Butter Fingers. (Or Post-Apocalyptic Skill #143)

When I was 11 my parents gingerly stepped onto the long winding path to self-sufficiency, with me caught up in the slipstream of their dreams. A goat or five installed here, a fistful of chickens sprouting up there. Another sliver of garden being dug up for veggies. A steaming compost heap or two adorned with exotic-looking fungi courtesy of the deposits harvested from the circus elephants stationed in the town park once a year…

For 6 years we continued to live our own version of The Good Life in respectable, staid suburbia – a village of the kind that on the whole doesn’t keep farm livestock on the lawn and stash cockerels in the cellar to stop them from crowing at crack of sparrow. Most people grew begonias and roses in neat beds, not rampaging artichokes and a thicket of raspberries laced with goosegrass. They mowed their lawns at the weekend with petrol mowers not small tribes of friendly guinea-pigs in rectangular runs moved block by block up the lawn in a stately progression of increasingly nibbled patches.

Behind the polished brass knocker (one of my pocket money chores) of our conventional front door, I would lie on the living room carpet, chin in hand, and pore over Home Farm magazine and other such edifying publications of the day for those who aspired to knit their own yoghurt. Chief of these was John Seymour’s classic The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. I would study the sepia pen and ink illustrations for hours, noting the perfectly square 5 acre plot with stream, woodland, barns and garden all in precisely the right places and aspects for maximum efficiency.  If 5 acres was too hot to handle then there was an alternative 1 acre diagram – but I always got the feeling that Guru John considered it very much a poor relation and only for those slackers who wimped out of the full-fat version. These curiously weed-free sketches were a thing of beauty in which he laid down the law on crop rotations, the requisite livestock and sundry skills needed to keep such a utopian dream ticking over like a harmonious baler. They were my childhood holy grail – a box-ticking list of things You Have To Have To Survive.

Guru John, it turned out, was painting pictures to sell dreams neatly packaged up in words to fund his own self-sufficiency. When we finally landed some years later, limbs and brains akimbo, surrounded by colour-coded packing cases, bewildered goats and transplanted chickens on our 15 acres (fifteen, John!) of north-facing Welsh hillside we quickly learned you don’t buy the dream as a plan. You sweat it out of every pore and your haemorrhaging wallet…

Still, 20 years on, what’s left of the original troops seem to have thrived, Nietzsche-style. No one would paint sepia-tinted images of our lives, least of all me. But by sheer bloody-mindedness and sometimes farcical twists of fate, I’ve accumulated a CV that consists of a range of post-apocolyptic skills that could give an Amish a run for their buttons. I may be entirely unfitted for the 21st Century Big Smoke but I have scratched a number of obscure notches on the barn door frame. What can I say; it makes for novel party conversation…

One other tome I had devoured actually included a prescriptive List of Things You Should Be Able To Say You Have Done. I’ve forgotten most of them but one that did stick in my mind was making butter – and I’d knocked that one out when I was a mere 14 years old. It took about 3 days and gallons of goats’ milk settling in shallow bowls, frantic skimming off the top and an awful lot of shaking this cream up in an empty jam jar. The resulting tiny soft white lump of grease I ended up with looked unappealingly like lard thanks to the lack of carotene in goat’s milk that makes cow’s butter a rich yellow. It probably took more calories to make than it would replenish. But my dad kindly ate it all the same whilst telling me about my thrifty grandparents in their pre-fridge days close on the heels of rationing, shaking up tiny pats of butter from spare cream so as to avoid wasting it.

Shortly after my parents scored a huge antique butter churn in an auction for a few pounds. It leaked like crazy, spraying liquid up the walls as it was cranked and would have required huge amounts of cream to justify putting it into action (even if said cream wasn’t going to dribble straight out between its wooden ribs). And I wasn’t about to try harvesting that much from our goats slight offerings or risk imbibing who-knows-what from its musty-smelling wooden interior. I think it got left behind when we moved. Still, the knowledge I’d actually done it once – tick! – gave me a warm buttery glow even if I’d not repeated the experience for a quarter of a century.

