Farmyard Tales

As a child I used to read the Usborne books ‘Farmyard Tales’. My memories are a little hazy; someone was called Poppy, but I’m not sure whether that was the dog or the daughter; a sheep ate a lot of flowers – I remember tracing the path with my finger; there was a red tractor, but I don’t remember what role it played in the story. My one, unerring memory is that on every single page was a little yellow duck, peeking out from behind a tree or under a bale of hay or anywhere else where in real life there would almost certainly not be a nosy duck, let alone a bright yellow one. But then illustrations of children’s fiction aren’t exactly known for the factual accuracy.

A few weeks ago I visited my real-life farm again. Sir Pheasant has relinquished his hold on it back to Mr Farmer, though not altogether willingly. He still struts about the place as if he owns it, his doting covey of partridges scuttling along behind him; but since October 1st[i] he is striving to come to terms with his impending doom as the first shoot on the farm approaches, and he is making funeral arrangements with the family (current plans are to be wrapped in streaky bacon and served with a port and quince sauce much like his ancestors before him.)

Sir Pheasant’s farm is in fact called Hall Farm and there is neither dog not little girl called Poppy, but there is a gorgeous black lab called Paddy, which is close enough for me. Not many flower beds to munch, but there are sheep and I’m sure they chomp through a few meadow flowers while out grazing. And there are plenty of tractors. I’ve already posted the photo of the blue one I drove, but there are others too (though not a bright red one). Most excitingly there is a huge big yellow combine harvester (cue the Wurzels.) Mr Farmer made the mistake of referring to it as ‘she’, much as one would to a ship I guess, but in light of it – and of course to poke fun – I’ve christened said combine ‘Sally’. Sally, being so yellow, takes the place of the ever-present Usborne duck, even if she isn’t small and doesn’t sneak from page to page. She’s the yellowest thing on the farm, and that shall have to do.

If you say ‘harvest’ to me, it conjures up out of the distance a dusty image of a line of sturdy little children plodding up to the stage in the assembly hall and placing their tin of fruit cocktail in syrup or chick peas in salted water onto the pile beneath an arrangement of orange flowers with grasses and wheat, a huge loaf of bread in the shape of a sheaf of wheat and a scattering of gourds, marrows, pumpkins and other autumnal veg that wouldn’t go bad too quickly. All this to the faint notes of a mostly-in-tune robust rendition of ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’ In real life of course, this is the children’s harvest festival at a suburban school and harvest is in fact a real thing that occurs with far fewer hymns and far more poor farmers sat for hours on a combine making its way slowly up and down fields. Or to be more accurate, this year at least, sat on said combine in thick obstinate mud waiting for a tractor to come and set them free, so they can continue cutting until the next boggy patch – probably in about ten minutes time.

When I visited Hall Farm in September I got to spend a morning actually helping out – or at least I hope I helped. The first thing we did was set about welding bits of metal to bits of fence and gate to repair and reinforce. I got to be the lovely assistant, though sadly with no sequins. Still, I made do with a box of solder and we got on with the job. Gate and post fixed, it was combining time and I got to have a ride around with Sally (this time cue The Commitments). The only thing I can say is that combine harvesters are absolutely enormous. Seriously Big with a capital B. And loud. And powerful. If Sally were human, she’d be one of those amazing black women, huge, strong, sexy and formidable, with an attitude almost as big as her voice. Think Queen Latifah in Chicago. Except painted bright yellow, churning wheat and with fewer solos. I sat on the combine for a big as we attacked a dry patch of field, and after a bit I got off for the not-so-country pursuit of taking photographs. Equally as impressive viewed at a distance, in the early Autumn sunshine with dust clouds following in her wake. Sadly, I had to leave at lunchtime to face the drive back from Yorkshire to London. Or perhaps not so sadly, as about ten minutes after I left Sally embarked upon a game of Stuck-in-the-Mud without the courtesy of warning poor Mr Farmer.

