Thursday, 29 October 2015

That Old Chestnut

Just over a week ago I received a cryptic message on my phone...

Rumours of Chestnut Bunting? Not sure on reliability and waiting to hear where. Anyone heard owt?

This was a potential first for Britain. MEGA.

That was immediately followed by a picture of a bunting. What sort of bunting was anyone's guess, for it had been hurriedly taken and hid just about every part of the bird you'd need to see to confidently identify it. All credit to the finder though for realising it might be unusual and managing to get any sort of picture.

Seconds later came the news that it was somewhere on Orkney. Having already visited Shetland and The Outer Hebrides this month, a visit to Orkney would make a change. And depending which island it was on, it could be a relatively straightforward twitch. Bing Maps informed me that the drive to Gill's Bay ferry (just west of John O'Groats) was a mere 599.7mles from my house. 10 hours 17 minutes without traffic. Realistically about 9 hours. I would need to leave within the next 3 hours.

But opinion was erring towards this being just a strange Reed Bunting - a very common bird throughout Britain. I wasn't convinced. From what could be seen on the photo, that head looked a little too rusty - even chestnutty! And there seemed to be a hint of lemon on the breast, though this was hard to make out. But neither was I sure enough of myself to get in the car and start driving! We would have to wait and hope for further images, or for the bird to stay put so that its true identity could be properly established.

Time to step down.

Over the next couple of days, more details emerged. For starters, the bird had been on Papa Westray, the northernmost and possibly the most isolated of the Orkney Isles. Most definitely the most difficult to get to, particularly with the main ferry only running twice a week and the local ferry not due to run again until May 2016!
Papa Westray is famous for one thing. It has the shortest scheduled flight in the world. About 2 minutes I think, with Loganair. But flights onto Papa and ferries onto Orkney don't fit particularly well, so to get to where this bird had been was looking like at least a three day trip. Good job I was just coming up to half term.
Anyway, this is by the by, as there was no sign of the bird now. It had been seen briefly on two days early in the week, but there had been no further sign. A couple more photos became available for inspection. They certainly looked promising for Chestnut Bunting, though not 100% conclusive. And more details of the sighting came through too. The description sounded very good. One thing was for sure, whatever it was, this was no Reed Bunting and was almost definitely something that I 'needed'.

But it was gone. Forget it. Move on.
It's been a great year for me. I've moved past 500 (species seen in UK, a major landmark) and already seen 7 new birds. I would have settled for 3.

Now, a word about Chestnut Buntings. There have already been at least 9 sightings in Britain... WHEEL SKID.... WHAT... YOU SAID IT WAS A FIRST!!!
Well, it probably is. For the others were seen in the good old days when the cagebird trade was flourishing and fresh imports to the continental markets ensured a steady flow of unlikely Eastern vagrants at odd times of year. All these records had been rejected by the powers that be, but they had stated that should a First Winter bird arrive in a good location in October or November, that they would certainly give it some very serious consideration. This current bird fits the bill on all fronts and stands every chance of being accepted as a first for Britain. It would have its detractors - mostly those who would like to have the gumption to get up and go see such birds, but who make excuses for not going rather than just doing it....  jealousy and sour grapes!

Anyway, the bird had slipped the net. No-one would be seeing this one. We'd have to wait for another.

Saturday afternoon. 2.49pm. I'm picking the last of the Borlotti Beans in a rather wet garden, untangling the stems and dismantling the bamboo supports for the winter.

MEGA Orkeny CHESTNUT BUNTING again Papa Westray between Holland Farm and track to Knapp of Howar (site of Northern Europe's oldest preserved stone house) mid afternoon.

Panic stations!!!
I spent the next couple of hours trying to work out how to get onto Papa Westray... on a Sunday... with Winter Timetables in place. I worked out I could probably make it by Monday, via a 599.7 mile drive, a ferry and a flight... if I could get on the flight. The alternative was two ferries and arrive on Tuesday. But the next ferry off would be Friday!!!

