Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Rant against suckling pig

Okay, stand by for a full on Kermodian-style rant…

It’s Christmas, I understand that. A time to enjoy all the things you’ve not had the money, or the time, or whatever, thought the past year. Let’s face it it’s a time of self indulgence, and on that level I’m all for it.

But where during the past year would anyone sit down and think, you know what, I’d love to eat a baby?

So why over Christmas would anyone want to eat a suckling pig?

I’ve been asked a dozen times in the past week to supply suckling pigs, two from really, really well known top London restaurants.

Do these people know what a suckling pig is? It’s a piglet under eight weeks old who’s still feeding from its mother. I would literally have to pull it off the breast, take it to the abattoir screaming, and have it killed – even the slaughter men hate doing it, and these are not squeamish boys.

God that’s barbaric.

And when that’s done, it would go off and be cooked. Okay this next bit is a guess because I’ve never eaten suckling pig on principle, but it’s an educated guess. It would be flavourless. The meat would have had no time to mature, intensify and develop any depth of flavour.

It might be tender, but any good cook can make pork tender, especially the pork I produce.

I rear my pigs to between eight months and a year old. They have a good, free range, happy life, without stress or fear, and plenty of time to develop a real distinctive porky flavour. To me, as a producer, that’s important.

However, the quality of the pork is incidental in this rant.

Come on, if you’ve a choice on the menu this Christmas, please pick something other than suckling pig.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

So ridiculous, and yet so sensible

I’d planned on a full day’s logging down on the land, and so went prepared with a flask and sandwich.

Last summer I had spent 6 weeks coppicing an area in the woods, and all the trees that I felled I cut into lengths and stored in a stable to dry-out for the winter.

Dry and seasoned, the wood was now ready to be chain-sawed into sections and split with an axe to the right size for our fire. Of all the non-animal jobs I do, this is by far the most important as we have no central heating, so the fire is our only source of warmth.

However, before I could begin, I had the normal rounds to complete. I let the chickens, ducks and geese out, fed and watered the pigs, put hay down the horses, checked on the sheep and goats.

Finally I was ready to start. After coffee.

I poured a cup from the flask and took a sip. It tasted bitter in the plastic mug, as though too much instant coffee had been used. To make matters worse, it was black. I tried another sip, but it was just too strong.

I needed milk.

All the milk at home comes from Amber, the goat, but she’s just gone down to a once a day milking in this cold weather, and that’s done in the evening. Still, no matter, I only needed a little squirt.
The goats love people and hang around like pet dogs whenever anyone’s there, so it was easy to sneak up behind her. Making a fuss I snaked my hand down, took hold of a teat, placed my cup beneath it and squeezed. And missed.

I watched the milk fire right down the side of my mug and splash on the floor. Bugger.

Wise to my plan and indignant that I should have been so forward and rude to have done it in the middle of a field, Amber gave a squeal and kicked out with her back legs before trotting away.

What I should have done was give up and drink bitter coffee. What I did was start a long campaign of subterfuge of which an M15 operative would have been proud.

I bluffed, double bluffed, even on one occasion triple bluffed until with immense satisfaction grabbed hold of the teat without her noticing what I was doing, and caught a huge squirt of milk right in the centre of the cup.

Amber huffed and trotted away (if she really didn’t like what I was doing, then she could easily withhold her milk so I knew she was only mildly pissed off at me). I tipped the milk into the flask and gave it a shake.

It wasn’t until I took a sip (it was lovely, like having cream rather than milk) that it dawned on me how odd it was to have squirted milk directly from the udder into a coffee and drunk it.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Prisoner, cell block pig

Don’t you hate it when you’re having a conversation and the other person drops a bombshell, and they know it’s a bombshell but they act as though they were doing nothing more innocuous than commenting on the weather, or worse, when they sneak it in with a whole load of other stuff so you have to replay it in your mind to see if they actually said what you think they said?

“Yes, of course we’ll have to go shopping at the weekend,” Debbie said, hand on hip standing in the kitchen. “Also got to drench the sheep this week – have we got drench or do we need to buy some? I can’t remember. What book are you reading, I saw you reading something new? You know you can’t go back to London, the farm’s too big for me to do it on my own now. What do you want for dinner?”

She turned away and started fumbling with some washing-up. She probably hadn’t stopped talking, but I had stopped listening. I had to, I couldn’t listen and rewind at the same time.

I rewound, and in my mind I heard her voice again, “You know you can’t go back to London, the farm’s too big for me to do it on my own now.”

I felt poleaxed. “Are you serious?” I said.

She turned back, her face a question.

“About London,” I said. “I can’t go back?”

She looked sad. “I’m sorry, there’re too many animals and I’m just not strong enough to do them on my own.”

I go to London—had been going to London—about half a dozen times a year, just for a day or two at a time to see family and catch-up. I like the contrast, plus it gives me a chance to dress up smart with shoes and everything, and talk city speak about business.

“How’s business?” I’d say, and promptly switch off and start thinking about home, because that’s the other thing about London, it makes me miss home and realise all over again how lucky I am. Debbie knows this.

“You can still miss the place and me while you’re here,” she said.

“No I can’t. How can anyone miss something while they’re doing it?”

She shook her head. “You’re such a man.”

I wandered off, determined to be anything but a man. I’d be a child; I wanted to be a child! I felt a tantrum coming on, a really big one followed by a really long sulk.

I could never leave the farm again. Never. I was trapped like a prisoner! A prisoner on my own land. The animals weren’t my friends, they were fellow inmates!

I went upstairs and grabbed a pair of work jeans and a magic marker and set about drawing arrows down the legs, but stopped after the first one and stood staring out of the bedroom window instead.

No more London. I’d never see my mum again, or my brother, or anyone. I loved my pigs and the animals, but the thought of seeing only them for the rest of my life filled me with a sense of loneliness so profound it felt like another being in the room.

Then the being spoke, and I nearly jumped out of my skin until I realised Debbie had followed me in.

“So, have you reached the point where you’re never going to see another living sole as long as you live, yet?”

I didn’t answer.

“We just need to put some systems in place so it’s a little easier for me to do on my own,” she said. “It wouldn’t take much, and then you can go back to London again.”

I nodded, but the childish tantrum hadn’t finished and I wanted to stamp my foot and yell, but I want to go now!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

One amazingly lucky piglet

Some piggy mothers are just clumsy. I see them kick and tread and lay on their young, not out of spite, but just because they’re in the way, as though they haven’t quite tuned into their babies. All the outer signs of mothering are there, it’s the other ones that are missing, the ones that are more difficult to describe but can pretty much all be filled under the heading, ‘bonding’. They love them, but they don’t bond with them.

Luckily Mother Nature has done a bit of forward planning in this department and built piglets like Tonka Toys. Once the babies are a few days old, they’re solid little bruisers and it’s rare to have problems, which probably means when you do get a problem it’s much more of a shock.

I found a piglet lying dead in the straw.

Mother and siblings were at the other side of the pen munching the dinner I’d just tossed in for them when I noticed the little black body. He was at the bottom of a furrow shaped like mum and the assumption was he hadn’t got out of the way quick enough when she’d lain down.

Whenever anything dies it’s always the same sudden feeling and I hate it; it’s like my entire insides are yanked out leaving a vast Tardis-like expanse that’s icy cold. It’s the worst feeling.

I climbed over the gate. There was little point in rushing. I could see his head squashed and his tongue sticking out between tiny pin teeth. I picked him up. He was warm, but then he would have been with a 40 stone mum lying on top of him.

I climbed back out and sank down next to a straw bale, cuddling him to my chest and telling him I was sorry. I told him I wished I could have been there to help him, and I stroked him and held him and stroked him some more, and brushed his little face with my finger and touched his little tongue, and as I did he opened his eyes and looked at me.

Okay, first reaction was to throw him on the floor, which was stupid but it was like having a ghost wink at you. When I recovered I said, “Blyme boy, are you still alive?” which was probably just as idiotic.

I kept cuddling him trying not to laugh so he wouldn’t bounce up and down on my chest. Bit by bit I could feel him recovering, and marvelled at how tough these little guys really are. I thought back to the mum shaped dent in the straw and figured the way the straw had been compacted she must have been there for at least half an hour.

He could only have been minutes away from dying, possibly less. For me to come along right at that moment, with the feed so that mum got up, was so lucky.

There were no broken bones, but the obvious worry was brain damage from oxygen starvation.

I tried to think of what I should be looking for, but without any understanding or training I had no idea, so I just tried to look for anything unusual. First I grabbed a can of antiseptic purple spray from the side and put a line down his back so I could pick him out, then put him on the floor.

Mum was back lying on her side with all her piglets plugged in. He marched over and hooked straight onto a teat. He seemed fine.

Mum groaned and kicked her feet out, but none of them detached. Then, little by little, the babies began drifting off to sleep still plugged in. The last one to drop off was the one with the line down his back, without which I’d never have been able to pick him out.

Published in The North Devon Devon Journal in my weekly column.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Cuddling up with the General

It was that early in the morning it was still dark. I crouched down on all fours and peered into the General’s house. I could just make him out laying sprawled on one of his gigantic sides taking up half the pig ark, and beside him the shapes of three other pigs.

