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Spring is here and we are building up our family of animals on our project’s smallholding. Hopefully we will soon have our 1st 5 Alpacas to start our herd. Last spring/summer we started with the 1st individuals of our poultry flock – made up of two separate flocks of rescued ex-bat chickens and waterfowl (ducks and geese). It has been a learning curve and sadly we have occasionally lost birds to foxes, but it is rewarding to know that they have a much better chance at long, healthy, happy lives than they normally ever would otherwise.

ILL FATED ROMANCE: Henry The Duck and Ingeborg The Goose. We had to take Ingeborg to the vet the other day and when I returned all the other geese and Henry came running – honking and quacking at the top of their lungs! They looked so happy and relieved to see her. It was very touching. I was elated Ingeborg was OK – for myself, but especially for Henry.

Being animal lovers it is also so heartwarming to see our animals personalities develop. Just like people, some are rather shy and unassuming, while some are in the “popular group” and some have GIANT egos.  All of our waterfowl are mixed together, so they don’t discriminate among species – or even size as you can see in the photos. Initially they curiously segregated themselves according to colour which was startling (and perhaps a bit concerning to our human sensibilities) to see: the dark colours together, the whites ones all together and the two bi-colours left by themselves. Now it’s two groups according to personality: the very large geese plus very-small/big-personality call ducks in one group and all the normal sized ducks forming the other group. They still more or less come together though and apart from our gander Johannes being a HUGE BULLY, I doubt any see themselves as different to any of the others – excluding Taylor our tiny call duck drake, who thinks he is a giant goose and certainly believes all ducks are second class citizens. Poor thing, he often gets tread upon by the excitable geese, but I think he would rather die than be separated from them.

Taylor enjoys a treat with the “other” geese (meant for all the flock).

the two privileged ducks come to take a share of the treat (the little brown one was meant to be Taylor’s girlfriend and is loved by all the other birds – except Taylor)

Taylor tolerates the others for about 10 seconds and then shoos them away.

“ahhh more tasty seeds for me”.

Taylor does everything the geese do. He runs wings out when the geese run. He rampages when the geese rampage. He eats first, because the geese ALWAYS eat first. He swims in the fresh drinking water too small for the geese to get into and nips the larger ducks if they dare take a drink – because he can… He thinks he stands a chance with all the girls, ten times bigger than himself and is pound for pound probably more of a bully than Johannes is – except the larger ducks will only put up with his knavish behaviour for so long. I sometimes see Taylor taking a comic running jump at the back side of our girl geese and always spectacularly missing (he does have a lovely little call duck and other ducks to focus on, so it’s his choice). Ralph also told me he saw Taylor joining-in in a “foursome” with the geese and I didn’t necessarily take him seriously… until sure enough a few days ago I walked past the very peculiar sight of Johanes on top of Hildegard, with Ingeborg helping to balance Johannes and petit Taylor in front kind of stroking Hildegard’s beak… ermmm sorry if that’s too much information for you all, but it was soooooo funny… although maybe it’s one of those things you kinda had to be there for.

Spring Fever…

Even as early as February the whole flock started developing amorous tendencies in anticipation of spring. Our 4 boys have been “romancing” the girls, who all seem quite happy about this development (even the Campbell ducks – up until now confirmed lesbians)… Our Legarth goose Ingeborg appears to be the supermodel of the flock as far as the ducks are concerned. She is actually a very beautiful goose to be fair. All the girl ducks are in love with Henry our star drake, but Henry fell in love with Ingeborg the moment he saw her and has been courting her ever since. He doesn’t care if she is a different species. He waits outside her house every morning and launches himself at her as soon as she steps foot outside; following her around incessantly for a long while. Sadly not unlike many youthful infatuations, the object of his attention is totally oblivious to him, so poor Henry pines away in vain. Doesn’t she realise he could have any duck he wants!?! Funnily enough our gander Johannes is not as interested in Inga and prefers the less attractive (but nicer spirited) Hildegard. That doesn’t stop Johannes from biting Henry – or anyone else who gets within 5 meters of his harem.