Just to improve my headless chicken mode, some stunning photos of the bird appeared. To quote an Orkney birder "Not just nailed. Crucified."

By early evening I had crumbled. I had secured a place on a charter plane from Yorkshire. It wouldn't be such an adventure, but if the bird was there in the morning then I would be on site within three hours. And I would be back home by late evening.

Fortunately the clocks went back in the early hours of Sunday morning. I struggled to get any sleep. At 3.49am I looked at the clock. I still han't had a wink of sleep. But at least it was now only 2.49!

At 5.30am the alarm went off. I jumped in the car and began the drive to Yorkshire. Just before 7.30 we had news. The bird was still there. My first instinct was to put my foot down, but the pilot couldn't leave until 10 however fast I drove. This felt strange, pootling along the road towards a lifer.

We pulled into the airfield way earlier than we needed to, fearing that we would find two teams of birders all expecting to get on the same plane! But all was quiet and there were to be no complications. Fortunately the pilot was on time and we were soon in the air and heading up the east coast, Orkney bound. I slept for the first part of the journey. When I woke up I looked down to work out how far we had got and saw the familiar bridges across The Tyne. Shortly afterwards we passed the Blyth wind turbines. I didn't stop for tea with Sue's mum.
By Aberdeen my bladder was feeling the pressure! Despite taking all precautions (no coffee, a trip to the little boys' room before we took off), it's amazing how your body manages to need the toilet when there is absolutely no option! I looked down at the bottle of squash I had brought with me. If I drank some of it, there might be enough empty space in the bottle!
I tried not to think about it and watched the distance meter on the Sat Nav creep down.

Is the toilet at the back or the front of the aircraft?
It took an awful long time to get down from 100km. I kept looking down as we headed out over the sea, across the top right corner of mainland Scotland and over the Orkney Isles. It wasn't too long before Westray came into view, then Papa Westray. We needed to approach from the north, which was a good job as otherwise we would be flying right over the bird which wasn't too far from the end of the runway.

We banked sharply and the runway came into view. It was raining for the first time in the journey. As we approached we could see the group of birders along the track just beyond the runway. It looked like they were still watching something. At least they hadn't spread out all over the place, which would indicate that they were looking for, and not at, the bird.

Runway in sight
Nearly there
We landed slightly bumpily and taxied back along the runway towards the very small airport building. There was a greeting party waiting for us. When we go to these isolated islands, it is something of a major event for the islanders and they had laid on the island minibus to take us the few hundred yards to the bird. Uncharacteristically, I insisted that we didn't leave until I had visited a certain little room. I wasn't the only one.

The Papa ranger took us along the island's one main road and pulled off at the sign to Knapp of Howar, through the farmyard and as far as he could go along the track. We debunked and ran the last 100 yards along the muddy track. At the end we could see the group of birders, scopes and cameras all pointing at the same spot. The bird was on show.

I grabbed that important first glimpse through a friend's scope which was set on the bird, then got myself set up.
The best I could do with my phone - it was rather windy.
The Chestnut Bunting was actually quite a looker. It spent most of its time poking around in the central grass verge, occasionally emerging into the muddy ruts either side. It was surprisingly good at disappearing into the grass, despite the fact that it was maybe only 15 yards in front of us.
But on the whole it was feeding totally unconcerned by us. If everybody had let it be, it would eventually have just crawled and hopped its way toward us, but a couple of the photographers had all the fieldcraft of a bull in a china shop, insisting on approaching ever closer, despite the protestations. Birders can be just a little autistic at times!!

Once the main culprits had left, the bird popped up on the wall and flew towards us. It landed again, in full view on the wall, giving amazing views, before feeding on the ground right in front of us.
And with that it was time to go again. No time to visit the Knapp of Howar. Birding friends briefly caught up with. Bird in the bag, under the belt, on the list... well, as long as the powers that be decide not to consign it to the same bin of escapehood as the previous records.

