Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Festive greetings from The Sparrowholding...

Merry Christmas to one and all!
Dear All,                     
Tonight, just as I was pondering how to encapsulate the Sparrowholding exploits of 2014, I happened to encounter a former teacher of all three offspring, who asked after their well-being with the immortal words: “So how are the grafter, the mercurial one and the talented-but-alternative one?” Yours Truly is still trying to work out which descriptor was intended for which child, but in the meantime…

A historic moment in a historic building -
the Sheldonian Theatre opened its doors in 1669
In June, after three years of burying her head in the Bodleian library and one year of intensive pâtisserie research in Paris, DD1 graduated from the city of the dreamy spires with a B.A. in French – or, as her mother irreverently refers to it, “fusty French” because of all the medieval literature involved. Far more importantly (in her father’s eyes!), and despite being consigned to crutches 10 weeks prior to the hotly contested women’s rugby Varsity match, she also emerged from her final season with  a ‘full blue’– a term presumably inspired by the ubiquitous bruises sustained by participants during the 80 punishing minutes of play... By something akin to a miracle, all five of us managed to converge in one Ordnance Survey square of the UK map for 24 hours on graduation day to celebrate the culmination of DD1’s studies. Or, to be more precise, the temporary culmination… for no sooner had the avid academic rid herself of the purgatory of relentless exam stress than she signed herself up for yet another 18 months of cerebral torture (this time of the legal rather than the linguistic persuasion). Consequently, late 2014 finds her slogging her way through a law conversion course in London while holding down three part-time jobs – her father and I often wonder what she does in her copious spare time.

Dark blue through and through - and that's just the bruises!
DD2 turned 21 in February, and to mark this milestone (or possibly in a desperate attempt to avoid another 21 years of her company!) a group of her friends from Edinburgh Uni gifted her a bungee jump. Unluckily for them, “Tigger” – ironically one of her childhood nicknames – bounced back, and at time of writing is busy composing a soundtrack to accompany a short, black-and-white, silent film of Alice in Wonderland as part of her final coursework.  With a bit of luck and providing the Queen of Hearts comes up trumps, DD2 should complete her music degree next May. When not rearranging quavers and crotchets, she is to be found hauling her Spotify speakers (almost certainly heavier than she is!) to parties throughout the ‘Burgh – this being one of her onerous duties as a rep for the eponymous music company – or brandishing her trusty weapon of war on the city’s hockey pitches and exchanging occasional “pleasantries” with the umpires… In her spare time, she managed to enrage one of the militant New Town Clean Streets’ campaigners by unwittingly (being new to the area) placing a bag of rubbish in the wrong place on collection day. Her rubbish bag was evidently meticulously rifled to find documentation bearing her address, and she duly received a letter by post (from a lady living two doors away) advising her of the error of her ways, pointing out that her rubbish bag had (shock, horror!) contained an item that could have been recycled and offering to give her training in what she should recycle in future… If you live in the New Town, beware: Big Brother is evidently watching you.

Spot the new astro boots!
Big Brother (or sister...) is watching you in the New Town
All of which brings us neatly to the girls’ little brother (note perfect “link sentence”, cunningly inserted as practice for Yours Truly’s English tutees in the run-up to the prelims…). Son and heir has by now almost certainly skateboarded every street and alleyway in Edinburgh, with only one trip to Edinburgh A&E to show for his efforts. Always a bit of a culture vulture, he now hosts a mini art gallery on his upper arm, including a partly completed diagram of an origami frog. Apparently, the idea is that further lines will be added as he completes further phases of his life (we wait with bated breath to see if the frog will actually fold itself when his skin eventually starts to sag with age…). Half-way through 2014, our bohemian boy traded in the owl-like hours of the cocktail king for the lark-like hours of the latte artist. In addition to testing out his barista expertise on the unsuspecting residents of Bruntsfield, the family’s culinary dark horse has also been utilising his cooking skills (none of them learnt from his mother!) in the cafĂ© kitchen to whip up gastronomic delights with which to enthral the taste buds of his lucky customers.

