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Month: August 2012

Feeling Strained?

Feeling Strained?

Are you feeling strained?  No?  Well my tomatoes are!  Wait…don’t leave!  Ok, no more tomato puns I promise but I can’t hold back on the many tomato pictures I’m afraid.   After years of dreaming, lusting and coveting, my Roma hand crank strainer is finally here.  I wrestled only briefly with the assembly instructions before whizzing into action, processing a couple of kilos of freshly picked (child labour) tomatoes.

The days (and weeks) of aching arm, wrist and elbow are over, I have entered the hand crank revolution and it is beautiful.  My Roma Sauce Maker and Strainer makes light work of pound after pound of plump, freshly roasted, garden fresh tomatoes.  The cooked tomatoes (or indeed apples) go in, perfectly sieved sauce comes out, leaving behind immaculately crushed skins, cores and seeds.  According to this lady even they can be put to good use, I’ll get back to you on that one.

My magical hand crank machine is so easy that even the children could happily indulge allowing me to label my food ‘child powered’ as well as organic.

The first batch was done by me just to check it was working (no the children didn’t believe me either) but then I bowed to public pressure and let the boys take over while I turned the first batch into their dinner.  A simple tomato sauce with just a few herbs and seasoning over a bowl of pasta, delicious.

A fresh baked bread roll on the side made this about as wholesome a meal as I can think of and the boys thoroughly approved.  Now I am armed with my fabulous sauce making machine the field of rapidly ripening tomatoes no longer fills me with fear; me and my smooth, hand crank technology will defeat the red terror and then we will…you know…can it and stuff.

Vive la happy elbows!

Guardian

Guardian

Sometimes I feel confused about my role in life.  I am a mother, teacher, partner, farmer, cleaner, organiser, friend, disciplinarian and lover of pigs.  In any one day it is easy to feel pulled in many directions.  Particularly when it comes to deciding what is right for the boys.  Which curriculum choice is the best?  Should we focus on reading skills or just snuggle with a story?  Am I failing them when I don’t live up to what is in my mind’s eye?  Is it possible to ever get it right?

I was thinking about some of these things in the car the other night as I returned home after my yoga class, when I hear a song on the radio.  Trust Alanis Morissette to come up with such a stirring yet moving song.  Her words seemed to capture exactly the fierce protectiveness I feel towards my boys, the strength I feel when it comes to putting myself between them and harms way, the sacred task handed to every mother as she tries to guide her child through the world of material, spiritual, intellectual and emotional choices and experiences.

I may not get it right all the time but I do know that when it comes to love, I am unfailing.  If they are threatened I will protect them, my role is simply to keep them safe shelter them as they get on with the important business of growing up and finding out who they are.

So enjoy a bit of kick botty songstress, mother and all round poet Alanis, as you go about your day.  She speaks for all us parents I think, she certainly speaks for me.

I’ll be your keeper for life as your guardian

I’ll be your warrior of care your first warden

I’ll be your angel on call, I’ll be on demand

The greatest honor of all, as your guardian.

Alanis Morissette Guardian

Farm Tour

Farm Tour

For anyone who hasn’t been out here for a while (or at all!) I thought I’d do a bit of a tour to give you an idea of what we are up to every day.  First I’d like to introduce our meat birds:

These chaps came to us as chicks in July and have been growing fast ever since.  They are a commercial breed called Cornish Cross and they are designed to grow quickly and put meat on the breast.  They are not the most good looking creatures as they are basically programmed to eat as much as possible and grow as quickly as possible.  We have them on pasture which is providing them with an open environment and pasture to graze on.  They are quite sedentary, especially compared to our layers, so we move their shelter regularly to encourage them onto new grass.  Our snazzy new electric fence means we can move them, and subsequent flocks, easily onto new pasture.  Electric fencing and organic farming really go hand in hand!

The veggie garden is yielding beautifully and enjoying the milder temperatures and occasional rainy days more than the drought like conditions of July and early August.  The boys really enjoy the harvesting process and it is a good way of teaching Neirin his colours, the difference, for example between red and green.  Ahem.

