Monday, March 31, 2014

Natural crafts.

One thing that grows very well in Ireland is Willow, there are around four hundred different types, some more useful than others. Osiers, Salix viminalis is the one normally used for basket making as it grows very long straight stems.
End of the first day.
This weekend we attended another basket making course, we had done one last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, I have done a couple of others throughout the years. This one was slightly different as it was the traditional Irish way of basket making.
Day two, working with fresh Willow.
Instead of working from the bottom up, this way you work from the top up, finishing on the bottom which is in fact at the top of your work. If this sound a bit Irish to you it is! But it works, I'm not sure if it is easier, weaving in the bottom is very hard on the fingers. This way of working allows larger baskets to be made and would have originated from making Coracles, small boats used in Ireland and Wales, the ribs of the boats would have been pushed into the ground, the basket worked from the rim to the base, the structure was then covered with a skin. There were six of us on the course, none ambitious enough to want to make a Coracle, just baskets that would be useful. Day one was making smallish baskets out of dried willow, day two, making larger baskets from fresh willow,
Final results, minus two.
I opted to make a conical plant support for the sweet peas, we have enough baskets now. It was great fun with a nice group of people. Our tutor was the head gardener from the Knockvicar  Organic gardens, he was a very patient man, and very thorough with his instructions. We all came away with two pieces of work finished and cuttings of different coloured willows for planting.
The pig house with end door.
The pig house is now done and in position, the fencing has to be finished and then we will apply for our pig keeping licence.
First entrance.
Looking through the 'for sale pig' advertisements we realise it might not be too easy to get the type of pigs that we want, we want pigs that will forage and thrive well on vegetables and straight grains, not pigs that will require pellets to put on weight. Conventional pellets are full of GMO's in the form of 'Soya' not a natural diet for pigs, and something we will not use. The organic pellets are quite expensive but we will use them towards the end if we feel the pigs are not gaining the right weight, but only if we have to.
Meanwhile we have a egg glut, just far too many to keep up with, we keep coming up with ways to use all these eggs,
Managed to use nineteen eggs on this lot.
but the most we managed to use in a baking day was nineteen eggs and we can't do that every day. We have made pounds of lemon curd and keep on making it, we even have lemon curd frozen, we won't run out for the next year. Cakes, bread and ice-cream all take plenty of eggs, but there is only so much you can eat or store. It will soon be time to set eggs in the incubator, that will take care of a couple of dozen. Daffy duck, our favourite Muskovy has now taken to removing herself from the duck run and coming into our garden, a sign that she is wanting to lay a clutch of eggs for her to brood.
There is now lots of colour in the garden, spring is here.
Daffodils, snowdrops and crocus are all giving a lovely display, wallflowers add perfume although they have rather taken over the beds, primroses and polyanthus all give added colour.
Double blossomed Hellebore.
The Hellebores are giving a lovely splash of colour, they do very well here,
I will have to increase the numbers and varieties of these lovey long blooming flowers, there are so many beautiful ones to chose from.
The ground is now dry enough to work , hopefully the main crop potatoes will be planted by next weekend. The garden has continued to produce for us throughout the winter, carrots, parsnips, leeks,  curly kale and artichokes. Onions and potatoes stored from last year, and now the purple sprouting broccoli has formed it's spears. Rhubarb  continues to give forth it's lovely stems, the strawberries are blooming. We don't go hungry, neither do we need to buy veg.
Time to take it easy, it's hard work watching dad work.
The cats love to supervise what ever is being done in the garden, they then flop in a warm sunny spot to recover from their hard work.
I'm so handsome.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Finishing the old, starting the new