Henry and his troup, with the loner campbell ducks in front.

Poultry are known to bully weaker individuals – our chickens all live happily together for example, but they don’t hold any punches if another chicken down the pecking order gets near their corn. We did have some problems in the beginning, but it’s lovely to see how they’ve all become one family. Even the geese who took a long time to settle in – and being quite clumsy and at the same time highly excitable, they can sometimes unintentionally squash the smaller ones when startled – are nevertheless happy with the other birds. Also all the birds are and fairly protective to the weaker ones, always being patient and watchful for our runner duck Kaycee who was born with a spinal problem and defensive of our littlest duck Katya. OK, OK all except for Taylor perhaps… So there it is. I wouldn’t say all our animals are angels but they are a joy to be around and we do love them dearly.

– Tatyana –

THE MEDLAR is a curious fruit that most people have neither seen nor eaten. The most popular culinary use for medlars is in medlar jelly, although there are many other uses: the bletted flesh can also be eaten uncooked mixed with cream and sugar,  as a sweet pie filling, made into a fruit “cheese”, or as a candy (a sort of pâte de fruit) and in chutney for example. Very popular in British cuisine from the middle ages up until Victorian times, this unusual brown fruit eventually fell out of fashion – most likely due to the unusual method of preparation necessary for it’s consumption…

Medlars make a surprisingly tropical tasting, jewel toned, coral coloured jelly.

 

The medlar is similar to quince (another unusual “old fashioned” fruit), in that they are still rock hard while on the tree and cannot be eaten without further preparation. They also have the unique distinction of being the last fruit of the season before winter. They are harvested in November – preferably after a good frost – and left to mature for several weeks until nearly rotten, before being used. This uncommon process is termed as “bletting”. Medlars store well and travel well. A small tree requires little or no care and is likely to be prolific, producing bumper crops. The flavour is very uncommon – being strangely tropical for an autumn fruit growing in Northern regions.  So it begs the question of why this fruit features so rarely in contemporary cooking.

Unsurprisingly, It’s likely that the extra work in waiting and checking the fruits while they blet, not to mention our modern squeamishness (myself certainly being no exception) of eating something that is… well ermmm, decaying actually. Yes, it has to be said: working with a recipe that calls for a basin full of obscure, rotting brown fruit is not for the faint hearted. Pretty icky. However, take courage and you will be rewarded with a delicious, fragrant and jewel coloured delicacy.

One of the most frequently asked questions is “What does it taste like?”. Not such an easy question to answer. The Medlar has an unusual flavour that most people seem to either love, or hate and is said to have one of the most complex flavours of all fruits. I would say rather a more precise answer is that a medlar tastes like itself. Being that it is difficult to describe anything for which the only reference to the subject is the thing itself – “complex” is at least not wrong. Not so helpful however in deciding whether one should go to all the extra effort of acquisition and preparation of such an unfamiliar food… So, for my part, the closest flavour I can compare a medlar’s to is that of GUAVA, with a little cinnamon added (or maybe a touch or maple, or oak).  Difficult to say, but certainly not like dates or spicy apricots, as I have heard some people describe the taste. Then again, you may ask what a guava tastes like. “Tropical” I’d say… and that’s pretty outstanding when compared to everything else that readily grows in our cool, decidedly untypical climates.

The opinion on the attractiveness of the medlar also seems to be greatly divided. Some people think they are beautiful, while historic nicknames such as “dog’s bottom” (and others verging on the pornographic) reflect a lack of admiration. I am in the former group and find them quite beautiful. They remind me of huge make-believe rosehips, the type which might be in Alice’s Wonderland. Big fantastical cartooned rosehips – although, a rather unspectacular dull brown. OK, they aren’t a shiny, juicy crimson. But still…

A bowl of medlars picked in mid November – in fact the Medlar is a relative of the rose.

