Saturday, 15 October 2011

Very 'Silence of the Lambs' indeed

Lambing season finished, not with a bang but with a whimper. Between last night's checks, L845 gave birth but struggled with her single large ram lamb. When we found them, the lamb had died and the poor ewe was spent. She couldn't stand, though she was trying desperately with her remaining energy to reach the lamb to clean it. It was heart-breaking.

We left her with her dead lamb in the paddock overnight. It sounds macabre but we were hoping to find a orphan this morning for her to foster, and we needed to keep up the maternal bond. The closest spare day-old lamb was in the next county, about half an hour away. It was a small triplet ram, which would do better if it didn't have two siblings to compete with. Perfect.

By the time I got back with the foster lamb, Mike and our local shepherd had carried out the grizzly task of removing the dead lamb's hide, and we fit it over the foster lamb. The extra layer is making the lamb walk stiff-legged and I expect it's heavy on its tiny body. L845 accepted it with very little encouragement on our part. In fact she looked relieved. The foster lamb suckled right away, no questions asked. They're penned together and it's going as well as we could have hoped, for now anyway.

Foster lamb in its 'cloaking device'

As the foster lamb is accepted, I can cut away part of its extra coat every day, starting with the tail end, then the flanks, and finally the rest can go. Then I need to worry about fly strike again. A lamb in a carrion suit must be irresistible to flies.

Even though lambing is finished now, I'll still have night checks to do: making sure mum and adopted lamb are bonding, and ensuring that Matilda is coping on her own as a member of the flock. I put her in the paddock yesterday and she's playing happily with the other lambs.

I gained a lot of experience lambing this year. Fingers crossed that I don't have to put it into practice again next year. Now I'm off to pursue more genteel activities: taking Quincy for a walk to collect this year's sweet chestnut harvest. Skinning a chestnut is much less traumatic.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I've just finished knitting my very first sock!

It's a knee-length shooting sock in Superba wool (colour: 'Santa Fe'), for you yarn nerds. Pip is thoroughly underwhelmed by my achievement, but I'm proud. Socks are an advanced knitting project and I am not an advanced knitter. Yet, it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of addictive - which is good because I have to start all over again and knit one exactly like this one before I can wear them.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Souped-up chickens for chicken soup

I'll get to the chickens in a minute, but first a lambing update. Ewe 2844 gave birth to a single ewe last Thursday -

It was as big as the week-old twins and so earned the unfortunate name 'Megalamb'. This does allow me to make Transformers jokes like "Hey, we could name the next ram lamb 'Optimus Prime Cuts'!"  I mean, that's funny, right? Mike just stares blankly at me.

According to my diary, yesterday was the end of lambing and the start of my good night's sleep. The sheep didn't get the memo, and there were two ewes still to lamb: L845 and L817.

At sunrise this morning, I found L817 cleaning a newly laid ram lamb -

Shortly followed by its twin, a little ewe lamb.

They are so gooey when they're born

I had to help a bit as the ewe lamb was trying to come out all four feet at the same time. Once the baby's nose and front feet were readjusted, she slid out like water from a hose. I went back to drinking my cup of coffee and left mum to clean up. Just one more ewe to lamb - hurry up L845!

Matilda is doing very well, if her milk belly is any indication. She's looks like she's going to make it now, so she's been given her sheep bling, the ear tags with my flock number and her unique number. Matilda is Ewe 0008. Typically, I wasn't paying attention when I was tagging and I put hers in upside down and the weight has pulled her ears downward. Now she's pot-bellied and lop-eared.

But this is supposed to be about meat chickens, half of which went into the chiller today. 12 down, 14 to go. Mike wouldn't let me kill 13, as he thought it was unlucky. I couldn't think of anything less lucky than being killed so I'm not sure about his logic.

Anyway, a post by Kate at Living the Frugal Life made me think about chickens' place in a mixed farm. Here we have two kinds of meat chickens: fast-growing hybrids and Buff Orpington cockerels. We buy in the hybrids as day-old chicks twice a year, and the Buffs are a by-product of hatching replacement hens.

We calculated that the hybrids eat nearly a kilo of pellet per day per bird, at a cost of £1 per week each. They metabolise the food effectively and grow quickly. Hybrids produce lots of breast meat. We killed the cockerels today, averaging around 9 lbs of meat each. Essentially the hybrid is a chicken crop which we feed processed, high protein food, and harvest at 14 weeks.

A big hybrid meat chicken. Their brothers went to KFC.

The buff cockerels are completely free-range, and make good use of it. They consume wheat which is grown on the estate, at about one quarter of the rate the hybrids consume pellet. Buffs scavenge and eat table scraps, windfall fruits, insects and wild food; they are more adventurous eaters than the hybrids. A buff cockerel puts on meat in his legs and he won't be killed before at least 28 weeks old, though can be left longer. These cockerels only kill out about 4 lbs each.

