Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I Went to the Animal Fair

Around here, tis the season for village fetes, harvest festivals and agricultural shows large and small. Last year I posted about a a day we spent at one of the local village fetes, in that case, the Wychwood Fair. This year I want to share images from a similar affair called the Moreton Show. It's bigger (though not necessarily better) than Wychwood, and is focused more on agriculture than on artisans. Alas, there was also a proliferation of solicitor (law firms) and real estate agent tents, and merchants selling kind of crappy tweed jackets. 

I love the Moreton Show for the huge variety of farm animal breeds on display, particularly in the poultry tent, which I sadly walked away from empty handed. But I saw some otherworldly looking chickens, as well as some familiar breeds, in additional to a smattering of turkeys and geese. Here are a few.

The wool tent was also amazing. There were bins of wool from various breeds of sheep, and I loved that my kids and I were allowed to touch it. We came out of there with very soft hands. Nearby I saw a woman doing a spinning demonstration using the same Ashford wheel I have at home, though my wheel is still in pieces in the box so not nearly as effective as hers. Turns out she lives very nearby, and gives spinning lessons. I'm going to call you, Sarah!

We also spent a few minutes watching a blacksmithing demonstration. My boys were mesmerized, especially Charlie, who later came home and found a hammer with which he flattened one of my teaspoons and also smashed apart the stone ledge outside of the kitchen window. So we had two blacksmithing demos that day. 

The Gloucestershire Young Farmers Club had a tent on site, though I was a little disappointed that they couldn't rustle up a live animal for their hands on milking demonstration. I mean, I didn't really need to leave Brooklyn for my kids to milk wooden cows. But we put our names on their email list anyhow. 

Have you been to any county fairs lately? If so, I'd love to see your pics, so please share links in the comments section below. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Canning Is Not My Strong Suit

In an effort to build up our winter stores with locally grown, seasonal produce that I'm trying not to buy out of season anymore, I've started canning. As Alana Chernila writes in my new favorite book, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making: "Like so many other useful skills, canning was once just something that people knew how to do...It wasn't so much a craft or a choice-was simply necessary". Its meant to be pretty simple. And yet I find that, like baking, I just can't seem to get the hang of it.

For instance.
Don't these pickles look amazing? I spent a decade living in Brooklyn, so I think I assumed that artisanal pickle making would be second nature to me. I was so wrong. Though I followed the recipe to the letter (sort of; I couldn't find the cucumbers suggested in the book, and was warned against substitutions) something went wrong. One setback was in my water bath, wherein only one of my jars sealed properly. The rest I put into the refrigerator, with plans to eat them in the coming weeks. My kids love pickles, so I think this shouldn't be a problem. After a week of letting them cure, I opened a jar, tasted one pickle, then pulled the rest out and put them in the pig food bucket. They were not delicious, but rather tasted of bad vinegar. 
 Perhaps the fact that I lacked a proper canning rack to put my jars in played a part? Since I had a hard time finding one, I looked online and took someone's suggestion that a dishtowel at the bottom of the pot would work. But it didn't for me, as the water just never really came to a roiling boil this way.
 My next project was fig jam. My sister in law has a fig tree which she kindly allows me to pillage whenever I like, which lately has been a lot. After my tea towel in the pot debacle I managed to find a round cake cooling rack, and used that instead. It worked pretty well, though my jars still didn't produce that satisfying ping sound which indicated the vacuum seal has been formed. Again, that only means the jam had to be refrigerated and eaten within the next few weeks. I gave the first jar to my sister in law, who loved it. This recipe came from another book I'm trying out right now: Marisa McClellan's Food in Jars.
 I also attempted, but didn't photograph, oven canning, which a whole bunch of online canners swore by. This is where you sterilize and seal your jars in a hot oven rather that in a water bath. It was a disaster. I had the heat up a little too high, and the jam bubbled out of the jars and oozed all down the sides. So those weren't sealed at all. Now I have a LOT of fig jam that needs eating in the next few weeks. Luckily I love it, so I might succeed.
Smaller jars are better than super big ones, like the pint jars of green gage jam I made (see top photo). Even if the seal doesn't work out (and I'm sure for those less culinary challenged folks the seal isn't such a problem), a small jar of jam can be eaten in short order without fear of spoiling.