Now for some proper pictures taken by someone with a proper camera. Thanks Stuart.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

A Passion for Pumpkins... or a Crush on Squashes



The winner of the Veg Group's Giant Pumpkin competition was put to good use.
The flesh made pumpkin soup for the children at Sue's school
and the shell was carved into a very realistic likeness of the headteacher (sorry Sue!!!)

I'm actually talking about pumpkins and winter squashes here. To tell the truth, I'm never that impressed with actual pumpkins. I grow just a few, but one giant is normally enough to make all the variants of pumpkin soup I can eat in a year. You can use pumpkins in breads and cakes and they taste very nice, but you use such a small quantity that it doesn't really help when you're trying to use up half a kitchen full of pumpkin.

I much prefer what are known as winter squashes, These come in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes. Their flesh is usually much firmer than that of a pumpkin and the flavour is usually nuttier. They have wonderful names too. Cha Cha, Table Queen, Large Pink Banana, Sweet Dumpling, Amazonika...

I grow a large patch of mixed pumpkins and squashes. In theory they need loads of organic matter in the soil and loads of water, but I pretty much neglect mine and leave then to get on with it on their own. They are easy to raise in the polytunnel and very quickly grow into sturdy little plants. The only tricky bit is planting them out, when the shock of being outside as well as the threat of being munched by slugs can result in a few losses. However, I have largely avoided this by using tree protectors over them until their roots have obviously gotten hold and they start to grow strongly.

2015 has been a dull year weather-wise, not the best for pumpkins. I tend to leave my pumpkin patch alone. The large leaves do a pretty good job of subduing weeds, but there's always a carpet of chickweed growing under them. There comes a time when it's impossible to weed without crushing pumpkin leaves and stems.
So last Wednesday I decided it was time to collect in this year's pumpkin harvest before they started rotting in the decidedly damp weather we've been having. Although a few fruits were still forming, most had had long enough to swell, ripen and for the skins to toughen. It's crucial to get them in before the first frost too, as this destroys them.
When harvesting pumpkins and squashes, it's best to collect them with a good portion of stalk, for if they do begin to rot during the winter, this is where the rot invariably begins.

The only ones which I don;t harvest yet are the butternut squashes which, by this time of year, have pretty much taken over half the polytunnel. These squashes earn their space in the tunnel every year as they produce plenty of large, firm fruits for me. I pick them as they are ready and actually started harvesting some lovely specimens a few weeks ago.

Now, last Wednesday wasn't the ideal day to be picking the pumpkins. A couple of days of rain had left the clay soil a little sticky, to say the least. I tried to avoid treading it down too much, though most of it appeared to be stuck to my wellies!

Boris was a great help too, as you can imagine. A bit like me, he absolutely loves getting dirty.

The end result was a very full barrowload of squashes and pumpkins, plenty enough to get Sue and I through the winter with probably a few spare for the sheep. The seeds won't go to waste either. We'll scoop out a few to roast and the rest are supposedly very good at helping to worm the animals. The chickens love them.

Even the abundance of leaves and stalks won't go to waste. They have gone straight onto the compost heap, which is now groaning under the pressure, and will go back into the soil next year to add goodness and body.

A giant heap of leaves. It won't be long before it's sunk down though.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Say cheeeeeeeese!

I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front of late. It's that time of year when things quieten down, with most effort going into harvesting anything which needs to come out before it rots or gets caught by frost. It's also the time of year when we thin down the animals for the winter. Some of the sheep will be going off on a little journey soon, now that they have fattened up nicely on the summer grass.

I should be putting up a few more posts for the next couple of weeks as I am rather incapacitated. I have a touch of man flu, but that is not the reason. More seriously, an occasionally sensitive tooth has just decided to become a total nightmare.

