Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Of ponies and puffballs

I'm desperate for the weather to turn autumnal so I can wear sweaters and eat more fattening food (which will then be concealed by said sweaters). Wild food and hedgerow fruits are starting to ripen, a good sign that autumn's coming. I've started harvesting a few things already.

Actually, I think the term harvest only applies if I've grown it myself. Otherwise I think it's foraging. Free spoils. Like finding a great chair on the curbside with a 'free' sign on it.

There's been a good show of fungi. We found a much-coveted prize: the giant puffball.

I think puffballs are coveted because of their size and ephemeral nature, and not their amazing flavor. It was palatable, although the texture is somehwere between a marshmallow and a nerf ball. I managed a few slices fried in butter and garlic on toast, but composted the rest. Next time I see one in a field, I might pretend that I didn't.

The pony paddock is awash in field mushrooms, which I pick as button size. They're your workaday mushrooms, nothing fancy like a shiitake or oyster, but they sure can bulk out a curry or an omelette. We've been eating those on an almost daily basis, while stocks last as they say.

All my harvests get collected in a horse feed bucket - is that in any way hygienic?

I guess the nature of foraging is the gamble. After you're sure it's not poisonous, then it's all personal preference. Having a good repertoire of cooking skills and appropriate recipes probably stacks the deck in your favor. A puffball in the hands of a decent chef who knows how to work with its nerfball-like qualities might have made all the difference. Where even a amateur like me can  muster up a passable chicken and field mushroom casserole.

I caught the crabapple crop just right this year. Crabapple jelly is a staple in our pantry and I have a bucketful of fruit to process. My favorite variety is Malus 'Dartmouth' and the one tree I know of is some 20 miles away in a public garden. Foraging for these apples verges on stealing, though I only pick up the windfalls. I tell myself that I'm simply clearing them up for the gardening staff. That will also be my defense in court.

Still life with crabapples and puffball in horse bucket

In England, foraging for windfall apples has a particular name: scrumping. Many young children have had a slap 'round the ear, or incurred the wrath of an angry gardener for scrumping apples. Even the windfalls are used in cidermaking. Bruising, clods of mud, and the odd worm count as 'natural flavorings' in a bottle of cider.

I thought I would collect a few hazelnuts this year too, as I enjoyed the foraged sweet chestnuts last year. I envision rich chocolate hazelnut puddings (wearing sweaters means I can eat as many as I want). I thought I would do double duty: take the horses for a ride and pick nuts as I went. On horseback I could reach the higher branches. I put some panniers on Alan and expected to come back from our ride with both sides full. I was congratulating myself on my efficiency and genius.

I didn't know horses like hazelnuts too, or that they're quicker than me at finding them.

One for me...six for you...

When I stopped at a tree to pick the nuts, Alan and Kitty joined in. For every one I found and picked, they ate a branch with several clusters on it. I only managed a few meagre handfuls in total. They ate their fill. Equine ingrates.

The hazelnuts will be around for a bit longer so my dreams of puddings and muffin tops aren't wholly lost. To improve my chances, I won't be taking the horses with me next time. But I'll still have to do battle with the squirrels and my money's on them. I'll accept my fate. As long as I don't have to live on puffballs.

Friday, 27 August 2010


I'm sad to report that our oldest hen, Mrs Dooms-Patterson, dropped off her perch last night. Literally. I found her on the floor of the hen house this morning.

Mrs D-P, the black and grey hen (centre)

She seemed fine yesterday, pecking at the windfall apples, pulling out grass and lumbering after insects. She was slow in her old age, hindered by drooping front and backsides, but she was still top dog...eh, hen...around here. Mike and I calculated that she was about 9 years old, which is Methuselah in chicken terms. She hasn't laid an egg since forever, but that didn't matter.

I'm glad she was here long enough to enjoy this year's exceptional summer weather. After I take the horses out and harvest a few hedgerow fruits, I'll bury Mrs D-P next to Charles our old cockerel, down by the river. They can keep each other company. And I can visit them on shoot days.

I'll miss her but I'm not sad. Mrs Dooms-Patterson had a long, free-range life and a peaceful passing. Maybe I'll bury a few elderberries with her - she was partial to them and I would hate for her to miss out on this year's bounty.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Overcoming hurdles

I've been preoccupied with fencing this week. The contractors have started putting the posts in for the boundary fence at Milkweed. This is our permanent field fencing, to keep horses and sheep from paying unexpected visits to the neighbours. Within the field I'll erect temporary fencing to separate the sheep from the horses, and control their access to grazing. I rely on movable and relatively inexpensive electric tape held up by plastic posts. Modern and convenient.