Until the other week that is, when I passed an array of Kilner products in the local kitchen shop. It amused me that something you could only dig out of a garage sale two decades ago was now being manufactured for the Country Loving lifestyle. It amused me so much we just had to buy one…

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It stipulated whipping cream but I think I’d try double cream next time. You also have to leave it to stand for a few hours to get to room temperature so that it will separate out as you churn. Anyway, 600ml later and we were off.

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The instructions say it would get frothy after a few minutes. After 5 or so it would thicken, after 8-10 it would become stiff and then suddenly separate out into butter and buttermilk shortly after.

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After 10 minutes I handed the churn full of still-liquid cream to my mother and rubbed my aching forearm…

After 5 minutes more churning she too paused. We agreed to adjourn the dairy activities and allow it to warm up for another hour.

Some time into the second stint of churning (I wasn’t counting any more) it looked vaguely like it was thickening.

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We briefly discussed if it was cheating to use an electric whisk to give ourselves a boost and then return it to the churn for the finishing line…

Dismissing all unworthy thoughts of kitchen aids, I woman-fully resumed churning and soon it started to whirr in a slightly lower key.

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…and stiffen…

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…and then suddenly, as if by magic, the yellow butter grains appeared sloshing around in creamy buttermilk.

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I poured off the buttermilk (this tastes like skim milk and is great for baking with).

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You have to rinse every last trace of buttermilk from the butter – it’s less relevant in our refrigerator days perhaps but the watery component of milk and cream is an ideal growing medium for bacteria and leaving traces of it behind in the lipids would cause the butter to spoil (or go bitter just like poor old Betty Botter’s batter butter in the tongue-twister).

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You need really cold water – ice-cold – especially in a heatwave like we’re having at the moment. It’s probably over-stating the obvious to say if you use warm water it will melt your brand-new butter pretty darn quick. Marley appreciated the first rinsing with tiny blobs of butter grains floating about it in and chased his bowl around the kitchen getting the last licks out! A couple of rinses got clear water and then you work it with butter hands to squeeze out all the remaining water.

This being our family, we naturally just happen to have a pair of butter hands packed away. These got scrupulously cleaned of 25 years of dust and soaked in Milton to sterilise. They work really well to squeeze out the water – if you keep them dipped in cold water the butter doesn’t stick to them at all.

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Salt was traditionally added to help preserve butter. You don’t have to salt it though and those who try to reduce dietary salt might appreciate the pure taste of fresh butter. But mostly we’ve got used to the flavour of salted butter and I added a sprinkle of my favourite Halen Môn sea salt from the shores of Anglesey. And then worked it in.

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It occurred to me this action was not unlike mixing cement by hand with a shovel. Which is another of my random skills set.

I also nipped off a tiny amount to experiment with adding smoked sea salt which I love. This butter is pure indulgence and not something you will fry onions in. This is what you spread on a thin naked cracker and savour every tiny crumb…

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I’d watched butter-making demos as a child when visiting Acton Scott Historic Working Farm Museum. The “dairymaids” there would show the patterns imprinted into the pats of butter – an easy way to “label” a farm’s butter so people could know who had made it.

Imprinting pretty patterns wasn’t that high on my list but I did press a lattice into the top before putting it in the fridge to firm up as the temperatures are around 24 C at the moment – not your average Welsh weather!

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Yesterday my mother made a small batch of scones using some of the buttermilk. It was immensely satisfying to eat home made scones, with home made butter and freshly picked strawberries – even if we didn’t produce the cream!!

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Making butter this way clearly isn’t economic, although it was actually only slightly more expensive than buying it ready made – without accounting for the initial purchase of the churn. 600ml of cream produced just over 250g of butter plus around 300ml of buttermilk so it is fairly productive even if time-consuming. We don’t milk goats any more and whilst I’ve long wanted a Jersey cow, that’s not going to happen anytime soon and we’d be as fat as ticks living off that much dairy produce anyway. We’re not likely to buy cream just to make butter. Although I’d probably eat less if I did which would be a good thing.

