Slummy (lamb) mummy and the perils of wanting it all

Today I truly surpassed myself.

Picking up Esme from her second party of the weekend, I was sounding off to a good friend about how I had had my one and only free hour of the weekend disrupted. “But”, she offered positively, “you did at least get a couple of hours to yourself at the hairdressers on Friday”. Yes this was true but then as I looked at myself in the car mirror, I realised I hadn’t had time to wash my newly coiffured hair since, my jeans were caked in lamb milk and my top, also highly stained, was inside out. To any outsider catching a glimpse of me, complete with dull, spotty face and dark bags under my eyes, they may be mistaken to think I was a new mum, clambouring for some sense of reality after weeks of sleepless nights.

But no, the reality is I am just trying to achieve the same as everyone else – balance. And this week, I have had that really tested to the limits.

Following our failure to produce any lambs, and therefore beginning the year with less ewes than we started with, we had rather given up hope of any fluffy bundles skipping around our field. So when our friend asked if we fancied having any orphans he couldn’t foster on, we jumped at the chance. However we hadn’t exactly thought it through…..

In two weeks time it is our 1st wedding anniversary. This time 12 months ago we were getting ready for what turned out to be the most amazing day. We did it here on the farm. The sun shone. The local beer and homemade gin flowed and I married my best friend. Of course it would then stand to reason that we would want to celebrate in style and so without thought we booked the obligatory night away and lined up the grandparents to babysit.

And then the lambs arrived. And all of a sudden our life has been thrown into a whirlwind of powdered milk and bottle feeds, constant washing up and rushing to get everything done in 4 hour stints. Oh, and not to mention also running my marketing agency in a week where my time was already monopolised by lots of long, complicated conference calls requiring me to be on my ‘A-game’! That idea of balance soon got thrown out with the lambs leftover milk!

And then it hit us. How can we go away with 3 week old lambs at home? Oh and what about the chicks that are due to hatch that weekend? I must admit I had a bit of a strop which was followed by some serious soul searching. After all, I’ve been working flat out – surely I deserved a break? Is this what life is going to be like now? Are we always going to be tied to the farm and is this what I really want?

But then Robin pointed something out to me. In 20 years time, we will have long forgotten what we did on our anniversary, what we ate, where we stayed but the memories of our first ever lambs, on a farm which we are building together, despite adversary and illness, will be with us for a lifetime. This is the life I want and despite my grumbles I am the happiest I’ve ever been. So, as much as I hate to admit it, my husband is right. Just don’t tell him I said that.

Hilary x

The lovely cause of all my stress

The lovely cause of all my stress

If life gives you lemons…. start a smallholding!

Someone told me once that if you don’t have a plan, you will always be part of someone else’s. But what happens when you do have a plan – and then things don’t quite work out as you expected?

The survivors!

Historically Lady Luck has not been our friend. When we first dipped our toe into farming life – and bought 4 store lambs for fattening, we lost one within a month or so due to fly strike. Then late last autumn, completely out of the blue, one of our pedigree Oxford Down ewes fell ill and despite reassurances from the vet and a few precautionary jabs, things quickly went downhill and by morning we had lost her. She was in lamb too. Such a bugger. And then to top it off in December our other Oxford ewe aborted her lamb. Tests were done on both but no clinical cause identified. And finally to add injury to insult our remaining 3 ewes never produced anything either – a year’s work down the drain and yet another case of our bad luck.

But then it struck me – this isn’t about luck, this is real life; the reality of farming. We all make mistakes – some bigger and felt with more impact than others – but that’s just the way things go. You can let it wear you down or simply learn from it and move on. Taking strength in knowing you (hopefully) won’t make the same mistake twice and most importantly remembering that we only become victims if we allow ourselves to be.

So casting aside all doubts – and banning the use of the phrase “well that’s just typical – things never go right for us” now is the time for us to get off our bums and carve out the path to our own future. A future that I am sure, for Robin and I, will be full of escaping birds, wind damaged barns, always earthing electric fences and an endless stream of hefty repair bills for our rusty old Defender but at least it will be our future. A result of our passion, our shared goals and our focus that no matter what – because we want it and work for it – we will get there in the end. Sod the luck.