It began when I was on the Outer Hebrides last week and, despite my hopes that it would settle down, has become steadily more painful. I finally managed to secure a dentist appointment (something which fills me with dread - I have fainted several times in the past!) and my very nice dentist succeeded in locating the problem by sharply tapping my tooth until the pain shot up my left jaw  as far as my temple. She booked me in to have the nerve removed and advised me to ask the receptionist for a cancellation 'today or tomorrow'. But my relief was short-lived when the receptionist frostily informed me that the first available appointment would be in 12 days time and that was the best she could do. So I now have to take painkillers constantly for the next 12 days, for when my tooth decides to hurt it is not half-hearted about it. This happens pretty much every time I drink and if I breathe cold air outside. Coffee is out of the queston, so I shall be even more grumpy in the mornings!
Anyway, moan over, but I will be spending much more time than usual indoors for a while now.

And so to the cheesemaking. We've had a go before, round at a friend's who keeps goats, but we didn't have much success. We've since discovered that we should have used a starter culture because the goats milk we used had been frozen.

Mick and Carole from the Cambridgeshire Self-Sufficiency Group had offered to run a cheesemaking course, even though it was several years since they'd really done much in the way of cheesemaking. Now the folks at the CSSG are the most honest, helpful and friendly bunch of people you could hope to come across. They have years and years of smallholding experience. It's a shame that they are that bit too far away for Sue and I to really get very involved in the group.
The group are totally laid back, which is nice. But it does sometimes mean that things are not as well organised as they could be!
This applied to the cheesemaking. I'm not complaining at all as it was offered for free and the company was excellent. Unfortunately though, despite Mick's best efforts, the milk steadfastly refused to separate into curds and whey.

Here's what should happen: (Although if you really want to go ahead and make some cheese, you would do better to buy a book or seach the internet for more detailed information)

Goat's milk or raw cows milk (not easy to get hold of, but contact these people who visit farmers markets) are best to use.

If you are using pasteurised milk (or milk which has been frozen, as we learned) you need to add a starter. You can make your own, but to start with it is easily purchased.

You heat the milk up to 32 C, stirring to make sure the heat is evenly distributed. You then add the rennet (4 drops to 5 litres of milk). You then wait for the milk to separate into curds and whey. This can take quite some time, as we discovered!!!
Mick heating the milk ready to add the rennet.
Everything was still going well at this stage!!!

And so an early lunch was taken - a bring and share meal of breads, cheeses, cakes, scones, name it.
Mick and Carole demsonstrating how you would use a cheese press....
if you had some curds.

After lunch and it was on to Plan B, as the milk was showing no signs of forming curds. The low temperature in the room was probably not helping. Some recipes use lemon juice or white malt vinegar to precipitate the separation of the milk into curds and whey, so in a final act of desperation we tried this... then waited some more. Mick was rapidly running out of anecdotes to keep us entertained!

Well, to cut a long story shortish, we eventually got some curds, which were strained through muslin.

Curds and whey - at last!
And that was about as far as our cheesemaking got. While we had been waiting for the curds to form, Mick and Carole had taken us through all the theory of how to transform this into soft cheese, semi-soft cheese and hard cheese. We just never got to that stage!

At the end of the day we came away not having learned an awful lot, but thoroughly inspired to have a go at cheesemaking ourselves.
All we need to do now is to get some goats and a dairy cow. Not really. That is a big commitment. I would not be able to shoot off to chase rare birds at a moments notice and any significant time away from the smallholding would be nigh on impossible. Also, we would end up with gallons of milk and it's not so easy to sell as eggs.
For the moment we will source goat's milk from our goatkeeper friends or we will experiment with using pasteurised cows milk.

