Nov 05 2016

Back to Bryher

The old Scillonian pitched and rolled her way along the Cornish coast, past Land’s End and beyond Wolf Rock lighthouse. Onward she ploughed into the vastness which is the Atlantic Ocean. White horses became rolling waves, whipped into magnificence by the roaring wind. As quickly as giant raindrops pelted the deck, brilliant sunlight steamed them away. A perfect rainbow bridged the sky framing the disappearing cliffs. We were on our way back to Bryher.

Each year we vow to explore somewhere new, each winter I find myself booking a cottage at Hillside Farm again! Azure blue sea and white sand have something to do with it. But there is so much more.  There is silence, no traffic , no bustling streets, just one shop, one  art gallery, one hotel, two cafes and   green, treeless hills rolling down to the sea. Boats ferry everyone everywhere. Boats take children to school, boats become doctors surgeries, boats take farm animals to market, boats bring all supplies to the islands, boats catch fish. Boats do everything. And everything boats do is dependent on the sea, the wind and the tide.

No night time predators stalk the island. Chickens, ducks and geese stroll around nonchalantly at dusk, no sign of a fox or a badger to threaten their sleep. Seagulls are the main annoyance and, for me at least, source of amusement. Not everyone agrees!

While sparrows queue in ordered battalions ready to pinch your pasty off your plate or eat it out of your hand, the seagulls have no such manners and simply move right in crash landing on the table and grabbing what they can with varied degrees of success!

Ruth and Graham have been at Hillside farm just over a year now. We met them last year and, of course, the top topic was farming; what new plans for Hillside farm? As we return a year later we are amazed at their progress. Beautiful Red Ruby cattle graze a hillside on the edge of the ocean. Gradually Graham is restoring the little fields and improving the grass. He trails great bowsers full of water across the rough ground to each little group; cows feeding with their calves here, bullocks there; no mains water to the fields.

Hillside Pigs have arrived too. We can see Babs and Betty from our cottage, noses down, foraging in the mud or sunbathing together. I love pigs and miss the days when I used to keep my own. They have to me something of the charm of dogs about them! But Ruth assures me this does not apply to grumpy Babs!

Away across the farm of perfect little hedge lined fields we meet the big boy, Jerry. “We called him after you” said Ruth. Paul and I look puzzled. “Well” she laughed “Graham thought your name was Jerry…..! “ A compliment of sorts, no doubt! Dina is the favourite sow who likes to have her ears tickled.

And then of course there are all the children.

Farming on Bryher requires a great deal of planning and lateral thinking. No farm store down the road. No garage to repair farm machinery. No vet on the island when things go wrong. No market or abattoir on the Isles of Scilly. The only way to get to any of these is by boat.

Animals are loaded into a stock box or trailer on the farm. The old land rover tows them down to the quay to meet the boat.  They cross the water for the forty minute trip to Hugh Town on St Mary’s. Then together with everything and everybody, it’s onto the Scillonian. Three hours later, weather permitting, they reach the mainland. That is in spring and summertime: the boat only sails to the mainland from March to the end of October; no winter crossings at all. From Penzance the trailer is hitched up and the animals are off to their final destination be it abattoir, market or farmer. It makes our road trips to Ashburton, Exeter and Kingsbridge seem very simple indeed!

Our week passed quickly and quietly in autumn sunshine. When we weren’t talking farming with Ruth and Graham we walked around the island by Great Pool, Gweal Hill and Sinking Porth up to Hell Bay and over the hill to Fraggle Rock Bar for fish and chips and a glass of wine. We had delicious take-away paella from “Island Fish”, and huge crab sandwich lunches in the sun on the terrace of the lovely Hell Bay Hotel looking out across the ocean to America.

We crossed the water to nearby Tresco and visited the famous sub-tropical Abbey Gardens. We’ve been there many times but the planting never ceases to amaze me. How different the climate is here, just thirty miles from the main land. Planted by Augustus Smith in 1834 over 2000 tender plants thrive in the seventeen acre garden all year round, not a glass house in sight!

Refreshed and restored once more we returned home, flat sea and sunshine all the way! Next September we are off to Japan again but somehow I feel sure we’ll fit in another trip to Bryher!

