Friday, 26 August 2016

Abundance and Fruits of the Forage Jam recipe

As   we head towards the end of the first summer on our smallholding, the rhythm of my days is changing. Although I am up at around five each morning, I am no longer out in the garden right away because it's still dark. So for the first hour I'm now reading, watching and researching instead of doing that in the midday heat.

I've been gathering as much food as I can, to eat fresh and also to preserve. I have frozen kilos of mirabelles, fat juicy plums, elderberries, blackberries from the hedgerows, sliced runner beans, broad beans, chunky rainbow chard stems and mangetout.
In  the piggery I've stored the garlic bulbs and the onions will join them once they have ripened. Yet to come are the apples, potatoes, carrots, parsnips and a myriad of other vegetables. Some crops will stay in the ground over winter and should give us freshly picked vegetables throughout the winter and early spring.

By  sheer good fortune, my neighbours have a glut in some crops that either have failed in our kitchen garden or we haven't very much of and we have a glut of crops that haven't done too well in their garden. Being the sensible bunnies that we are, we have started to swap the excesses meaning that both families now have a wider selection of foods to eat now and to store for the winter.

Yesterday evening our neighbour dropped by with a carrier bag filled with plums which were a swap for runner beans that they have been having for the last few weeks. 

They've also said that I can help myself to windfall cooking apples which I am delighted about as I have been foraging blackberries from the hedgerows and can now make blackberry and apple pie filling to freeze. If there are enough cooking apples I will also make some blackberry and apple jam or jelly. The apples on our young trees are eating apples and there are not very many of them as yet because the trees are only four or five years old.

The success of some vegetables has inspired me for next year. I will plant many more beetroot (Boltardy) which have been very sweet and flavoursome this year, to make wine from next year. In the area between the perennial flower border and the vegetable garden I had planned to have cut flowers and herbs, but I will now have fruit instead. I will plant some fruit trees, underplanted with currant bushes, fruit canes and strawberry plants together with some complementary herbs. Some mint in a pot buried in the ground to go with the strawberries, some sweet cicely to help take the edge off the rhubarb, some licquorice roots, tarragon to go with the raspberries.

This afternoon I have made some of my favourite mixed fruit jam, which I'm calling 'Fruits of the Forage' Jam.

Fruits of the Forage Jam


3lbs of foraged fruit (I used 1lb cored windfall apples and 2lbs of stoned plums, blackberries and elderberries)
Juice of 1 Lemon
2lbs unrefined granulated sugar
1 glass red wine (optional)
7 fluid oz boiling water
1tblspn ground cinnamon
1tblspn ground ginger
2 dried cloves (ground in pestle and mortar)
1/2 tspn grated nutmeg


Wash jam jars and put in heated oven to sterilise and put lids in a pan of boiling water, boil for 10 minutes to sterilise and leave in water until ready to use.

Wash and prepare the fruit, squeeze lemon juice over the fruit and put in a heavy based large pan with the glass of wine and boiling water. 

Cook until the fruit is soft stirring regularly to prevent it sticking to the pan. 

Add cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. 

Stir in the sugar until dissolved.

Cook rapidly stirring to prevent sticking until setting point.

Remove jars from oven and leave to cool a little.

Spoon or ladle the jam into the jars (be careful because the jars will be hot).

Wipe the outside of the jars if necessary to remove any spilt jam, but avoid putting your cloth into the jar.

Using tongs, remove the lids one at a time from the pan of water and seal jars.

Once the jam has cooled in the jars, remember to label them to help avoid confusion later.
Use a deep pan to avoid splashes

Ready to put jam into jars

Use tongs to remove lids from hot water

Don't forget to label your Fruits of the Forage Jam

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Putting the chickens to work

On Monday a dear friend came to visit. Kim lives in Mid Wales and when I lived there we became very good pals. Kim's work and home commitments mean that she rarely has a chance to get away for a day or two, so it has been a long time since we've seen each other.

She arrived here shortly after noon and I showed her around in the light rain. Luckily the weather improved all the time she was here and by the time she left on Tuesday afternoon it was positively scorching hot. Kim is another of those friends with whom the conversation can have a six month pause, but when we chat again we immediately get back to laughing together.

