Sunday, 24 November 2013

Pumpkin Physics

Imagine an airbag, just sitting all its life waiting for its moment.

Then, one day, BANG. It breaks out, expands to fill all available space.

Well, pumpkins live by the same principles. The moment a seed gets the chance it grows and grows and grows. But that's not what amazes me. It's what follows.

One of my pumpkins just sitting looking innocuous
You pick your precious pumpkin, sharpen your knives and slice it into ginormous chunks.
From that moment on, pumpkin physics takes over. It contradicts all the physics you may have learned at school. For, the second its skin is broken, the pumpkin, like the airbag, starts expanding to fill all available space.

So what to do with these mountains of pumpkin. Well, I filled my largest stock pot in preparation for making a spicy pumpkin soup - so simple to make. Just fry off some onions and garlic, throw in some spices and as much chilli as you like. Add some stock and the pumpkin.
Spicy Pumpkin Soup on the way
Then just cook it until soft and blitz.
But I still had plenty of pumpkin left, enough to fill two more large saucepans and still have chunks of pumpkin spilling out onto the worktop.
Now, as it happens, I also had a bowl of old pears waiting to go out. So my mind started to create. I wonder. Would pear and pumpkin go together? I'll throw in a few spices and some ginger... yes, ginger, that'll go with both and tie the whole dish together.
A perfect match?

My concoction simmering away
I'd like to say that I created a stunning new dish. Yes. I'd like to say that. But the fact is that it just tasted a bit weird. Somewhere between a soup and a pudding! I tried to save it in the soup direction by adding stock, some turmeric, pepper. In fact, anything soupy.
Maybe I should have tried to take it the other way and create a dessert out of it.
Anyway, I've learned something at least. And I've not lost a lot. It all went on the compost heap, which is where the pears would have ended up whatever.

As for all that pumpkin skin and innards, the compost heap and chickens were very happy indeed. And apparently pumpkin seeds are supposed to be good for purging the chickens' digestive systems.
Nothing goes to waste here.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Medlar Magic

Of all the fruit trees I have planted, my favourite just has to be the Medlar tree. Only planted for three years, it already looks old, with twisting branches and thick, lush foliage. Add to this a wonderful display of simple, white flowers in the spring time followed by a bountiful crop of intriguing fruits.

Now, medlars will not be familiar to most people these days, and even fewer will know what on earth to do with one, or for that matter what one tastes like.
So when I tell you they have to be bletted to make them edible, you're probably still none the wiser.
When I explain that bletting is the process of letting them go soft and mushy (almost rotten), you'll probably be well and truly put off... as was I.

I was quite happy just to grow a medlar tree as a curiosity, but when I saw quite how many fruits the young tree bore, I kept thinking just what a waste of a unique resource it would be just to let them rot away.
When I noticed that a few of them had bletted on the tree, I decided to close my eyes and taste. For medlars are supposed to be quite a delicacy. Having said that, I do find that people claim all sorts of food to be just the tastiest, the more unusual, the more trendy.

When I say that I decided to close my eyes and taste, I actually let Sue take the first nibble. Then I followed. The flesh inside the fruit was like an apple and pear paste with a little sweet spice, perfectly edible, quite pleasant but nothing to rave about.


But the delight of medlars is, supposedly, when they are turned into a jelly or a cheese.

The folk at from whom I purchased many of my trees when I first moved onto the smallholding, have the following to say about medlar jelly:


Well made medlar jelly is a true delight. It is beautiful to look at – amber with pink highlights and very glossy.
And medlar jelly is joyous to taste; some say it is like sweet cider infused with cinnamon and a touch of allspice. Whatever your adjectives it is utterly delicious, wondrously fragrant and gives a lift to game and cold meats like no other jelly. Add a spoonful to your gravy and you will never be without it again.

Ingredients (for 6 large jam jars)

  • 3 small, sharp apples or 20-25 crab apples
  • 2.5kg bletted medlars(see below)
  • 600g firm medlars
  • 4 lemons
  • 3 litres water
  • 1.2kg granulated sugar

(Optionally, you can add about 20 cloves at the beginning which are removed when you strain. They make the jelly a bit more Christmassy.)


