Bake offs and Show offs

So far, unemployment has suited me very well. Apart from having no money (who needs that anyway right?!) I have spent the last few weeks since leaving my job with Lidl, mainly cooking. Researching meals, planning menus and preparing lunches, dinners and desserts. I’ve never been busier. It actually takes a lot more time than you think, especially when you’re not used to making everything from scratch. It has been fun though and I have I been trying out lots of different dishes. My other half has been loving life! This is not all for his benefit though, this is all for my new job.

The estate my other half works on as Head Gardener was looking for a new Housekeeper around the time I handed in my notice. Pretty good timing right? I always believe in seizing opportunities when they arise, so I put myself forward and was really pleased when I got offered the job. One of my main duties as housekeeper will be cooking for a family of six, in a lovely newly refurbished manor house. I can’t wait. I just hope my cooking is up to the challenge, bearing in mind one of them used to be a food critic! I have high expectations to meet, but I can only get better I guess.

Other than that, the animals have been keeping me busy and I got the opportunity to show off my rare breed Silver Appleyard ducklings at the Mid Devon Show yesterday. I recently became a member of the Rare Breed Survival Trust and offered to help out at their stand during the day. As part of the stand they like to showcase some rare breeds, so I offered up my ducklings as they are always a hit with people, especially children.

In addition to helping the charity out, I also wanted to use this as an opportunity to meet people, network and gain knowledge from people who keep and raise rare breeds, something that we are looking to go into in the near future.

The day before the show, in true British Summer style, it rained really heavily, which left the ground incredibly soft and wet. In no time at all, it was churned up into a complete mud bath. Luckily we recently acquired a 4×4 so it was perfect to transport the ducklings and myself to the show safely. However, I’d never really driven a 4×4 before, let alone used the four wheel drive whatsit, so like many others ended up stuck in the mud and ended up getting winched out by a tractor. Despite being slightly stressful, it was actually quite fun!

The ducklings loved the attention they got during the show and everyone who came to the stand was completely taken by them. I got asked lots of questions and people had a genuine interest, not only for the cute ducklings but also rare breeds. I met lots of lovely people and made some excellent contacts, from business networking to potential future customers! The stand also won second prize, so a great day all round. I even got to sample some local cider and cheese, so I was a happy girl indeed. Roll on next year when I think we will try our hand at entering into the poultry show! 


Cheese and Quackers

This weekend, a friend of ours from London came to stay. It was nice for us to have some company again (we don’t get many visitors out in the sticks) and to be in a position to offer a little bit of a countryside retreat to one of our long standing friends/drinking companion’s.

We picked him up from the train station and on our way home, we had to pull over to rescue an escaped lamb. Without thinking, mid-conversation, my other half stopped the car, engine still running, got out, grabbed the lamb and dropped it on the other side of the gate, much to the relief of its bleating mother on the other side. It was a brilliant moment when he got back in the car and said “Now, where was I?” Perfectly normal thing to happen round here!

We got home and after a tour of the house and surroundings, we drank a bit (a lot) of wine and chatted till the early hours. So I wasn’t surprised when I woke up the next morning with a bit of a fuzzy head. I would’ve loved a lie in, but it’s not possible when you’ve got two dogs jumping on your head and a cockerel telling you it’s time to get up. Very loudly. So I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed, put my coat on over my pyjamas, pulled on my wellies and began the animals chores. 

We’ve recently put up a fence to keep the ducks and chickens enclosed, so they are able to safely free range without escaping our garden and getting into any mischief. We haven’t quite finished the chicken wire on the gate though, so there’s a wooden pallet there temporarily to prevent them getting out. In order to get in the garden, I have to move the pallet in order to open the gate, so I can easily carry through the replenished food and water containers.

The day before, we had bought three new chickens; A Devon Blue, a Splash Maran and a Chestnut Ranger. Three very good looking girls. When they arrived, our resident cockerel Rocky was so pleased, he was singing and dancing for them. Quite a sight to behold! I’d never seen him so excited. Within about ten minutes he’d already mated one. Chickens don’t really hang about, it is Spring after all and what better way to welcome his new arrivals than showing them a bit of ‘love’.

