Saturday, 26 June 2010

Making hay (and chickens, lambs, and strawberry pie) while the sun shines

Our meat chickens arrived plucked and gutted at 8am yesterday morning -

I must be getting a "farmer's stomach" as the sight of eight flaccid, raw birds on my breakfast table didn't put me off my morning coffee. I drank my coffee while I wrapped the chickens ready for the freezer.

Strawberry season is here and I headed off to the local Pick-Your-Own, on the grounds of an 800 year old Cistercian Monastery. I've stocked the freezer, and had enough to make a strawberry and rhubarb pie. The English don't have a culinary history of fruit pies. If you say "pie" to an Englishman, he thinks steak and some kind of offal or stinking cheese. I'm trying to right that wrong. This pie is guaranteed offal-free and I'm teaching Mike to eat it for breakfast. After tasting the pie, he claims he's converted. Well, monks once lived where the strawberries grew, so I guess a religious experience was inevitable.

The cooking kept me occupied until it was time to collect my new ewes. I wrestled the sheep trailer onto the truck (it's all about leverage) and drove to Mr. Baker's Farm.

This is Mr. Baker -

Mr. Baker farms cattle and sheep. He's always got a smile, and a sensible answer to my never ending questions. And infinite patience for my never ending questions. He was late getting back for his supper because we were "talking sheep". Sheep talk is very serious stuff. You can tell how serious by the look of concentration on my face. We're checking his notes to calculate when my ewes are due to lamb - 

And looking over the three rams, discussing their conformation and reproductive prowess -

Here we are examining a lame ewe's foot  -

Mr. Baker gave me a quick sheep anatomy lesson using his willing victim. Did you know that sheep have sweat glands on the front of their ankles? And by their teats? I guess I'd sweat too if I had to wear a wool body stocking all year round.

Mr. Baker had my ewes in a box on the back of his tractor, which he just backed up to my trailer-

The ewes simply stepped from one into the other. I wondered if it would be so easy when we unloaded them at the other end. After all, we didn't have a canine back-up plan -

Mike's helpful but he's not as well trained as this pair.

The ewes were sheared last week. Mr. Baker saved me their fleece, which is soaking in the bath as I write this.

Look at these beauties, ready for their ride back to Dorset -

Just before we left, I noticed a collection of old horseshoes on a nearby wall. Mr. Baker says his plough is forever turning them up in the soil. I know from experience horses lose shoes for a past time, but this collection was a visual reminder of the history inherent in his land and the days before tractors. When horsepower meant horse power.

From my museum days, I recognised the age of some of the examples. At least one was over 300 years old. On the way home, I asked Mike how long Mr. Baker had been farming there.

"Oh, it's a new farm. He's only been there 40 years" Mike said.

"How is 40 years not a long time?" I said

"I mean it's not been farmed by his family for generations." Mike said

British people have a difference concept of what constitutes history than Americans do. At least we agreed that the Cistercians monks were pretty damn historical.

We got our new ewes home and I eventually backed the trailer into the narrow lane leading to their paddock (thank god for the "Learn to Reverse your Trailer" course at the local agric college.) There was still 10 feet between the back of the trailer and the paddock gate. That's a lot of room for a sheep to misbehave. I crossed my fingers and dropped the ramp on the trailer. The ewes walked right in with only a little arm waving on our parts.

My orphans ran at the newcomers, and bleated a group welcome. A bit of sniffing and they all walked off in a gang -

When I'm not playing sheep rodeo or jabbing myself with vaccine, this shepherding gig isn't as hard as I thought. According to my Old Farmer's Almanac, the gestation period for a ewe is about 150 days. My two new arrivals are already a month or so into their pregnancies. This gives me four months to figure out where I'm going to build a temporary lambing shed in my backyard.

At least I know we'll be able to feed them. We just had Milkweed Farm baled and we harvested 478 bales-

That's about average for this hot and dry summer. In a good year we can expect 900 bales. If we'd only collected ten bales, I would have been excited. We kept the hay we needed and sold the rest to the contractor to pay for the work. He will store our bales as well. This crop saves us the cost of our biggest winter feed bill. More importantly, this winter our own home bred lambs will be eating our own home grown organic hay. It's a good start.


Kate said...

"The English don't have a culinary history of fruit pies."

-This stopped me dead in my tracks. It checks out with what I know of British pies (cottage, shepherd's, steak & kidney, pork, starry-gazey), but still it's a bit startling to realize there were no fruit pies in England. So two obvious questions - who did Americans get their fruit pie tradition from? The French with their gallettes? Not the Italians, I don't think. The Germans with their pastries, maybe? Second question: was the crisp or the crumble or the cobbler the British stand in for the fruit pie? Or none of these?

Love the horseshoe collection.

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - I've just looked in my Delia Smith Cookbook and there wasn't even an entry for pie in the index. Sweet pastry yes. And a recipe for apple & raisin pie (eww..) and lemon meringue pie. Then it went right to suet pastry and all forms of meat pie.

They definitely have fruit desserts, crumble being a favorite of housewives and restaurants (well, pubs anyway) especially in apple season. I suppose it is the stand-in for pie. Maybe because they eat pie for a main dish, having pie for dessert would be pastry overload?

I have no idea where the American pie tradition comes from. I need to investigate. After eating at Mission Pies in SF a few months ago, I'm just damn grateful for it. I'm embracing my roots and it's delicious!

Sara said...

Jen, may the weather be dry and warm, with a light breeze to dry the rest of your hay. Congrats on getting all those bales in so far. My dad's just begun hay season, too, and still gets nostalgic for the sweet hay smell in the barns when they're full.

