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.

Beam The Wheat Up, Scotty

I’ve always thought I have a good awareness of the source of my food, and I’ve been proud of myself for this – or of my parents I suppose. Lambs in the fields on holiday were very cute and fluffy and sweet. And tasty. Pigs were funny and to be laughed at when I was little, and they made delicious bacon and sausages. While away on my gap yahh, I lived for a short time with a Nicaraguan family. My ‘brothers’ lassoed a goat and tied it to a tree, and my ‘mother’ slaughtered it. The next morning the top half of the goat’s head was hanging off one of the bamboo poles that made up the shower as I washed; I walked through the ‘kitchen’, ducking under the intestines to do so; I walked past the brain sat on a rough wooden shelf by the door; and sat down to a breakfast of beans, rice, egg and fresh goat. Yet despite this ‘awareness’, I’ve never considered is the origin of the ingredients and the sheer scale of the production process. A friend recently introduced me to the TV programme ‘How It’s Made’, which showed how during the manufacturing process of Canadian ‘Sticky Buns’, an entire sack of ground cinnamon is emptied into the mixing vat – a spice that I use a teaspoon at a time. I visited Sir Pheasant’s Farm a second time recently, actually getting to see it in action, and this was when I realised how big everything involved in farming is; I’ve never even tried to imagine it before.

I had my first experience driving a tractor, and believe me when I say that a tractor is much, much bigger than a car, particularly if the car you’re used to driving is a little Pug (a 107) and the largest car you’ve driven is a 306. The tractor wheels come up to my waist, you need a set of steps to climb into the cab, and even the steering wheel is about three times bigger than in my little car. It’s also hugely less sensitive; to turn even a small amount requires one to virtually spin the steering wheel like a top (I’ll admit I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect). I did like that fact that you don’t need to press the clutch to change gear – you just click a button with your right hand (at least on the tractor I was driving, a Ford New Holland) but then there are many many more gears than on my car.  That said, all of the ones I used at least were the equivalent only of first or perhaps second gear, i.e. ‘slow’. Once used to the giant machine, and driving around a field in it, only then did I realise quite how big an acre is. Consider that farmers have to dig, plough, drill (to me this translates as ‘sow’) and fertilise the fields by driving over them, not to mention all the various sprays. Combine this with the tortoise speed of the tractors and whatnot that they drive while doing so, and you see quite how labour intensive farming is. The vehicles may be big, but the fields are much, much bigger.

On Tuesday morning, a man called to make arrangements that someone would come and pick up some wheat later. If he could make it, it would be early evening. If not, he would come the next morning – at about 5am. Luckily for me, reluctant as I was to get up before sunrise, he arrived around 5pm so I got to see the wheat being loaded. The truck that turned up seemed about three times as long as my house is wide. This could be another exaggeration, but honestly I’m not sure and wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Before the truck/lorry arrived, we moved the combine harvester out of the way – though I didn’t drive it, for the sake of the rest of the farm; the wheels on that are bigger than me, and it requires not steps but a ladder to get into the cab. Here I learned that the engine on a combine harvester is Loud with a capital L. I’ve decided that the reason so many farmers shoot is either because they’re so deaf from the combines that gun fire next to their ears is nothing, or so they can reuse their ear defenders from shooting when farming. The loading then began, as the wheat was transferred to the enormous lorry, described by its misguided driver as a ‘wagon’. He obviously long ago mastered the art of understatement. The teleporter was kitted out with a big metal bucket on the front – and by ‘big’ I mean it could hold about 1 ½ tonnes of wheat per scoop, so a little bigger than the 5l bucket my mum keeps in the garden. 29 tonnes of wheat were being sold, and with1 ½ tonnes moved per journey, the little teleporter (and when I say ‘little’ I mean in comparison to the tractor and combine harvester) moved back and forth with its farmer in the driving seat more time than I could count.

