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 @


August 6, 2012

Pickles & Boundaries

This week we gained an extra lamb delivered at the crack of dawn by her owner on the way to work. It will be a holiday retreat for three weeks and our five little bleaters don't quite know what to make of it, but soon adjust without fuss.

The six of them are making good progress on the lower pasture, tidying up all the corners and leaving only nettles in rough patches dotted throughout the field. The flat space by the vegetable patch is already fenced off in preparation of their next transit, but for now the lush growth in their first field is still ample for their needs.

With cucumbers growing faster than we can eat, it is time for a large batch of 'bread and butter pickles'. Peeled and thinly sliced cucumbers are mixed with some slithers of onion and green pepper, thoroughly doused in salt and left to stand for a few hours. They rapidly reduce to about two thirds of their volume as the liquids are drawn out by the salt.

Diluted vinegar, pickling spices and sugar are brought to a rolling boil in a large pan and simmered for five or ten minutes to allow all the flavours to mingle. After being well rinsed a few times, the cucumbers are added to the pot and the whole mixture is brought gently to just below boiling point.

Now they are ready to bottle – sterilised jars filled to the brim, sealed and turned head downwards to ensure a vacuum. The delicate slices look stunning in their turmeric coloured liquid and can be eaten immediately, but with patience can taste even better after a month of slow maturing.

Courgettes are also out in their dozens, so my first experiment is sweet courgette pickle - another one of Rowie's tips. I choose to omit corn flour and instead allow the mixture to bubble away for a few hours on the open fire. The result is tantalising and certainly not a far cry from Branstons Pickle – that dearly beloved home coming for many an English ex pat. But the call for patience is a must here as it is clear that time will allow the vinegar to take a back seat and encourage the other ingredients to join forces and sing out.

The big success story of the week has got to be our courgette crisps! Sliced and sundried for the day on a wire mesh rack, our evening fire was centred around a pot of hot oil. We found that leaving them to sit on newspaper for a few minutes once out of the oil allowed them to crisp up just right. With a sprinkling of salt and a dash of mayonnaise they are simply irresistible.

Our first chilli sauces and ketchups are also emerging, heralding the imminent roll call of tomatoes galore - a hundred and twenty plants will certainly keep us busy! It is mind boggling to think that these very bushes (now almost our height!) were once tiny seedlings cramming the makeshift window sills of our town flat just a few months ago.

The farm cooperative managing the fields behind our farm lost no time in nudging us into action to divide our plot off and enable them to prepare ground for their next round of crops. Once the data pertaining to original borders had been retrieved from an office in town – indecipherable to us mere mortals - measuring the field was almost immediately actioned. The result is largely as expected, yet it appears that our neighbour on the south side has inadvertently shifted his boundary across a little and an odd triangle cuts above our plot - an inconvenience mostly for the farming coop.

We are by now so wary of creating any extra bureaucracy that we will certainly avoid contesting the details of the deeds officially and hope to gently negotiate mutually beneficial tweaks in dialogue with all concerned.