In other news this week, despite our collection of fertile La Bresse eggs being ‘re-purposed’ by the father-in-law we are now back on track with the incubation. Robin is getting started transforming an old shipping container into a rat-safe haven for the newly hatched and unearthing an old chicken tractor that we found buried under years of twisted brambles in the woods. We plan to hatch out pure breed La Bresse, Indian Game Fowl cross Brahma and Buff Orpingtons. We are also keeping a close eye on our geese and hoping they will turn broody soon. But who knows, the winds may change and we may have to re-think our plans but if they do I can promise you one thing, if anyone dares to mention ‘bad luck’ to me, I may just hand them some lemons.

Hilary x

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Pah to that I say!

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well that’s just rubbish for a start.

It might not kill you but it sure as hell stresses you out. Leaves you exhausted. And makes you question – on more than two occasions why on earth we are even attempting this whole thing in the first place. I mean seriously – setting up a smallholding? Whilst trying to run our other businesses. Bring up a small child. And fight the black dog of depression that keeps arriving on our doorstep hungry to be fed.

But never-the-less here we are. A year down the line and finally ready to start sharing what we do. Our ever growing smallholding is our passion, a way of life we have both been separately hankering after for years, finally realised when we met 3 years ago.

Robin is the driving force. The brains, the brawn. After a year of trying to balance his landscaping business with the demands of the farm, he has now thrown himself into it full time. Spending his days building incredible sheep sheds, breeding pens and coops from whatever scraps he can get his hands on and his nights researching the latest trends in poultry breeding, cures for oral canker or something else equally engaging. Incredible really.

Robin is also proof that therapy stretches far further than a GP’s surgery or pyschiarist’s chair. Having being diagnosed with severe clinical depression in 2013, he now finds solace in the daily routines of the farm. Whether soaking up the sun or being drenched in the rain, being out on the farm is better than Prozac; lifting spirits, providing a sense of purpose and reason to go on. Eventually he plans to use the smallholding to help out other people just like him. Showing them that having mental health issues is not a reason to hide away and how working the land and tending to animals might just be the therapy they’ve been looking for.

For me, it’s all still somewhat of a lovely distraction from my daily toil running a fledging marketing agency. For some reason (that maybe only fellow smallholders can understand) being out in the field, dagging a sheep or some other delightful task is the perfect antidote to the fast pace technologically driven world in which my clients live. Plus it’s always amusing to explain to customers why they can hear geese or ducks in the background of my conference calls!

So that’s us. Robin and Hilary. Oh and not to forget Esme our beautiful little girl and the two fat greedy labradors Barney and Casta who I am sure will make an appearance on here from time to time.

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We would also love to hear from you and share experiences so please feel free to leave comments or contact us directly

x

If I could teach the world to…forage

Despite last month’s dalliance with lilac, my first love with elderflower has been well and truly re-kindled today. And to make it all the better I was joined on my foray into the woods by Esme and her little helper Barnaby Bear.

Growing up, my parents taught me all about the delights that nature could provide. Despite a rather unfortunate episode with Dad’s elderflower champagne, it sparked a real passion in me and one which I am now determined to pass on.IMG_5593

It amazes me that despite campaigns to teach children where meat comes from and the virtues of healthy eating, education draws a blank around foraging. Now I am not naive enough to suggest that one can swap trips to the supermarket for jaunts along the hedgerows but at least giving our children a basic understanding of wild food and what can be achieved from simple ingredients they can pick would be a start.

It’s really encouraging to see so many wild eating foragers distilling the virtues in the media but I have a sinking feeling if we don’t involve our children now, it is something that will before long die out   – or even worse be swamped by swanky London chefs and “jump on the bandwagon” urbanites who over recent years have been stripping the countryside bare.

Wild food ticks so many boxes for me; fresh, delicious, free, no food miles or carbon footprint – surely we owe it to our children to pass the legacy on?

And what’s a better introduction than elderflower – lovely in so many ways and perfect for grown ups and little foragers alike.