But it was hardly the point of the exercise. Although I’d still buy butter to cook with, it’s nice to know that I can make butter if I feel like it for gifts. Or if there should be spare cream leftover so it wouldn’t go to waste – just like my grandparents did. With an awful lot less shaking and jam jars.

Way to go, Kilner, that was a better bit of butter than I’ve had for a long time. Now where did I put that scone…

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Welshie Buns

When I was little my Granny used to make a Simnel Cake each Easter. I remember her making the 11 toasted marzipan balls it’s traditionally topped with (to represent the 12 disciples minus Judas) and secretly hoping she’d make 12 after all and give Judas’ share to me…

Marzipan seems to be like marmite – you either love it or hate it. In our family we’re split between marzipan-lovers and marzipan-shunners. My youngest brother and I were definitely in the former camp and would make marzipan fruit at Christmas stuck with a clove “stalk” and calyx and painted with edible food colouring. Neither of us was that keen on heavy fruit cake like Christmas or Simnel Cake but we’d beg the almond paste and fondant off our other brothers’ share or anyone else overcome with the sugar rush of too-thick icing. My best friend is the marzipan queen though – for many, many years part of my Christmas gift to her was a box of marzipan that I had moulded into sweet shapes – plums with a “stone” created from a whole almond and dusted in sugar. Little white marzipan pigs with white chocolate drop trotters, ears and snouts. Tiny teddy bears coated in dark chocolate. Each year got I more and more inventive trying to outdo the year before but truly, I think she would have been just as happy with a big lump of plain marzipan to sit and nibble on!

A few days ago @knittingtastic mentioned Simnel Cake on Twitter and I fell to wondering if I should bake one after all – purely for memory and old times sake. There are only two of us here at home though and heavy fruit cake still isn’t my most favourite thing although I no longer pick off the icing and leave the dark, crumbling cake on the plate…

One of my favourite baked goods is Welsh Cakes which along with Bara Brith are two of the traditional tea time treats offered in Wales. I was thinking how amazing it would be if you could combine buttery Welsh Cakes with marzipan and Simnel Cake and all the good bits of these time-honoured baked goodies. I’ve also been meaning to make some Kanelbullar, the Swedish cinnamon buns served with coffee for fika – the fabulous tradition of pausing with coffee and pastry and just being present in the moment; so much more than a snatched coffee break. Or as my friend Jo used to call it “meeting up for a cup-of-coffee-and-a-sticky-bun!”. I decided I’d make a version of Kanelbullar with marzipan tucked inside and create a sort of mash-up of my favourite things as an Easter treat. Normally we have Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday; I thought it might be nice to try something different.

I decided to use parts of some recipes and adapt them to include other things which is my normal method of using recipes – I’m not sure I’ve ever used one except as a rough guideline to quantities! Mostly I prefer to cook ad lib according to taste and whim and I decided here that including the cinnamon and cardamon of Kanelbullar was probably a flavour too far with the other spices and marzipan so I went with a more traditional Chelsea Bun approach instead.

I wanted to use some of our own Welsh honey from my mum’s bees – not only is honey more tasty than sugar, it also acts as a humectant and helps keeps baked goods moist. And although sadly no sugar is actually very good for you, I like to think that raw unfiltered honey has some microscopic goodness suspended in it’s amber depths that the empty calories of refined sugar crystals completely lacks. So I swapped out the sugar in the dough for our own honey and also cut back on the quantity of butter which seemed alarmingly excessive – I think in future I could probably cut back even more, these ones certainly didn’t suffer from the reduced fat content!

As well as using our own free range eggs from the hens and our honey, I like to use organic, stoneground flour where possible – my favourite flours are milled just 4 miles away at Bacheldre WaterMill. Heavier than regular flours, the slow stoneground method keeps the flour cool and so doesn’t destroy the wheatgerm in the way that more modern methods of milling flour do. It tastes far nicer and is better for you. Sadly I didn’t have any to hand. I rarely bake these days and when I do, prefer to buy artisan flour freshly milled so it doesn’t go rancid. So when the urge to bake hits you late in the evening you just have to go with whatever is on the shelf!

