29th April 2013 – Seed Time

Digging dandelion roots last Friday in the cold and rain, the soil was perceivable warm – at last I can sow my carrot seeds in the garden and make a start on beans, squashes and courgettes in the green house to be planted out later. The temptation, especially when the season is so late,  is to sow as soon as the warm weather arrives, but painful experience has taught me that it takes time for the sun to work her fingers into the frigid ground. Less delicate crops such as peas and broad beans are just emerging and my experimental planting of salad crops between the ridged up potatoes also seems to be going well.

Early yesterday I walked down to the lake to gather reed mace shoots and once again the gift of warmth, bestowed upon us by the sun was in sublime evidence. Rising from the lake were vast billows of steam which hung in the frosted air, smudging the first rays into pastel hues which set  the shrouded copse aglow.

Steadily the hens are going broody, and they are secreted here and there sitting patiently on goose, turkey and chicken eggs. Hatching under broodys is my preferred method as they require no electricity and can do the job better than any machine.

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25th April – First BBQ, Last Practice

Determined not to make the mistake of last year and wait for ‘summer’ to arrive before doing some al fresco cooking and dining, I seized the moment of warmth last night (which with our climate might be all we get) and put some duck breasts on the BBQ. I use the expression BBQ in the loosest possible sense.  It is a brick construction along the lines of a chiminea covered in a daub of clay and pig hair (a by-product of pig scalding) much of which has come away during the winter. Thankfully Gabriel is about as concerned with aesthetics as I am and we had a great time kindling the fire and grilling a bit of meat.  My little helper really got into the swing of things, loudly proclaiming ‘more stick’ at regular intervals, before rushing off  into the wood for  fuel. He certainly enjoys a blaze and I can see an avid fire prodder (as I was) in the making.

Once stick boy had been herded to the table our simple diner of Aylesbury duck breasts marinated in plum dipping sauce and served with stir fried wild garlic and broccoli tasted good, the experience seasoned with the ‘tack tack’ and lyric line of black caps in the trees around us. Under Gabriel’ s supervision the meat was cooked to a turn, pink but not a massacre, just as it should be.

The final morris dancing practice before May Day was last night and there was much talk of the lack of may (hawthorn) blossom, with which we normally adorn our hats, or in my case bonnet. In years past we have resorted to black thorn, but even that being out looks doubtful for the official start of this summer.

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Ground Ivy – Flavour of the Month

I’m not claiming that ground ivy is, or even should be the most popular wild herb, but it certainly deserves more attention than it gets. Over the years I’ve fallen in love with this  creeping plant of the woodland fringe and plan to start making more of it. I’m not keen on it  in a culinary setting, but for me it makes the best herbal tea that the Kent country store cupboard has to offer. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but isn’t that the mark of any quality or genius? Think Parmesan cheese, think Stravinsky (not something you are often required to consider  simultaneously). The ‘don’t like it,’camp taste bitterness and metallic overtones, I and other admirers experience notes of mint, sage and something elusive all of its own, bundled  into a refreshing mouthful which can be rivaled by little else. I often take it green, just steeped in boiling water, but now I’m drying it in quantity to last the winter and to mix with lemon balm, mint and whatever else comes to hand.

Ground Ivy

My favourite quote in connection with the pervasive scent of ground ivy came from a man on one of my courses. ‘That is the smell of catching frogs’. An apparently random statement, but expanding on it, the chap explained that as a child he and his brother would often hunt for frogs along a wooded stream. The smell of the bitter herb bought the memory flooding back and he realized that the amphibians must often have been hiding among  ground ivy, though of course he thought nothing of it at the time.

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Spring Arrives (in time for Summer)

Primrose is out. Not only the delicate yellow blooms which punctuate the lane side verges, but also our beautiful, delicate baby daughter. She arrived on good Friday and life has once again been turned upside down and shaken vigorously, in the most fantastic way.

 

As May day approaches I am reminded how late the Spring is this year. Many plants are nearly a month behind where they would normally be, something I am acutely aware of, as my spring foraging courses have been running since the snowy days of late March! Lady’s smock, that elegant mistress of the early wayside has just begun to flower and this year I’m drying a few bunches to grind and use as seasoning. The small fern like leaves and slender stems are so peppery, that many course members liken the taste to horse radish.

Although  sprouting broccoli  and a bit of early salad is available from the garden, veg is in short supply and most days I am off to the fields and woods to gather ingredients. The highlight was perhaps a couple of brown trout taken from the local stream and fried with some of the wild garlic which grows along its banks. In that humble yet delicious meal lay the essence of the simple life and it satisfied the soul every bit as much as it did the stomach. Jack by the hedge, nettles, sorrel and garlic as well as many other plants are entering the house by the sack full and soup is always a quick and easy form of preparation. Our two year old son who has a healthy boy like suspicion of any green leaf, can’t get enough of an emerald bowl of wild greens soup – a mystery.

