December 11, 2012

Snow Dunes & Silence

October’s snow lasted just a short while and was followed by a good run of crisp autumnal days and chilly nights. But now, the snow has arrived for good.

Time has taken on that same endless, uniform blankness. Everything just is, warmth and food are the main priorities, and days emerge only briefly, just to tease us with a glimmer of life before plunging back into deep, icy cold darkness. Temperatures have danced between -8°and -15°, even reputedly reaching -20° at night.

Time schedules and project plans just cannot be adhered to. Even the daily school run is hardly a certainty, with the open flat plane at the highest point of the journey often decked with thick fog or simply covered so completely with snow that the road is hardly discernible.

The farm has lost all its contours and distinguishing features. From the moment you step out of the door, a sea of white dominates the view with only larger objects like the greenhouse or the linden trees retaining their shape, standing lost and forlorn like barren rocks offshore.

Just as the cold front really began to settle in, two intrepid travellers arrived full of energy and laughter, seeking adventure and work on our desolate farm.

Needless to say, outdoor work was hardly on the cards, bar hauling in wood and tending the animals. So for three whole days they tackled the knackered window frames upstairs that we had stripped way back in the summer and never quite found the time to complete. With a protective layer of paint the old wooden frames can be encouraged to last out just another year (or two if we're lucky).

Having the extra pairs of eyes to keep Maia out of trouble has also meant progress on the kitchen. The electrician has connected all the wires that we have laid and we can still hardly believe the magic of flicking a switch to receive immediate light. The arched doorway is now almost completely plastered smooth, enabling the final paintwork to happen later this week.

The best surprise has been our brand new, wood-fired cooking stove – a belated wedding gift from my mother-in-law! It fits like a glove in the bricked-in doorway that we have prepared for it, and we have been able to install it with minimal flue pipe directly into the chimney in the office. It looks like it was made for the space! With a glass-fronted fire chamber, generous baking oven, warming oven and full surface area of hotplate, it is a food enthusiast’s dream come true.

Replacing the window on the north side and installing a door through to the yard will now have to wait until the spring (along with the floorboards, being the last in line to avoid trashing them ahead of time). Yet the thought that our Christmas roast can be made in our new kitchen - albeit with a concrete floor, no units and draughty windows - is an absolute triumph!

November 12, 2012

A View to Play With

On the 10th of November, two of our chickens finally laid their first eggs! They are smaller than average, with very hard white shells. Perhaps our birds need some extra protein, or maybe it is just a matter of time whilst they practice the art...

The milder weather has certainly given them some encouragement, along with the rest of us. No signs of snow now, just glorious autumnal wind.

Suddenly everything is so much more visible. Without the leaves to hide behind, we now feel quite exposed to both the elements and our nearest neighbours. So we buy in a few young conifers to plant at the top of the drive in an attempt to shield us just a little when everything else is stripped bare.

Landscaping has now become so much easier: the dry stone wall encircling the three linden trees now clearly shapes a terrace for spring time pauses whilst also forming a sturdy dam to encourage any excess water away from the dwellings and plantations. Stacked dry branches and old logs demarcate compost piles and leaf mulch to become nourishing soil for next season’s crops. And the flow from the drive to the house and on to the gardens is so much easier to tweak.

We have spent much of this last week collecting horse and cow manure in a borrowed trailer from a friend’s small holding and nearby plots of the local farming cooperative. We have discovered that our car is pitifully weak for such trips (another argument to save for a small tractor - I am slowly learning to accept that it will be a very necessary addition to the family!).

Yet we have succeeded in bringing in enough well-rotted manure to support the restructuring of the polytunnel as well as a couple of fresh heaps lower down, settling to decompose. The tunnel is now free of all this season’s plants, even though many green tomatoes were still hanging, bitten by frost and rendered inedible by these last few weeks of decidedly un-southern temperatures.