 

MEDLAR JELLY

2 kilos *bletted Medlars 

200g fresh medlars /or/ 2-3 apples chopped (skin and all)

*note: As bletted medlars have little pectic, apples add natural pectin to help this jelly set. To avoid using apples (or another pectin rich fruit), it is necessary to include a quantity of fresh unbelted fruit, which are high in pectin. In order to have firm unbletted medlars: you can pick the bulk of your fruit on the early side of the season, leaving some on the tree to pick at a second stage once the initial harvest has bletted. Otherwise you can allow the medlars to only partially belt, so that more pectin will remain in each fruit.

40g citric acid

spring or mineral water (about 2 litres plus more to replace evaporation)

750g of sugar for every litre of strained liquid (i.e 75% weight sugar to volume of strained liquid)

————————————————-

1. roughly chop the medlars whole, into small pieces. Check the medlars: Properly bletted fruit will be caramel brown on the inside and mushy. discard any that are heavily moulded (white/grey fuzz) or black on the inside. Medlars that are a bit mouldy on the inside or outside are normal and will be fine.

2. add medlars & apples only to a stainless steel pot. Add about 2 litres of water – enough to emerse  the fruit by a couple of centimetres – and boil for ½ an hour. Add the citric acid, cover the pot and boil for a further ½ an hour. Ensuring that water has not evaporated too much – if it does add a bit more water, bringing to boil after any new addition.

*note on apples: You can use commercial pectin such as Certo, but I don’t use such bottled pectin in jams or jellies and don’t advise using it. Although most commercial pectin is derived from apples anyway, any liquid pectin I have seen has added preservatives which I prefer to avoid when at all possible. I also have no idea of how such pectin is made and simply don’t want to adulterate my food if I can help it – especially with a food which takes such care and effort to prepare. I also just don’t like the texture added pectin tends to impart, or the way it can dilute flavour. If you really want to use commercial pectin, there is a dry powder form available which I believe is additive free, but I just stick with all natural.

3. transfer the entire mixture to a jelly bag (or boiled pillowcase) suspended over a bowl and allow the fluid to drip through the bag into the bowl for several hours, or overnight if possible.

*note: You can buy a commercial jelly bag frame, or you can do it the old fashioned way –  by flipping a chair over and looping the sides of the jelly bag or pillowcase over the chair legs to suspend the bag. The bowl simply sits underneath. For hygiene purposes I use a spoon supported across two sides of the bars of a horizontal/z-fold clothes drying rack. Close the bag with a new pony-tail hair band and hang it from a “S” shaped tood hook, hooked over the spoon. I use packing tape to secure the spoon hanger and everything in place. Finally, I wrap the entire contraption in cling film and secure if necessary with tape. This makes an environment that will be safe from lint and other accidental debris while the fluid drips through.

4. after as much as possible of the fluid has drained into the bowl (about 12 hours), remove the jelly bag and discard the solid pulp** left inside. Return drained fluid to the clean stainless steel pan.

*note: Most experts advise you MUST NOT squeeze the bag, or else the resulting jelly will be cloudy. Although, some people do say that you can squeeze it a little bit as long as you are careful… I have so far been afraid to tempt fate, so cannot comment if squeezing is OK. However, for all my hard work, this season’s harvest yielded only 5 jars. Disappointing (although in my defence, I did give much of the crop to a neighbour). Next year I am going to chop the medlars much finer to try and obtain more drained liquid without squeezing.

**Also if you want to make use of the solid fruit pulp rather than discard it, it is possible make a chutney or sweet pie filling from the solids. You will need to take greater care trimming away stems and seeds when initially chopping, however.

5. add the sugar. Stir until dissolved. Bring to a boil, stirring steadily. Boil until the jelly reaches setting point – this could typically be anywhere from 10 – 30 minutes. (if you are unaware of how to check for gel/setting point in preserves, look up the ways to test for set, such as the saucer gel test)

6. bottle jelly and pasteurise, by submerging jars into boiling water which covers the jars by about two inches, bringing back to a boil for 5-6 minutes.