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Sep 21 2016

Wooodpeckers and Chutney!

Suddenly our shadows lengthen as Millie and I climb the hill to check the sheep. The sun sinks lower day by day. Cobwebs glisten in the morning light by the back door. Geese fly by in huge noisy squadrons, house martins line up on the wires and leave. There’s a chill in the morning air. Autumn has arrived
And so has Western Power Distribution; oh, thank goodness the birds have left!

“When’s the tarmac lorry arriving” says our neighbour with a wry smile. He’s spotted our devastated fields from his farm across the valley. He’s seen Steep Field, the name is explanation enough, a motorway ploughed right across it. Huge diggers have levelled the ground to make way for monstrous machines to trundle back and forth.

Holes, taller than a man, have been dug, rocks and boulders flung sideways, earth moved! No wonder all local building is of stone, what else to do with it!

“Woodpeckers, is it really woodpeckers?” I ask the digger driver hesitantly ”only my neighbour said…..”
He smiled “Yes, they cause us awful problems. They drill away at the poles looking for insects, get right inside sometimes. Then the poles become so badly damaged we have to replace them. They’re no longer safe to carry the huge weight of the electricity cables.”

He’s talking about the entire power supply to Dartmouth; all because of beautiful little woodpeckers. The great spotted, the lesser spotted and the green woodpecker; we often watch them all with delight as they feed on the poles or hang from our bird feeder, their wonderful colours glistening in the sun. Till now we had no idea of the damage they do. Can it be true?

Well, yes it is. The last weeks have proved it so. For days now a team of men have been going aloft in huge cherry-pickers skilfully erecting pylons and swinging cables weighing tons across the sky. We watch in horrified fascination as our farmland is turned upside down, the landscape changed overnight. Hurriedly we move sheep up onto the highest fields and confine the donkeys to barracks. And the whole valley resonates with the constant whirr of mighty machines and men’s voices raised above their rumble.

How will they put it all back? They promise they will restore everything: replace fencing, fill the vast craters, level the ground, re-seed, plant new trees. I wait in wonder and make chutney to keep out of the way! I will never take electricity for granted again!

Tomato Chutney

After a wonderful tomato crop, blight suddenly arrived in the greenhouse. It spread from plant to plant like wild fire, devastating everything almost overnight. I quickly picked all the remaining sound fruit before pulling up the withering plants and burning them. I made tomato sauce and roasted tomatoes with olive oil and basil and put them in the freezer. More are sitting in the kitchen in a basket waiting to ripen.

The rest are chutney. It is so simple to make and will cheer up a Ploughman’s Lunch right through the winter.
Though I search for a new recipes year by year I always seem to return to Rosemary Hume in my battered old ConstanceSpry Cookery Book! So simple and so good:

3kg sliced tomatoes         350 g sultanas large piece of root ginger chopped
I kg chopped apples          30g salt generous litre cider vinegar
I kg chopped shallots       I kg brown sugar

Put all the ingredients in a large preserving pan. Simmer gently for a couple of hours till thick and delicious. Stir occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking. If it is, turn down the heat.
Then pot up, cover and store for at least 2 weeks before eating.

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Aug 01 2016

A Breather in Brittany

As July dawned we climbed into our car and fled to France. We left a hectic June behind us: our wonderful Open Garden weekend, the tragic loss of two good friends, the referendum and a country in political chaos. Wearily we boarded the great “Amorique” in Plymouth bound for Roscoff. We set off for a quiet week with friends in northern Britanny. It seems we were just in time, the calm before the storm, before terrorist attacks across France and Germany left even more pain, distress and uncertainty. We were lucky, our busy Sunday night channel crossing ran like clockwork. By late morning on Monday we were relaxing in the beautiful La Ville Douallan just south of Lamballe.

We laughed together, went for long walks, visited beautiful little villages and towns, ate wonderful food. We relaxed in their garden in the evening sun, amongst the roses, enjoying the “aperitif”.