The tomatoes are definitely dominating our harvest right now but we are also getting squash, carrots, chard, kale and beets.  We have turnips growing for the pigs and we’re watching our cabbages intently as they begin to slowly find their shape.  Our acorn squashes are growing beautifully and we are dreaming greedily of roasted squash filled with cream and cheese in the fall.  I need to get myself moving and plant a few rows of winter spinach, especially as we’re hearing that this fall with be especially mild.

The chicken coop is probably the place we visit the most.  We sell eggs to friends and Huwyl earns a little share by collecting eggs through the day.  We have a couple of chickens who’ve turned carnivore (eating eggs) so we are collecting them every couple of hours to get them out of harms way.  This is still the favourite activity of visiting friends, I love the awe that children experience when they hold a warm egg in their hand for the first time.  Chicken bottom warm as I call it.  Even Neirin is beginning to understand (most of the time) that the eggs must be handled carefully.  Each one feels like a little treasure to me.

The pigs continue to be a joy.  Their favourite pursuit is still wallowing in their self made spa mud baths.  They are such affectionate creatures, they love nothing more than a good scratch behind the ears and a good back rub.  I admit to being trepidatious about them leaving us in October, but that is why we are raising them and next year there will be new piglets on new pasture.  For now I fill the wallows every day and enjoy watching them lolling about in the shade.

The bees are doing their thing, though we are leaving them alone a little as one of the hives went rogue recently and the queen was replaced (read Stephen’s account of that on his blog), we’re getting some help from our neighbour taking the honey harvest this year and we are waiting nervously for the nod from him that it is time.  I’m thinking it’ll be in the next week or so, giving the bees time to build up their stores for the winter.

So that’s us, that’s how we spend our days.  Pigs, chickens and talk of meat bird transportation and trailer tow bars over night time cups of tea.  It’s all consuming and all providing.  We love it and hope you’ll get the chance to visit us soon.

Haytastic

Haytastic

Despite July-like temperatures this weekend, Stephen had to bring in the hay.  It has been ‘resting’ in the fields while we got on with our other work but the task could wait no longer.

It’s hard to explain exactly why having a huge stack of hay feels so wonderful.  Maybe it’s the feeling of self sufficiency, like having endless jars of jam in the larder, I know we can make it through.  But I think it is more than that.  It’s the fact that last year the house wasn’t even built, there hasn’t been electricity on this land for a full 12 months and yet, here we are.  Bushels of potatoes stored, a year’s worth of onions, crops ripening ready for harvest and a more hay than we know what to do with.

I think the real thing is that it all happened because of one very hard working chap.

Come rain, shine or (as was the case this summer) bloody boiling heat, Stephen has been out there working.  He created a veg garden out of nothing, worked out how electric fences worked, carries endless bags of feed around and a million other tasks that mean weekends are work time not chill time.  Oh and there is the time before and after his full time job.  Yep, he’s a farmer alright.

So I’m very grateful for the massive hay pile we now have, more than enough to keep our animals cosy until next year’s harvest; but I’m more grateful for the man who brought it in.

Drifting

Drifting

This summer I promised myself a break.  Last year we built a house and this year we’ve been working on the farm in what seems like every spare moment.  Our weekends are dominated by farm work so I’ve tried to compensate by letting our weekdays drift.

Not all rules have gone by the wayside, tv is still limited to certain times as is i-pad time.  We eat at regular intervals and have predictable evenings and bedtime routines, the times may slide a bit in favour of cooling our bodies at the swimming pool or hanging out in the vegetable garden a bit longer, but a pattern still exists and stops life descending into chaos.

You don’t have to look far for information on how much is ‘lost’ over the summer as academics slide away and children spend their time on fun and play.  There are statistics on how much data escapes their brains, leaking away out of their ears, making the transition back to school so much harder.  Valid concerns for sure.

But this year I’ve taken a different perspective.  After several years of driven activity of one sort or another, I’ve been happy to take a break from the fast lane.  Our summer report will certainly not have an ‘A’ for achievement but I think something more important has taken place.  We’ve rested our minds and bodies, truly taken a break from academic work and allowed the days to slip by without any great ticks on our to do list.  While we’ve had some fun, embarked on some projects and games as the mood has taken us, we’ve steered clear of anything too structured or taxing.

