Monthly Archives: April 2020

The old orchard Part 3

The river, which is an offshoot of the Waveney, was very shallow in places, though I think it has been dredged a few times and is more navigable now. But it was a pleasant outing in the summer, putting the boat in the water and rowing for an hour, stopping for a picnic and rowing back again. Weeza and her friend Mel decided to go and do that one summer afternoon. Without mentioning it to her mum, Mel borrowed the wicker sewing basket and they packed up their picnic and set off. They were fifteen or sixteen at the time, quite old enough to go without supervision and the water wasn’t so deep that I needed to worry about them, worrier though I am.

An hour or two later, I went outside and there was a distinct whiff of river mud. I’ve got a quite acute sense of smell and am good at identifying what I smell as well. But it was a couple of minutes later when two bedraggled girls trudged up to the house. Weeza had got in the boat and held it steady for Mel, who is somewhat clumsy. Somehow, the boat tipped over. They retrieved the basket but not Mel’s shoes, which sank without trace. Cushions and oars had to be chased down the river. Mud is stinky stuff.

I’m sorry to say that the Sage and I laughed – not at the woeful girls so much as the situation … well, perhaps at the sight as well, I’m not sure. I have no idea what Mel’s mum said about her sewing basket.

Despite all that, I loved the trips out in the boat. It’s what I grew up with, paddling out in our rowing boat on a quiet evening when the river was still and no one was about – this was at Oulton Broad, which is the same river Waveney but much closer to the sea. Or rowing down to one of the backwaters and mooring, to sit quietly until the moorhens and water voles forgot I was there. There’s actually very little I like more than simply messing about in boats.

The old orchard Part 2

I don’t really remember much about the clearing of the trees. The land was waterlogged at the time and it was all a complete mess. Getting a tractor and a JCB on there cut up the grass completely. There were still a lot of trees around the edges, mostly willow and alder. But it was finally sorted out and I suppose we used the logs for firewood for years.

For the last decade or so, the trees have been rather neglected. Our friend Graham put his sheep on the land and he did general maintenance in lieu of rent; not that there was any sort of agreement about that. He’s a helpful chap and the land needs grazing and everyone was happy. But eventually, the work that needed doing was greater than his ability to do it. Willow is fast to grow but splits and breaks easily, so is best cut back every so often. The trees grow each side of the stream running through the field as well as on the island, and branches fell and the odd tree died and Graham did what he could, but it wasn’t really something one man and a small tractor could keep up with. The chap who dealt with my field here three years ago made a start, but he’s busy too – anyway, we muddled through for a while. Graham cut up what he could and took the wood in return for his work.

Now, finally, Rob has time on his hands because work has dried up in the current situation. First, I asked him to cut up a big tree trunk that had been left over from the work three years ago, as well as the oak (not that much of it) from the judicious pruning the tree surgeons did at the beginning of March. He also went to look at the orchard and said that there was a lot of work to do to put it all right. I’ve given him free rein.

Firewood from your own trees isn’t free unless you can cut it down and up yourself. I reckon the whole job will cost at least £2,000, but at least we’ll have several years’ worth of fuel. I’m not sure where it’s all going to be stored, but we’ll think about that when the wood store is full.

It’s made me think about the good times we spent at the orchard, back when the children were young. We had a rowing boat which we kept on the bank and went out on the river. We did have an outboard motor at one time, but I prefer rowing because it’s more peaceful. There was a time when disaster struck, but I’m afraid the Sage and I laughed about not, not that Weeza and her friend Mel did.

The old orchard Part 1

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned the orchard. It’s a quarter of a mile from here, accessed via the drive to the local care home, and it’s a 7 acre field alongside the river. We still call it the orchard, though all the apple trees blew down in the famous Hurricane of 1987 – which was not, strictly speaking, an actual hurricane but was the closest that England ever gets to one. The trees hit each other like dominoes.

Russell bought this field of old apple trees sometime in the 1960s. He used to pick the apples, too, and sell them for cider, but the bottom dropped out of the market and it wasn’t worth it, even with his famed enthusiasm. It would be now, actually, not in monetary terms but for the sake of supporting the local Cyder Club, whose output has been known to strip varnish but makes excellent cider vinegar. When we got married, the grass in the orchard was long and rank and we didn’t do anything with the field. Though there is a little island, which is fun. And there was a fine oak tree.

But, as I said, all the apple trees blew down and we had to have them all removed and the land levelled. Russell took the opportunity to put in some land drains and also took advice from the environment people about the best way to look after the field in the future. The advice was to have sheep graze it, as they are kindest to pasture.