Les Eglantines

And of course we went, as usual, to the Moulerie de la Baie at Jospinet, a tiny bay, on the coast just west of Pleneuf-Val-Andre. Every time we visit we make the little pilgrimage north to eat Antoine’s wonderful Bouchot moule.

This time it was extra special. We arrived a little early. It was a beautiful evening so we strolled down the slipway to the sea. As we reached the water’s edge we watched large fishing boats approaching. A tractor and trailer drove past us to meet them. Suddenly the boats, one at a time, rose out of the water like huge dinosaurs and drove onto the slipway on great wheels. No mooring lines, no quay, no jetty, they simply drove up the slipway onto the road.

The first boat stopped briefly to unload part of the catch onto the tractor and trailer then off they all went down the road to their depot. We crept by later to see these strange boat-lorries neatly parked up in a line on dry land, fisherman’s wet suits drying beside them in the evening breeze!

Antoine fed us huge wonderful plates of moule and frites. He let us take photographs of his lovely restaurant as he explained how the mussels are sourced.
Bouchot mussel culture is an intertidal traditional aquaculture technique for farming mussels. The bouchots, French for pilings, are placed in the sea and the mussels are grown on ropes strung from these poles. According to a French C16th text, bouchot mussels go back to 1235 when a Scotsman, Patrick Walton was shipwrecked in the Bay of d’Aiguillon. He began to hunt seabirds, just as he had in Scotland, by driving wooden poles into the sea and stretching nets between them. He noticed mussels growing on the poles and he soon realised it was much more profitable to grow mussels than hunt seabirds. The modern bouchot technique took off in 1954 and Normandy and Brittany are the leading producers. There are thousands and thousands of poles in the bay of St Brieuc alone, owned by many different mussel farmers.

Anshorstone Cafe

Mussel farming is growing in our waters here in the South West too. There are sites in Lyme Bay, Exmouth and Brixham Harbour. Our own wonderful Anchorstone cafés in Dittisham, Dartmouth and Sharpham serve delicious Moules Mariniere. Claire Harvey, chef-patron, told me she sources her mussels from Brixham where the waters are clear and there is a strong tidal flow. They are a naturally occurring hybrid of the Mytilus Edulis mussel (the native or blue mussel) and Mytilus Galloprovincialis (the Mediterranean mussel) which is well suited to conditions found in Torbay..
The whole process is surprisingly natural, creating a local haven for all sorts of other marine life. Once the poles and nets are in place the wild spat or free floating planktonic seed mussels fix themselves to the structures. No special feed is required, no chemicals or fertilisers, just clean tidal waters.

By the time the seed mussels are about two centimetres long, usually in August, they need thinning. The seed collecting lines are pulled up and stripped and the seed mussels are fed into “sockings”, a continuous cotton stocking with a rope down the middle onto which the mussels attach themselves. They put out byssal threads and secrete a cement- like fluid which hardens in the water. This way they anchor themselves to the ropes and feed on the tiny micro-organisms in the tidal flow. When they are 18 months to 2 years old and 50 to 60 mm long the mussels are harvested from the growing lines. Cylinders with two open doors at the bottom are lowered over the poles. The doors are then closed and as the cylinders are raised they strip the mussels from the ropes. After grading and landing, the live mussels are placed in cleansing depuration tanks before being distributed to fish markets, wholesalers and restaurants.

Moules Mariniere
This is the classic mussel dish, so quick and easy to prepare and so delicious!
But first make absolutely sure the mussels are clean and grit- free. To do this tip them into a large bowl and cover with plenty of cold water. Scrape away the hairy beard or byssus which attached the mussel to the rope or rock on which it grew. Throw out any which are damaged or refuse to open in the water. Drain and rinse again in more water. Don’t be tempted to leave them too long in fresh water; it will kill them.
Allow at least 50 grams of mussels per person, more if you have them!
To feed four people chop two onions and a couple of fat cloves of garlic. Put the onion, garlic, 3 tablespoons of chopped parsley, 200ml white wine, 150ml water and a little black pepper in a large pan. Simmer for ten minutes then raise the heat and when the liquid is boiling quickly, tip in the mussels. Put a lid on the pan and give it a good shake over the heat for a few minutes until the mussels are open. Discard any that refuse to open.
Scoop out the cooked mussels into a warm bowl and keep warm. Strain the liquor through a fine sieve or coffee filter paper to remove any stubborn grit, then return to the pan and quickly bring to the boil while whisking in 30grms of butter. Serve the mussels in their liquor with more chopped parsley, crusty bread or, of course, the ubiquitous frites!
There are, of course, many variations on this theme! At Antoine’s Moulerie a couple of weeks ago I had a delicious version with tiny leeks, pancetta and cream. Others chose mild curry spices, both quite wonderful.
Next time it will be Brixham Moule at the Anchorstone café!