Here’s a couple of my favourite recipes and a rather experimental one…

Elderflower champagne 


Ingredients

  • 800g sugar
  • Florets from 8 elderflower sprays
  • Zest and juice of 4 lemons
  • 1/2 tsp yeast nutrient

Method

  1. Clean and properly sterilise a fermentation bucket
  2. Dissolve the sugar in 2 litres of hot water in the bucket and then top up with 3 litres of cold water. Leave to cool.
  3. Add the elderflower, lemon zest and juice and yeast nutrient
  4. Leave to ferment. If there are no signs of fermentation after 3 days, give it a kick start with a sachet of champagne yeast
  5. After 6 days, strain through a clean muslin into a sterilised bucket – cover and leave to settle for a couple of hour and then siphon into bottles. I recommend the glass swing top bottles – they are nice and sturdy and are easy to open – essential to do daily unless you want them exploding!
  6. The champagne should be ready to drink in a week or so and will keep ok for a year… if you can resist it that is!

Note – it is absolutely essential you clean and sterilise the bucket and bottles really well. The aforementioned “unfortunate episode” with my Dad’s brew was a result of bacteria in the demi-johns…one not to be repeated in a hurry!!

With credit: River Cottage

Elderflower fritters


Ingredients

  • 15 elderflower heads
  • 100g plain flour
  • 2 tablespoons of oil
  • 175ml chilled sparkling mineral water
  • Caster sugar

Method

  1. Beat the flour, oil and water together and add 1 tablespoon of sugar. Leave to settle for 30 mins
  2. Heat oil in a pan – when hot enough (and you can test this by dropping a piece of bread in and if it browns immediately, the oil is ready) dip the flower heads quickly in the batter and drop straight into the oil
  3. Use the stem of the flower to submerge it gently under the oil until it turns a light golden brown
  4. Drain and dip in caster sugar. Eat hot…and before anyone else gets their hands on them!

With credit: Nigel Slater

Elderflower, lavender and gooseberry jam


Ingredients

  • A good bunch of elderflower
  • A freezer bag full of gooseberries
  • A few heads of lavender
  • Sachet of pectin
  • Caster sugar

Method

Note – this is a bit of an experiment hence the lack of exact measurements. I made the jam from juice using my amazing Vigo steam juice extractor but equally you could boil everything together and then sieve or follow usual jam making rules…whatever they may be! 

  1. Bung all the ingredients in the juice extractor and steam for 45 mins till all the juice is released
  2. Add 450g sugar for each pint of juice plus a sachet of pectin and boil until you reach jam point.
  3. Pour very carefully into hot sterilised jam jars

And not forgetting where it all started…elderflower cordial

Ingredients

  • 20 heads of elderflower
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 75g citric acid
  • 1.2 litres of water
  • 750g caster sugar

Method

  1. Check the elderflower for bugs – try not to shake them too much at this stage
  2. Add the flowers to a large bowl along with the sliced lemons and citric acid
  3. Boil the water and sugar together until the sugar has all dissolved to make a syrup
  4. Pour the syrup over the elderflowers, cover with a clean tea towel and leave somewhere cool for 24 hours
  5. Strain through fine muslin and bottle into sterilised glass bottles. Cordial will keep for 3 months – refrigerate once open. Alternatively use plastic bottles, freeze the cordial and it will last as long as you can keep from drinking it!

Wild garlic pesto

Gentle garlic flavour that you can pick for free in the woods. What’s not to like? And it’s so versatile too. Eat it raw in salads, wilted like spinach or make a wonderful pesto with it – the perfect accompaniment for pasta, chicken or in my case potato gnocchi.

IMG_5376

Ingredients

  • 100g wild garlic leaves
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Flaked sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons of lemon juice

Method

  1. Heat a saucepan one-third full of water. When simmering, fill a separate bowl with cold water and add a couple of ice cubes
  2. Drop the garlic leaves into the simmering water for 30 seconds and then remove straightaway using a slotted spoon
  3. Plunge the leaves straight into the ice cold water to stop them cooking and make sure they keep their lovely green colour
  4. Lift the leaves out and squeeze all of the water out with your hands and then chop finely
  5. Put the chopped leaves in a bowl with the oil and salt. Squeeze in the lemon juice and..that’s it! Ready to enjoy

Note – wild garlic is distinctive by its pungent smell but there are other plants with similar leaves that are poisonous so use your nose and you should be fine!