A selection of our free range poultry - the Buffs are, well, the buff-coloured ones

With the cost of pellet food doubled in the past 12 months, each hybrid cost us £10 to produce, £5 more than last year. In fact, Farming Today ran a programme on a similar topic, claiming that it will be difficult to buy organic chickens because the cost of the food to raise them has meant tiny profit margins, putting growers out of business.

A hybrid would be no use as part of an integrated mixed farm. It won't turn over soil, eat pests, or grow big on food it finds for itself. When a farmer's wife kept a few chickens outside the back door, she wouldn't have wanted the hybrid. A dual purpose would mean a regular supply of eggs and the occasional roast chicken.This may be why chicken was once a special meat for the holiday table.

There is no such thing as cheap meat. It seems you have two choices: grow slow at low cost or grow fast like a crop on expensive inputs. The slow bird isn't going to ensure a vast supply, not like people consume chicken nowadays. But a good dual-purpose bird still has its place on the farm eating pest insects, spreading manure by scratching, and fertilising as it goes with its own nitrogen-rich droppings.

We eat a hybrid chicken a week, and it makes three meals plus stock. But, we save the buff cockerel roasts for special occasions.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Eating humble tarte

The only compliment I can give myself in the kitchen is that I'm a competent, if plain, home cook. By that I mean that I can open the refrigerator and look at a random selection of unpromising ingredients, usually a few days' worth of leftovers, and assemble them into a somewhat more promising pie or stew. On a good night the result is delicious enough that it all gets eaten, and the remainder doesn't go back into the fridge and get re-entered into the dinner lottery.

I admire chefs, those food alchemists-cum-artists who seem single-minded in their pursuit for the lightest sauces, or flakiest pastry, or (what I really admire) an unexpected presentation. I read cookbooks knowing that I'll never make most of the recipes, although I would love to eat them. We've tried for a year to get reservations at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons . Unfortunately, we have no social clout to procure a table, and we can't dial the 'phone fast enough when the last spots are thrown open to the dining proletariat.

Mike loves good food, but is content with a regular diet of toast and roast dinners. He never reads cookbooks, and the only meal he can make aside from browning bread or meat is spaghetti. His portion size reflects the size of whatever pan he can lay his hands on first, so sometimes it's an appetizer portion, other times it's enough to feed whatever small country is currently in food crisis.

Mike has a bad history with chefs. When Marco Pierre White shot here, Mike asked Marco when he cooks, how does he keep the beans from sliding off the toast and into the toaster. "Oh F*%k off, Mike" was Marco's response. I told Mike that not everyone appreciates his offhand humour. (In Marco's defense, he was a charming and generous guest, and a champion shot.)

The next time Mike ran into another TV chef was out fishing. Terry, our vet and Mike share the same passion for fishing and practical jokes. Let's just say that somehow the chef got the impression that Mike was judging the prestigious international dog show class that the chef's clumber spaniel was entered in. Technically that gaff was Terry's fault, but I know Mike's hoping the chef doesn't come as a guest one day and recognise him.

So, when I read the guest list for Monday and saw Michel Roux, renowned patissier and Michelin-starred chef was coming, I felt excitement, then dread. I begged Mike to rein in his sense of humour. The Le Gavroche cookbook is a staple in my kitchen. If Mike irritated Monsieur Roux I would never be able to crack that book's spine again without feeling humiliation. I would be doomed to a life of dry toast and roast.

Mike behaved impeccably. He introduced me to Mr. Roux who was almost painfully charming in that way that older Frenchmen are. We had a conversation about cooking (how he can, and I can't) and I could feel myself blushing, trying not to sound sycophantic. Mike stood me behind Mr. Roux to pick up on the last drive. I had Spud the flatcoat picking up for me.

Have I ever mentioned that, as a breed, flatcoats have a propensity for burping? Really loudly?

BRUUUPPP! Before the drive started so Mr Roux didn't have his ear defenders in yet (not that I'm sure those would have saved us). He said nothing, but I saw him sneak a look out of the corner of his eye back to me. Oh God. Do I tell him it was the dog? And who's going to believe that, when 90% of the wind passed in this world gets blamed on the family dog. I just looked at Spud, sighed, and accepted the meal that the universe dished out to me.

Even after that, Michel Roux took my address and promised to send me a copy of his new pastry cookbook, so I could work on my technique. Such a gentleman. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I'd had such a long day in the field, I would be dishing up dinner from our local takeaway. And we'd probably be eating it straight from the plastic container it came in.