Tuesday, 31 January 2012

52 week salad challenge - January

I had plans for this month's post for the 52 week salad challenge set by Michelle at Veg Plotting. Since the beginning of January I've been picking lots of lovely salads from the polytunnel - giant red mustard, chards, beetroot leaves, spinach, lettuces, rocket, winter purslane, sorrel and land cress. There's always a bag of salad in the fridge and I've been feeling pretty pleased with my polytunnel and its plants.

Admittedly we have been having a mild winter. Inside the polytunnel it's been springlike and warm and the plants have been growing on happily. It all seemed much too easy.

Inspired by VP and the other salad challengers I thought that for the first post I'd see what I could find in my garden. Things were delayed by busy-ness, power cuts and a fault with my broadband so I set aside today to have a hunt for edibles in the garden. Then I hit a snag...

Perhaps a couple of leaves from the tough and trusty cavelo nero? Hmm. Perhaps I'll go back into the polytunnel...

It was a bit gloomy inside, because of all the snow on the outside, but the plants are happy enough. Picking a colander full from this bed (and the rest on the other side of the polytunnel - I really did plant lots) is as easy as opening the fridge.

I don't feel like a proper 52 week salad challenger, in fact I feel a bit of a fraud. Others are scouring their gardens for all sorts of cleverly found wild goodies. I'm just reaping the benefit of accidentally planning, last year, for a challenge I didn't know I was going to do this. I must try harder! Perhaps when the snow thaws...

Friday, 27 January 2012

A good walk, spoiled

Today was my weekly ramble around Llysyfran dam with Jo. We love this walk, a nice strenuous seven-mile route where we can natter away, have a laugh and a bit of a moan if we need to and get a few things off our chest.

Today though? Disturbing.

We go along at a fair lick, pausing to admire the birds and today was no exception. A small group of black and white wildfowl caught our gaze. What were they? We peered. Then...


Shotgun. Right next to us. We leapt out of our skins. How dare whoever it was do that? Right next to a footpath. Somebody unseen, with a shotgun. We were suddenly very aware that we were in the middle of nowhere on our own. Jo got her phone out of her pocket.

We looked at each other. I said: "I don't want to be tomorrow's headlines." Two more shotgun blasts followed at uneven intervals.

We hurried on.

We rounded the far end of the reservoir and encountered a man and a dog. It's not unusual to meet a man and a dog around here but this was a tall young man with a big spool of blue nylon rope slung across and around his body leading a dog by another long length of the same type of rope. The dog looked like a pitbull (Jo's a vet; she knows a dangerous-looking dog when she sees one).

"Hello ladies," he drawled. The pitbull slobbered on my leg.

We hurried on.

The path at the far side of the reservoir is challenging at the moment. Slick with sucking sticky mud we slid sideways as much as made forwards progress. It wasn't fun but we made it out alive and breasted the hill into the top car park which is usually empty at this time of year.

This was not the day for it to be empty. Today it was full of a white van, which left as we approached, and two powerful pimped up muscle cars.

We hurried on.

We headed down the road and around the hair pin bends in a generally grumpy fashion, only to be passed by the pimped up cars.

Roarrrrrr VROOOOOOM!!!! said the cars.

"Tw@ts," said Jo.

So on our walk we had encountered a shotgun, a man with lots of rope (why?), a pitbull and two muscle cars. Call me paranoid but I spent six years as a reporter covering local courts and inquests and I've met a few murderers on the way. At that time this county had three unsolved double murders, one of which in the village in which I now live. Those murders all involved shotguns and rope. The man responsible for two of the crimes is now behind bars thankfully, but they still haven't solved the one in the village.

Next week we're taking a different, less muddy, less isolated route.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Signs of life

There are signs of life in the new pond. This is one of two we had scraped out by a digger last summer. The other, higher up, hasn't filled yet (we left it to its own devices) but this one is fed by a sparkling little waterfall and we spent a day giving it a proper dam. Plants have arrived, I've seen a duck on it (twice) and this morning there were signs of other activity...

Someone has been extremely busy.

I'll keep an eye on this frogspawn. Hopefully the weather will stay mild and this will hatch into many fat tadpoles.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Thank you

I had a letter this morning from Birmingham St Mary's Hospice thinking me for the total of £248.75 I raised by running the Cardiff Half Marathon last October.