My first thought was to wake the lazy pigs up, bang on the tin roof and yell that I had breakfast and it was a lovely morning and what on earth were they still doing in bed? But I didn’t. I did the opposite. Without thinking, I crept in.

I crawled through the straw careful to avoid bumping into the sleeping group until I was behind the General. Then I lay down next to him, put him arm over his shoulder, and spooned into a cuddle behind him.

It was warm and the air smelled of fresh straw and that kind of musky scent of pig. It’s not unpleasant. He wriggled a bit as he got used to my body behind him, and then fell still.
I felt small in that way you sometimes feel small when you look up at the stars on a really clear, really dark night. Small not because it seems so big, but small because you feel so close and kind of surrounded. Small in the comforted sense of the word.

I guess I did feel comforted. Since my first pig Kylie died, I’d become really good mates with the General. We kind of hung out together, nothing excessive, just when I went down to feed I’d spend a bit of time with him. I liked to tell him what’s going on with everyone on the farm, and I swear he likes to keep up with the gossip.

Laying there listening to the General and the three snore and shuffle about in their sleep, it was like I was a kid again and having a sleep-over with my friends. I thought of the last sleep-over I had before reaching the age where it became un-cool, probably about nine or ten. I thought about camping trips with the school. I thought about—wooh! One of the pigs let out the most violent wind that smelled like it had been trapped for some considerable time in the folds of Satan’s underpants. Yep, just like camping with the school.

Outside it was beginning to get light. I’d come down early to feed so I could get on with the day. I stroked the General’s side. I had loads to do, loads to be getting on with. I stoked him some more. I should get up. I let my eyes slip closed. My last thought before I drifted off to sleep was that I really, really shouldn’t have closed my eyes.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

I grabbed my head and ducked.

“Simon!” Debbie yelled.

Confused. Banging. Lots of noise, keep down - hang on, where am I—oh.

I opened my eyes. The pigs had gone. I was alone in the ark. In the doorway Debbie stood staring in. She didn’t look happy. I struggled up onto my knees and smiled. “Morning,” I said.

She rolled her eyes and looked like she wished she’d had the presence of mind to bring a rolling pin. “I’ve been worried sick,” she said.

Beside her the General poked his head around the opening. I gave him a look like, you could have woken me!

“And you needn’t look so pleased with yourself,” she told him, swiping him on the neck. He made a Mm sound and wandered off. Looking back she said to me, “you left a sack of feed outside. Between the four of them they’ve scoffed nearly all of it. Simon, it’s nine o’clock!”

I rolled back into the straw. “I can explain,” I said.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Two cooking books to review

Just received two stunning cooking books to review for magazines, but it seems churlish not to yell about them a little bit here first!An exciting cookbook from one of Britain's landmark meat-free restaurants http://www.amazon.co.uk/Food-Friends-Modern-vegetarian-cooking/dp/1906821542/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1287408191&sr=1-1


a beautiful, arty, coffee table cookbook http://www.diningcity.nl/toscanini/en/index.php

As soon as i know when the reviews are to be published, I'll put up here the magazines and newspapers they'll be in.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Rant without a cause

I like my life, and sometimes that’s a problem. I want to rant, I’m a man for God’s sake! Men rant and shout and yell at the injustices of their life. I want to be one of those. Not all the time, but every now and then. Like now.

I want to stand on my own private soap box and yell out at the world that it’s not bloody fair!

Trouble is I’ve got a really good life and I’m ever so happy. But it doesn’t stop me wanting to rant! I’d scream at the football, only I don’t like football.

So I yell at the pigs – not AT the pigs, at the pigs; they’re my audience, not the subject matter. I yell and they gather around me and I tell them that, “It’s not fair!”

Of course it’s all rubbish. There’s nothing in my life that’s unfair at all. I’m the luckiest person I know. But that hardly seems relevant.

“It’s not fair!” I yell.

Pigs are a great audience. They don’t care how weak the content of your rant as long as it’s passionate. They do like a passionate speech.

When I get going I’m like a cross between Michael Macintyre and Winston Churchill, skipping round the pig pen shouting, “We’ll fight them on the beaches, Come On…”

I can see the beach from here, though quite who I’d fight on Lynmouth beach in the middle of winter I haven’t quite worked out. It’s not renowned for invading marauders, though there was talk once of setting up a ferry service across from Wales.

I’m a ranter without a cause. A freelance ranter. If my life was horrible, I’d be brilliant. People would flock from near and wide to hear me moan. The fact that I’m happy is a loss and a tragedy!

“It’s not fair,” I yell again. I’m loosing my audience. One of the pigs has wandered off to eat a tree, and the others are weighing up whether to watch him or stick with my, It’s Not Fair speech. They wander off.

So I’m alone. That’s okay. A man can rant alone, in fact that’s when we’re at our best. I might even be able to work that into the speech.

But I don’t. Truth is a rant is like a magic trick, there’s no point to it if there’s nobody to watch you. I stuff my hands into my pockets, hunch my shoulders and wander over to join the throng surrounding the tree munching pig. I really need to get out more.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Feeling for Edwina

Autumn will forever more be known as the Masterchef time of year. There's Masterchef Australia with its maddeningly catchy theme tune, Masterchef the Professionals, Masterchef for kids - we're inches away from Masterchef for Poochy Pets.

Then suddenly from the heat of the complicated kitchen, comes the prospect of 'Egg Week'. A whole week dedicated to eggs. Seven days to celebrate the beautiful simplicity of this little package of gorgeousness, all neat and tidy in a delicate shell.

Scrambled, boiled, poached, fried, scotch eggs, egg mayonnaise...

With near fifty free range chickens to my name, I should be jumping for joy at the egglicious prospects, for there is no better way to start the day and we should all be going to work on an egg. And here lies the problem.

I can't help thinking of Edwina Curry. Eggs make me think of Edwina Curry.

Here's a lady who entered politics, we would like to think, to make a difference and do something special, and yet we remember her for claiming that eggs give you salmonella poisoning and could wipe out the UK in a single Sunday morning fry-up, and then shagging the greyest man in the country.

I wonder if Edwina will enjoy a little egg this week?

Monday, 20 September 2010

I've got loads to tell

I know it's been a while since my last blog, but things have been pretty manic with the farm and the writing.

It does feel very much like things are progressing. On the writing side I've been talking to the assistant editor of the Sunday Telegraph and it's looking very promising that I'll be writing a few freelance pieces for them, which is really exciting.

Lots of magazine work is coming through and i do seem to be very lucky that the work is rolling over. Saying that though, i sent a piece in to the Exmoor Magazine yesterday and realised that's the last deadline i have, which is kind of scary.

I pitched a couple of ideas out this morning (Christmas ideas, oh yes it's that time of year again!), so hopefully something will come of that.

Had a very surreal moment yesterday when needed a photograph for an article I'd written of a Gloucester Old Spot pig under a tree, something very specific but also something i couldn't do because i don't have GOS pigs, so i tweeted for help and ended up messaging Liz Hurley as apparently she keeps them.

My pigs are Berkshires, and at the moment they are somewhat confused Berkshires as i have introduced a new animal onto the farm. I've got goats!

This is Bee...

And this is Amber.
I'm hand milking Amber twice a day and getting about 4 pints. As you can imagine I'm now cooking and making every milk dish in existence, from ice-cream to live bio-yogurt, butter and mashed potatoes to a creamy curry. I get quite excited if i find a recipe that needs milk!
The idea is we'll be completely self sufficient in dairy. It's also a lot of fun to hand milk, and will be a good thing to teach on the smallholding courses we run.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Big bums are very warming

Is a big bum better than a tiny bum? Ah, it’s one to ponder. Certainly for a lot of the animal kingdom, big is better. Take sheep, you’re standing in the middle of a cold, windy field and it starts raining. You might think of finding some shelter. You might think of finding a tree. You might even think of finding a hedge. Mostly you’ll be turning your back to the worst of the weather and trying to work out if the surface area of your own behind is big enough to act as a shield.

Personally, if I was a sheep, I’d be one of the driest in the field. I’d probably even have bad weather friends who’d congregate around my head to stay dry and warm; throwing the odd leg out halfway through the night when they get too hot.

Animals don’t have to worry about fitting into a pair of jeans and having a nice shape. What they want are big friends that they can cuddle up to at night. In the winter I pack my chicken sheds tight so the birds are snuggled together. Same with the pigs, though I do have a worry over one little girly pig.

Pigs get up at dawn, mooch about for a couple of hours, and then go back to bed during the day. Very Spanish siesta.

I do all the maintenance work on the pig pens at siesta time because it’s far easier to get anything done without a clump of pigs helping by trying to eat the hammer, or the saw, or me.

Shammy sow is in with a group of five adolescents. Shammy is a I’m-taking-no-nonsense-and-if-you-upset-me-I’ll-put-my-nose-under-your-belly-and-flip-you-a-summersault kind of mum. Adolescents need a firm trotter, and she gives it. Only, with one of her kids I’m worried she might have gone too far.

When I’m down there working they’re all asleep together in their house. All except one, this little girly pig. She sleeps outside, and I don’t think it’s through choice, I think Shammy won’t let her in, and I don’t think she’ll let her in because she snores.

She can’t help it. It’s not her fault. But it is bad.