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I soaked the fruit beforehand to plump it up – instead of rolling it up inside the dough swirls I wanted to incorporate it a la Welsh Cakes. I wasn’t sure how much the honey would alter the dough texture but I’m happy to improvise and this actually worked out spot on with the reduced butter content.

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It kneaded beautifully and I put it in a warm spot to prove.

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More melted butter was needed for assembling the swirled buns (against my better judgement – high fat diets not being my thing!). However, this was meant to be a treat so I tried to ignore the nagging voice that was squeaking with alarm at the amount of naughties going into this concoction and set to rolling out the dough and marzipan.

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This is where baking in the evening becomes a problem – the heavy fruit and butter filled dough is slow to rise, as with homemade Stollen. I decided instead of trying to get them to rise sufficiently in a warm place and end up baking them at one ‘o’ clock in the morning or something crazy, that I’d allow them to rise gently overnight at room temperature and bake the next morning. This worked really, really well for this heavy dough and I’ll do this overnight slow rising in future when I bake other fruit breads I think.

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So this morning these beauties were almost ready but I gave them a little longer in a warm place to sit and think about things whilst I threw open my house to the glorious Good Friday sunshine and fresh air and indulged in a spot of Spring Cleaning before turning the oven on. Soon the house was also filled with the warm scents of spice, yeast, honey and marzipan as it melded into one delicious almondy fruity chewy tray of baked gorgeousness.

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Mum and I “tested” them and declared them fabulous. I also tried them out on my friends Dawn and Laurie who called round this afternoon to see if Marley and I wanted to join them on a walk to make the most of the beautiful weather before the forecasted storm closes in tomorrow. They also agreed they were yummy – Dawn commented that they were “like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one” which is exactly the flavour I was aiming for!

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I’m pretty happy with how they turned out. I’m calling them Welshie Buns in honour of their hybrid ancestry and the land of their birth – and I’m thinking I might make them my new Easter tradition instead of the heavier Simnel Cake in the same way that for us a small Stollen has replaced the big traditional iced Christmas Cake I always used to make when our family was larger.

I’m planning – all being well – on writing up the recipe tomorrow to include in my first newsletter this weekend. If you’d like to try making Welshie Buns too make sure you hop over to my new website barber-blacksheep.co.uk and subscribe to my newsletter (scroll down to the bottom of the home page and you’ll find the subscribe tab). I’ve got a couple of new woolly things to talk about and I also thought maybe a nice baking recipe might be a good way of wishing my internet friends a Happy Easter too.

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Christmas, Marley and Me

Well Christmas can be a confusing time for a dog. So much going on, humans behaving madly, more food than even a labrador can scoff and no routine whatsoever. Watching TV during the day!? Walks at odd hours?!? Eating nonstop!!!!! (and that’s just the humans…)

Our previous dogs are used to Christmas; it’s always low key here and they would go with the flow. Marley by contrast is hyper-interested in everything that happens, he’s always sticking his nose into whatever you’re doing because he has to know what everyone is doing all.the.time. I wondered what he’d make of our little Christmas, it being his first with us.

Luckily for him we had no visitors this year which might have been too much for his little nerves to handle. But he knew something was up when a couple of days ago I started rearranging things and tidying up the house. Part if this also included making him a new kingsize dog bed out of an old mattress topper and duvet cover on top of his cushion which means he has somewhere comfy to sprawl on in the evening. This spot was also traditionally where I put my modest “Christmas Tree” and hanging shiny baubles and fairy lights in front of a dog that likes running off with things  and crunching them up was probably a bad idea anyway. So no Tree here this year; just a not particularly lit-up labrador!

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Yesterday he seemed a bit anxious, picking up on the fact that more people than usual were coming and going, new things were being brought into the house and we were disappearing off at odd times to do chores or visit neighbours to wish them a Merry Christmas. I took him with me for some of these but he was still a bit edgy.