 

 

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25th February 2013 – The Month in Pictures

Nothing encourages a man to disseminate his experiences to the world like buying a new rabbit! So here I am adding to my much neglected blog, proud new owner of one very large  British Giant doe. She was going for a song at last Saturday’s poultry/small livestock auction, which on the face of it seems great, but as the eighteen lots I was selling went equally cheap,the event was in fact a disaster. The first auction is always a gamble – if the weather has been warm and Spring-like as it was last year, everyone is out buying, but if a wintery feel prevails no one wants poultry in their muddy gardens and pens. The driving snow and bitter winds which had punters and dealers alike shivering over polystyrene cups of warm coffee typified the recent weather and the consequences were inevitable.

'Who are you calling big ears?'

I can’t hope to catch up on everything, so considering what is said about pictures, here are a few to save  several thousand words:

My skills as a hedge layer have been in much demand this season and my last job ended earlier this month.

Before

 

After

Pig killing took place a couple of weeks back. The hams are still curing (though I doubt they’ll ever recover), streaky bacon is salted, smoked and ready and the back bacon is drying ready to smoke. The pork and leek sausages proved a great success.

Chris and I scald a pig to loosen the hairs

 

Scraping, to remove hairs and first layer of skin.

Gabriel keeps an eye on the progress.

The weather is uninspiring to put it mildly, but miraculously, in my glass covered tyre cloches some early salad crops have managed to germinate and there is the hope of spring, despite the freezing temperatures.

Radish seedligs

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22nd January 2013 – Snow

As with most parts of the country we are still covered in snow and the cold which spreads fans of ice crystals across the thin cottage window panes draws animals from the wood in search of food and shelter. Wood pigeons clatter from the dark leaved ivy each time the door is opened – they have been searching out the black berries to fill their crops –  and yesterday a movement up in the shed rafters, which I took for a rat turned out to be a weasel. A few days earlier I had watched him emerge from a hole on the lawn, look about, duck back in and re-emerge with a dead vole which he carted off to the wood pile. Guests which eat rodents are very welcome, others less so, such as the fox I discovered sniffing about the chicken pen. He was a fine beast laid out in the snow, dark and glossy with a splendid white tipped brush.

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11th January 2013 – Mucky Business

There is nothing like starting the New Year to bring one’s attention to those things which hitherto have seemed too far in the future to worry about. The new vegetable growing season will be with us before too long, starting with early sowings of tomatoes and salad leaves under glass (or in the airing cupboard) in February and the several tonnes of manure ready for spreading on the beds is ….. you guessed it still  ready for spreading on the beds. Between us Em and I have made a start, but there are still many hours of weeding and muck spreading ahead before the annual fertilizing is complete.

Tip of the iceburg (well cavolo nero really)

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9th January 2013 – Two Woodcock

What happened to winter?  I can barely lift a finger outside without stripping off layers of clothes, the dark green hearts of wild arum leaves are unfurling in the woodland, Butterbur stands in full bloom along  the verges and on the lawn, snowdrop buds are splitting to reveal streaks of white petal.   I have recently decided that there are few things more tedious than for ever commenting on the weather and yet it is hard not to when things feel so unseasonal.

I have managed a respectable amount of shooting this season and my latest foray was a rough day out with B, H, my father and a few others.  Up to now woodcock have been scarce, but 6 came to bag yesterday and many more eluded us.  My first woodcock came as I was flushing teal from an old marl pit turned pond. The ducks long gone, I was watching Treacle working a dense thicket of bramble when up went the cry from B who had put a cock up from across the water. Making away at first with customary flitting flight, the little bird turned before the forward guns and headed straight back along the long narrow pond. Without much time to think I swung through and let loose a shot before my barrels were stopped by an ancient oak. Up went the head and tapering beak and glancing behind the tree I saw my first woodcock of the season fall amongst the knotted boughs of a fallen willow.

The second cock was an easy shot as it veered from my father straight over my head.  Hit mid pattern it crumpled and nearly fell at my feet.   Such a shot as this at our most elusive of game birds is a rarity and in honesty I did not relish taking that splendid bird in such fashion.

The winter nellis pears, picked in September, are nearly over and I put a last batch on for drying this evening to save them rotting and being wasted.

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19th December 2012 – Bagging Blondie

My perseverance has paid off and on only my second visit to the marsh I’ve managed to bag a boar! Not a large one admittedly, but a well grown youngster and like one of last year’s – totally white. Theories are divided as to the presence of white boar in England, some sighting natural variation ,others wild animals having interbred  with domestic pigs at some point.

It wasn’t a particularly exciting event I must confess, although one is always struck with a little ‘buck fever’ (as our American friends term it)when the pray is sighted and the adrenalin kicks in. This must be a feeling that hundreds of generations of hunters have felt before me.  In times past, a surge of nervous energy must have  very useful, as to kill a large animal by hand and on foot would have taken a huge amount of the strength and stamina, now sadly it just makes the aim a little shaky.

