Sunday, 13 July 2014

A for apple, B for broccoli, C for cauliflower...

July is generally a prolific month here in the Sparrowholding garden, with crops gradually growing, ripening and being eaten. Quite by whom they are being eaten is another matter. Suffice to say, it's not always by us! In fact, at times I feel as if we're engaged in a battle of wills with the weeds and other "guests" who arrive uninvited and gorge themselves on our produce before we even get a taste of it. 

So here's a whistlestop photographic tour of the things that have made it  and a few of the things that didn't  in all their fresh, graphic glory!
An abundance of apples (till the wind blows!)
Baby beetroot plants  just peeping through
Blackcurrants galore, as usual  shame we don't like them!
Burgeoning blueberries
Broccoli's a bit sparse hereabouts –  we love it, but sadly it
doesn't seem to do very well in our garden!
Spot the baby butternut squash. Or at least Dobbies sold it as
a butternut squash - it looks like a courgette plant to me!
One of our three cauliflowers  the slugs have
slurped up the others :-(
We have nothing to do with the wild cherries - the tree
does everything itself :-)
One courgette on the way  and hopefully
a few more to follow eventually...
The gooseberries that never were... A greedy garden
pest has decimated many of the branches of our goosegog
bushes. HG thinks sawflies are the nasty nibblers.
Baby grapes just forming, courtesy of polytunnel resident
Vinnie the Vine. We have to keep plastic "doors" shut, though,
or the cheeky birds nip in and help themselves!
Lovely mixed lettuce leaves  slug free so far...
The parsnips look as if they're at a ceilidh and waiting ready
for an Orcadian Strip the Willow dance to start!
Though  the row that our neighbours' hens decided
to turn into a dust bath doesn't look quite as good...
Peas on the vine...
... and peas in the pod
Our Rooster potatoes are looking  nice and healthy
In fact, you could say they're blooming!
HunterGatherer has put nets over the rasps and soft fruit 
to try and keep the beady-eyed birds at bay!
But one bird still managed to snatch a raspberry... grrrr!
Between next door's marauding chickens and the resident
slug population, our strawbs are taking a bit of a pounding.
To avoid the birdy beaks above and the slippery slugs
below, I've had to pick strawberries unripe and ripen them
indoors, but then the berries are just not as sweet.
Tayberries are a cross between red rasps and blackberries
 –  they're a bit bigger and very  tasty, too!
Nothing like as many tomatoes as last year, simply
because HG and I were both really busy with work during
that crucial period when the dreaded chickweed
decided to engulf the polytunnel. It smothered a few
of the tomato plants, but at least a couple
survived. No chutney this year, I fear...

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The power of parental attachment in the bird world

Lucky to be alive - the thrush fledgling
Do you ever get the feeling, when you're busy speaking to someone, that they're not quite focusing on what you're saying? Well, I had that distinct feeling yesterday evening when I was speaking to HunterGatherer upon his return from another long day at work in the farm workshop. As I prattled on, HG was gazing intently out the sitting-room window at the sheep paddock and then, before you could say "woolly jumpers", he was out the patio doors over the fence, flapping his arms and running through the long grass after something.

My first instinct was that he'd completely lost the plot; however, when I saw him then stoop down and scoop up a bird in his hands, I realised that there had indeed been method in his madness. His eagle eye  well honed from years of employment as a deer stalker on estates in the west coast of Scotland  had spotted a big black crow carrying off a baby thrush in its talons.
The bird-catcher
He'd been alerted to the incident because he'd seen Mummy and Daddy Thrush frantically pursuing the crow (which was easily twice their size) to and fro across the paddock, and then spotted that the crow was not empty-clawed.

Miraculously, the fledgling bird survived its ordeal. HG placed it in a clump of grass in the garden, from where it cheeped pathetically to its parents – who were still flying bravely at the, by now, extremely hacked-off crow, to deter it from returning for its intended Saturday evening supper. 

The hunter-turned-bird-protector waited until he saw his new feathered friend flutter off back into the bushes and then returned to the sitting-room in search of his own Saturday night supper: steak and new potatoes served with home-grown broccoli and cauliflower from the Sparrowholding polytunnel. I suspect he fared rather better than his adversary, the crow...

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Boats, butterflies and goodbyes

"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must
have sunshine, freedom and a little flower." 
~Hans Christian Andersen
An email from Amazon Kindle dropped into my inbox this week, reminding me – politely but firmly – that it has been over 30 days (shock, horror…) since I put virtual pen to paper and penned an update from the Sparrowholding. Knuckles duly rapped, I rapidly tried to remember what has been happening in our lives during the past six weeks, which was no mean feat given the daily depleting capacity of Yours Truly's middle-aged grey cells.

However, a quick flick through the photos on my ubiquitous Blackberry proved to be a propitious starting point…. First there was a metaphorical feast of photos charting my annual pilgrimage with fellow foodie L. to Crail Food Festival.