Unstructured days are not without their problems.  Siblings bicker more without focused activities to keep them occupied, sometimes it is easier to provide them with something to do rather than mediate all the time.  The days can end up merging a little and the less fun domestic tasks end up being the focus of the day because there is nothing more pressing to set them aside for.

But as the summer has gone on I’ve noticed a few things.  The boys have become firmer friends, playing more complex games for longer periods of time.  They’ve also found little grooves of time in which to play independently, working on their own ‘projects’ for a while.  Neirin’s attention span has extended to allow for complex play dough landscapes mixed with playmobil and anything else on hand.  Huwyl’s reading has steadily improved, he now attempts to read anything he sees when we are out and about and can be regularly found with a book or annual; he’s even taken to reading stories to his little brother on occasion!  Neirin has begun to recognise  numbers and can now count up to 11 or 12 easily and recognises individual numerals.  All without formal instruction.

It makes me wonder if this period of down time, this drifting time in which our brains can slip into neutral for a while, is really very necessary.  While the boys haven’t done formal school they have learned to use their bodies with more confidence, can dive and swim underwater, climb on tall hay bales….and I’m sure a million things I haven’t noticed.  And for me this has been a time to recuperate a little, release myself from the demands of a specific schedule and time frame.

In a couple of weeks we’ll be starting school again, this year (for the first time) I will be schooling both boys.  I’ve got all our resources sorted out, I know roughly what we’ll be doing on each day and how we’ll be fitting our new extra curricular fun in.  Unlike my feelings in June I’m actually excited about starting, I’m looking forward to the mental challenge of mixing preschool and grade 2.  The time off has given my brain a rest but it is starting to rise from it’s slumber and stretch a little.

But for now I’m happy to drift for a little longer.  A couple more weeks of tomato collecting, pool visits, sofa lounging and field meanderings.  Sounds good to me.

Making A Garden

Making A Garden

Something that has been lacking in our world of farm making and house creation has been a simple garden.  The fields we bought have never (to our knowledge) had a house on them so there was no established infrastructure, nothing to define the space.  In terms of house building this is a wonderful boon, we have build the house we wanted, the house that perfectly fits our family.  But in terms of the outside space I’ve found it something of a challenge.

Back in the spring we did manage to level and seed an area of lawn, it even got mowed a couple of times, but as the farm got busy the mowing task fell waaaay down the list.  Even if he did have time it is hard to justify 2 hours to mow what is only a small part of the land around the house.  This week we decided to bite the (rather expensive) bullet and bought a garden tractor, a nifty orange beauty that enabled me to turn 3 feet weeds into this,

Now granted we are not going to have any bowls teams turning up begging for the use of it but it is certainly an improvement!  This part is the septic that was never seeded so our ‘lawn’ is in fact just short weeds, but that is better than long weeds!  And while this took an hour to do due to it’s over grown state, this weekend will be a significantly shorter task.  The lawn that we had seeded took only 20 minutes to mow and that was with 3 passes!  So from 2 hours to approximately 10 minutes, that is the kind of time saving I like.  The added bonus is I can do this job, something I wouldn’t even attempt with a regular lawn mower.  I can keep the property neat and tidy and will be using the tractor next year to expand further out into what will become our 3 acre orchard.

While I was mowing I managed to push the weeds back enough to reach this,

I’ve had my eye on this willow tree since last summer as I thought it would be a lovely climbing tree for the boys.  It creates a nice pool of shade around it and is low enough to the ground for them to safely get up themselves.  With a little judicious pruning and sawing of a dried nest of branches surrounding the lower trunk it was transformed from a random tree to climbing heaven.

Watching the boys monkey up that tree, testing their own limits and agility, was sheer joy for me.  This is the kind of experience I had imagined they would have before we even found this land.  Such a simple thing, to reach up for the next branch, to sit in a pool of shade and exult in the cooling breezes the tree offers on a hot day, and yet something so many children never experience.

