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 @  www.porkandgin.com

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 @ www.porkandgin.com

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 @ www.porkandgin.com

Moments of Peace