July 29, 2012

The Real Beginning

The big surprise of the week has been our unbelievably abundant pear tree!

We never expected it to drop so soon, and initially wrote off its' shower of mushy fruit as a gift to the land and not worthy of much note. But some dedicated collecting, sorting, chopping and cooking down in just a touch of water, a lump of ginger and some cinnamon, resulted in a delicious sugar-free puree that we bottled hot into sterilised jars to preserve.

The next round sat on the fire bubbling away all evening. After a few hours we blended the contents of the pot, now a third reduced, and added a few hundred grammes of raw sugar. The next day we kept it on a low heat all day until it had finally reduced to about a quarter of its original quantity.

The result is delicious, with a hint of caramel and a curiously nutty after-taste and it works particularly well on pancakes, but really just as good on hot toast or bread.

Following a tip from dear Rowie, I cut strips of plain paper for labels, dipped them in fresh milk and pressed them onto the jars. Once dried, these labels are as good as any commercial product and will wash off easily after use.

With alcohol being a regular expense, we decided it is high time to make our own. We weighed the really yellow mushy pears into a pan with water, brought it to a simmering boil for twenty minutes and then added it all into a fermenting tub with sugar and lemon juice. The brew refused to cool enough for the yeast before bed time, so we wrapped it in a sleeping bag overnight and hoped for the best.

By mid morning the next day, with the help of the early sun, our concoction achieved blood temperature. We added a round of wine-makers yeast, fitted  an air lock, and left it to its' own devices. The soon-to-be pear wine is now snug on a window sill out of the full sun but wrapped once again in the sleeping bag to regulate temperature, and is bubbling away nicely.

The last pear action was an attempt at Perry. Using a small, manual tumble drier we whizzed some pears for a few minutes, releasing the juice into a jug. It took quite a lot of effort to generate a substantial amount of juice. The resulting mush was strained through a piece of clean jute sacking (a spur of the moment solution for not having muslin to hand) into a clip top bottle. Sadly the smell of jute lingers, but the potential is still there for the stuff to properly ferment and to at least be an interesting experiment!

The yard has drawn our attention these days, crying out for some order to provide a focal point for gatherings and to accommodate our plans for outdoor cooking.

The stable containing the hen house corners the old metal workshop at right angles. Clearing some overgrown elder and vines has revealed an ideal space for a bread oven. Every other spot we had our eye on felt somehow in the way or not particularly accessible or simply just a bit random. It is now clear that this corner is where we need to begin, raising the ground to an even level, bordering it nicely with stones and the construction of a sturdy base can begin.

So far, all our work has been carried out using found materials. Having finally received the go-ahead from all the compulsory checks and bureaucratic to-ing and fro-ing to actually transfer the sum to secure the farm, it is at last, officially, ours, as of now!

Yet with no further capital, the challenge is now on to think outside the box, to come up with plans for generating hard cash to invest in quality materials for some real transformations. Short of stationing the kids on the road to sell cucumbers, courgettes and tomatoes for some short term vital funds, we must begin to dream in earnest.

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

July 24, 2012

A Bigger Family

Summer has come again! It is an amazing contrast, emerging from our battle with the elements, to now find ourselves blessed with blue skies and a soft breeze, walking barefoot feeling the warm earth beneath and listening to the crickets singing their hearts out without a pause for thought. The evenings bring the midges, but they are a small price to pay.

Two days ago our sheep arrived. Soay, originating from the Hebrides, where they lived wild for generations before being gradually domesticated in parts of Europe around the nineteen fifties. They are a rare breed (on a 'red list' of European species) and very beautiful to look at. Ours are all females with elegant, tapered horns. Rams grow gorgeous curled crowns worthy of gallery paintings.

Five scared little things, four months old with big staring eyes, the slightest movement triggering flight, huddled and bewildered hiding behind their shed. We visit them quietly, holding out windfall apples and crusts of bread, slowly, slowly winning their trust. After two days they are already less startled as we approach and no longer try to push through the fence.

We have managed to construct their whole paddock at the front using found electric fencing and a borrowed battery. In the long run we will gradually install permanent fencing, but for now the gift of a functioning set-up is not to be sniffed at. Using strips of old lino and torn canvas we lay a grass barrier beneath the wires with a layer of sand to keep it tidy and in place. This is to eliminate the weekly maintenance of trimming grass away from interfering with the electric current.

On the same day that the sheep arrived, the local grain farmer came out with his huge combine harvester and flattened the large field behind. We are now tangibly close to the moment when we can officially take on our two and a half hectare strip behind the farm that crawls up the foot of the hill. It is of course yet another job amongst thousands, but the feeling of completing our boundary with our own hedges, seeding the entire surface with green manure to gently nurture the soil back to vital health, is one we long for.

