Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sheep-for-brains

It's a confusing time of year for me. And busy. Confusing and busy. During the day I'm checking lambs, sheep, horses, and pheasant poults, trying to keep them alive and healthy. But in the evenings, I'm out with a gun doing my best to take down vermin, and harvest wild animals for the freezer. I'm a competing member of the food chain, fighting foxes to save my chickens (one took Barbara the Weather Chicken!) and stalking deer to save us from going hungry.

I should say harvesting wild animals for the freezers, plural, as we have two - both of which are only a quarter full. We've nearly eaten all our home grown chickens, lots of venison, most of last year's game birds, plus half a pig I got from Peggy in exchange for helping her in the butchery.

Summer shouldn't be the hungry season, but the main crops of vegetables aren't ready to harvest yet. After a hot dry spring, we're being subjected to a cold grey summer. My hardy root vegetables like potatoes, parsnips and carrots are stalwart growers. My squash, french beans, and sweetcorn are sulking in their rows.

Last winter's lambs are going to the abattoir next week. I have one ram lamb destined for our freezer and the other two are sold to neighbours. I just got my all-clear from Trading Standards to sell our lamb and chickens direct (Milkweed Farm Meat) so I can now supply any surplus meat to local families and businesses. I'm a quasi-CSA of one.

Assuming I have any meat to sell by next week. I have had to bring a pair of wire cutters on my sheep checking rounds. One of the ram lambs keeps getting his fat head wedged in the wire fencing. I've found him stuck fast, dejected and hungry, for the last three mornings in a row. Did he learn his lesson this morning?

Winning at grazing

Nope. Apparently the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. At least until you eat everything in reach, get stuck, and have to wait for someone to cut the wire and free your head.

Eunice keeps him company, or stands there and mocks him, I'm not sure which.

It's become a daily thing with him. Even the neighbors have started helping to free him when they find him before I do.

I also lost my first sheep since starting the flock. The smallest orphan lamb died in his first week, probably from urolithiasis. I was very upset at the loss, though sheep farmers tell me that rearing all one's orphans successfully is rare. The other four are past the crucial two week period and I'm hopeful for them.

Though the youngest lambs aren't gifted with brains either. There are 5 teats on the bucket but the lambs insist on fighting over two. They have a system worked out, something between a time-share and a dance routine:

video


Lest you think it's just the sheep, the stupidity is contagious and crossing species. I broke my small toe falling over the vacuum cleaner. It means I've had to walk with a stick for a few days, but chores wait for no man.

Chore number one: an order for freshly shot rabbits. Mike drove the truck; Underkeeper Pete and I stood in the back (me balancing on my good foot) Within an hour we shot a dozen rabbits (and two foxes for good measure).

Freshly shot rabbit on a bed of wet pheasant pellets, with a garnish of empty cartridge cases, served in a flatbed truck

The order came from a British Army officer taking his cadets on a Survival Training Weekend. I understand each cadet gets given a dead, un-gutted rabbit and told not to starve before being left overnight in the woods. I feel sorry for the cadets. If this is their first time catching a whiff of rabbit guts, they may lose their appetites completely.

Chore number two: load up the ram and return him to Mr. Baker, which we did without mishap or injury. For a change. Ram L815 had an easy-going temperament, which I hope he passes on to his offspring. All our sheep are covered, and due to lamb in September. I'm told the ram is getting a week off, before being delivered to another farm for two more months of libidinous activity.

Chore number three: Clear stragglers out of the laying pens. The pheasants we penned in order to collect their eggs were released a few weeks ago. There are always a few that make their way back, and once inside can never remember how to get out.

We don't want them to starve, or be killed by predators (who also find their way into the pens) so I put the dogs to work. They check each pen, and catch any pheasants hiding behind laying shelters, or tucked up in corners. I have to pick the soft-mouthed dogs, or there wouldn't be anything worth releasing by the time the dogs retrieved it. Here's Pip and Spud in action:

video

That's Ian, our wonderful work experience lad, helping out. There were 36 of these pens to be checked, and with two energetic retrievers, it didn't take us long.

Chores four and five are still outstanding: Take Alan to the vets for an x-ray of his feet, and harvest some of the deer that are eating a newly planted cider orchard, one tree at a time. I will leave those for the next post, which I promise will be less rambling.

I wish I could teach one of the dogs to retrieve my train of thought.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Really Slow Food

There's been a thread running through my recent reading material addressing the consumption of food: essentially, how people make food choices in ways that add meaning to their lives. The Slow Food Movement, which began in Italy, is one such approach. The movement aims to preserve local culinary traditions and produce, by celebrating the process of preparing and eating food.

I can get behind any movement that encourages drinking wine in a Mediterranean climate. And I support the principle of preserving diversity and local wisdom. However, the movement is drifting towards the aspirational lifestyle. It's in danger of creating a stereotype - the cucina paisan, where a rosy-cheeked daughter of the soil, up to her elbows in flour and a sense of well-being, provides nourishing food for loved ones.