And if you wanted to know about that trip to the Outer Hebrides, it was to see a Wilson's Warbler which had come all the way across The Atlantic. The first Wilson's Warbler in Britain was a one day bird in Cornwall all of 30 years ago, to the day. I wasn't twitching then and wouldn't have got there in time anyway. The second was just two years ago, in South-West Ireland. I missed it by one day and it started a string of failed trips to that part of the world.
So this was only the third and an opportunity to get back a bird which I thought I would probably never see. News broke early last week and I was on the road that evening.

By the morning I was in a different car with three other birders in the queue at Ullapool ferry terminal and by early afternoon we were hurtling across the Isle of Lewis toward our target. We didn't even stop for an extremely close Golden Eagle which was quartering the moorland very close to the road.
The warbler was still present, but was proving extremely elusive. But just as we arrived it was spotted shooting across from one patch of cover into another, even denser. Dan and Mick were quick enough to secure a fleeting glimpse. Al and I weren't. And that was to be the pattern of the afternoon. Wherever those two went, the bird popped up. Whenever I decided to stay put and wait, the bird showed in a different part of the garden. When my nerve cracked and I moved, so did the bird.

It was well over two hours before I finally got the bird in my binoculars. My 505th species in Britain. Prior to that I had suffered fleeting glimpses with the naked eye. To be honest, it could have been someone chucking a lemon across in front of me!
Eventually the bird showed better, in the top of an apple tree. As dusk approached we headed off to Stornoway to seek out food and accommodation, for there was no option of a same day return on the ferry.
The successful team.
The sign on the wall says it all!
Early next morning we were back on the ferry and by the afternoon we were speeding back through England. Late evening I rolled back onto the farm... with toothache!

Thursday, 15 October 2015

It's official. Guinea fowl are the most useless parents in the whole world.

A couple of years ago I was defending them against this accusation as our pair hatched 18 young and eventually successfully raised 12. But it's been all downhill since then.
Granted, they sit very well and do a great job of going unnoticed. It often takes me several days to locate their nests when I notice they are no longer sitting on the fence at night. And when it comes to near hatching time, the males defend the nest with gusto.

But they have shown an alarming ability to come off the nest at precisely the wrong time. Last year keets hatched from three of the four nests, but the mums would come off the nest as soon as a few hatched on the first morning. The result was very few young birds indeed.
But more shocking is the parents strict application of Spartan rules i.e. if you can't keep up, then tough. Now, being subtropical in nature, baby guinea fowl are not best suited to Britain's autumnal weather. In particular, long wet grass is deadly to them, for they quickly lose body temperature, become bedraggles and fall off the back of the pack.

One stormy couple of days last year did for most of the keets and we only ended up raising two, both of which had to come inside for part of their early lives.
I'm not too worried about this, but it is a shame and even I feel a tinge of sadness when I find a tiny ball of feathers lying motionless in the grass.

2015 has been decidedly untropical and as a result the guinea fowl were incredibly late laying and sitting. In the end there was one double nest, containing over 50 eggs, in the comfrey bed, a nest containing over 20 eggs in the raspberry patch and, belatedly, a nest containing just 12 eggs in amongst the rugosa roses.

The first two of these were inexplicably abandoned just days before hatching, but the final nest was still being sat upon right up until Sunday morning, when two keets appeared! One was doing a great job keeping up with mum, who was off the nest, but the other was on its side in the grass. I decided to let nature takes its course, but several hours later Sue appeared nestling a tiny bundle of feathers down her top! I suspected this might happen. Let me tell you that baby birds can be surprisingly noisy and, when they have grown a little, just a little whiffy too. Sue's plan was, however, just to get this little keet through its first few days and then to try and put it back with mum. This has worked for us in the past.

Roll on to yesterday morning. The sun was shining, though the easterly wind had a tinge of cool in it. The ivy, such an important late source of pollen, was smothered in buzzing honey bees and there were even a couple of pristine red admirals feeding on it.

Despite this burst of sunshine, the two new keets which I found were abandoned near the nest with mum back sitting. They clearly were not warm enough or strong enough to cover the short distance back to mum. This time it was I who buckled, so we now have three keets in a broody box in the dining room. The fourth bird is nowhere to be seen.