Once we'd crossed "The Kingdom" and arrived on the outskirts of Crail, we left our car in the requisite car park (aka field) and strolled along the quaint, winding streets of this charming East Neuk fishing village, dropping in at various venues to admire the panoply of local produce.
Loaves aplenty - from award-winning Barnett's Bakery
A bowl of big meringues - sweet!
As ever, there were tempting goodies on offer wherever we went: giant, squidgy TipsyMallows (or perhaps I should say "Mmmmmallows"); aromatic artisanal bread from Barnett’s Bakery; massive, melt-in-the-mouth meringues from Ardross Farm Shop; giant scones from Balgove Farm Shop; delicious dipping sauces from Trotter’s Independent Condiments; and dinky bottles of fruity vinegar from The Little Herb Farm.

Tipsy Mallows come in a range of different flavours
 and colours - the raspberry ones were fab!
Scones as far as the eye can see :-)
Spice up your life - with Trotter's Condiments
Vinegars infused with flavours of fruit and herbs
Another local treat awaited us in the form of the fresh crab rolls for sale down at the harbour. We sat happily on a bench that overlooked the bobbing fishing boats, munching our rolls and chatting about everything and nothing. Idyllic. Or rather it was until the sight of a toddler tottering unfettered towards the edge of the precipitous harbour wall sent our maternal adrenaline levels into instant overdrive!

We rose, as one, to shout “stop him” and moved instinctively towards the wee toot, scared to sprint at him in case he panicked and overbalanced. 

Meanwhile, his mother – who had apparently been engrossed in a particularly juicy exchange of gossip with some local pals – looked at us as if we were two middle-aged madwomen and ambled nonchalantly towards her offspring, who was still hovering precariously at the edge of the sheer drop.

At that point, L. and I had to leave the scene or we might well have said what was on our minds and become embroiled in a “parenting rage” argument. All we can hope is that she realises how close her wee boy came to a potentially fatal fall and invests soon in a set of toddler reins.
Kylie and Eck - the perfect couple... Note height from the
unprotected edge of the wall down to the waiting water...
Nothing to beat fresh crab in a fresh roll
The next event of note recorded by my trusty mobile phone was our flying visit to Oxford, in mid-June, to help our exhausted elder daughter celebrate the end of her finals. The past four years have flown by unbelievably fast, and it was somehow rather sad to think of her bidding a fond farewell to St Something’s College, where she has forged such great friendships while relishing (if that's the right word!) the long hours of academic rigour. 
The dreaded "Examination Schools" in Oxford
However, daughter dear's studies are not yet over, for in September she hopes to begin a law conversion course at a new seat of learning in London, i.e. the exam stress looks set to continue for the foreseeable future...

True to the nature of the beast, DD1 had planned the parental micro-break down to the nth detail. Day 1 saw us punting on the River Cherwell (naturally, HunterGatherer was duly handed the unwieldy pole and told to get punting!) then later we tucked into an excellent supper at The Trout in nearby Wolvercote.
HunterGatherer getting to grips with being a punter...
The pudding platter at The Trout: wowsers!
Much of Day 2 was devoted to Blenheim Palace, a local must-see which DD1 had been keen to visit for ages. The entrance fee of £60 for the car plus the three of us did rather make us gulp; however, in fairness, there was an abundance to see and do on the estate. We could probably have spent another full afternoon there and still not exhausted everything on offer, so the price wasn’t unreasonable as it transpired.

Blenheim's extensive grounds are immaculately maintained, and the palace itself is packed to the gunnels with curios and artifacts – indeed in some of the public rooms, it’s hard to see the wallpaper there are so many fabulous paintings or exhibits on show.

Sickles and scythes and much much more!
Together with DD1’s Uni friend G, we first boarded the charming little train that trundles its way across to the aptly named Pleasure Gardens. Having devoured our pre-purchased M&S sandwiches at one of the family picnic tables there, next we perused the display of antique farming tools and implements (taking plenty of photos for Farmpa!) before being seriously wowed by the incredibly attractive incumbents of the Butterfly Enclosure. 
With a little gentle encouragement, this bold
butterfly was soon on his way
The camouflage of this butterfly is amazing...
I spent the entire visit to the Butterfly House dreading that we’d tread on one of these delicate insects, as they were wont to land on the ground at one’s feet, having no respect even for HunterGatherer’s tackety boots!

Our subsequent tour of the Palace was fascinating – it transpires Winston Churchill was born in one of the Palace bedrooms, so a whole display was dedicated to his life and association with the Marlborough family home.