Inside, our new kitchen is entering into its first lease of life as a space to concoct experimental recipes whose function is aesthetic as opposed to edible: I am desperately trying to find the ultimate combination of ingredients to create the right paint for the kitchen walls.

One challenge is to manifest a washable surface of the right colour density for the space that will house our wood-fired oven.

My first experiment initially looked good, but has dried rather patchy and remains moist, even after two days. It is the basic milk paint recipe with added pigment and linseed oil. Through trial and error - by adding the oil first and then mixing in the rest of the liquid - I have rediscovered the importance of the mayonnaise principle. Needless to say, the oil never properly emulsified and the pigment came through in lumps.

Oil is purported to create a waterproof finish, bearing in mind that drying time is much extended. It is also possible to add a final oil-based finish on top of a basic emulsion. This is now my preferred route, as the quark and lime mixture that I made for the main walls has worked beautifully, resulting in a smoky, opaque finish that is subtly in tune with the organic texture of the walls. Using filler (in my case a fine plaster, but clay or chalk, or indeed any powdered stone or mineral will also do) has made a huge difference to the density of colour.

The experiments continue as our kitchen rapidly transforms into a proper looking room.

The cold spell proved to be a vital insight into the coming winter and triggered a new approach to curtains: the latest two for the living room are flat, heavy screens – made using woollen blankets lined against canvas – attached snugly to the top of the window space and hanging neatly into the edges, fixed along the bottom by a bamboo pole tucked beneath two screws. Without the air gap of the sill and the free hanging that facilitates draught, they have made a very noticeable difference to the temperature of the room at night.

October 29, 2012

Snow in October

This week brought a sudden and very surprising change.

We had all adjusted well to bright blue skies by day followed by fresh chilly evenings and cold nights. We had also tolerated a few days of rather English grey. But then, with very little warning (on the eve of the weekend) it snowed. It continued to snow for the whole day.

Bold autumn colours now lie hidden beneath soft white and every surface of any height is topped with a thick, white icing. The girls scoop it up like lollies and just can't seem to get enough of it.

For us, it has come rather earlier than expected. The vast stillness and peace is serene and beautiful yet also whispers of the imminent months ahead where temperatures will continue to drop and nothing more above ground will grow. Animals will need shelter and daily feeding as life on the farm contracts into winter hibernation.

On the first day of snow the chickens don't even venture out of their den. Wading almost a foot deep across the yard to feed them, along the way I scoop off the snow from the rabbit's hutch to find her huddling in the furthest corner, both her bowls hidden in a mass of white. She is simply cowering and staring wide eyed ahead of her.

The sheep also appear rather shell-shocked, even though they are the best equipped to deal with the cold. Two days on, there are at least enough tufts of grass beginning to re-emerge for them to munch on as no fresh snow fall allows the ground cover to begin to retreat. Yet to be on the safe side, we begin clearing out the old sheep barn designing the best combination for comfort and ease of access.

The rabbit will also need to come in, probably to the middle room where plastering has not yet begun. But we will hold off just a little while longer, as there is still a fair chance of some milder weather before winter properly takes hold. We have after all only just received the stunning palette of autumn colours, which are noticeably more intense at the mountainous borders of Czech where the season creeps on just a little ahead of us here in the 'low lands'.

This week also saw our first foray into the boisterous world of children's holiday camps! A rather short notice agreement to take three children (7, 9 and 11 from a family of eight!) for five days and engage them in farm life, resulted in nearly a week of constant activity. The boys – the two oldest – would wake on full steam, ready to tackle whatever came their way before we'd even had time to sip a coffee!

For all the management that comes with such a big family (so much more cleaning and tidying, extended meal preparations and regular herding away for moments of peace) we all thoroughly enjoyed our time together.

The boys were so keen to learn new skills and show off their strength: the electric fence was taken up and extended; the limbs of a birch to be felled in the coming weeks were stripped and dragged into the dry; stones were shifted for dry-stone landscaping; nettles were scythed and bonfires made of the debris beside the stream; and a good deal of plastering (with rather a lot of mess!) has made the vague hope of a finished kitchen by Christmas just a little bit more realistic...