The two new ewes look...just like the others. Adorable. It's so hard for me to tell the difference in their faces, and yet you must've heard of this study:

Great pics! Though you're so productive it almost inspires me to get off my arse and cook a pie, or work in my garden. Almost.

Poppy Cottage said...

Hey!! The crocs are still going!!! Sheep look great Jen. The breed is pretty laid back, and good lambers I seem to remember. Must get in touch with Tuss about the black fleeces.

Back from Cornwall, not how I remembered it. Toooooooooo many hoilday makers!!!! Too many cars.

Think I'll hang around Dorset for a bit longer!
Me x

Jennifer Montero said...

Sara - Is your dad still dairying? I bet he remembers how hard haymaking used to be.

Thanks for the link. I saw a study where it was determined that sheep can recognize up to 100 faces, human and sheep. If that's so, maybe flock size should reflect what they know about sheep cognisance. Small is beautiful (and you know who your friends are).

Jennifer Montero said...

Colette - Crocs are a marvel. I can get behind technology when it gives us things like machine washable shoes.

I'm shearing the lambs next week, if you want to come over and do one, to keep your eye in?

No good coming back to Dorset for tourist respite. It's been tractor vs caravan on the roads all weekend. Hope you had a nice break regardless.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Ewe go, girl!

I love your new sheep. And your new hay. And your newly-processed meat chickens. And the way you take it all in stride.

Just yesterday, we bought four turkey chicks, essentially on impulse. I was on the fence about it -- we hadn't planned for another new species this year -- and I actually invoked your name. "If Jen can do sheep and chickens and quail and all those pheasants, and train the dogs and shoot the foxes and trap the crows," I said to my husband, "We can raise four lousy turkeys."

Just so you know, when we screw it up, it'll definitely be your fault.

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - We just came back from a friend's farm where they keep kune kune pigs and water buffalo. Mike wanted both, but I invoked Kate@ Living the Frugal Life and her mantra of "one new species a year".

If we stick together and blame each other, how can we fail?!?

Kate said...

Ah, but I violated my own rule this year - honeybees plus one turkey. The turkey was a fluke though. Surprisingly, I'm more relaxed about this new species because it was sort of foisted on me. I feel less responsible for it for that reason - after all, it would have been dead anyway if I hadn't taken it. That means less stress for me. Had I been more proactive about the decision, I would have felt I needed to study up on the needs of turkeys, prepare housing in advance, fret over their survival, etc, etc. So you were right, Tamar; sometimes not making the decision proactively is the right way to go.

Still, I think it's a pretty good rule, in general.

Poppy Cottage said...

Never shaun, but willing helper. Let me know what day - via text. Working a couple of nights next week, but who needs sleep when have company of good friends!!

Maria said...

Jen - you're right, the English (or British, as far as I know! people from Wales/Scotland/NI correct me) don't do fruit pie. I however, have been wanting to try rhubarb-strawberry pie for a couple of days, so your recipe is perfectly timed!
Now I just need to guesstimate how much fruit 1 cup is (for those of us not blessed by cups... I do keep meaning to buy some to save myself converting hassle from American recipes :o) )
PS love the new sheep, they look gorgeous.

Jennifer Montero said...

Maria - Guesstimate no more...I bought some 'cups' from Boots and it appears a cup is 250ml more or less. In a pinch I use a teacup. It seems to work out OK, certainly in the case of pie, which is pretty fool-proof.

Let me know what you think of the recipe. Mike's already hounding me to make another one.

Maria said...

Jen - you're a star! thanks (I was being too lazy to look it up properly myself).
I will hopefully make this at the weekend - will let you know how it goes down but I suspect well!

Paula said...

I still don't know if I even like rhubarb. My grandmother used to make strawberry rhubarb pies when I was a kid and all I remember about them was thinking they were a waste of perfectly good strawberries....

Congrats on the new ewes....

Maria said...

I can now report back - I have just made the pie! And it is very tasty. Although I need more practice at pastry, unlike Tamar...

I have to ask though Jen - is it meant to be soupy? As in, quite a bit of liquid/juice sitting at the bottom. I'm guessing not. I'm thinking either too much rhubarb / not enough cornstarch / not cooked for long enough. ( I was relaxed in my use of the cup measurements for fruit..).

Still, very tasty though! I will make a non-soupy version another day :o)

Jennifer Montero said...

Maria - Oh no..not soupy. You've sussed the problem with either too much rhubarb or needs more cornstarch.

Perhaps let the mix sit in the bowl for a bit and the cornstarch might thicken the excess liquid before you cook it. I'm glad you liked it though.

My only good pastry is a rich pastry: two parts flour to one part fat. It's decadent but it's always flaky. Any scrimping to save calories and the pastry comes out tough.

Maria said...

Aha, but I am the queen of fixing kitchen mistakes... I drained most of the liquid out of the pie and put it back in the oven for another ten minutes, and this time round it came out fine!

Plus, I should clarify: my pastry *looked* messy but it tasted divine - I used my cookbook's recipe for sweet pastry (which was 2:1 flour to butter, plus sugar, egg yolk and vanilla essence!)

Next time less rhubarb, more cornflour though..

Jennifer Montero said...

Knowing how to rectify kitchen disasters and save a dish is the sign of an experienced cook. Good thinking.

Imperfect looking pastry just proves it is homemade. Mine is never even, and I'm always patching holes with scraps. I figure most of the mess is covered by filling anyway. I've not tried the egg yolk in pie crust but I will next time.