April 2012

Weather-wise, I can never again say that April is one of the best months to come here. Other Aprils have been, but 2012’s has not.

It has rained, I think, every day. Sometimes very hard, sometimes quite gently, occasionally what they call “mizzle” in Cumbria – a cross between mist and drizzle. We’ve seen the sun only occasionally and briefly – just enough to be reminded of the warmth to come – and temperatures have seldom touched the high teens. With almost constantly cloudy skies it’s all been a bit English, to be honest – a huge contrast to last year’s mid 20s to mid 30s and blistering sunshine.

On the plus side, our water butts are in great shape, the ground is saturated and with the addition of mulch will need very little watering for a while, the hay will be awesome this year and the woods are a startlingly bright green. Our wild flowers arrived on time, and Early Purples and Burnt orchids litter the meadow. The birds have also returned, and Golden Orioles have been exotically touting for their mates outside our yurts for a couple of weeks.

Although all of these things are exciting and wonderful, perhaps the hay is most reassuring. This time last year I was looking at the sky and wondering if it was ever going to rain. It didn’t, and the hay was terrible. People were getting half their normal yield and this precious food was scarce from October. Trucks were bringing in hay from all over Europe which, from a sustainability point of view, was insanity.

When you have a big animal, like Pepito, you become painfully aware of how much everything depends on the rain. It’s a simple equation: No rain = No big animals. To give you a clearer idea, he eats one small bale of hay every day for about six months, with some rolled oats and re-hydrated beet for good measure. I don’t know anything about cows, but they probably consume even more. Two or more years in a row like that and these animals would no longer populate the landscape in such numbers.

Which is why, even after a month of rain, I’m a happy bunny. I just wish I had one pair of boots without holes in them.

The breadmaking post seems to have revealed an appetite for recipes on this blog. So today I thought I’d have a crack at making a biggish waffle. (Again, this is something Her Outdoors usually does, which meant she was the perfect person to teach me – with the “Joy of Cooking” book on hand for reference).

1) First I put 1.75 cups of white flour in a Biggish Mixing Bowl (BMB) with 2 level teaspoons of baking powder and 1 tablespoon of sugar, and mixed them together.

2) I separated three biggish eggs and beat the yolks with 1.5 cups of milk (using a fork), until it looked like this:

3) I added the yolky mix to the BMB and mixed it all together until it was “not too lumpy”, like this:

4) Her Outdoors melted a couple of tablespoons of salted butter in our griddle pan over a high heat (thereby cheating me of taking credit for the whole thing) which she (!) poured into the BMB:

5) The egg whites were whisked (by both of us – with a whisk) until “stiff but not dry”, which looks like this:

6) This egg white fluff was then folded into the BMB with a biggish spoon until it looked like this:

7) With the butter-covered griddle pan back on a medium heat, I emptied the BMB into it (thereby regaining control of the situation):

8) I then waited for many minutes until the middle of the almost-waffle didn’t move when the pan was tilted.

9) Then I flipped the almost-waffle, only spilling a bit on the pan and cooker.

10) Her Outdoors then turned the heat down a little (argh) until the waffle was cooked through, which only took a couple of minutes.

11) I (yay) then slid the waffle onto a chopping board and took a surprisingly anaemic-looking photograph.

A biggish waffle like this is a pretty cheap and really tasty way to feed a family of four and have some left over for the chickens. It was excellent with butter and maple syrup, although a couple of rashers of crispy smoked streaky bacon would have made it even better.

Coming soon… Her Outdoors wielding a chainsaw.

It’s Good Life week here in écovallée and, because it’s all about learning new skills, I decided to learn how to make a biggish loaf of bread. (Her Outdoors, historically, has made all our bread. I, meanwhile, have done all the chainsawing. We didn’t plan it like that – it just happened.)

For future reference – yours and mine – I took notes. And photographs.

1) Half fill a clean mug with hand-hot water. (Don’t get too anal about the exact temperature – there isn’t one.)

2) Add 1 heaped teaspoon of sugar. (You could use honey apparently – I didn’t.) It’s food for the yeast.

