Sunday, 31 January 2010

Meat, More Meat, and a Duck

There's a chalkboard in the kitchen where I write notes to remind myself of outstanding jobs. Top of the list is 'Book in Lambs'. That is, call up the abbattoir and schedule our two lambs for slaughter. There's no other nice way to put that - slaughter - and thinking about it is what has so far prevented me from getting on with it.

I toyed with the coward's ways out: sell them on live at the local market, let someone else kill them. Or take them to the abbattoir and pay them to do the whole job, turning my lambs into packaged chops and joints that I could pretend were no relation to those little souls I bottle-fed 5 times a day, and once rescued from under a German Shepherd (her first and last tryout as a sheep-herding dog).

I reminded myself of the reasons I wanted to raise them in the first place: I wanted grass-fed meat that I knew had been reared with consideration for their quality of life, allowed to express natural behaviors, and when the time came, dispatched with no suffering or stress. The coward's ways out didn't meet the criteria.

And if I butcher my own lambs, not only does it keep the costs down but it means I can see if my feeding program worked, if they put on enough flesh but not too much fat. It will help me fine tune feeding for the next lot of lambs as they grow.

Our neighbor Peggy invited me to practice my butchering under her watchful eye. She butchers her own pigs and lambs for sale direct from her farm. She had two lambs hung and ready to "break down" - that's not a dance move, it's butcher's talk for cutting a carcase into component joints. I was already talking the talk. Walking the walk was more challenging.

A side of lamb

Peggy laid a side of lamb (half a lamb cut lengthways, a la Damien Hirst) on the butcher block and talked me through the individual steps, while she deftly cut and sliced and teased meat from fat and sinew and bone.
All the time she berated her husband for sending these 2 specimens for killing. "They're poor, they have no cover". Cover is fat, and if there's not enough fat on the animal Peggy says it makes the butchery process harder. She criticised the amount of flesh on the carcase, she criticised herself for hanging it too long - not enough fat to hang for 8 days she said. Both carcases looked 100 times better than anything I'd seen in the supermarket: dark red marbled meat, buttery texture, and tender relaxed muscle fibre from hanging.

But Peggy is a woman with high standards, and she knows her customers. This lamb was for a woman who used to be in farming. "Some people like the very lean lamb, but farmers like fat on their flesh". Peggy didn't want an unhappy customer. It's a small village, and Peggy didn't want it getting around that her lambs weren't the very best. She poked and examined each joint as she freed them from the whole.

She frowned and contemplated in silence as I watched her. Finally, having made her decision she said "This lamb is passable, I'll show it to the customer and let her choose to have it or wait for the next batch to be done. But this one.." she scowled at the carcase "It can be mince and dice. You can break it down for practice. Don't worry about mistakes, but don't cut yourself because I haven't got time now to take you to the hospital." I like this woman's frankness. My lesson had begun.

I watched her first, prompty forgot everything I just watched, and had to get her to nurse maid me through the first (scariest) cuts on my practice carcase. Cut off the breast meat, through the shoulder, count up six ribs, through the front end, remove the leg...see? I've already forgotten the exact sequence. Anyway, the result is this:
From here decisions need to be made - a whole leg or half? Bone in or boneless rolled shoulder? Chump chops or a small roasting joint? Peggy prepared the first lamb as per her client's request. As the second lamb was going to end up as pieces, I practiced as many cuts as possible. Here's my boned out whole leg -
I am proud of how clean the bones are. It means I left more meat in the roast. And all my knots line up. Peggy challenged me with producing chump chops, the only part we weren't going to dice. An expensive cut, and not exactly easy - you have to make 6 chops and cut through the sliver of cartilage between vertebrae. I did OK with help and encouragement from Peggy:

That woman has the patience of a saint. She showed me how to hold the knife so no trips to the hospital were required, how to make seam cuts, remove glands (supermarket butchers don't remove the glands), how to tie up a rolled joint to get an even thickness (start from the middle and work out), and a few tricks for presentation purposes. Here's Peggy's tray of cuts she produced and deemed acceptable for sale:

I bet you'd agree with me that she's too hard on herself - that meat looks fantastic! Here's the end result of my work:

That meat will make some superb stews and shepherd pies.