Actually seeing grain being harvested was just a little bit amazing. There are hundreds of thousands of tonnes wheat held in grain stores across the country, and much of it will go off to a commercial bakery to be made into the bread we buy off the shelves in Tesco and Sainsbury’s and such. More will go to feed the animals that are slaughtered to provide the building blocks of my sausage casserole or coq au vin. The more I learn about agriculture and the production of the raw ingredients that I take so much for granted, the less inclined I am to buy from supermarkets. One of the exciting bonuses about work  (that I may have already mentioned) is the farmers’ market that is held every Thursday. In the office this translates to ‘Sausage Thursdays’; there is a man with fresh sausages cooking on a griddle, and at 9.05am once everyone’s switched their computers on, orders are taken and one kind-hearted soul pops over to the Sausage Man and comes back clutching steaming rolls filled with all sorts of combinations of sausages of various varieties, onions (or not) and range of dripping sauces. But as well as hot sausages, you can buy fresh, local meat, fish, cheese and veg. Sometimes there’re homemade baked goodies (though I still prefer to make my own) and other bits and pieces too. A few weeks ago it was my turn to host a group of friends in our own version of ‘Come Dine With Me’, and I themed my menu around British, seasonal food – and sourced as many ingredients as I could from the market and nearby deli, nicely named ‘Market Square’.

The menu proceeded thus: we had beetroot and goats’ cheese tarts to begin, with homemade pastry, a huge bunch of locally grown and freshly dug up beetroots, and British goats’ cheese. For mains, a pork and apple braise, with apples so local I picked them from the garden just before cooking, and served with squash and purple sprouting broccoli. The squash was a disappointment; I had wanted to serve pumpkin, but despite my expectations and best efforts hunting one down – it being the beginning of October at this point, and me armed with a deerstalker and pipe – I couldn’t find a pumpkin anywhere. But butternut squash sufficed. For dessert we had sticky cinnamon figs, with mascarpone and pistachios, having been assured by the good old Interweb that figs were in season, and this being backed up by their presence at the market. And finally we had a range of local cheeses, including a Sussex blue and an award-winning Sussex goats’ cheese, which I’ve sadly forgotten the name of. These lovely cheeses were accompanied by nothing other than the terribly local Twickenham Preserves’ rhubarb chutney, and crab apple and quince jellies.

Overall I was delighted with how much I managed to source from the market, and with the reasonable prices I paid. I didn’t feel ripped off in the slightest, and was happy to know I was helping local farmers get a good price for the hours of labour they put in. It’s something I’m keen to continue doing – once I’m all moved out and fending for myself (second time lucky) I’m wondering whether I can fit my weekly shop into my lunch hour, and pop to the market every Thursday. We shall see.

To top off the night, I was almost as delighted with the wine suggestions and donations from work. They’re proving to be a very supportive and helpful bunch to work with. The girls and I enjoyed a not-yet-on-the-shelves sparkling white as an aperitif, which we all enjoyed very much. Then a heavy pinot noir rose to accompany the beetroot, a dry cider with the pork and finally a tawny port to go with the figs and cheeses. I suppose in thinking [writing] about it, I should have served English wine to go with my British-grown farmer-friendly menu. Oh well, something to consider next time round.


[i] The first of October marks the start of the pheasant-shooting season, for the enlightenment any city-based readers. Let it never be said that this blog is not informative; I strive to share my muddy enlightenment, and in doing so to educate as well as shoot and bake.

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Sir Pheasant Struts His Stuff

Last weekened, for the first time in my life, I met a combine harvester. Or rather, I met one of the wheels. And one of the wheels was enough; it’s almost as tall as I am (and I’m not short) and probably similar in size to my whole car [i]. The machine itself, even without the wheels, was probably bigger than the house currently I live in.

The farm I visited was entirely alien to me, but the strangest thing about it was the noise it made in the evening. When you stand in the middle of the fields (and there’s quite a lot of land there, especially for a girl who measures floor space in square feet), you can hear nothing. Actually nothing. I like peace and quiet, but peace and quiet to me comes with the background noise of living under the Heathrow flight path (when I was small) and mere metres away from the M40 (now, when I’m not so small). Vehicles of one form or another tick away quietly in the background of my life, ever present and for the most part, unnoticed (though listening for concord at 11am when I was at primary school was a definite exception – everything stopped when concord flew over; it was far too noisy to think, especially when you’re thinking complicated four-year-old thoughts). So for me, Countryside Quiet is quiet on a whole other level. It truly does ‘echo with the sound of silence’.

Everyone knows the sound of your ears ringing when you subject the poor things to a lot of loud noise for a continuous length of time, whether it’s a concert, festival or screaming child. But stood in the middle of a field, with zero background noise, no matter how hard I strained to hear, my ears were ringing with the lack of noise. It was like they couldn’t cope without sound, and so generated it themselves.

