Licence. The Yellow copy, retained by the Keeper, records the keepers Holding Number of his or her land, name and address, flock identification number, individual animal number, declaration that animals are fit for the food chain, departure date , loading time, duration of journey; I could go on.

This is just what we do with sheep and pigs but I have been scouring the net for all the other regulations recently i.e. cows and equines all have “passports”, a ministry vet must be present when all animals arrive at the abattoir, the Little Red Tractor insists on the highest welfare standards. There are movement restrictions on animals arriving and leaving any new premises etc etc.
We are lucky. Our local abattoir is small and excellently run and most importantly nearby. Having pressure washed our land rover and our trailer inside and out before loading as per the regulations, we take our animals early in the morning. They are unloaded and quickly and humanely despatched. The minimum delay not only spares the animals unnecessary distress but enhances the quality of the meat. Distressed, frightened animals produce adrenaline which in turn makes the meat tough.
Once dead the animals are skinned and their heads removed: no more ear tag identification. “So how do you know your butcher can identify your lambs when he collects them for butchery”, a customer asked me recently. Confident in the integrity, efficiency and honesty of the abattoir I use I assured them they were indeed eating my lamb and pork. But it started me thinking and as I read more and more alarming stories in the press I realised how fortunate we are to have a small honest, efficient, hygienic, humane abattoir just a few miles from our farm.
But what of the huge commercial outfits where lorries come and go all day long unloading animals that have been transported to the very brink of their legal allowance. Abattoirs where animals, held for hours in pens before slaughter, smell death. Once killed they travel along the conveyor belt, heads gone, tags gone, identity gone: where then traceability, the form filling, ear tagging, haulage regulations. In the light of all the recent horrifying press coverage are all these exercises in form filling worth any more than the papers they written on?
Philip Clarke, Tesco Chief, said at the recent NFU 2013 Conference in Birmingham that “Customers don’t like what they’ve been hearing about how some of the meat they put on their plates is produced.” How right he is. It is hard to believe that the huge supermarkets have not played some indirect part in all this. Not perhaps in any way intending to mislead customers but by pressuring suppliers to come up with the cheapest option regardless of content. Labelling has become meaningless
And it is the people on the lowest incomes who have the least choice and, I fear, are being taken advantage of the most. They have little choice but to buy the cheapest food in good faith only to learn now that the content is not what they expected. It may even contain something unidentifiable called MSM used to keep price down and bind and bulk up processed meat products.
MSM, mechanically separated meat, replaces the now disallowed MRM, mechanically recovered meat, the residue left on the carcass after butchering which was pressure washed off the bones by machinery. The reddish slurry resembling runny mince has been replaced by MSM, low pressure desinewed meat which looks more like mince. MSM now replaces MRM which was banned by the EU after fears it might contain traces of BSE contaminated spinal cord.
Suddenly it becomes clear how traces of pork might turn up in burgers served to Muslim prisoners or to the Orthodox Jewish community when MSM is used as a filler. Not promising either for the quality of food served in schools and hospitals on tight catering budgets.
And then there is the whole question of horse meat. It is an emotive issue. I personally don’t want to eat horse meat. Horses are not bred on the farm for meat. They have, as far as I’m concerned, a completely other purpose. But many people do not share my reservations and eat horsemeat happily. There are perfectly clean wholesome horse butchers all over Europe.

Trixie, as she came to us from the RSPCA

But what of the race horses that are no longer winning, the barren mares, all those now unwanted children’s ponies bought on a whim, Romanian cart horses made redundant under new highway legislation? They all cost money to feed, take time and money to care for. So much simpler to off load them to some unscrupulous dealer who will ease them into the food chain regardless of performance enhancing drugs, antibiotics and anything else unsuitable for human consumption, no questions asked. Once again with all meat production and consumption the real issue is human responsibility towards animal welfare and traceability.

Trixie, one year later
Then there are the abattoirs who ask no questions either. Go to the Guardian on Line for some truly shocking footage of horses and ponies being hit with iron bars to force them into the slaughter pens and thence into the food chain regardless of any regulations. And some of these places I am ashamed and disgusted to say are here in Britain.
So to quote Philip Clarke again at the NFU Conference “where it is reasonable to do so Tesco will source from British producers….I am in no doubt that we will find things we don’t like. But when we find them, we will change them”
I hope he means it and I hope others will follow.
Peter Kendall, NFU President, used his opening address to the conference to call on supermarkets to source more from British farmers and growers. He said that, while supermarkets already bragged about sourcing certain meats, fresh fruit or dairy products in the UK, they needed to extend this activity to cheaper and processed foods.
“It’s clear that the longer a supply chain and the more borders it crosses, the less traceable our food is and the more the chain is open to negligence at best, fraud and criminal activity at worst,” Kendall said.
He added: “We now need the supermarkets to stop scouring the world for the cheapest products they can find and start sourcing high-quality, traceable products from farmers here at home.” (British Farmer & Grower NFU Conference Special: President’s Speech 2013)

Farmers so often get a bad press at worst or misunderstood press at best: “farmers complaining again” goes the strap line. Most of us work hard and do our best; certainly all the farmers I know put their heart and soul into their farms and the care and welfare of their livestock. We are inundated by inspectors: Trading Standards, Health and Safety, Environmental Health, Food Standards Agency, DEFRA, EU Regulations to name but a few and, though sometimes irksome, a very good thing it is too. But this surveillance is meaningless unless it follows the product right through to the customer who puts the food on their plate.

The old mantra holds firm: buy local, check the provenance of your food, ask hard questions, talk to farmers if you can and talk to the butchers be they on the High Street or in the supermarket. Demand the best.
Learn to cook!
Oranges in Cointreau!

Speaking of learning to cook, I bought an absurdly large net of ripe unctuous oranges in Portugal last week. They were irresistible, for sale by the side of the road direct from the farmer for just 2 Euro. Ripe and soft they bore no resemblance to the hard, artificially ripened, waxed orange tennis balls we buy here.
But what to do with then once home? I realised greed had driven me to weigh down my bag! I scoured my not so small collection of cookery books. No more marmalade this year, I’ve made too much already and spiced orange in vinegar just doesn’t appeal.

So I sliced the whole fruit very thin, poached the slices quickly in a strong sugar syrup, an equal quantity of water to sugar till slightly sticky and shiny. I potted up the glistening fruit into large Kilner jars and topped up the syrup with orange liqueur. The smell was wonderful. I sealed the jars and put them at the back of the fridge to mature.

Watch this space!

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Mar 03 2013

First Signs of Spring

FIRST SIGNS OF SPRING from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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