But what did they do for temporary fencing before electric tape, UV stabilised plastics, and the car battery? They made wattle hurdles -

That's just what I did on Thursday, with friends from the village and our tutor Pete.

Class in session

Pete and his family have been living in the Dorset woods for over 15 years producing hurdles and furniture. He worked as an engineer for many years before turning his skills towards more traditional crafts. Pete says it's given him a bad back but peace of mind. That's probably not a bad trade-off.

I won't try and reproduce the course in a blog post but, if you are interested in having a go, full instructions for making your own hurdle can be found here on the BTCV website. Instead, I'll tell you what I learned from my day with Pete.

I learned that hurdles are the ultimate in efficient and renewable engineering. Hurdles are usually made from hazel (sometimes willow or chestnut). Hazel grows in straight stems and can be harvested without killing the parent plant. This method is called coppicing. Making a hurdle uses all the sizes and parts of a stem. Pete says if a hurdle is made properly, what's leftover should only be usable as kindling in your wood stove.

The short and thick stems make the uprights, which stand in a frame -

The thinnest. longest stems are what you begin weaving between your uprights. By using the most flexible stems, you can get a tight weave. By using the longest stems, you can twist the weave back on itself for strength.

Once the thin stems are in place, you fill in with split stems. Select one of medium thickness, find the centre with your billhook, knock the blade in to begin separating the stem in two halves and work slowly twisting your blade side to side, to control the split -

Swearing isn't mandatory but it's probably unavoidable. Splitting a long length of hazel without getting hung up on a knot or running out the side takes practice. Years of it apparently. For every one stem I split correctly, I ruined three others. Well, relegated them to other uses - nothing is wasted in this process. Pete also noticed the name of the maker stamped into my bill hook: Stanforth's SeverQuick. I hoped their claim referred to the hazel only and not my fingers.

In the end I managed to complete a small hurdle, with a lot of help from Pete -

I don't know why I look so proud, it took me half a day to make that. With help.

But I had need of this particular hurdle; not to keep sheep in but to keep chickens out of my flower beds.

I think it looks pretty good. If my wrists and elbow joints ever recover, I might attempt a second one for the other bed.

These days hurdles are mainly purchased or commissioned as decorative garden fencing for fancier homes. Originally, they were an important tool for shepherds.

Shepherds moved their flocks constantly, to maximise grazing. As sheep moved and grazed, they gave birth to their lambs. Hurdle pens were erected to protect a ewe and her lambs, and to keep them together. The uprights have points on the bottom, to make them easier to push into the ground and sturdy once they're in.

Some hurdles were made with small rectangular gaps at the top. When the lambs got bigger and needed to eat grass, the hurdles were turned over. The gaps let the lambs out to graze and play, but kept the ewes contained. The ewe called her lamb to keep it close, and was on hand for food and warmth.

When lambs were weaned and big enough to travel, the shepherds just picked up the hurdles and carried them on. Nearly all hurdles have a small hole or slot woven into them. The shepherd could poke a pole through a stack of hurdles and carry them on his shoulder. Hurdles were just right for the job.

Now there are metal hurdles, and I use some of those to corral the sheep when I want to work on them or give them meds. They're fine too but they lack the romance and artistry of a finely woven hurdle, a design which may have been used since humans became sedentary and took up agriculture.

Pete says he can make a 4ft x 6ft hurdle in about 2 hours, with a good wind behind him, so even with experience it is still a labor-intensive job. It only takes me half an hour to drive to the local feed store and pick up another roll of electric fence tape. Romance will always give way to my laziness.

Tomorrow I'll be managing the other end of the fencing spectrum, watching the tractor and its hydraulic rammer pound posts into ground and define the boundary of our little field. But I can imagine the old shepherds who once grazed their sheep on Milkweed, and it's nice to think that it only takes a few interwoven split stems to keep a ewe and lamb safe.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Meat Group!

Last night, I got at least one of the ingredients for shoot lunches -

A little pricket roe buck, just what I was looking for. He's only a small chap but he should produce about 10 kgs of meat, which is 5 meals for hungry workers. It's a good start.

He's hanging in the chiller, and I'll butcher him in a week when the meat has had some time to relax and mature.