HOW TO BLET MEDLARS: 

1. Pick the fruit between the last week in October and third week in November (preferably after a hard frost). Check the tree daily to see that they have not started to fall in any great numbers (you can use windfalls, but I tend not to trust them. As the little trees tend to bare prolificlly, it probably won’t be necessary, unless you’ve left it too late and they have all dropped.

2. Place the fruit in a single layer in a tray or shallow box and leave for several weeks until they are darker brown and start to shrivel. You can cut a few fruits open to check the progress. A fruit that is ready will be brown all the way through, fruits that have not fully bletted will be partially cream coloured on the inside (fresh unbletted fruits will be totally cream coloured on the inside and have a hard, woody texture.)

*note: some people say that you have to put them a certain way up, or place then in sawdust or other media – but I haven’t noticed implementation of either makes any difference.

– Tatyana

IT WAS A GORGEOUS WHITE CHRISTMAS HERE AT KIT HILL

It has been so, so, beautiful here that it looks almost magical. Picture post card perfect. However, there is a price to pay for all this loveliness…

 

The 1st few days of snow: Henry, Dieter and Stacey. Our shy & elegant runners, worry me the most because they are so slight. We’ve covered the ground with straw to try and keep their feet warmer.

 

A few of Gisela’s sheep M & M on the first few days of snow. They were reliant on us giving them hay every day, because the ground was completely covered for 2 weeks.

 

The growing pile of ice blocks emptied out of out animal drinkers each day.

The heavy snow and ice is very unusual for us here in this part of the world. So no one is very prepared, including our poor animals which have all been suffering from the cold. A few of our flock have fallen ill and passed away, or have been taken by the fox – resulting in us putting them to bed VERY early at present. The water is frozen each morning, making it difficult to fill their drinkers and foxes are more of a danger because they are so hungry. Our darling ducks, chickens and geese probably suffer the most with their delicate feet. I am amazed that they can walk barefoot as they do in the rough elements, when our feet are still cold even in heavy boots! We have put straw down to help keep their feet warmer and the birds – normally very independent and quite adventurous – all stay close to the house, huddled together on their makeshift straw beds.

a few days later and there’s really a lot of snow. My sweet Hildegard getting more than her fair share of breakfast (as usual).

The poor wild birds are so hungry. At any one time there are about 60 of every size and type, crowding the front garden for supplemental food… I can say “poor birds” now; now that it’s started thawing out, I can afford to feel sentimental. The truth is, although we all love all animals here – it’s pretty hard for me to feel generous when my animals need to keep their weight up and most of their food is all being devoured daily by the visiting population, who also seem to intimidate my poor little ones by their overwhelming numbers (even our geese, the supreme bullies of the smallholding won’t stand up to them)… and the feed store is closed… and the little bandits are pooping in all the feed trays to boot!

wild birds seen from the kitchen. This is only showing about half as many of the little monsters that spend the day surrounding our poor birdies’ food trays. One of the feeders just for the wild birds (and always full) is just out of sight on the right – but they eat the ducks food first.

No one was able to get up the hill – or easily down – which was totally slushed for several days. Everyone who is lucky enough to have one, has been on their quad bike and cars were abandoned by several locals and visitors (including ours), who would have to return the next day with friends and families to give tows. It was difficult to get to the store and other local services have really suffered. We’ve been out of oil for two – almost 3 – days now. That means no baths {horrors} for THREE days! We ordered oil over two weeks ago and it’s still not here; the supplier is so backed-up from the weather, he’s said “maybe today”, or “maybe the end of the week”! The coal shop nearby is shut. The post and deliveries have not come many days, no rubbish or recycling collected, many of us are sliding off the road. It’s been a total knock on effect to everyone… This is all very odd as TORRIDGE COUNCIL (local government) likes to charge (& charge) exorbitant rates, but somehow we don’t benefit from the services expected in return. And they’ve just added an EXTRA £1,000 to our already high local tax bill for our 3m x 3m one room “annex” (office/guest room with toilet) that they are somehow(?) legally(?) entitled to consider as a separate abode… But I digress.

the chicken coop and “tack room”. The straw looks like a little island.