Supergran, never one to let her advancing years get in the way of her active lifestyle, set out powerwalking in her wellies one day and ended up with a magnificent embroidery on her knee, courtesy of the duty Accident & Emergency doctor at PRI (who may well also have been a closet member of the WRI, given the neatness of the stitching). Later in the year, no doubt in an attempt to keep up with her similarly maladroit younger granddaughter, Supergran dropped her mobile phone down the toilet, thereby neatly disproving the theory that with age comes experience and wisdom. Thank goodness Farmpa is there to keep her on the straight and narrow – in between his skyward forays in the bucket of the farm forklift, that is…

Underneath this bandage is some quality stitching..
Farmpa donned a wasp-proof suit while cementing
his roof from the forklift bucket...

When HunterGatherer is not otherwise engaged whispering sweet nothings into the ears of recalcitrant fertiliser spreaders to persuade them to dispense the correct proportions of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium for any non-chemist/non-farmer readers), he is to be found either tending the chocolate sheep or propping up the goalposts at the local hockey pitch, waiting (im)patiently for an opportunity to poach the odd goal or two. Having scored a hat trick during a recent game, he has (much as we are loath to admit it) rather trumped the rest of the family.

HunterGatherer was worried the sheep might not see him...
Somewhat frustratingly, my own hockey exploits this year have been curtailed by a variety of muscle tears and a “fizzy heel” (or, as medical professionals are wont to call it “tarsal tunnel syndrome”), a condition which has the interesting effect of making my left heel feel as if it’s permanently wired up to a TENS machine. On a lighter note, after being plagued with hearing problems since mid-August, I was eventually advised by the local nurse to inhale some crystal meth – or at least that’s what I thought I heard her say (my hearing is going, remember!) When I shared this news with my rather startled older daughter, she very quickly twigged that what the nurse had actually prescribed was a tub of menthol crystals, which are – according to street-savvy DD2 – quite a different substance from crystal meth. Personally, I suspect that my version of the prescription might have been far more effective – if for no other reason than that lack of hearing would have been the least of my problems…

Nothing like a wee tournament to finish off the season
And so, with a gist of everyone’s 2014 news having been duly dispensed in the time-honoured manner, all that remains is for me to wish my family, friends and fellow bloggers the very best of health and much happiness in the year ahead. Here’s to a great year for all in 2015!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Romance is in the air at the Sparrowholding...


Mungo the Magnificent - ready for action
November may be a dull, grey, tedious month for most of us, but if you’re a tup (the Scottish word for a daddy sheep), it’s the best month of the year, as it’s the time you are unleashed on those lovely woolly ladies you’ve been ogling through the fence for the past 10 months!


So it was that on the 15th November, our amorous ram was shown an open gate and let loose in the hill paddock. At first he didn’t notice his wannabe wives perched on the horizon. But it didn’t take him long, and soon he was galloping uphill – no doubt all the while trying to remember the chat-up lines that had worked best for him last year...

Romeo running towards his Juliets
Meanwhile, this year’s lambs were being gathered together and issued with ear tags (the form of ID which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food insists on to ensure full traceability of all livestock – Fathorse even has her own passport, believe it or not!). A kind neighbour, who was attending the Michaelmas Lamb Sale at Caledonian Market in Stirling, stopped en passant to pick our lambs up and they were off. 

Loading in progress
And suddenly the lamb paddock was almost empty...
 However, three of this year's lambs stayed put – the ones we'd chosen to be our replacement ewe lambs. They’re a gorgeous wee trio, and we’ve named them Pipsqueak (daughter of Socks), Lily (daughter of Tiger Lily) and Snowdrop (daughter of Snowy).
Snowdrop (left); Lily (centre);Pipsqueak (right)
The pop-up paddock in the garden
We like our sheep to be easily handled and used to human contact, so HunterGatherer has fenced off a corner of the garden at the moment and they’re happily grazing round the apple and plum trees as we come and go during the day. They’re also getting some pellets or the occasional block of dried grass to get them used to coming to the trough (a handy habit to establish when you want to catch them easily when they’re older!).

