Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Gallery: Animals

She who would like to be obeyed

Life on a farm is rather ruled by animals. There isn't much we can do without thinking of their needs. I can't just go out for the day without making sure the ponies are fed and watered, that the dogs will be okay, the hens are settled and the sheep are in the correct place*.

One thing I don't have much to do with is cats but when The Boss, aka my mum, is away like today (she's at a family funeral that I can't go to because someone's got to stay to look after the animals) I get to look after the three black farm cats and the one house cat, Calico, pictured.

Calico expects a certain level of care and if the Boss is away Calico is disgruntled. She will vanish on day one of the Boss's absence and then reappear in high dudgeon half an hour before the Boss returns. Once she's given the Boss a dose of haughty ignoring she will then make it quite clear she was not treated in the manner to which she has become accustomed and that my care was severely lacking in the caring department.

It's difficult to look after a cat who just isn't there. I rest my case.

So Calico, who for once is indoors while the Boss is away (I don't think she's realised she's not coming back tonight, yet) is the subject of my The Gallery this week. Pop on over to Sticky Fingers and have a look at the others. 

* As for sheep, on Monday when we were seal-spotting and ice cream eating the flock left the farm en masse and headed down the drive and onto the road. Mum set off in hot pursuit, leaving the gate open should the sheep discover the error of their ways, only to encounter them coming back up from a neighbouring farm's driveway. Mum executed a neat three point turn, managed not to squash any of the sheep in the process and then herded them home in her little Nissan Micra. Who needs a sheep dog or Quad bike? Actually we do, but in the meantime apparently one woman and her Micra is sufficient.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Birthday, Bank Holiday and the Big Bread Bakeathon #3: White

It was my birthday on Sunday. I was 45 and I celebrated by going for a nine mile run, which felt mathematically correct. Then I watched the Belgian Grand Prix happily clutching my birthday presents which included lots of lovely books.

I wonder if all Virgos are the same? All I need on my birthday is a gadget (my new secondhand DSLR), books (on gardening, sewing and food), gift cards (Virgos aren't great with surprises - gift cards are very welcome), something pretty (Cath Kidston plates for cake), sport on the TV (always the Belgian GP), chocolate (Thorntons Viennese truffles) and a glass of wine or two. You can keep your noisy parties thanks. Happy day.

Mr and Mrs Common Blue - ahem - having some private time.

The August Bank Holiday Monday is usually on or around my birthday and this time we were in the fortunate position of having a generously sized banknote and the order (courtesy of Brian's mum) to spend it on ice cream. So, in the afternoon, we headed off for a quick seal-spotting walk at Pwllderi (we saw one seal, briefly and some lovely common blue butterflies) followed by ice creams from the van (actually it's a bus) that sits in the Goodwick car park between April and October. This is proper stuff, none of your soft whipped piped swirls, this is scooped yumminess in chocolate-dipped wafer cones. I had mochaccino with toffee fudge, the girls had double toffee fudge and Brian had lemon cheesecake topped with cherry yoghurt. 

Mr Common Blue. A handsome chap.

Also on Bank Holiday Monday I made the next bread in the Bread book: White. It is, according to my bread guru Daniel Stevens, far harder to make good white bread than any other kind of bread.

Fortunately I started making white bread longer ago than I can remember and certainly before I knew it to be a tricky thing. This time I made rolls and I followed Daniel's advice to use half and half yoghurt instead of all water. In my head I think it's the additional protein in the yoghurt which makes the bread so fabulous, but I might be wrong. This is the type bread I make most often, but I might sneak in some wholemeal flour and a handful or two of sesame seeds and linseeds. Next: Spelt bread.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Moroccan chicken

I had one of those times tonight when I knew what I wanted to cook but I hadn't quite got all of the ingredients. What transpired in the kitchen could only be described the Russian roulette of cooking - you don't know if it's going to be a hit or a miss, especially with fussy children to please.