* The bletted medlars should be dark and soft before you start. Clean them by removing any stalks and leaves and chopping them in half. Remove any really obvious rotten bits.
* Cut the lemons and apples into quarters (just halve crab apples if you are using those instead). Then put all the fruit into a maslin or large saucepan, such as you would use for jam making.
* Pour all the water over the fruit and bring to the boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and cover with a lid. Leave to simmer gently for about an hour.

It still doesn't look appetising, but be patient!
* Don’t boil hard, and keep covered so the water doesn’t evaporate.
* Every 10-15 minutes squash the fruit with a wooden spoon. Don’t over squash or stir the whole time as your jelly will end up cloudy (the taste is unaffected though).
* Pour the whole mess into a jelly bag hung over a large bowl. Bathroom taps are great for the job although we have a hook on a beam in the garage. Just let the juice drip into the bowl.
A beautiful juice emerges
* For the clearest jelly, do not squeeze at all. If you leave the bag there for 12 hours, almost all the juice will have run through by itself anyway. (After the juice has run through, you can put the contents of the bag on the compost heap.)

* Measure the juice, which should be clear and a wonderful amber-rose colour, into a suitably sized clean saucepan and boil hard for 6-7 minutes. Then add an equal amount of sugar (which should be about 6 cups or 1.2kg).
* Bring back to the boil and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved. Boil hard for another 2-3 minutes and test on the back of a spoon for setting.
  1. * When it has just begun to set (medlar jelly is best with a soft as opposed to hard consistency) pour or ladle into sterilised, warm jars and seal. Leave to cool.
If you were a bit nervous about your jelly being too hard, and find that is still has not set the next morning, you can put it back into a pan and boil for 4-5 minutes then return to the jars. When cool, medlar jelly should be smooth and soft and have a lovely gleam to it.

So Sue set to work transforming my offerings from the garden into something delicious. And the bletted medlars slowly changed, step by step, from a fairly ugly and unappetising fruit into a refined and beautiful jelly.

Just look at that colour!
It's not amber, like the website said. It's a rich, velvety purple/pink.

We got a leg of pork out of the freezer, specifically so we could try the medlar jelly with it, not that we ever need a reason to roast up a nice joint of pork.
And the verdict?

... absolutely delicious.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Good, hearty cooking.

Sausage, braised red cabbage, leeky mashed potato.
Simple, tasty, satisfying.
This meal seems to encapsulate all that we are trying to achieve
here on the smallholding.

I've just been searching out recipes for the Cavolo Nero which is looking so enticing in the veg patch at the moment and I came across this inspiring piece of writing.

It’s not often that we serve up peasants meals  in this modern high flying twenty first century that we find ourselves living in now. No it’s more about weekday meals made from duck breast, fillet of beef and free range chickens, how disillusioned are we? I think we have lost appreciation for good hearty meals cooked with love and understanding, recipes like this one. Throw in perhaps a couple of ingredients from our own gardens, and then, only then,will I think we are heading back in the right direction of appreciating good food cooked well.
It breaks my heart when you see everyone trying to recreate restaurant meals at home to eat everyday. I think it’s wrong and we are making out as if good old fashioned home cooking is something of the past,but it isn’t and it’s got to come back and deserves a place at our table . Restaurant meals should be for those special occasions when we have worked hard to save the pennies  and can really appreciate its value.

For more, look here, but don't forget to come back to my blog!

The quote above sums up better than I could ever express just how I felt and what I thought when I made this meal. It doesn't look much, but this is the tastiest meal I've had in a long, long time. Sausage from our own pig, braised red cabbage and mashed potato with leek.
A little sugar and red wine vinegar in the red cabbage were the only ingredients which didn't come straight from the smallholding. This is not unusual these days, but what made this meal so special was that it somehow captured the spirit of what we are trying to achieve here.

Here's the recipe, so to speak. Sorry if it's not very precise, it's just the way I cook. I'm not trying to be a recipe website.
You can easily find others, probably just as good, on the interweb.

One or two sausages per person, preferably from your own pig! If not, buy the best you can get. It really will be worth it.
Fry slowly till evenly browned all over. A good quality sausage shouldn't need oil or fat for frying.