3) Add two sachets of bread yeast and stir. (Don’t worry if it doesn’t all dissolve, and/or stuff sticks to the spoon. I left the spoon in just to be sure.)

4) Leave in a warm place for a few minutes until it’s frothing like this:

5) Put about 750 g of flour in a biggish mixing bowl. (We have a bag of semi-wholemeal. You could use bread flour or other strong flour.)

6) Add 2 level teaspoons of salt and stir with ANY spoon. (An insight into the student-teacher relationship, here. Her Outdoors is pretty relaxed about rules but I like to know what they are. I stirred with the same teaspoon I used for the salt, which could easily become habitual. A wooden spoon is not mandatory at this stage – or at any other.)

7) I was offered the chance to add seeds at this point. I chose a handful of sesame seeds, which seemed radical enough for a first loaf.

8) Add the yeast to the flour and stir with a KNIFE. (Don’t ask me why. I have forgotten. I vaguely remember it being something to do with stickiness, or clumping.)

9) Add water (in my case, about 300 ml) until it starts to come together like this:

10) Turn out onto a floured surface…

11) …and knead for several minutes, adding flour to hands and dough when it feels sticky, until the dough is springy to the touch and looks like this: (A few words on kneading before you get the picture. My technique was quite aggressive, leaning into the dough with my whole bodyweight, ripping the ball almost apart before folding in half, turning 90 degrees clockwise and repeating. After several minutes using this method, I couldn’t tell if the dough had become springy or not. So I tried kneading more gently and – ta-da – it was ready. I’ll be kneading more gently next time.)

12) Turn the dough ball over, hiding those folds, place back in the bowl, slash with an “X”…

…cover with a damp tea towel (I used warm water – it might not matter) and leave in a warm place for about an hour until it’s done this kind of thing:

13) Punch the dough gently, remove from the bowl and, using gravity, form a slug a couple of feet long and about a forearm thick, roll up along its length, place on a dusted baking tray and slash it a few times.

14) Place in a cold (freshly lit) oven and leave for 45-50 mins. (Look at a clock at this point, if you have one.)

When mine came out it looked pretty good on one side…

…and unique on the other side…

…but tasted pretty good at breakfast this morning.

Boy even ate all his crusts, which almost never happens.

Two reasons I’m quite happy we didn’t have any guests for our first week of being open this year (yuk – wouldn’t want to edit that sentence): 1) It rained pretty much all week, with only a couple of days of glorious sunshine; and 2) the tree bog wasn’t finished.

On that second point, I’ve made significant progress despite the rain. Which wasn’t really that heavy. (And I’ve promised never to be upset about rain again, fearing a second super-dry Spring and a second year of No Hay for the big animals that live around here.)

During the week, the tree bog went through this…

To this…

I had to make a few adjustments along the way. One of which was the wind braces that were attached to the outside of the roof frame – which became a problem when the walls had to go all the way to the top. I think they look even better now – very organic and not a little bit Lórien-like…

Another of which was decreasing the size of the sitting area, tweaking the joists and bracing everything…

Very exciting next stage is laying the floor, finishing the seating area and plumbing in the sink. Then it’s hooks, hanging plants, steps and doors (but not necessarily in that order). Oh, and a long string of solar fairy lights, connecting the tree bog to the solar shower.

More on that later…

I didn’t say: Her Outdoors spotted the first Burnt Orchid of the year on April 10th. I’m not going to do individual orchid updates any more – I’m just going to update the dates on this page.

A full eight days later than last year, but five days earlier than the year before, we’ve spotted our first Early Purple Orchids outside the veggie patch and polytunnel. Which means eyes will be peeled for Burnt Orchids later in the week.

Like mushrooms, they must have been waiting for the rain and are unfurling as I type. Blooming marvellous(ly).

Just to reassure you I’m still working on the tree bog, this is what it looked like this morning:

The wood for the walls is being cut (not right this moment – it’s the weekend) and will be ready by the end of the week when we’ll be OPEN FOR 2012.

Now, ridiculously beautiful weather beckons and I’m off to bask in it.

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