My final Pete Tong moment was with the aforementioned green gage jam, which is so unbelievably sweet and cloying that even I can't eat it. I used a type of sugar that read "Jam Sugar" on the bag, and the crystals were gigantic. Since I don't know one type of sugar from the next I figured it was the right kind, but I think as its so chunky I could've used half the amount called for in the recipe.

Before I abandon canning completely, I still have a lot of beets, french beans and cabbage that I need to do something with. Pickled beets with ginger, dilly beans and kimchi are all on my wish list of foods to make.
 On a more optimistic note, I have learned to make homemade pop tarts with a fair degree of success. This recipe, also from The Homemade Pantry, was pretty foolproof. The problem with the pop tarts is that, like so many delicious things made from scratch, they take too long to make relative to how long it takes to eat them. Fortunately, pop tarts are already a food I no longer buy. But its good to know how to make them, and how to make lots of other basic but delicious stuff like butter, fruit roll ups and "car snacks", aka yummy cereal bars.
The truth about the pop tarts is that only one of my kids actually really likes them, and its not the one shown here. Which just means more for me. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

If You Go Into the Woods Today

There is a mystery maker among us.

Behind our house there are many, many acres of woods where we walk and play. Last winter I started noticing that someone had built what looked shelters or forts here and there. At first I thought there were only two or three, but the further I ventured into the woods, the more of them I saw. At first they were a little creepy; there was a bit of a Blair Witch quality about them, especially amongst winter's skeletal looking trees.
But since those first few sightings I've seen at least eight or ten, and as the seasons changed so did the structures, and they started to evoke a more Andy Goldsworthy kind of vibe. I can't remember where they all are, and haven't always had a phone or camera handy when I've spotted them, but here are a handful:

This last one was shot at dusk with my phone camera, so its not great. But all of them inspire me, and make the woods an even more magical and mysterious place than it already is. I like to imagine the maker, stealthily building these forts in the night. It's possible that one day I'll discover who it is-most likely someone local, but part of me hopes that I never do. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

More Reaping What We've Sown

Following my last post, on the fruits of our farmyard labor, is the conclusion of that same subject.


Last spring we bought two pigs, Gloucester old spots which Henry jokingly referred to as Crack and Ling. We explained to our boys at the outset that these animals were for eating, a fact which they seemed oddly unphased by. We never treated them as pets, and when the time came for one of them to go "to market", there were no tears. However a few weeks ago when we had pork chops for supper, Michael met the news that the meat came from our own pig with a very grown up "You're kidding, right?" But he ate it right up.

The meat tasted amazing, and was eaten with more thoughtfulness and appreciation than I typically tend to give my food. I thought about the good life our pig enjoyed; the open, sunny (sometimes) space, the daily food scraps from our table supplemented with organic feed, and the fresh country air. I thought about what she contributed to us not just in terms of bacon, but how she composted our scraps and fertilized our field to prepare it for planting potatoes next spring. I am a little late to the party in finally reading Michael Pollen's excellent book "The Omnivore's Dilemma", but he describes it this way:
In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop-what in retrospect you might call a solution.

The Lambs:

Some of you may remember that back in March I adopted two lambs. Unlike the pigs, these two were treated like babies, bottle fed, cuddled and coddled and given names. Though right now they are about ready to eat, I just can't quite surrender them to the butcher, and neither can my boys. Johnny and Violet will remain pets, but they will earn their keep with annual wool contributions. And sheep, like all ruminants (animals whose amazing stomachs can convert plant matter to protein), are also really great at burying seeds into the ground with their hooves, fertilizing the ground with their, well, fertilizer, and generally keeping our field in great shape.

The fleece in the photo above were given to me by our friend and neighbor Kitty, who has about eighty of her own sheep. Though she sells her wool, she kindly set aside a few fleece for me when she heard that I was interested in learning how to spin it. (I still haven't taken my wheel out of the box, but its high up on my to do list.)