October 16, 2012

Gradual Hibernation

Visitors have kept us going all summer, bringing fresh energy and new perspectives. There has hardly been a pause between one visit and the next, yet somehow that never seemed to matter. Now however - with no more planned visits until Christmas - all of a sudden, tiredness strikes.

Stepping back for a moment we remind ourselves that we have asked for neither pressure nor stress. So we make a decision that to some may have been blindingly obvious: maintain a small area for our winter nest in order to eliminate the need to heat the whole house and to relieve the pressure to finish the new kitchen downstairs in a hurry.

So (with the help of dear Große Maja) we manage to reshape our little kitchen upstairs within a day and install a small Küchenhexe – a cast iron burner with a hotplate on top - found rusted but sound and surprisingly economical on wood.

In order to make space for it we had to get rid of the fridge. Very soon a fridge will hardly be necessary here, with a good few months of minus temperatures ahead of us. So we build a sturdy set of shelves in the entrance space opposite the new wall and stack it with the contents of the fridge, along with fresh produce and open jars. The entrance now smells like an organic shop and beautifully sets the scene for the cosy gourmand life to be found on the other side of the heavy velvet curtain.

All the preserves have now been moved down into the cellar beneath the little house – the cellar below here is far too creepy and crumbling for me to venture far into it and will be much better placed to house a central wood-fired heating system at some point in the future.

We certainly have enough passata and pickles to see us through the winter (and plenty of apple mousse!) but we will need to ration the chilli sauces and raspberry jam.

The last of the usable tomatoes came out at the weekend and we are hoping those left hanging on the vine will ripen enough for seed. Whenever Flo has put some tomatoes aside to save seed I have stumbled across them and 'rescued' them! I can't bear waste, but must get used to the fact that next years' fruits require the decay of just a few of today's finest specimens.

Bringing the wood in was another timely action spurred by my visiting uncle for whom wood is never far from the conversation. The seasoned piles left by the previous owners will certainly help us through a chunk of the coming winter, but it is clear that this year and the next will need to be subsidised by bought-in wood that is ready to burn. All that we have cleared this week and will clear in the coming months will need at least two years to season well.

With so much produce now safely indoors, we begin preparing ground to host winter crops and our prized elephant garlic. As outdoor operations gradually wind down we look forward to earlier nights and dedicated time for some sound planning (along with the endless stoking of fires).

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

October 10, 2012


With the arrival of two willing workers passing through from Czech on their way back to England, we decided it was prime time to haul in the harvest.

Erntedank – harvest thanks; Thanksgiving; honouring the harvest with gratitude... every culture finds some way of capturing something of the harvest spirit in a seasonal celebration, characterised by fresh colour, diversity and sheer abundance.

Here in Germany, Erntedank occurs in the first week of October and always on a Sunday. It became a timely reason to invite friends and helpers to celebrate the gifts of the land and share good food together, enabling us to acknowledge all the help and support from the folk around us and from the land itself.

We cleaned out the hall and arranged packing crates around the central pillar creating a low table draped in old white sheets.

Something of everything found a place - a huge pumpkin occupying most of the surface of one crate, squash and Hokaido, tomatoes, peppers, elephant garlic, drying sweetcorn, courgette and aubergine, dried beans, beetroot and potatoes, carrots, parsnips, leeks, apples, pears and raspberries, spinach, walnuts, kohlrabi, cabbage and lettuce... and others hung from the pillar - a large string of onions, a branch of hops, a long red trail of vine berries in a deep autumnal red, a bright ring of chillies and the delicate orange of Chinese lanterns. The colours against the serene whitewashed walls and raw granite stone were spectacular.