I at last have finished the Rag Doll that I started weeks ago, every time I started work on it something else cropped up, I feared I would not have it finished in time for a friend's two year old's birthday. But it is done,
I hope she likes it, it's the  last of the craft work until the Autumn, time now to concentrate on the garden.
The smoke house has done it's job, the bacon looks and smells as it should we have yet to try it, maybe tomorrow or maybe we will let it hang a little longer if we can resist the urge to try it.
The first of the rabbit kits are now enjoying life in the outside run,  the other mother, Snowdrop who is a European Giant has six kits, they made their first foray into the run today, if the weather stays mild they will be spending most of their time out of the nest. All the kits are so cute, as most young things are.
Work has now started on the pig run, the run will in fact be two runs, the first one encloses the bramble patch that we want cleared, the second one will be nearest the exit, with the house situated between the two, the house will have two doors, so it will not have to be moved to rotate the pigs, this way the first paddock will have been rested for nine months before the second lot of pigs arrive the following year. having two doors will make cleaning out easier as well. We have decided against using tin for the house, it has very little insulating properties so would offer little protection against the hot sun in the summer (ever the optimist) it also tends to sweat with warm body's inside and cooler air on the outside. We have opted for marine ply covered with stock board, this is made from re-cycled plastic, extremely tough and durable, we will also use this on the wooden floor, it will make it easy to clean and comfortable for the pigs.
When we first moved here we were told by a local nursery that we would not be able to grow Camellias , I was a bit upset about this as we had brought three of our bushes with us from Spain. Well the first year they bloomed even though they were still in pots,
this year having been moved into their permanent beds they are a mass of blooms and buds, I might have a go at propagating them this year, they are supposed to be quite easy to do.
According to a UK government think tank, civilization has just fifteen years left before it implodes, this conclusion  was partly drawn from a detailed report from NASA. The NASA report states that the rich will survive, the rest of us don't count, or words to that effect. This comes as no surprise to us, after all what can you do when governments give grants for farmers to build bio digesters to produce gas to make electricity, this would be fine if the digesters were using waste products from animals and the millions of tons of food waste that people chuck away each year, but these farmers are also growing crops, maize potatoes and beets to feed these digesters. This is not just happening in far away countries, where rain forests are being destroyed to grow palms for palm oil and sugar canes for the same reason, this is happening in the UK where over 50% of the food consumed is imported ( using yet more fossil fuels) Total madness.    

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What happened to winter?

False sunset, reflection of the sun on the sea.
I shut my eyes, I blinked, suddenly it's the middle of March, what happened to winter? We both had so many projects lined up to pass away the dark winter nights, very few got started, and we find ourselves back to the growing season.
The Broad Bean plants are now in their bed, with a sowing of Broad Beans to  provide a successional crop,  Parsnips, Perpetual Spinach, Swede and Turnip seeds are in the ground, and the early potatoes are planted. main crop potatoes are  normally planted at Easter, Good Friday according to folk law, but as Easter is so late this year we will aim for the first week in April, the soil should have warmed up well by then.
 In the propagator we have Leeks,Tomatoes, Savoy Cabbage and Brussel Sprouts. We will try the Tomatoes outside this year in pots, they are supposed to have an even better flavour when grown outside, I will probably hedge my bets though and keep one plant in the tunnel, just in case!
 Three Potato bags have been planted with Ratte potatoes, kindly donated to us by a friend. This is a variety that we should have been growing last year and although the order arrived with them included, they disappeared. After having been given a taster of these lovely potatoes by the same friend that has donated the seed to us we had hoped to find a seed catalog stocking them, but we drew a blank, fortunately our friend had saved seed, so the ones that we have will be nurtured in the hope that next year we will have sufficient to grow as a real crop.
The Garlic is looking very good in the tunnel, we have never had much success growing it outside,
despite the strawberries being totally neglected they are still managing to bloom. Sorting out the Strawberry beds is this weeks main project, they are a total jungle. One bed will be removed, Strawberries have occupied this bed for three seasons now, a new bed has been made to take the new plantlets, and the second bed will have to have every other plant removed, a mammoth task.
We are now picking plenty of Mushrooms, a second crop from the bags of compost we got a few weeks back.
The Smoke house has been completed in readiness to smoke our side of bacon tomorrow,
A little Heath Robinson maybe, but it works.
it seems to work fine with the smoke going where it should and not too hot, after all we don't want to cook the bacon, until we fry it, just to impart an oak flavour to it.
I had a sudden urge to make a coffee sponge cake yesterday, this meant we had to buy a jar of instant coffee, something we have never bought, I know that neither of us like instant coffee to drink but I thought that the jar of Organic might be better than the normal stuff and that maybe it would be drinkable. Well it's not, but it is good for a cake, so I guess I will be making a lot of coffee flavoured cakes and icecream until the jar is used.
We still continue to get the most wonderful coloured sunsets, we were seldom aware of them when we lived in Sligo, maybe we were just too busy to notice,
here it seems to be a regular sight, unless it's raining. There is something totally magic about the evening sky.
                  Nature's paint pallet.
At last the incubator is in action, we have set quail eggs, we are not too sure how good a hatch we will get, we are not that happy with the parent stock. If we don't get a good rate we will have to look at replacing the parent birds with fresh stock.
The ducks are all coming back into lay, the Indian Runners are such comical birds, although we have several drakes they don't fight as Muscovys would.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Early Rhubarb.

