Apparently we have had the coldest Spring in 50 years. On Monday I got up early to catch the ferry and there was frost on the grass – it was the last Monday in May and on Sunday I had planted out a host of seedlings that I’ve been caring for in the polytunnel until I had dug enough ground over outside. I tiptoed across the frosty grass to check on them and breathed a sigh of relief that they looked as though they had escpaed the worst of it. Between the weather (an ongoing round of teasing sunshiny days and then monsoons, cold and wind) and work commitments I haven’t managed to move things on outside as much as I’d like but it’s probably a good job. Plants that were put outside about a month ago look as though they’re hunkered down like the rest of us waiting for the weather to warm up – beans that I planted as seeds in the polytunnel at the same time as planting bean plants outside have now overtaken the earlier ones.
However a few sunny days this weekend and suddenly everyone and everything seems to be perking up. We’ve had a pond dug under the oak tree by a friend with a JCB and I’ve started letting the chickens out each day to freerange – there’s few things more exciting for a hen than a mountain of freshly dug earth.
Over the next few weeks we’re hoping to fence off a good space around the pond and then we can add ducks to our life here along with a few more chickens.
Progress might be slow in the garden but in the polytunnel everything is getting a bit overexcited particularly the cabbages which are enormous. We’re already able to harvest lettuces, rocket, mixed salad leaves and radishes. Now the challenge is to keep sowing successionally and avoid the sudden salad gap I usually manage to create by taking my eye off the ball.
The pigs are growing at a rate of knots and getting through pasture like a bunch of locusts. We’ve moved them on to a new area this weekend. Never mind pigs in clover we have pigs in buttercups here.
And, in the rabbit hutches there is a new fluffy fur nest with a bundle of rabbit babies wriggling about in it. So Spring may have been non-existant and Summer may not have arrived just yet but good things are happening around us and I feel a sense of promise for the harvests to come.
I was awake early this morning so Rufus and I left Richard to have a lie in and headed off on our walk. I love to walk through the village in the quiet morning before everyone else is about other than one old lady who always goes to collect her croissants from the bakery in her dressing gown and slippers – well, why wouldn’t you? On the way I was pondering what to do when I got home and the thought of making crumpets randomly came to mind. To be fair crumpets are never that far from my mind, they’re such a lovely childhood teatime memory and if not eaten for breakfast should be eaten in front of the fire on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. I was certain I’d seen them in the book but had no idea whether I had the ingredients. The idea grew and by the time I got home crumpets slathered in butter was absolutely what this particular Sunday morning needed to make it perfect.
Looking up the recipe I discovered that it is simplicity itself to make homemade crumpets and that all I was lacking was a set of crumpet rings – who knew such a thing existed? It certainly isn’t something I’ve ever come across or bought as a wedding present for friends. Undeterred I decided to make the batter and work something out along the way. This gung ho approach was helped by the recipe that said that if we didn’t have any crumpet rings we could thicken up the batter and make pikelets instead. Every one’s a winner then!
If you want to make crumpets then you will need to whisk together 450g plain white flour, 350ml warm milk, 350ml warm water and 5g powdered dried yeast. Cover the resulting batter with cling film and leave to one side for at least an hour until it’s really bubbly. If you’re me, you’ll then go on to make a good solid soda bread while you wait for your crumpet batter – it was a good effort although I didn’t have any white flour left and made it with wholemeal which probably made it a little heavier than it would have been otherwise.
Back to the crumpets, once your batter is bubbly and, in my case, trying to escape the bowl whisk 10g salt and 1 teaspoon of baking powder into it. Heat a heavy based frying pan over a medium heat, grease your crumpet rings and the pan with sunflower or vegetable oil and do a test run. Put a ring in the pan, fill to just below the top and watch lots of holes appear in the top within a minute or two. If the batter runs out from under the ring it is too thin so whisk in some more flour, if no holes appear your batter is too thick so whisk in some water. Once the top of your crumpet looks as though it has set about 5 minutes after you started cooking it, turn the ring and crumpet over and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes until golden.
Being rather lacking in the crumpet ring department I used a metal ring that I had bought years ago for making some kind of tall cheesecake or other towering pudding. Richard cut it in half for me but really it was still too tall and too small in diameter. I made two crumpets in rings and even though I say so myself, they were awesome! Soft and bubbly in the middle, crisp on the outside, with holes for butter to melt into and that unmistakeable crumpety smell when you bite into them. After that I decided that a set of crumpet rings must be purchased for the making of crumpets every Sunday morning. Without them I instead poured my batter by the ladel into a hot oily pan to make pikelets which we ate hot from the pan and then Richard fried two eggs and had them on top of two pikelets. When we had eaten our fill I fried up the rest of the batter and once the pikelets were cool wrapped them in greaseproof paper and put them in the freezer to go in the toaster another day.
On Saturday night we made spicy Moroccan beef patties with crisp carrot salad and a lovely, simple salad made with slithers of courgette, toasted pine nuts and a lemon and olive oil dressing. To go with it I thought I’d rustle up a little last minute roti but was distracted by the recipe for Socca, a thick battery pancake from Southern France made for tearing, sharing, dipping and wrapping. It’s made from equal quantities of gram flour and water – 100ml of each measured in a jug for one pancake the size of an omelette pan. Add salt and pepper, whisk until smooth then pour into a hot oily pan and cook until crisp and brown on one side before flipping and doing the same on the other side. Eh, voila.
