Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Food for Thought

We're past Christmas now and the not-so-festive stomach bug that hit us Christmas day. Mike soldiered on and made Christmas dinner, but neither of us could eat it. We are having leftover Christmas cockerel tonight in a chicken tetrazzini, our first real meal since the illness.

Pip and/or Dakota also scarfed a plateful of cocoa-rich cookies on Christmas night so we were on the 'phone to the vets calculating how much chocolate per body weight they might have ingested, and whether or not we were going to have to get out of our sick bed and take them to the vets. I'm glad to report we all made it through.

A few days' illness meant we needed to catch up on some chores. I re-pressurised the heating system and cleaned up broken glass - the winds blew a pane out of the greenhouse during the night. Mike split logs. The weather's been cold and wet, but the fire's roaring away so much so that I'm stripped down to my long johns now. (note to self - no future career as a phone sex operator...)

A Christmas addition to the freezer

Although we haven't been eating much over the past few days, we have been discussing food. Particularly that our diet has been a bit meat heavy recently. Understandable as we're harvesting a lot of (free) game this time of year, and our garden is empty due to my poor planning and limited space. Traditionally only the estate owners and wealthy people would have had a meat rich diet. Workers like us would get their calories from carbohydrates like grains and root vegetables, and lard (which explains the British proclivity for suet puddings and pies).

I gave Mike a hand feeding the pheasants, and as we were driving around the cover crops I realised that they were in fact cover CROPS. Maize and kale and stubble turnip. Turnips may be sheep fodder but they are also a root vegetable, and there are acres of them. Kale is likewise edible, and not bad with chili vinegar dressing. Maize, aka "cow corn", when dried and ground is essentially polenta. Flour is just ground wheat, and I was emptying bagfuls of it into pheasant feeders. It's different than proper milling wheat, but worth further examination.

Why did I never notice this before?

I picked some turnips for this evening's dinner, and extras for the animals: the chickens eat the green tops and the sheep will eat the whole plant. Mike said as he set off to walk the dogs, Nellie the old spaniel was tucking into the green tops alongside the chickens. I guess even she's fed up with venison leftovers.


Mike was dubious after enduring the Great Swedefest of '08 (too much of a good thing..). But, having just finished dinner, I can confirm that the turnips were a success. Granted I mashed them with marscapone cheese and topped them with a parmesan breadcrumb crust which added flavor, but definitely edible. I see turnips in our culinary future.


Santa brought me a coffee grinder for Christmas and now I'm thinking that I might collect and dry a few maize cobs and see if I can grind them into a rough flour using the coffee grinder. Turnips with a polenta crust??

Santa also brought me a leather punch and rivet set which was fortuitious as I found a broken raddle harness abandoned in a field. I've hung it up to dry and it looks like it can be returned to work with a few minor repairs. I think it's a good omen as I intend to start my flock of Gotland sheep this year. Santa also brought me a set of butchery knives which is a bad omen for Big Lamb and Little Lamb.

A working raddle courtesy of donaghys.com

Now if only I could find a crop of peanut M&Ms...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

There's always one

I'll admit that most of our animals are touched in the head. Maybe it's a by-product of always adopting the second-hand irregulars, I don't know. In this case I have no excuse. I bred it and raised it here. But every year there's one hen whose hard-wiring makes it perpetually broody.

That's our front hedge. Can you see her yet?

How about now?

It's -2 degrees (C), 2 days before Christmas and this little hen is incubating more eggs than her tiny feathered bottom can cover at the same time. I swear she has a look of determination on her face.

Before I moved her, I explained to her that it was a good first effort but unless she covers all the eggs equally, they won't hatch. And that it's the middle of winter. She's only young and can try again in spring.

I suspect there will be many broods of tiny chicks trailing behind this little hen in future.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Plucking Hard Work

I woke up to our first dusting of snow. After the initial oh..ah..pretty, it was hot kettles to melt the animals' frozen water troughs and to warm their breakfast bowls. The dogs got extra fat in their breakfast and the sheep and horses some extra hay, to keep them warm on the inside. The sheep had a sheet of ice on their backs - shows what good insulation their in-built wooly jumpers are. And it reminded me that I'm behind on my knitting, as usual.

On the board for today: preparing the Christmas chicken. Our lone surviving meat cockerel started crowing a week ago, and so put himself on the christmas menu. The meat will need a few days to hang in the chiller to improve its flavor and tenderness, so it was a trip to the log pile this morning. I noticed he got in a quick "visit" with some of his lady friends first, which made me smile.