On a brighter note we’ve had some great bargains on lovely food at Waitrose, who are shuffling to sell perishable food items. Apparently they haven’t had the normal levels of purchases, with people having had difficulty getting out to do the shopping for the holiday season (ourselves included). Not so fortunate for Waitrose though ; (. I should mention that we loooove! Waitrose; so immediate gratification of getting 9 uber delicious juicy tangerines for 25p!!! and a litre of goats milk for 10p!!! +++ aside, we don’t want them to have to mark things down 90% – because we want them to do well and stay in Holsworthy. (*this Waitrose plug was unsolicited by the way).

OK, I realise this post has been pretty depressing, but it’s the reality if you have a small farm (or home) in a northern, rural region… Moving on with the jolliness: We’ve had several burst pipes. Even as late as yesterday a fixing cracked, totally flooding the smallholding kitchen. Luckily the builders’ merchants were finally open today, so that Ralph could make an emergency repair

…Yes thank goodness it’s finally warming up in Devon.

frost on the ground before the big snow

The only problem is I really, really, really (yes really), want to make a temporary ice rink in one of the fields!!! {Yes Torridge council, take note: I said “t-e-m-p-o-r-a-r-yyyyy”}. Eden Project’s rink is an hour away, so it would be soooo much fun to have our own private rink! (have a look the links for the fabulously simple & sooo cheap rink system this kid in North America has invented – cleverly making it out of 4″ plumbing pipes and a tarp). Now that everything is defrosting, it looks like I will sadly have to wait till next year to get my skates on. Oppfh.

http://www.instructables.com/id/Make-a-cheap-backyard-ice-skating-rink/

Tatyana

Planted in Kit Hill natural, chemical free compost.

a gift to give, that recalls a loved one for years to come …

a gift to stay, to grow with and enjoy year after year…

IN KEEPING WITH ALL THINGS INDULGENT & ETHICAL, NATURAL & HOMEGROWN (AND OF COURSE little & tiny), WE HAVE STARTED MARKETING OUR LONG AWAITED “BABY LIVING CHRISTMAS TREES”, WHICH WE ARE NURTURING HERE ON THE SMALLHOLDING.

A mixture of this year’s selection of Baby Living Christmas Trees: Nordman Fir, Canadian Blue Spruce, Grand Fir and Norway Spruce.

Cared for, these baby firs & spruces will grow into majestic trees that can live for 300 years. Kept potted and cared for properly, living Christmas trees can typically grow 6’-8’. They can be brought indoors and decorated year after year. You can record their growth as you  would with children and like you favourite Christmas ornaments (perhaps more-so as they are living), they are likely to become an important addition to the household, cherished each Christmas season… and indeed throughout the year.

Baby Living Christmas Trees (various sizes about 7” – 13″): £6 / 2 for £10, direct from The Tiny Little Farm Shop. (£9 including packaging and delivery from www.utopia-smallholding.co.uk)

Living Potted Christmas Tree: Choose a spot indoors away from direct heat. Keep soil moist, but not soggy. After New Years, place outside until next year; choosing a sheltered spot until established. Repot into increasingly larger pots every few years as tree grows. With proper care a potted tree can typically grow 6’-8’.

Outdoor Christmas Tree: For a large full size tree, replant outside once established… Keep in mind coniferous trees planted directly in the soil can become VERY large.

*Most coniferous trees prefer slightly acidic – acidic, well drained soil. A complete fertilizer supplying nitrogen, phosphorus, & potassium, such as 10-8- 6, is often suggested.

Tatyana

We have these little apples growing on the smallholding. The tree is ancient and gnarled and the poor little apples (which would otherwise be quite pretty with their red blush and dainty heart shape) are rather unsightly with a mottled appearance. I have no idea what species they are, but I researched them and from their appearance think they may be a popular Victorian dessert variety called Adam’s Pearmain. However they confusingly have a complex, bittersweet taste characteristic of certain cider apples.