He knew things were really wrong this morning when I rolled out of bed as soon as my alarm went off instead of hitting the snooze button so as to turn on the oven and stuff the turkey. Whilst I was waiting for it to heat up I did other preparations like laying the lunch table so as to leave the morning free for other things – like dog walking! Marley didn’t realise this, he really didn’t approve of me slapping butter and bacon all over something instead of heading outside straight away like usual.

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He tried to get my attention by whizzing his toy up and around for a bit and swuffing at me in that half sneeze-half woof  way he does to try and tell us what he wants.

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But then after a while the early morning cooking session became a lot more intriguing as nice smells started coming from the oven – that big buttery bacony thing didn’t half smell good! Mmmm…

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Does that yummy smell really come from inside that hot box?! Best sniff it again…

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Yup! It really does!

Once the turkey was well under way we had to feed the other animals and straw down the sheep barn and fill up hay nets. Cobweb the pony got a Christmas carrot before she went out to the field. Petunia Pig was quite cheerful today too considering the nasty wet weather! Nothing like a turkey for taking the heat off a porker!!

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So as it was clearly going to drizzle all day we decided to brave it anyway and headed off for a walk to work up an appetite for lunch and take some of the fizz out of Marley.

Come on!! What you doing now!! I’ve been waiting for HOURS!

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Back home again it was time for me to take off the walking boots and put on the apron again. Marley is a good assistant chef – he loves raw vegetables so we experimented with some new seasonal ones. He ate all the sprout trimmings with gusto and much crunching and lip smacking but has decided that parsnip tops are a no-no. Cooking a turkey seems to take an awfully long time without anything interesting happening. But you never know if something exciting might happen so you have to be ready and waiting. There are watchful eyes everywhere.

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And I really do mean everywhere…!

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I managed to work my way through my Christmas Dinner schedule of events despite a slight hiccup over oven temperatures and then it was time to take the turkey out and put it on a plate. This was veeeeeery exciting to my sous chef helper and luckily I didn’t drop it. I did however managed to accidentally tip the turkey juices down the cupboards and onto the floor which suddenly made things really interesting! Marley as ever leapt to offer a helpful paw (or tongue in this case) and started to clear up the mess for me whilst I went to fetch the mop.

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He did a particularly thorough job of cleaning the grease off from round the handles on the drawer fronts too, no slacking here for Helper Marley! He might have just been trying to get closer to the giblets I’d put in his bowl for his supper though…

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After that bit of excitement and getting a taste of crispy skin as a reward there was a funny turn of events as the humans started ripping paper up. Normally Marley gets told off for ripping paper up – so it is a Very Confusing Thing indeed when the humans start doing it whilst laughing and ooh-ing and agh-ing and hugging and generally behaving like idiots. Marley could have told us how much fun ripping up paper was ages ago but would we listen to him?

He even had his own special paper to rip up. He was a bit shy about this in case someone changed their mind and told him to stop but nobody did so when in Rome…

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A little bit of help from opposable thumbs and he was away.

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Oh look! A squeaky armadillo just for me!

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After all this it was time to help the lunch settle and get some fresh air so we went for another walk – much more normal. The usual things started happening again; feeding animals and putting them to bed, the humans sitting down and doing the usual odd things they do in the evening like staring at books and the Talking Box. It’s a bit exhausting this celebrating lark. Time to get onto the new bed with the new toy  armadillo and play quietly and snooze.

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Maybe Christmas isn’t so bad after all!

Cooking up a storm

When the going gets tough, the tough get baking…

I know it’s said that we Brits are always cheerfully whinging about the weather – it’s possibly because we have so much of it, so varied and generally encroaching on our daily lives. Yesterday’s vile downpours and winds were no exception and clearly had horrendous effects on those in the north of England, especially in Cumbria. Friends in the North – I am so sorry. I hope you’ve escaped the worst of the damage and floods.