Credit: The Good Table, Valentine Warner

Move over elderflower…there’s a new sweetheart in town

I feel like I should be telling you this in a lowered voice in some dingy Soho den because I am a traitor. An adulterer. A sinner. I never thought I would utter these words but shhh…. intoxicating elderflower – I think I may have found another love.

For years entranced by its glorious blooms and unique sweet smell of Lilac, little did I know that it could produce such a incredible ‘blow your pants off’ flavour. And guess what, it looks darn pretty too.

Lamenting the dark months before the first flurries of Elderflower hit the hedgerows, I stumbled across a recipe for Lilac syrup. Really, I thought, you can eat this stuff? Well it just so happens you can and when you combine it with simple sugar and water, it produces the most powerful syrup, full of depth and cherry like flavour. Perfect with ice cold bubbles, gorgeous over ice cream and delicious in cakes. And it’s pink – what ‘s not to like?

IMG_5372 IMG_5398

Ingrediants

  • 12 heads of lilac
  • 2 litres of water
  • 1500g caster sugar
  • 20g citric acid

Method

  1. Boil the water and sugar together, let the sugar dissolve and then turn off the heat and leave the syrup to cool completely.
  2. Pull the lilac blooms of the heads, giving them a good shake before hand to get rid of any unwanted bugs.
  3. Mix the flowers into the cooled syrup, add the citric acid and give it all a good stir.
  4. Cover the mixture with a lid or muslin (or in my case cling film with a tea towel over the top)
  5. Place in a cool dark place for a week and stir daily
  6. After a week, strain the flowers using a sieve and muslin cloth and bottle into clean sterilised bottles.

I cannot really find the words to describe the absolute pleasure in tasting this syrup. Elderflower will always be my first love but Lilac is most definitely my naughty bit on the side. The true test will be if I can make champagne from it next – my favourite thing to make from elderflowers. I made up the mix today so watch this space in a few weeks and I will let you know how it goes!

With credit to http://www.andcute.com

Forget the chocolate… how about some gin?

Spring has sprung. The grass is getting greener, the bluebells in our woods are preparing to debut their beauty and I am starting to plan out what delights I will be conjuring up this  year from Mother Nature’s larder.

The start of Spring is signalled in our household by the first delivery of wild garlic from our friend’s garden. Wafts of its delicate scent fills the kitchen and many scrumptious dishes, like Robin’s wonderful butter bean, salami and wild garlic stew that we had earlier this week, soon follow.

Before we know it we will be knee deep in elderflower, lilac, nasturtium, rhubarb, all begging me to make them into pretty jams, cordials and most importantly gin!

So with that thought in mind – I wanted to share with you my delicious recipe for Spiced Quince gin which I have just bottled. You need real discipline and patience not to drink this at Christmas (you start stage 1 at the end of the summer) but if you can leave it until Easter, its delicate flavours of perfumed quince infused with the light spice of ginger and cardamon match tonic perfectly. Or if you fancy something straight up, try mixing with sugar syrup to make a liqueur – perfect over ice cream or neat with a rock or two.

Spiced quince gin

Ingredients

6-7 large quinces

750ml gin (or vodka if you prefer)

10 cardamon pods – bashed gently in a  pestle to release their scent

Thumbnail size piece of root ginger

Lemon peel – sliced

Method

  1. Grate the quinces and put them in a large sterilised preserving jar (I use Kilner jars and wash them in the dishwasher and then let then dry in a warm oven)
  2. Add the ginger, lemon peel and cardamon. You could also add any other spices you like such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves etc.
  3. Seal the jar and store in a cool dark place. Shake the jar daily for the first 4 weeks
  4. The gin can be drunk after 3 months but I prefer to leave it at least 6 months to get a better flavour
  5. When ready, strain it through a fine sieve or muslin, bottle and enjoy at your leisure.

If you would rather make a liqueur, simply boil 350g caster sugar in 350ml water until all the sugar has dissolved. Once cooled, add to the strained gin and bottle.

Stage 1 – The long hard wait…

Making the liquer

All ready to drink