Anyhow, with my fuzzy head, I fed and watered the birds, but I was so distracted with our new additions and Rocky’s continued mating dance, that I didn’t notice the ducks sneak past me and out of the gate I’d accidentally left open. Whoops. Once I realised what had happened I began a frantic search up and down the lanes, in our next door neighbour’s garden (where they were the last time they’d escaped) and they were nowhere to be found. Shit. I’d only gone and lost the ducks.

So like any considerate girlfriend, I went and woke up my other half and demand he come and help me find them. Not the best way to wake someone up in case you’re wondering. Particularly when you’ve been drinking wine the night before. We also enlisted the help of my friend, who had heard the commotion and whether he liked it or not, I think felt obliged to help. So we all went off in different directions and despite having checked in our neighbour’s garden about three times beforehand, we eventually found them there. The relief I felt made me a little emotional and also a bit sick. Whether that was the worry of losing my ducks or the excessive wine from the night before, who knows (probably a combination of both), but I was glad it was over. As were my partner and friend, who were both now wondering what the hell just happened, 7am is way too early for duck drama.

After we’d recovered from the ducks’ escapades, we spent the day mooching about Tiverton and visited the Deli Shack at the Pannier Market. It sells lots of foodie treats, including artisan cheese and salami. We bought a heroic selection of both, whilst the knowledgeable owner, explained each cheese to us, giving us a sample of everything we wished to try. I was in heaven. 

I love cheese. Mainly to eat, but I also went on a cheese making course a few years ago, and I had lots of fun learning how to make it. In a half day course we covered how to make Halloumi, Mascarpone and Mozzarella. I would still love to learn more and have my heart set on buying a cheese press to try my hand at making cheddar and gouda. It’s on my very long list of ‘things to do’, like bake my own bread, make my own wine and grow my own veg. I’ll get round to it at some point.

Anyhow, the owner recommended we visit a local wine shop which had speciality wines that would compliment the cheeses we’d just bought. Seeing as the fresh air had cleared our hangovers, we thought it would be rude not to stock up on more wine for the coming evening. For dinner, we had an epic feast of cheese, salami and wine and in the process I learnt a lot more about the subject that I had previously. I also discovered my new favourite cheese is now Goddess No.5, a handmade cheese using milk from Guernsey cows. I encourage you to give it a go if you like your cheese, you won’t regret it.

It turned out to be a successful, educational, if eventful weekend. Our new chickens seem to be settling in and it’s been a good few hours since the last duck drama. May it long continue.

Lastly, a quick update on the incubation process of the chicken eggs I’m hatching. It’s been 7 days since they’ve been in the incubator and after 5 days I candled the eggs to check for fertility. You do this by shining a bright light at the egg in a dark room, and this enables the contents of the egg to become visible. If there’s nothing to see other than the yolk or a black or red spot/ring, then the egg is likely infertile or the embryo died, what is referred to as ‘early death’. I am happy to say that all 7 eggs had red blood vessels developing, meaning they are all fertile and actively growing! 

This is great news and means that 7 little lives are growing and developing everyday. The incubator I have is a Brinsea Mini Advanced, which tries to replicate as closely as possible the natural incubation process that a hen would carry out. Including automatically turning the eggs at regular intervals (to ensure the heat she provides is evenly spread around the whole egg) and even a cooling period once a day, where a hen would naturally get off the nest to eat and drink. All very clever! Can’t wait to see the finished result. Two weeks to go!

Sunny side up

It’s been a fortnight since I’ve moved to the Mid Devon countryside and I can wholeheartedly say, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s hard work. There is rarely a moment when there isn’t something that needs doing. There is a constant list of jobs we need to do in order to just keep the animals happy/alive and us warm. Then there are improvements, repairs and maintenance. Oh and generally keeping the level of mud predominantly on the outside of the cottage. The summer will be easier, I hope!