Plucking and bleeding

Singeing the fine feathers
I noticed he didn't lay down as much fat as our more pampered meat chickens, but he did have bigger legs and thighs. I'm interested to see if his varied diet and access to the organic mixed pasture behind the house has added anything to the meat.

ready to hang out and chill (in the chiller!) til Christmas eve

Anyone who plucks birds for a living has my respect and deserves a raise. It took me nearly an hour to pluck and finish one chicken. My fingers are already cracked and painful from the cold weather. Plucking just added insult to injury. Now I must really get on and finish knitting, as the lanolin in the wool is the only thing that seems to properly heal my hands. Spinning is even better. Sheep - bloody marvellous things!

We finished shooting yesterday; now both we and the birds get a break until 26th December, Boxing Day. I've had an invite to go pheasant and duck shooting on Tuesday which I'm looking forward to. It's my first day shooting pheasant this season. No break for their birds!

I helped a lady gun yesterday who is new to driven pheasant shooting. I like helping the women but I wish they weren't all so stunningly beautiful. I feel like the fat, sway back shetland pony in a field of thoroughbreds. Mike's comment is always "Huh. She doesn't look like she could carry a bag of wheat up a steep hill." I'm choosing to take that as a compliment.

Barry and Mike taught me something yesterday and I thought it worth sharing: Tips for selecting a good brace of pheasant for the table:

1) select hens if possible, and cock birds without spurs. Hens make the best eating because they put down more fat than cock birds. Only older, tougher cock birds have spurs.

2) Give the back ribs a gentle squeeze. If it feels "crunchy", it was probably crushed by an over-enthusiastic dog during the retrieve. Choose birds with intact ribs

3) Hold the bird by the neck and give it a shake. Do the legs dangle about? "If they'll never dance again, they're no good for the table". Broken legs can mean shot taken in the abdomen, rupturing the guts. This can taint the meat or worse. Save these for "breasting out" only

And a quick Dulcie update: After making a great recovery from her last injury, she managed to split open her front leg on the first drive of her first full day back at work. Another rogue stick. So it was back to the vets for a GA and some stitches. And another week of antibiotics and bed rest. If she's angling for workman's compensation, she's out of luck, though I am seriously looking into dog armor for her.

A very cheery Dulcie in spite of it all

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Primitive Modernism

It's only dawned on me today why women - or at least one person - traditionally worked in the home. In the days before push-button central heating, it was a full-time job just to keep the fires in to heat the house (and cook and heat water). I knew I had some paperwork to do today so I got up at 6 a.m. to get the wood burner going in the front room so it would be roaring and I wouldn't have to reenact Bob Cratchit's scene in A Christmas Carol.
Both fires are going - in the front room and in the back room. The front room wood burner burns coal so it requires regular trips to the coal bunker out back to refill the bucket, and top up the fire.

The back room woodstove only burns wood. I nurtured it back to life from last night's embers, and fed it all the wood I had in the room. Out to the log pile to split a couple barrowfuls more. Then back to shake down the bed of ash in the front room, and back again to prod the back room fire. And again to the front room fire to empty the ash. And to the back room again to feed the wood in, which burns twice as quick as the coal.

I'm going to need to put a revolving door in between the rooms.

There is something holiday-ish and cozy about a fire, I don't deny that. But only when it's supplemental to modern heat. Otherwise it's an unending chore. We do have central heating - installed 4 years ago. The house was previously "heated" using a solid fuel burning system that allegedly pumped heat to radiators throughout the house. Mike disputes its effectiveness.

But our wood is free, our coal is cheap and the central heating burns oil which is not. So I chop and stack and feed the never-satiated stoves. This is my new second job.

And it's not unique to us. The BBC news report this morning said that 6.5 million Britons live in substandard housing, which includes bathrooms that are not attached to their house. Yes - outhouses. The first apartment I looked at in England had an unheated 2nd bathroom at the bottom of the garden, and the rental people seemed to think it was normal.

I'm not saying we compare to developing nations' living conditions but we certainly fall short of first world conveniences. Like bathrooms not at the bottom of the garden.

We only have one bathroom, but it is heated and inside the house (another tick in the 'modern' box). However, at least once a day I need to 'spend a penny' and either the bathroom's occupied or I'm too lazy to take my boots and rain gear off to walk on the carpet (another tick) and I sneak behind the house to where the drain is. We've affectionately termed this our 'en-suite'. I've learned to pee really fast when it's raining.

What life choice did I make that has put me in a position where I have limited access to indoor plumbing?

Yet we have wi-fi and a laptop (albeit an ancient IBM ThinkPad).