There are said to be at least 2,000 varieties of apples in England, making it pretty difficult to be certain what variety our little apples are – and if the tree grew from a pip, there is apparently no way to classify them at all – so  they are “Ugly Apples” for now.

– Tatyana –

“UGLY APPLE PRESERVE”

1 Kilo (5 cups) Ugly Apples {or cider apples – any bittersweet variety}

1 Kilo (5 cups) Fair Trade Sugar

700g (3 cups) Mineral Water {plus more to top up if needed.}

15g (3 tsp) Citirc Acid {omit if using regular desert, or cooking apples}

10-12 new jars with lids (200g/8oz size)

___________________________________________________________

Remove and discard any blemishes or skin with mottled marks (leave the rest of the skin – keeping as much as possible). Remove and discard apple seeds, stem and inner core. Chop roughly into large pieces of about 2 cm – 2.5 cm (3/4 inch – 1 inch) and place in a stainless, steel heavy bottomed pot with water.

Boil on medium heat, keeping pot lid on. Add citric acid. Continue boiling until apples start to break down (flesh should be translucent and skin should be tender). This takes about 5 hours for our bittersweet Ugly Apples. If you use normal desert apples, or standard Bramley cooking apples it will take much less time – probably about an hour. Keep checking moisture content; if mixture seems dry, add a little bit of water. Be careful not to add too much, or finished preserve will be too runny

*Be careful of temperature being too high – if mixture looks like it may be in danger of scorching, turn the heat down. A heavy bottomed pot helps to avoid this.

Add all of sugar and mix until dissolved and integrated fully. Check temperature is not too high. Slowly bring to a rapid boil and continue boiling for about 5 minutes.

*You can check if the preserve has the right consistency by putting a little on a plate and cooling it in the fridge. It should gel nicely once it has cooled. Most preserves and jams have the problem of being too runny, but apples have so much natural pectin (the thickening agent in fruits), it is more likely your preserve will be too thick than too runny. (If you prefer a runnier preserve, add a little more water and bring back to a boil.)

Bottle finished preserve into clean sterilised jars and cap immediately.

*A wide mouthed jam funnel helps greatly.

Pasteurise all jars of preserve: Submerge all sealed jars into a pot of boiling water (the depth of water above the jars should be at least 2 inches). Bring back to the boil and boil for a further 5 minutes.

*This is a tedious step, but is necessary to ensure a longer shelf life. Alternatively if you really want to cut out this step: put jars into fridge once cooled and make sure to eat it all within about 6 weeks.

I’m making tiles out of soil! Yep, just plain soil/earth from the land – well mostly… After a lot of testing I’ve come to a recipe of 9 parts soil and 1 part lime. Plain soil would be OK, but the lime should make the tiles a bit more durable and waterproof as well protecting them from moulding while they’re drying (an unpleasant side effect of building with earth in damp environments).

Ideally I would use hydraulic lime (the good stuff), but I couldn’t get it in time, so I’m using hydrated lime I had to hand instead (the normal stuff at most builder’s merchants)…. Devonshire soil is great for building. Unfortunately they are taking forever, since I am doing everything by hand. A lot of rocks & worms to sift out frustratingly, but I’m working on a solution.

Simple handmade wooden forms and everyday tools needed to make the tiles… next time I’ll make metal forms as the soil clay sticks like crazy to the wooden ones.

Sifting the earth. All the clumps, rocks and roots have to come out. Ralph needs to dig deeper into the subsoil next time! Sooooo many worms and roots.

Mixing earth little by little into the slaked lime, before pouring back into the main mix… this reminds me of folding chocolate into egg whites for chocolate soufflé – maybe I shouldn’t make tiles when I’m hungry?

Drying “flagstone” shaped tiles

These were the winners. Both survived initial drops from 6 foot. On the left is one of just plain Devonshire soil and on the right a mixture of soil +25% sand and +5% of my special additive 😛 … A little haggard looking now, but they have been out in the elements for about a month. Quite remarkable.

Next time I will do a few things differently to speed up the process, but it is still very satisfying to know you can just go outside and have most of your materials right there for free on the land. 😉

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