With the presence of visitors I am at last finding time to do some constructive work as Maia is happily entertained by others. Today we manage to clear a pair of concrete pits behind the barns that have been used for dumping rubbish. The lower layers carry a rich red soil that reveals the traces of burned rubbish. Originally they were used as incinerators in a time when rubbish systems had not been installed and the influx of plastic was too overwhelming to even consider an alternative form of disposal. At some point they stopped burning and simply dumped, these later layers comprising of old welly boots, bike parts, plastic toys and perfume bottles, wires, rusted iron and the occasional usable bottle.

We load all the rubbish into the front pit with the view to create a flat surface. The rear pit will form the base of our state-of-the-art compost toilets! We are intent on creating a pair of toilets that look good and can be tolerated by even the most squeamish types! One loo will always remain closed whilst the other one fills. Once full, it will be left to rot down whilst the other is in use. The decomposed matter will eventually be dug out and used on the hedgerows and shrubs.

Cucumbers, courgettes, French beans, onions, garlic, potatoes and carrots are now coming up in abundance, and the first tomatoes have ripened. Already the pear tree is dropping ripe fruit and there are some apples almost ready too. Once our chickens arrive and a pair of milking animals (still weighing up the pros and cons of goats versus cows or dairy sheep) our trips to the shops will be rare. 

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

July 16, 2012

The Lie of The Land

Even though its pretty unlikely that further flooding will occur this year, now is the time to consider all possible tactics to divert any future deluge. The week has been dominated by post-flood reparations as well as some serious landscaping to reshape the default flood path from the hill down to the river.

About twenty years ago, the front pasture had been loaded with all the rubble from a new-build next door. This had completely changed the contours of the field and up until this year, the error had not been spotted. Now though it was obvious that this inadvertent landscaping was a recipe for disaster, channelling excess water away from the river and onto the road, where it happily seeks out cellars and low-lying dwellings, swiftly ruining electrical appliances, archives of memorabilia, soft furnishings and anything else in its' way.

One of our neighbours up the opposite slope happened to see us shovelling rubble into wheelbarrows, back and forth on our ruined driveway, filling up the holes at a very slow rate. So she sent her husband with an old Russian tractor whose large shovel could scoop the equivalent of three or four barrow loads in a fraction of the time.

Suddenly the drive took rapid shape and regained an approximate semblance of its' former 'glory'. The tractor also strategically drove into the pasture above and below the track to encourage a new course for the water to take. On one of these trips the front wheel of the tractor ran straight into a hidden hole at least a metre deep and the whole machine toppled over onto its' side.

The sight was unforgettable. Whilst we handed round cold beers and worried about how we would get it out and whether it would be fatally broken, the driver (and later his wife and other neighbours), light-heartedly waited for a larger tractor to arrive, chatting amiably with no sense of pressure or stress. The second tractor was twice its' size and hauled it out the hole, intact, with relative ease.

We finished the job a few days later with a rented digger. The northern and front pastures look brutally battered now, but it won't be long before green will re-emerge.

Repairing our sheep fence is the next job – it had just been completed the day the first of the storms arrived. The little hoofs and droppings of our five small sheep (whose arrival is now well overdue) will certainly help to heal the scars and restore a natural form to the land.

Redcurrants and gooseberries are now in their prime and the apples are ripening beautifully. The pressure is on to sort out a decent kitchen space to deal with the fruit, and the imminent arrival of tomatoes galore. (We will of course manage as we must with our improvised little kitchen upstairs, but with a whole string of visitors lined up for the next few weeks, we must make the most of a keen and willing workforce).

On a big sheet of wood painted with blackboard paint, we sketch the downstairs spaces. After a few drafts we have a pretty good plan of what needs to go where. On the walls we chalk out the electricity points, ready for an electrician to assist us with the finer planning details. We will then lay the cables ready for him to connect up, enabling us to crack on with plastering the walls. With the water points already plumbed in, the electricity is the last thing holding us back from transforming this raw shell into a spacious kitchen and dining room for us and our steady stream of visitors.

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

July 9, 2012

The Deluge

The last of the cherries didn't stand a chance.

On Thursday evening the first of a series of storms arrived, bringing sheets of rain drenching the ground and pelting everything in sight with relentless force. With thunder like gunfire and lightening cracking down just a few seconds apart, all we could do was gaze out the windows in amazement. We watched the banks of the river rapidly recede and a new river form itself in the dip of the northern pasture. Its natural path was straight down our driveway onto the road and over the opposite neighbour's garden into the stream, now a fiercely roaring river.

Just as suddenly, the storm passed and the air hung fresh and calm whilst the two rivers continued to flow. We retrieved some stray belongings and rectified what damage we could before heading for bed, expecting the worst to be over.

At about midnight Patrick came racing upstairs to announce that we absolutely had to get up NOW. Reaching the bottom of the stairs we climbed into wellies and found ourselves wading through water, into the middle room and then the hall. There we simply stared, totally dumbstruck.

Standing in over two feet of water we could hear the sound of gurgling drains in reverse, bursting upwards into the room carrying objects floating between islands of the sofa, bed, cabinet, anything too heavy to move. Worst of all was the smell.