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Jul 01 2016

Unsettled Summer

Raindrops hammer against my study window as I write; a black sky sits ominously overhead; gloom fills the air. Early this morning Millie and I walked over the hills, heads down, she chasing rabbits, me checking damp sheep huddled in the hedgerow. Water trickled off my coat down my trousers and into my wellies; squelch, squelch. We walked in a strange eerie circle of mist, no sign of Dartmoor from the top fields; the River Dart just a faint watery shadow below us. Neighbour John’s big silo, a strange medieval turret floating in the mist across the valley. I felt I was walking through some strange metaphor of our country’s confusion and turmoil since the Referendum; nothing clear, everything blurry and uncertain, familiar landmarks taking on new ghostly shapes. Where am I, I wonder? The landscape seems so familiar, and yet?

This June has rattled through, wet windy and uncertain. For weeks politicians have been fighting their corner each clamouring for our attention, good or bad. But all the while everyday life goes on.

And the winners....!

The County Show came and went. Sheep were judged, alpaca too and cows, pigs and poultry .

All things agricultural were on show for all to share and much more too. Cider and beer flowed, food stalls fed us handsomely. Tractors, harvesters, hedgers and ditchers, all things mechanical could be found for the farm.

Dog shows, horse shows, pony trials even donkeys, hurrah, had their place!

My Donkeys!

The crowds flocked in day after day, happy people filled the showground. And the Hurdy-gurdy played on.

Next came sheep shearing, dagging and spraying. The relentless rain meant sheep had to come into the shed the evening before shearing to be sure their fleece would be dry.

Rams were sorted into pens well away from ewes and lambs. Next morning we separated mothers and children for the first time. The cacophony was ear splitting as they called each other across the yard.

Phil arrived as usual, setting up his shearing pen at midday. Paul man-handled sheep, one by one, pushing them through to Phil for their annual haircut. I folded fleece and placed them in the woolsack as they have been placed for hundreds of years. White, lighter, shorn and clean, the itch-free ladies went back to their children and more confusion ensued, mothers unrecognisable without their winter coats; more barging and baa-ing, then happy reunions   We finished at 6 o’clock, a long day.

And all the while preparations continued for our National Garden Scheme Open Days. We dashed out between storms and squalls to dig borders, plant vegetables, trim edges, cut grass, prepare the plant stall and complete a myriad of other tasks. Signs went up, the Anchorstone Cafe donated hundreds of scones, Dartmouth Dairy insisted on giving huge quantities of clotted a cream. Dear friends lined up to help at the gate, serve teas, marshal parking, sell plants; the weekend arrived.

Saturday was truly wonderful. Despite cold evenings, the roses did bloom in time. Even “Seagull” reluctantly opened her petals over the pond. The waterlilies exploded into magnificence and delphiniums reached for the sky. Embothrium held onto her flowers so late we had a scarlet shadow across the sky. And as always the astrantia proved to be star of the show.

Eighty people filled our garden, even the sun tried a bit of shining. Cream teas flew from the Hut and my head spun with plant names and happiness. But, alas, rain returned the next day. Even so twenty five stalwarts turned up braving the elements. Tuesday brought sun and a local gardening club and, to our delight, Jilly Sutton’s beautiful “Big Fish” sculpture sold, so all was not lost.

Despite the weather we were delighted to be able to send nearly £1300 to support the NGS nursing charities.

So life goes on as politicians ponder, prevaricate and procrastinate, world markets helter skelter, journalists try to alarm or calm. On Sunday we leave for a week in France. I wonder what the mood will be there!

