Learning how to bring home the bacon

It’s been a great week for the good life. I had a very enjoyable and informative couple of sessions at the Country Living Spring Fair with Francine Raymond and Sara Ward about keeping hens and bees, both with good audiences keen to ask the experts an array of questions. 

Then James and I prepared the house for his sister Mandy to come and stay so she could look after the chickens, dogs and Beau the Bengal while we headed off to River Cottage HQ – a long-held ambition of ours – on the Devon-Dorset border to attend its Pig in a Day course with eight other novices. Rather than teaching about keeping livestock, as the title might suggest, it involves over seven hours of hands-on butchery and cooking, not to mention the numerous servings of delectable porky treats throughout the day – from scrambled egg with chorizo and a variety of bacon types to prosciutto ham and devilled kidneys, it was a varied and abundant feast.  

Course tutor Steven Lamb (pictured with our fellow tutees, above right) inspired us all with his boundless enthusiasm, good humour and seemingly inexhaustible patience! We learned how to deconstruct the carcass of half a pig – which was laid out on the butcher’s block at the front of the class when we arrived – into a variety of cuts. Plus, discovered the best ways to make a range of foods including dry-cured bacon and hams, liver pate and sausages. There was also plenty of time to enjoy the view from the cookery school – and watch the lambs being born just beyond the window – as well as visit the Oxford Sandy & Black weaners (below) who enjoyed a pat and scratch behind the ears at lunch time. All in all an uplifting and inspiring day. 

Yesterday, I delivered all the bacon that we collected from our farm shop-cum-butcher to very appreciative colleagues at Country Living HQ who were delighted with their rashers ready for the weekend. It’s hugely satisfying to feed so many people with the meat of our own home-raised pigs – and to be told how tasty it is! Now, James and I are raring to go and practise our new-found skills – and save more than £350 on butcher’s costs next time we raise some pigs to boot.


Eggs, eggs, glorious eggs

Production has stepped up tremendously in the nest boxes at the Smallholdings this week. The previously work-shy black Araucanas continue to yield their precious pale-blue offerings, the reliable brown hybrids never fail to impress us with their conscientious, regular deliveries, and both the Ixworths are laying every day. Though, we’ve had words with those two over a bullying incident – James caught them chasing and attacking the White Star (pictured above, far right), a retired lady who, in her prime, knocked out some beautiful snowy-hued numbers. They seemed to have pecked at her very impressive comb, which bled as a consequence. All rather unpleasant, so James isolated the two perpetrators to allow the victim to recover and I’m pleased to report that she’s been scratching about happily in the garden since.To conclude, I’m afraid I can’t resist another shameless plug for the panel sessions I’ll be taking tomorrow at the Country Living Spring Fair in Islington’s Business Design Centre with experts Francine Raymond of The Kitchen Garden and Sara Ward of Hen Corner. They will be ready to answer any questions about keeping chickens and bees at 12pm and again at 2.15pm. The session is free to all Fair visitors. For information about opening times, tickets and what else you can see and do at the Fair, see countrylivingfair.com

Happy weekends all.

Big Jeff and his harem 

He’s a handsome devil is our Jeff and a big hit with the ladies. Now spring is most definitely in the air, he’s wasting no time in paying his attentions to every hen on the plot. Starting as early as 6am, when it’s now gloriously light, and concluding with dusk around 12 hours later, he has a full 12 hours of amorous activity. The flock behave quite differently now he’s ruling the roost, too – there seem to be fewer squabbles between the hens and they cluster around the garden together in an orderly fashion. 

There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing them methodically peck and scratch about in the grass en masse. I’ll be talking to Sara Ward of Hen Corner and Francine Raymond of The Kitchen Garden about the pleasures of keeping chickens – and bees – at the Country Living Spring Fair in Islington’s Business Design Centre next Saturday 21 March at 12pm and again at 2.15pm. Why not come along to glean their expert advice and share some of your own tips? We’d love to see you there. 

Bringing home the bacon

20130809-072957.jpgAs much as I miss the presence of the pigs on our plot, there’s still a fair amount of excitement at the Smallholdings on receiving those vast boxes of porcine delights – joints, sausages, tenderloin… James headed to the farm shop-cum-butchers on Saturday morning to load up the car with this sizeable feast. Alison, CL’s Food and Drink Editor, came over with her husband Keith to pick up their half pig’s-worth and seemed delighted with it – arranging the vacuum-packed cuts on our kitchen table and Tweeting the picture below.


I enjoyed playing shop on Monday when I headed up to CL HQ with the vast amount of sausages my colleagues had ordered in tow, temporarily taking over the office fridge. James and I had great fun weighing and pricing them all on Sunday. It seems to fulfil a fundamental human need to produce and sell. Everyone is so appreciative of the fact they can partake in our piggy offerings, which is also rather rewarding. And, at the same time, we are delighted to have our hobby subsidised. Next week, I’ll be delivering the bacon, which we’re collecting tomorrow, though we’ve also one piece of belly that we’ve layered with sea salt and sugar in a box – our first attempt at streaky rashers for home consumption (following Alison’s advice in her fantastic book A Country Cook’s Kitchen).

Perhaps just as pleasing is the fact that our other Araucanas seem to have joined Margot in resuming egg production this week, too. James found a beautiful pale-khaki egg in the large flock’s nesting box, which must be the handiwork of one of our previously non-laying (presumed lazy) black Araucanas (pictured below). And even Audrey, who we thought had retired altogether, has delivered two pale-blue beauties.

So it’s definitely a cooked breakfast for us this Sunday – bring on the homegrown bangers, rashers and eggs.