A Small Gathering

Sometimes, you just need a holiday.  It’s not necessary that it be a great distance, an exotic location, or even an extended period.  A few nights away, visiting friends is enough to help relax and restore.  And that is just what we did.

With our chickens secured for the weekend, Roger and I packed our overnight bags, Sam and Millie’s belongings, and a few gifts of flowers, wine and snacks into the car and headed out for a two-night stay with friends.   Road Trip!

Ian and Carol have a wonderful set up, living and working on twelve acres in a lovely house.  We arrived in time for drinks, dinner and an evening of catching up and sharing laughs.  The following morning was cool and sunny so we set out with the dogs and walked along the old Roman wall of Silchester, which is near their home.  Often on walks in England, I will think of who travelled along that route before.  Was it Jane Austen in Bath imagining bumping into Mr. Darcy?  Or perhaps, was it an Edwardian farmer gathering gorse on the moors to feed to her horses?  In this instance, I found myself considering the Roman Centurion who protected the homes along these walls.

According to English Heritage, Silchester is considered one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain.  Growing up in Ohio, we didn’t have such things, suffice it to say, I’m excited.  These ancient ruins were the centre of an Iron Age kingdom from the late 1st century BC where once there would have been a significant town with houses, public buildings and public baths.  There is an old Roman amphitheatre, too.  The wall we are walking along would have been part of the ancient town’s defences.  But now, along parts of the path are hedges bursting with blackberries, sloes, and rosehips.

blackberry

Last year on our visit, we gathered bags of wind fallen apples and plums, returning home to make jam.  This year, we filled our bags with perfectly ripe blackberries and barely ripe sloes.  There is something appealing about foraging.  The idea of gathering food from the hedges, while the dogs run up and down the path, helps to accelerate the relaxing effects of a get-away weekend.   It slows us down, it connects us with the abundance of food on offer for free.  And, being out and about, soaking up vitamin D and eating several juicy blackberries lifts our spirits.  Glancing up at Roger, who is tall and can pick the higher berries, I laugh to myself with the image of him in a Roman outfit and helmet.  “Now, conjugate the verb ‘to go’.”

life-of-brian_323092-1200x520

As the day unfolds, Roger and Ian head over to a local farm to see the recently hatched turkey chicks, soon to grow to size for Christmas tables across the region.  Meanwhile, Carol and I take to pruning some of the garden.  It is a massive garden, and our few hours of cutting back the shrubs and deadheading the roses worked wonders, but maintaining this garden will require several days a week.  Sensibly, we call it quits and head to the pub.

English pubs remain one of my favourite places.  They are filled with people sharing a drink, perhaps a bite of food, and conversation.  No loud music or multiple TV screens showing sports.  Dogs are welcome.  And if the weather suits, sitting outside in a garden nursing a drink.  Honestly, it doesn’t get better than this.

Before leaving, Carol and I pick beans (we cannot successfully grow them where we are as it is too windy) and then head to the chicken coop to select a cockerel.  Roger and I have never had a cockerel as they can sometimes be mean.  Besides, hens can organize themselves just fine.  But Carol and Ian have three cockerels, and that is too many.  We select a Bantam who appears confident and friendly.  He’s beautifully coloured with head feathers about the ears making him look like he’s wearing headphones.  I’ve named him Tommy.

It’s a three-hour drive home, if we don’t hit traffic.  Our bags and bounty are packed in the car:  beans, berries, sloes and Tommy are all in the car with Sam, Millie and the two of us.  We make our way back to Crockern and strategize just exactly how we are going to introduce this small cockerel to our rather large hens.  He was fine at Carol and Ian’s, where they have a crazy collection of large hens, Bantams, geese and something that looked to me like a cross between a chicken and a pheasant.  We are hoping Tommy respectfully asserts himself in his new setting in Dartmoor.  Meanwhile, we can get on with making a crumble, some sloe gin, and putting some beans on the table to go with the rest of our dinner.

Now well rested, tomorrow we’ll get back to work.

 

Livin’ on the Veg

It isn’t easy gardening in winter, let alone on Dartmoor.  The UK, with its distinct seasons, offers a challenge to keeping a year round vegetable supply.  By late autumn, it feels as if there is nothing left to harvest after the near glut in summer.  Even in spring, as plants are beginning to grow, there are too few things ready to harvest.  We’ve had to learn about what to grow and when, protecting our vegetables, and making use of different vegetable varieties to fill empty spaces in the garden.