As with everyone, she was very taken with the ducklings and as she hadn't spent time close up with chickens before, was fascinated by the girls behaviour. She sat with me in the chicken field and fed spinach and kale to the older birds. Little White has such a gentle disposition that it hard not to like her, she is always happy to come for a cuddle (or at least she tolerates me cuddling her!). With still at least a couple more months of growing to do, she is going to be a splendid bird.

Early on Monday morning I organised a space at the back of the piggeries to use for dispatching chickens. This is not a task that I have been looking forward to, but having made the decision and the undertaking to raise our own meat birds there is an inevitable task that needs to be done to provide us with home raised organic meat. I did the deed. It wasn't a very nice process, but I am happy that it was done humanely, kindly and calmly.

As it turns out, a young Cream Legbar cockerel has very little meat on its bones, but he did have some fat, so I am comfortable that the birds are getting a good balance of food out in the field. We had decided that he was going to be dispatched because all of our birds need to serve a purpose, he was supposed to be 'servicing' the girls but they just weren't interested in him. I think it was because although he was potentially a splendid specimen, he only had one wattle and I suspect that is what put the girls off him. He also had a rough technique with the girls and they really objected to his attention. When he did try to tread them, he was so rough that they girls would squeal with pain and run away. It seemed to us that this arrangement was unlikely to produce many fertile eggs, so he has gone and one of the young cockerels can now take his place as the lead male of the flock and we just hope that he will have a better technique!

Last night we talked about the best way to put the youngest chickens to work in the garden. The older girls scratch through their 'circle of love' (the area where we throw weeds, food scraps, wood shavings and straw from their houses and wood chippings) turning it into rich compost for the vegetable garden. We felt it was time for the young ones to pull their weight too. 

Over the weekend I had removed the perennial weeds from a raised bed and lifted the last of the onions that had been growing there and the next task is to improve the soil before a winter crop goes into the bed. So today I have made a make-shift run in that raised bed. 

Pushing bamboo canes around the edges and using a couple of tube arches I created a structure to wrap in chicken wire. Once I was happy that it was secure I put the Four Horsemen into the run together with their water dispenser and they will spend the next few days in there scratching amongst the straw and soil. Each evening I will move them back to their hen house so that they are safe from predators over night.

Well, I've seen some stroppy children in my time, but these young chickens looked for all the world like they'd been slapped in the face by the proverbial wet fish! I gave them some spinach and chard (their favourites) and sprinkled some of their organic chicken feed onto the ground to encourage them to scratch about, but no, they were just not very interested in earning their keep.

Early evening I got them out of the chicken wire raised bed confinement and put them back in the field that they think of as home and no sooner had I done that than they ran off out of the field, squeezing through the flexible chicken fencing to their new favourite place on the smallholding - the shrubbery near the front of the house - and started scratching amongst the bark chippings, flicking them all over the drive!

I marched them back to their pen in the chicken field and locked them in for the evening. I could hear them crying to be let out as I headed back to the house, but none of others are allowed to destroy the shrubbery and neither are they.

After supper we put all the birds to bed, the chickens put themselves of course, but we close the doors to their houses and make them safe for the night and we headed back inside to watch The Great British Bake Off. The start of the new series signals to me that we are coming to the end of summer and starting to transition towards autumn. The fruit and vegetables in the garden are indicating the same thing. I think I have picked the last of the green runner beans and will leave the remaining pods on the plants to ripen and save to use as dried beans or as seeds for next year's plants. The blackberries that grow so well around the perimeter of the smallholding are ripe and I have been picking handfuls every couple of days and even the apples on the trees are starting to look ready to pick. I am now regularly awake and pottering around downstairs well before dawn and yet the weather for the last couple of days has been positively glorious.

Anyway, it's all change week for the younger chickens. The Four Horsemen are now eight weeks old and the Dirty Dozen are four weeks old. This means that the Four will move into the main chicken shed to live with Jack, Diesel, Big Red and Little White until we separate the birds into flocks of their own breed at some point in the future. Then I can deep clean the enclosed hen house and pen ready for the Dozen to move into from their nursery pen in the stable.