For me, personally, the most moving exhibits were letters written by Churchill to his father from school and from Sandhurst. It was obvious that the young Churchill was desperate for his dear ol' dad to come and see him, and that these much-longed-for visits didn’t happen very often.
The bedroom where Winston Churchill was born
The approach to Blenheim Palace
Think of how long it would take to trim these hedges!
In the evening, we returned to the scene of our punting exploits, this time to enjoy a delicious supper at Cherwell Boat House. Sadly this lovely meal marked the end of our break in the sunny south – it was time to exchange the beautifully manicured grounds and greenhouses of Blenheim for the unkempt lawn and predominantly weed-populated polytunnel here at The Sparrowholding. Still, I suppose it gives HunterGatherer something to aspire to… ;-)

PS: Just noticed that this is the 100th Square Sparrow blogpost, so many thanks to all followers of the blog for taking the time to read my ramblings. I'm currently contemplating moving the blog across to Wordpress for logistical reasons, but will let you know when the big move takes place!

Dream starter at Cherwell Boathouse: asparagus
with quails eggs and pea'n mint mousse

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Let the food times roll

Living near Kinross positions us at a first-class culinary crossroads, with ready access to fresh produce from Perthshire, Kinross-shire and Fife. Foodie events offer a perfect opportunity to sample the local delights and Crail Food Festival on 14th/15th June is a veritable celebration of all that's wonderful about East Coast fresh produce.

Last year, my brief was to write about Seriously Good Venison and the Pittenweem Chocolate Company. This year, my remit was to muse about smoked fish, so I put together a rather tasty (without wanting to "angle" for compliments) recipe for a Seriously Smoky Fish Pie. Enjoy!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

It's that time of year again: the lambs are pronking...

Chocolate Brownie and her twins
So that's it over for another year then. Our Shetland ewes have now lambed, and the paddock is resounding to the patter of tiny cloven hooves as fourteen happy lambs pronk (see the explanatory blog post from May 2012) and prance from dawn till dusk. The final set of twins were born at around midnight on Friday after we'd spent a long day watching and waiting while the ewe prowled up and down the drystane dyke for hours, having refused her feed in the morning (and thus alerted us to the fact that she was thinking about "the deed"). 

Penning her in for closer supervision later in the day proved a tad problematic, and at one point she almost flew past HunterGatherer's right ear, though the fact that she managed to get airborne at all despite her vast girth is nothing short of a miracle.

There is a fifteenth lamb, but sadly the poor wee soul is not up to pronking, as when she was born first thing on Saturday morning, her legs had no strength at all - a physiotherapist friend suspects she sustained a spinal trauma during the birth. The only part of her body she could move was her head, so we sat her propped up on one of HunterGatherer's boiler suits for the first 24 hours and tube fed her colostrum (the rich milk that ewes produce just after birth) to give her a fighting chance. 

Then to keep her out of the chilling rain last night, we cleared a space next to Vinnie the Vine in the polytunnel and popped mum and bambino in there for the night. This morning, she has managed to get up on to her feet and is even taking a few hesitant steps, but we're not sure she has the balance required to suckle her mum yet, so we're keeping a close eye on her. Her chances, to be honest, don't look great at the moment.

I've posted photos of all the other lambs on the Square Sparrow Facebook page each day as they arrived, so here are the final four to complete the set: Orangina (our second "orange" ewe, aptly named after my favourite soft drink by our lovely new neighbour, S.) had twins  a boy and a girl  while one of our young ewes, SplitEar, had a single baby girl (the one trying to find her feet in the photo below). Lulu, the "limp" lamb, is in the 3rd to 6th photos.

Proud mum Orangina with the midnight arrivals...
Steady she goes! New lamb Juliet takes to her feet.
Day 1: All Lulu can lift so far is her head
Morning 2: After a night in the polytunnel, a bit more upright
Afternoon 2: Now able to stand on all fours
Lulu: Not quite ready for a 100m sprint, but able to toddle...
It's also great to see welcome signs of plant life and growth in the garden once again. The only problem with that, of course, is that the weed life is also springing into life even faster! I made my first rhubarb crumble of the season last night, and HunterGatherer and I polished off a portion topped with some Porrelli tablet ice cream. A winning combo... I use Delia's crumble recipe, and have done since I can remember (rub tog. 8oz of plain flour and 3 oz butter till crumb-like then add 4 oz of sugar). My own little "twist" is that I also sprinkle demerara sugar over the top of the crumble before cooking, to give it extra zing!
Ruby the rhubarb plant seems a bit small and stunted this year
However, we've still had a few nice stalks of rhubarb :-)
Sprinkle over some soft brown sugar...
... and stew for five minutes in the microwave.
Then pop your crumble mixture on top and cook till golden. Yum!
Meanwhile in the milder climes of the polytunnel, the asparagus is growing nicely. It's best steamed  if you have a steamer  but also delicious boiled. Just watch not to boil for too long, though, or it loses some of its unique fresh-from-the-garden flavour. On this occasion, we steamed the tips then dipped them in HunterGatherer's special Marie Rose dip, which he makes himself. And very tasty it was, too!
Nothing to beat asparagus fresh from the polytunnel.
And into the dip it goes!