While he was discussing the matter with the guy – and I’m going back thirty years – they were luckier than I have ever been: they saw and heard a bittern. Bitterns are still incredibly rare and, sadly, that one didn’t find a mate and stay, but Russell was very excited, of course. He came and told me but we didn’t tell a soul, not for many years.

The oak tree blew down, a year later, in the next strong wind. It had been very healthy and we could only think that it had been protected by all the trees round it. Once they had gone, it hadn’t built up resilience, and I suppose there’s a metaphor there. We were very upset but we were resourceful. The huge trunk was cut vertically into four, turned and became the legs of the table we were having made at the time. When you next come here, do check it out. It was turned (cut into shape) while the wood was fresh, not dry, so wasn’t rock hard.

I’ve completely lost my thread, but I’ll pick it up again. I do know what I was going to tell you at the start of all this, but history intervened and it’ll take another post or two.

Z has square eyes

The film watching took up all our evenings – the full list was Groundhog Day, The King’s Speech, Star Wars 4, Paddington and The Wizard of Oz. We skipped on Star Wars (the first film, of course) because we were setting the questions and we could do that from memory, checking the internet for accuracy.

Turned out we were the only ones with time enough on our hands to watch every film and, as a result, we won this week as well. But we passed host duty on to Ronan. Wink should have had it as she came second, but she waived the opportunity. Don’t know yet what subjects or theme Ro will go for.

I made asparagus soup the other day which is, again, one of those dishes that uses up leftovers and is practically free. When I have a bunch of asparagus, I snap off the stalk to remove the tough bit, but I don’t throw it away. Often, it snaps above the inedible part and, if that’s the case, I trim it and save the trimming separately. I also trim the edible stalks so they’re the same length and will fit in the pan. All those trimmings are put in one bowl, the stalk ends into another and then I cook the asparagus in a little water, which I also save. Next day, I boil the tough ends until they are mashable with a potato masher, strain them and, with the cooking water from last night, I have my stock. If I have lots of asparagus, I’ll also have saved another spear or two, for the sake of the tips, but it doesn’t matter.

I chop a small onion and cook it in butter, or could use olive oil. I took part of a big onion from the minestrone I was making, so I didn’t even use an extra onion this time. I added a teaspoon of flour and cooked it to make an oniony roux and then slowly added the asparagus stock. Then the finely sliced trimmings, cooked it until they were tender, then added a teaspoon of crème frâiche because that’s what I had – cream or milk or whatever is fine and if you’re vegan then I think almond milk would be lovely – and that was that. It is more complicated to describe than to do.

The trimmings and cooking water are also great for risotto. At present, asparagus is nearly £3 a bunch, though the bunches were bigger this week than last. I don’t care what they cost. They are ground-intensive to grow, as they only crop for a few weeks, and labour-intensive to cut, and are then bunched. I am happy to pay for the work involved.

The other day, a local nurseryman put up on Facebook the suggestion that he should put together a box of houseplants for a given sum, and he’d deliver them. I thought that was a very good idea. So I asked for a £40 boxful plus a French tarragon plant, and he arrived at half past eight this morning with a lovely selection. I don’t really need houseplants at this time of the year, but that’s not the point. I want him to stay in business and feel he’s brought his customers some pleasure too. Nice man didn’t even text me the payment details until after delivery, though he doesn’t know me.

Film night.

We’ve been holding family quizzes via Zoom for the last few weeks. It was Al and Dilly’s suggestion and it’s been fun. The team that wins each week organises the next quiz and, most unexpectedly, after a couple of weeks coming last, we won last time. It was all down to Dirty Dancing. Weeza’s choice and I’d never seen it all through before – but we scored 8 out of 10 and that clinched it.

As the film theme went down well, we thought we’d go for that again this week. But, with a twist to each family choosing a subject to ask questions about, we asked everyone to select a film and someone else would have to devise the questions for everyone. I wrote down every family and every film and Tim picked them at random. We are asking questions on Star Wars, the first film, no. 4.

Tonight, we started our preparations by watching Groundhog Day. Chosen by Ro (in a nod to the current lockdown) and questions to be set by Weeza and co. Great choice, Tim and I have enjoyed watching it again. What we’ll remember by Wednesday is another matter.

The one to look out for is Wink. She chooses the most obscure facts to ask about. What she’ll make of Paddington is anyone’s guess.

April has lasted at least three years so far, according to the internets

I still haven’t made that rhubarb chutney, but I have made banana and walnut loaf today and a sausage casserole. And Tim made Rogan Josh. I was going to make a soufflé for lunch, but ran out of time. That is, Tim ran out of gin, so I volunteered to venture out to the local supermarket, which I hadn’t visited for nearly six weeks. I feel more confident about it now that they are strictly limiting the people going in. There is also a one-way system in there, but this is a bit of a challenge to the good people of Yagnub and a certain amount of dodging is required. Anyway, I bought all I wanted (and no more) except the spray LT uses to clean the shower, and I’ve ordered that from Amazon instead.

