June 25, 2012

From Earth to Mouth

Snails for Supper

The time has come to experiment with a free source of protein that exists in abundance on our farm – snails. We all know the French treat the humble snail as a delicacy, yet few of us northern Europeans actually go as far as trying them (let alone cooking them ourselves). I tried snails once about fifteen years ago in the Pyrenees. They tasted okay (as long as I didn't look at them) and I can imagine with the right sauce they could enter the league of mussels, perhaps.

It has to be worth a try! We collect over sixty 'Weinbergschnecken' (a really large variety of snail) and put them in our largest pan with a handful of iceberg lettuce. With a rock on the lid and a thin stick jammed between to allow in some air, they wallow in the pan for three days, munching lettuce. Apparently this is the length of time needed to clean out their systems, which is clearly visible after the first couple of days - their deposits turn from black to vivid green.

On Sundays we do our utmost to have a day off and this time manage to get out to a nearby lake for the afternoon. By the time we get back we are starving. The menu has to be snails (whether we relish the idea or not!) as their three days are up and if we don't do it now, we never will.

First we tumble them into a pan of boiling, salted water (with garlic, spices and fresh herbs) and cook them for a good few minutes. Then we ease each snail out of its' shell using a skewer, revealing a perfectly formed spiral. Rolled in flour and doused in beer batter they are then deep fried to a golden brown. They look fantastic. Served with buttery mashed potato they could well be part of any Tapas menu.

Maia happily gives them a go, and even seems to like them! Without the idea of snail in your mind, I imagine they could be quite enjoyable. I have to take a deep breath before going for it: the spiral end tastes tender with a texture a bit like squid, but sadly I cannot ignore the trace of slime still lingering. Three are plenty for an experiment! The boys try many more, determined to find the best way of processing them - boiled in a white wine broth, grilled directly over the fire...

It is possible that with a lot more rinsing and longer cooking, they could be much more palatable. In the end it is worth the effort if only to discover that we would much rather rear our own protein with four legs. A slightly queasy feeling lingers even now, a day later...

Whilst keeping an attentive eye out for the lime flowers to emerge on our three linden trees (the flowers only appear for a very brief time) I begin to give the walnuts some attention. They are ripening now into oval shaped fruits that look a lot like olives.

We harvest a small batch to begin experiments with pickling. Pricking each hull a couple of times with a pin has left a dark brown stain on my fingers. (Walnut dye is very strong and resists a lot of wear and light. Infused oil was once commonly used as a tanning lotion).

Covered in a salt brine for the last few days, the liquid is now black and there is a distinct olive quality to the fruits. Once pickled, they can be used much in the same way as olives – delicious sliced thinly onto pizza, chopped into salads and added to sauces and stews.

Today we will harvest in earnest. With a good crop and sound techniques, this could well be the delicacy for a niche market...

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

June 18, 2012


During last week's unpredictable weather, it was impossible to book our neighbour in to mow the meadows. So, in the brief gaps between, we began doing it ourselves by hand using scythes.

Scything is an age old technique - a long, half moon blade attached at right angles to a gently curved wooden handle with a hand grip at the end and another about a body's width down. Scything requires your whole body, feet firmly planted as you turn, gently swinging to find the momentum that allows the motion of your body to move the blade with precision and ease.

We soon realised that it was not nearly as hard as it looked and that progress was good. The larger areas were very satisfying to work, the grass being optimum height for cutting and a good variety of growth. Many border areas however are thick with nettles and tough grasses and the work became strenuous and tiring. (Our attentive neighbour over the stream arrived at the crucial time with a hand-held mower to blast the last bit – a huge relief but also rather abrasive after our scythe meditation).

Here in the Oberlausitz they have a saying that 'hay dries on the rake'. These last few days have been scorchers and we very soon experienced the truth of this, raking the freshly cut grass into ridges, then forking it over, spreading it onto dry ground to the side, then raking once again, keeping the rapidly drying grass in motion, fluffing it up and spreading it further, allowing it to absorb as much heat as possible, and the soft wind coming to our aid to give the hay a final boost.