So far, the new and improved raised beds, which Roger built this past spring, complete with their chicken wire surround to keep out pesky critters, are working a treat.  We have been feasting the past few months on kale, beets, spinach, winter purslane, radishes, and land cress.  The rainbow chard is beginning to look pickable and our spring cabbages are blossoming out to a respectable size.  Our progress comes as a huge satisfaction.

Growing for winter is truly a year-round job.  It begins in the summer when we must resist being seduced by the bounty of veg we gather at that time, staying focused on the leaner months of autumn and winter to follow.  By October, light levels are low, affecting the speed of germination.  Add in a healthy dose of wind, rain and cold, which begin to dominate the weather forecast, and it is tempting to throw in the trowel.  As is our style, we ignore all the obvious discouraging signs and charge ahead.

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A typical frost covering the plant life on the hillside.

We’ve never had much luck with leeks, and so didn’t bother this year.  But now, I’m regretting having not given leeks, garlic and more onions a spot in our winter beds.  In reading up on these edible alliums, I discover that garlic actually needs a period of cold and so wants, nay begs, to be in the ground and growing well before the arrival of winter.  I will need to make a note for next year in my little black book.

We have a forecast of snow for later today, so Roger has just put on his waterproofs and headed out to cover the beds with horticultural fleece.  Most days this autumn and winter have been easy for us to tend to the garden.  But this week it feels like wind, rain, freezing temperatures, rabbits, slugs, and a host of other challenges are joining hands to welcome us each time we go out to pick some lettuce.  I have half a mind to forego our Five-A-Day.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Despite all the challenges, lettuce does well through the winter as does spinach, which actually is easier to grow in winter than in summer because it doesn’t go to seed so quickly.  We are always thinking about what to grow and whether or not to bother.  I don’t have any interest in growing peas and beans, they aren’t suited to our location.    Nor, do I have any interest in Brussel Sprouts.   Despite how much I love them, they take up too much space in the garden.

Winter gardening also involves planning for the spring.  While sitting by the fire with the snow coming down, thoughts drift to:  What will we repeat?  What will we try new?  What will we completely abandon?  Two years of aubergines and we aren’t going to bother again.  They grow, they flower, and then nothing.  It’s best to learn from mistakes and build on our successes.  With that in mind, Roger has purchased several fruit bushes which do well in acidic soil.  Where to plant these is yet to be decided, but we will need to get them in the ground soon.  Of course, my make shift bird netting for the blueberry bushes will no longer do, so we are discussing how to go about building a fruit cage which will be easy to access and yet not blow over in some of the strong winds we get in our moorland valley.  Despite this new challenge, which we brought on ourselves, we are both looking forward to growing more fruit.

While the rain hammered down this morning, I was dry inside the greenhouse giving it some attention by tipping out pots with finished plants from the summer, pulling weeds which are making their home inside the greenhouse, watering the strawberry plants, and giving it a good sweep.  In the early spring, we’ll take everything out and clean the glass and give the floor a scrub to rid it of moss and mould, but there’s no point doing this in winter.

With our winter garden, it’s vegementary, really.   It’s all down to the planning.  Typically, we have big gaps form March through May and in the past, November onwards.  Not this year!  We gave some thought to how we were going to rotate our crops in the raised beds and when we needed to plant things out for winter.  Because there are any number of things that can go wrong:  Some leafy crops are prone to bolting; caterpillars seek out and find cabbages; there’s club root, flea beetles, birds, slugs, snails, whitefly, and heavy rains, and strong winds.  It’s apocalyptic!  But the stuff that survives, thrives and provides, delights us.  Really, we just try a few things, see what works and then repeat.

Well, You Can Cry Me a River (part two)

It ruined mothers (and fathers) and was an early harbinger of binge-drinking Britain:  Gin.   It also has been described as “the magic that happens when you combine a base spirit with unique combinations of aromatic botanicals.”  Magic may also be finding the Plymouth distillery without a map when you don’t know your way around the city.  Running late, circumnavigating the old city in search of parking, Roger and I catch a quick glimpse of the historic quarter of Plymouth as we dash around the corner to find ourselves standing before the whitewashed Blackfriars Distillery.   We arrived somewhat late for our tour.  Shaken, but not stirred.

Plymouth Gin

Our tour began with a history of The Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth.  This is one of the oldest working distilleries in England and has been making this famous hooch since 1783.  The building dates back to the 1400s, once serving as a monastery inhabited by the Black Friars and is allegedly haunted.  I hear this and think — don’t be silly, of course there are spirits inside.

We quickly discover there is a good deal more than that at this distillery.   There is a fabulous lounge bar, The Refectory, which is apparently where the Pilgrim Fathers gathered before they set sail on the Mayflower for America in 1620.  I wonder:  would they have imbibed some of this local tipple?