So I'm passing on their thanks to all of the lovely people who sponsored me and contributed towards this sum.

I raised the money in the memory of Ann, who was my cousin Keith's wife (but was more like an aunt to me). She needed the love and care of the hospice volunteers in the last days of her life last August.

My subway art thank you note was created on Picnik, discovered via Nellie Dean's blog. Sadly Picnik is closing on April 19th so have a play with it while you can. I make my subway art by opening a collage and choosing a colour (then click done). Under basic editing choose 'resize image', then untick the green ticks from the boxes and set the size to 1920 x 2400 (click done). Then jump on into the texts, stickers etc.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Le weekend

H9 (soon to be H10) had her birthday treat this weekend. We can't afford the extravagance of a party this year so her treat was to see War Horse with her best friend G10.

Brian went with them into Mwldan Dau while R8 and I saw Arthur Christmas in Mwldan Un. I really want to see War Horse but the trailer reduces me to such a sobbing mess* that I didn't want to embarrass myself or my children in public. Arthur Christmas was truly properly laugh out loud funny though and brought tears to the eyes for entirely different and much happier reasons.

Sunday was a day of doing catch-up jobs for Brian - a busy day from the darkness of dawn until well beyond sunset doing all the little jobs living on a smallholding (while holding down a full-time job with shifts) entails.

I meanwhile took my fledgling cold on a 10k run to frighten it away. The day was sunny but crisply cold with a frisky wind. Perfect for running.

I'd begun the day making wholemeal drop scones with maple syrup for breakfast. R8 arrived and took over part of the batter preparation.

"I'm not going to big school mummy," she announced, blending flour, milk and eggs.

"Aren't you?" I handed her the 50g of butter she had already weighed out and melted.

"No." She's emphatic on this point. Primary school is such utter perfection (despite the recent trauma of a broken nose she's deeply in love with every aspect of her school day). "No, I'm going to get a job instead."

"Oh?" Shall I tell her now that she has to go to big school? Perhaps not.

"I'll get a job as a..." she pauses to whisk the melted butter into the batter, "...as a chef."


* Regarding War Horse. It's not so much the brave war scenes, although those would bring a big lump to the throat, it's the happy ending. I had a Joey of my own, called Jamie. A big conker brown bay thoroughbred.

I loved him like no other other horse (some of my fellow college students thought Jamie was human and my boyfriend and I didn't disabuse them).

Jamie was taken away for me not by war but by illness (he got navicular disease and had to be euthanased. It rather broke my heart.)

No schmaltzy reunion against the sunset for me. Hence the tears.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Still baking

I'm still baking. I haven't mentioned it for a while but my bakeathon through the River Cottage bread book is ongoing.

Okay, I'll admit I cheated a bit. My self-imposed rule at the beginning was to make EVERYTHING, one by one. That was fine in the chapters on normal bread, but then there were vetkoek (yuk) and a whole chapter on Bread Made with Wild Yeast.

I lovingly made and tended my sourdough starter. I made a loaf with it. My family tried it. Hated it. I think sourdough is the Marmite of the bread world; it's either love or loathe. They, my eaters, loathed. Me, I loved it, especially toasted with Marmite on, but even I'm not woman enough to eat my way through an entire chapter on sour dough breads single-handed. I may go back one day and make pumpernickel, but not yet.

So I skipped on to the Bread Made Without Yeast chapter. I baked, we ate and I forgot to take pictures. Here, in a nutshell, is what we had and the verdict (in brackets): Soda bread (a regular anyway, we love it and make it often); Walnut and honey bread (how much honey???!!!! Sweet, chewy, delish with strong cheese, probably won't make it again though); roti (another regularly-made already recipe, we adore it); tortillas (number one favourite from this book until I made the flatbreads which are even better. Still love these though, great for lunch); then Bannocks:

The Bannocks were more delicious than they looked.

Bannocks are thick, hot oatcakes, lovely eaten while still warm from the pan with thick vegetable soup. They looked uninspiring but were quick, easy and delicious. Just the sort of thing to knock up while you make the soup (actually they're so quick the soup wouldn't even have to be home made you could make these while opening a tin).