"Er, where's my snack? Socks is not
 impressed that the lambs are being
given special treatment!
And neither are the other ewes!
Now that our Christmas outside lights are installed on the tree adjacent to their temporary paddock, the three lambs look rather festive in the evenings, silhouetted in turn against blue, white, red and yellow lights. Yes, they’re really entering into the Christmas spirit – no baaaa humbug here…. [sorry!]


The Sparrowholding "Illuminations"












Thursday, 27 November 2014

Full steam ahead at the Miele Calorie Neutral lunch

Chef for the Miele Steam! event in Edinburgh
was the lovely Jacqueline O'Donnell
I can honestly say that Miele’s recent “Steam!” lunch, held at the Mark Greenaway restaurant on North Castle Street in Edinburgh was a unique and fabulous occasion, which will linger on in my memory long after other luncheons have faded from mind.

“So what was so special about it?” I hear you ask.

Where should I begin? Possibly at the very beginning would be a propitious starting point, as Maria from the Sound of Music once very sensibly opined. 

The luncheon had been billed on Twitter as a calorie neutral event, an attribute which immediately caught my attention. According to the email invitation sent out by Miele, prior to eating, guests would participate in a Bodybalance class. 

You wouldn't believe how hard we worked.... 
Having played a couple of hours of hockey the previous day, Yours Truly was slightly concerned that her ability to undertake any sort of physical challenge might have been seriously compromised. However, fortunately our personal trainer – the gentle Jonathon from Total Health in Edinburgh – did not demand too much of the nine slightly unlikely members of his pre-prandial fitness session. 

He led us patiently through a series of stretching and “full body” exercises that we all did our utmost to implement. And when one of the floor exercises placed the skirt-clad member of our group of gastronomes in a slightly delicate position, the chivalrous Jonathon immediately offered her his jacket to protect her knees' modesty.

The ever-patient Jonathon from Total Health
Twenty minutes later, our class was complete, and the relevant number of calories had been duly burned. Next it was time for a cup of restorative green tea – which, we were informed, has the felicitous effect of encouraging fat burning (whereupon Yours Truly made an immediate note to buy some on her next foray to the local supermarket).

Sitting around the table sipping said tea provided a perfect opportunity to find out a bit about some of my fellow diners, who proved to be excellent company. On my right was a mature lady who, along with her husband, had recently retired to Highland Perthshire and who had become (just one week previously) the proud owner of a steam oven, but had not yet given it a "test drive". The Steam! lunch was a perfect chance for her to see it being put through its paces.

On my left were a fellow writer – the food editor of Art Mag Edinburgh (always a pleasure to meet other freelance foodies, and we even discovered we'd attended the same school!) – plus two younger and, as it transpired, highly intriguing table-mates. One was a young lady with a degree in biological science and management from Edinburgh University who is currently training to be a joiner because she's found she loves working with wood; the other was a young man with the most spectacular moustache that I believe I have ever seen at close quarters. He is currently the model fronting the PR campaign for Dick Winters men's underwear. As you might imagine, conversation at our side of the table was certainly anything but dull...

Being a gregarious person by nature, I have to confess that I was in my element all afternoon, and meeting such fascinating people added significantly to my enjoyment of the whole event!

Soon our hostesses began to talk us through the first of the five courses that awaited our avid foodie attentions. Our chef for the day was internationally acclaimed Jacqueline O’Donnell, one of the dynamic sororial duo behind The Sisters Restaurant in Glasgow. Jak’s able assistant for the day was Alex from Miele – the company whose steam ovens had the weighty responsibility of cooking our calorie neutral meal!

Eagerly, we devoured the paper menu on the table with our eyes, and we liked what we saw…
Our luncheon menu
Could it really be possible that we could tuck into such an apparently indulgent menu and still leave the table with impunity, safe in the knowledge that our initial Bodybalance  session and green tea had accounted for every single calorie we were about to ingest? If having most of the impending meal steamed meant that we could, we were certainly game to try!