Gin may have once been seen as the choice of grannies, but according to our guide, we are entering the biggest gin craze since the days of William Hogarth!  In the early days of gin, it was a relatively cheap alcoholic beverage, easily produced at home.  It was purchased and consumed in ruinous amounts by the poor, contributing to any number of social problems.  Then came the British Royal Navy who both consumed and introduced gin, specifically Plymouth Gin, throughout the world.  In India, gin was mixed with the tonic water consumed for the anti-malarial properties of quinine, thus leading to one of my favourites:  the Gin and Tonic.

Plymouth Gin is also the only UK gin to have a Protected Geographic Status, sharing place with Scotch Whisky, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, and, The Cornish Pasty to name a few.   This status resulted from legal decisions in the late 1800’s when London distillers began producing a Plymouth gin.  The then owners legally established Plymouth Gin could only be made within Plymouth’s city walls.  Still today, Plymouth Gin can only be produced in the old part of Plymouth in Devon.

With our history lesson over, we moved into the distillation room to understand how gin is made.  This is no bathtub-in-the-barn operation.   The still, with its elegant swan neck high above our heads, has not been changed for over 150 years and this is largely to do with the local water.  That’s right, the pure water from Dartmoor, some of which is running past our house, is softer than a lot of the calcified waters found elsewhere in the UK.  As such, it is credited with the unique flavour of Plymouth Gin.  My affection for Plymouth Gin was growing exponentially.

Full of cultural, geographic and historical information, Roger and I are then taken to sample gins.  And of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world we walked into what I would like to dub The Inner Sanctum, an underground Gin Palace of sorts, to begin our tasting tutorial.  On the shelves there appeared to be a bottle of what may well be every gin produced anywhere in the globe.  We took our perch at the bar.  Before us appeared five unlabeled popular gins next to a tray of seven botanicals – juniper, coriander, sweet orange, lemon, cardamom, angelica and orris root.  We smelled botanicals, we smelled gins, and we tasted gins.  In short, it was a tour de force of flavours!  In our blind tasting, we both chose Plymouth Gin.  What a relief.  It would feel like an act of betrayal to select a competitor.

As our tour was nearing the end, we thanked our guide and made our way to The Refectory lounge, complete with plush sofas, a piano, a long curved bar and a long list of classy cocktails on the beverage menu.  We nestled into a corner sofa, placed our order and looked above at the spectacular hull-shaped timber roof of the medieval hall.  Before leaving, we purchased a bottle.

Sitting by the fire, sipping my lovely new gin and writing this blog, I’ve uncovered the Ginstitute, a new gin museum in London.  Clearly, this is a must see when I am next in the Big Smoke.  For now, I will turn my thoughts to spring and our gardening efforts.  Our hardy winter garden is bravely holding up against the recent frosts, down pours of rain, and the forecast for snow this week.  Hey bartender….

On the bottle there is an image of one of the monastery’s friars.  It was said when the monk’s feet “got dry”; it was time for a new bottle.  Despite many bottle redesigns, this little monk icon remains on the back.  We shall not let his feet grow dry.

On the bottle there is an image of one of the monastery’s friars. It was said when the monk’s feet “got dry”; it was time for a new bottle. Despite many bottle redesigns, this little monk icon remains on the back. We shall not let his feet grow dry.

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The Original Colonial Holiday

The day has come and gone and yet I still love Thanksgiving:  before, during and after.  This is no fleeting affection for the holiday du jour, rather, I simply enjoy every aspect of Thanksgiving.   There is the anticipatory build up followed by the indulgent consumption of food, drink and good times.  Of course, no entertaining is complete without the self-imposed pressure deadline of trying to ready the house for the arrival of guests.  For some, this involves pulling out a few decorations, ironing a tablecloth, and pre-making the stuffing.  For us, it was a mad dash to try and complete one of the two rooms we have torn apart in our endless renovation projects.  On this front, we failed.

Just weeks before hosting US family and local friends to this year’s Thanksgiving, we introduced chaos.  We decided that the 70’s style ceiling in the living room had to go, largely because we needed to better insulate this room and once we removed the wood planks comprising the ceiling, there would be no putting them back again.  This decision took us nearly 18 months to make, but once made, we began the project; just a few short weeks before guests arrived.

With no place to put the furniture, we worked around it.  Any one who has ripped out a ceiling knows that this is messy work with years of dirt, dust, nests for mice, water damaged insulation, rotten wood and other unidentifiable objects falling down onto the floor, or in our case, the furniture we were working around.  We would clear as we went along, but more than once I heard myself saying allowed, “Why didn’t we take seriously the mess this would create and move stuff?”  There are no answers.