Our first guests cheerfully dived into the mountain of windfall apples we had gathered in the morning and gradually the Waschkessel began to fill. It was a long and arduous job as this year so much of the fruit in this area is covered in surface blemishes. The flesh is still good, but selecting and preparing is an endless task.

Each new arrival happily joined in as old hands drifted off to clutch cups of hot tea, stoke the fire or begin chopping pumpkin and tomatoes for the cast iron potjie pot that would feed us all that night.

As the night drew in we gathered around our harvest and sang songs we half remembered, finding the words in our own languages whilst holding a common tune, harvest tunes that have somehow remained alive in spite of shifting traditions and the inflections of different languages.

We bottled the apple mousse the following day. It was so thick that heating it fully for preserving was impossible as it simply spluttered and spat. So, once packed into sterilised jars and sealed, we loaded them back into the Waschkessel and brought water to a rolling boil for a good twenty minutes, just to be sure.

A steam juicer is now the biggest wish on our list of things to manifest – scarred apples can simply be roughly cored and thrown in to result in fresh juice ready to bottle without any further ado.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

October 1, 2012

Milk on the Walls

With the recent full moon and cloudless skies, temperatures have plummeted at night. By day, bright sunshine brings gentle warmth to open spaces but anywhere under shade remains cool.

Our adjustments to the flat have come just in time. Two days ago we lit the wood burner upstairs for the first time - a small tiled oven which had been haphazardly placed with a double bend in the chimney now sits facing the living space following another section of wall being removed. The room feels much more open yet contains the heat with the assistance of the new wall enclosing the passage into Saskia's quarters.

With the warmth factor now remedied, progress on the new kitchen can continue, in tandem with the slow, painstaking process of layering paint on the new wall sections upstairs.

In commitment to our aim of renovating using found and natural materials as far as possible, paintwork is now the latest arena of experimentation. Having read up a little on milk paint, the prospect of making quark and slaking lime felt rather daunting. Then I stumbled upon an old formula dating back to 1870 that simply makes use of skimmed milk and hydrated lime.

Hydrated lime doesn't heat up when brought together with the milk proteins and is thus quite safe to use. The idea is to slowly mix the white powdered lime with the milk (just as you would blend a pancake batter) gradually adding more milk until the desired consistency is reached. It is then ready to paint with!

I began with a very runny mixture, still a little thicker than the stated formula but rather more fluid than batter. It did not appear to cover much, so I mixed my next batch a lot thicker. This created a much more opaque finish, but I found that the natural unevenness of the walls generated patches where the paint collected and then slowly dripped. Every ten minutes or so I had to follow the drips with my paintbrush to blend them in and even hours later more drips appeared than I had anticipated.

Milk paint takes a good while to dry and adheres well to fresh plaster. Both then dry together and it can take days for the colour to even out. Thin layers become more opaque over time and I learned that it really pays off to work with a more fluid mixture (more layers and a lot more patience) as the dripping is then no longer a big problem and the end result is much more uniform.

For the record, the resulting paintwork is completely odourless and you would never know that milk had come anywhere near it!

Outside, the walnuts are ripening well. We were worried at first that ours had fouled as many on the ground looked black and shrivelled. The hulls turn completely black as the nut matures. Whilst the hull still clings to the shell, the nut inside is often blackened but moist and tasty to eat.

Raspberries continue to appear even a day after combing the bushes and rose hips are in their prime. In our cultivated areas, spinach has become a mainstay, lettuce is flourishing and our chillies are turning a beautiful, vivid red. Tomatoes continue to proliferate and courgettes are still hanging on. Our pumpkins grow daily and it is clear that we will be living off them for quite some time to come. 

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

Moments of Peace

September 25, 2012

Sugar & Spice

Harissa. How often we've bemoaned the fact that it is so hard to come by; how well it would go with this that or the other; how it has the ability to transport you straight back to the pungent smells and vivid colours of daily life in Morocco... and it is actually really easy to make!