Two lambs were 3 hours' work for the two of us, but probably would take her half the time without the hindrance of a student.

Peggy's kindly agreed to let me butcher my own lambs at hers, under her tutelage. The lambs are ready to go, so it only remains for me to book them in and finally erase the chalkboard. And put up a new note: Process Lambs with P. I hope they have enough fat on them, I don't want to incur the wrath of P.

I found the wild mallards we had given to us earlier in the week easier to deal with - small carcase, no emotional attachment. I had never made confit and am interested in the idea of preserving with fat. I prepared the birds as per a recipe in The Complete Guide to Cooking, with bay and thyme from the garden:

I had enough goosefat saved to make a small jar of confit, and Mike has been snacking on the duck leftovers that wouldn't fit in the jar.

It doesn't look that appetising does it? I'm taking a leap of faith on this one. I will attempt to make a cassoulet with the confit, something else I've never made before. If anyone has a good recipe, I'm open to suggestions.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Shoulder in The Yoke

A truckful of dogs waiting to set out on the first drive of the day

Apologies for the lack of news. It's the last week of pheasant season and we've been shooting every day, and will do until 2nd February. Workers and dogs are fit but tired. We finish a day's shooting just in time to get home and sort the other animals with food, walks, clean beds and a scratch behind the ear. Then I have to make tomorrow's lunch for 40 workers, our own dinner, and try to keep up with basic housekeeping. The weather's turned wet again, so I'm buried under piles of wet muddy clothes that need washing or at least drying out for use again in the morning. I run out of daylight and energy before I run out of chores.

Sun coming up over the first pheasant drive of the day

Lots has been happening, but too fast for me to take many photos or write a cogent post. But I'm due to practice my butchery skills with Peggy on Sunday, planning a morning deer stalk next week, and expecting a delivery from the stork - 3 orphan ewe lambs to start my permanent flock. There will be more to report.

The goyle at the bottom of the first drive - the dogs are in there somewhere!

 While the dogs are having a break this morning, I have lots to get on with including an attempt at making duck confit with some mallards. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Monday, 18 January 2010

A Family History of Objects

daughter's jumper

TaDaaa! My first finished object of the year. It's a baby jumper made from my handspun Gotland fleece, a gift for my cousin whose baby boy is due today. It's soft but very warm, perfect for the Maine climate. I will post it tomorrow, but I expect baby will arrive before the jumper does.

I recently received a box of childhood memories in the post. Dad was cleaning out the attic and sent on keepsakes like photos, report cards, my old cheerleading outfit (!) and some cushions that were hand embroidered by my mother. The cushions were appreciated not only as a remembrance of my mom, who passed away in 1989, but of her talents too. She was a talented seamstress, making most of my sister's and my clothes until we left home. These included some dubious 80's fashions and cringe-worthy prom dresses, designed by us of course, all lace and pink taffeta. But her real skill was needlepoint and embroidery, where she could let her artistic notions run away with her.

mother's cushion

I'm more of a process crafter. I just find the repetitive movements of knit and purl, or blanket stitching a cheap form of therapy. The product is like a bonus. I don't have the skill my mother had, but I get huge pleasure from making something by hand for friends, or for my small but much loved family. That's why I wanted to make something for my cousin and her baby - to mark the occasion and pass on that love. I enjoyed making every stitch of the baby jumper and I hope the happiness I felt making it transfers to the wearer. Maybe one day, he'll open a box and find the jumper he wore as a baby, made for him by his crazy aunt who lived in England and kept sheep. Maybe his own son or daughter will wear it one day.