So next, we started to sand the beams.  Dust.  Dirt.  More dust.  Seeing the beauty of the wood of the newly exposed beams was exciting, but we needed to treat them for woodworm.  This noxious smelling liquid had us feeling light-headed, even with all the windows opened.  And with all the windows open, we were cold.  Of course, we didn’t stop there:  We had the new boiler installed and the windows in the bedroom replaced.  The scaffolding, which was constructed to install the windows, broke our soak-away pipe.  And après-pos of nothing, we developed an oil leak to the Aga while all of this work was underway.  Another noxious smell, and a tedious project of eliminating said smell, added to our collection of projects.  Still, we soldiered on like those original settlers to the new world:  hopeful and determined to survive the winter!

As every school child learns in the US, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England in 1620 with 102 passengers on board embarking on a dangerous and miserable 66 days of crossing “the pond”.  During their first winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, suffering from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease.   For those Pilgrims and Puritans who survived to see their first spring, summer and fall in the new world, Thanksgiving was a celebration for being alive and having a reasonably good harvest.  This feast was shared with the Native Americans who taught these original settlers how to survive in this new world.  This holiday probably has some roots to traditional harvest festivals and religious worship, but today, Thanksgiving is a time to get together with friends and family in a secular celebration around a table of succulent foods.

When I lived in the States, I would make my annual pilgrimage up to Connecticut to spend the weekend with my cousins.  Often, there might be as many as twenty people gathered around the table to enjoy traditional Thanksgiving foods.  Roger’s first American Thanksgiving – and first time of meeting any of my family — was spent at this table.  The countryside in this part of the US is beautiful, the company is always terrific and the food is worth second helpings even when stuffed to the gills!  Perhaps more importantly, hosting several guests over a weekend and providing copious amounts of food and drink appear effortlessly on the parts of my cousin-hosts.  And the house is never under construction during the festivities!

Covered Bridge

What were we thinking with our renovation timing?  This year’s Thanksgiving at our house – the first we’ve hosted at Crockern – would have sitting around the table the very people for whom I have spent over 20 Thanksgivings?  Nothing moves a project along better than a deadline.

Faced with the contents of the living room scattered higgledy-piggledy throughout the house and the time ticking away, we turned to our last resort:  We shut the door on the ceiling project room, rearranged the furniture in the rest of the house, and did a big clean.  It took days as the dust had drifted throughout and landed on just about every possible surface.  Next, we focused on securing food and wine.  Turkey is traditional, but we opted for something local and seasonal, and who doesn’t like the idea of buckshot-avoidance while eating?  I went shopping for pheasant, local cheeses, and more than a few delectable yummies.   Roger headed to the wine shop and stocked up.  My cousins, in keeping with the Thanksgiving tradition, arrived with pumpkin pies and the fixin’s for some traditional cranberry sauce.  We were set!

In the end, it turned out well.   We shut off the back part of the house, placing the construction zone behind closed doors.  We chopped and sautéed onions and garlic, set the table and lit the wood burner.  The food was a success, the fireplace ablaze with a lovely warm glow, the wine flowed easily, and with our new snazzy boiler and bedroom windows, the house was warm and dry.  In another week, we should have the ceiling completed and then begin the big push for the downstairs project (damp proof, build walls, stairs, lay flooring and install a new bathroom).  By next year’s Thanksgiving, the back half of the house should be done.  One can only hope, and then be thankful!

Rub’a’dub in da Hot Tub!

Recently, I was away from Crockern for four out of five weeks, leaving Roger and Sam many tasks to contemplate.  However, several of the projects were caveated:  nothing that involved climbing  high up on ladders, using power tools in tricky locations, lifting heavy objects, or doing anything where a possible injury could happen with no one nearby to help.  As clever as Sam is, he isn’t exactly Lassie:  “Woof, woof, woof!”  “What is it Lassie?  Has Timmy fallen into the well?”

You might think that with such restrictions in place, Roger would have read all the great works of literature, but instead, spurred on by warm and sunny weather, he and Sam were busy.  When I returned, I was greeted with many happy surprises, including new fencing where we are planning to keep pigs and the vegetable garden fully planted.  We are trying a bit of everything in the garden this first year, to see what will work.  Here’s what we have:

Lettuces, beets, cabbages, spinach, leeks, potatoes, rocket, rainbow chard, onions, carrots, peas, broad beans, green beans, runner beans, celery, celeriac, cauliflower, romanesco, courgettes, tomatoes, pumpkins, artichokes, purple sprouting broccoli, swede, brussel sprouts, sweet corn, cucumbers, peppers, squash and asparagus.  We have herbs (sage, thyme, chives, rosemary, mint, parsley and marjoram) and fruits (rhubarb, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and an apple, pear and cherry tree).  Mostly, we have planted a deep belief that we’ll have successes.