I'm not against modern improvements. Any tool, be it an axe or a computer, is useful if it makes the job more efficient and easier to accomplish. I watched our mate Colin with his tractor-mounted hedge trimmer trim our front hedge this morning. In minutes. From the warm dry cab of the tractor. I've cut that hedge with a hand-held petrol hedge trimmer for the last few years and I can confirm that cutting it with a tractor is a vast improvement on my quality of life at least.

Bless you, Colin

When I was head gardener, I used to cut all these topiary by hand with a frame, secateurs, and a hedge trimmer. Before me they were done with shears and a lot more human labor. I used to cut the lawn with a petrol mower. Not long ago they were cut with gang mowers pulled by horses wearing special shoes so their hoof prints wouldn't mark the lawn. I like some of the 'old ways' but I can appreciate that technology can bring improvement. A horse and plow was an improvement over hand hoeing.

An example of the horses shoes courtesy of The British Lawnmower Museum website

This is what inspired my thoughts today while poking the fires. And this is the result of my efforts:

I will refrain from making a hot dog joke.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

11 Days and Counting

A quick update from the estate as Christmas preparations are in full swing -

Bertie the tree is up and decorated, sitting on a reindeer skin in the front hall. I made a kissing bough for the warm habitable room, and a holly wreath for the front door. Old Bertie's got a bit of a lean to him - I must remember to stuff some newspaper in the tree holder to straighten him up before the 'big day'

I took Hazel out on the less formal boundary shoot yesterday, with her collar on, and she worked very well the whole day. She didn't run off, which was our goal, and she found a lost cock pheasant so a big pat for her. We have a few things to work on like quicker recall but it's a good start.

I pleased to say that Dulcie is fully recovered from her injury and has been given the 'all clear' to go back to work. I'm going to take her for a half day tomorrow so she can build her fitness level back up and expel some of that spaniel energy.

Things are mixed on the chicken front. The little barbu d'uccle hen is still fighting on but only marginally improved. Still she's so independent even with a paralysed leg that neither Mike nor I can face taking her to visit the log pile.

However, one of the young brown pullets has taken a beating from her siblings. The only thing crueler than teenage girls are chickens. The minute they draw blood, they don't stop until they've killed (chickens not teenage girls). They can be brutes and bullies (chickens AND teenage girls). This poor hen had both eyes swollen shut and blood-encrusted neck feathers from being pecked. I syringed fluids and a special food with antibiotics into her and put her on her own in the spare kennel to recover. I hope the shock of the attack doesn't kill her.

I also meant to go out a harvest a deer but the gamedealer had a spare 40kg youngster gralloched and skinned which he's left for me in the chiller. I can practice my butchery skills, but it's going in the freezer. We've eaten too much venison recently, I'm going to grow antlers.

Mike is making Christmas dinner this year (more fool him for volunteering) and he's decided on chicken. Fresh chicken. The meat cockerel still free-ranging in the garden who has just started to crow. So I'll be plucking next week. There's still a meat hen left in the garden but she's small and may lay eggs so we'll wait til spring to decide her fate. Depends how empty the freezer is then.

I still have a few cards to write and a few presents to make but it's getting there. I hope you all are ready for Christmas with full larders and time to relax and enjoy a well-earned rest.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Christmas Tree

Some years ago Mike planted 200 small fir trees as shelter to hold pheasants. He feeds the birds here too (that's what the plastic bins are) so, between food and shelter, he knows where to find birds on a shoot day. We harvest our Christmas tree from this little plantation every year.

The sun finally came out today, after weeks of miserable, unending rain (which I have been complaining about ad nauseum in my blog). Thank god - I was starting to feel like that girl in the closet from the Ray Bradbury story I remember seeing on PBS when I was young. I was inspired to go find our tree today and enjoy the sun while it lasts.

I'm not very spiritual but I always wait for a tree to pick me, one that kind of speaks to me. C'mon I know you all do it too! You want to feel your tree is special. Imbued with the magic of Christmas.

Every year the tree gets a name. This tree is called Bertie. Here's Bertie in situ:

A handsome specimen. Here's me being lazy and using a chainsaw to cut him down (I wanted an excuse to try my new chainsaw helmet - an early gift!):

Anyone who knows me can tell you that that's my best side. We've taken Bertie home and I hope to put him up this evening along with the basket of holly I collected today:

I hope all your Christmas preparations are in hand, and that you have found your own tree. If not, email me - Bertie's got lots of relatives looking for a home for the holidays! I'll lend you my chainsaw.