I can hear it from the other side of the field. She sounds like a very low flying, stuttering, propeller aeroplane. Only louder. It must be awesome when she’s actually in the house, a house that’s made from acoustically perfect corrugated iron.

Yet she’s seldom in there. Most of the time she’s just outside it, which has been fine throughout the summer, in fact a lot of them sleep outside on the cool earth when it’s hot, but now it’s turning towards autumn I’m getting worried for her.

The way I see it I’ve got two choices, I can either try and cure her snoring, or find her another house. I’m not keen on finding her another house as I don’t want her to be on her own and lonely, so I Googled, Herbal Remedies for Snoring. I didn’t mention it was for a pig.

The first hit recommends you avoid smoking (she doesn’t), limit alcohol intake (mm, as far as I know, but she is an adolescent), sleep on her side (she does), aromatherapy (!), and losing weight.

I could cut her feed back, but she’s got such a big gorgeous bum on her I’m reluctant to put her on a diet.

So I’ve decided to build a lean-to on the house. Actually it’s more of a conservatory as the roof is an old double glazed window, but the wall is solid. It’s not going to be as good as sleeping inside the house, but it’s far better than being completely outside. And besides, her big bum should help keep her toasty warm.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The worry of working a smallholding alone

It’s so stupid. Really, really stupid. But I’m… I don’t know. Not in trouble, not exactly, but not far off. Okay yeah I’m in trouble. I’ve got myself into this mindset and I can’t find a way out of it. Look, this is making no sense, so I’ll give you the bones and then try and work out what the hell’s going on.

Debbie developed this bad shoulder and she’s had some injections into the joint to try and help it, and then I nipped off to London to see my mother for a day, one day, that’s all, and left her with the farm. She did the rounds of the animals, and ripped her arm again. It’s as bad as it ever was.

I feel guilty because I left her, like it’s my fault, and I feel bad that she’s trying so hard to carry on around the home when clearly she’s in pain - though she can’t do the animals - and I worry about her, I worry about her a lot. But that’s not the problem. That’s not why I’m in trouble.

I’m in trouble because, and this sounds so stupid, I’m in trouble because with Debbie out of action I’m worried I’ll get injured and then neither of us will be able to do the animals, and the more I worry, the more I seem to keep hurting myself. Last night I pulled a muscle in my leg climbing over a fence. The night before I twisted awkwardly and caught my back. The night before that, the chainsaw kicked-back and smashed into my shoulder.

They’re not major, but it just seems every day there’s something. I’m trying so hard to be careful, but every day I end up feeling bruised and kind of beaten-up. But it’s not the physical thing I’m worried about. It’s who would look after the smallholding if I was out of action as well as Debbie. Not, you know, major or long term, something could be worked out for that, I mean an emergency day. A day neither of us could.

There’s nobody around here who can do the feeding and watering of the animals other than Debbie and me.

It makes me feel, kind of alone and kind of vulnerable. I’ve never felt vulnerable before, not really, and I don’t like it. There’s other stuff too. It also makes me feel angry. I’ve no idea why it makes me feel angry. The closest I can get is when I feel vulnerable there’s also this sense of feeling weak, and feeling weak is horrible, so, I guess, I’m smothering it with the opposite extreme and getting angry.

But it’s an odd kind of unfocused anger. Anger for the sake of being angry. Angry so that I don’t feel vulnerable, which of course I still do, so I just get angrier. It’s weird.

It’s all internal, I’m not punching walls or anything stupid like that. I just feel tense and on edge and angry, and the more I feel like that, the more I seem to injure myself, and the more I injure myself, the more worried I get, and the more worried I get, the more vulnerable I feel, and the more vulnerable I feel, the more angry I get. It’s a circle, but it’s a circle I can’t break out of at the moment. It’s horrible.

I know I just need to calm down and relax about it. I’m trying to. I’m trying to.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

It comes to us all. Ish.

So I got out of the shower and towled down in front of the mirror thinking, you know, I might have put on a little weight, maybe gone up a jeans size, but it’s okay. It’s not a bad look. Not a bad look at all.

For a while my old 32” jeans had been, shall we say, a little snug. Even a bit Freddy Mercury, and I noticed I had been approaching the point where I had to throw my leg over the quad bike with more and more care.

Then a few days ago I’d been doing something particularly messy, probably involving the back end of a sheep, certainly the back end of some animal, and ended up changing three times that day, which meant I’d run out of work jeans. Desperate, I found an old pair stuffed at the back of the wardrobe still in the bag.

They were a pair Debbie had bought at some ridiculous knock-down price, something like two quid, and although they were a size too big, she said I could wear them on the farm with a belt.

I said thank you, but knew I’d have to be screamingly desperate to wear them.

I was screamingly desperate.

I put them on.

Oh. Oh, they were like slippers on tired feet after a long day. Man I could move. I felt younger, fitter. I honestly felt like I had more energy. I wasn’t tired, I was nineteen again. Oh!

I approached the quad bike and leapt on with all the abandon of Zoro leaping on the back of his horse.

So I’ve gone up a jeans size. I kind of feel okay with that, I think. Once you’ve made the decision, then it’s easier to accept. Something inside your head changes too, or maybe it’s your eye sight, I don’t know. I now believe a little extra covering on a body is good, healthy, sexy, and, um, will help keep me warm in the winter. That’s it, I’m preparing my body for winter. I’m not fat, I’m a boy scout, always prepared. Just, a, slightly, older, boy scout.

Friday, 13 August 2010

So pleased - Guest blogger Feltmaker

Frances Barker is in thrall to felt. In her Suffolk home there is an abundance of wool in various stages of being washed, carded, dyed and worked into hats, boots, and other functional, as well as decorative items. "I enjoy getting lost in the possibilities that felt provides. Some soap, water, friction and a little sheep's fleece are the foundations for an incredible textile that can be gossamer fine or thick enough to act as armour".

Felt is made when wool meshes with itself. It isn't a woven or knitted fabric; but relies upon the little scales on the wool fibre entangling with each other. To encourage this process along, the felt maker wets the carefully laid out layers of wool and rubs soap through them. Then the resultant soft felt is shrunk (fulled) to size, usually by rolling it in a bamboo blind.

Frances is in her final year of a city and guilds programme and although she is sometimes lured into spinning some of her wool stash, it is always the felt that she returns to. "Spinning is fun, but felt is faster. I can make a felted hat in a day, it would take me far longer than that to spin and knit one!".

At one point Frances was felting so much that she hurt her shoulder and it looked as though she might have to give up her precious pastime. Undeterred she turned to her washing machine to do the hard work. Wool as a fibre, shrinks dramatically as anyone who has accidentally washed a pure new wool jumper on a hot wash can testify. By carefully shielding the soft felt, the machine can achieve the shrinking, leaving more time to lay out more wool.

"I've noticed that some of the coarser natural wools do very well in the machine. This means that I can source my materials closer to home, which is good news for both producer and makers".

Felt is fantastic fun, if you ever get the chance to, then try it.

Check out more of Frances Feltmaker blogs at feltingneedle.blogspot.com

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Thoughts from a newish author

So my book has been out for a little over four months now. I was toying with the idea of writing a blog entitled 10 mad things authors do when they have a book out, like a funny list, and I started writing it, laughing and shaking my head as I typed. I was getting on quite well and it wasn’t until I finished number 5 that I started wondering if it was possible these were things only I did?

Mm, Number 6 – Paranoia.

Take Amazon for example. I check my book three of four times a day minimum, 1. To make sure it’s still there, 2. To check the ranking (though I have absolutely no idea how the ranking process works or what it means and I seem to bounce between 4,000 and 100,000 – though I’m guessing the former is better than the latter), and 3. To check where other books are that are similar in the ranking system that doesn’t mean anything anyway (though I then have to click lots on mine just in case I have given my competitors extra points by clicking on there’s).

But it doesn’t end there.

You can do an advanced search. You can type in the publisher, and then hit ‘Bestsellers’ and see where you come in the mysterious ranking system there. I was number 1 for a while, now I’m number 5. I carry on through the list, down the pages until I come to the book that was released at the same time as me. This sounds terrible, and I can’t believe I’m confessing it, but sometimes (often) if there’s a big gap between us and the other book is way down the list, I give a little yeah fist in the air. I can’t help it.

I’m not even competitive, and now I’m getting excited if I’m doing better than a book that’s nothing like mine in a ranking system that makes no sense and means nothing.

I never click on their book.

Then there’s twitter. I’m new to twitter, having avoided it mainly because I had no idea what it was all about and felt it would take far too much time to figure it out. I avoided it for two years, then spent an hour figuring it out.

It’s seriously addictive. I follow Stephen Fry, obviously, and as many writing related twitters that I can find. I even won a new release book from an Ebury Press tweet, how cool is that! (Will read and review right here in a week’s time.)

I like the different ways publishers and writers push their books—what’s the difference between a publisher and a writer? A publisher promotes books, where as a writer promotes blogs and websites.

I’m the same. I drawl in admiration when I find a writer who’s got more than a 100 followers to their blog. Now that’s a ranking that I can understand.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Unusual dinner friends

You know what it's like when you go out to a dinner party and get stuck next to someone you're unsure about? Well spare a thought for my horse, bless her.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Homemade oak spoon

I quite like this. It's an oak spoon i made for a friend's birthday with wood from our land. The spoon next to it is a desert spoon. I put some olive oil on it and it really brought out the grain of the wood. I hope she likes it.