The whole scene became like a slow motion nightmare as the reality of the situation gradually dawned on us: the saturated ground could take no more so the torrents rushing down from the hillside had found a new path, directly along the edge of the main house. There the cesspit had filled beyond capacity. The only course for the excess water to take was up into the house by way of the original drainage built in for when animals were kept in the barn.

Sandbags and rocks were jammed into the drainage holes as best we could, and with buckets and shovels we mechanically began to attempt to reduce the level of the water. It felt like ages before the pressure on the drains finally started to give way, and the direction of the tide began to turn.

The following day the sun came out as usual, sweltering hot, beautiful and calm. Everything felt pretty normal, albeit for the flattened grass and water-logged pumpkin patch. The whole day was spent clearing the ground floor of all objects, piling up laundry and stacking things safely in the old metal workshop, away from the path of the flood.

Neighbours gathered on the road to clear rubble and share stories, commenting that this was pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as 2010. Everybody worked with full power to restore the area to good working order, believing the worst to be over.

Then the next storm arrived, earlier this time, and with a force far greater than the first, making mockery of our sandbag barriers and flushing out the rocks of the driveway as if pebbles on a beach.

Another day of restoring damaged areas and reinforcing barriers with slightly less optimism than before, and along came another storm.

We dragged ourselves back out to the drive for the third round. No road vehicle could reach our farm as the last three metres of track were now a deep pond with sheer sides where the rubble had simply broken away.

There is no doubt now that this is truly the worst flooding the area has ever experienced. It has been disheartening to watch, yet somehow quite magnificent. The solidarity amongst the folk of the neighbourhood has been incredible to observe and experience. Each stoically supporting one another, patiently accepting the inevitable, as the sheer force of nature has made blatantly obvious the errors committed by poor planning, over-zealous construction and misguided agricultural practice.

It has also cleansed our farm in a way we could never have anticipated. By the third round the water in the hall came up much cleaner and the process of flushing it out has brought the original colour back to the bricks in the floor. It feels as though the very bowels of the farm have been flushed through, revealing aspects we had not yet discovered and demonstrating the lie of the land in all its' visceral glory, showing us (amongst other things) exactly where not to plant pumpkins!

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

July 2, 2012

Cherries & Walnuts

Cherry season is in full swing. All the lower branches of our prized tree are pretty much stripped now, but still Saskia and her friends manage to spend hours hanging in the branches, stuffing themselves to their hearts’ content.

We have our large pot over the fire, filled to the brim. The cherries release a lot of liquid and rapidly reduce in volume. Once cooled, we sieve out the stones, saving them to dry for later inspiration. We shift some of the mixture into another pot to cook down further for fruit leather, adding a packet of agar agar gelatine, mixed with fruit pectin and arrowroot. The resulting thick sauce is then spread thinly onto a baking sheet to dry in the attic.

The rest in the large pot, with a load of sugar, simmers away for jam.  

This whole process is made so much easier by the fact that we now finally have running water plumbed in for the sink upstairs, the bathroom sink, and bath and shower downstairs. Following a thorough investigation with a neighbour plumber, planning the best location for the pipes to be fitted, Flo and Patrick took it on as their very first plumbing job (and their very last they swear!). After a few frustrating trips to Poland for the parts and a couple of false starts, the system is now running brilliantly.

Green walnuts have been soaking in salt brine for over ten days now. The brine rapidly darkened even after the first day - a rich dark brown that stains anything in sight. After changing the brine, I heat up the first batch of liquid and experiment with dyeing a pair of shorts, simmering them for about half an hour before rinsing clear.

The dye has taken well, but is patchy in parts; probably due to the fact that I didn’t ‘scour’ the fabric first (give it a thorough soapy wash and a long soak). There appear to be many approaches to dyeing with walnuts – some separate the hulls and husks, using either or both, but most say a mordant is not needed as walnut juice is naturally colourfast and light resistant. The experiments continue…

Every night now, with the weather being warm and mostly dry, fireflies bring magic to the garden, drifting around like airborne plankton, occasionally drifting indoors, illuminating the stairwell and dark corners of unlit rooms. Their eerie presence draws our attention immediately, bringing everything to a momentary standstill, enthralled, but never quite close enough to identify the source of light as a very common-looking little bug.

Wild strawberries continue to crop up everywhere. We laid a small batch out in the attic to dry and they have done so well, albeit with a gritty exterior characteristic of the slightly rougher skin of the wild fruit.

This week also saw the completion of my application for German citizenship - I now have the luxury of being both German and British, which will substantially ease our bureaucratic floundering - as well as the long-awaited signing of the contract that will officially hand over the ownership of this farm.

It has felt entirely natural to be here, gradually building things up at our own pace on a handshake agreement with the previous owners. Yet sharing food and champagne in celebration of this step in the right direction felt substantially different for all four of us. We talked a lot about things they’d started, ideas in incubation, aspects they added to or took away. They are ready to let it go, but are also particularly happy to see it in our hands, heading in a direction that they can fully identify with.

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