My most prized possession in the world is this:

grandfather's bowl

It doesn't look like much, and my photograph doesn't do it any justice. It's a plain wooden bowl, carved by hand by my mother's father. He was a carpenter by trade, and died when I was quite young. I have only a few memories of him. I don't know what kind of wood it is, or why he carved it - was it for a purpose or simply an artistic expression of his carpentry skills?  It is the centrepiece of every table I set for dinner with friends. I wonder how many Thanksgivings it saw before I inherited it. I know it had sentimental value for my mother who prized it too. I love it for its simple beauty.

Enough nostalgia. The lambs need dinner, the horses need their rugs changing, and the dogs want a run before it gets too dark. And I want to start on my next jumper.

Thursday, 14 January 2010


"Hey Jen - Did you bathe the dogs?"

"Just Nel - why do you ask?"

" reason..."

- Bathe Nellie
- Clean tub
- Pick dog hair out of drain
- Plunge muck out of drain
- Wonder why water isn't draining out of bathtub
- Wash 4 dog towels
- Clean chair where Nellie finished drying herself
- Mop bathroom floor
- Look horrified when lab strolls into house having rolled in fox poo again
- Accept fate
- Ditch list, move into shed, and decide to shower under hose in backyard from now on

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Eating Crow


We're still snowed in and expecting more tonight. The pipes in the bathroom are frozen and the water won't drain from the sink.  Even the shampoo was congealed. Partway through my shower Mike came in and dumped a 5-gallon can in there with me. "The outside tap is frozen. Can you fill that for the horses?" I shivered while I waited for the can to fill up. Parts of me froze and congealed.

The UPS guy dropped off some post-Christmas presents from my family in the US and - oh joy! - they were packed in bubble wrap. I've used it to lag the outside pipes and hopefully prevent more surprise visits in the shower.

Hey - Where's our water?!? And breakfast too if you please.

The prolonged cold weather has been affecting the wild birds. Sadly I've found a few little birds dead in the snow. Their metabolisms are so fast that they live on a knife-edge when food is scarce. They use up their fuel reserves so quickly and have a short time to refuel before they go into irreversible starvation. I try and help by keeping feeders filled with peanuts and mixed seed. A birdy buffet.

Still a few fresh-laid eggs in the shed - thanks ladies

The cold is also bringing birds like woodcock and snipe to congregate around swamps in sheltered areas. Tasty game birds. Mike and I took a walk with a gun and a dog because I love woodcock, and because I found an excellent recipe for wild game tortelli that I wanted to try.

I should have never gone out thinking of the bird as if it was already in the pot. There were lots of woodcock and a few came within shot of me. But I missed them all. I missed a pigeon too. I couldn't have hit a cow in the ass with a banjo today.

In fact the only thing I shot was a crow. From game shooter to vermin controller. Such is the lot of the keeper's wife.

Still, it was a pleasurable walk in a snowy wood with my husband, looking at all the animal tracks and spotting deer laid up on the bracken banks. And Dulcie had a great time flushing birds for me to miss.

Mukluks drying over the wood stove

We have a team shooting tomorrow and Tuesday, weather permitting. We're short-staffed, so I've been press ganged into loading for a Belgian Viscount. He's a kind man, but I always prefer working the dogs over any other shoot day job. Again, the lot of the keeper's wife is to do what's needed, even if it means wearing an ironed shirt and tie.

I accept my lot. But is it wrong to pray for more snow and a tie-free Monday?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Cabin iFever

The view down our road

Short days and inclement weather are putting the kibosh on our outdoor fun. We're in the throes of severe snowstorms, at least by British standards. As a hardened New Englander I scoff at the scant centimetres of snow, grass in the front year still poking up through. But we're not equipt with gritters and salt for the roads, and the temperature is just hovering around freezing so the freeze/thaw cycle is making black ice.

Big Lamb and Little Lamb shelter by the hedge

We fed the pheasants before the weather set in. I was up early defrosting drinking water and putting out extra food for the critters as the snow started. I had planned to go stalking as the deer are holding in the sheltered woods, but my scope filled with snow and visibility was poor. I had to give up. Now I'm watching the little wild birds hanging from the peanut feeders and eating the corn cobs I left on the ground. A cock pheasant came by to feed with the chickens in the yard.