The little buck had the last laugh as I had to drag him a mile back to a track, where I could then pick him up with my truck. I was red in the face, sweating and puffing, even with frequent rest stops.  I had better work on my cardio and dragging technique before the next stalk.

Dakota gets very excited by a successful hunt, and she likes to check on the bounty -

She knows a deer means liver for breakfast.

No time to sit on my laurels. There are 50 meals to make so I'm going to need a few more deer. And there 3 more food groups to source. At least I won't get out of breath harvesting vegetables.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


All the pheasants have been put to wood now. Grouse season opened four days ago. Partridge season opens on the 1 September. We start shooting one month from today. Basic preparations are underway.

Mike and underkeeper Pete have had their second fitting for their new tweed suits: plus fours, waistcoat, tweed jacket. This morning I've "tested" and bottled our sloe gin and cherry brandy from last year -

Workers' provisions. I also need to harvest a deer for workers' lunches. It needs a few days to hang in the chiller, and I need to butcher it and bag it by the end of the month. I have over 50 meals to make, and a whole deer minced or cubed will make a dent in the season's menu. Rabbits, pheasant, and partridge will do the rest. If I give them enough of the sloe gin and cherry brandy to drink, they won't care what's for lunch.

The swallow chicks have fledged. The nest is empty this morning. The early mornings feel autumnal. There's a good crop of field mushrooms in the horse paddock, and I harvest them every morning when I feed Kitty and Alan. They're not bothered with the fungi, and are content to watch me over the top of their buckets while they eat their breakfast and I collect mushrooms for my dinner.

There are tomatoes slow-cooking in the oven, and cucumbers in salt which I'll turn into pickles this evening. I plyed another skein of wool so I can finish the sweater I'm knitting - another rustic number, warm and functional. This skein includes wool from our own sheep -

It's hanging in the apple tree to dry. A bit of weight from my shepherd's crook helps to set the twist in the fibres.

I'll work on the sweater tonight while Mike and I sit outside in front of the open fire and enjoy the last warm summer evenings, and hopefully some meteor showers.

The apple harvest looks promising. Our cooking apples are coloring up -

The chickens are clearing up the windfalls already. Just as I can't bear to eat any more zucchini bread, we'll be on to apple cake. Change is a good thing.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

One swallow alone does not make the summer

A few weeks ago I posted that we had some unexpected (but welcome) visitors. A pair of swallows built a nest above our front door. We started using the side door so we wouldn't disturb them. Out of sight and out of mind, I'd forgot all about them.

As I closed up the chicken houses last night I heard chicks peeping. Where the hell is that coming from? Then I remembered the nest.

And found four small frowning faces hanging out of it. Well done swallow mom and dad.

They look like they will be fledging any time now. It's seems to me that they're a late hatch. They will be setting off soon on their long distance migration to Southern Africa, where our British swallows spend their winters. I hope these chicks will be strong enough to make the journey.

On my evening dog walks I watch dozens of swallows plucking insects from the air above the open fields. Their acrobatics are hypnotic to watch and I stretch out our walks until the light starts to go, just to marvel at them. The insects, the swallows' main food source, look like rich pickings right now so perhaps the chicks are in with a good chance.

I'll miss them but I won't miss this -

The by-product of swallows nesting above your front door. But it's a small price to pay. And what's a bit more bird poop around this place anyway?

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

My Husband and Other Animals

My husband is unique. And still a bit caveman-like. I love those things about him. They both surprise me and drive me crazy sometimes.

He grew up in a small cornish village, and on Dartmoor. As a kid he earned pocket money by tying flies for the local angling shop, and selling fish he caught to local restaurants and his teachers. He was a commercial fisherman in his teens, to earn money to go to gamekeeping college. By 20, he was the youngest head keeper in the southwest of England. Since then he's pretty much lived in the woods. He's 45 next week.

I was a typical American teenager, going to the movies and hanging out at the mall. I had a job as a waitress, and I was a cheerleader. I went to University and got a desk job. Of course I've seen Star Wars, and been to an amusement park, and used the metro in lots of cities. That's all part of the average American experience. Not Mike. There's nothing average about him. And it's shaped the way he views the world.

He doesn't see distinctions between people. Celebrity means nothing to him. If someone comes on the TV he's as likely to say "I carried her out of the river. Stupid girl wore high heels on a shoot day". It didn't occur to him that I would know who Kate Moss is and that his story was an interesting anecdote, but it seemed so obvious to him that anyone with basic common sense would know how to dress for the outdoors.