To say that the entire meal served to us at the Edinburgh Steam! event was utterly superb would scarcely be to do it full justice. The broccoli was impeccably steamed to ensure a perfect 'bite’ and remained the same deep emerald green as it no doubt was when first plucked from a local farmer’s field.

Steamed purple broccoli with cured salmon and almonds
Sprinkled on top was a scattering of small, seductive chunks of cured salmon (which Jak explained she had wrapped in a mixture of sea salt, sugar, dill and lemon zest and left overnight in the fridge); meanwhile, the accompanying dressing (comprising white wine vinegar, rapeseed oil and micro cress, if my memory serves me well) complemented both broccoli and salmon to perfection.

Next on the menu was a dish involving one of my favourite veggies: the humble red beetroot. Steamed in the futuristic, tardis-like oven and served with broad beans and puy lentils, this course totalled a mere 80 calories. Sweet music to a gourmand’s ears...

Steamed beetroot with broad beans and puy lentils
Two dishes down, and it was time for our fish and meat courses, both of which raised the already high standard set by the previous courses. I can’t remember to my shame exactly how Jak said she made the stuffing for the lemon sole, but two things I do know: it contained prawns; and it reminded me why I should eat fish more often. Anyone who thinks that steamed meat and fish has to be bland should think again. The flavour of this fish was sublime.
Prawn-stuffed lemon sole with herb butter sauce
As a huge fan of venison, I was delighted to hear Jak announce that whereas an 8oz fillet steak contains – on average – 26 g of fat, a similar amount of venison contains a mere 3g. The only slight downside, she added, of cooking meat in a steam oven can be the colour – but, of course, there are ways round this.

She showed us how to drop a smidgen of rapeseed oil (from a special ‘dropper’ container that prevented too much oil escaping at once!) on to each steamed venison fillet, rub it into the surface of the meat and then sear the meat, briefly, in a frying pan – just long enough to give it the colour and crispness that so enhances both appearance and flavour.
 
The fillets were swiftly removed from the pan, their place being taken by a blend of Scottish Brambles with a dash of balsamic vinegar and a smidgen of sugar. This mixture was cooked rapidly before being spooned over the meat. Re-sult!

Wild Highland venison loin with Scotch brambles
Unbelievably, we had by now worked our way through four of our allotted five courses, watching attentively as each was prepared and cooked – or rather steamed – before our very eyes, while hearing from Alex and Jak about the myriad dishes that can successfully be cooked in Miele’s innovative steam ovens. 

Dessert proved to be yet another delight for our taste buds – belying its apparent simplicity. The combo of steamed rhubarb and pineapple might have appeared an unlikely pairing, but it worked an absolute treat (perhaps the dash of rum helped!). Serving it with a scoop of coconut ice cream was also an inspired notion.

Steamed rhubarb and pineapple with coconut ice cream
This truly was rhubarb as you’ve never tasted it before: devoid of its customary sugar-steeped ‘bath’ yet still extremely pleasant on the palate. The flavours of the two fruits melded into one glorious burst of lusciousness, and by the time the last drop of fruit-infused coconut cream had been scraped from the plate, we were all perfectly replete.

It is no exaggeration to say that this was one of the finest meals that I’ve ever had the privilege of being served in a restaurant. Moreover, the pleasure of watching it take shape before my very eyes enhanced the experience significantly. 

The day’s only disappointment was that a steam oven’s price puts it slightly (all right, more than slightly…) out of my league for the moment. However, if I ever win the lottery, all that will change. And if you'd like a chance to win one of the ovens, tweet your favourite meal cooked with a Miele steamer using the hashtag #mielesteam. Good luck!