Beautiful, majestic stag

Quick video taken last night of an absolutely stunning stag in my top field.

Monday, 2 August 2010

This is how it feels...

Sometimes life on the farm feels like one gigantic revolving door, the type you used to get in swanky hotels, where lots of people would crowd into a sweaty cheese shaped compartment and shuffle, very slowly round until the gap was big enough for them all to tumble into the foyer. The farm may not have a foyer, but that doesn’t lessen the tumble, they just hit mud as opposed to posh Italian tiles. But just as the first group are tumbling in, unseen on the other side are another group falling out.

Ten new point of lay chickens arrived on Saturday, and on Monday two of the old flock died and a duck went missing. Then a pig gave birth to a piglet. A piglet. One. Pigs are supposed to have about twelve and she had one. And it’s tiny, honestly it is the world’s smallest pig. Running next to mum it looks like a spider. Okay maybe my revolving door theory falls down a bit here, but in my eyes one pig came in and eleven others refused to enter.

Actually it’s the duck that’s got to me. I’ve known her since she was an egg. She was a Valentines Day presents for Debbie a couple of years ago. I’d got three for her, and now we’re down to two, which is really confusing because they go everywhere together. They’re never apart. If a fox got one, you’d have thought it would have got them all. I’ve seen otters around, would an otter take a duck?

The river that runs along side the farm is the West Lyn, and whilst you couldn’t exactly go white water rafting along it, it can become quite bolshie, and over the years has eroded away the riverbank causing trees and bushes to sag down into the water. Maybe the duck got tangled up and trapped?

I’d never walked the riverbed before, in fact I hadn’t seen most of it. All the fields that back onto the river are edged with banks and trees to stop the stock from escaping, and me from peering over. I can get down to it at the far end of the farm, but other than that there simply is no other access. Not keen on walking all the way down and then all the way back up, I decided to start at one end by nipping across a neighbour’s field, which, incidentally, is the favoured approach of the ducks too. The river is about ten foot wide and from what I could see, varies in depth between a couple of feet and a couple of inches. The plan was to stay on the couple of inches part.

I waded out in welly boots and began walking up stream. I had no idea the river twisted and turned quite as much as it did, and within a minute could no longer see where I started. I discovered waterfalls I never knew existed, crystal ponds and clever dams. And I also discovered bones. Not duck bones, but very white bones none the less. It was quite eerie, especially as I have this terribly inventive imagination, and couple that with a heightened sense of cowardice I’m quite capable of spooking myself anywhere, and the only times I have ever come close to rolling the quad bike is when I’ve been convinced there’s a Scooby-Do ghost hand behind me reaching out for my collar.

The bones were old and undoubtedly sheep, but I lost interest in staying dry and splashed all the way to the end. I didn’t lose interest in looking for the duck, but I didn’t see anything that resembled her either. She was gone. But I do have the last fertile egg she laid. Maybe, just maybe that revolving door is still turning.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Dressing down is the new dressing up at 2am

Unless you’re lucky enough to be newly in love, under eighteen, or some sort of night worker, there is no dread deeper than the 2am phone call. Good news does not come at 2am. That’s the bad news hour, with conversations that start, ‘I’m sorry,’ or, ‘I don’t want to worry you, but…’

I blinked at the mobile in my hand without even remembering reaching for it. The word DEBBIE shone out in the darkness and some idiotic ringtone split the silence. I pressed the green button, noting the time and feeling an iceberg form in the pit of my stomach. ‘Darcy’s escaped,’ Debbie said.

Fumbling about on the bedside table for the nightlight, not used to the layout of my mother’s spare room, I sent pictures and nick-knacks tumbling to the floor before I found the switch.

‘Okay, that’s not a problem,’ I said.

‘Yes, yes it is a problem. Did you hear me, Darcy’s escaped.’ Darcy, twelve stone of lolloping Great Dane dog and the world’s biggest baby. Untrainable, unpractical, unintelligent, and utterly adorable.

‘Where are you?’

‘On the land, just walking past Kylie’s enclosure. I think she’s asleep, does that mean Darcy hasn’t been past here? Oh, I think I might have woken her up. Hello sweetie.’ I could hear the pig snorting and snuffling in the background and imagined Debbie shining a torch into her face. Yep, that’d wake her up.

‘Darcy!’ she yelled. I did that stupid pull the phone away from my ear and stare at it rudely thing. Then I lifted it back. ‘Can’t you shout quietly?’ I complained. ‘Or at least move the phone when you do.’

‘Sorry. What am I going to do? I can’t see him anywhere. It’s not so bad if he’s contained on our bit, but what if he gets out? You know how soppy he is.’ Actually I was more concerned he might get tangled up in one of the electric fences, or find himself face to face with General Lee the boar, but I kept that to myself.

‘I think he must have gone out the end path. I bet there’s a bitch in season somewhere in Barbrook and he’s gone after her,’ she said. ‘The thing is, I’m not sure I can go out there.’

‘Why not?’

‘I was in bed. Darcy said he needed to go and it was urgent. I wasn’t expecting to go traipsing through the streets.’ She sighed, ‘I’m only wearing wellies and a coat.’

I started laughing. ‘You’re joking?’ Silence. ‘You’re not joking,’ I laughed even harder. Then I put on a mock stern voice, ‘Mr Dawson, we’ve arrested your wife for streaking through the centre of town.’

‘I’m not streaking, I’m decent. I’m just not fully decent. Besides it’s two in the morning, who’s going to know? Oh damn it, I’m going to have to go and find him, hang on.’ The sound of her footsteps changed to a slap-slap sound. I guessed she was now walking along the pavement.

‘Isn’t it a bit chilly?’ I asked.

‘Shut up. Wait, I think I’ve seen him. Yes, oh no, he’s in the petrol station.’ Then very quietly, almost a whisper, she called, ‘Darcy, here boy.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Sssh. Hiding behind a bush. Darcy, come to mummy.’

‘But the petrol station’s closed.’

‘They don’t turn the lights off, and I bet there’s CCTV or something. Darcy, please, for me, please. Got him.’


‘Simon, it’s two in the morning, I’m nearly naked, walking the streets, freezing cold, with a dog that thinks I’ve come out to play. Do I feel better? Better than what, exactly?’

Monday, 26 July 2010

The secret to keeping flys away

If you've got a horse, or stock, or you yourself are plagued by mossies and flies, then watch this!

It's just an Avon body moisturiser that's gaining a massive reputation as a truly brilliant, and very cheap fly repellent. Obviously always skin test an area first.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Lesson No7, pay more attention!

‘I have three different lipsticks,’ Debbie told my mother. ‘A daytime one, an evening one and a fun one.’

With mother down from London for a week, there were a lot of conversations about make-up, moisturiser, eyeliner and now lipsticks, and I was learning a lot – not about make-up, but about my wife. I didn’t know she had three different colours, and I certainly never knew about a fun one! With my mother distracted, I looked a question at Debbie.

‘What?’ she mouthed.

I didn’t bother to reply quietly, ‘I never knew you had three different colours?’

The seconds that followed were some of those horrible moments in a relationship where time gets sticky and slows down. I watched her shoulders sag and her eyes close in an exaggerated blink. When they opened, the look she gave me was utter disappointment. She wanted to scream at me for not recognising and I wanted to explain that it wasn’t my fault because … um, because … oh dear. Instead we both looked at my mother and smiled.

‘Come on, let’s go and move these pigs,’ I said.

We needed two vehicles down on the land, and I would like to have engineered it so Debbie and I rode together and we could clear the air, but unless my mother could drive the quad bike down on her own, that was never going to happen.

In fact she rode on the bike with me and my dog Dex, who had taken the opportunity to dab a little perfume on some intimate spots by rolling in something unmentionable in the top field.

‘Don’t worry,’ I announced, gunning the engine into life with mother gripping on to my t-shirt for dear life, ‘as soon as we start moving the smell will go.’

Doris and Whinny are the best of friends. Two sows who have spent their entire lives together. Now they are both pregnant and due in just over a week. Time to bring them in for a spot of pampering.

With Dex well out of scent range, I parked mother to one side and hitched the stock-box on the back of the bike and drove down to the pig area. The trick was how to get the two pregnant sows in the back and not all the others. And I wanted to show off.

With devil-may-care, I leaped the gate and landed in the thick of a scrum of pigs with nothing more to protect me than a bucket of feed, a stern voice and a very pointy finger. I walked some feet away and poured feed on the floor, before rattling the bucket quietly next to Doris and Whinny hoping they would take the hint. They did, and followed me back up the ramp of the trailer.

‘That was easy,’ mother said.

‘You didn’t get bitten this time dear?’ Debbie said. ‘What a shame.’

The birthing area is an open fronted field shelter with gates and fencing making two snug quarters side by side so the pigs can see, touch and hear one another. Doris and Whinny walked in either side like a dream.

I wasn’t until we went to bed that I finally got Debbie alone. ‘It came out wrong,’ I explained. ‘Of course I know you have three lipsticks. I was just surprised at the fun one, that’s all.’

