Sunday, 24 January 2010

Trouble at the market

News that a Trading Standards inspector was wandering around swept though the farmers’ market stallholders like a bad smell. Customers were ignored or told to come back later, as everyone checked and rechecked the labelling on their produce.
For two pins I’d have packed up and gone home – not that I’d done anything wrong; not as far as I knew, anyway, but it’s the thought of it. It’s like driving past a police roadblock set up to check everyone’s car tax disk. I know my tax is up to date, and I know I’m legal, so why do I drive past staring dead ahead, refusing to glance at the officer as he looks down at the corner of my windscreen for the date on the little round disk, and feel so uncomfortable and guilty!
I looked at the packs of mutton on my stall, the joints and chops, diced and minced, the gorgeous deep red of the meat so much darker than normal lamb against the crisp, almost clinical white of the fat that topped it, all snug in their trays under tight cellophane.
At the other end of the table was the deli stuff; still warm scotch eggs piled high on a tray under a see-though cover, next to homemade faggots and black pudding and hogs pudding. There was bread and rolls and brightly coloured jars of different chutneys and jams, everything neatly packed and very obviously homemade.
I had a large table-top sign next to each group with a list of the ingredients, but hadn’t put any best before labels on anything. I can understand the need for best before dates in supermarkets and shops, but in a farmers’ market they always seem pointless, as all the deli produce is either made early that morning or late in the afternoon the day before.
Even the butchery is done on the day before the market.
Surely that’s why people come to farmers’ markets, because everything is fresh. Stamping produce with a best before date is akin to telling anyone who bakes at home that they have to do the same in case someone other than then picks it up out of the fridge. Madness.
But, legal is legal. I pulled out a sheet of blank sticky labels and began frantically scribbling a best before date of three day’s time, which sounded about right because we never add any artificial preservatives to anything we make. It would probably last longer than three days, but three days was comfortable.
The Trading Standards inspector wasn’t difficult to spot. Elderly, balding, light coloured trench coat, an open folder thick with paper and pamphlets held tight in front of him above a serious business face.
‘Do I know you?’ He said, looking at the stall rather than me.
‘Um, well…no, actually.’
‘Good. Right. So who are you?’
I told him. He wrote it down.
‘Homemade faggots, for real?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I assured him. ‘Everything on the stall is homemade, all grown or reared from my own free range animals that I breed myself.’
He started digging in his pocket. Oh, great. What was he going to do, arrest me? Ban me from trading? ‘There is only one other person in Devon I know of who makes their own faggots, and I’m not even sure they still do it,’ he said, pulling out a ten pound note. ‘I’ll have two. And some mutton. And a scotch egg.’
He handed the note across and smiled. ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘if you’re producing and selling yourself, you don’t need a best before label. Because you’re selling direct to the consumer, if people want to know, they can just ask you.’
Oh what a wonderful breath of sanity!

Just a couple of other points I need to update. First, I might have been a little unkind to the marketing lady at the publishers in my last blog. True, but maybe unkind. I gave it one last shot and sent a brisk, business-like email to her with clear bullet points outlining all the information I needed, and got an apologetic response the same day. Since then we have swapped a couple of emails and she has really gone all out to be as helpful as possible.
The other thing is, I have got Sky One coming down tomorrow to film a piece with me about looking after and re-homing chickens. I’ll try and blog again in a couple of days with photos and an update on how it went and when it will be shown on TV.
One last thing of note, I have secured a monthly column double page spread in a nice glossy magazine on top of my weekly newspaper column. Happy days! First article to appear in April – will blog more on this later.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A problem shared, and all that

I’ve stared at this blank screen for well over twenty minutes now, not because I don’t have anything to say – quite the reverse. I guess I’ve got a lot on my mind right now, and I’m kind of worried that this blog might end up looking like a page out of Bridget Jones Diary, without the cigarette tally. Or the scary knickers (any reference to Bridge Jones always has to include the scary knickers). But what the heck. A problem shared and all that. So…

Worries, in order:
Money – to include mounting bills and the niggling prospect of an MOT on the land rover.
Horses – I had to take them out of their lovely 8 acre field and put them in a much, much smaller one with a field shelter whilst the bad weather continues, and now both of them are depressed.
Mother – family in general, including ill aunt.
The veg garden needs to be dug-over and manured this month (started this yesterday).
Need to begin some home brew so people who come on courses have something self sufficient to drink.
Cut down trees and lay them to season for next winter’s logs.
Burn brushings and fallen branches that have blown/knocked/rotted down and litter the front of the woods making it look scruffy.
The book – is going to print next Thursday and the marketing manager at the publishers has ignored my last three emails to her begging for advice on when to begin approaching magazines, etc, (despite her assurance that she would help me), and now I realise that I really, really, really am alone, and face the prospect of marketing this huge book using best guesses and best intensions.
I need to loose weight in case I do get any TV appearances to promote the book. I could also do with growing some hair, developing a razor sharp wit like Clive James and sexy eyes like Robby Williams.