Here in mid-Wales it was pretty horrible but not especially damaging. As we often comment to ourselves, if we had flooding here then the rest of the world would have disappeared. One advantage of living on a hill 1,000ft above sea level! The disadvantage of our high point is of course being buffeted by strong south westerlies that make my flexible wood and straw bale house bend and creak and yesterday I thought I was going half mad with the wind. It was the kind of keening wind that sucks health and sense out of your bones. At one point I was thinking of the Mistral of Provence – the wind purported to drive men and horses insane. I know what they mean…

I spent a deal of the morning fiddling around with bits of tedious paperwork, keeping ahead of power cuts and fighting the urge to abscond and curl up with knitting or have a big comfort baking session.  Sometimes on those days when you don’t know what to do with yourself, a flurry of cosy creativity and nesting seems the only remedy for the restlessness.

Once most of my tasks were done I noticed a welcome email update for a blog I follow. Non-knitting friends might not have come across the excellent blog of Kate Davies, knitwear designer and writer extraordinaire. She writes not just about textiles which is her subject and her own knitting designs but also aspects of life in Scotland with her husband Tom Barr, the talent behind the lovely photographs on both her blog and in her books and Bruce the Black Labrador who makes occasional guest posts and melts readers hearts with his general labradorableness. Well he melts mine anyway but it’s a well known fact I’d walk over hot coals for a Black Lab. I defy anyone not to enjoy the rich variety of the regular posts.

(If you’re a knitter and you haven’t come across Ms Davies’ blog then frankly, where have you been? Hie thee over there at once…)

Anyway, the new post was a mince pie recipe Tom had created complete with tempting festive photographs and twinkling lights in the background. In an instant I knew such home comforts could be mine, tea lights and all if only I did the recipe. All it lacked was an image of a labrador scoffing the lot when backs were turned (or is it only Marley that does that? Or maybe other labrador owners have quicker reflexes or are more savvy about locking up edibles whilst in The Presence). My last shreds of resistance to comfort baking fled with the next 70mph gust that smacked into my house and I bolted to the kitchen and started turfing almonds, mincemeat and sugar and other such delectable ingredients out of the cupboard before my sensible side started totting up calories.

This recipe is an ingenious hybrid between mince pies and ricciarelli – the Italian macaroon of Sienna. Tom’s recipe calls for Orange Flower Water which is one of my favourite things, especially in a delicate fresh fruit salad. I just don’t have any in at the moment. In fact I almost bought some last week but it’s one of those things that loses it’s flavour left sitting in a cupboard and I didn’t have any particular plans to use it just at present – if only I’d known! So I was forced to use some lateral thinking…

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OK… don’t worry. I didn’t use facial toner! Honestly, what kind of idiot would even consider that… (hmm… it tastes too bitter and not at all of orange flower in case anyone is wondering – don’t try this at home folks sigh. I told you the wind was driving me insane).

I added a touch of orange juice along with the zest. It’s not the same but the best I could do in my emergency storm-induced baking frenzy.

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From then on it was relatively plain sailing – the sweet pastry recipe is the same as I normally use for mince pies. I opted to halve the recipe and make mini pies in a petit four tray to salve my weight watching conscience which after several essential tastings of the ricciarelli mix was starting to prick somewhat.

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How did a jar of mincemeat survive uneaten in the cupboard from last year?! Am so glad it did though. That find made up for the lack of orange flower water. Almost.

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Amazingly I still had enough ricciarelli mix left by this point to put on the top of the pies. It was a close run thing. Probably opting for mini-sized pies saved the day here. Next time I’m just making the almond mix and hiding in a corner with a bowl somewhere and scoffing it privately Winnie-the-Pooh style.

I decided to put a whole almond on top rather than the toasted flaked almonds stipulated. What can I say; I was feeling rebellious by this point. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact I’d been checking the freshness of the rest of the almonds in blind-tasting trials whilst assembling the pies.

I didn’t burn them. I didn’t drop them. Reader, they looked lovely and cute and festive all at the same time in their lovely wind defying mincepie/macaroon-y glory.

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Don’t look so surprised Moominmamma!! You were in charge of telling me when they were done after all…

Mmmmmmm…

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There were still most of them left this morning for coffee time. I definitely recommend this recipe, it’s awesome. They’re even better eaten at room temperature than hot out of the oven because the flavours have time to settle and meld together deliciously.