We might have had a lot of rain this winter but it has been very mild.
Yesterday we had our first picking of Rhubarb, I don't think we have had it quite this early before.
I just simmered it for five minutes with a little sugar and served  with homemade ice cream, it was delicious. If this weather keeps up we will soon be eating it most days, or at least until the first strawberries are ready.
The cats are also enjoying the fine weather, Sparky had great fun chasing bees and fly's, however he encountered the pond,
Poor Sparky, a very wet cat, no damage, just a loss of dignity.
he tried to walk on water, and ended up in the pond, poor boy, he was quite embarrassed about the whole episode, I don't think he will go near it again.
Peach Blossom.
The peach tree is now a mass of bloom, Simon has done the hand pollinating, and will repeat the process in a few days. I hope we get more than just one fruit this year, we should do considering how much bloom there is.
The warm weather has brought out the bees and
                                           Bull Finches have now appeared.
The one in the photo was feeding on the buds of the Hawthorn bushes.
 The dry curing process is now completed on the second lot of bacon , now it has to hang for several days before we can try out our new smoke house. The Guanciale has also completed the first stage of curing it is now being air dried for several weeks, so we have to wait to see if it has worked as it should.
Daffodils are now in full bloom , even the Asparagus is showing above ground, it makes my mouth water just thinking about eating it.
Simon has just come in from locking up the birds and rabbits, he was thrilled to report the first Sky Goat mating call,  the Sky Goat is in fact the Woodcock, but it sounds just like a goat calling, quite an eerie sound  if you don't know what it is. I'm sure this is also earlier than last year.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Spring Spawning.

Today work commenced in the garden, it had started out  mild and sunny, the perfect opportunity to prepare the ground for the first plantings of potatoes, however by one o'clock it clouded over and the rain started, so we decided we would go to a garden center that we had been told were selling bare rooted hedging plants at a reasonable price.
We particularly wanted Ribes sanguineum, the  flowering currant, bees love the flowers of this plant and it blooms very early, however the garden center had sold out . We ended up buying ten Silver Birch which is a lovely tree. Bare-rooted but a good four feet high they should establish well.
On our way home we popped into friends to deliver a pot of Lemon Curd as a thank you for all the veg seeds they had given us on our last visit. We always enjoy seeing these people, both are very knowledgeable on gardening and many other things, including world matters so we always end up having a good old chin wag and lots of laughter! It's lovely to see how their garden is progressing, they have only been in their cottage just over a year but already the garden is taking on real form and not the over grown wilderness it was just a year back.
They also inherited a pond from the previous owners, again this was very overgrown but  they did a good clear out of over grown pond weeds, many of which we have cuttings of for our pond. With the clearance it has given the wild life a real chance.
Two happy Newts.
I have never seen so many Newts! The pond is teaming with them.
What a cutie, will he turn into a prince?
                             Also frogs,
who have very stupidly decided to spawn there, the Newts must think they have their own takeaway.
Takeaway for Newts.
Some of the frog spawn might survive, but most will end up as ready meals for the Newts.
Once again we came away laden with plant cuttings and rooted bushes, there are still places that are over grown, plus this time a jar of frog spawn for our pond. Hopefully this spawn will develop and not get eaten by any predictors. Although our pond is well established now, so far no frogs  have taken up residence.
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The Pork Gammon piece that we cured for Gammon steaks turned out well, they look as they should but we have still to try them. Hopefully they will taste as good as they look.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Home Butchery.