Next year I'm going to be ruthless. If we want more guinea fowl then I shall entrust the eggs to the care of a broody hen and they can be raised in the safety of a run.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Mangel Wurzel and Pumpkin Silverware

While I was away in Shetland I entrusted Sue with the onerous task of choosing the heaviest mangel wurzel to take along to the Fenland Smallholders Club meeting.
Mangel Wurzels are a kind of beet crop which I wrote about in a previous blog here.
In the past the Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club (as it used to be known) used to have an annual competition, the prize being the Jeff Yates trophy. By the time I joined the smallholders, this annual bit of fun was dying out. Nobody was growing mangels any more and the committee were even considering ending the competition.
But it was still running, just, and I won it in two consecutive years. I faced competition from just one other mangel wurzel in that two years!

Hollow Victory
When I founded the Veg Group it seemed like an ideal time to resurrect interest in this light-hearted annual competition, so I purchased seed for everyone and threw down the gauntlet.
I have to say that I was highly disorganised and didn't get my mangels sown until way too late in the year, with the result that by competition time they were puny!
Steve walked off with 'my' trophy and the veg group never heard the last of it all year.

This year I got serious. I sowed my usual patch of mangel wurzels to be used as animal fodder, but I reserved a patch in the main veg plot for some lovingly nurtured baby mangels raised in modules.
This gave me just the headstart I needed and when I left for Shetland many of the mangels looked like they had a chance of scooping the trophy. But the opposition were being cagey, with tales of monster mangels meant to scare the opposition away, or tales of abject failure to lull into a false sense of security.

So, on the evening of the competition, I  phoned Sue to find out whether I had reclaimed my trophy.
It turns out that competition had been much stiffer than in previous years, with six entries and four weighing in at over 15lb.
Of these, two had been 15lb something, one had been 17lb something and the winner was just short of 20lb....



But that's not the end of my story. For the Veg Group have had a private competition going throughout the year to grow the heaviest pumpkin. Everybody was given several seeds at the beginning of the year, but germination was poor. Some even claimed that theirs grew into other vegetables (and so marrowgate was born).

Just one of my seedlings came through and I nurtured it in the polytunnel until it was time to go out into the big wide world. I was worried, as one of my competitors had posted pictures of his with developing fruits when mine was at the two-leaf stage! But had he gone too early? Only time would tell.
I chose a rather special spot for my pumpkin, on top of the manure pile where it could get all the goodness a pumpkin could wish for. First grew the leaves, giant leaves trailing all over the heap, and then came the first fruits. I couldn't decide whether to let several fruits develop or just to go for the one. In the end the plant decided. As one pumpkin grew and grew and grew the rest of the fruits gave up the ghost and all the plant's energies went into the one fruit.

And so this last Sunday I finally severed the stem and lifted the pumpkin. I had joked with the others about needing a forklift, a new trailer and a reinforced suspension, but disappointingly the pumpkin felt rather light for its size, as if it had filled with air inside.

When I reached the veg group gathering, everybody was being very secretive. Pumpkins were left hidden in cars and Steve (yes, the one who wrestled the mangel trophy from me for a short period) had even left his growing in the garden right up until the final seconds of the weigh in.

The weigh in was tense. 500g (a joke one, a button squash actually), 5.8kg, 6.1kg, 9.98kg. No-one had yet broken the 10kg mark, but the three biggest pumpkins were still left on the table. 10.5 kg.
It was down to two. 11.9kg. The mark had been set.
I heaved my pumpkin up. It certainly looked the biggest, but was it all hot air?
But then the scales told the story. Over 21kg!!

A clear winner. More silverware and all round bragging rights for a whole year!!!!!