It is hard work, carving out our home, farm, garden out of nature.  And while I enjoy the natural landscape around us, having gardens surrounding the house, safe places for the boys to play and rest without being scratched or stung or tripped, a bit of breathing space after a busy day, feels so right and so homely.  It might take a bit of taming (and some heavy machinery) but we’ll get there, we’ve already made a good start.

Wildcrafted Plantain Tincture

Wildcrafted Plantain Tincture

Yesterday the boys and I embarked on a bit of a herbology lesson by making our own plantain tincture.  Plantain is a plant readily available in most areas, it is often found on less lush ground, covering it with it’s generous leaves, spikes pushing their way defiantly out of the clump.  Like many ubiquitous plants (often called weeds) it has great healing properties and has the added benefit of being free!

Plantain is an astringent so helps with skin related problems such as bites, scratches or blemishes.  A crushed leaf can help with a bite but the tincture is more concentrated and has the added benefit of apple cider vinegar which has it’s own beneficial properties (and can also be made at home).  As an astringent (meaning something that draws together or tightens) it is a useful tea for loose bowels, avoid using the seed pods though unless you want to opposite affect!  I initially saw this project here, and I thought it would be a great project for Huwyl to do almost independently.  This is how we went about it.

First I showed Huwyl pictures of the plantain, he knew immediately where to find it and went dashing off only to return with a massive bunch of perfectly identified leaves!  He washed them and we let them rest for a few minutes while he watched this video on Youtube, it gave an overview of the whole project but was short and to the point.  I had already set up what he would need so he could get started right away.

A mezze luna isn’t a strictly necessary tool, you can use an ordinary knife to chop or even shred the leaf with your hands.  The key thing is to break up the leaf so that the properties are released into the tincture.  I do love this tool for working in the kitchen with children though, I wouldn’t give it to Neirin to use unless I was holding it too but Huwyl is more than capable of using it to cut up medicinal or cooking herbs.  For Neirin I used a crinkle cutter than I picked up in a thrift store when Huwyl was about the same age, it gave him the chance to be safely involved and we thorough enjoyed working together while Huwyl worked independently.

I used a jam sized jar as I didn’t want the project to take too long, but honestly I think the boys would have happily chopped twice as much!  Huwyl had to do a second run outside to get extra leaves and I’d estimate it took about 8-10 good sized leaves to fill the jar.  We didn’t crush the leaves to really pack it down but we did fill it as much as we could before we added the apple cider vinegar.

The plantain leaves need to be covered with the vinegar to avoid mould and spoiling, this might be something you’ll need to top up over the time the tincture steeps.  This tincture needs to sit in a dark cupboard for six weeks and be shaken twice a day , if it looks as though the liquid level is below the leaves then top it up and give it a good shake to blend with the tinctured vinegar.

If you are looking to do this project yourself here is a quick list of what you’ll need and how to do it:

Plantain leaves (collect big green leaves that look full of life!)

A clean jam jar with a lid that will close tightly

Apple cider vinegar.  You will need a live vinegar such as Bragg’sin order to create a proper tincture, you will recognise a live vinegar as it has a sediment (called the ‘mother’ in the bottom) and it should be organic.

1. Chop or shred leaves (you could also bruise them with a rolling pin to release even more goodness)

2. Pack them into your clean jar, get as much in as you can without it spilling over the top.

3. Fill with vinegar.

4. Leave in a dark cupboard for 6 weeks, shake twice a day. I put  a label on ours with the start date and the date it will be ready so that we don’t forget!

5. Decant by pouring into a sieve lined with cheesecloth, squeeze out as much liquid as you can.  Put the liquid in a clean jar or bottle and keep in the fridge.  You can use this tincture for cuts, scrapes, bites or blemishes, it can also be used as a skin toner but don’t use if you will be out in the sun or if you have very dry skin as vinegar and plantain are astringent.

While this project isn’t immediate gratification (no bad thing!) it does help to demonstrate to our children that good health isn’t something that comes out of a pharmacy or a pill box.  We have access to so much goodness all around us, in hedgerows, on playgrounds or in your own garden.  As well as being free this kind of herbalism is accessible to even young children, I can’t think of a better gift to give them!

