Fruitful endeavours

Inspired by the urge to grow as much of our own food as possible, I bought a whopper of a fruit cage five years ago. I’m ashamed to say that all 18 x 24 feet of it has lived in the barn ever since. At the time, James and I were still in the midst of renovating our now-nearly-finished home and spending our time furnishing our garden with berries wasn’t very realistic. Consequently, we’ve been seriously lacking in the soft fruit department ever since. So, this autumn I’m determined to make amends and establish this important part of the Smallholdings plot. Not being particularly knowledgeable in this area, though, I called on an expert gardener friend of mine, Lucy Chamberlain, former editor of Grow Your Own magazine and all-round-greenfingered guru to help me plan this not-inconsiderable exciting new space. As usual, Lucy was full of excellent advice – recommending where to site each kind of plant so they get the best possible conditions in our south-east facing garden:  full sun for strawberries; shade for the blackberry and rhubarb.  

Not only this but she reeled off the best varieties to choose, recommending early-, mid- and late-cropping types that would ensure we’re provided for as long as possible. What took her a matter of minutes would have required extensive study and time on my part and I’m hugely grateful. In conclusion, we settled on the following – the cherries will be trained along wires:

Strawberries

10 x Honeoye

10 x Alice

10 x Symphony 

10 x Cirano

Raspberries 

2 x Glen Moy

3 x Tulameen

2 x Leo

4 x Polka

3 x Fallgold

Blackcurrants 

1 x Ben Hope

1 x Big Ben

Redcurrants

2 x Stanza 

Blueberries 

1 x Blue crop 

1 x Herbert

Rhubarb

1 x Livingstone

1 x Early Champagne

Blackberry

1 x Reuben

Cherries

1 x Lapins Cherokee

1 x Sweetheart

Trouble is, not sure I’ve a skill to offer Lucy in return, but a pub lunch is definitely in order. I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting stuck into this new, mouthwatering project when the plants arrive.  

In the meantime, James and I have our work cut out preparing the ground (above) – what better way to spend these sunny autumn days than weeding and digging over a patch of soil? 

 

Jeff and his ladies are enjoying various sunny spots around the garden this week
As we’re yet to test them, perhaps we’ll call on the ploughing capabilities of his vintage tractor… Happy weekend all.

 

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.

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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.

Araucanas

A porker’s progress

The lone free-ranger Skinny pig
The lone free-ranger Skinny pig

Bully, who should really be known as Skinny pig, is shaping up nicely in his separate bachelor-style pad for one. The fact that he has a meal to himself twice a day – and an extra helping to build him up – means that Porky pig can’t muscle in and eat more than his fair share, denying Bully his rightful ration. In fact, our slimmer Oxford Sandy & Black seems to have come into his own in general. Not only does he appear to be perfectly happy in his own company and is merrily piling on the pounds,  but he has even mustered the strength to turn his ark around 180 degrees, so the opening is directly opposite that of Naughty and Porky. Presumably, so he can keep an eye on their comings and goings. James discovered this on his day off yesterday and filled the newly appointed accommodation with straw, as the previous lot ended up dragged through the mud.

We took a delivery of fresh straw at the weekend – this winter being so wet, we've got through quite a bit
We took another delivery of fresh straw at the weekend – this winter being so wet, we’ve got through quite a bit

He’s filling out well, while Porky is losing a few extra pounds and Naughty is catching up, so it will be just a couple of weeks before the trio are ready for the abattoir. The Oxford Sandy & Blacks have been a joy to keep and we’re very tempted to recruit more for our next miniature herd, but there are so many kinds of pigs out there to try! Still, it seems a little tasteless to discuss such matters just yet, while we still have our lovely trio charging about, so I’ll save that topic for another time. Happy weekends all!