And then the wind changed. Within the space of less than an hour, the sweltering heat gave way to a strong breeze and an ominous black cloud appeared at the crest of the hill. We frantically hauled in as much of the finished hay as we could, and then all hell broke loose. Amidst raucous thunder and lightening, the rain came lashing down in vertical sheets. It was no normal rain. Hail stones as big as marbles pelted the ground with a vengeance and the wind forced its way into every cranny, shattering the glass of an open door.

Then just as suddenly, it was all over. The pattern has continued with glorious days transforming into darkening afternoons with sudden (although less dramatic) downpours. If rain soaks hay that is very nearly dry, it is practically ruined. Much like if you let a tea bag get wet - once it has dried again the goodness is washed out. Yet if it rains onto freshly cut hay, it can always continue to dry the following day (if you're lucky!). It is crucial to store the hay when it is totally dry. Many a barn has burned down due to slightly damp hay overheating as it decomposes, then igniting dry hay in the process.

Today we cleared out the hay loft above the tool shed and with speedy team work (thanks to a well timed visitor!) managed to bring in our first batch of perfect hay. The two large pastures still need more drying so the challenge was on to scoop all the drying grass into huge heaps, raking and rolling amidst sweat and laughter before covering the heaps with all the tarps and scraps of plastic we could lay our hands on, before weighing them down with heavy poles and old planks. This will save a large amount of our crop, certainly enough to see our future animals through this first winter.

Finally, we’ve stumbled upon a miracle cure for aphids: hand rolled cigarette butts soaked overnight in water with half a dozen roughly chopped cloves of garlic, then strained and decanted into a spray bottle. Sunflowers sprayed once were entirely free of the stifling black army by the following day! We will certainly make use of this for our elderflower harvest next year - riddled this season, rendering many flowers totally unusable.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

June 11, 2012

Birch Blessings

This week we felled a tree.

Patrick returned from tying up loose ends back home, arriving on the night train with a laden rucksack topped with a heavy chainsaw.

We watch from an upstairs window as he skilfully scales the birch tree in the yard. The branches grow at odd angles due to careless bollarding over the last few years, stunting the growth of the central walnut tree and blocking out a good deal of light from the main house.

It has not been an easy decision and now that the time has come, we all watch with baited breath. First the limbs are severed and then all at once the tall trunk crashes smoothly into the yard.

The deed is done. Maia stares in amazement and then trots down to touch the strewn branches, looking up and then down and then up again with wide eyes and a gabble of incoherent words. Saskia and her playmate dance up and down the inert trunk, soaking up the excitement of such a dramatic change to the inner courtyard.

The work continues for most of the day. The smallest leafy branches are loaded into a wheelbarrow to mulch the young trees growing along the edge of the roadside pasture. Then the limbs are cut into neat logs and stacked on a pallet against the wall of the 'sauna'. The straightest section of the thick trunk is trimmed and set aside to be planked at the sawmill. A few round disks, two or three centimetres thick, have also been saved as experimental chopping boards. Half a dozen slender poles are ear marked for the hay rick and the last scraps of the tree are neatly stacked in the corner for outdoor fires. I manage to salvage a good collection of bark for experimenting with oils and dyes. The only trace left is the stump, now a perfect seat at the edge of our newly built fire pit.

The courtyard feels much bigger now that there is a natural gathering point at the fire pit and a circular flow around the liberated walnut tree. My day of gathering salads and  slow-cooking a hearty bean stew - generously spiced, interspersed with meaty Polish mushrooms and a final smattering of ground elder and nettles – has paid off, as our guests for the evening arrive. Nine children dash around the yard exploring, chasing, hiding, laughing and dancing under the awe-inspiring arches of the hall. The elders talk and eat for hours as our last joint of mutton (from the sheep once resident here) gently spits over the hot coals.