If you are looking to continue sharing herbal knowledge with your children I’d highly recommend the wonderful game Wildcraft!   It’s one of our favourites.

Busy Bees

Busy Bees

This morning was the ultimate combination of sunny and fresh.  The blue sky beamed down benevolently as the sun warmed our skin, still warm enough to feel luxuriously cuddled but not so warm as to feel boiled and baked.

Perfection.

We headed out for a field walk, exploring trees, bushes and hedges along our route.  As we came down into bottom field there lay a gloriously large swathe of bird foot trefoil, impossibly yellow, scenting the August air with sweetness.  As we got closer I noticed that we were surrounded by the buzzing of bees, looking closer we had the chance to observe them about their work.  In and out of flowers they went, collecting, moving on, collecting, moving on.  We crouched down for a while and watched them, they seemed oblivious to us as the darted in and out of the sunflower yellow flowers.

Oh those bees.  So fluffy you want to squeeze them (but resist on account of either killing them or being stung really hard), buzzing about doing all their work creating that amber wonder liquid that is honey.  I have a love affair with honey that has been progressing for many years, I love all textures, tastes and variations of it.  I know from experience that the kind of flowers the bees collect from heavily influences the taste of the honey.  Well I know for sure that bird foot trefoil is in the mix, as is the golden rod growing everywhere right now.

Yellow seems to be a favourite colour of those nectar loving critters.  Collect away my bee friends, we’ll be sharing the bounty before we wrap you up tight for winter.  I hope, as I ladle honey into my tea in the cold winter to come, that I can taste this sweet August day in the mix.

Abundance

Abundance

Everywhere I look at the moment I see abundance.  In the garden, the kitchen and in everyday life.  The boys are full of beans and beginning to gain confidence exploring outside; the bouquet’s of flowers are changing with the seasons and reflect their journeys to different corners of the fields.  My basket contains not just eggs and salad, which we’ve had in abundance for a few months, but now the glowing red globes are starting to make their presence felt.  And the courgettes (or zucchini as they are also known) are flying out of the ground faster than we can find ways to cook them.

Last weekend Stephen brought in 2 1/2 large sacks of potatoes from the vegetable garden, we feasted on them all week delighted by our golden bounty.  When Neirin was out with him he called it ‘digging for potato treasure’, that is just how it feels when one of those pale ovals emerges from the dark brown soil.

This week gold is replaced with ruby as the tomatoes take over, each vine has orange or bright red fruit mixed in with the green, all ripening under a blue August sky.  The breezes are softer and cooler than they were last month, making the harvesting feel like a holiday rather than a chore.  The hard slog that Stephen put in during the boiling months of summer is coming to fruition in the most tangible, and edible, way.  I feel so lucky to be surrounded by the fruits of our labour, so content to exist within this little oasis of loveliness.

Tomato Season

Tomato Season

First of all, thank you for all the kind and thoughtful comments on my last post.  It probably seems like I’m about ready to jump under a bus but honestly that isn’t true!  I think I just needed to vent, get the self pity out of my system before dusting myself off and moving on.  Sometimes a good complain can do the world of good!  Thanks for indulging me.

Second of all…

The first batch of tomato passata has been made, new pyrex dishes have been purchased and I’m eyeing this bad boy with an mind to setting aside my seive and wooden spoon this year in favour of crank technology.

My goal is to have a year’s worth of tomatoes in the cupboard, don’t know if I’ll make it but I’ll give it my best shot.  I know by the end of the month I’ll probably never want to see another tomato but right now I’m so excited to have an oven full of these home grown beauties!  Passata, ketchup, canned tomatoes, fresh quiches, stir fry, bolognese….

The tomatoes have arrived!

To make Roasted Tomato Passata a la River Cottage

Halve tomatoes and place on a baking sheet or glass pyrex dish with garlic and any herbs you have lying around (thyme, basil & oregano all work well).

Roast in the oven 400f/200c for 45 minutes.

Pass through a sieve/food mill to remove skin and seeds. 

To preserve bring the sauce to boiling then pour into sterilised jars or bottles, tip the jar/bottle while still very hot to make sure the exposed glass is very sterile then store in a cool, dark cupboard.  

Happy preserving!