The pigs are doing well. They had a mild case of scour (that’s a runny bottom in pig keeper speak) so after gaining some advice from the breeder/vet, we ended up injecting the pigs with a shot of penicillin, a drug which is a bit of a miracle cure in pigs. Within 24hrs they were better, great stuff. I’m not sure if any of you know what a pig sounds like when you grab hold of it and then stick it with a VERY large needle in it’s rear? No neither do I. I was at work when the injections took place, but my other half informs me that it is by no means a pleasant experience. We’ve only had the pigs 4 weeks, they are currently 12 weeks old. But they are strong, stubborn and loud creatures! By all accounts they sound like they’re being tortured to death. The blood curdling screech they give when you grab hold of one can no doubt be heard for miles. It’s certainly deafening when you’re stood close. I tried picking one up the other day, it did not go well. I got it’s front trotters off the ground, before it let out a ridiculously loud squeal and wriggled out of my grip. I won’t be trying that again any time soon.

As I’ve mentioned before, pigs are mostly clean animals and this week was the first time I needed to change their bedding. Bearing in mind I change the ducks and chickens’ bedding weekly! The process for the pigs is a bit more hard work, as I have to get the new straw from the farm to the woodland and up two very steep muddy hills. Who needs a gym when you live in the countryside?!

They were straight in there after I changed it though, rearranging it to their very own specifications. I guess everyone loves fresh bedding, even pigs!
I have also been researching abattoirs. Not my favourite thing to do, but I think it’s important to ensure that these pigs are going to go to a place where they respect the animals in a clean, caring and humane way. I don’t intend to visit any abattoirs at this stage, not sure I’m ready for that yet, but I have asked local breeders and farmers for recommendations, and done some online research as well as calling around a few to chat through what services they provide. Some establishments just slaughter the animals, others also butcher and bag up your meat to your requirements, which is what we need. Eventually butchery might be something we look into, I would like to make my own sausages, cure my own bacon and smoke my own hams. At this stage though, ensuring we’re not going to get our pigs back in 4 pieces that won’t fit in our freezer, let alone our oven, is an important and necessary part of the process.
I think most people have an idea of what they think a slaughterhouse looks like. Just the name conjures up images of blood splattered walls and a big burly man brandishing a large meat cleaver, surrounded by dozens of dead carcasses. You’re probably not far off. They get a bit of bad press though and it’s a tough job. It also certainly doesn’t help when a minority of heartless people tar the rest of the professionals in the industry with the same ‘inhumane’ brush. Most abattoirs are family run businesses and they are genuinely experts in their field. Sure, to most, this isn’t a pleasant job but it is what it is and these guys are making a living by putting meat on your plate, so I think they demand a lot more respect than they receive.

I’ve said it before, but I think it is important to know what journey your food has gone on before it gets to your fridge. I wanted to make sure I felt happy with the abattoir I’ve chosen and after calling a few different ones, I’ve made my decision. There was a stark contrast though with a few I spoke to, one assumed I was some animal rights extremist because I was asking too many questions! But the chap I’ve decided to go with was pleasant to speak to, made me feel at ease asking any questions and ensured me that the process would be as smooth as possible, finishing our conversation in a thick Devonshire accent by saying “Your wish is my command!”. He seemed like a jolly nice chap and I felt comfort in the fact that he would treat my animals with respect.

During the slaughtering process, most animals (particularly pigs) are electrically stunned unconscious, hoisted up on a rail and then all their main arteries severed. They bleed to death within seconds. This is considered the most humane way to kill animals for consumption by the Humane Slaughter Association, an independent charity. It is a sobering thought when you think about it and I understand why people choose to detach themselves from the process. But I owe it to my pigs to know exactly what will happen to them and to ensure they have the absolute best possible exit in this life, including what happens to them afterwards.

In other news, my feathered pets have started laying regular eggs. I got four the other day. This is great news, although it does mean I constantly need to come up with egg related recipes! We have bought pickling jars too and as soon as the weather warms up, in a month or so I’ll be hatching my very own ducks and chickens from my incubator. I am very excited by this and can’t wait to document the process.

Although Devonshire weather is known for sunshine in the summer, this time of year is quite changeable and it’s been a bit wet and windy of late. This means the dogs are constantly wet and muddy, Woody had a particularly muddy face after a spot of digging this week, no gold found to date. 

