Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Strange Fruit

I have stumbled across a crop of medlars.

I say 'stumbled' like it was part of some grand adventure. Really, the tree is just at the entrance of my sheep paddock, in the garden of a currently empty cottage on the estate. The medlar fruits are odd-looking but in an ornamental way. They are the colour of pears, the shape of an apple, but with a small star-shaped bottom end.

The tree is heaving with fruit. There could be two reasons for this: 1) no one else has found it yet or 2) everyone else knows it's there but have already tried medlar and have no desire to repeat the experience. Medlar recipes commonly appear in Victorian cookbooks - which is usually a warning sign - but not so in modern cookbooks. I fear the medlar might be an historical food which, once people were no longer forced to preserve and eat it, was allowed to disappear from the culinary landscape.

Many large estate gardens still have a medlar or a quince tree hiding in the ranks of their apple orchard, but it's more for tradition's sake than anything else. As head gardener, I offered quinces, medlars, and mulberries to the kitchen but was met with a "Good god, I'd cook and serve the floormats first!" look by most of the chefs.

But, I made mulberry jelly and that was pretty tasty, so I have faith that something can be done with a small harvest of medlars. I'm no chef, but when in doubt I have two tricks up my sleeve:
1) Partner it with apples and make a chutney or jam. Apple & medlar jelly. That sounds respectable.
2) Turn it into a liquer. Vodka and sugar could make grass clippings into something I'd drink.

I'm at a disadvantage because I don't know what medlars taste like. Are they pear-like? Sweet? Dry? Do they give off the faint aroma of wet socks? Until I've tried them once, I can't concoct recipes enhanced with spices or other ingredients to bring out the medlar's full potential (however limited).

The one thing I do know about medlars is they need to be bletted. Bletting is the action of frost on fruit, causing the water to expand in the cells and break down the flesh. The fruit is bletted when it's brown and soft. Even after last night's frost the medlars are still yellow and hard. I might have to wait until November and a good run of frosty nights before I harvest the little darlings. Maybe that's why the tree is still covered in fruit. Maybe everyone else is waiting until the medlars are bletted to claim the coveted prize.

I did collect a small harvest of calendula flowers and autumn rasperries from the abandoned garden, rather than see them go to waste -

While I cut the flowers, the lambs engaged in their own harvest the other side of the fence -

All four are doing well. They're hanging around together in a little wooly gang, leaping about and returning to their respective mothers only when their bellies are empty. I know how they feel.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Whistle Blower

Mike came home from the feed store this afternoon with rolled barley for the sheep, and this for me:

If you've never seen one before, it's a shepherd's whistle. It's specifically for working sheepdogs at a distance.

I have gun dog whistles, and occasionally the spaniels even respond to them when they're not suffering from a bout of selective hearing (commonly known as 'spanielitis'). I also have a walking stick - an 'aide memoir' - for tapping spaniels' bottoms. (Not to hurt them of course, just a little poke to remind them to steady down before the spanielitis sets in). Both are straightforward to operate.

Not so the shepherd's whistle.

I've looked on the internets and found numerous step-by-step guides for operating a shepherd's whistle. But all are about as helpful as Michaelangelo's step-by-step guide for creating great sculpture: you know the "Carving is easy; you just go down to the skin and stop" quote? Mastery of some things require the development of technique based solely on the experience of doing.

Using the shepherd's whistle involves creating a stream of air which you manipulate through a hole in the centre of the whistle with your tongue, all the while clenching it in your teeth. The hole in the front of the whistle is for attaching it to a lanyard so you can a) hang is around your neck when not in use and b) use the string to extract it from the back of your throat when you accidentally suck instead of blow. I already have experience of doing b).

The deal that came with the gift is that as soon as I've mastered the whistle, I can look at getting my first sheepdog puppy.

So far I've managed to wrench a few tortured shrieks out of the whistle, which I am unable to reproduce again except by accident. The house dogs just look at me quizzically, so I guess I haven't hit the right notes yet. My first attempts have also made me light-headed from all the blowing.

I also noticed (once the blood came back into my brain) that it's made by the ACME company. I've seen enough Wile E. Coyote cartoons to know this is a bad omen.

This whistle has the potential to create a strong working relationship between two species. So far, in my hands, its greatest potential is as a choking hazard, but I'm hopeful and persistent (and I'll be putting a lanyard on it before I try again). Just don't expect to see sheepdog puppy pictures this side of Easter 2011.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Learning Curves and Hedge Funds

I always thought of spring as the busiest season. Trees bursting into bud, seeds needing to go in, baby animals being born and all that. I'm changing my vote to autumn. The harvest waits for no man, pheasant season is in full cry, and if you're short-sighted, you've added lambing to your calendar. Spring is the start of months of good weather. Autumn is the culmination and as the temperatures drop, and the nights draw in you can feel the door closing on you, even though there's still so much to be done.

That's my excuse for going more than two weeks without getting on line. Blame nature.

It's a matter of priorities: animals first, and all other chores are optional. Anything that can be left has been left. Horse tack is cluttering the living room (the formal one, obviously). The dogs are sleeping on piles of horse blankets that need mending before the cold weather comes in. The kitchen counters are littered with concoctions, innoculations, medications and potions that no one's found time to put away. I've tried to clear one area for cooking but if you eat dinner, you take your chance that there might be a touch of worming medication or antibiotics in it. (Mike's not scooching his bottom along the carpet so either way it's not doing any harm.)