Raised Vegetable Beds

Seven of the eight raised beds we have planted.

Greenhouse

Things are growing inside the greenhouse.

So far, everything is establishing well in the vegetable beds and the greenhouse and we’ve gathered a few dozen strawberries, several salads and herbs for seasoning various meals.  We also have a very successful crop of Stinging Nettles.

Originally, this last plant was not intended for harvest and I hasten to add, we did not plant it.   Last year, the area where we put in our vegetable garden was covered in a stand of nettles.  These invasive and determined plants stood proudly, like a forest of sturdy pines, occupying the sunniest part of our yard.  Not to mention, this was also the one area we had successfully kept out the sheep!

Forest of Nettles

The forest of Nettles before the vegetable beds.

My first encounter with Nettles in England was when my old dog Al slipped down a steep Nettle covered riverbank and fell headfirst into the river.  He was not much of a swimmer and in his old age was growing deaf and increasingly senile.  As Al fell, I instinctively reached into the river, through a thick patch of stingers, and pulled him to safety.   While he shook river water from his coat, both my hand and arm immediately blistered as if from a strange science fiction movie.  The swelling lasted no more than ten minutes, but the stinging sensation remained for at least three days.

Last spring, Roger and I worked for days pulling up Nettles before building our raised bed vegetable garden.   While working free their tenacious root system, I reflected on one of the stranger things I heard about when first moving to England:  “Nettle Eating Contests”.  Never in my wildest dreams, did I ever contemplate eating these nasty, stinging, space-hogging plants.

Oh how things have changed!   Despite my strong reaction, Nettles aren’t all bad.  They make excellent companion plants in the garden attracting aphids and cabbage white butterflies away from our legumes and brassicas.   Rich in iron and vitamin C, Nettles have a history of filling the hunger gap and the young shoots of spring are the best to eat for their flavour and nutrition.    Nettles can be used in the same way as spinach.  Just boil, cool and chop, then throw into egg dishes, risotto, and pasta.   Hard core types eat them raw.  Not me.  I collect the leaves while wearing good gardening gloves and using scissors, and then I dutifully follow a recipe, most recently, for nettle ravioli!

So the few patches that are returning close to the vegetable beds are welcome and monitored!

But our pursuit of health and well being does not rest with our gardening and foraging efforts alone.   We’ve recently introduced a bit of life enhancing decadence.  Again, while I was away, Roger managed to source and install a wood fired hot tub.   It sounds medieval, but it is far from some torture cauldron for witches.  It is a sleek, round fiberglass tub that looks like a giant teacup.  There is a coiled loop that contains a basket for the fire and once lit, heats the water inside the coil feeding it back into the hot tub.  There is even a snug place for a wok, to cook food, on top of the burner.  On the other side is a holder for keeping wine chilled.    Eat, drink and simultaneously soak in the hot tub.  An inspired combination if ever there was one!

Dutchtub by Weltevree

Our wood-fired hot tub.

In 1983, Eddie Murphy depicted the funk soul legend James Brown in a fictional hot tub talk show sketch on Saturday Night Live.  Dressed in gold Speedos and a wig, Murphy shows the Godfather of Soul getting down with his bad self as he sticks his toe in the hot water, achieving a pitch-perfect “Whoa oa oa!”

This comedic sketch aside, there is something profound about the love of the hot tub.  Perhaps it goes back to the calming and soothing effects of being submerged in liquid.   Is it possible from our early days in the womb, with the outside world distant and yet unchartered, where we develop this early experience of serenity best recreated with a soak in a hot tub?   Ah, the water’s embrace as we drift into peaceful surrender is bliss defined.   Soaking in the hot tub is not just for pure pleasure, though, as there are health benefits too:  stress reduction, muscle relaxation, improved sleep, reduction of headaches, and lowering of blood pressure, to name a few.  The heat, the buoyancy of the water and, lets face it, the views surrounding us are a luxurious tonic and marvelous fun!

So now to our ongoing list of projects we can add two more to resolve:

1.  Where do we locate the mechanism to spontaneously refill the tumbler of gin and tonic?

2.  Where do we source a James Brown style call-and-response back up band?

A man on a hot tub mission.

A man on a hot tub mission.