The teleporter is a piece of farm machinery I have taken issue with. After someone described one to me a while ago, I forgot its name, and later mistakenly referred to it as a ‘Transporter’ which caused much amusement amongst my more agriculturally-minded friends. But I have to back up my mistake. From what I’ve seen, a teleporter is used to move things from point A to point B. And in doing this, it transports its load. It does not, in any sense of the word, teleport it. No Star-Trek-esque equipment vanished the wheat from the shed only for it to miraculously appear moments later in the ‘wagon’. No Willy Wonka style laser was employed to dissect it molecule by molecule at point A, and beam them through space to reassemble at Point B. No, the inaccurately named teleporter transports, and therefore even if it is officially wrong (though descriptively accurate) to call it a Transporter, I just don’t see the joke. But I will give the farming community the benefit of the doubt, note it down as part of my Country Education and assume that the understanding of the humour will come to me through time. I am thrown back 12 months or more to a conversation about tractors with Sir Pheasant’s Farmer where I described a tractor as having a ‘sticky out pokey thing’ on the front; a description that still haunts me to this day and I fear I will never be allowed to forget. Hopefully, eventually, whether in five or fifteen years time, I will have found the hidden humour in the teleporter/transporter confusion, and also learned the name of the sticky out pokey thing (I still don’t know what this is called. It’s sort of like a huge tow bar, but on the front. If you can enlighten me, please do = you can comment below!)

When the teleporter was finished and the wagon full, the driver secured a tarpaulin over the top, produced a flimsy paper receipt that was the trade for the wheat (that would soon be swapped again for a cheque for so many thousands of pounds) and drove off. Looking into the shed, the 29 tonnes he had taken appeared to have made little more than a large dent in store – there was so much left. The wheat that was taken will be ground down and added to by thousands more tonnes, to be baked into cakes, biscuits, bread and God only knows what else, which will be sold in supermarkets and corners across the country. So when I think I know the origins of my food – because I know how to make bread and cakes, and I know that animals become my food – I have so very little idea of the quantities and scale of the manufacturing processes. I can’t picture how many thousands of cows and bulls must be reared to keep our fridges stocked in mince and our restaurants in steak; how many eggs must be laid for the ingredients in the food we buy in the supermarkets, as well as the boxes of them for sale. And so I have concluded, farming’s quite a big deal really.

Shotguns and Chelsea Buns

Last week I encountered a chain of bad luck. One due to my own clumsiness, one actually due to sheer bad luck, and all of which culminated in me bombarding my few Twitter followers with tweet after tweet after tweet last Saturday morning, every single one of them moaning about the traffic jam I was sat in for an hour and a half. There were four key factors that led up to this moment:

  • First, last autumn a girl I was working with wrote an article about her experience on a grouse moor for a new website, ladies-shooting.com.
  • Second, I started this blog.
  • Third, a couple of months ago I was embarrassed by my mother’s proficiency and persuaded by work to rediscover my Twitter account – which I duly linked to the blog, rechristening it @TheFirstFrost – and started ‘tweeting’.
  • Fourthly and finally, due to a diagnosis of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, I have recently found myself living back in Greater London – temporarily I might add – and thus with a slight lack of anything even vaguely country to write about.

These circumstances all combined to stick me in the worst traffic jam I’ve yet experienced as a driver. I shall explain.

A friend at work encouraged, persuaded and bribed us all to ‘follow’ @William_Powell on Twitter. So that evening, I logged onto my dormant, near extinct Twitter account and did just that. Embarrassed by the fact that my mother was more social-medialy active than I was, and armed with a brand new shiny phone and my brand new shiny blog to talk about and shamelessly promote, I decided to pay attention to my neglected Twitter account. I promptly set about hunting for people to stalk – I mean ‘follow’. Amongst my victims were my colleagues, including the girl mentioned above who wrote the piece about the grouse moor. Sheep that I am, I also set about following people they were following, picking out anyone who seemed familiar, interesting or with an interesting name. Being a lady (or woman at least) who likes shooting, I opted to follow owner of the website she wrote for, @ladies-shooting. Little did I know it would bring me one step closer to that awful traffic jam.