I wanted to make Tana Ramsay's Moroccan chicken with couscous from Family Kitchen or Delia's Moroccan baked chicken with chickpeas and rice from her Winter book. What I needed was peppers, chicken and prunes or olives. What I had was a huge bag of carrots, three chicken breasts and the second half of a bag of wild rocket.

The carrots made me think of Nigella's The Rainbow Room's carrot and peanut salad which is my most favourite of all salads (it's in Forever Summer). So what I ended up making took inspiration from that and the other two recipes.

I sliced one each of red and white onions (recently harvested and currently drying in the polytunnel) and softened them in a pan with a glug of olive oil.

Meanwhile I sliced the chicken breasts and tossed them in Moroccan-style spicings - the end of a jar of Ras el hanout, a tablespoon of toasted and ground cumin seeds and a couple of grinds of black pepper. I added these to the pan with two chopped cloves of garlic (from the poytunnel ditto the onions) and then added three carrots - prepared carrot salad-style which is scrubbed and run through the chips cutter on my food processor (or you could cut them julienne style if you have the patience or are less lazy than I am).

When that lot was browned and softened I added a pint of chicken stock with a good pinch of saffron strands and a sliced lemon (both Delia's idea). Then I put on a lid and left it to simmer slowly until the chicken was cooked. Then I checked the seasoning and added about a tablespoon of honey to taste. It should be salty, sweet and sour.

I piled it into a dish on top of the couscous (prepared in the usual way) and sprinkled over a handful of salty peanuts (back to Nigella's salad idea again) and served the rocket on the side.

It was, for a dish created by a veritable committee of recipes, surprisingly delicious and got the thumbs up. I might in the future, when not catering for H9 who can spot a whiff of heat at a million paces, add a bit of sliced red chilli - I like the hot, sour, sweet, salty spicy combination. A final scattering of chopped fresh coriander wouldn't go amiss either.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Big Bread Bakeathon #2: Malted Grain Bread

Recipe number two in the River Cottage Bread book is Malted Grain bread. Daniel Stevens says it is 'like candlelight or a soft-focus lens, it is flattering - the Don Juan of home baking'. Don Juan or not, it did seem to be a well-tempered dough. I had time to rise it twice which improves the flavour. This time I divided the dough into two, one for my new 800g tin, the other to be baked on my trusty paving slab.

We scoffed it fresh from the oven with bowls of homemade spicy lentil soup. It got a resounding thmubs up again, especially for its really tasty crusty crust.

Next: White bread.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Gallery: World Photography Day

I haven't taken part in The Gallery for a while - not because I have taken any photographs (I've taken nearly 700 in August alone) but because they have all been specific to things other than the Gallery prompts. But this weekend included World Photography Day so I had to include an entry.

Saturday saw butterflies everywhere in my garden and on the farm. Lots of tortoiseshells, peacocks and red admirals. Butterflies are a frustrating subject to photograph. They're beautiful but elusive. I only have a compact camera with a small zoom so focussing on the buggers butterflies can be a frustrating business. I got this shot though (it took only about 15 attempts!)

Coincidentally on World Photography Day I also got to order my birthday present for next Sunday - a second hand Canon Eos DSLR*. Hopefully photographing the butterflies in my garden will be a less frustrating business from now on.

* There's a story behind this. I regularly used a Canon Eos 35mm camera when I was a reporter to take pictures when the paper's photographer wasn't available. The editor knew I was competent enough to get a good shot. It's quite a thrill to see one of your photographs blown up to fill a broadsheet page or on page one. (I photographed the Queen once and she bought a copy for the Buckingham palace collection). So when I finally saved up for a DSLR I went to the self-proclaimed Canon experts at the camera shop in Carmarthen for advice. The wide boy behind the counter treated me like an imbecile and told me - when I asked about DSLRs - that I could have 'a compact camera for sixty quid'. I felt my Canon Powershot  - I always carry it in my handbag - shudder. Offended, I left, and bought my DSLR elsewhere (from a woman).