If black is in fact the absence of colour or light, then silence is the black of the auditory realm. Quiet you can hear, but this was the complete and utter absence of anything – and I can’t stress that enough. Very occasionally you could head a distant moo of cattle or squark of a pheasant, but that only heightens the lack of sound the rest of the time. Nothing happening, the world just Is. It lifts everything from your shoulders, the world is put on pause… it’s wonderful.

Another thing I liked about being on the farm was seeing the animals. Not just the farm animals, but the wildlife. I’ve developed a familiarity with game – I’ve had to, as it’s emblazoned on everything in the shop where I work, from jumpers and cufflinks to crockery and boxer shorts. Partridges on side plates and bowls, woodcock on mugs, pins and brooches of roe deer and snipe, pheasants embroidered onto jumpers and grouse woven into silk ties. I’ve been presented with a brace of pheasants, a few rabbits, pigeon and even haunches of venison as gifts, and I even have a tiny silver grouse hanging off my charm bracelet as a gift from my mother. But I’ve not yet actually spent any length of time around the live birds. Seeing them around the farm provided not only a novelty, but immense amusement.

They really are funny little things. The plumage on a cock pheasant is stunning, and stationary it looks almost elegant with long slim tail feathers, a proud face and the spectacular shimmering mallard-green and holly-red head, subtly speckled and smoky feathers on the body. But then they start to move, and the show begins. Strutting around with his chest puffed up, the cock pheasant assumes a comically arrogant persona: a rich portly gentleman of class, red face from years of overindulgence and cigars simply because he can; one thumb hooked into the pocket of a silk waistcoat, gold buttons straining, as he consults his shiny pocket watch pretentiously, rising onto his tip toes in that sort of way as he proclaims something supposedly insightful, concluded with ‘… don’t you know old boy’. Tail thrust out proudly behind him, our Mr Pheasant –sorry, Sir Pheasant, swaggers about as if he owns the land and terribly kindly lets the poor farmer work it. And yet, for all his apparent pride, if you walk or better yet drive towards him, the two scrawny little legs that support his rotund body start spinning round in circles like a Loony Toons character. Both scared and hilariously indignant, huffing and puffing he scuttles away.

Partridges are simply a smaller, rounder version of the same. Quiet and peaceful on the surface, not quite so proudly plump in the chest but they are just as funny to watch. Given that despite their wings, they’re not the most proficient fliers, partridges and pheasants both really do have tiny little spindly legs, with movement limited to just two options: the overinflated strut and comical scuttle of resentful desperation.

In the fields at dusk we watched the Mad March Hares playing (before returning home for tea with Alice and the dormouse no doubt). Bounding through the sprouting wheat and barley, pausing occasionally to box each other before carrying on their whimsical game of tag. Roe deer spotted in the distance, only as tall as the hedges around them, slim elegant legs and necks, they walk sedately though the fields. Admittedly at this point I only saw the farm, I didn’t do any work or get involved in any way. But watching the wildlife at dusk you see how nature endures calmly and happily, barely disturbing the silence and flattered by the twilight, providing gentle entertainment, amusement and wonderment. I’m sure Mother Nature will reveal her nasty side to me soon enough – and eyes peeled because I’ll write about it when she does – but for now, I’m smitten.

I know some of my friends would ask how I could reconcile this attitude towards nature and wildlife when I am in favour of shooting. On a farm like that one, small shoots are held during the season, and Sir Pheasant, who I’ve been writing about with such affection, becomes a target. While I’m desperate to go, I’ve not yet actually been game shooting (one day… one day) but despite my lack of experience and my appreciation of nature, I will still defend it. The shooting industry  is actually responsible for an awful lot of conservation of the wildlife and habitats involved in shooting (see BASC for more info). Birds are bred specifically for the sport, and are looked after from birth – after all, a weak bird that can’t fly a good distance, for any length of time or with any speed makes for a very poor target. Anyone who takes issue with game shooting should consider the source of the meat they eat from their local supermarket – I for one would far rather eat a bird that’s lived its life outdoors and been shot mid-air than a battery farmed hen. It is very possible to appreciate the elegance and comedy of the puffed up pheasant strutting his stuff on the farm, the challenge he provides as an airborne target, and the flavour of the pheasant breast wrapped in streaky bacon on your plate at dinner.


[i] The overgrown toboggan that is my little blue Peugeot 107.