Braised Red Cabbage - this will make loads, at least enough for a family. It keeps well in the fridge for the next day and the flavours develop.
Pick one small red cabbage, trim, wash and slice thinly.
Slice and lightly fry between one and three onions - depends on size of onions and how much you like onion. I prefer red for this recipe. Colour and sweetness goes well with the red cabbage.
Add in a glug of red wine vinegar (I used some old sherry vinegar as I'd run out), one or 2 spoonfuls of brown sugar (doesn't really matter what sort), all the cabbage and a chopped up cooking apple.
Then some spices. Here you can add your own stamp. I used about a teaspoon of ground allspice and the same of nutmeg. Finally add about 100ml of stock and bring to the boil.
Simmer for at least an hour, so that all the liquid cooks off. If necessary, add more liquid - water is fine.
Taste towards the end and add whatever you like - salt, pepper, more spices...

Mashed potato and leeks
Make mashed potatoes - I'm not telling you how to do this!
Pick a couple of leeks from the plot, trim, wash and lightly fry with a couple of cloves of garlic, crushed. Increase or decrease this depending on how much you like garlic.
When everything's cooked, simply mix it all together. I like to add a good sprinkle of pepper to zing it up a little. 

The timings on the three components of this meal are all very loose so you don't end up rushing to get everything done in a couple of minutes at the end.

So there you have it. A simple, delicious, tasty meal made from ingredients which are all ready at the same time of year.
And back to that quote about hearty home cooking compared to restaurant meals. On a slightly different tack, I could rant for pages on the subject of processed foods and ready meals. But I won't. If you understand what I mean about good, hearty cooking, I'll be preaching to the converted.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

First Frost Winter 2013/14

The title of this post seems somewhat precise compared to my usual organic style.
And there's a reason. For I wrote about this same subject last year and I probably will next year too!

Working the land as I do, the seasons shape my life more than ever before. Each has its merits, each has its problems. But there's no point moaning about the heat in summer, the wind in autumn or the cold in winter. They should be embraced, as long as they're not too extreme.

As the seasons cycle by, I have found it more difficult to blog this year as I seem to be in constant danger of repeating myself. Having said that, I enjoy this annual cycle. I look forward to the first frost, I look forward to sowing seeds in spring, to earthing up potatoes, to the first rhubarb, the return of the swallows to their nests, long summer evenings, harvest time, Autumn gallivanting after rare birds and, dare I say it, the first frost come round again.

So it was that one morning this week I stepped out of the door and the crisp air instantly invigorated my lungs. A frosty morning means clear skies, still air and a beautiful winters day.
These winter frosts are welcome. They get rid of nasty diseases and they break up the soil. They sweeten up the parsnips and take the bitterness off the kale. They announce a fine day - it may snow but it probably won't be a soggy day.

Come May, I won't be waxing lyrical about Jack Frost any more, for he'll be threatening my young seedlings and stopping me planting my beans and squashes outside.

But, for the moment, winter is here and I'm looking forward to it. I'll have to find a good way to fill those long, dark evenings in front of the fire. I've got lots of projects in the offing and now I'll have some indoor time to get them rolling.

Not the sharpest of frosts, but the first of the winter.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

I just couldn't resist the 'snips

Last year I had an amazing crop of parsnips. They were real whoppers and it wasn't an unusual occurrence for me to have to leave the tail end in the ground having already dug down two fork depths.
I grow the variety Tender And True and it's always served me well. But when I thinned out the parsnips this year, I was slightly perturbed by the number which hadn't developed a strong root. I guess it just depends on the soil conditions early on in their life.

Parsnips are one of the first seeds to be sown in the veg garden. Their papery seeds easily get blown away as you try to sow them. Not only that, but the seeds famously only last one year. After that they rapidly lose viability. So why do you get about a thousand in a packet? I always end up with loads left over.

They do say that parsnips should be picked only after the first frost has got at them. Apparently it makes them sweeter. But today, having read about a couple of other bloggers' first parsnip harvests, I just couldn't resist any longer.
Sue had asked me to dig some carrots and swede to go with some lamb, but I decided that parsnip would be a better bet.

So I sunk in the fork and loosened the soil, teasing carefully so as not to snap the parsnip off in the soil. But I didn't need to worry, for here's what emerged from the ground.

Yes, it's a veritable octopus of the parsnip world! It might be alright for a stock, but it's not the ideal shape to ease food preparation. I could understand if we had stony ground or if I'd manured the soil overwinter, but neither of those is the case.
Anyway, I got out the iron and got to work and after a couple of hours steam ironing here's what I managed to come up with.