Porky (left) and Naughty are getting on nicely in their plot for two
Porky (left) and Naughty are getting on nicely in their plot for two

 

New digs for the pigs

The tools ready for the job in hand
The tools ready for the job in hand

We should have guessed that our plot to move Porky Pig into a separate area in the run wouldn’t quite go according to plan… On Saturday afternoon, we set to work sectioning off a portion of the land with posts about two thirds of way down its length. As we already had stock fence all around it, only strands of electric wire were necessary to segregate the well-fed porcine creature from his smaller siblings.

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After sliding about in the quagmire-like conditions, James fixed the partition in place. As luck would have it, one of his customers was keen to re-home a small ark: the perfect dwelling for Porky, and James brought it back in a truck from work last Friday. With lashings of straw lining it and providing a veritable welcome mat by the entrance we just needed to perform the simple task of luring said pig into the bachelor-style pad.

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The straw sticks to the mud and pig droppings on James’s boots a treat

However, what we didn’t reckon on was a distinct stubbornness and suspicion on the part of Porky. Not only was he not that peckish – we had drip-fed them during the afternoon in order to avoid getting bitten as we walked around their run – but he seemed to smell a rat. Whenever we shook the jar of pig nuts under his nose in a bid to draw him over to the new dwelling, he stood stock-still and refused to budge. The slimmest of our trio, Bully Pig (can’t help feeling now that this is a misnomer; we judged his nature too early on!), however, scampered in without a hitch – no doubt keen to enjoy a portion of food in the absence of Porky to knock him out of the way.

photo.JPGSo, after a little debate, we decided to settle for the situation – at least it was a chance to fatten up the little guy. James then made a corrugated-iron enclosure off the main gate to the run so he could siphon-off Naughty pig for a cheeky extra portion of food. Seeing that Porky wants to stay put, this has proved quite an easy operation – apart from when, living up to his name, Naughty leapt over the enclosure to explore the garden. Now James keeps him company while he dines so that the escapee doesn’t get the chance to forage further afield once he’s finished his meal. So, hopefully, we’ll have three equally sized porkers by the end of the month.

photo.JPGElsewhere at the Smallholdings, our chicken flock is diminishing, not due to Marek’s disease, which seems to have been killed off by the properly cold weather just before Christmas, but the sheer old age of some of our trusty and productive brown hens. We’re resisting the urge to draft in new girls until the Henmobile launched. Just a few jobs left to do on that, so after the recent distraction of separating the pigs, we’ll be back on the case.

Happy weekends all!

The joy of scrumping

IMG_3952.JPGThe pigs have done very nicely out of the hundreds of apples friends and family members have donated to us over the past few months. The trio have benefitted from at least two each every day (and, ultimately, we believe this also gives their pork a sweet flavour) until the last couple of weeks when supplies have started to dry up and the lower parts of trees are bare of fruit. So when we used James’ work pick-up truck to collect straw from a local farm the other day, he seized the opportunity to drive down a nearby lane and stand on top of the bales to access those otherwise out-of-reach loaded branches. We gathered a fantastic haul – and attracted some startled looks from passers by.

IMG_4404.JPGThe act of scrumping is rather moreish once you start, isn’t it? I suppose it gives us a sense of self-sufficiency and connects us to our ancestors to whom it was common practice. James and I picked up some lovely lengths of holly complete with berries on Sunday for use in our Christmas wreath this weekend and felt a similar enjoyment in the simple activity.

IMG_4418.JPGOdd how some years are great for certain fruits and terrible for others. There was barely a single acorn to give the pigs this autumn, but last year they feasted on them. Curiouser and curiouser. Has anyone else been foraging on behalf of their livestock? Would love to know what other wild foods pigs and chickens enjoy. In the meantime, happy weekends all.

A smallholding spread is served

Without wanting to sound too self-satisfied – am well aware there are many foods we are yet to produce and we’re growing only a fraction of what the garden could yield – I feel as if James and I reached a microholding milestone at the weekend. A big birthday celebration on Sunday for his mother Flo meant that we spent most of Saturday cooking (and attempting to make a very unkempt house vaguely presentable, which involved furious cleaning and moving piles of papers and assorted objects from place to place). But we didn’t have to buy a single piece of meat – despite making Quiche Lorraine, baking 50 sausage rolls, roasting a chicken and slicing a large ham.