City-bound as I was (and still am for that matter) I’ve had to actively hunt out things to write about, and so I derived my first benefit from Twitter. @ladies-shooting kept tweeting to the world about a clay shoot happening one weekend with the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. I looked into it, and discovered that it is a ladies-only shooting club, where everything you require is provided, from guns to tuition, good company to cake, and I swiftly signed up.

The day before the shoot saw disaster number one. I set about making a ginger cake to take along, a very simple but very lovely, until-now failsafe recipe, requiring plenty of sticky ingredients – I finished off a tin of golden syrup in the making, which my dog very much enjoyed cleaning out.

However, one foolish and distracting phone call mid-bake meant that I forgot to add the key ingredient of my ginger cake: the ginger. After two minutes in the oven, I remembered, whipped the mostly-uncooked mixture out of the oven, and grated in my stem ginger, stirring it as little as possible before returning it to the oven. Sadly my last-ditch effort to gingify the cake meant that it sank in the middle, quite drastically; the Titanic of cakes if you will. Ever the optimist, I decided that I would cut the cake into squares, ice it, and no one would ever know of my ginger omission and its results. I released the sides of the springy cake tin, inverted it onto a plate, and removed the base of the tin. I then placed a cooling rack on the exposed bottom of the cake, and with one hand on the rack, one on the plate, set to turn it right way up onto the rack to cool. At this point my carpal tunnel kicked in: I dropped the lot. Half the cake slid off the plate onto the floor (much to the dog’s delight) and the rest smashed onto the counter. The cake was, even for the eternal optimist, ruined.

Not to be deterred, I reminded myself that there was nothing about Saturday’s shoot saying that you had to bring a cake, simply that you could if you wished. Next morning, I set off in plenty of time to drive to the Oxfordshire Shooting School to join the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club for the first time, sadly empty handed but armed with my ear defenders. Traffic caused by an accident earlier in the day caused everyone on the M40 to be diverted off at my junction down the A40, the road that I needed to drive down; and so we reach my traffic jam. I sat and crawled along, occasionally lifting my foot from the clutch as I reached the dizzying heights of 8mph, only to be shown a sea of red ahead of me as all cars hit their breaks and we ground yet again to a halt. I spent longer in that traffic jam than the entire journey should have taken. And so I tweeted my little heart out, simply as a means to keep myself amused. I also encountered a traffic sign that I don’t recollect specifically seeing before, and perhaps it was the petrol fumes, but it greatly amused me, surrounded as I was by stationary vehicles:

None of us had much need to be wary of tractors; unless one planned to drive over us all and crush us into real traffic jam (tasty and spreadable, with absolutely no pips!)

Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one delayed, and when I finally made it to the Shooting School I was just in time to join a group on their first peg, and managed a decent score of 20/30 across all three targets. There was plenty of cake provided by luckier (or simply more organised) members of the group and we stood and sat around, chatting away drinking tea from beautiful china cups with matching saucers. All in all, it was well worth the wait, though I will aim to arrive on time next time.

For any women out there wanted to get involved in shooting, I highly recommend the club as an in. I knew no one at all when I arrived, but had a thoroughly lovely morning. The range of members is wonderful – there are people from a very country background kitted out in Dubarry’s and tweed, and people like me who really really aren’t. There’s also a fantastic variety of ability – you would not be alone as a complete beginner, and the instructors are prepared for that; but there were also a couple of experienced game shots that were both educational and a delight to watch. As I watched one of the women shooting one of the more challenging driven targets off a tower, she seemed to shoot in slow motion; she made it look elegant and easy, and there never was a better reminder that you have so much more time than you think you do from the moment you call for your target to the moment when you pull the trigger.

Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club has achieved something noteworthy (aside from there being tea and cake provided at every get together); they’ve managed to create a group serious about shooting without shying away from the feminine. Everything from the scorecards to the tea sets used at the end was oriented to women. And watching the lady I described above shoot demonstrated that it is possible to be a phenomenal game shot and be ladylike with it; as with all things, it simply takes practice. I very much look forward to the next shoot, on the 2nd June in Barbury near Swindon, and hopefully I can arrive with baked-offerings next time – if I can manage to bake a cake without dropping it or forgetting any ingredients.