We have recently discovered that an old granite staircase exists below the concrete steps entering the flat. They curve into the downstairs room, bi-passing the crumbling lobby. The original entrance would have been on the south side of the courtyard, where now there is but a window. It would be a big job to reinstate the old staircase, but viewing the main house as an integrated dwelling, it makes perfect sense. The lobby could then be rebuilt as a conservatory and with a double glazed window at the foot of the current stairs, the house would stand a much better chance of retaining heat in the winter. Winter plans have to be at the forefront of our minds, even now on the edge of a mild and abundant summer.

So with the rain still bursting through for days on end, we begin drawing charts and drafts of possible changes - heat, water, light, energy and utility all requiring equal consideration.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

June 5, 2012

Rain & Order

The rain has finally arrived. Overgrown as everything is, the land is positively singing with joy!

The only downside is that the slugs are now out in their thousands. 'Naked snails' they call them in German, their writhing bodies threaten to destroy every succulent plant in sight. Protective ashes are washed away and beer traps diluted into dirty, useless puddles. Aside from eating as many eggs as possible to collect and crush the dry shells as new barricades, the only course of action is to trawl the beds collecting as many as we can, drowning them, burning them, cutting them in two – a brutal end, but grimly satisfying.

Mizuna is our crop of the moment - a wonderful dark green spinach-like plant with jagged leaves and pale juicy stems. It works very well raw in salads but is even better stir fried in butter with generous lashings of Soya sauce. It is also a great filler in sauces and our little one just can't get enough of it!

With the sun returning once again today, we begin clearing the pastures of tangled electric fencing from previous years, along with sticks and hard objects embedded in the long grasses, ready for a neighbour's mower to cut the lush grass for a first round of hay.

The time is drawing near for the arrival of our sheep. Our biodynamic farmer friend has five young lambs almost ready to leave their mother and make their home here as our first farm animals to graze the land. Sheep farming is scarce in this area and has little history to speak of. Those that do keep sheep do so only on a small scale. The sheep we have been offered are tiny even as adults and lose their wool in the spring.

I had to come to terms with this idea at first, feeling it to be such a waste not to keep sheep for wool. Yet the work involved with shearing and processing the wool is more than we can take on at present, with so many other aspects of the farm to establish before indulging in idyllic and time-consuming crafts. In the years ahead this will change, but for now, practical solutions to the land's needs are an absolute priority.

The other animals soon set to arrive are a clutch of young chicks from a friend a few villages north of here. In preparation, we begin clearing out the small stone shed at the south end of the courtyard. Chickens were kept here as recently as last year, with a little hatch already in place to let them out into the lower end of the old orchard. Overgrown shrubs, a healthy elder and a dry-stacked hedge provide the perfect foraging ground beneath the shade of our prized walnut tree.

After examining the solid structure of the stone 'hen house', we dither about whether it is perhaps too good for chickens. We both have a love of saunas and are intent on finding the right space to install one here. We settle in the end on sharing it. There are two distinct chambers. The end one with the hatch is ample space for the number of chickens we intend to keep and with a new door to the side, the inside door can be bricked in. This will enable the entrance chamber to be completely independent and when time and resources permit, will make a brilliant sauna. It is then but five paces to the 'pool' that is currently filled with earth and sand and totally overgrown. The sauna will be our life line in the harsh winter months.

Inside, the office is now taking shape. Still awaiting the all important telephone and internet connection, the space is now carpeted with an attractive combination of bamboo fibre matting found discarded on the roadside, a large Hessian rug already in the house, and my deep red Moroccan carpet brought overland strapped to my bags seven years ago. Two bookshelves are now filled, flanking the grand (if a little shabby) oak desk, also thankfully left by the previous owners. The crucial recipe books and land based craft books are at last readily there at our finger tips.

The hall is clear of our boxed belongings and saw our first gathering at the weekend. A healthy balance between work and play is now well and truly established.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com