This has been another busy week. On Monday we picked up the two pigs that our friends had had slaughtered at our local butchers shop.
 We had decided that we would like to have our half of Gloucester Old Spot just as a side so we could practice our butchery skills in preparation for when we have our own pigs. Butchery  done here by a butcher seems to consist of running the various parts through a  band saw, not too much attention is given to the various cuts that we grew up with. We wanted specific  cuts for curing and sausage making, and we did not want joints so big that you would need a dozen people to eat it all.
Half a pig ready for butchering.
As it turned out it was far easier than we had imagined, although to be honest it is not the first time that we have butchered, we have done venison and goat kids in the past, so had some idea of what was needed. I would like to say that we will use everything but the oyk, however we have not kept the trotters , tail or ears. In Spain the ears are considered a delicacy and are often served as Tapas, lovely if you like chewing tasteless bits of gristle.
 Half of the belly is now dry curing for bacon,
Belly of pork ready to slow roast.
               the other half we cut into strips for slow roasting.
 A small amount of the gammon is in a wet cure, hopefully this will turn into Gammon Steaks which will then have to be frozen. The cheeks are dry curing hopefully to turn into Guanciale, this according to recipes is similar to Pancetta, after the dry curing it is then air cured for a further five to six weeks and can then be eaten raw.
We are hoping to smoke the pork belly once the dry curing is complete. We had come up with all sorts of ideas for making a smoking chamber, then the light came on. We have an old boiler room which had housed the oil boiler when we first moved here. Now redundant and no longer housing a boiler it is probably the ideal place to turn into our smoke house.
Simple and delicious.
We have tried the first bit of pork, the belly, slow roasted in crab-apple jelly, totally delicious, served simply with buttery mashed potatoes and cauliflower with grated cheese. We look forward to many more meals from this lovely pig. Congratulations to Pat and Celine for producing such a quality pig.
We took a trip up to Florence Court in Fermanagh to the wood yard that we used to use years ago, we knew that Danny the owner had oak that we could use for the smoking, plus we wanted to get the fencing posts for the pig run. Fencing posts here are very expensive and many of them are not pressure treated , cross the boarder into the north and you are paying just £1 for a tanalised post as opposed to 2.25 euros here, we also came away with suitable wood for Simon's wood carving .
Even the bees are out enjoying the sunshine.
It was a lovely trip out and a beautiful day, even the bees were active in Danny's hives.
Sheep gently grazing on a rocky outcrop.
            Fermanagh is a very beautiful county and well worth visiting.
We have a glut of eggs at the moment, we wont be incubating any for at least another month, we are too far behind on getting the garden sorted out to give time to young chicks. What to do with all these eggs? We can only eat a certain amount and only eat so much cake, so lemon curd it is.
I have done the first three jars and will do more tomorrow plus make more ice-cream. No doubt when we are ready to start incubating we will have a shortage, that's the way it normally goes. feast or famine.
Spring really does seem to be here, primroses are out along with the dwarf daffodils, the larger daffs have now all dropped their heads and will be in bloom by the weekend. I even found some snowdrops in bloom today after thinking that the ones I had planted had failed, they just needed a few more days to show themselves, hopefully they will spread.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Real signs of Spring.

                                                  There are definite signs of spring,
                                the Crocus and Primulas  are in full bloom,
                                  the first flower has appeared on the Camellias,
and the Rhubarb is looking good, we should be able to have our first picking in a couple of weeks providing the weather does not change. We always feed the Rhubarb crowns well in the Autumn once the leaves have died back, they are very heavy feeders. Come November we then give protection to the crowns in the form of a good covering of straw, this has never failed to give us a good crop. This year I will only be bottling  the Rhubarb, we did both freezing and bottling last year so we have been able to make a direct comparison, bottling keeps the texture and flavour better .
The wild birds are all pairing off and looking for suitable nesting sites, it's lovely hearing so much bird song.
So far it has been a very mild winter, but that could change like it did last year, we wont be in too much of a hurry to get things planted out.
A sign of how mild it has been is Calendula, this has continued to bloom throughout the winter. Our peach tree is also showing the first flower buds.
                                        The kitchen paintwork is now finished,
and the badly needed repair job to the ceiling plaster has been done. This had been caused by a burst pipe in the attic which happened when we first moved in nearly three years ago. The previous owners had failed to drain the system before leaving the cottage empty, during that time Ireland had two winters with minus 18. As soon as the first tap was turned on a pipe came apart on the tank, causing the flood and threatening to bring down the ceiling. Just what is needed when you have moved into a new place and you don't even know where the stopcock is. Still, it is fixed now, and that's what matters.
The two youngest cats are also feeling the change in the season and trying to get into trouble,
we nearly lost them in the range flue pipe this week when Simon was cleaning it out they could not resist trying to get into it.
The elder one Sparky, discovered a toy mouse filled with real catnip, that we had brought from Spain, he was very proud of his find,
daring the other cats to try to take it from him. He has now hidden it somewhere safe, we don't know where it is but I'm sure he does and it will reappear, hopefully we will be able to retrieve it before Tess destroys it.
I do find it strange that we could buy these mice in Spain but not here, I don't know what the powers that be think people would do with toy mice filled with real cat nip, I'm sure they have a very good illogical reason though.
I love spring time.