After dozing for half an hour in the comfort of my farmer friend’s four by four parked by the rail tracks , I was rudely awakened by the small diesel train which traverses the flat marsh land. The sun was setting and again I watched as the harriers hawked and ducks mustered to feed, until I could see no more. Then, as my thoughts turned to home, a sound came from the gloom of the reed bed before me. The unmistakable noise of powerful animals pushing through the dry stems which cracked and crackled like an igniting fire. I strained my eyes and even scanned the the field edge with the scope, but the light was gone and expecting to see startled boar taking flight, I turned on the spot light. Lit up in a small clearing were  four young  pigs and to my great surprise they utterly ignored the beam upon them and carried on rooting. (Later it occurred to me that they were probably very used to the train head lights). Propping the torch on the dashboard, I followed the nearest animal with my sights and as it turned side on, pulled the cross hairs smoothly to the killing zone and squeezed the trigger. The unleashing of a .308 in darkness is always a little startling, what with the recoil and flash of muzzle flame, but I recovered in time to see the boar drop, then spring into the cover of dense reeds. I knew it was hit well and would be dead in an instant, but as I feared, the blond boar was impossible to spot  amongst the pale  stems of reed, which formed a barrier as tall as myself and twice as thick (which would be very, according to some).

Having made it back to the farmhouse along the exceptionally muddy track, I asked D. to take a look in the morning and confident of a phone call the next day I made my way home. Sure enough, this morning the pig was delivered, having been found close to where I had shot it and so a couple of hours were spent skinning and butchering. The meat which is usable looks excellent (some was lost due to the animal being un-gutted over night) with a decent layer of marble white fat.

Christmas  decorations have gone up and Gabriel is so taken with the tree that it is now kissed good night, even before the dog when he goes to bed.

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11th December 2012 – Not so Boaring

I feel like a child who has broken up from school! The year’s hedge laying is complete and the final course before Christmas took place last Saturday. Actually I take that back, as I recall that I have salmon to smoke tomorrow, logs to cut on Thursday and eighteen Christmas fowl to kill and pluck on Sunday.

The course, a bespoke ferreting day, went swimmingly (not literally as the weather was in fact very kind) with six rabbits taken from two buries at  a local pear orchard before lunch and the participants’ own ferrets having a good run in the afternoon. At one point the action got a little frantic as I threw myself here and there, seizing half netted rabbits and plunging my arm down holes to retrieve others which were back netted. Diana and Chris were on the case as well of course, but when it comes to lunging headlong into bramble patches, I always feel I should lead the way.

Gabriel helps with the catch.

The latest bout of hedge laying was a gruelling affair, but after five days hard graft, the last one accompanied by my father, both stretches of garden hedge were beaten into submission and some kind of order. I have never known hedges so entangled, old hawthorn ‘birds nested’ from years of cutting to the same height and twenty foot hazel, knotted up with trailing holly growing like Medusa’s hairdo through the straight stems in search of light.

Section of layed beech

 

Smoked Father!

 

The weather has turned cold and clear and this afternoon I had the privilege to witness a perfect sunset on the flatlands of Romney Marsh, as I waited for boar by a reed bed, where last year I shot three in one evening. On such a bright day, so near the equinox,  the transition between day and night is rapid and dramatic. On arrival the sun, low in the sky but still brilliant looked out over an idyllic scene. The downy seed heads of the reed, all leaning south as though swept by a great North wind, seemed pale as frosted grass with the light behind them whilst about their shady stems pheasants, truly wild marsh birds, milled about in search of a final morsel before roosting. Beyond the dyke, mute swans cropped the abundant rape and ever so often the rhythmic, rasping whistle of air forced through colossal pinions  caused me to look up and observe their coming and going. Back towards Appledore the dark outcrop of land, which centuries ago marked the old coast line, warmed with orange tones in the failing light.  It must have been a full mile away but still the gappy hawthorn hedge at it’s brow, half cut and half left, was as bold as  the battlements on a castle wall.

Soon the sun was gone behind the distant buildings of Rye and whilst the streaks of mauve and orange settled to a single line of smouldering light on the horizon, the frost began to bite and the marsh awaken from the idle slumber of day. Where the swans still grazed on the neighbouring  crop, the dark form of a fox stole through the foliage.  Before me the pheasants, quitting their cover took to the stunted hawthornes by the rail track, watched by a pair of marsh harriers which patrolled the darkening swathe of reeds in perfect silence. Far away a cormorant, its grace in flying reserved for below water, plummeted clumsily from the sky into a sturdy looking oak and I watched for a while as the bird rode up and down on the flexing bough, until the whirring of the first ducks took away my attention. Silhouetted against the western sky, team after team of mallard, teal and shoveller emerged from the gloaming and raced over my position towards the main dyke, fed with grain by the farmer. Some day soon there will be a fine evening flight, but this evening no gun shots erupted and long after my eyes had became useless I listened to the music which accompanied the waves of drumming wing beats overhead, that of  whistling and piping, course quacks and bubbling calls which filled the darkness.

I didn’t see a boar, but I shall be back as fresh rootings and tracks point to a resident sow, accompanied by well grown young.

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