‘Yeah? Name them.’


‘If you know all about them, what colours are they?

‘Ah, you think I don’t know. Well I do. Lipsticks don’t come in colours, they come in numbers. Your three shades are slight variations on the same colour, so they all have the same number.’

‘Which is?’

I started grinning at how clever I was. ‘No7.’

Friday, 23 July 2010

Rainbow Bridge where pets go and wait

“You’ll appreciate this,” the email said. I get lots of emails (there’s nothing more disappointing than when you click on and there’s nothing there for you). I double clicked the message.

Man alive, I couldn’t even get halfway though the first paragraph without welling up, doing that quick inhale like a tiny sob and looking round to see nobody was there to see or hear me, even though I knew I was on my own. By the end of the second paragraph, oh forget it. I was sobbing like a teenage girl who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend.

I don’t know if I’m the last person on the planet to discover this, but if you’ve ever had a pet, read this.

Rainbow Bridge
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals that had been ill and old are restored to health and vigour; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....


Sorry if you’re reading this on the train or somewhere public. Phew, I know I’ve had a lot of pets, and maybe you could argue that quantity should make me somewhat harder, more resilient, but imagining all my animal friends playing happily together in a big field waiting for me, and I’m in bits on the floor. Until I was twenty-two, I’d only had one cat. Now, they’d have to put reinforced girders under the Bridge to cope with the weight of all the pigs, horses, dogs and cats – gosh there have been a lot.

I’m not normally a cryie type of person. I watched Titanic with dry eyes, saw Ghost, ET and the last episode of Friends without even blinking back a tear. But I couldn’t watch Babe—Oh, do you remember those old Lassie films? Lassie Come Home, I think it was, when the dog would wait by the gate every day while the little boy went to school, and then the boy grew up and joined the army, and Lassie went with him. I watched them as a kid, but there’s no way I could watch them now.

I even refuse to watch Chicken Run.

Mass slaughter, sadness and annihilation of humans in films are fine, as long as they don’t harm the puppy!

I think the more you spend your life with animals, the closer you get to them – with the possible exception of sheep. This is just a guess, but I doubt anyone ever reached Rainbow Bridge and mistook it for New Zealand.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Just hatched chickens

These little chickens had just battled their way out of the shell in the incubator about 10 minutes ago, when i took them out and carefully placed them under a heat lamp to start drying out.

The biggest one is about an hour older.

Monday, 19 July 2010

10 most embarrassing moments of country living

Don’t even consider stepping foot in the countryside until you have read this. This is the urbanites and cityites guide to avoiding red faced calamites that could haunt you for the rest of your life.

10 Stopping the car for a pee. Come on, who amongst us hasn’t? You’ve been on the road for ages and you’re still miles from civilisation (otherwise known as a McDonalds) where they have half sensible loos. There’s no way you’d ask at a petrol station, and as for public conveniences, forget it! So you find a quiet road and drive slowly. You haven’t seen another vehicle for miles. You are alone. You spot a cut in, and pull off. Open the window. Silence. You’ll be out of the car for no more than a minute max – what could possibly go wrong? As soon as you nip out and assume the position, a caravan appears out of nowhere with the longest tailback in the whole history of the countryside snaking out behind it, and it’s not just cars, oh no, there’s coaches, a school bus, tractors and a police car.

9 Country pubs. This is a hive of potential for anything from an awkward moment to a full blown “Oh my God” disaster. First there’s the accent. People in the country don’t talk proper, and even if you can understand the words, the context can be mystifying. One thing to remember is, rather like the French, in the country everything is either male or female. Everything. A gate post is male, referred to as “him”, where as a gate is “her”. “Her swinging on him quite nicely now,” is nowhere near as baffling as it sounds.

8 Beware of local delicacies. The temptation is to do the, “When in Rome, do as…” bit. Eat like the locals. Surely in the countryside that’s going to healthy, wholesome and fresh? Isn’t it? Possibly… and then possibly not. To give you an example, the old Devon farmers’ traditional breakfast – this is breakfast remember – is called, Thunder and Lightning, which is toast, smothered in clotted cream (thunder) and topped with maple syrup (lightning). The heart attack by lunchtime is optional.

7 Mud. Mud is Satan’s two fingers at God for chucking him out of heaven, along with traffic jams, people who whistle in public and Peter Mandelson. Like most things, country mud is way different to town mud. Town mud is the stuff that clings to the leather soles of your loafers, or the tiny bit of a high heel that actually connects with the ground. Country mud, on the other hand, has the consistency of quick drying cement and can suck a man’s welly-boot from his foot as fast a look at him.

6 At night, it really, really, really gets dark. I’m talking a hand an inch from your nose, and you still can’t see it. Foxes bump into hedges. Cats walk into walls. And it’s not just in the middle of a field, or a rural farmhouse that it happens, step out of a pub in the winter’s evening past nine o’clock and it’s as though someone’s turned your eyes off. If you haven’t got a torch handy, the trick to finding your car is to use your mobile phone – when it’s that dark, a mobile switched on casts enough light to grope your way amongst the bonnets in the car-park without serious injury until you find one that’s familiar.

5 Fitting in. Lots of things will mark a townie out. White jeans… in fact any light clothing… or any clothing that’s clean for that matter. The inability to talk knowledgeably about the price of tractor tyres. The, “I did have three riding lessons when I was young – and there was that time in Portugal that I rode across the beach – so yes, I am a good horse rider!” brigade. If you’re planning on spending any longer than a brief holiday in the country, there are only one of three ways you can possibly fit in, and that’s by joining the church, school or stables, and of the three, the stables rule the roost.

4 Pony club. Take the Freemasons, the W.I., The Police Force, MI5, The Maffia, The KGB, The Yardies, and they all look like school children grumbling about a wet-break in comparison to, The Pony Club Riding Instructor. Big busted, grey hair scraped back into a tight bun above a face that’s only ever moisturised when it rains, beige jods like a second skin over iron thighs, permanent PMT and the ability to reduce a child of three to tears with just a glance. Stand The Pony Club Riding Instructor in the centre of a sand school, and suddenly your little poppet who’s been collecting My Little Pony for years in a build-up to her first moment on a horse, is now sobbing with terror as she gallops round like Frankie Dettori’s understudy. Your urge as a parent will be to interfere, but DO NOT! Look away, bite your knuckles, do whatever you like because if you do interfere, The Pony Club Riding Instructor will take this as a challenge to her authority over all little children, and will announce, in a loud, proud, who’s boss now? voice, “I think we’ll finish with a jump. Set the jump to three foot six… wide!”

3 Amorous animals. The countryside is awash with sex. Awash with it, it is. Bulls humping cows, rams humping sheep – a ram can service up to twenty females a night, which is something even Tiger Woods would struggle with. They don’t care about privacy, in fact if the more of an audience, the better, and has given way to a phenomenon known as, the countryside second. The countryside second is the period of time between a coach pulling up to watch a herd of cows, and the bull leaping on the nearest female.

2 Are we alone now? You have booked a rural cottage in the middle of nowhere. The road outside has grass growing down the centre of it, and you haven’t seen another human being for days – but don’t be fooled! The minute you relax and dispense with the dressing gown and wander around in your underwear, maybe doing a muck-about dance to a song on the radio while you put the kettle on fix breakfast in bed for two, the minute you start doing that, it’s a given that a group on horseback will ride by all staring in at you through the window.

1 Visiting. It’s nice to see how the other half live. Bundle the children into hats, coats and boots, get a towel ready for the dog, and make your way over to a smallholding close by to have a look around. But there’s a vital question you have missed. Something you should have asked at the point you agreed to take a sightseeing trip over to a local’s. Something that could have avoided traumatising the children back into wetting the bed, and that question is, “Do you have any dead in the house.” The thing is, from a country folk’s point of view, there’s nothing so convenient as a coat rack by the back door for hanging all your dead pheasants, chickens, ducks and turkeys while they’re waiting to be processed. Ah, the country life.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Guest blogger

Okay, you know when you watch a film and part of the credits read, "and introducing..."? Well this is the blogger's equivalent. So, without further ado...

And Introducing... Andy Kirby, this week's guest blogger.

Round of applause please.

Give a man some pork.... teach a man to butcher....

I've always had an affinity with food. I like to eat well, I enjoy cooking, I fish and have hunted rabbits and pigeon, I forage wild mushrooms and berries, so it made sense for me to learn how to prepare and process my own raw ingredients.

To this end, over the last couple of years, my wife, Sally, and I have been on a few courses learning how to make cheese with www.reddevoncheesecompany.co.uk, keeping bees with www.rivercottage.net and most importantly in our eyes smallholding and butchery with the revered self-sufficiency guru Simon Dawson at www.hiddenvalleypigs.co.uk. Fuelled by this 'extensive' training we set about creating a sub-urban micro-holding - we've got a corner plot on a Woking residential estate so it would never qualify as a smallholding.

Step 1
Since we started out 4 or 5 years ago, we have put together a couple of hens, a couple of bantams, 1/2 a dozen quails (added to the kid's 4 rabbits, guinea pig and 5 cats) and most recently 2 Indian runner ducks - not bad for a plot the size of one of those extra large postage stamps (the ones that hide the most important part of the address when you stick them on - and then can't get them off so you have to write a separate address label).

