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!



Tuesday, 16 September 2014

It's the Great Scottish Bake Off as DD1 returns to The Sparrowholding


Baked banana-choc cheesecake: just one of the three puddings
on offer chez Sparrow recently...
I seem to remember writing a blog post two years ago in which, while expressing my sorrow that DD1 was heading back south to resume her studies at St Something's, I proclaimed myself almost relieved about her departure owing to the fact that I'd no longer be confronted by the daily temptation of her irresistible cooking creations!

This year has been no different. Since daughter dearest's return from her summer job in the deep south, the kitchen has been filled with a succession of glorious baking smells, and Yours Truly has experienced the rare treat of a scrumptious savoury brunch of smoked salmon with poached egg presented to her on a plate. I could get certainly used to this...


Perfect way to start the working day - especially when
you don't have to cook it yourself ;-)

Consequently, any fond notions I had of shedding the odd pound (or even the odd stone!) before the said offspring's graduation from St Something's in a mere two days' time are fading into oblivion. Indeed, it looks as though the only option left to me will be to don a generously proportioned hessian bag for the big event. Hmm, wonder which shoes I have that would be suitable to go with that?

On the plus side, keen to take advantage of DD1's culinary zeal, I invited a few friends for dinner - unfortunately, what I hadn't realised when choosing the date of the dinner party was that DD1 would be in Aberdeen with boyfriend T. at an oil company ball that very night. Upon first discovering this tragic date clash, I have to confess that a deep gloom descended upon me as I began to contemplate ways of presenting baked beans (my culinary skills are limited) in a "dinner party" fashion... 
DD1 had her hair put up - before heading for
the ball to let her hair down!

The canapes were the only thing DD1 trusted
Yours Truly to execute properly...

Just look at the colour of that spinach! This
Lorraine Pascale recipe looks promising...

The Sparrowholding's very own Delia, however, was not about to pass up the chance to try out some new recipes. Consequently, during the 24 hours before her departure for Aberdeen (complete with 1920s hair-do in keeping with the theme of the ball), DD1 whipped herself up into a gastronomic frenzy and produced a spinach roulade starter, hearty beef bourguignon main course plus a choice of three puddings (yes, my required hessian bag size escalated to XL overnight...).


More greenery - rocket this time. This starter seems to be
extremely eco-friendly :-)

Ta-dah! One spinach roulade stuffed with rocket, cream cheese,
sun-dried tomatoes and roasted pine nuts. Yummy!

And just in case I mucked up the presentation, the chef left
a detailed drawing of how to serve the starter...

So while the cook was dancing the night away in the Grey Granite City in the company of a "platform" (surely that must be the collective noun...?) of oil and gas engineers, the results of her hard work were being duly appreciated by our guests. Better still, Yours Truly was able to give the resident tin opener a night off.


Gorgeous tender rump steak from Singing Butcher
Ian Hunter in Kinross - perfect for beef bourguignon :-)

Served with roast veggies and mashed potatoes
(courgettes, carrots, garlic and potatoes all homegrown)

Squidgy chocolate cake... say no more!

Just serve with fresh rasps and cream...

A new experience - these gelatine sheets were great fun!

Prosecco and clementine jellies -
a low-cal pud option (under 100 cals!)
Outside the kitchen, autumn seems to have come suddenly to The Sparrowholding, and the surrounding hedgerows are laden with berries in every possible shade of red or purple. HunterGatherer (who is a huge fan of snow, despite its impracticality for those of us who don't have a 4X4 vehicle) is hopeful that this heralds a hard winter ahead. He is basing his hibernal predictions on an old wives' tale which suggests a direct correlation between the number of berries appearing in the autumn and inches of white stuff appearing in the subsequent winter months. Time alone will tell!


The last three strawbs of 2014 - harvested in September...
Annie the apple tree is looking good :-)
Vinnie the Vine has had a much better year - shame the grapes
have pips, as eating them is a tad time-consuming!

Fortunately, if the snow does end up lying deep and crisp and even, we have a variety of produce to keep us going. Despite worries about a touch of erwinia carotovera var atroseptica (a potato disease otherwise known by the somewhat piratical name of "Blackleg"), our Rooster potatoes produced a great yield and are now safely stored in Dobbies' rather attractive patterned hessian bags - the only pity, of course, is that these bags don't come in a size big enough for Yours Truly...
HunterGatherer is a great fan of Rooster potatoes
Carrots for the soup dragon!
Courgette jenga...







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!)