I'm now looking up how to grow LONG CARROTS in preparation for next year's competition. I'll be ordering my mangel seed soon too.
Hopefully I'll find time to keep the smallholding going in between polishing all the silverware.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Bringing Home The Bacon

I've been away for a while on my annual sojourn to Shetland to hunt rare birds.  It's a bit different to The Fens up there, though the islands are windswept, full of smallholdings and there are Shetland sheep everywhere... so maybe not so different after all!

But just before I flew north, I sent a pig off to piggy heaven. If you follow this blog, you may be confused as I've not actually had any pigs on the smallholding this year.

Sue and I have found that one pig is quite enough to feed us for a year. However, pigs are intelligent, social animals and are best kept with at least one other of their own kind. So this year we were part of a pig co-op. A fellow smallholder raised three pigs, one of which was destined for our freezer. We only ever met our saddleback twice, once when it was just a nipper and then, a couple of weeks ago, to load it into our trailer and take it off to the abattoir.

We are fortunate to live just a few miles from a small abattoir who always give us an excellent service. But finding a butcher to process the carcass for us has been proving tricky. Both this abattoir and another nearby have butchers attached, but they both put your sausage meat into a big batch along with that from all the other pigs they are processing. The result is that, as far as the sausages are concerned, you might as well just buy some good quality sausages from the supermarket.

We did have an excellent arrangement with a very small butchers just a very short walk from Sue's school. They would pick up the carcass direct from the abattoir and cut it according to our wishes. They made an excellent sausage using just our pork. It was sometimes a job to persuade them to produce any more sausages for us than the standard amount produced from all the offcuts, but overall it was a very good arrangement.
However, the butcher who used to do the cutting for us has been poorly for a while and has now left. So the job has fallen to the one who makes the sausages. Unfortunately he clearly does not want to take on this job - our lambs last year came back not even labelled! His default answer to any request seemed to be "no".
And so we came up with a different plan for this year's pig. A real character we know who lives down in the central fens is also a butcher. In fact, it's the same person who transformed Daisy into sausages last year.
The third time I met my pig!
The downside is that it's quite a journey and I have to transport the carcass to him in the back of the car. The upside is that I get to help out and I really enjoy his company.
So just before I left for Shetland I took our pig along to him. It took only a couple of hours to turn half of it into chops and joints, as well as a box full of tasty sausages and a long string of boiling sausages.
The sausages are so tasty that we will not be selling any this year!
The other half of the pig was prepared for bacon and placed in a brine bath. When we started keeping pigs, we dreamed of sausages, ham, bacon and gammon. But there is an art to making these products and so far we have never really been happy with our own attempts, especially at bacon. Paul still uses traditional methods to make bacon and gammon.
It's not really a complicated process, but a skilled curer's experience can make all the difference, judging things just right between under and over curing. Paul has come up with a great way to achieve this on a small scale. After cutting half the pig into about four great lumps, these went into a cooling box which was filled with a brine mix, containing salt, a very little saltpetre, herbs, spices and sugar. A few milk cartons of frozen water help to keep the temperature down and weigh down the meat to keep it submerged.

And so I headed off to Shetland, half a pig in the freezer and half left at Paul's to cure. There is no waste either. The bones go to Boris or will be boiled up for stock, along with the skin. The flare fat from inside the carcass will be used to produce more of that wonderful leaf lard which makes such excellent pastry and lardy cake.

Sue will hate me for publishing this photo,
but the main subject is the smoked bacon
Fast forward two weeks and today we went back to Paul's to pick up the bacon. It had come out of the brine and been smoked in Paul's home-made smoker, made from a hollowed out upside-down fridge.
He showed us how to use his slicer and we set to work slicing while Paul cut up the large leg ham into more manageable gammon joints for us.
Fast forward another few hours and we've just enjoyed our first taste of the bacon, along with a few of the sausages, a couple of our own eggs and some fried mushrooms. All I can say is that we most definitely won;t be selling any of the bacon either!

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