Even I couldn’t go far wrong with such a simple recipe. Richard was not a fan of this one but I liked it and ate the whole thing. It reminded me of the sweet corn fritters my dad used to make.
Over the weekend I hired a rotovator from a local garden centre and set to with vigour in the new veggie patch. I quickly discovered that rotovators are about as keen as I am on taking turf off and then much later discovered that I needed to use it with it’s front wheel lifted up if I wanted it to cut deeper. So after a good many hours, the latter few of which were rather more satisfying the veggie patch went from looking like this:
and I had to have my first soak of the year in the hot tub to try and ease my poor aching bones. Now, all I have to do is rake up all the turf and chunks of grass roots, dig it over, lay some paths, plant some veggies and Bob’s your uncle! I think the ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ approach may be the best one – one hour’s digging every day until complete!
All that rotovating meant that i didn’t in any way feel guilty when Sunday turned into Pork Belly Day. In the morning we sliced and tried our 5 day cured bacon with some home-laid eggs.
It was very solid to slice through, looked more like cured ham and was ridiculously salty – what a disappointment. The recipe said that 5 days was a good length of time for bacon and anything over this would make it unpalatably salty so I wonder if perhaps our little Kune Kune bellies are so much smaller that they need a lot less time to cure. The antidote is to soak the bacon overnight before use next time so that’s what we shall try.
More successful was Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s recipe for Aromatic Pork Belly slow cooked until tender in a syrupy stock and served with noodles and raw onion like a ramen:
You can find it in his Meat book and I highly recommend it after a weekend of hard physical labour.
I was chatting to my mum on the phone the other day and she mentioned that they were having pork belly for dinner which got me thinking that I hadn’t done anything with our pork bellies from last year’s pigs. So this afternoon I have started two of them curing for bacon and lardons using a basic dry cure of coarse salt, brown sugar, black pepper and chopped bay leaves. It’s the first time we’ve made bacon so I’m excited to see how it turns out and I’m hoping that it’ll be cured enough for a few slices to go into a hot pan on Sunday morning along with the tiniest chicken eggs that are being laid each day by Omelette our black hen we bought the other week.
This year’s piggie gang are currently enjoying some delicious long grass outside their paddock. It’s an area that we started to claim back from the nettles and brambles last year and it’s got fantatsically lush grass growing on it already so we’ve cordoned it off with electric fencing and the pigs are having a fantastic time stuffing their faces. The grass is so long that Little Pig gets lost amongst it.
The pigs were also very pleased to receive a beautiful handmade gift for their home last week from our friend Julie. She makes lovely things out of slate (you can find her website here) and very kindly made us this sign to hang on the gate:
In other news we came up with a plan for a duckpond on Sunday. The ground under the enormous oak tree near the house is always soggy and the water actually runs across one of our paths so seems to be coming from a spring of some kind. We kept ducks a few years ago and they are enormous fun to keep as well as being a welcome addition to the pantry but topping up a paddling pool for them every day in one of the driest Springs we’ve ever experienced was a right nuisance so I had decided not to keep them again until we get around to digging a lake (a project that has been talked about since day one but will have to wait until we have a spare £4000 or so…)
So, we chatted about creating a pond under the oak tree fed by the spring and creating a large fenced area where we can rear chickens and ducks together. Inspired by this idea, Richard disappeared off in the car and arrived back later having borrowed from a friend the most ancient of ancient machines I have ever seen, and trust me rural Normandy is full of ancient machinery! It’s a mini digger but it only has two wheels on the back and therefore uses the bucket and some overly complicated engineering to pull itself along like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of one of the Terminator films where he’s had both legs and one arm blown off or crushed in a machine, I can’t remember which. It seemed to take a very long time just to get to where it was needed and then a very long time to dig a bit out but it’s free to borrow and our time costs nothing so watch this space, there might be a duck pond by the Autumn…
The weather has been glorious for about 3 days now and between that and work commitments I hadn’t managed to start my project of learning to bake by baking all the recipes in the River Cottage Bread book. That’s 46 recipes and we’re already 16 weeks into the year which means that I have to average more than 1 a week if I am to achieve this, all whilst staying calm and Zen-like as bread doesn’t like to be hurried or stressed.
I had thought that I would probably start with a basic white loaf as that is the first recipe in the book but today I had friends coming over for coffee so I flicked to the section entitled Buns, Biscuits and Batter Breads. Deciding that doughnuts and croissants might be too much to deal with at this stage of my baking career and that oatcakes and crumpets weren’t right for the occasion I plumped for River Cottage Shortbread which as the author says ‘is quite different from a traditional thick Scottish shortbread’ in fact making thin, light, crumbly biscuits.
Baking Zen found, I creamed, folded, refridgerated, rolled and cut. There was a moment of tension at the rolling stage when the chilled dough broke apart into a number of pieces but I held my nerve and managed to cut out 18 perfect thin sortbread biscuits flavoured with cinnamon. 8 minutes in the oven and a good sprinkling of sugar and this is what they looked like.
The recipe describes them as ‘rich, delicate biscuits’. In this case Rich ate most of the delicate biscuits before our friends arrived for coffee so I class that as a success! There is now dough and general cookery stains on page 158 of ‘Bread’ and the project is underway.