Yummy baked doughnuts

Next it was straight on into the fun stuff: Buns, Biscuits and Batter Breads (the chapter my children have been looking forward to most). First off was doughnuts but NOT, definitely NOT deep fried (the vetkoek put me off that for life). So I baked them, 10 minutes at the oven's hottest temperature then about seven minutes at gas mark 4, dabbed them with a bit of melted butter and tossed them in a bowl of cinnamon-spiked sugar. They were a big hit, little doughnutty-flavoured fluffy buns without the stink and palaver of deep frying. Perfect.

Meanwhile Brian finished a bit of DIY. We have a dresser but it's too tall for our low ceilings and too wide for our narrow railway carriage-shaped kitchen. In disgust I chucked it out into a barn a while ago (having tried and failed to live with it in various rooms). Instead I longed for a plate rack but funds didn't allow and the big white empty wall in my kitchen sulked plate rackless. Then, brainwave. Hang the TOP part on the wall, plate rack-stylee. Bingo! I rescued it from the barn, scrubbed it and bleached it, waxed it and Brian used coach bolts and mirror brackets (belt and braces) to hang it on the wall.

Dresser with dog in catalogue pose.

The box underneath is an ex-toy box Brian picked up for a song (he got three - one for each of his girls). I'm going to wax mine to match the dresser and then keep my toys cake tins and baking trays in it. I might even make it a comfy cushion for the top (no, not for the dog though!)

Monday, 16 January 2012

Frosty morning

We've just had the coldest night of this winter season, the weatherman said this morning. What it's given us is a glorious winter day with frosty grass and wall to wall sunshine.

R8 went back to school today. She wasn't keen on the idea of being stared at because of her two black eyes and butterfly stitches on her nose but she's mended enough and I'm confident they'll look after her.

Her nose and both eyes went through all the colours of the rainbow this weekend, from deep maroon, through shades of lilac and then into the yellows. Yesterday she came out on the long dog walk and announced that she needed a stick "to walk with because I've got a broken nose". She found herself a nice big branch, at which point Mido, who is at least 50% Labrador, got the wrong end of the stick (so to speak).

I rescued the dog from his mistake and R8 found herself a second stick for the other arm. I've never known anyone need crutches for a broken nose before. The dogs assumed the sticks were one each and strained at their leads while the 'patient' shouted "put it down" at them.

This morning's walk was a little quiet by comparison, save for the roar of tractor engines. The ground is hard enough to drive on so the farmers are all busying about doing the work that had to wait because the ground was too wet. The sheep tell me they need to come inside the building. They're probably bored of the new field they've been on since one died last week.

Ivy swathes this ancient hawthorn tree.

Underneath it evidence of someone's winter larder. I presume these are hawthorn berry pips. Presumably the fleshy outside was consumed when fresh and the nutty middles were saved for later. The pips bear the marks of teeny little teeth. I can just imagine the tiny little mouse sitting in the dip at the foreground, nibbling away, then tossing the empty shells over his shoulder. Gruffalo crumble for dessert, one assumes.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Things that go bump in the day

I had one of those makes-your-blood-run-cold telephone calls from school on Wednesday saying R8 had slipped during the swimming lesson, bashed her face and was on her way back on the bus.

The words set the level of worry. R8 has fallen and is in an ambulance on her way to hospital would have been so much worse. I parked my panic/worry on the next level down and headed to school.

The poor thing had slipped during a fire drill and had broken the fall with her nose. Apparently it had then done what noses do in such circumstances - it bled copiously. Swimming pool falls are never pleasant and those accompanied by lots of blood cause much shock to all concerned (judging by the calls from teachers and school friends in subsequent hours and days).

Brian was on an early shift and already on his way home so when he got back we had a family trip to A&E (H9 was material witness). R8 had a pretty star shape of butterfly stitches applied to her gash and gained an offended look thanks to the clip that squeezed her finger to monitor her blood oxygen and the cuff which (horror!) squeezed her arm really tightly to take her blood pressure.

The verdict was 'probably broken, look forward to swelling, snoring and two black eyes', and we left with leaflets on head injuries and broken noses.

We took the injured party to M&S (handily and newly built near A&E) and stocked up on ice cream (which, as every parent knows, is essential for such circumstances).

I'm not allowed to show you a photo of the nose.
Two days later R8 looks like a cross between a post-bout prizefighter and a Star Trek Klingon, especially at 6.30 this morning when her eyes were so swollen she could barely open them. Details have been trickling out about the incident too: I saw everyone else was out so I hurried up (then fell); I looked at my hands and they were all red; it took them (teacher and lifeguard) three bandages (to staunch the bleeding); I was really scared for lots of yesterday.