We're also impeded by minor ailments. Mike has an infected hand, and I have tendonitis. I'm supposed to wear a splint and rest it for the next 4-6 weeks but there's no chance of that. Resting does not fall in the priority pile and will have to wait until winter.

The animals are getting their fair share of ailments and meds too. Alan's lame with nothing more serious than sore hind leg, we hope. £100 worth of horse aspirin has made him comfortable and me a lot poorer. He's off work until next week at least, which rests both our injuries. I made him a pair of long reins for driving out of old horse blanket straps and some rope, and we had one trial run before injury set in. On the up side, Alan responded well to long lines and didn't mind them tangled around his feet or slapping him on his sides. I think he got the hang of it quicker than I did.

So a quick update then. As promised, a picture of the last surprise lamb delivered last night -

He's a good size, and strong. We had a 200% birth rate which is great not only because we get double the product (more lambs) but it also means I was getting the nutrition right. A ewe with reserves can bring off twins. I'm flying by the seat of my pants with the whole lambing routine, learning as I go with ample opportunity for mistakes. I have a good mentor - Dickie - who talks me down when I start to panic and has checked over my lambs and pronounced them excellent.

The moms have done the hard work, but there are still nursemaid jobs for me to do such as iodining the navel to prevent infection -

"Hey! What the..?"

With Dickie's help I'm ringing all the tails, and testicles on the rams. The older two are done already and fully recovered. 

I moved the first ewe and lambs into the garden where I could pen them together to bond and keep the lambs safe from the fox. In hindsight it was a bit overkill and extra work. The second ewe I've penned in her field with a strand of electric fence to deter foxes and it seems to be working.

It's sweet having the garden lambs but I have learned that a) sheep shit a LOT and b) lambs are just as destructive sleeping in your flower beds as chickens are scratching them up. On the plus side, the ewe has been selectively feeding on the lawn and what I class as weeds she sees as a tasty snack. So essentially she's weeding and feeding the garden, which saves me a job.

And speaking of sheep shit, there's another job I learned to do today -

Two undergrad degrees and a master's has led me here...

We've had a late burst of growth in the grass, and sometimes it can affect a sheep's digestive system. I worried that even now flies might be laying eggs, and a shitty sheep's arse is prime real estate if you're a fly. I never bathed a sheep before and not knowing what to use I made an educated guess: Woolite. I figured if it works on sweaters, which is just wool off a sheep, it should work when it's still attached to the sheep. I cut out the worst bits with kitchen shears. Prevention is better than cure.

My father visited this week and was immediately press-ganged into helping me split and stack wood for our newly built log store -

And cut the hedges -

I knew there was a view out there somewhere

And the rest of the time I've been working on the shoot. Or cleaning up after shoot days. The dogs catch up any wounded game, like this partridge which only had a few pellets in the leg. I plucked it and added it to a curry - my contribution at our harvest supper. The wings I've used on one of Spud's training dummies.

I think we're finding the rhythm of the autumn season now and maybe we're due a bit of balance. The lambing's gone well, and there are preserves in the pantry. I felt in balance yesterday when I walked to the post box with paid bills and on the way back found a few nests of eggs which the chickens had made in the hedgerow. Goods out - goods in. When I think of managing a hedge fund, I think of finding eggs and harvesting blackberries. Walking up a hedgerow with a dog is usually good for a bird or two for the pot. I'll never get rich or fat on my returns but I'm pretty happy with the exchange.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Fresh out of the oven

These twin Dorset ram lambs arrived Thursday. Mother and young are doing well -
Mom and her two boys

This little ewe lamb was born today, about 4 hours ago -

She's an absolute cracker. And just as I prepared to put my newborn lambing kit away, mother surprised us with a twin. Another ram lamb. She snuck it out in the dark so no pictures until morning.

My plans to add a new blog post have been derailed by mother nature. I'll leave you with these images for now, and get the protective fencing up around the new arrivals.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Working Dogs are known for their stamina

And here's the exception to that rule. Pip only worked one day this week.

Today is the official start of pheasant season in England, and it's not been an auspicious one. It was cancelled due to inclement weather. The guns were here to shoot partridge, but the rain and winds are so ferocious that it would be unfair to the quarry. Partridge are small birds, and ours have been rained on all night. Thankfully the guns were able to reschedule.

In all the time I've been working on this shoot, I've never known a cancelled day. The only weather that will stop a pheasant is fog or snow. Both will cause a pheasant to lose its bearings in flight, and can result in an exhausted bird falling dead to the ground. Rain is the keepers friend. Pheasants don't wander far in the rain, so you're sure to find them where you put them.

I won't be wandering far from home either. And I can get on with making some apple chutney before the winds knock down what's left on my apple tree. I can't make any blackberry jam as the 1st October is also an inauspicious day for blackberries. According to local lore, the devil spits on them after today (or, if you're from Cornwall, the devil pees on yours.) Though, it would be fun to have jam labelled 'Blackberry & Devil Spit' in the pantry.

Apple Chutney bubbling on the stove