Essentially you just whizz up fresh tomatoes and chillis with spices (cumin, caraway, coriander), some salt, garlic and onions. You're then meant to briefly cook for ten minutes or so and then bottle hot, topping with olive oil to seal.

I misread my recipe and blended in the oil too. It tasted okay, but seemed to be calling for a base note. So I decided to really cook it down and left it chuckling boldly away on our fire all evening.

It reduced by half and now tastes absolutely fantastic. The intensity brought by cooking down was all it needed. The oil naturally separates off a little, making it look very authentic in the jars.

The other experiment that really paid off this week was plum and tomato jam! Somehow it feels right to put plums and tomatoes together, but I had never considered bringing in sweetness until I found a recipe for tomato jam. Adding the plums brought texture and natural sweetness and the bold spices (fresh chilli, ginger, cumin, cinnamon and cloves, and a generous slosh of fresh lime juice right at the end) gave it a kick that can jazz savoury meat dishes as well as pancakes and simple cheese sandwiches.

To balance our culinary explorations and take a break from the kitchen for a while, we both turned our hands to building. Neither of us have built a proper wall before, but we found the process very appealing. Working from opposite sides of the passage (whose side enclosure opening into Saskia's room I had freed last week) we found a rhythm laying bricks, smoothing cement and straightening in turn until we could only just see each other's noses.

At this stage we noticed how the contracted passage would now have practically no natural light. The remainder of the curved wall had already sustained a horizontal crack at the height of where the new wall now reached. So we decided to take the top section out and put in a window in its place.

Round windows are hard to come by and perspex just wouldn't have felt right... and then the brainwave struck – use glass jars!

The traditional jars that we had been given have glass disks for lids and were therefore the ideal material for the job. A few had cracks (which prompted the idea) and others we simply sacrificed for the good cause.

It was very fiddly work, but the effect is beautiful.

I have learned never to work with cement for long periods of time without gloves. I sustained the most painful, tiny sores on my finger tips and incredibly dry, sensitive skin that lasted for days.

Luckily there is always plenty of washing up to be done!

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

September 17, 2012

Autumn & New Arrivals

Autumn is arriving, slowly but definitely. The air is fresh now, even though we're still blessed with good sunny days - we even managed a brief swim in the lake the other day, but it could well be our last for a while.

Saskia was given a rabbit for her birthday by some school friends. We've never liked the idea of caged animals, and she seems intelligent enough not to either: one morning, after two days in her hutch she mysteriously appeared in with the chickens. We couldn't work out how she escaped until we discovered the wire roof can be pushed up in one corner. She goes straight through the fence into the orchard and doesn't seem at all interested in going elsewhere.

She is now in with them every day and manages to enjoy the space and the company of chickens and sheep as if a perfectly normal family! We have a job catching her at night, but will experiment with the hutch in the orchard and see if the hens can perhaps lead a good example for her to head to bed at dusk.

A real surprise this week has been our little peach tree in the front garden! The fruits are ripening beautifully, obviously getting enough sun and content to flourish as if deluding themselves that really this is somewhere further south.

The wife of the tractor man comes regularly now for a basket of tomatoes, along with new offers almost every visit. The latest is a whole host of preserving jars – the old fashioned kind that have rubber rings but no metal circuits, just temporary clips that keep the pressure whilst the preserves cool and are then removed. Some of the jars still have preserved fruit in them that is reputedly about ten years old. Although rather sweet, they actually still taste pretty good.

The other gift her mother had tucked away in her garage is over a hundred and fifty traditional clay bricks. These will be perfect for our bead oven.

Another neighbour up the road responded to our notice in the newsletter with an offer of a 'waschkessel' – a wood-fired drum insulated with fire bricks that holds a large enamelled cast-iron vat. These were traditionally used for laundry but are still used today for making sausage meat and pasteurising preserves.

It is a big beast but fits neatly in the hall where the flue pipe connects directly into the chimney. Although a bit rusted on the outside it is still in good condition and will be so exciting to experiment with.