It could have been so much worse. She still has all of her teeth and both of her eyes and her nose will mend (hopefully without scarring). She could have broken her arm or collarbone. (My brain ran through all the what ifs on Wednesday once she was in bed asleep and the phone had stopped ringing).

Such things are character building. She's a bit self-conscious (I look weird), refused to get out of the car when we went to pick H9 up from school today (except to talk to one of her best friends) and she's refused a Friday library trip (because there'll be talking about noses).

Ah well. We've had two lovely days with no school, doing sewing and cooking and she watched the first of the last two Harry Potters last night as a special treat.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Research and development

My birdy (in very bad light on a dull day).
I've been meaning to have a go at freestyle machine embroidery for a while (since I saw Kirsty Allsopp doing it on her crafty programme) but I only got as far as the phrase 'drop the feeder dogs on your sewing machine'.

So we had a bit of research (where the flipping heck is the thing that drops the feeder dogs on this berludy machine? Oh, there, hidden) and development (with the aid of some scraps of fabric).

It wasn't love at first sew like it was for Kirsty but then I was tackling it without the help of a handy expert. I sought Mum's advice on things like the weight on the presser foot and the tension and eventually made the birdy (following the instructions on this website). Not bad but not good enough yet. Fun though.

Monday, 9 January 2012

A kite and the circle of life

The enthusiasm of my two dogs for a walk as soon as I get back from the school run is undimmed by heavy grey skies. Today we were joined by a red kite, wheeling in swooping curves.

Kites are occasional visitors here. I've seen as many as three at once and never get tired of them. They make a change from the ubiquitous buzzards. The kite headed off in the direction of Parc Maen Hir, home to the sheep at the moment, where it was greeted by heckling from a group of carrion crows and cackling laughter from a bunch of unruly magpies.

Ah. Carrion birds, all. This requires further investigation, dog-free.

I collected mum and we headed back up to the sheep. Sure enough, there she was, man down. Not long, but bits already picked clean by busy beaks. Mum headed back to the house, made a call for the corpse to be collected and then went back up to the field again to bring down the remains. I doubt if it crossed her mind for a moment not to do this sort of thing at her age (but she's bloody minded enough to have thought 'sod it' and done it anyway). Old age? So not yet (but thanks for the free bus pass and fuel allowance).

Those left behind: "Oh someone's dead. How interesting. Who's next?"

Why did this ewe die? Who knows? She was one of the older ones but she had all her teeth (unlike some). She seemed in good condition too. Something could have killed her; the flock looked a little disturbed. But (farmer's shrug) these things 'appen. We can't make her better so there's no point in fretting. We have some delightful little ewe lambs saved as replacements, perhaps one of her daughters. She wasn't one of the named ones either (that's when it feels sad). It's all part of the circle of life.

Sunday, 8 January 2012


This is the last day of the Christmas holidays, which have seem to have lasted for ages. I don't mean that to sound like a complaint though. We've had a lot of fun over the past two weeks but we all need to get a bit of routine back.

I need to get back to running. I haven't been since December 27th when I stepped onto what I thought was a grassy verge which turned out to be a very soft muddy puddle. The resulting unexpected jolt hurt a bit and overstretched a bit. I hippety-hoppitied home with a sore and very muddy ankle and foot and decided running was cancelled until after the end of the school holidays (especially as the wind was so windy too).

What follows now is the start of my good intentions (a term I've pinched from Zoe Lynch's lovely blog). Running is one, as is losing a little of the luggage I've gained over Christmas thanks to giving in to things (like mince pies and pannetone) rather than resisting them. I need to get back to a more regular kettlebell routine too (because it works and I quite like the effect on my 'abs'.)

Another of my good intentions is to eat more salad, so I'm joining Veg Plotting's 52 Week Salad Challenge. I have a head start on this thanks to salad transplants I planted in October from Delfland Nurseries (having failed to sow anything to overwinter because we'd been so busy building the polytunnel) knowing I'd want salad in January.

Another intention is to start a business. Mine's called Magatha Bagatha and is pretty things hand made by me. At the moment my products are pretty ribbon-trimmed bags but I plan to expand into things made using the fleeces from our organic sheep. This means learning how to felt and dye wool and possibly how to spin too.