So, after we'd watched an hour of television and it was fairly dark outside, we headed out with torches to move the Four Horsemen. Good grief, they still hadn't gone to sleep and while a bit dozey, they certainly weren't in a deep sleep. Mr J was on door opening duty while I lifted the wriggly little Horsemen from their house and carried them to the chicken shed. I popped them onto the floor just inside the door and when they wake up in the morning they will be part of the big girls flock. Or at least, that is the theory. The chances are that there will be quite a bit of squawking from the shed as the sun comes up and the Four will race off, squeeze through the flexible chicken fencing and make a bid for the freedom of the shrubbery. At which point, I will scoop them up and take them over to the raised bed so that they can continue to scratch there, turning the soil and fertilising it, ready for the next crop to be planted in it.

The ducklings have already moved to their outside home, they have been sleeping in their house for a couple of nights and seem to be quite happy going up the (fairly steep) ramp to bed each evening. Once the Dozen are out in the house in the field the stable will be empty again, giving me the chance to empty and clean the chicken's nursery run and close it down until the spring and to prepare the duck nursery run for new arrivals. We have one last batch of duck eggs in the incubator which are due to hatch early next week. I know that it is quite late in the year to be hatching more ducklings, but we wanted to raise a couple more before next spring if we could. My guess is that they will spend longer inside before moving out if the weather get suddenly cool or, if we are lucky and have a mild autumn, they can move outside at four weeks old as the current ducklings have done.

It is now Thursday morning, the sun is just starting to lighten the sky and I am going to head outside and try to curtail any unpleasantness in the chicken shed, but first, as always, it's time to make a cuppa.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

How far do I go to get a cuppa?

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at my morning routine as it has changed considerably during the last year. Today should be a fairly typical day, nothing special is planned, the torrential rain and howling gale have stopped and it promises to be not too bad a day (not great for August, but it is what it is).

I don't use an alarm clock, I don't need to, I have the boys outside informing me quite eloquently if I have slept too late for their liking! But regardless of them, I usually wake around five and stumble around finding my dressing gown and make my way downstairs. We have a door at the bottom of the stairs which I close carefully to try to minimise the noise that travels upstairs. Just because I don't sleep so well doesn't mean that Mr J should be woken at silly o'clock too. This morning I woke at 5.15 and lay in bed for a few minutes contemplating the weather, no I couldn't hear rain, good, no I couldn't hear the wind rattling the solar panels, marvelous, the sun wasn't streaming through the curtains, it was too early for that yet. I couldn't lie there any longer, I needed to get moving. 

I am very stiff when I sit or lie around for a while, so each morning my back and legs seem to take a lot longer to wake up than the rest of me. Hobbling downstairs is inelegant, but once I've been moving around for about ten minutes I am fine again. I visited the bathroom, took my tablets and put the kettle on.

Then I headed outside to sort out the animals. First stop, the piggeries to collect their food and then out to the chicken field. I opened the chicken shed and said good morning to four bleary-eyed chickens who are only just getting used to having a darker shed (I blocked out the second shed window just before the storm arrived so that if debris hit the window, it wouldn't break onto the chickens). Big Red had been singing his morning song since he'd heard me open the gate, he's getting loud, really loud and he has a very deep voice. I put out their food and then went to house and run of 'The Four Horsemen'. 

They are seven and a half weeks old and I am looking forward to putting them into the chicken shed later in the week. I put their food into their run, let them out of their house, opened up the run so that they have full access to the field, checked and refreshed their water. That was them sorted for a while.

Going into the next part of the chicken field means untying a fiddly gate arrangement or just climbing over the flexible netting, which is almost always the first choice. So this morning I climbed over the netting and was reminded that it had been raining heavily for the best part of twenty-four hours. There's nothing quite like a jolly cold splash of water between the thighs to help wake one up! I opened the hen house of the Cream Legbars and said good morning to each of them as they came rushing out. It's not so much that I say hello, but I check the birds to make sure that there are no signs of illness or discomfort. It seems to make sense to know the birds well enough to be able to spot problems before they become too big to treat. Anyway they all looked fine, so I refreshed their water and headed to the duck enclosure.