Sunday, 6 December 2009


Nigel and Bertie have been laying the hedges around our house. They were in pretty desperate need of doing. Hedgelaying is both a skill and an art. I had to lay hedges as part of my gardening degree but I can't profess to have much skill or artistic flair for it. I remember as a general rule to lay the hedge uphill and work with someone who is the same-handed as you, whether right or left, or you can get in a muddle with your cuts. And I remember it's bloody hard work.

Nigel had to call it quits Friday when the rain was making his billhook too slippery; he would take a swing at a pleacher and the tool would fly out of his hand, mostly missing Bertie. Not wanting to go home and explain to Mrs Bertie why her husband had a billhook sticking out of his leg, they had a quick cup of tea and promised to return Tuesday. Here's the pre-laid hedge:

Very spindly and not very stock-proof.

Here's the hedge after laying:

It's still not stock-proof yet, but the view is much improved.

The hedge will double in height each time it's laid. When spring comes its shoots will grow vertically and we'll be back to a spindly hedge ready for laying again. Eventually it will be thick enough that the fence behind can come down. With the screen gone, I expect we will have a lot of cattle hanging over the fence to watch the activity in the garden - cows are nosy creatures, but I find their bovine placidness relaxing. I'll have an audience when I'm hanging out the washing.

Surprisingly, Nigel and Bertie didn't find any hidden clutches of eggs in the hedgerow. The hens haven't been laying in their houses and my egg supply has dwindled. I thought maybe they were hiding them in the hedges. I stumbled across a fresh nest in the greenhouse but that was less than a dozen. C'mon girls, Christmas is coming. I bristle at the thought of paying for eggs when I have over 40 chickens in my garden, a few of whom should still be providing even now. No matter. I will salve my soul with our new and improved view.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Cold and wet, but at least no one got shot

Except for a quick glimpse of the low winter sun, it has been perpetually raining in our part of England. The ground is so saturated, we've worn muddy tracks in the lawn on our usual routes: to the kennels, to the sheep pen, to the clothes dryer in the back shed. Very similar to the deer tracks I look for in the woods when I'm out stalking.

And the cold has set in. Not enough to freeze the muck unfortunately, but enough to remind me that living in a quaint English cottage has its definite drawbacks. I plugged the gaps in the old metal window frames that were big enough for me to get a finger between them. I 'upcycled' Ace bandages from Mike's no longer needed wound dressing supplies. Half a bandage per window, poked into the gap with a knitting needle has stopped the worst drafts but we're relegated to 2 rooms - the kitchen and the front room - which I can keep warm with cooking and a roaring fire in the woodstove.

It's so cold in the rest of the house that there are assorted cardigans hanging from the bannister - in case you need to venture outside the 'warm zone' for any length of time you can add layers. I have to wear fingerless gloves to check my email, and to write this. Expect a brief update. I periodically warm up by checking the chicken that's roasting in the oven. A glass of sherry helps too - even an episode of Mythbusters confirmed alcohol's restorative properties (although they mentioned something about succumbing to hypothermia eventually...I can't remember the details)

I'm waiting for the game dealer to drop by. I have a pair of mallard ducks hanging outside the door (shot on the estate so I need to make them a 'gift' to Lord and Lady) and Paul will collect them and prepare them for their larder. I didn't realise that the ducks were hanging right over our mailbox which is actually just an old metal bread bin. Our kindly postman knocked on the door and handed me the mail as the ducks were dripping blood and he didn't want them to bleed on the mail. How thoughtful is that?

We have a busy weekend of shooting, regardless of the weather. I thought I would share a shoot story from Monday with you -

Gun's wife, elegantly dressed - "Mike, Mike. There's a man standing on the hill in front of the gun, and the gun is swinging throuh the gentleman. Surely it's not safe. Shouldn't you move that man out of the way?"

Mike (to gun's wife): "I understand your concern. But the gun knows he's only to shoot up in the sky. As we say 'You don't pull the trigger unless you can see only sky around the bird'. The man on the hill is a 'stop'. He's there to make sure the birds fly over the gentleman gun, instead of sneaking out the side."

Gun's wife (frustrated): " Yes but there're some lovely birds that fly acoss the front of the hill and the gun can't shoot them if he's in the way. Can't you ask that man to get down on his knees or something?"

Mike (stifling a laugh): "That will only clear the path for your gun to hit the other 15 beaters behind him. I'd really rather you don't shoot the staff. No, I think it's best if the gun only shoots at birds in the sky."

There's no pleasing some people. With that I think I'll go check the chicken and wait for the feeling to come back into my fingers. (Note to self - ask Santa for an orange hat and high-vis vest for Christmas this year. And stand behind a tree)