20140711-072223-26543239.jpg It was all our home-raised pork and poultry. The pig is a magical animal, as Homer Simpson says, according to CL’s Food and Drink Ed Alison! You can do so much with it. And making a feast of a lunch to serve 11 guests gave us a particularly warm glow. James learned how to use the machine he’d bought some months back to mince shoulder and belly for the sausage rolls which I then made in batches – Tweeting Alison (@CLfoodie) when I noticed a significant amount of oozing from said savouries. Next were the meringues, whisked with our own egg whites, of course – they were turned into Eton Mess when I discovered they were too crumbly to hold up as a pavlova. We finished preparations at around midnight, but our efforts were well rewarded by the appreciative comments of James’s family the next day.

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After consuming a large amount of food, we all headed down to see the chickens – many of whom had contributed to the success of the spread (including our excellent layer Rhodie, below).

20140711-073645-27405626.jpgMuch to the amusement of his relatives, James had his usual cuddle with our young lavender Araucana Jeffrey, who clings onto this hands with his super-soft feet.

20140711-073904-27544070.jpg We also let the four Ixworth cockerels out to range freely around the garden. They’re a comic-looking bunch – having recently developed wonderful tufts at the back of their heads and an ungainly way of walking about.

20140711-080434-29074737.jpg They are also a ticking time bomb in terms of neighbourly relations; the nearest local residents live in a static caravan (with what I imagine are very thin walls) around only 20 foot from the cockerel coop. One of the boys has been tentatively softly crowing for around six weeks or so, but they are all beginning to join in to the rather tuneless and increasingly loud early morning  call. We might have to think about relocating the flock down the other end of the garden, if we can take the time out to build a house and run. But that won’t be happening this weekend as James is working part of Saturday and then, in the afternoon, we ‘re off to meet – and choose – our Oxford Sandy & Black piglets. Can’t wait to have little porkers running around the plot again!

My Tweets this week

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Gorgeous, fun-loving white hen seeks fellow lady Araucana for a lifetime of companionship and free-ranging

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Following the loss of Mabel last week, Audrey’s been living alone, which is far from ideal, so I’ve begun a search for a hen of her breed with whom she can cohabit. It’s not so much that she could only be with a fellow Araucana, but that – from our limited experience – they are so docile and sweet-natured that we think one of her fellow kind is likely to be the best match. However, I’ve also heard that Silkies have gentle natures and, no doubt, other henkeepers could suggest similar types with which Audrey is likely to have a harmonious friendship (if you have any suggestions, please get in touch). So far, it seems Araucanas are few and far between in our patch. Being Essex-based, I am looking in Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire or Kent, but am beginning to think I need to widen my search. If anyone knows of an Araucana pullet or hen for sale in the area or slightly further afield, please could you let me know? Either by commenting on this blog or Tweeting @CLchick – Audrey and I will be most grateful.

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Audrey (left) and her mate Mabel, who died last week (note German Shepherd Darcy’s legs in the background)

Acquisitions are the theme of the week on the Smallholdings, as we’ve also been plotting our next porcine purchase and will again, introduce the weaners to the smallholding in late summer/autumn when we can feed them plenty of acorns and apples. We’re thinking of buying three, rather than just a pair as we did last time, and trying out two Oxford Sandy & Blacks (OSB) with one Gloucestershire Old Spot. And both happen to be classified as minority types on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist, which is even more reason to keep them. Although we were delighted with the Old Spots and had high praise for their meat, I’m rather smitten with OSBs, affectionately called Plum Pudding pigs – and met some more fine examples at Walnuts Farm (featured in a Country Living series this year) last week – so thought this way we coud do a compare and contrast, both in terms of the animals’ temperament and their meat. I’ve since contacted a breeder nearby who confirmed this morning that he is expecting piglets any day now and invited us to visit once they’re born. Irresistible, no?

An Oxford Sandy & Black piglet
A somewhat portly Oxford Sandy & Black piglet