Ok, it’s also because it’s less of an extreme sport (why does hot mincemeat always skin the roof of your mouth anyway?)

So why don’t you give it a go?

Desmond’s Mince Pies by Tom Barr

Excuse me, I’m just off out to walk the dog again. Who ate all the pies?

And home again.

Since I was away I’ve been very busy putting together different things for my fibre shop (amongst other things, the Shipwreck Build a Batt Box and Tea Garden collection I posted about recently). But I’ve also been doing things around the farm and home and attempting to get on top of the weeds and general jobs!

If I stop and think too much about all that needs to be done I start to panic – at this time of year you never really manage to get ahead of yourself (well I don’t anyway!) so you have to prioritise and work out ways of combining things to make the best use of time and energy. But I’m all too aware that I’m on damage limitation standards mostly; the garden’s heavy clay soil is productive but the runaway growth from the sun’s warmth and the soft rain and long daylight hours means the thuggish elements have the upper hand and cultivated plants are no match for pernicious weeds.

I had a real “down” moment a few weeks back; nothing I had sown seemed to be germinating, several batches were required of some things that I normally have no trouble growing. Perhaps it’s old seed, perhaps the new compost we’re using isn’t as good, perhaps the weather was tipping things away from my favour. Or perhaps I’ve lost that “green-finger” that comes from concentrating your attention on what you’re doing – perhaps after all I’m trying to squeeze too much in…

Happily some plants seem to grow no matter how little TLC they get. Potatoes and tomatoes will self seed where they fall or have been left and the ones you plant do just as well even if you forget about them. So although it’s been dry the Cara and Charlotte spuds I planted around Easter are coming up nicely. And I’ve decided to bring permaculture into play and solve two issues with one problem and mulch with the clippings from lawn mowing to keep the chickweed down that compete with the potato plants!

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It feels as though I might have gone a little overboard planting tomatoes this year… Somehow I have to find enough room under glass/plastic to fit the full grown plants in!

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Although two successive batches of French Beans have come to nothing and I am going to admit defeat on my favourite bean this year, these runner beans shot away and are now safely planted up in one long wigwam of canes.

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and the courgette plants are also now in their final positions – the slugs and the high winds are making them look rather pathetic just now but I’m hoping with the “sheep tea” washings from soaking fleeces for spinning they will start to root and romp away.

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My super long sweet pea tunnel last year took a huge amount of time just to pick and the winter storms have battered it beyond redemption but I have just a few sweet pea plants I grew this year on a far more modest scale – far too late, they should have been planted out by now so this is a job for this week to find a corner to squeeze them in with a wigwam to grow up.

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I struggled with two sowings of both my much-loved coriander and also leeks – third time lucky and so as with other plants, ridiculously late. Normally by now I’ve been eating coriander for weeks and it’s bolting uncontrollably. Not at the seedling stage… :0(

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At least there are now plenty of leeks but they’ll be like spring onions come autumn/winter if I don’t get them grown on fast now!

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Happily, the alpine strawberries I grew from seed last year seem content in their bed and are flowering nicely. I hope to get a good amount of berries this year, I love them for breakfast – going out to pick them first thing whilst the dew is on the grass and put them straight in my breakfast bowl. Nom.

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And the larger strawberry runners I took are also growing albeit still young because, yes, again, I was late with planting these out too!

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Some things just grow. No matter what. Thankfully the scented shrubs round about can be relied on at this time of year just to do their thing so evenings in the yard and patio are very sweet just now with not just the heady honeysuckle scent but also the lilacs

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and the first roses like this Gertrude Jekyll in such a fabulous shade of pink.

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I adore scented plants; my dream would be to plant up a garden full of scented shrubs and flowers. Not sure which life that will be in, it’s probably not this one though! ;0)

The grass grows like wildfire too. When it comes to lawns and rough ground this spells hard work for mowing large areas and strimming where you can’t mow. Sometimes this feels like a waste of time and resources but it has to be done – at least I’m using the clippings to mulch the weeds now! And it does look so much better once it’s had a “haircut”. However I can tell the grass is growing in the pastures too; the sheep spend so much of their time resting in the sun, snoozing peacefully and cudding.