I lost the taproot on this one, which is the way it should be.
Can't wait to eat it with that lamb.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Shaggy Inkcaps

I once dabbled in a bit of mushroom identification and even joined in a few fungal forays. In fact for a couple of years I could regularly be found of an autumn weekend rummaging around in the leaf litter of Oxleas Woods in South-East London.

Mushrooms (or toadstools if you prefer) really are amazing organisms, coming in a range of colours, shapes, sizes and even smells. Not to mention their armoury of chemical and neurological warfare, which is what stops me eating them, however much I think I know what they are.

Here on the farm mushrooms are not too common and it lifts my heart when I find even the smallest tucked away in the grass.
So when I noticed a small group of Shaggy Inkcaps in the goose paddock I really was very pleased.

Shaggy Inkcap
IF I've got the identification correct and IF I remember correctly, these are not only edible but actually quite tasty, with a nutty flavour. But you need to catch them quickly, otherwise they quickly turn to an inky mess. They change shape too, resembling a tall black parasol.

Spurred on to look more closely, I also found these couple of fine specimens.
I really must search out a local fungal foray group to join. It's fascinating and amazing stuff.


Sunday, 10 November 2013

House Refurbishments...for Daisy

What a beautiful day it was today! A bit nippy, but you'd expect that on a clear November day.
But earlier this year when the weather was slightly more inclement, the winds whipped the roofing felt off the top of Daisy's shelter. It wasn't a major issue, just another job on the list. A job which I never quite got round to. Daisy does have a more conventional ark too, but between her and the multitude of other pigs which have passed through, they have managed to almost totally destroy it. Mind you, it was half rotten when we inherited it. She still uses it sometimes, but more in the summer for shade. It is certainly not weather proof.
But when I saw Daisy attempting to make alterations herself, I started to feel a twang of guilt for not getting round to the job.
So today I dug out some old roofing felt and wheeled it down to Daisy's pen, along with a tub full of roofing tacks, some wood, a saw and a hammer. Daisy was, as ever, all too keen to help. Her gentle nudges almost sent me flying! She then affectionately shook her muddy head, splattering my face with speckles of mud.


The new felt going on

Daisy approves
This time, I learned from the past and screwed a couple of old planks of wood over the join in the felt. I then painted this with some bituminous paint - like spreading thick, gooey treacle. Hopefully it will keep Daisy dry for a good few winters yet - or whichever animal replaces her when she goes.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Rodent Wars

After the fields are harvested, we certainly notice more rodent activity on the farm. Usually Gerry catches plenty of voles (short-tailed field voles) and just occasionally he finds a shrew's nest.

But just a day after the next field was harvested this year, he appeared with a field mouse in his jaws.

And the humane trap inside the polytunnel, which has never trapped a thing, suddenly contained four field mice.
As the weather gets cooler, so the rodents creep closer and closer. Polytunnel crops get nibbled, little furry critters scurry away as I walk the meadow or work in the veg plot, the walls of the farmhouse echo with scratching and scurrying, always sounding unfeasibly loud.
There may even be the odd bit of burrowing under the chicken houses - much bigger holes these ones. For yes. The voles, the field mice and even the occasional rat are seeking food and shelter.

A bad day at the office
for this young rat!

If you can't work out what's happened,
it tried to go through a hole in the fence
which was too small for it.

I had to put it out of its misery.

But then, it had been nibbling
at my mangel wurzels!
Now, the occasional vole scurrying through the grass, or a field mouse running up the wall of the chicken food shed, these seem cute and I could maybe tolerate them. But I once thought the same about some of the prettier 'weeds', perhaps I could just leave a few.
But no, things don't work like that. Any sign of weakness and before you know it you have a plague. And just a few mice can do a lot of damage. They don't just nibble what you expect them too.

So, regrettably, I have had to get the poison out. I try to use this as little as possible and it is best to hit them hard for a short period. Last year I did a post on the wonder that is Eradibait, approved by the Barn Owl Trust and apparently only harmful to small rodents.
See here - Oh Rats! However, having purchased a large and expensive tub of this panacea, I have found that unfortunately the rodents don't actually seem to like the taste of it! They do say to ensure that no other food sources are available. The problem with this is, surely, that if no other food were available there wouldn't be any rodents in the first place. And they clearly prefer whatever they're already eating compared to the Eradibait pellets. Shame.