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Carreg Cennen Castle

We made a visit to 'Wales' most romantic ruin' on Friday - Carreg Cennen Castle, which is just south of Llandeilo. It's a fabulously imposing privately-owned castle perched atop a high rock which is reached by a short but strenuous walk through the owner's farmland. It has a tea shop on the way so we refuelled there first with tea and cream scones.

We had another motive for visiting the castle which was to have a look at these sheep. This is a Balwen Welsh Mountain sheep and is a breed we're considering converting our flock to. We've only got 20 ewes now and I've always felt that it would make more sense to have a pedigree flock. In the past we trialled Llanwenogs but they didn't really suit our terrain. I quite like the idea of having a dark-fleeced breed and Balwen, being originally from Carmarthenshire, are our nearest. I very much like the white-tipped tail, the socks and the blaze on the face. The next step is to find a local breeder and have a chat.

Carreg Cennen is also famous for its Longhorn cattle. When I was farming editor for the local paper I used to see Bernard Llewellyn and his cattle at shows (in fact he used to write a column for me many years ago in the farming paper I edited, Farm & Field).

This little chap has a way to go in the horn growing department.

The castle dates back to at least the 13th century but archaeological evidence has been found both of the Romans and prehistoric man. Despite being a ruin it is still an incredibly imposing structure.

The views from the top are spellbinding. The castle sits at the western end of the Beacons Way long distance path,  a 95-mile walk through the Brecon Beacons National Park which ends at the Holy Mountain.

The castle has a natural cave which you can visit by clambering down a steep path. It gets darker and steeper towards the bottom. We chickened out when we ran out of light - you really do need a torch for the cave itself.

Pretty little harebells growing high up on the ruined castle walls tossed their heads in the breeze.

We loved Carreg Cennen Castle. It's been turned into a tourist attraction with the help of Cadw but is unspoilt. We loved the freedom to scramble around and find our way about with occasional help from the unobtrusive information signs. If we didn't know what things were there was a discreet sign ('kitchen above' and 'later musket loop' being two examples). The rest was left to our imagination, which is exactly as it should be.


Back at home and a picture of Itsy to show just how gorgeous she looks in the summer. H9 has been brushing her coat and combing her mane and she's bursting with health at the moment. Here she's naughtily leaning over to steal hay from Bullseye (we wondered why he'd lost so much weight! Oops!). He's now putting weight on his injured leg, thank goodness, and seems to be making a speedy recovery.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Big Bread Bakeathon

I was reading the lovely Village Fate blog a few days ago where Kitty announced she was cooking her way through Pam Corbin's River Cottage Cake handbook in a sort of Julie/Julia project. Ah ha! I thought, I'd like to do that too. I don't have a copy of Cake (although I'd dearly love one) so I can't exactly join Kitty but then I do have River Cottage Handbook No. 3, Bread by Dan Stevens. Genius! I'll cook that.

Me and Bread are good friends and I have cooked quite a few recipes from it already but in the interests of this bakeathon I plan to cook all of them, in order, including the vetkoek and doughnuts which require (shudder) deep frying.

Bread is a good book to choose because you have to start it from the beginning. In fact Dan warns you, should you dare to enter the chapter entitled 'Beyond the basic loaf' that if you skipped the 'breadmaking step-by-step' chapter 'you need to go back and unskip it'. Ciabatta mustn't be attempted until you've had a certain amount of practice, he scolds.

So I began with the basic bread recipe that I make regularly, but one slips into sloppy habits so I went back and followed it through, step-by-step. Dan's very detailed about what each stage of the alchemy of breadmaking entails and I have found that if you follow each step exactly, the results are amazing.

The basic recipe gives you options, it's the technique that's all important here. So my options were: Flour - two thirds strong white, one third strong wholemeal; liquid - water; extras - sesame seeds; fat - walnut oil; coating - sesame seeds with a few cumin seeds tossed in for interest.

I baked it on my bakestone (a paving slab from Wickes) and these three loaves were the result.