Anyway, we were doing fine on the livestock front and even grew a few veggies etc. - when the chickens allowed - but this still wasn't enough. We wanted to take advantage of the skills we had acquired, so taking a leaf out of Simon's biblical tome The Self Sufficiency Bible (available online and in all major bookstores) we started small.

Step 2
One Thursday evening, whilst walking around our local Sainsbury's we saw 6 pints of full fat Goat's milk reduced to 20p per pack and I said to Sally "shall we make some cheese this weekend?". She looked at me like a baby hedgehog unable to avoid the onrushing lorry whose handbrake I'd just taken off and simply said "OK". At 60p for 6 pints we figured nothing ventured, nothing gained, and after all we could throw it away if it tasted awful or didn't work - but it did. It was the best. It was like a slightly sour, but extra creamy Philly. Sally added some garlic and herbs and we munched our way through it in pretty short order with some home made bread. Since then, every time we see reduced milk in the supermarket we both get really excited, buy as much as we can carry and make up a batch of cheese.... baby steps.

Step 3
Next up, I noticed that the chickens had not gorged themselves on our blackcurrants this year and, not wanting to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity - the chickens love to stand under the bush and jump like Masai (straight up and down) pecking off the fruit one piece at a time, endearing and amusing but also really annoying - I picked what amounted to one small Pyrex bowl of currants.

OK, so I have a bowl of currants, now what do I do with them? I tried one straight off the bush but it tasted ropey, sort of floral and slightly bitter but nothing like blackcurrant. Like the reduced Goat's milk though, I thought it would only cost me pennies to try making some jam. So I placed the fruit (stalks and skins intact) with some lemon zest sugar and a splash of water straight in a pan and boiled it away for as long as it looked like it needed (I've never been one for recipe's and precise instruction as you'll find out later). Every 1/2 an hour I would take a teaspoon and put it on a cold plate (I knew that much) and test it's consistency and flavour.... the flavour..... it was like Ribena but better; sweet, sour and sticky, wow it was good! Anyway, getting carried away with myself, I placed an empty jam jar into the oven to sterilise and after 15-20 minutes took it out and poured the hot, sticky, purple compote into the jar (forgetting to strain off all the 'roughage'), replaced the lid and stood it on the side to cool before I placed it in the fridge to test.

This approach didn't work, I'd tasted nectar and wanted more, so I took several slices of bread from the fridge, buttered them and applied a liberal coating of the ambrosia (lumps and all). It was the best jam I had ever tried, but for one thing - the flimsy pieces of green stalk stuck between my teeth and the shaving of lemon zest that I had to chew. I consoled myself with the fact that this was my first attempt and rustic was to be expected, after all I wasn't going to waste this on a WI competition or anything like that. That jar lasted less than a week and has convinced me to grow more soft fruits next year to conserve and preserve for consumption when the lovely summer weather fades away to rain.

Step 4
So, we'd had two successes and the momentum was behind us. With growing confidence, I suggested that we try to butcher half a pig which would have been sensible if I'd suggested it immediately after the course with Simon, but I'd left it over a year. How much would I remember? Sally gave a resigned look but, being as supportive as ever, agreed to let me give it a go.

Having tried a number of different breeds of pig before I thought it might be nice to try an Oxford Sandy and Black (OSB), a small pig that is good for pork, but like the Berkshire could be used for bacon too, so I looked up a supplier on the internet and booked in my half. The clock ticked round and, before I knew it, it was time to collect. Jim at www.bamptonpigs.co.uk showed me around his pig fields (well paddocks), introduced me to some of his pigs (all very happy and well behaved) and talked me through his set up, before we proceeded to his local pub to collect my 1/2. Money changed hands and I raced home to watch my son represent his school in the district sports.

I parked in the shade with the pig rested on the back seat covered by a couple of black bags while I went in to watch the relays and presentations and, after a while, collected my son to go home and play at butchers. Oliver got into the car, gave the pig a half glance and said nothing, obviously used to Dad's eccentricity.... "yeah... whatever!" his face said.

So, we got home and I carried the pig indoors. Fortunately none of the neighbours noticed as I threw a child sized pig carcase over my shoulder and did battle with the front door. I walked straight in and faced 5 cats looking at me quizzically. I continued past them into the kitchen, placed the pig onto the empty and cleaned work surface and turned to gather up my knives, steel and cutting board. As I turned, I noticed that I had an audience. The cats had followed me out and, intrigued, they were lined up in a row looking on expectantly as if I had brought the pig home just for them. I ignored them and turned back to the job at hand.

I faced up to the pig and.... went blank! I now faced a dilemma. All my books, including the exemplary Self Sufficiency Bible by Simon Dawson (available online and in all major bookstores), were in the living room... the other side of the cats! I called to Oliver, but he had gone out to play with his friends, so I had no choice. I raced through into the living room, whipped up the books and returned to the kitchen in a time that Usain Bolt would be proud of, ready to scream and shout and curse at the ravenous hoards. Fortunately, none of them fancied 1/2 a pig and, having initially scattered, rearranged themselves in a line to watch.

A brisk review of a couple of pages (the pictures and diagrams), it all made sense again and I positioned myself at the head end and confidently cut through the neck leaving me feeling like a proud Viking holding my prize of a severed head aloft. I then proceeded to prepare each of the primary cuts and, handling my knives in a way that would definitely have had Debbie and Simon wincing, separated out sausage meat (more than a professional would have ended up with), chops (of varying size and shape), belly and back bacon, roasts and hams. When I'd finished, I felt a massive sense of self satisfaction. A job well done.

To be honest apart from; my brawn not setting, my first set of sausages disintegrating in the pan, and the looks the local kids gave the skeletal pigs head that I'd placed on the doorstep (only kidding), everything else went really well. The kids, and their friends all lent a hand with the sausage making, the bacon and my prized hams cured beautifully.

Step 5
In summary, as The Self Sufficiency Bible (available online and in all major bookstores) says, anyone can be more self-sufficient it just takes a few small steps. My next step is to find someone local to where I live who has a corner of a paddock free for a few pigs of my own and some chickens for the table... I'll let you know how I get on.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Have you ever seen anything this cute?

This is a video of twelve, four day old piglets playing.

Piglets are so funny when they play. They kind of remind me of puppies, but with something a little more solid about them. I love the bit when mum tells off the two main protagonists by putting a nose underneath one of them and tossing it into the fence.

I'll keep them in this open fronted barn until about the middle of next week, and then hopefully move them into the woods.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Trying not to like my mini Jurassic Park

Imagine a Tyrannosaurus Rex in miniature, give it a huge pair of swimming flippers to walk around in, and then give it all the stability of a twelve month old baby walking its first few steps, and there you have a gosling.

How geese ever made it through evolution is a complete mystery. If challenged as young they’d be hard pushed to summon more than a flappy foot in defence, and they certainly couldn’t run!

I have two of them. The thing is, I don’t want to like them. I don’t want to dislike them, but I don’t want to, you know, like them. I don’t want to be fond of them. They’re just flappy footed mini dinosaurs who follow me around the chicken field, bumping into things and falling on their backsides. Stupid things. And they’re ugly. They are! They look moth eaten with their white feathers poking through the yellow down and a silly little head and an over-sized silly beak.

I’ve known them since they were eggs, but that makes no difference, no difference at all. They’re meat. That’s what geese are, they’re meat, simple as that. I’m going to rear them, and then… you know. That’s the circle of life. I know it’s tough, but it’s a tough world. I have no problem with that at all. No problem at all.

I hate it when they follow me about. Why do they do that? Can’t they tell I don’t like them?

You should feel their little hearts beating when you pick them up. There bellies are all soft and squishy like jelly and their heart slams away in their chest, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. I tell them, calm down, chill, you’ll be sending more blood around your body than you can cope with – it’s probably all going to their feet, no wonder they’re so huge.

I pick them up and carefully put them in a safe wooden house at night, and then in the morning I lift them out and place them in their run for the day. Of course when I’m around I let them out completely to explore the chicken field, and when they’re old enough, and have a little more control over those feet, they’ll be out and about all day anyway.

They don’t explore the field though. They follow me, cheeping and calling. When I walk fast they try and rush to keep up and trip over, and then sit there looking at their own feet in disgust as though they’d done it on purpose. I only stop and wait for them because I don’t want them injured, not because I like them.

Obviously I’m not going to name them – you never name anything you’re going to eat. I named their parents Honey-Bunny, but that’s different. I won’t name these two.

One of them tumbled head first in the brook which is a bit muddy and when he stood up dirty water was running all down his back and made him look as though he had long dark hair, and I thought, if I was going to name him, which I’m not, I would have called him Marc, who was the singer of T’Rex. Marc The Flappy Footed Long Haired Mini Dinosaur. Marc for short.

That’s not his name, of course. It’s just, well, I’m going to need something to call him. Not a name, just a reference. A tag. A label. It’s defiantly not a name.