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When the grass is short and nutrition low in late winter they spend a lot of time nibbling hungrily to get the most from the grazing. I know when they’re stretched out lazily on the ground like Alfie in the picture below that they are happy with full tummies and all is well in their sheepy world.

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They all need shearing soon. I winter shear my sheep so as to obtain the best wool for handspinning. But the wool grows again and at this time of year it “rises” – the natural pause when the growth stops and in primitive breeds, the sheep sheds its fleece and is when most flocks of sheep in the UK get shorn (albeit not for handspinning but for welfare reasons). This means that my Gotland’s look like they have stuffing coming out of them just now as the stubs of old fleece I left behind has felted into clumps and then peels off as the new years’ growth pushes through. When enough of it has risen I will shear them clean of the waste wool to leave the body clear for the new fleece to grow.

I’m not sure when I’ll find time to do it, luckily it’s not as critical as the first shearing is for me; they aren’t as uncomfortably hot as they would be in full fleece so they don’t overheat like most sheep do at this time of year and the good wool has been taken so I don’t worry about this fluffy felted waste left behind (more weed mulching material!!) But it does need doing and so somehow this is a few days work that I have to shoehorn in somewhere.

I’m playing catch up at the moment however. I took advantage of the lovely weekend to wash and dye the last of the fleeces I sheared earlier in the year and get on top of other jobs. On Friday our local fish and chip shop reopened after a year or so of being shut. I don’t normally like fried things; I admit to having a sweet tooth and I love food generally but greasy deep-fried stuff does not appeal so fish and chips is a rare occurrence for me – I much prefer “clean” tasting foods.. But after a very long day and being on my own for a while as mum was away I decided to check out the new management as a special treat for working hard. It’s 4 miles away so you have to really want chip-shop chips to make the effort! I was a little dismayed at the queue snaking out of the chippy door and down the street but I knew they were offering free chips all day so it was reasonable enough that so many people would be happy to see it reopen and want to try it out. More worryingly the line didn’t seem to be moving but having driven there I thought I may as well join in. Sometime later a friend queueing inside turned round and saw me through the window, waved and then text me to say she’d been waiting for 45 minutes already…

At that point I should probably have walked away but I’d already been there a bit, surely they’d speed up soon etc etc and by the time I’d waited half an hour, driven back home, found something to eat… It would be a waste of the time I’d already spent being 28th in the line. Or so the reasoning went.

Just over an hour later I finally left with a rumblingly empty stomach clutching my small warm paper parcel of mini fish and chips and headed back home. They were nice. But probably not worth waiting an hour for!

So yesterday evening I hunted for a duck breast I knew I’d bought and put in the freezer as a treat for sometime when I was eating on my own. It’s not something I ever have (I like our friendly ducks far too much to go round munching them!) and I wasn’t sure how I was going to cook it. I prefer a light touch when cooking meats; I am a fan or “rare” and “pink”. So I opted for pan-searing it with shreds of ginger, spring onion, sesame, lemon and a splash of tamari and our own honey.

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I had noticed whilst cutting the grass that the Swiss Chard I had left in over the winter was bolting – the new seedlings are doing well but not ready to pick but the old leaves were growing sky high but still tender. I also found a rogue coriander plant in the polytunnel path so I went and gathered some of each and served my tangy duck breast on some noodles with wilted chard and sautéed cherry tomatoes.

I found it strangely comforting that despite my “fail” on the veg plot this year that there are still things out there to eat despite my best (worst) endeavours and that they are tasty, nutritious… and conveniently close to hand. I noted how long it took me to cook this meal from scratch – 18 minutes. Which when I think of the time I spent queueing for my fry up and driving there and home it was no contest really. In future I think I’ll save fish and chips as a treat for eating beside the sea with the wind in my hair and salty spray whipping my cheeks. There it belongs and seems right; with buckets and spades, ice creams and stripy windbreaks and the ceaseless crying of gulls.

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This though; from the garden – this is my kind of fast food!