I made a vegetable soup for dinner and we ate this loaf with it. Delicious.

The next chapter is variations on the basic bread recipe which begins with malted grain bread.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The best laid plans...

Today we were supposed to go to Folly Farm. We've been planning this for a while, a family visit, with Daddy on his day off from work so we could all go on the Dodgems at the same time and on the flying swings and the carousel and see all the animals (especially the adorable armadillos).

I made sandwiches, packed a flask of coffee and some cartons of juice. Then we drove the few miles and encountered The Queue from Hell at Folly Farm. Ah. I think it was Peppa Pig Day or something. We could see a tsunami of mummies and buggies, angry dads queuing in hot cars with fractious kids in the back seat. The queue to pay to get in was a quarter of a mile long and who knows what it was like inside. We drove past, noting the tailback of traffic to the Begelly roundabout, accompanied by a disappointed silence.

We headed for Carew instead but on the way my homing instinct for Lawrenny kicked in and we found ourselves on the quay again - the second time in two weeks. Brian hadn't done The Walk yet so it seemed a good time to show him the route. We grabbed our sandwiches and dashed out of the car to sit scoffing them overlooking the boats moored at the marina. I pointed out all the boats that looked like Sea Dance and where she used to be moored and Brian, H9 and R7 humoured me (they've heard it all before, but I do like to reminisce).

We headed into the cool woods and on, down into Lawrenny.

The wall by the church is covered with blackberries. R7 and I tested them. The first we've had this year. Then we continued on the walk in unseemly haste...

...and found ourselves in the tearoom.

It was packed (but everyone was outside. We'd already been bothered by a wasp so we stayed indoors in the cool, almost on our own. It wasn't this empty for long.)

G9, R7 and I felt it our duty to tackle the strawberry and raspberry cheesecake. Doesn't it look pretty on its Cath Kidston plate?

Brian sampled the delights of the Lemon Thing (its official title) which is served on a white plate to avoid risk of a colour clash.

By this time it was a quite lovely afternoon. The tide was way out and we crunched about at the edge of the water on piles of mussel shells. We found teeny tiny crabs burying themselves in the soft mud and popped the bladder wrack with our feet. Three oystercatchers flew past followed by a cormorant and the usual gulls. We ambled round the edge of the estuary back up toward Garron Pill and found a quiet place to sit to watch mullet flipping their fins in the shallows. Little boats buzzed to and fro and a Chinook rumbled overhead.

This little shore bird was poking about in the shallows. I think he was quite annoyed at us disturbing his dabbling.

It really was a beautiful day and, according to R7, almost as good as going to Folly Farm.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Raspberry chocolate crumble

I'm a huge fan of raspberries. I think they are my favourite fruit and we're fortunate here in having the conditions they love. A few years ago I planted some Glen Ample canes and now they romp around the garden like weeds. The back vegetable garden is divided up into raised beds with paths in between but this hasn't put off the raspberries which happily pop under the paths and reappear in neighbouring beds. In fact I've just noticed that they've popped up in the small polytunnel which is right over the othe side from where they were originally planted.

Sometimes we get a glut of the tart scarlet berries and I fill plastic boxes and hide them in the freezer. I found one on Sunday and immediately thought 'crumble!'

I first encountered raspberry crumble in the concourse at high school in the arms of my friend Jane who had just made it in home economics. I didn't get a taste of that one because she took it home on the bus to her lucky Mum and Dad but I've been making it ever since. On Sunday, though, I took inspiration from a tart I ate at another friend's house. Nicola's wasn't home made but it was delicious - a crisp chocolate case studded with raspberries (and if you want to take that short cut, you'll find it in the Tesco Finest frozen dessert section.)

Anyway I combined the two. I just made my basic crumble recipe (six tablespoons of flour, three of butter, three of caster sugar, all rubbed in together, adjust individual components until it's right) and added a generous tablespoon of cocoa powder (Tesco Value fat reduced is cheap and excellent.)