I don’t even like them. I’m going to stop them following me about. I’ll run away from them, and I won’t stop even if they do trip themselves up. And I won’t listen to their cheeping calls as they shout after me. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’m glad I sorted that out.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Nicely confused

With Debbie’s arm still out of bounds – she’s ripped the muscle away from the shoulder and now it’s all inflamed and she can’t use it. She should have gone back to the doctor for a quaterzone injection into the socket, but funny enough she didn’t fancy that and went into stroppy teenager mode with head on one side, arms crossed (see, she can use it when she wants to), one hip shoved forward and a pointy toe tapping.
I did manage to get her to a chiropractor yesterday and the verdict was, nasty. “It’s nasty,” the chiropractor said. I could have told her that! Anyway, she can’t use it for a week, can’t drive, can’t do anything.
So, with the farm work all pretty much down to me, I decided to treat myself and downloaded an unabridged audio book for my MP3 from Audiobook.co.uk. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larson, all twenty-three and a half hours of it.

What a wonderful book. I know it’s won loads of awards, but honestly, fantastic book. The funny thing is, far from just doing the normal rounds of feeding and watering the stock, letting the chickens, ducks and geese in and out, feeding and fussing the horses, making sure the sheep still have four feet and they’re all pointing down rather than up in the air, and chatting ten to the dozen with the pigs, I’m searching for extra things to do so I can spend more time out listening to the book.
I’ve got to say, this new regime is working for me on so many levels. I’m enjoying myself bumbling along listening to a great story, I’m getting loads done, and when I finally come home, Debbie is so swamped with guilt because of the extra hours I’m putting in that I have wine, nibbles and a hot bath all waiting for me.
Happy days!
The only slight downside, and I’ve really had to search for one, is that although I have fallen in love with listening to a story as I work, I don’t want to give up that comforting lovely sensation of actually holding a book in my hands and reading from a page. I don’t think audio could ever really replace that. So I’m reading a book as well, which can get confusing.

I’m reading, Survivor by Tom Cain, totally different to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but when you’re submerged in two books at the same time, there are times when you think hang on, where on earth am I?
Actually I do have a little previous with mixing books up, as a while ago I had over ten cd books stored on my MP3 player, and listened to so many times I was totally bored with them, so I set them on shuffle – now that makes interesting listening!
“Call the White house, I need to speak to the President of the United States immediately!”
“I’m afraid oral sex has never really been my bag, even if I do love you.”
“A handbag!”
Classic moments.

Monday, 28 June 2010

I blame The Foot!

I quite like the idea that in life there’s this foot that come along and trips you up. It kind of gives bad luck a shape, a form. Unlike Sod’s Law, or Murphy’s Law, both of which seem to imply that bad luck is a rule and as such something we must abide by, you know where you are with a foot. There’s even a chance you might be able to avoid it. If you’re lucky.
Sounds like a character in one of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld novels, The Foot that wanders aimlessly amongst the community until it finds someone who’s doing alright, and then… BAM, suddenly they’re on their arse.
The thing is, you know it’s coming. You can almost smell it—you know what I mean. Life bubbles along, the kids are doing okay at school and that little bout of bullying seems to have come to an end; the bills are paid – most of them; intimacy in the bedroom is nice, if brief; and everyone seems to be communicating with everyone else, which makes a change.
So what do you do? You think, oh, something’s bound to go wrong.
The foot knows. Honestly, it does! You become prime suspect numero uno for a really good trip.
I’m not sure what’s worse, the threat of life suddenly plunging into bad luck or the event itself. Does this make me a pessimist? I hope not. A touch superstitious maybe, but not a pessimist. Pessimists believe everything will turn out bad, and I’m not in that camp, so I guess I’m more your clumsy optimist, steady and happy most of the time but there’s always that sense that I could go arse over tit at any moment.
Right now I’m walking very gingerly, groping my way forward in life before take each step. I’m on the pinnacle of doing alright, and I know The Foot of bad luck is out for me. The scary thing is, I think it might be out for Debbie too.
Debbie’s had this bad shoulder for a few weeks. It hurts her to lift it, and there’s no way she can lift the elbow as high as her shoulder. She’s been on the maximum dose of Ibuprofen for more than two weeks and it’s getting worse. She went to the doctor last Friday.
It seems she’s torn the muscle that holds the arm to the socket (very technical, I know). He has given her a week’s course of massively high anti inflammatory and pain killers. This coming Friday, she will have to have a steroid injection directly into the joint. But that’s not the worst. The worst is that she could end up with a frozen shoulder – and that can last 2 years.
I’m so worried. She’s really active and fiercely independent, and although she’ll be okay and will just get on with things, there’ll be so much she won’t be able to do simply because you need to arms. Things like riding the quad bike, feeding the animals, even walking Darcy the dog (he’s a great dane and can be quite rude when out on a walk, especially when he sees sheep or catches the scent of a deer, and then you defiantly need two hands!).
The doctor told her to rest it, and she does as much as she can, but it’s difficult and I know she’s frustrated.
Two years.
You know when you have a dream and as soon as you wake you feel you want to tell someone so that it breaks the dream, and then it won’t come true? Well this is the bloggers equivalent. I want to tell you about my worry over bad luck, and Debbie’s frozen shoulder, so that it won’t come true.
There is no such thing as The Foot. There is no such thing as bad luck.
Debbie’s shoulder will be fine.
I hope.

Monday, 21 June 2010

That’s how we do Monday!

Every now and then I get hit with the full force of just how different my life is - not from other people’s, but from my own. From how it used to be.
So I thought it might be fun to write a diary for one day. Yesterday. Monday 21 June 2010.

5.20am Got up, still very tired. Three days of teaching courses in the last three days has really waked me out!

Made a strong black coffee and switched on the computer. My column for this week should have been in on Friday, and although it is written, I’m struggling with the ending. Beginnings are no problem, but endings, phew!

It takes a while, but eventually I’m happy-ish with it and send it in to Pat the newspaper editor.

It’s a nice feeling when the column goes in, so I celebrate with a whiz around facebook, checking out what everyone’s doing. It’s very quiet.

I write a funky, spiky email to GMTV and Good Morning – I figure it’s got to be funky and spiky to stand out from the crowd – with a Beat the Budget idea for a slot on their program with me giving simple self sufficient ideas to put a few quid back in the nation’s pocket. I tell them I’ve written a book about it. I don’t hear back. Maybe I wasn’t spiky enough?

Toast and more coffee. More facebook, this time on my author page. This side of things do not come naturally and I have to force myself to do it. I feel very self conscious on the author page. I guess I’ll get used to it.

9.00am Debbie gets up and we have coffee together. I walk the dog, put the goosters out on the lawn (two baby geese we hatched ourselves in the incubator), collected my dog and Quadbike from the barn and drove down the hill to the animals.

The sheep are in the chicken field to eat down the grass. They prefer chicken feed. As soon as I open the door to the shed, there’s this huge head-on collision between the chickens trying to get out and the sheep trying to get in. I can’t make anything out, just a mass of bodies and dust like a cartoon.

I let the two older geese out, known collectively as Honey-Bunny – yes, that is ironic. I have to fend him off as I walk away. I check on the pregnant sow, water where necessary, make sure my dog will be okay for the day looking after the animals (he’s in charge), and drive back up to the house.

10.35am My biggest worry at the moment is a 1,500 word article for The Exmoor Magazine. It’s the first time I’ve written for this editor and I want it to be right, but typically things keep happening that either mean I have to rewrite or I’m delayed by waiting around for people I need to interview. Very frustrating and stressy. But it’s got to be in today, so I lock myself away and get on with it.

12.15pm Done! I give it to Debbie for a final read through and, with a couple of tiny alterations, she approves. I send it with photographs. Man, column done, article done, this is a great day! Time for a nap…

I read until I fall asleep on the sofa.

1.20pm Debbie’s board, Darcy the dog’s board, and I make out they’ve woken me up even though I’ve been listening to them for ages.

We decide to take a trip up onto the moor. I tie Darcy to the back of the quad bike, Debbie climbs on behind me and I drive slowly onto open Exmoor. This is lazyman’s dog walking in the extreme!

2.00pm I’m still glowing with all my writing deadlines out the way, so I suggest we nip down the pub for a sensible lunchtime one. We have a local delivery to do (black pudding and hoggs pudding to a guest house in Lynton) and go on from there. There’s a lovely pub right on the top of Exmoor with a garden we can sit in. It’s nice.

4.00pm Ice cold beer and a sandwich for lunch in the sunshine, and there’s only one thing to do when we get back. Nap number two!

5.00pm I quickly get ready and jump on the quad for the evening rounds.

I feed, water and fuss all the animals in this order; chickens, ducks, geese, sheep, first set of pigs, pregnant sow, largest group of pigs down the end (spending a little time with The General, our boar, because we’re quite close and he’s just such a dude!).

6.30pm I kill and pluck a chicken in the barn for tomorrow night’s dinner (please don’t go squeamish. When I see two for one chickens in Tesco’s, I could honestly cry my eyes out for the horrible life they’ve led – I’d far rather produce my own and know they’ve been happy, fulfilled and lead a free range life the way they should.)

7.30pm I snog the horses in the field and fix their water – Georgie is so fat on all this grass! Put the quad away. Put my (superstar) dog away and feed him.