Ditto the long haired Goths who rented a cottage on a Devon estate where Mike worked. He dropped in for tea sometimes, and brought them rabbits. It was the members of the band The Cure. When I explained who they are - as a teenager in the 80s I had the mandatory crush on Robert Smith - Mike was glad to hear they made a good living in the end, because he thought they would have trouble finding a job looking like they did.

Good lord Mike!
What Mike notices, what he's fluent in, is animals and the British countryside. Give him a part-chewed pinecone and he can tell you what's eaten it. Same with a hole in the ground, or a pile of scat. The position and remains of a dead pheasant are all he needs to discern the culprit. His world view is coloured by the behavior of the native fauna he's been brought up on. It's reflected in his language and how he makes sense of the world. Here are some examples from our daily conversations:

"Don't hug me - I smell like a polecat."

"He was angrier than a badger in a hessian sack"

"You make more noise than two pigeons mating!"

"A hibernating dormouse is more awake than you are in the morning."

And my favorite: "You have the eating habits of a stoat!" I wasn't familiar enough with stoat behavior to get that one. Did he mean I have a big appetite, or was it my propensity for belching?

I asked "What's a stoat like then?"

He looked at me the same way I looked at him when he told me he's never seen Star Wars. Like I'm an imbecile brought up under a rock in a dark cave. Like surely everyone is an authority on the mustelid family.

"The stoat is a facultative predator with catholic habits." Apparently I eat lots, of anything put in front of me.

Where do you learn words like that in the woods?

My husband will always be a source of mystery to me. But at least I'm learning about stoats.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Food Chain

After admitting my mashed potato sandwich shame, I hope to redeem myself with this, my first completely home grown meal out of the vegetable patch -

It's only a small harvest, but I hope it will be the first of many.

Vegetables are forever miraculous to me. Plant a seed and pay it even a small amount of attention and hey presto - food! It's extra miraculous this year considering I did all the wrong things: planted late into not-very-well prepared soil, planted too close together, watered sporadically, and weeded only occasionally. I'm paying the price now. The cucurbits have powdery mildew, the lettuce bolted, pigeons got my early peas, tomatoes have split, and the potatoes have scab.

And yet there's still stuff to eat. The vegetable patch produces despite my haphazard and random interventions.

And, not only is there enough for our dinner, but there's enough to share with the animals. The dogs like the carrot and bean ends, the horses like the carrot tops and some of the beet leaves in their evening meal. The chickens share the beet leaves with the horses and enjoy any tomatoes that are too squishy for us. Peelings go out in the compost for a final once-over by the chickens, and the worms eat the rest.

Add to the harvest some home raised leftover chicken and it's a wholesome meal. More provencale than cordon bleu but respectable. And we won't starve. Nor will the animals. At least until the first frost.

Speaking of mouths that need feeding, we have a new chicken. Our friends Tim and Megan had adopted some ex-laying hens from a battery unit. Over time each died of old age and only Flossie was left. She was a lonely chicken. When they came for lunch last Sunday, they brought her along to join our flock.

Flossie had other ideas -

She flatly refused to go to bed with the other brown hens. I came in from my evening chores to find her "roosting" next to Mike's chair. As I've never known a chicken that would use a litter tray, Flossie had to be carried out to the hen house where she could sleep, and poop with reckless abandon. She's not quite accepted her new outdoor living arrangements, but she has got smarter at roosting where she wouldn't be noticed -

Behind the porch door. For the moment we're compromising. Flossie goes to bed behind the door and when it gets dark and all the other chickens are in the hen house, I carry her out and place her on a perch where she stays with the others until morning.

It's getting dark so I'd better move her now, on my way out to walk the dogs. Then I want to make dessert - zucchini bread with the zucchini from today's harvest. The dogs can have the crusts and there will be enough left over for the gamekeepers' coffee break tomorrow. Everyone's happy.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Culinary conundrum

Even though we have such wonderful local meat and produce, sometimes we fall back on less inspired meals. Especially after a busy day. Mike's default meal is toast. Tonight I am reduced to a mashed potato sandwich and a glass of wine.

I found myself wondering what wine goes with a mashed potato sandwich. I offer that thought as the "Pointless Question of the Week". The answer is obviously Whatever Bottle is Open goes with mashed potato sandwich.

Does anyone else have any shameful meals they'd like to admit to?