Despite this, we have had a few days of glorious sunshine which resulted in two of the loveliest of sunrises I have seen (Cambodia and Borneo had been top of the leader board till then!). This certainly makes my very early mornings that little bit more bearable. I can’t wait until these are a regular thing. Roll on spring!

And she’s in.

So I’m finally here! After 3 months of being apart, myself and Billy the dog are reunited with our pack and I couldn’t be happier. All the stress, worry and apprehension has melted away and I feel like I’ve come home. I think Billy is pretty happy about his new found Kingdom too.

This also marks the first week in my new job. At the moment I’m commuting an hour a day, which isn’t ideal, but the place I will actually be working from hasn’t finished being built yet. I start work at 7am, so I have to leave the house by 6am, which is early for most people. Before I leave the house though, apart from getting myself ready, I also have to walk the dog, get feed and fresh water to the ducks & chickens (in my back garden) and also go to the woodland to feed the pigs. In order to fit all this in, I have to get up about 4.30am. Our cockerel hasn’t even sounded his morning crow at that time! 

So far this week, I’ve managed one day where I’ve successfully done all three chores and left on time. The other days I’ve had to get my other half to step in and help me out, so I’m not late for work. There’s been a bit of trial and error about the order and method in which I carry out my morning chores, but I think I’ve cracked it! At the moment though it’s pitch black which is a bit hard going, but I’m looking forward to the spring and summer months where it’ll be light enough so that I don’t have to do my morning tasks by head torch! On my first day though, I didn’t start till 11am, although I still got up about 5am in order to get myself into the swing of things. I even managed to capture a pretty beautiful sunrise in the process.

In my new job there is a lot to learn. I have never worked in supply chain before so I’m starting all over again in terms of my career. The brain cells were certainly tested this week and although I fumbled through most of it, I learnt a lot! But what with the commute and my body clock getting used to the earlier starts, I’m mentally and physically fried. I’m pretty sure it’ll get easier with time, but at the moment I’m completely winging it.

This week was also my other half’s birthday so in true country style, instead of buying him a birthday cake, I bought him a giant personalised pork pie. I think it went down a treat!

As part of his birthday celebrations we also had his family visit for the weekend, which was great fun. We went on a lovely walk and showed them the gardens and the pigs and then ate and drank lots as a reward for surviving all the hills!

Just before they arrived, Chris gave me a bit of a lesson in splitting wood for the fire. It’s a lot hard than you’d think! I’ve watched him split loads of wood and he makes it look easy. There is certainly a technique behind it and after a few near misses, I did manage to split a few, it’s certainly very satisfying! But it also makes you appreciate what actually goes into prepping the wood for the fire. Who knows, I might even get my very own axe one day! But until I’m a little better at it, I’m happy to leave it to the burly expert!

After the family left, there are always still jobs to do, so I went to clean out the ducks and chickens. Now that the avian bird flu ban has been lifted, it means my flock can now free range and enjoy countryside living along with everyone else. At the moment though, they’re just free ranging for short periods of time under supervision, until we can build a fence around the garden so they can’t escape. But it was a nice moment sitting in my back garden watching the ducks & chickens (and dog), with a pretty cool backdrop behind me.

All in all, even though I’m knackered, my first week here as a permenant Devonian resident has been a success. Now for a well earned cup of tea, homemade cake (Thankyou mother-in law!) and a snooze by the fire #bliss 

Have you got wood?

Wood is an important part of my life now, more than I ever thought it would be. My other half, as part of his job looks after a rare oak collection, so that’s pretty important, but also because it is our main, if only source of heat in the cottage. Oh and I also have a dog called Woody, but that’s a separate topic!

It seems daft but I don’t think I ever realised how much effort went into obtaining, chopping and seasoning wood in order to effectively run a log fire. So we took advice from a knowledgeable Norwegian, because well, they know their wood.