But the extra queueing, which I knew about but hadn’t taken into account, meant that it was nearly 1 o’clock by the time I got home and I wasn’t particularly inclined to start on a soufflé then, so we had scrambled eggs instead.

Tomorrow, I really will cook that chutney. Have I ever mentioned the excellent courgette chutney that I discovered a couple of years ago? If not, I’ll let you have the recipe. Which has been adapted from the rather vague one given in the cookbook and mine is better anyway.

What I’m wondering is, whether there’s any goodness left in the vegetables or fruit once they’ve been preserved in vinegar or sugar? Does anyone know? Jam, chutney, pickles and so on – we had cheese and oatcakes yesterday, with an array of pickles which we liked to think of as vegetables, but we don’t know if they are, really, once they’re boiled in vinegar. They do taste good, though, and it means the home grown veggies are never wasted, so there has to be a positive side to it.

I didn’t let the chickens out today because it was cold and raining hard. Then I went down to feed the barn cats at about 7 o’clock and dropped in on the chooks to give them a treat of mealworms. But, turning round from talking to the cats, i found a bantam, who must have sneaked out when I sidled out of their greenhouse. When I opened the door to let her in, of course half a dozen others nipped out and started to frolic on the compost heap. I gave up and went indoors to have a gin and tonic, since I’d valiantly braved the g&t shop. I didn’t actually need food, only boring household stuff and booze. I did get a few extra onions and some orange juice, though.

The bantam previously known as Slapper

You may remember, if you have nothing else to do with your time, that one of the youngest bantams disappeared a few months ago, to come back three weeks later with a hatching of chicks. Sadly, the weather turned awful a couple of days later and this inexperienced little pullet couldn’t cope. In the end, just one chick survived and *he* is doing fine. Yeah, certainly a boy, which is very upsetting.

I named this young tearaway Slapper, which isn’t very kind but I was fed up. Anyway, she vanished again the other evening. I knew what had happened this time and searched around, but couldn’t find her. However, the next day, Rose spotted her ambling around. So I casually followed her. She spent a while with the other chickens, then headed back to the kitchen garden, then into the chickens’ greenhouse, where she had a drink. I thought that it would be a good idea to fill a bowl as well as the drinkers, so went to get a watering can, which I’d filled earlier in the day. But I was too late, because Slapper had left the building.

Luckily, I spotted her again, near where I feed the feral cats. I hid, because she’d spotted me too – chickens, with an eye on each side of their face, have a wide visual range. Hilariously, they aren’t so good at seeing what’s under their beaks, so have to turn their heads one way and then the other. I’m so fond of chickens, they make me laugh in a very friendly way. But I digress.

Eventually, Slapper moved purposefully and I noted the direction. After a while, I went to check – she has chosen the craftiest hiding place, where she’s barely visible. It’s very close to where she nested before, in fact, but even more deviously placed. I would never have found her and it was my final chance, as she hasn’t budged since. As it is, I know that a sensible person would haul her out, put her on a few old eggs and leave her until she gives up. But I’m not very sensible. We really don’t need more chickens, and more than half of a clutch are inevitably boys, which is also bad news. But I’m not very sensible and I confidently assume, whilst knowing it’s not true, that all chicks are hens if I believe they are.

Anyway, I’ve changed Slapper’s name to Polly Garter, from Under Milk Wood, who had yearly babies and didn’t care what people thought of her. I’ll have to move quite a lot of things before I can catch her and put her in a coop, but I’ll let her settle for a while first. In the meantime, I also discovered a cache of 20 eggs, from different hens, and they need to be dealt with. I can’t cope with any more, so I phoned the Rector’s wife and offered some this afternoon. They have three children, so were very pleased to accept. I gave them the newest eggs, obviously, because I’m polite. I put them on the doorstep, rang the bell and ran away. Social distancing and all that.

Z is still digging

We’re still gradually forking over the kitchen garden. It’s taking a while. I dug up the last of the leeks today, in a clear hint to LT to make his fabulous Leek Quiche. There are enough leeks to make at least two of them, but we may well freeze what’s left when he’s made one.

I also pulled quite a lot of rhubarb. Does anyone have a good recipe for rhubarb chutney or relish? I’ve found some that look promising on the BBC Good Food website; one with dates and a couple with ginger, but personal recommendations are always best. Tim likes to have some fruit and yoghurt with breakfast but, if I have that, it’s all I have and I usually want something a bit more sustaining. Otherwise, we don’t tend to eat cooked fruits because we don’t have puddings. So I don’t usually bother a lot with rhubarb, but this year I’m looking for jobs to do that aren’t the turning out and deep cleaning ones that are needed but aren’t happening to any great extent. Cooking fits the bill quite nicely.