Maybe making a list was a bad idea. It just bunches together all your insecurities so they can be easily viewed with a tiny sweep of the eye. At least when they’re still in you’re head you can only think of one at a time, so although it might seem like a mountain, at least it’s not a range.
Funny thing is, I just started writing a balance to this list; a list of nice thoughts, and it turned out to be the same as the worries: family, animals, land and book. See that’s my point, why does everything have to be so complicated? It’s like each part of my life has a good and bad side to it. I’m happy with it, but at the same time as being unhappy. Love it, hate it. Like it, loathe it. Worry sick about it, glow happily inside when I think of it.
No wonder I’m confused.
However there are a couple of issues I need to tackle sooner than later. I need to get my arse in gear and work on the land tidying and repairing where necessary, paying special attention to the front field where the chickens, ducks and geese are, and strim and generally clean-up everywhere else. I also need to send out a press release to all the long-lead magazines alerting them to the book, with an added paragraph saying I’ll get them a copy as soon as one is available from the publishers.
As for the rest, I’ll talk to Debbie. She’ll know what to do.
Yes, good plan.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Snow and Ice

This, surely, is the only way to travel in the snow - but please note the complete absence of my dog. Dex, my little collie usually travels everywhere with me riding on the back of the quad, but he hates my snow driving, and seconds before this picture was taken jumped off to run beside me, and landed in a drift deeper than himself!

So far four trees have come down under the weight of the snow (mostly in the pig enclosures), but when the snow is full in the branches, the place looks so different and so magical.

Just a cool photograph.

Okay, so he won't ride with me, but he's quite prepared to fall asleep on the back of the quad when it's stationary.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Self Sufficient Christmas

So what do you think, not bad? I made it for Debbie as her Christmas present. The bowl and the stand are made from oak which I turned on a lathe, and the middle bit, the stem, I hand carved from lime using a Stanley knife. It’s meant to represent the fact that we work so hard for the pigs, looking after them, feeding, watering, worrying about them, that this is one pig that is working for Debbie by holding up her drink.
I’ve only ever carved spoons and bowls and eggcups and things before, nothing as intricate as this. I’m really pleased with the result, even if it does look a little like a fat mouse!
So Christmas is done. Survived. Actually I like Christmas, it’s just that for a smallholder, it can, if you’re not careful, drift into being just like any other day. You do the morning rounds of letting out the dogs, chickens, and geese (very lucky geese, considering!), and ducks. Do a quick feed around of the pigs, check water, cast an eye over the horses and sheep and bomb back for breakfast.
I’d love to say that we all had fresh farm eggs for breakfast on Christmas morning, but out of well over fifty assorted poultry, not one of the buggers bothered to lay. I think it’s too cold for them, that or they wanted Christmas off.
Instead I munched toast while finishing off decorating the tree. We had sworn to ourselves that we would not be decorating the tree on Christmas morning again, that we would be better organised, and in truth we were, but we were still out delivering the last of the local orders for turkey, gammons, sausages and smoked ham (made the most amazing smoked ham this year. Hot smoked it over a low heat in oak wood smoke for nine hours, and it was dark and rich with a gorgeous smoky flavour).
Then we drew the turkey – doesn’t everyone spend their Christmas morning with their hand up a turkey’s bottom?
I tried to be even faster doing the evening rounds, but the horses decided to escape – something they have never done before – and pushed a hurdle to one side and walked out into the next field with all the sheep close behind.
The sheep just ate, but the horses were really funny because they knew they were being naughty and weren’t quite sure what to do after their great escape, so they found some humans and went and hung out next to them. I’m not sure the humans were as delighted as the horses in this arrangement, but luckily they did called us and I went over with a bucket of feed and walked the animals back, narrowly avoiding getting caught in the middle of a war between both horses and the stupid sheep who all thought it would be a good idea if they tried to trip me up so they could get at the feed before we made it to the correct field. With a little yelling, some swearing and use of a very stern pointy finger, I managed to get them back.
Then, charge home on the quad bike at light speed, finish off dinner, eat, and yes, I confess, fall asleep on the sofa by nine thirty. Another Christmas done.