8.10pm Bath, dinner, glass of wine, there’s something on TV and I can’t remember what it was, read until bedtime.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Two beers and an embarrassing moment

I’ve got to start with an embarrassing moment as it’s a classic. I was at the Lynton and Lynmouth music festival last night and I’d had a couple of beers and needed to find a loo. I knew there was a public one by the town hall, so I wandered off in that direction. Typically the loo was locked, but as I turned away I spotted an alley with a guy at the end standing against a wall. Not ideal, but things were becoming urgent so I walked down to share a apace next to him.
Now as any man will know that when you’re confronted with a quiet, dark alley with another man waiting at the end of it, and you’re tugging at your flies as you approach, you’re keen to make your intensions clear. I doubt anybody in the history of the world has ever misinterpreted a similar situation, but in your mind you feel the need to state the obvious. So as I got closer, I said out loud, ‘two beers and I’m desperate.’
That’s it. That’s all that’s needed. Just, two beers and I’m desperate. Says exactly what it does on the tin.
He didn’t say anything back, just shuffled a bit uncomfortably.
It wasn’t until I was nearly next to him that I realised he wasn’t doing what I thought he was doing. In fact, he wasn’t even alone. Between him and the wall was a woman, and they were way beyond the point of being able to cover what they were doing. They probably didn’t need me strolling towards them pulling down my flies and stating I’d had two beers and was desperate.
As embarrassing moments go, this is up there with the time (and I swear both of these are true), that I was early for a horse riding lesson and decided to go for a quick beer with Debbie in a local pub. We walked in. I was dressed in skin tight britches with knee length leather boots and a t-shirt, ordered a pint and found a seat.
I had that feeling that people were staring at me, and just tried to ignore it. When Debbie started laughing I felt a sudden cold shiver of something horribly wrong.
‘You haven’t noticed, have you?’ she said.
The shiver got colder. I looked around. It all seemed okay to me, lunchtime in a pub, a lot of women, mainly in short skirts and quite a few fishnets and stockings and crop tops. Lots of high hair. Lots of make-up. They looked a bit cheap, but you know, not that bad.
‘Look again,’ Debbie said.
I did. And this time I saw the extras, such as the odd moustache, or maybe a hairy chest peeping over the top of a spangly boob-tube. Yep, we wandered into a transvestite convention, and I had to be dressed the way I was!
Anyway, ahem (very male macho voice), back to farming and food…
My neighbour asked if I could help milk a cow that had a small calf and needed to be stripped to avoid mastitis. Payment – not needed until I heard what it was – would be a gallon of fresh milk. I’ve never had milk that unprocessed before!
The milk is currently in the fridge developing a creamy crust that reminds me of the old gold-top milk you used to be able to buy when I was a kid. Tomorrow I’ll take it out and make cheese and yoghurt with it.
Today I need to recover from last night’s beer, music, and wander down the alley. Honestly, it could only happen to me.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Beer flavoured pork - 2

It didn't work. The pork was lovely, really good flavour, but not a hint of beer. It doesn't matter - though i still don't understand why it didn't work? If you think about it, you get heather flavoured honey from bees that visit heather, you get Salt Marsh lamb, you get corn fed chicken, you get foie gras, you get veal (not that i'm in favour of veal, but it is a legitimate example), and as i said in the last blog, you get autumn pork, or spring pork, or spring lamb for that matter, all of which take on certain characteristics of the food the animal is given. So why doesn't beer shine through?

I didn't want it to be strong like a marinade, but i was hoping for some hint of a malty, hoppy background. I had this mad idea of selling beer fed pork sausages for the world cup, which i know is a bit tacky, but there is a sense of fun there none the less. I quite like food with an edge of fun to it - just look a Heston Blumenthal and his sense of theatre.

So beer didn't work. But i can't help thinking i was nearly onto something, a nagging thought in the back of my mind that if i tweaked the idea slightly, i could create something special. Something fun. Oh well, at least the pigs enjoyed the beer.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Beer flavoured pork?

Sometimes you have to manipulate your own feelings. You have to, kind of, focus them. Send them in a certain direction. It takes practice.
I make myself feel excited inside when a pig carcass comes back from the abattoir. Otherwise, what’s the point? Once the pig has gone off, then it becomes meat – that’s the only way I can get my head around it and remain sane. Meat that I have produced myself, and I like that thought; maybe that’s a residue of the old caveman provider coming out in me. And it’s also respect for the animal. Imagine going through all of the rearing and looking after and then getting the pork back and moping and being indifferent about it. No, it’s got to be worthwhile. It’s got to be for a reason, and the reason is my own rare breed, free range, healthy, happy, pork – and that’s exciting.
Only today, I’m more excited than normal.
I don’t normally sell weaners (baby piglets just weaned from their mother), as I like to keep family groups together, but Shammy had a litter of eleven and she was struggling with them all, so I sold four to the local pub landlord.
The pub is situated on the top of Exmoor with wonderful views and a huge paddock out the back. The pigs would be happy. They would also have their feed supplemented with beer, and on a busy day, this could be as much as 20 pints.
I offered the landlord a deal, that if I kept an eye on the pigs and made sure they were healthy and happy and well cared for, in return for him rearing one extra pig for me.
The idea of a pig getting so much beer fascinated me because I know just how important the diet is, and how directly that diet affects the flavour of the meat. For instance, many producers will fatten their pigs on barley for the last month of the pig’s life, but the fat turns pappy and yellow and soft, whereas I finish all mine naturally and the fat is solid and as white as milk (guaranteed to crackle and perfect to render down as lard – and don’t knock homemade lard, it’s been proven to be better for you than butter!).
Another example of a pig’s diet affecting the meat is seasonality. Autumn pork, where the pig has been running in the woods eating tree bark and roots, wild mushrooms, slugs and snails, tastes dark, almost earthy, whereas a spring pig that has spent their time on fresh grasses, heather, gorse, and new saplings, tastes fresher, with just a tiny hint of something you can only describe as citrus, not orange, but a similar background zing you get from oranges; that clean, almost refreshing taste.
So a pig supplemented with beer (not lager), is going to be very interesting.
It went off to the abattoir last week and comes back today.
I have a feeling it’s going to be really special.
I always do all my own butchery anyway, so I’ll break the carcass down into the primal cuts, and then take a chop and fry it gently. I’m hoping to get a sense of the beer coming through in the flavour. I’ll let you know.

Monday, 17 May 2010

I'm not sure my mum understands

Mum is down and sitting in front of me. She lives in London and comes to stay with us a couple of times a year. I’m not sure what she thinks.
Of course she’s positive and complimentary when I talk to her, but it must be odd to see her son live such an alternative lifestyle, her boy who she remembers wandering off to school in a smart uniform, who used to play with the family cat, Solomon, and shy away from any dogs (oh how things change), who left school and began a career of working in offices as an estate agent, and now… now, has separate indoor clothes and outdoor clothes (a sure sign of a manual worker), and the front door step crowded with mucky welly boots.
Most of the time even I’m astounded by how different my life is; not from other peoples, but from my own. In London I had such a trendy apartment. It was Victorian with ceilings so high that when I wanted to fit a plaster ceiling rose, I had to hire a mini scaffolding tower. The walls and ceiling were yellow, and the rose, coving and all the woodwork a bright, crisp white, with jazzy curtains hanging at the windows. You could have photographed it for a magazine.
Now I live in a tiny cottage on Exmoor. In the lounge, about six inches away from my mother’s feet, is an incubator with half a dozen goose eggs and nearly thirty duck eggs warming nicely with the chicks growing inside. On the other side of her, curled up and asleep, is my dog. She doesn’t look comfortable.
I want her to be part of my life, but I know she doesn’t quite know what to make of it. She can’t join in because she doesn’t know how to. The other thing is, our life has lots of different stands to it, with the farm work, the farmers’ markets, the courses we run teaching others how to butcher and process meat, or smallholding courses, even self sufficiency courses. Then there’s the writing.
The writing is going really well and I’m actually now getting editors coming to me asking if I can supply articles, which is brilliant. I had a lovely one last week. There’s a magazine called Writers’ Forum, and for years I was a subscriber because they have a monthly competition where you write a story on a set theme and the winner gets theirs printed in the next edition. I entered every month for years, and every month I prayed this would be the one and I’d win, but it never was. I never even came close. Anyway, a little while ago I sent a pitch in for an article about getting my book published, and they accepted – but the really cool thing is, they want a photograph of me for the cover. What a turn around.
I told mum about it and she laughed. She keeps looking at me now while I’m writing, little furtive glances that I can sense rather than see. She’s not proud of what I do, she’s not—oh I don’t know, maybe she is, maybe that’s not fair. The thing is, it’s a Monday morning and I’m sitting on the sofa writing this, and then I’ve got an article to write for Devon Life magazine and some research to do for The Exmoor magazine, but I know she doesn’t think this counts. What counts is if I was up and dressed in a smart business suit and on my way to an office somewhere.
I guess it used to upset me a little. Getting the book published helped, and I think she can see that Debbie and I have worked really hard to achieve the life we have, even if she can’t understand it. I have got to take her back at the weekend, back to London. On route, I’m going to make a detour to Bluewater, the massive shopping centre in Kent because that’s where she shops and that’s what she knows, and I’m going to take her into Waterstones and stand her in front of my book. It probably won’t mean much to her, but for me, it’s going to mean the world.