Otherwise, what is happening here is the cutting up of wood for the winter. We plan ahead at the Zedary. We have enough wood left for maybe half a dozen open fires – or we had, at any rate – which will probably be enough. There is also some smokeless fuel to add to it. But there was a sizeable dead tree from three and a half years ago, which was just lying on the Ups and Downs and, today, it’s finally been cut up. Also, the knotty logs that couldn’t be split, the pieces of oak from the tree on the drive (these will be kept for a couple of years to dry out) and the Scots pine that fell down the winter before last. We are having nothing to do with this industrious chop and splittery, we’re employing someone. No need to go near each other, we can talk from a suitable distance and I’ll pay the money into his bank account. It’s rather good that some things carry on, as if life were normal at some level.

I must tell you about the young bantam Slapper, whose name has been changed because it really isn’t kind. But she is a bit of a pain.

Zed’s bread

As I said, I make bread every week and, again, there’s no waste any more, because we slice and freeze it and then take out what we need. If I have a white loaf for some reason, I will whizz it up in the food processor and freeze it in a bag, but the everyday bread I make has seeds in it and isn’t ideal for that. And it’s too good (albeit much cheaper than comparable shop bread) to waste on the chickens. Tim has an electric slicer, which is very useful.

One of the things I use the breadcrumbs for is a topping for fish. A handful of breadcrumbs, a crushed clove of garlic, some parsley or other herb, some lemon and olive oil all mixed together and spread on a piece of fish, which is then baked, is about the easiest meal I can do. It can also be grilled, with care. The fish is protected by the topping, so doesn’t dry out and you don’t need potatoes, only a salad or green vegetables. The fishmonger calls on a Monday and we always seem to have leftovers because neither of us has a big appetite. Skins and bones go to the chickens (it’s surprising what they can peck to pieces, there’s never much left) but the remains of the fish that we can’t eat go into the fridge for another day. It will make fishcakes, a risotto or a pie, with the judicious addition of other suitable ingredients. “Free food,” we say joyously, whenever I make a second meal out of the main ingredient of one. Always remove the skin while the fish is still warm or it sticks like glue

We actually went shopping today. I’ve been letting the local food shops have my order and then gone in to fetch it, but we decided to have an outing to one of the farm shops. This particular one has only been going for about three years. The owners have a small herd of Jersey cows and they leave the calves with their mothers and only take the surplus milk, which they sell unpasteurised. Gradually, they branched out into cheese and various meats and opened a shop and a cafe, both of which were very good. Of course, the cafe is closed, though they do a few takeaway dishes. Anyway, we bought flour, yeast, meat and a few other things, so we probably won’t need anything more this week. i always use the instant yeast and this is traditional dried yeast, so I’ll have to look up quantities.

Z’s veg

The recent revelation on making vegetable soup is this – oh goodness, I’m losing half of you already. Bear with me. Vegetable soup is lovely.

Make stock from the peel and trimmings and add it to the soup rather than bought stock or just water.

I started with this years ago, but never thought to extend it. When I boil asparagus, I save the cooking water. Sometimes I cook it another way – but there’s usually the tough end of the stalks and they have plenty of flavour too. Boil them until you can mash them and then push through a sieve (do not omit this step because the tough bits are really fibrous and this does not diminish, however long you cook them). Then I use the stock for risotto or soup. More recently, I’ve taken this further but, again, it didn’t start with vegetable soup but with stock.

When we have a joint of meat or a chicken, or I fillet some fish, I make stock from the bones. I’d cut up an onion, a carrot, some celery – whatever I had. But finally (I’m not that bright, darlings) it occurred to me that the veggies I was cooking for another meal were being peeled and I was, sorry to say, throwing the peel away. So I saved it for the stock. I started to use the core of a pepper, the stalk of a cauliflower (though that’s delicious to eat anyway), the brown skin under the papery one of an onion, the ends and peelings of a carrot, the leafy bits of celery (do not waste the root, that’s the cook’s treat and the best bit) and the peel of a turnip and the green leaves of leek and even spring onions. Potato peel doesn’t work. It just doesn’t, it makes a cloudy stock, but you can toss it in oil and bake it for crisps, if you can be arsed.

It took me still longer to realise that, even if I didn’t have bones, there was flavour in them there peelings and they added value to my veggie soup or risotto or casserole. I have some Marigold stock in the cupboard (Marigold is good because it’s a powder and you can add just a little and the vegan sort is available in a low salt version) but I don’t use it much. If you’re making a pale soup, such as celery, don’t add the brown onion skins to the stock. That’s about the only caveat.