Wood burning stoves/log burners are very fashionable at the moment. Their popularity means that seasoned logs are pretty easy to get hold of, even if you haven’t got a local supplier, most people can just pop down to their local supermarket, hardware store or petrol station to stock up on a bag of logs for the fire. They don’t come cheap though. Mostly they’re used for ambiance in a room or to top up the heat on a cold winters night, but the majority of people still rely heavily on their super efficient and convenient central heating for warmth (and why not, you lucky buggers).

Here in rural Devon, in order to keep costs down and to assist us in becoming a step closer to being self sufficient, our aim is to use wood that has naturally been felled or cut down as part of the maintenance in the surrounding woodland and gardens. This means we get a lot of free wood, hooray! But the downside is that it doesn’t come nicely packaged in red netting, perfectly sized and ready for burning. When a tree is cut down, the moisture levels in the wood are usually too high to burn straight away, which is why it goes through the seasoning process of being stacked and left to dry. Usually this occurs over the spring and summer months. 

So when we moved into the cottage in the middle of winter, we did not have a stack of freshly seasoned logs to help keep us warm. However, we are now working on rectifying that situation by seasoning our own wood. There is plenty of it available where we live, but it’s about obtaining the right wood at the right time. Most arborists or the forestry commission will give you some good tips on where to source a regular supply of good wood from. Some will even deliver it. But we’re lucky and able to locate the wood ourselves, but transporting it back to the cottage can sometimes be a bit tricky. 

Most trees are pretty big, so unless you’ve managed to find a small one to carry yourself or have recruited the help of a friend, you’re probably going to need some machinery to lift it. My other half used the front loader on the tractor to get this lovely log specimen into the van.

Once you’ve got your wood, you need to chop it up into pieces that will fit into your fireplace/burner. Biggest isn’t always best here. Now if you’re feeling particularly fit you could use a hand-saw to portion up your wood. But seeing as this method takes a lot of time and energy and with us having to do this regularly, a chainsaw is the tool of choice. I am by no means skilled in this area (I’m accident prone at the best of times) so we thought it best for my other half to take charge of this bit. He has also just been on a chainsaw course, so I am confident in his ability to complete the task with minimal effort/injury. He also makes it look so easy. I’m glad he’s on my zombie apocalypse team!

Once you have a neat pile of logs, you then need to split them. Even if the length is the right size, you don’t want to try and set light to something that’s the width of a tree trunk or branch, you’d struggle for a start! Depending on the size of your wood, you can split it into thirds or quarters and this is the stuff that now begins to resemble the bags of wood neatly piled up at your local shops. Not as easy as you thought huh?

Then you need to stack your wood in a dry area, preferably out of the rain to get optimal dry logs for burning. Our pile is just getting started.

Oak, Ash and Beech are probably the top three best types of wood to burn if you’re looking at obtaining a supply yourself. But it’s worth investing in a moisture meter to test the percentage of water in your wood. Most of the time freshly cut wood will read off the scale, but optimal moisture levels are below about 20%.

You will also need to prepare some kindling to get your fire started, unless you’re happy to go out and buy fire-lighters. Always useful to have on standby, but an added expense and also we want to avoid using chemicals where we can. Splitting the wood into kindling is something that my other half is hopefully going to teach me to do effectively with a hatchet, without chopping any of my fingers off, so I will keep you posted on my progress! Once again, zombie apocalypse weapons are in abundance at our place now!

I hope that’s helped any budding wood enthusiasts, or anyone who fancies obtaining and looking after their very own wood. I’m glad this post is over now, because I can stop sniggering about typing the words ‘wood’ and ‘log’ like an immature teenage boy. Look, I tried giving up innuendos but it’s hard, so hard.

Three little pigs

Today I met three little pigs. My very own three little pigs. A lot of hard work and effort has brought us to today and it made me incredibly happy knowing that the long slog was worth it. They are awesome.

I sat with the pigs today and watched them snuffling about, looking for brambles, grubs and anything else they could try and have a nibble on (including my fingers and the dog treats in my pocket).

They seemed so happy and content, their little curly tails (or stumpy in one’s case) waggling away, little snorts of delight as they found a juicy grub or a particularly nutritious bramble. Investigating the ground, trees, dogs, humans and anything else that crossed their path. Inquisitive, cautious but also fearless! They really are a pleasure to be around.