I finally found the opportunity to knock down a section of the wall of Saskia's bedroom to extend her room and close off the draughty passage. It was such satisfying work and makes a great change from the endless processing of tomatoes.

The cooler weather is also much more ideal for plastering. More and more of our time is now spent indoors preparing the walls of our long awaited kitchen and closing in our upstairs quarters to make our winter nest. 

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

September 11, 2012

Solidarity & Pink Apple Mousse

Most people would say that now the days are starting to get shorter and the nights gradually longer. Yet for us it feels almost the other way around, with school days kicking off at the crack of dawn and the early dusk heralding earlier fires with endless produce to cook down.

It is a challenge to remain dedicated to rest amongst all the hard work and play. But it is a commitment that we made to ourselves from the very start: this is our family life, our work life, our social life and our private life all at the same time. Therefore, daily rhythms need to be centred around the children, deadlines need to be flexible, visits need to be well spaced and good weather conditions need to be taken advantage of!

This sometimes means that developments on the house lag behind schedule, yet somehow a healthy pace is far more important than the targets. With the floor of the loft nearly insulated it already feels like winter can't penetrate quite as far as previously.

Last month we wrote a brief article for the village newsletter – introducing ourselves and our project, thanking the villagers for all their support during the floods and putting out a call for preserving jars and equipment, farm machinery and poultry, as well as announcing our intention to offer up veg boxes for the village in the new season and (as an after thought) English lessons for all ages and abilities.

The article came out at the beginning of this month and the first call came on the same day. It was the man who runs the beer cellar in the village calling on the off chance we might need plant pots and seed trays, simply keen to help in which ever way he could.

A few days later I gained a young student in need of extra English support outside of school; and then the wife of the neighbour who helped us out with his old Russian tractor turned up to ask whether we might have some tomatoes for her to buy and to tell us her husband has ten sacks of hydrated lime just lying around unused. A few hours later she came back with a box of empty jars.

Hardly a day later, a journalist called from the Sächsische Zeitung (Saxony's main daily newspaper), asking if she could do a story on us. She turned up in the midst of a major tomato harvest and happily snapped away at Saskia and her visiting grandmother chopping their way through juicy mountains of the stuff.

It turns out that the journalist lives in the next village with her family and just happens to be a food enthusiast with lots of local connections. She is a freelance writer and struggles to find much new to write about in these parts. She is now intent on unearthing as much article material as she can squeeze out of us over the coming months.

Today she called to tell us that her husband has agreed to part with their old GDR heating system that heats water pipes without a retaining tank – not as efficient as modern systems, yet simple, effective and free.

Whilst the tomatoes simply keep coming (we've now begun selling some off to a local caterer who cooks for schools) the plums are now in their prime. Raspberries still miraculously keep appearing and we are on the verge of the mighty apple season.

Up on the hill there are rows of trees already filled with fruit and one variety that inspires us every time has a gorgeous deep red colour. Inside, the flesh is almost as red as the skin. You cannot beat pink apple mousse!

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

September 4, 2012

Food Realities

Our visitors come just in time, and harvesting begins in earnest. Tomatoes and elderberries every other day, plums and raspberries twice this week - the big pot simmers every night over the fire and rests under a large sieve to steam off overnight. The following morning is dominated by clearing the space, reheating the brew, sterilising jars and packing them full before lining them all head down in a corner of our cluttered little kitchen.

I've learnt the hard way not to bottle sauce in cheap clip top jars. Two thirds of my prized Letscho went into these, and the seals just weren't good enough.

Jars have become a big theme. After using all of our saved pickle jars we fill milk bottles and undersized random jar specimens whilst scouting for an abundant and affordable source.

The local shops retail an average sized pickle jar close to one euro a piece. Department stores vary little in price and the quality is often markedly lower. Wholesale - from miles away - works out about two thirds of a euro once tax and delivery have been calculated. And then, in the nearby supermarket, a jar of pickles costs 59 cents!!