It's early days for Magatha Bagatha yet - I only decided I was definitely going to set it up as a business at the end of last month so things are very much in the early planning stages. Any help and suggestions would be enthusiastically and gratefully received.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Of wind and vegetable plotting

It's blowing a gale. If you're reading this somewhere in Blighty it's blowing a gale with you too.

We knew this was approaching. I was warned by my Godmother (who lives in the North West where they speak of 'buggerlugs' and 'sodpots' - she taught me such colourful language when I was a very small girl) that the isobars were looking a little tight for this week.

I went out, with mum and two rolls of tape, to repair a few gaps in the cover of the old polytunnel. It was a bit of a performance, it being wet, but we managed. Then I looked up from the small gap I was patching and spotted that the plastic was ripped right around the end hoop. I stuck my hand through it and waved a cheerful red gloved hand at mum who was fixing it from inside.

"Ah," we said and abandoned our taping attempts. We left the wind to do its worst. That cover has been on for much longer than 10 years so it doesn't owe us anything. Having spent last summer fighting for gaps in the weather to build the big polytunnel and vowing 'never to do that again' it looks like we'll be re-covering the little one this summer. It'll be a doddle compared to hauling the acre of plastic required to cover the big one though.

Oddly enough the cover is still there after three days of gales. I was expecting the spectacular, but it's hanging on, stubborn old thing that it is.

Instead we had other excitement when the Bouncing Garden briefly became the Being Flattened by a Flying Trampoline Garden when the wind tossed the trampoline into the Drying Garden. It landed on (and was fortunately caught and held by) the twirly clothes line.

The Drying Garden, summer 2011.

We unplugged the netting on the trampoline, having returned it to the Bouncing Garden, weighed it down with the rocks I've been collecting for walling projects and put the arms of twirling thing down (something I said I'd do days ago but forgot).

In the meantime I'm staying indoors with seed catalogues, vegetable plotting.

Monday, 2 January 2012

First harvest of 2012

I investigated the polytunnel this morning. The sun was shining (sort of) and inside it was warm and springlike. There was a compete absence of any of the brassicas. Whatever it was that took a shine to the calabrese, kale and spring cabbages ate the whole lot.

A big gap where once there was cabbage.

But the whatever it was left the lettuce, rocket, chards, spinach, land cress and mustard alone. All were hot and thirsty so I hoed a little, watered a little, picked my first harvest of salad for 2012 and left the doors open to give the tunnel a good airing.

All is not lost.

Here be lunch.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

It's still raining

Happy new year. It's still raining and what's abundantly clear, as I skid disgracefully around the garden between the back door and the two hen coops in ankle deep sloppy mud, is that we need to do the paths this year.

One path needs to skirt around the house, past the hens and then be divided to each polytunnel. Another needs to go past the new lawn in the bouncing garden (thanks to Monty Don for that term - he's got one too - the vital ingredient is a trampoline). The paths need to be nothing fancy, just gravel, simple but perhaps back-breaking.

The house does have a path around it, installed under council orders when this house was renovated with a grant. It had to be a metre-wide wheelchair-friendly concrete because mum's late partner Michael was disabled. The fact it included several steps and was therefore unfriendly to wheelchairs was lost on both the council and the builders. It also causes water to wick up the insides of the walls of our stone-built damp-proof-course-free house. It has to go.

The polytunnel path is important. I still haven't been back into the polytunnel since I fell over in the mud and then then discovered the tunnel had a) a mole and b) something had swiped a few of my cabbages. I'm easily demoralised. There's winter salad in there though so I should gird my loins and go back to investigate.

We took the dogs up to the hay fields this morning in a gap between rain showers. Children and dogs set out with enthusiasm. We all had a good splash in the dew pond on the first hay field. It's pretty full, unsurprisingly.

When we reached the most far flung point of our walk (admittedly not far on 22 acres, but far enough) it started to rain heavily. We headed back to the comforting hug of the wood burner and mugs of hot chocolate. Our rain coats (Scamp's too) are now hanging on the ham hooks in the cimne fawr drying off ready for another probable soaking on this afternoon's walk.

At least my feet stay dry - one of my best presents this Christmas was a pair of fleece welly socks (thanks Dad and Pat!) so I now have toasty warm tootsies on my dog walks.