Sprinkle it over the raspberries (I don't bother to thaw the fruit first if it's frozen) and bake in a moderately hot oven (I was cooking a pasta bake at gas mark 5 at the time so this went in on the shelf below).

Bake until the top is just beginning to brown and the fruit is heated through and just beginning to collapse into a fragrant juicy muddle. 

Serve with custard, cream, ice cream or all three. Eat the leftovers for breakfast the following morning with plain yoghurt. The chocolate crumble was a huge hit and I'm thinking that a pear version might be a lovely autumnal Sunday dinner treat.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

New shoes!

The BEST sort of new shoes

John the Farrier came on Friday and I had a sudden flash of inspiration while he was here. We'd been looking at Fatsy Isty in utter wonderment because her adipose tissue has resisted attempts to shift it, while Bulleye has nicely slimmed down.

So I asked John if he wouldn't mind popping shoes onto Itsy so we can burn off some fat by way of exercise. Last time I took her out on the road she winced every time she stepped on a stone which isn't fun either for her or her rider. Also as H9 is keen to get on board now a little more mileage is planned. Shoes seemed the obvious way to go.

She won't be in heavy work so only front shoes are needed, but it means I can have a little clip clop around the lanes with her and H9 can too.

Let me out!
In other news, Bullseye, the pony who thinks he's a mountain goat, has whacked another leg. So far he has scars on his near foreleg and off hind to demonstrate the error of his ways. Now he has no additional scars but spent Friday dangling his other back leg. John had a look and agreed that it was tendon or possible fracture (gulp). So Bullseye is indoors on a thick bed of shavings and letting the world know, in shrill whinnies, that he's not happy with the situation. Today he's putting weight on the leg, so I'm holding out hope that it is a pulled digital flexor tendon (which is bad enough).

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Riding at Marros Farm

I have to admit I've resisted the clamour for riding lessons from my two little girls before now. Mostly it's because of the cost and also with three ponies of our own I felt it was a matter of waiting until the girls fitted the ponies rather than forking out for them to ride other people's equines.

But then Pony magazine carried vouchers for £5 off for new or lapsed riders to have a lesson at their local ABRS riding school and suddenly it seemed a good idea for the summer holidays.

(Left to right) G9 and Beau, H9 and Tally, R7 and Dylan.
I took the three girls (and my mum who had seen me through all my pony riding days) to Marros Riding Stables in south Pembrokeshire. The lesson was efficiently arranged by email. I told them the size and ability of the girls and helpful staff recommended a combination session - half an hour of lesson in the indoor school followed by a half hour trek. The price (£22 each) included hire of boots and hats. If you take your own hat they check that it is kite marked. Safety, here, is taken seriously.

Then the girls and the two other riders were taken into the school to meet their ponies. The latter were standing in a line, parked side by side down the centre of the school. Not tied up, just ready and waiting, ears pricked, for the lesson. That was impressive. Any pony quiet enough to be 'parked' like that is quiet enough for your precious child to ride.

G9 was riding Beau, a pretty chestnut mare, Hannah was on Tally, a little bay, and Rosie rode Dylan, the spitting image of our own Bullseye, who proved to have the one speed, slow, which was as it should be for a complete beginner.

Parents watched through the windows of the cafe which overlooks the indoor school, as the instructor explained the rudiments of riding, including stopping and steering (in and out of traffic cones) and then everyone had a go at trotting.

The hack part was a loop along a track around the riding stables. It was the perfect confidence-giving session and none of them wanted to get off their ponies when the hour was up.

They want to go back again, of course they do, and ride the same ponies, which may or may not be possible. The staff at Marros Riding Stables are friendly and fun. They take safety seriously and they know novice riders are going to feel nervous. They were experts in taking the absolute beginner and giving them confidence. I'm pretty sure we'll be heading back for another ride before the end of this summer holidays.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Patriotic in Pembrokeshire

Sometimes, living here on the side of a hill in the far west of Wales, it can seem as if we are on another planet. Watching the news this week has intensified that feeling. First the looting by people with not much to hope for, living in a society which promotes a level of consumerism they can never hope to afford. Then the armies of broom-wielding community-spirited folk suddenly proving that a city is really just a series of joined-up villages after all. I'm not sure what to make of it all. It seems such a long way away.