The Chickens:

The chickens have been a mixed bag. I mean, thank you sooo much for all those eggs, ladies. Seriously, I appreciate them. But my chickens are seriously aloof. I was hoping for the kind of chickens I could pick up and stroke, chickens who would run to rather than from me when I came outside. These are not those. Then there is rooster. I'm not a fan.(Though I did find it hysterical when he went through a brief period wherein he tried to attack Henry, and I don't particularly mind all the cock-a-doodle-dooing.) But we wanted chicks. I wanted my kids to see the miracle of the baby birds breaking through the eggs, and for them to be able to hold the sweet fluffy little things in their hands. But when one hen finally went broody, she decided to go rogue and sit on her eggs out in the field somewhere. (What? My chicken house not good enough for you?) She was eaten by a fox. But then a second hen went broody on a huge clutch of eight or nine eggs, hatched a mere two of them the day we went to France for summer vacation, and managed to have two cockerels. Thanks, lady.

Tomorrow we're going to the Moreton Show, which is a huge agricultural fair. Stay tuned for a post on some new chickens. And perhaps a recipe for chicken soup.

Still with me?
Okay, the garden. I'll keep this bit brief.


We ate all of those carrots in pretty short order, but we have a bumper crop of beets and more lettuce than we could eat. We juiced some of our kale, which was pretty tough and fiber-y, and had some delicious green beans. We missed out on most of our purple broccoli because we went to France as it was ready to eat, so we gave it to Tom who helps us with the gardening on Saturdays.

We're still a long way from total self sufficiency here, but we're taking steps in that direction. Maybe we'll never get there completely, but that's okay. We're enjoying our efforts all the same.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reaping What We've Sown

It's been just over a year since my family moved from Brooklyn to England, which, although that can't possibly be right, is true. Also hard to fathom right now is the fact that summer is effectively over, but the facts support that claim, too.  (For instance, the kids are back in school today, hence the reason I have time to write this post.)

What follows is a roundup of what we've harvested this summer from the insects, animals and earth around us. We can't really take credit for most of it. The bumper crop of honey we harvested (see jars above) is obviously all down to those hardworking bees. The raw fleece, which I hope to both spin into yarn as well as make some felt from, is simply the byproduct of some sheep shearing. Even the vegetables from our garden, though we watered and weeded it, are a credit to forces way larger than any of my people. But we're taking up all of these gifts with as much gratitude as possible (all of my boys yesterday, unprompted by me I swear, said "Thank you, bees!" before digging into their chunks of oozing honeycomb after lunch).

Today I'll post about two of the four contributors to our harvest; the bees and the flowers. My next post will cover the animals and the earth.


Henry has proven to be a natural at beekeeping, and his three hives have flourished in this first year. Charlie learned about bees at school last year and has been keen ever since, so he has his own suit and is Henry's very able bodied assistant.
Charlie especially loves smoking the bees. It chillaxes them before we take out the frames to extract the honey.
Those frames are heeeaaavy. Underneath all of those beautiful waxy combs is liquid gold.
Henry demonstrates how a pro slices off the top layer of comb before putting the frames into...
...the extractor bucket. A frame of honey gets stuck into either side of the metal cage. Turning a handle whizzes them around to get the honey out of the comb. Super high tech, very effective.
The extractor bucket has a spout at the bottom so you can pour your honey into jars. This batch is mostly made from oilseed rape blossom, which grow profusely on the farm and look like this:
In late spring the countryside is covered in beautiful swaths of these gold flowers. The seeds are harvested in the fall and pressed into cooking oil. This kind of honey eventually crystallizes and sets into hard white honey. Jake totally turns his nose up at grocery store honey now.


I'm crap at identifying local flora and fauna, but in June I started picking up on the unmistakable scent of chamomile during my runs. I saw all these daisies out in the field, and on closer inspection found out that they were chamomile (which are a type of daisy). The boys helped me harvest a bunch of it, which I dried and put into jars. I don't love chamomile tea to be honest, but I might use it in bath salts or soap making.

Although I did gather some lavender from home, I have to confess that most of my supply this year was gathered in France, where our friends Dave and Rachel have a house lousy with lavender. We collected a LOT of it, and spent an afternoon around the table stripping the flowers from the stems. We carried it around in a pillowcase in the car as we cruised around France for several weeks. Now most of it is in jars in my studio. 

I managed to gather a few rose petals also, which are from my mother in law's garden down the road. Because I don't know much about flowers and plants I stuck to gathering the basics this year. One of my goals for the coming year is to learn a lot more about local and native plants and herbs. My great grandmother knew all about edible and medicinal plants around her native Kentucky, and I want to do the same here. I'll let you know how that goes.