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Apr 13 2016

Spring at Last

Oh how wonderful, a spring morning at last. Sun warmed my back for the first time today, as I climbed the hill as usual with the dogs to check the ewes and lambs and feed our shy visitors.

Slowly the valley is awakening. As the first day of Spring arrived the rain did stop for a while, even the sharp north wind dropped briefly, fooling us that winter was behind us. But, alas, it was to be just a temporary reprieve; storms, gales, icy rain and sleet returned battering their way through Easter holidays and beyond.

As waterlogged fields begin at last to drain we wait anxiously,well into April, for signs of new grass to appear up the valley. We need it badly to feed hungry ewes and lambs.

Maybe today will really be the start of Spring. The sky is full of birds busying about, shouting greetings to one another, house hunting furiously for a suitable place for this year’s family. The hedgerows are thickening and the orchard is a mass of yellow, a host, indeed, of golden daffodils. All so uplifting after such a long wet, muddy winter punctuated by violent storms and endless dark grey days. And, have you noticed, as the sun shines people begin to raise their faces from the ground, smile and greet one another in the street.

We lambed just thirty sheep this year; twenty-five pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor’s plus five cross-breed ewes, old timers we can’t bear to lose! We have thirty-four lambs including eight sets of twins, a record for us. All are grazing with their mothers in Sunday Orchard, the huge field just beyond the yard. We will continue to feed them until the grass finally begins to grow.

Each year we bring the ewes into the big shed in the farmyard for two or three days after they have lambed. The babies are tagged, their numbers recorded and their tails docked. They stay in the nursery until we are sure all is well and they are strong and feeding.

Then with Gheorge’s help Paul moves them up the hill to pastures new. They are loaded into our smart new stock box and driven up in batches to a south facing field. The babies soon begin to bounce and spin in the sometime-sunshine, playing in little groups watched over by the ewe on playgroup duty. Much time can be lost just standing and watching them play.

Rams rest up on the hill, their work complete while wethers eat quietly in another field until they go to market.

Today we will be selecting out a group to go to the local abattoir from our regular customers. Paul will take them there later this week, early in the morning. They will be dispatched immediately to avoid distress. Not only is this humane but also prevents a build-up of adrenalin in the meat. Our local butcher, Richard Pollard of Pollard’s Quality Meats in Dartmouth, will then collect the carcases. He will hang them for a week before butchering them to each customer’s requirements. Hogget has a rounder deeper flavour than early lamb, the meat rich and dark. And contrary to popular belief it is not at all fatty like our erstwhile images of grey, fatty school dinners; well mine anyway!! Indeed, Hugh Fearnly-Whitingstall waxes lyrical about hogget in his wonderful River Cottage Meat Book, and he’s right!

So this afternoon’s boys will have had a short but happy life and go on, in a small way, to feed the nation, which, after all, is a farmer’s job. We breed our stock to improve the blood line of our breed and to provide food for our discerning customers! The cycle continues.

. Vicarage Mutton

“Hot on Sunday

Cold on Monday

Hashed on Tuesday

Minced on Wednesday

Curried Thursday

Broth on Friday

Cottage pie Saturday”

Cooking Hogget

At last the rain may have stopped but I fear, only briefly! So I need to cook comforting food to restore my equilibrium, but it must be light delicious summer food.  Somehow I think it better be Hogget!

I’ll roast a shoulder with garlic and rosemary and serve it with young vegetables, some potatoes and mange tout peas perhaps. Or I’ll take a little more time and pleasure to prepare a traditional Navarin Printanier based on a recipe from my old copy of Jane Grigson’s wonderful “Vegetable Book”.

This is not a dish for stewing lamb. It calls for tender, lean meat which will cook gently but quite quickly. I prefer to cut up a shoulder or even use a boned out loin. Take a little time to trim off any fat and sinew before cutting the meat into fairly small pieces.

Melt a large piece of butter and a little oil in a heavy oven proof pan that has a well-fitting lid. Incidentally, the oil stops the butter burning and becoming bitter. Brown the meat quickly turning it over with a wooden spoon until sealed. Then take it out and set aside.