Of course, cleanliness and hygiene are important. We are careful not to put meat on the compost, we don't top up the birdtables at this time of year and we keep all our grain in rodent-proof containers.
In the house, all the most attractive foods are kept in plastic tubs with secure lids, though the cats tend to ensure that scurrying little creatures stay in the roof spaces and the walls.

This little critter scurried out
 from underneath my laptop in the front room.
Presumably brought in by Gerry to 'play' with later.

But, just for the moment, there is a bit of chemical warfare going on.

And this field mouse has taken up residence
in the food shed down by the chickens.
It is brazenly bold, but I can't afford to feel sorry for it.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Pink Fir Apples. Not Apples, Potatoes!

I grow eight different varieties of potato and with good reason.
Different colours, different shapes, different textures and different tastes. Earlies, second earlies, maincrop and lates. Some more blight resistant than others. Some more slug resistant. Some perform better in cold, wet summers, some do better with a bit of heat.
In fact, it's quite a struggle to keep it down to eight varieties and over the last few years I've experimented quite a lot to try to arrive at the best selection.

Pink Fir Apples, freshly dug.
Today's post is all about Pink Fir Apples, a rather strangely named old-fashioned potato variety. They produce knobbly, fingerlike tubers with a waxy, yellow flesh and a wonderfully nutty, earthy taste.
Their shape makes them difficult to peel, but they scrub easily and the skin is good for you.

Fortunately this was about the only plant hit by blight.

The bigger problem with this variety is that it is a very late potato and so the whole crop can be lost in a poor blight year, as happened last year.
But this year only a few plants were affected by blight so I had high hopes. Only worry was that I've left it late to dig them up and I was worried about slug damage. When I harvested my Desirees a few weeks back, I was very disappointed that over half of them had suffered slug damage. In the previous three years this had been my most reliable cropper, producing wonderfully large red tubers. But not this year. And therein lies the reason for growing a few varieties. Eggs in one basket and all that.

On the other hand my Charlottes, a second early salad potato, only came out last week and virtually none had been attacked by slugs. I got so many that I needed two sacks.

So it was that I approached the Pink Fir Apple bed. The potato tops had long since been chopped off and the stubby stems were now hidden by marigolds and a few weeds. As the fork went in and I pulled out the marigolds, already fingers were poking above the ground and emerging from the crumbly soil. A bit grizzly really.

The crop wasn't amazing - it's been a dry year - but the first few plants delivered well. But then I began to find more and more damaged tubers, some plants yielding only a handful of edible tubers.

I lost over half the crop like this.
Not a total disaster, as I still have enough,
but a bit disappointing.
Something had clearly been busy enjoying the pink firs. The tubers had peculiar patterns on them, rasped or gnawed away. I couldn't quite decide whether this was the work of rodents - but could they really live underground and eat the tubers from the bottom? Or could this be the work of slugs. If so, they were large ones, not the sort that leave little holes and tunnel through the potato, no, giant ones which rasp away at the tuber, eating the fingers down to stumps.

While I was digging I was distracted
by the calls of this greenfinch,
 attracted to the sunflowers
which I grew especially for this purpose.
I've not seen them on the farm for quite a few months now.
The chickens were keen to help me with my digging today. It's the first time since early spring that they've been allowed into the veg plot. They have an important job to do over the winter, winkling out the grubs and nourishing the soil.

Back to those damaged tubers.
As I dug I found virtually no slugs and it does seem to be a good year for rodents (a post about this to follow). It was then that I noticed the soil where I had just dug moving. Something was in there, tunnelling away, and it was getting near the surface.
I got all excited, expecting to get a rare glimpse of a mole. Then out popped a vole before scurrying off.

That neat bundle of dried grass
is actually a vole's nest that
I disturbed while digging the potatoes.
It seems it made its home
next to its lunch!!
Not long later I came across this...

an underground nest of dry grass, and from it emerged a brown, furry body. Again it scuttled away, but the mystery of who's been eating my Pink Fir Apples has, I think, been solved. Next year I must get them dug before the harvest, which is when most of the rodents seem to come into the garden (and the house, the sheds and the stables).

Can you see it yet?
Still can't see it?

Surely you can see it now!

There! Hiding under that leaf.

Aaaawww. How cute is that!

The little blighter that's been nibbling my fingers.



At least we still got a half decent harvest.


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