Then, yesterday afternoon, I looked up from my favourite seat at the front of our home and saw that the vapour trails from the planes that fly over us from the London airports had drawn a Union flag in the sky.

As I photographed I was struck how quiet, peaceful, sunny and lovely it all was. Then the trails wafted away into the blue sky and the moment passed.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Something big this way comes...

Something large, noisy, yellow and mechanical arrives... it is busy digging on The Moor.

'The Boy' (Brian, 49) looks on. Occasionally there's a 'toot toot' from John JCB in the digger for 'The Boy' to move a flagstone or assist in some other way. The first of two 'scrapes' has been dug. They must be five metres across; shallow scrapes as new watery habitat for our newts and frogs.

John JCB likes 'The Boy' and has telephoned to check he'll be around this weekend and not working. 'The Boy' lops tree branches off so they don't scratch the digger and gets a Murray Mint as a reward.

John JCB sculpts the second of the two scrapes. This one is fed by a sparkling spring. We stop thinking 'frogs' and start thinking 'ducks'. John JCB realises he has an audience of two women and two little girls and chases 'The Boy' with the bucket. He looks over at his audience with a cheeky grin as 'The Boy' dives for cover.

There's tremendous skill to wielding such a machine. John JCB uses the bucket like it's an extension of his arm. Yesterday he cleared the lambing shed with his other digger and piled the manure in the garden (it looks like Everest at the moment, but it will rot).

The stream is trickling clean, clear water into the 'scrape'. We note how deep it is, stop thinking 'ducks' and start thinking 'wild swimming'.

Just a final bit of patting and sculpting. Edges cannot be left untidy, John JCB is a craftsman. He's also a character - I once had a whole conversation with him where his gaze never left the comfort of my cleavage while he regaled me with tales of 'f***ing this' and 'f***ing that' with my two little girls listening in with wide eyes and big ears. I'd love to think of him meeting the Queen, I'm sure he'd say something (in his broad Pembrokeshire accent) about the 'f***ing weather, Ma'am, while gazing happily at the Royal bosom.

The side effect of digging - useful flagstone sized bits of slate.

The liberated stones piled into the garden. They've been slumbering underground for who knows how many years. Now they face a new life over ground as part of our garden.

Friday, 5 August 2011

More from Dorset...

More pictures from our day out in Dorset, starting at Maiden Castle with a quick lesson from Andrew on butterfly spotting. It's chalky land here so there were blue ones - adonis blues, small blues - lots of marbled whites (which we don't see in Pembrokeshire) and meadow browns (which we do).


I wonder what Iron Age man (here in about 600BC) and the Romans (whose army took over Maiden Castle in AD43) would have made of Trumpton Poundbury? I'd like to think the Romans would have approved.

Fabulous view from up here.

Maiden Castle is a magical place, steeped in history and butterflies. It must have been a phenomenal undertaking to build it. One can only imagine the brutality of the battle that took place when the Romans decided they wanted it. I can see why they did though but I feel sorry for the inhabitants who were turfed off and moved to Durnovaria (Dorchester).

Heading for the coast. Sadly we couldn't all fit into one car so two of us had to travel in Nicola's BMW Z3. Here we're doing about 150mph and as you can see I haven't a hair out of place...

On Chesil Beach we found a partially buried man. I think he'd been there since Neolithic times.

When in Dorset it is obligatory to eat fish and chips in West Bay. The best are from the blue and white kiosk with the biggest queue. Sometimes they have pollack which is our favourite but they'd run out so instead we made do with haddock, chips and mushy peas, washed down with proper English tea.

Then it was a quick stroll down the pier, past all the fishermen with their buckets of crabs, before we headed for home.