Now I’ve spent time with them, as much as I’ve fallen a little bit in love with them, it also assures me that I know raising them for meat is the right thing for us. Knowing I’m going to be giving these pigs the best life. Whether that’s 10 weeks or 10 years, does it matter? As long as what life they do have is the best possible I can provide? As pigs, they don’t have any real concept of time. They don’t have a consciousness like ours. They don’t know they’re pigs. And they certainly don’t have a fear of death like most of us humans. Sure they’re intelligent and they grow attachments with each other and with people if given the opportunity, and they are great animals to be around, but to them, we’re just their food bringers and scratchers of ears/bellies. It goes no deeper than that.

Pigs mainly exist because of farming. Farming for the purposes of pork. The breed we’ve opted for is a breed native to Devon, which is currently endangered. We’re doing our bit to promote the British Lops, which to some seems counterproductive because we’re eating them. But what it does mean, is more breeders will breed them as their popularity grows and that people who buy the meat from intensively farmed cheaper breeds, are made aware of other options which have different flavours. And maybe more people like us, will attempt to raise their own, ensuring their livelihood and journey from field to fork is a completely transparent and humane process.

I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be tough when the time comes to say goodbye. But what I do know, is that between now and then, we’re gonna have a great time and I’m going to do my absolute best to make them the happiest pigs alive. 

And then there were pigs!

They’re here! The piggy wigs have arrived! Although I am yet to see them myself in person as I am in Southampton working, my partner has kept me updated all day! I will be travelling down at the weekend to see them though, so not long till I meet them.

My other half (with a bit of help) has worked tirelessly to get everything ready for today. Last week the pig ark was delivered and with the help of the tractor, it was transported up to the woodland. Some of the trees in the woodland are rare oaks, so the trunks of these had to be caged to protect them from any inquisitive snouts.

The ark we purchased is made out of recycled plastic and the colour means it blends in nicely with the surroundings.

So as not to overwhelm the pigs when they arrive, the enclosure was made smaller with metal fencing, with a wider exterior electric fence surrounding it, so when they’re let out fully into the woodland, they can’t escape too far! Although I have heard stories about how pigs are great escape artists, scaling fences and gates (would you believe it?!), so hopefully the electric fence will prevent any jail breaks!

We’ve decided to opt for a bite drinker (we’re still waiting on the parts to be delivered). This ensures the pigs have a constant supply of water straight from the mains, which they can’t tip over or get dirty. It’ll get fixed to the fence post and the pigs learn that when they bite down on the metal ‘teet’ water gets released. They’re pretty clever and work it out quite quickly. In the meantime though, they’ll just drink out of a trug which we’ll empty and refill daily.

We also needed somewhere dry to store their food, somewhere where other animals can’t get to it, particularly rats! Some of the food storage bins are ridiculously expensive, but a metal container was sitting unused around the farm, previously used to store lamb feed, which works as a great pig feed store. We’ve opted to feed them grower pellets from a local farm feed shop in Tiverton. They will be eating a combination of the dry pellets at around 17% protein and also whatever they uncover from the woodland. A natural mix of protein (from grubs) and greens (from brambles!)

Today my other half travelled to the breeders to pick up our 3 boar weaners in the trailer. The trailer was filled with lots of lovely straw to help them settle down and so they could have a little nap during the half an hour journey from Taunton to Chevithorne.

If you’re wondering what the orange marks behind their ears are, it’s a spray of iodine to disinfect the area where they were injected with worming medicine. That’s just to make sure they don’t pick up any nasties from the woodland whilst they’re with us.

Before they knew it, they’d arrived at the Rookery and were straight out and getting acquainted with their new surroundings, investigating where all the best grubs and brambles were. They didn’t seem fazed at all about the movement from one premises to another, which was great.

They located their food and drink troughs after a while and began eating, drinking and after all the excitement, settled down and had a nap.

I’m so pleased it all went smoothly and they seem to be a trio of very happy pigs. I certainly can’t wait to meet them. Watch this space for more pig updates!