Chop a shallot and crush a garlic clove or two. Add to the buttery juices in the pan and, heating gently, allow them to soften slightly. Stir in a spoonful or two of flour scraping up the meat juices and mixing to a thin paste. Gradually add some stock and a little tomato puree.

Return the browned meat. Heat gently, adjust the consistency, which should be creamy, by adding more stock if necessary. Bring slowly to the boil, cover the pan with its lid and place in a moderate oven for about an hour. Test the meat with a skewer to see if it is tender. If not return to the oven for a little longer but don’t overdo it.

Meanwhile prepare some young fresh root vegetables; new potatoes, very young turnips and whole baby carrots. Once the meat is tender add these and cook for a scant half hour without the lid.  Top and tail some mange-tout or shell some peas and broad beans, slice your first runner beans or harvest the early French beans; use what you have in your garden or what you can find in your local farmer’s market.

Blanche the vegetables very briefly in plenty of boiling water, drain well and add to the lamb. Heat through, skim off absolutely any remaining fat, (there shouldn’t be much if you took time to trim your meat) taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve on warm plates with hot, crusty bread.

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Feb 10 2016

Wild Weather

The tranquil River Dart is transformed into a raging brown torrent. White horses dance over glistening mud flats and rocky outcrops as brackish water hurtles towards the sea. The shore line, brown and bedraggled, is stripped bare by the racing tide. Rain fills the valley in a huge sideways curtain misting its way along the rivers path. Mighty gale force gusts lift me off my feet as puppy and I climb the hill to check the wethers. The clever boys have found shelter on the lower slopes protecting themselves against the wind pressed into the hedgerow; savvy, hardy Dartmoor sheep.

It has rained relentlessly for weeks now. Storm follows storm. Water levels are getting dangerously high, the land is sodden, waterlogged even, on the hills. Donkeys and chickens are confined to barracks; the former because the wet is so damaging to their feet and the latter because a large dog fox sauntered by in broad daylight a day or two ago looking for another tasty snack. A mound of feathers lie soaking near the yard, evidence of a previous feast.

The air is so strangely mild that the garden has erupted in unseasonably early bloom, everything at once. Snowdrops sweep down the hillside, early double daffodils lie flattened in the orchard. Camellias rock in the wind, petals filling the air. Crocus, emerge through the grass far too soon, their tiny purple and yellow trumpets helpless in the wind.

Then suddenly silence. We wake to a new dawn without a sound. The storm has passed, the sky is clear and the whirring whine of the wind has ceased. Sunlight forces its way between tiny gaps in the cloud and puppy and I set off to the river. The tide is out and the ground squelches under my boots and her tiny paws. She sniffs excitedly, her first experience of the smells of the shore. A lone egret is silhouetted against the shining mud. Old boats hang listlessly on muddy moorings. We turn our backs on the watery greyness and head home up a flooded lane. The sky is slate grey once more and the icy rain returns.

Morning becomes afternoon and time to feed donkeys, collect eggs and welcome muddy ewes into the yard for tea. Their time is getting near now, all neatly dagged, we eye each girl carefully as they bustle and shove to get to their feast of grain and malt shreds. The big shed is ready for the first lambs; pens built, nursery area strawed out, hay racks in place. They have been taking refuge in here already during the huge gales and may well have to again if the storms return.

Tomorrow the farrier will come to trim the donkey’s feet and check any problems caused by standing on wet ground. These dear, gentle desert animals are not waterproof and their feet are more susceptible to wet than horse’s hooves. Even though their barn is large and airy, they kick the gate and get stir-crazy when the rain falls continuously for weeks on end. I know how they feel.

It’s so much more wearisome working in the yard against the elements, squelching through cloying mud wrapped in our waterproofs, rain obscuring vision, sliding down the hillside, heaving sacks of feed and armfuls of straw and hay against the howling wind to care for cold, wet, hungry animals. When the sun shines and the air is still we have a smile on our face even on the coldest days!

Satisfied that everyone is safe and fed for whatever the night has in store, we trudge home dreaming of a glass of wine and a comforting supper. Sausages, baked potatoes and cauliflower cheese seem the kindest meal today!

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