The reality is not quite like that. Providing food for loved ones can feel like a Sisyphean task - no sooner is one meal is cooked and eaten then it's time to start preparing the next one. The reality is less aspirational, and rarely ends with a luxurious dinner party in an olive grove. On a good night, it might end with us eating on the slightly chicken poop-y picnic table under the apple tree, wearing two extra sweaters to combat the fresco part of our al fresco dining.

So I'm championing a new movement, based on my experience cooking in the country. I'm calling it Really Slow Food. I want to recognise our abilities as hunters, stock persons, foragers and growers, and to quantify our skills and our hours in the field as a valid part of eating. Our time in the kitchen is the final stage of a journey to turn raw ingredients into something ready to cook.

Sadly, real life gets in the way of all aspirations. I've included my own personal struggle with the interruptions of daily life that impede my ability to get a meal on the table. Please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Some aspects of Really Slow Food:

1) Most of the ingredients are still in their original form

Often, the main part of our meal is still hanging un-butchered in the chiller, or un-harvested in the ground. It might take me an hour to butcher an entire roe deer, so I can have some of the leg meat for tonight's stew.

2) Sometimes, I have to wait for the ingredients to be ready

During my last cake-baking session I ran out of eggs and had to wait until my hens laid two more, so I could finish what I started. As much as I would love some french beans to go with a fish pie, they aren't ready to pick yet.

The garden is growing, but only a few salad crops are ready

3) When the ingredients are ready, I have to fend off the wildlife to get them

That cherry tree in the foreground of the photo? Every year the blackbirds beat me to the ripe fruit. This year, I'm going to make mesh sleeves for individual branches to keep the birds away. It will take me some time to make the sleeves and the fruit is getting ripe quickly. I estimate that I have a week to get the job done, or my pies will be cherry-less.


4) I'm preparing food for more than one species at every mealtime


There are lots of mouths to feed. The lambs need milk four times a day. The working dogs need extra feeds and table scraps, which I cook alongside our own meals. I have a bowl for chickens' food and a bowl for compost; both get filled as I peel vegetables and pick over carcases, or find I have pastry left over from making a pie.

What really slows down my cooking is the general benign chaos of my life. Here are a few examples from the past week. There are the physical impediments, like dogs wrestling -

Lily and Quincy

Every dog owner knows that dogs prefer to wrestle where they can be most inconvenient to you. Every dog knows that wrestling in the kitchen means a chance to pick up any food that drops on the floor. If you're a labrador, everything is edible.

There are also interruptions, mostly from visitors coming to the door. It's a small village and everyone knows your schedule, more or less. Anyone who knows me knows that I get a lot of my cooking done on my days off, so they can find me in my kitchen. Underkeeper Pete brings me interesting things he catches in his traps -


So besides dogs wrestling, there's now a dead weasel in the kitchen. Hygiene is apparently an optional part of the Really Slow Food movement.

The dead stuff usually stays outside, and I go look at it there. Ian, our work experience student, proudly showed off the first fox he shot. Pete stopped by for a second opinion on what killed a pregnant fallow doe he found -


Probably a pair of running dogs. Something has killed alpaca cria nearby and it's possibly the same culprits. (I expect there will be heated exchanges and recriminations at the next village hall meeting).

Not everything the boys bring me is dead. Sometimes just very close to it, like this kit -


Mike found it in the road with no obvious injuries, just cold and unresponsive. I gave it some warm milk with a syringe, and put it out back in a box of lint next to the dryer. The dryer was on and the shed was warm. The kit recovered within half an hour but I burned a batch of scones, distracted by my impromptu vet duties.

Sometimes it's slow food because I have to make it twice. I had just made a bowl of pasta for lunch when the estate office rang. There was an injured deer in the gardens, could someone please come down and "deal with it". I left my lunch on the sideboard, picked up a gun, and met Mike in the garden. It was a ten minute job, which was long enough for the dogs to help themselves to my lunch.

Finally, there are what I call Random Acts of Husband. These are unpredictable but inevitable events, most often involving expenditure and/or a trip to the emergency room. Thankfully last week it was the former. "Hey honey - Come out and see what I just bought!" -


An old Land Rover. I took it for a test drive while a joint of venison was roasting in the oven. It handles like a supermarket shopping trolley, but it pulls like a team of oxen. Perfect for towing trailers. And, as far as mid-life crises go, it was cheaper than a Porsche or a mistress (Mike says he can't fit his fishing rods in a Porsche. I said the same probably applies to a mistress). The license plate was oddly appropriate too -


This isn't a lifestyle anyone would aspire to, but I wouldn't change these interruptions for anything. They enrich my time in the kitchen. They are the umami of my day.

When my cooking and baking were done, and I earned a reprieve from the kitchen, I sat outside by the vegetable patch with a cup of tea and willed the plants to grow faster. I heard a chirruping racket coming from the starling nest under the eaves of the house. Every few minutes, a starling parent arrived with a beakful of whatnot, eliciting a riot of noise from hungry chicks. One parent would leave empty, and the other would arrive full. The chicks never seemed sated.

I think I know how those starling parents feel.