This little hen sees her first snow

Even Mike's given in and come home. We're holed up in the warm room with a healthy pile of wood I split and stacked, knowing the weather was on the turn. Even in the warm room I've prised my cardigan out from under a sleeping dog and put it on. The wind is taking the heat out of our not well-insulated cottage. Some people still use heavy curtains to prevent the draughts. But pulling the curtains and sitting in the dark would probably drive me over the edge.

We're coping with cabin fever by drinking endless pots of coffee and catching up on conversation.

"My mobile phone contract says I'm due an upgrade and I can have an iPhone" Mike said

"Do you know what an iPhone is?" I said

"Well I know it's not an iPod." he said, referring to the time when I bought an iPod and couldn't figure out how to use the phone. Not realising that they were two different devices. Much to the continued hilarity of my sister and friends.

"You only know that because I'm stupid." I said. "What are you going to do with it? You can't even work out how to use predictive text."

The word we christened to describe our gross ignorance in this area is "technotardation".

 "It has apps. They're useful." Mike said

"On what planet are there iPhone apps that will be relevant to you? Unless it has a leatherman and jumper cables." I said.

"It takes pictures." he said

"You only take pictures of fish and dissected pheasants for your own reference." I said

"Is there an app for that?" Mike asked

Good lord.

I took Mike outside and pointed to our back door. "Here's all the technology you need" I said-

"That white bin is your 'inbox'. The postman puts your mail in it. The silver bucket is your 'recycling bin' - compost and ash for the garden. The thermometer on the wall is your 'app'. It tells you what the temperature is. What more do you want?" I said.

"Hmphh." Mike said. "Well I'm kind of hungry..."

"I can make you pancakes or there's some leftover cake from Mrs Martin. It's in a tin in the footwell of your truck." I said.

Mike thought about it. "People who eat cake out of the footwell of their truck are probably not the kind of people that need iPhones." he said.

I rest my case.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy New Year

I'm sorry I couldn't come up with a wittier, or at least less perfunctory, title than that. I can't even blame it on overindulgence last night. I was positively monastic, not a drop of drink and asleep by 10pm. The only ache I'm nursing today is a sore shoulder from the recoil of my 20 bore. I was practicing my aim at the clay pigeon ground yesterday, in the hopes of putting some more game birds in my freezer before the season ends in February.

On Wednesday, a small group of us had a walk around day on the outskirts of the estate, to clear up any far-ranging pheasants or the odd woodcock. I never saw much, but the group brought home half dozen of each. One of the group brought a friend from the city who pitched in, and we sent him home with the birds. He even helped prepare them for the oven, so he's gone back with a new skill too.

The weather was cold but sunny today, so we took Spud and Pip to the seaside for a romp. It's another tick in the box for Spud's socialising program: see lots of people and traffic. With the added bonus of fun splashing in the water and meeting other dogs. Less fun is the fact that she still gets car sick and she managed to get it over 3 coats, a pair of gloves, and the seat cover. 2 miles from our destination.

The Jurassic Coast - Lyme Regis

Pip comes along to set the tone for Spud, as she's well socialised and pretty relaxed in her approach to everything.


We watched Dorset's version of the Polar Bear Club go for their New Year's Day swim in the ocean. The dogs joined them in the surf. We walked to the end of the pier (as seen in the French Lieutenant's Woman) and back, then sat outside a pub and all 4 of us scoffed a bowl of french fries with lashings of mayonnaise. We wandered into the town for a bit of window shopping and the dogs got a few pats on the head from passers-by. Both dogs are dried off now and asleep in front of the wood stove. Some things never change.

The Spuddler, 9 months old

OK, so maybe our celebrations lack glamour. I'm not much into the New Year's Eve partying but I like the 'clean slate' feeling of New Year's Day. No resolutions per se but a chance to take stock: what's on track, what needs re-examining or repairing, new projects to be attempted.

I hope that, however you chose to mark the change, the new year will be productive and rewarding for you all.