Restaurant owner Mark Greenaaway was behind the scenes
As we left, Jak handed us this lovely souvenir of the occasion








Friday, 21 November 2014

The Miele steam train is coming to town…


Trainers at the ready...
It’s not often that you find yourself emailing your host to ask if you need to bring trainers to a luncheon engagement, but that’s what I found myself doing earlier this week when a reminder arrived in my inbox that I have an invite for what bodes to be a rather intriguing culinary event in Edinburgh this Monday.

I’ll write in more detail about this unusual lunchtime engagement “after the event”. However, for now, here’s the email that spills the beans (note food pun!) on what to expect…

Dear Guests,

We look forward to seeing you at the Miele Calorie Neutral Restaurant on Monday 24th November at 12.30pm. 

Please arrive a few minutes before to get seated… 

FORMAT OF THE DAY

You will be welcomed with a Green Tea before taking part in a light Bodybalance™ class with Total Health instructor, Craig Ali. (Please note that this class is not an extreme fitness workout, and you will not be required to change your clothes.)

You will then be treated to a delicious, healthy tasting menu cooked with steam. The food will be made with Miele steam appliances and you will have the opportunity to talk to Jacqueline O’Donnell and a Miele Home Economist about the appliances and the dishes. Please do not hesitate to ask any questions throughout the event.

We look forward to seeing you next week!

The Miele Events Team

Despite being a keen athletic type (if still playing hockey aged 51 qualifies me as such!), I have to confess to never having participated in a Bodybalance™ class before, so I thought I’d better check what footwear was appropriate – hence my email enquiring about the need for trainers. Hmm, perhaps I should run from Kinross to Edinburgh on Monday, just to build up my appetite…. or perhaps not!

Any excuse to visit Edinburgh is welcome!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Winter warmer: Sparrowholding parsnip and apple soup


Being an unashamed soup fanatic, I love turning the fresh produce we grow here at The Sparrowholding into various seasonal soups. Last week it was the turn of a handful of our newly harvested parsnips plus some of October's apple crop to be committed to the tureen... 

Just as they fell... windblown apples
Still life apples
Parsnips aplenty...
Apples almost ready for action...
Parsnips: peel'em, slic'em, parboil'em for 5 mins then roast'em
till cooked - Summer Harvest rapeseed oil is ideal!
Don't forget to peel and chop the onions...
Brown the onions in rapeseed oil, then
add the peeled/cored/sliced apples for a few minutes.
Make up around 2 pints of boiling water, in which
you can dissolve two chicken stock cubes and one
vegetable stock cube plus Knorr Touch of Taste stock
to taste (but you could use three veggie cubes).
Add most of the stock and the roast parsnips to the fried onion
and apple mix then top with a sprinkling of black pepper.
Cook steadily until the parsnips etc. are totally soft, topping up
with boiling water if necessary. Once soft, blend to the desired
consistency using a potato masher or electric blender.
Mmm, perfectly parsnip-py with an apple-ish tang:-)
Enjoy! No matter how cold and gloomy it is outside in
November, this will be sure to cheer you up :-)
Our parsnips were quite small (but we wanted to harvest them before they became woody) - if you use larger ones, I'd reckon five or six generously sized parsnips would probably equate to the myriad smaller ones that I used here. The apples, too, were quite small - two or three normal-sized eating apples would suffice. Served with crusty bread (wholemeal if you're feeling virtuous!) and a chunk of cheese (not quite so virtuous!), this soup makes a hearty lunch. 









Saturday, 18 October 2014

Gung-ho granny comes a cropper and corn dollies explained

Supergran's monster turnip - or at least half of it!
I popped in to visit Supergran and Farmpa earlier this month and spotted this monstrous turnip in their kitchen. Bear in mind, as you behold the above photo, that this is only half of the original specimen, which must truly have been a giant among brassicas... My reason for calling was to see how Supergran was recovering from a fall that she had sustained the week previously while on a power walking mission  in her wellies  to cut a few barley heads from a nearby field (for reasons that will later become apparent).