Luckily I had topped up the duck's water as they went to bed last night, so only had one bucket of water to lug around to replace the one that they drank from and washed in before going to bed. A quick chat to them, who are much less pleased to see me in the mornings than the chickens and I headed into the vegetable garden. I walked up and down the rows of brassicas doing my twice (or three times) daily ritual of picking off caterpillars and slugs. I also checked to see how much damage the high winds had done to vegetables and fruit. I straightened a few canes that were leaning at a jaunty angle and took up the mangetout and pea plants that are now over. They have both produced a good crop, but the peas were drying out and looking very sad and the mangetout were both crispy and soggy simultaneously (a clever trick). 

There were a few peas and mangetouts that had grown very fat in their pods so as I put the plants onto the compost heap, I took them out of their pods and threw them to the ducks, who suddenly and miraculously were now my best friends. Cupboard love is not a wonderful thing, but if that's all those ducks are offering in terms of spending time with me, I'll take it.

I noticed that the pumpkins are coming along well and the squashes which up to now have failed, are starting to look like they may just provide us with some small fruits. I found one patty pan that would be a suitable size to have with breakfast and then got side-tracked again and lifted a couple of carrots to see how those are doing for size.

Then I headed to the old stable to check on the chicks and ducklings. They have been confined to barracks for the last couple of days and weren't terribly impressed at not being allowed to go outside. I filled a bucket with about thirty litres of water and put a cat litter tray into the ducks pen, transferred the water into it and watched as the ducklings ran and jumped into the water in sheer delight. I could lose hours watching these little creatures, they display their pleasure so readily and dive under the water, scaring the other one as they bob back up, the both leap out of the tray and then run back into it again. This is repeated over and over again until they get tired and just sit quietly in the water. As I didn't want them to get too cold I removed the cat litter tray filled with water after about ten minutes and turned my attention to the chicks.

'The Dirty Dozen', like the ducklings, are now three and half weeks old and are almost ready to move to their outside accommodation. Once the Four Horsemen have moved into the shed with Jack, Diesel, Big Red and Little White, I can clean that hen house thoroughly and move the twelve chicks into it. Because the chicks still have some of their baby fluff, it's quite easy to tell them apart, although they are often just a bit of a blur as they race around their pen. As they get all their feathers it will become more difficult to tell them apart as eight of them will be plain black. I opened their pen and put in the cat basket, as they are now used to it, they came rushing over to it ready to go outside and inevitably as soon as I started to pick them up to put into the basket, they all decided to run around the pen and not be picked up. They are such contrary little creatures! So after a few moments of being bent over almost double try to scoop up small birds and transfer them into the basket (with one trying to fly out of it each and every time I opened the lid), I took them outside. I moved the run that they were going to go into to a fresh patch of grass and made it secure, then had the reverse proceedure of getting them into the basket. All wanting to come out at the same time, but none of them wanting to be picked up! 

Eleven went into the run easily and one made a bid for freedom. And here's the dilema, do I spend the minute that is needed to tie the end panel on their run to make the eleven safe or do I race around the garden trying to catch the one that's got away? I compromised and made a makeshift security gate on the run and then using my super-stealth powers, I sneaked up on the escapee and caught it at the first attempt. With all twelve safely in the run, I returned to the stable to get their water and food bowl to put in the pen with them.

I had started rumbling and I was getting rather hungry, but there was still the ducklings to get outside, so I moved their outdoor house and run to fresh grass, actually I carefully chose an area with less grass and more clover as the ducklings seem to love it. And them it was back to the stable with the cat basket to repeat the catch a small bird routine. The ducklings were delighted to be outside again and I returned to the stable to get their water, food and some straw to put at the end of their run for them to rest on. One more trip back to the stable to get a couple of old cotton rugs that we are using to drape over the runs to offer some wind protection to both the chicks and ducklings and that was them sorted out for a while.

On the way to the kitchen I opened the greenhouse door, which I had closed before the storm arrived on Friday. While I was there I 'just' watered the tomato plants, refilled the large water bin and checked for ripe tomatoes. Then I went back to the stable to pick up the squash and carrots that I'd collected earlier on and headed inside.

Two and a half hours and the best part of a mile since I first put the kettle on, I finally made that much wanted cuppa!