Thursday, 14 August 2014

Piggy birthday cakes, the Commonwealth Games and green potatoes

Globetrotting Percy Pig birthday cake -
celebrating my 51 years in style!
Wooosh! No sooner did we hit the middle of July than suddenly it was the middle of August… Where does the time go?! I recall hearing my mother ask a similar question 30 plus years ago, so I fear that this perceived temporal acceleration may be proportionately linked to the ever-increasing number of years I've spent on Planet Earth (currently standing at 51 years plus one week following last week’s birthday).

So what’s all happened in that vanished summer month?  Well, for starters, we enjoyed a visit to the Commonwealth Games over in the West of Scotland. And – marvel of marvels – we even managed to get all five of us there at the same hour, in the same city, in the same row of seats at Glasgow Green, to watch a couple of men’s hockey matches. 

This feat of family engineering required two parents to get themselves through to Glasgow the night before (big adventure for HunterGatherer to see the city lights), one offspring to catch a late-night train from her current summer job in Cambridge, and the two remaining offspring to get a ridiculously early train from Edinburgh through to Glasgow. It felt as if we’d run a family marathon before we even sat down!

Scotland vs Wales - a pretty close-run match,
but Scotland triumphed eventually
Three of our entourage (joined by Farmerbruv and my teenage niece) also managed to take in a session of rugby 7s at Ibrox, where the chilly, damp weather was more than compensated for by the slick and entertaining continuity announcer and the fast and furious rugby – wide-ranging in standard, but played in a great spirit of sportsmanship, win or lose.

Malaysian rugby players: happy to be part of
the Commonwealth Games - regardless of the result
Personally, one of my highlights of the day was when the Malaysian team, who had been soundly beaten (or, as we say up here, “gubbed”) in every match, walked slowly round the perimeter of the entire pitch before exiting the stadium. The players carried a Saltire and a Malaysian flag aloft, side by side, as they went, and shook hands with as many of the crowd as they could reach, evidently savouring every last second of their Scottish experience. That, for me, epitomised “the Games”.

Also entering into the spirit of the games were these
kilted buskers outside Ibrox underground station. Who
knew Glasgow even had an Underground?!
Back at The Sparrowholding, with the exception of the plethora of soft fruits during July, the “performance” of our plant life in the garden has been distinctly less auspicious than that of the athletes in Glasgow. 

Looks as if this Tayberry must be in love...
Our soft fruits were particularly prolific this year - loved
this vibrant photo so much that I've made it the cover
photo on the Square Sparrow Facebook page
Blackcurrants were in abundance again... Couldn't bear the
waste, so I tried out a blackcurrant cordial recipe
After the cordial had run through, I started to mash the residue in the
sieve and made some blackcurrant coulis, too!
Didn't have any sealing bottles for the cordial, so my purple elixir
 had to go in a Kilner jam jar instead.
The last of the strawberries, raspberries and Tayberries
went to make fabulously red fridge jam
We’re not sure if we’ve just been incredibly unlucky or whether chickweed has been particularly virulent everywhere this season, but since early June it has been insidious, stealthily strangling just about every little plant that has dared to venture a shoot above the ground.

Part of the problem is that we simply don’t have time to weed during the working week, and weekends just aren’t enough. So, much as I hate using chemicals in any shape or form in the garden, I suspect that next year we’re going to have to plant later, having blitzed the polytunnel with Roundup earlier in the season – or, to be specific, the parts of the polytunnel that don’t have resident asparagus, herbs and strawberries.

Our babygrapes - currently looking like a 3D scientific model!
Of course, Vinnie the Vine will not be treated. In fact, he’s surpassed himself this year after last year’s paltry single bunch of grapes.  Nellie the nectarine bush, on the other hand, is getting a bit above herself. She’s muscling in on the space in the polytunnel and has only produced three (small, feeble and non-ripening) fruit in the six or so years we’ve had her. As retribution, we’re contemplating digging her up in the autumn and letting her take her chances in a sheltered part of the garden.
Home-grown courgette and tomato gratin - mmm...
Thankfully, our asparagus was ready early enough in the season to avoid death by Triffid, and we planted quite mature courgette plants, so they’ve fortunately done OK, too. However, the cauliflowers, broccoli, carrots and parsnips have been almost entirely snuffed out. Thankfully, HunterGatherer also planted some carrots and parsnips outdoors, so we will have some root veggies to boil and roast come winter-time.

Hessian bags - perfect potato storage
Talking of underground veggies, our potatoes have reached maturity. This week HunterGatherer cut off and removed all the shaws (leaves) to reduce the chances of blackleg spreading and to stop the tubers getting any larger, and we harvested any that were close to the surface. My modest investment last year in three smallish hessian bags from Dobbies has proved a good move. They’re perfect for storing potatoes in a dark cupboard so they don’t sweat and don’t turn green.

Now, being a passionate potato fanatic (having worked in the seed potato industry for several years during my youth), I have a “thing” about green potatoes.

As some of you may be aware, they are not at all good for you – so be sure to discard any potatoes that you buy/grow which have green patches on them. And sadly, it’s not enough just to cut off the offending green part, as the solanine toxin may already have spread to the whole tuber.

Spot the green wedges - shame on you McCain !
My offspring have regularly had to restrain me from throwing green potatoes off supermarket shelves when I spot them offered for sale to unsuspecting shoppers. I did once “slip” their arm lock and demand to speak to the store’s fruit and veg manager, who seemed genuinely ignorant of the possible perils of eating green spuds. You’d think they’d teach them basics like this at any self-respecting fruit’n veg induction course, wouldn't you?

Anyway! Rant over – at least now perhaps a few more of the general public will be aware of this apparently little-known potato factoid thanks to this blog post. In fact, by next week there may well be reports of shoppers throwing potatoes off shelves in supermarkets all over the UK. Perhaps potato hurling might even make it on to the list of athletics events in The Gold Coast City in 2018…I think I may even make it on to the podium!

PS: To conclude, I thought you'd appreciate the fabulous wrapping paper that HunterGatherer procured for my birthday pressie...

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you, reader:
he's wrapped it in an empty Cheddars packet...
But to my delight, the gift wasn't actually a packet of
cheese'n onion cheddars... (much as I like them!)

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