The fact that a full jar of food costs less than an empty one, is truly mind-boggling. Consider the picking, the sorting, the preparing, the bottling and the labelling, let alone the marketing and actual selling. Can the real cost of the product be even remotely covered at such a price?

With a full pot of tomatoes ready to bottle, we do buy a case of pickles (simply to fulfil the need with as little expense as possible). Needless to say we're becoming rather tired of gherkins, but at least they've not been wasted (and neither have our tomatoes!)

Word is slowly getting round that jars are needed by those English folk at the old Halle hof in the middle of the village, and donations have begun trickling in.

The hens took a few days to venture out without coaxing, but are now very much at home in the orchard. At night they trundle back into their den of their own accord and all huddle on the highest perch squeezed in a corner seemingly oblivious to the fact that spacious nesting boxes have been lovingly created below to accommodate them all. We can only hope that when nesting instincts really set in they will go for the more practical egg laying corners!

The plums are really coming into their own now, and the simplest and most effective technique for jam has emerged as the do-as-little-as-possible technique – shove them all in a pot, washed but whole with a splash of water and cook vigorously till they fall away from their stones. Strain into another pan, and the stuff that comes through the sieve is a lush, creamy red syrup leaving flaky skin and stones in the sieve for the compost. Then add sugar to taste and cook for a while longer to thicken it up. Bottle and enjoy!

It has been a joy to have so much energy around - some people we’d never met before, (being friends of old friends), and others from way back when in a completely different context. Amidst reconnecting and getting to know one another, it is the land, the peace, the company, the work and the sheer abundance that fire us all up with inspiration and motivation. Work and life fuse into a collective enjoyment centred around the appreciation of food.

Everything we cook from the fresh produce tastes absolutely delicious. It is almost impossible to assess our lifestyle in terms of monetary value, when our needs can be met to such an extent by top quality, life giving nourishment.

So now at the height of the season the most important task besides transforming the goods into lasting food, is to collect, dry and save seeds to enable the whole cycle to begin once again next year. 

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

August 27, 2012

Hens & Galician Spice

The long awaited chickens have at last come to roost in our ramshackle hen house – seven ladies and a gentleman of the Italian variety (they are simple referred to as 'Italiener' - an old land race bred for both eggs and meat [being rather larger than average]). They should begin laying in the early part of autumn and are almost ready to be released into the orchard, now into their third day of confinement.

There they will meet the sheep, moved once again with as much hassle and frustration as before! Yet they are so contented amongst the fruit trees and tall grasses that it was certainly worth the afternoon of chasing them along the stream, twice across to the neighbours and finally through the narrow gate into the orchard. The most prized trees are protected with wire fencing staked around each trunk.

Whilst the girls gather elderberries, I tackle the mound of tomatoes. This week's mission is Letscho – in its simplest form, a tomato sauce with peppers and onions, very popular in this part of the world. It is often associated with Hungary, yet each country has its own take on it. The variations tend to be with regard to seasonal availability. So this batch takes in our glut of Galician peppers.

A very popular dish in Galicia is fried, whole peppers, but not just any old peppers. These are small, green and deceptively mild. The catch is that every now and then you will come across a spicy one, and then it is really spicy! So your plate arrives in front of you and you are none the wiser until you taste!

We took some seeds with us last year, propagated them in our town flat and planted them out into the poly tunnel. Now we are inundated with them! I sat for an hour or so, de-seeding and chopping them for the Letscho, before I realised that my fingers were slowly burning. Using gloves at this point was pointless and it became clear that the majority of this next generation are really hot!! The burning continued for two days, almost unbearable the first evening, as if fire was burning inside my fingers, emanating outwards and sensitising my skin to the slightest contact.

This last fortnight has seen a massive growth and ripening of everything we have planted, as well as the gifts already present on the land. The apples are almost ready, raspberries are at their prime, rosehips are getting close and in the tunnel, tomatoes continue to fill our basket every couple of days, along with courgettes, a few okra and beautifully radiant aubergine.