Unsurprisingly, the collision between her fragile septuagenarian knee and the unforgiving tarmac of the farm road saw the aspiring harvester end up in our local in A&E department. Ten stitches and numerous Steristrips later, she was discharged from hospital, bruised and still shocked. One might have expected, therefore, that she would then take things a little easier in the days that followed  at least until her stitches were removed. However, that was perhaps a rather fond hope, given the unpredictable forces that prevail when you live on a farm...

The latest in designer leggings  not...
When I arrived in the pitch dark, having driven through torrential rain, it was to find the parental pair (aged 77 and 81 respectively) readying themselves to head out into the soggy blackness in pursuit of some escapee sheep.

A phone call from Farmerbruv had alerted them to the fact that some of the ewes which had arrived at the farm for overwintering the day before had decided that the lure of their own hillside was too strong, and a renegade group of them had sniffed out a weak spot in the fencing.

When I ventured to suggest that perhaps chasing sheep in the dead of night, by torchlight, wasn't a wise pursuit for two elderly folk, especially when one of them has 10 stitches in their leg, Supergran's answer did nothing to reassure me: "Oh, but it was fine last night when we were out chasing the other lot that escaped, as I just carried the torch in one hand and held a stick to stop me falling over in the other."

For some strange reason, her words  apparently intended to put me at my ease – did not have the desired effect...

But back to the reason for my intrepid mother's original failed mission to the field, which had been to source a few heads of barley in order to observe an ancient country custom: making a "corn dolly".  

Apparently, this pagan custom (and no, Supergran isn't a pagan  she just enjoys country traditions!) goes back gazillions of years, and the basic idea was that when the corn field was being harvested, this process drove the corn spirits who lived there out of their home. So to appease them, the farmer would save some heads of corn from the last field to be cut during each harvest and keep them safe until the following spring. During the intervening months, the corn spirits lived in the farmer's home, presumably in the corn dolly.

After winter, the "dolly" was then ploughed into the first furrow of earth to be turned on the farm in the new growing season, allowing the corn spirits to return to their home. Evidently, the said corn spirits weren't feeling too charitable the day they stood by and watched Supergran sprawled on the road, as they didn't have the good grace to help her up again.

She's since been along to the field and cut a few stalks of corn, which she then popped in a vase as an impromptu floral arrangement  and that is as near to a corn dolly as the blessed spirits are going to get this year!

Less 'dolly' and more 'dunked
However, the real die-hard corn dolly creators do some amazingly impressive things with their handful of barley heads. Just have a look at the fantastic corn dollies in the pictures below and you'll see what I mean!

Now this is how it should be done!
Or this...
Here on the Sparrowholding, the sheep are evidently just as wayward as at the ones back at Home Farm. This week, Yours Truly had to corner the two black sheep (how ironic!) in the photo below and encourage them back through a tiny hole in the fence  a process which involved the rather unfit shepherdess expending vast quantities of both nervous and physical energy. I'm rather hoping that none of the neighbours were out in their gardens listening at the time...


Black sheep misbehaving
The escape tunnel under the fence  just a few inches
of space. Once they've got their little heads through,
escape is a piece of cake!
Since I last blogged, we've harvested our remaining grapes and, as I mentioned in the previous post, we rue the day we opted for whatever breed of vine Vinnie happens to be. Most of the grapes he produces are tiny, and each of them contains one or two pips, which makes eating them frustrating and time-consuming in equal measure.
The grapes of my wrath
Mark you, all the hard work does pay off if you turn them into a luscious fruity dessert... Just place the de-seeded, halved grapes in an overproof dish, add a tablespoon of sherry and leave for a few hours. Then top the grapes with whipped cream and demerara sugar, place under the grill for a few minutes till the sugar forms a crust and serve immediately. Recipe for a simple but yummy pud!

Meanwhile, autumn continues to paint the nearby hedgerows a rainbow of orange, gold, red and yellow. Here's a quick photographic overview of the beauty of our surroundings at this time of year.
A leafy canopy
Dandelion clocks  one puff and they're away!
Golden brown
The indigenous bird population is well provided for!
Anyone for a game of conkers?
Leaf mosaic
It's been a good year for hazelnuts!