French beans - lightly fried in a lidded pan with butter and garlic - accompany almost every meal. Most of the rest are blanched for freezing. One batch sits in a large, ceramic crock covered by a salt brine. They are slowly fermenting with the help of a dash of whey and will be preserved in this way (stored in a cool place) for many months ahead. This process of lacto-fermentation is something we are keen to explore further with a wide range of our produce once our kitchen and processing space are finally finished.

The yard and the tool shed are now being prepared for a fresh crew of willing helpers arriving today. A new fireplace is laid to complete the oval landscaping surrounding the walnut tree – a space for growing kitchen herbs and enough room around the fire to accommodate sociable numbers. The tool shed is slowly being cleared of its' only half interesting junk, no longer waiting for the previous owner to finally take his things. After so many semi-lazy sunny days that drew us to the nearby lakes after a morning's work, the stronger breezes of pending autumn are now visiting more often and we are finding a new source of strength to dent the long list of things to do for the winter.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

August 15, 2012

Aliums & Winter Sauces

It is time to bring in the garlic and onions, tops drooping and bulging bulbs crying out to be pulled from the earth. With a whole wheelbarrow of onions (and then some) and the weather rather unpredictable these days, we lay them all out in a space in the poly tunnel and corners of the greenhouse to dry.

A batch of earlier garlic plaits together easily and now hangs in the kitchen - a promising start to preparations for the winter, which is beginning to feel rather too close for comfort.

The next crop in desperate need of some attention is the potatoes. During the heavy rains the soil became very water-logged in parts and has caused many of the potatoes to rot. We stripped off dying leaves as they emerged to avoid blight, but many simply sitting in too much moisture stood little chance of thriving. Some beyond help stink so badly that we leave them in the earth to rot down. Avoiding spiking the good ones with the fork is hard, not knowing exactly where they lie, but a fair two thirds of today's harvest is good enough for storing.

Even though the lower field is not yet fully grazed, we need to move the sheep on to help keep down the rest of the pasture land. Easier said than done!

We make a large gap in the fence and use extra wire fencing to temporarily close off the drive. Our first few attempts fail miserably as we spread ourselves across the field and try to gently encourage the lambs (we mustn't forget they're still lambs with precious little experience) to head for the opening. Each time it feels like we have them under our control, their frightened little eyes dart across the human chain to scan for the easiest gap and then they leap like goats and charge for all they're worth in the opposite direction to the opening.

At last one of the pack and the little holiday visitor notice the open part of the fence and sneak forwards before joyfully frolicking off into the new pasture. Even then, it takes a while for their presence to be missed by the others. Finally their contented bleating reaches the ears of the remaining four, and after what felt like hours of patient coaxing they bolt across into the lush new territory.

Courgette soup has proved to be the inspiration of the week, striking a new note after frying and roasting and stuffing and grating into fritters and salads. With lashings of butter and sour cream, even courgette sceptics found it to their liking.

Our biggest pot filled to the brim with roughly chopped tomatoes simmered away over the fire last night and is now ready to be prepared for bottling. It has emerged as the easiest system – the day’s pickings (depending on their destined dish) taking pride of place on our evening fire, giving the fire dual purpose and allowing the processing side of things to occur without too much disruption of daily rhythms. The brew can then sit overnight and be reheated next day when the space is clear for bottling.

The first time we tried this we learned a crucial lesson: our gorgeous plums simmering gently in our huge cast iron pot were not quite the texture we wanted by the midnight hour, so we left them overnight with the lid slightly off to avoid sweating, and cooked them further the next day before bottling them. Sadly, the cooling time-lapse caused the iron to leach into the jam, and it now has a rather predominant metallic after-taste. One could argue that extra iron is always healthy, but we are now diligently only using stainless steel for overnight cooling. 

Weekly Column 'A Taste of Earth' published @