Sunday, 31 August 2008

Harvest time

The most exciting thing that has happened to me this entire summer is that I learnt to drive a tractor yesterday. A tractor! And we got to ride on the trailer as it was towed through the farm to pick up the next load of straw.

The reason for this was that K and I went wwoofing at Fen End Farm. I had emailed Ken (the farmer) earlier in the week to ask if Saturday would be a good day, his reply was 'we will probably be stacking straw in the barn. Help is always appreciated'. He certainly wasn't joking.

When I close my eyes today, this is more or less what I see.

When I was a child, I used to sometimes play in barns of straw, making wendy houses and dens out of bales. By the end of yesterday we had shifted somewhere in the region of 400 bales of straw and stored them in the barn, scrambling up and down the 'steps' made by stacked bales to haul straw right to the roof. Not a job for anyone with fear of heights or a predisposition to hay fever, or indeed an allergy towards bloody hard work. Ken told us that each bale weighs about 25kg, so that makes a grand total of 10 tonnes of straw that passed through our hands. Even allowing that each person didn't lift every single bale, I still reckon that I personally picked up, carried, stacked and generally flung around 8 tonnes of straw. We were still out working on the fields at 9pm, trying to bear the rain forecast for today. I watched the astonishing beauty that can transform even the most ordinary landscape as the red glow of the set sun faded from the sky and an ethereal dusky mist spread over the fens, and yet must confess that by that point I was thinking only of a cold beer and and a hot shower. Muscles are complaining this morning that I didn't know I had - I don't actually think I've ever worked so much that the muscles in my hands ached. This was with a tractor to carry the bales, one machine to bale them, and another to pick them up from the field and stack them on the trailer. I've said it before and I'll say it again, who needs a gym? Particularly since gyms don't tend to include tractor-driving lessons.

I suppose some people would say that gyms leave you with slightly fewer scratches and bruises, neither do they contain quite such a risk of plummeting from a great height from the top of a great stack of straw while struggling to wedge a bale into position in the eves of a barn. Yet however much money I spent, I don't think I could get any more satisfaction than I did from watching skylarks rise over the field as we were bumped and jostled us over a field of stubble in the late afternoon sun.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Sloe gin

A pleasingly large amount of my Bank Holiday Monday was spent making sloe gin. Now I have three satisfyingly large bottles sitting on the alcohol shelf in my kitchen and I am feeling well on the way to becoming a suitably self-sufficient soak. I am taking it as a propitious sign that this was made exactly four months to the day before Christmas and therefore should be ready and tasty in time for seasonal celebrations. Well, to be strictly honest, it would have been made four months to the day before Christmas if I weren’t spending Christmas in Cape Town with K’s family (the carbon emissions! the guilt! the sunshine!), since thanks to a German mother her family traditions dictate that Christmas is actually held on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. As if the confusion caused by the seasons being the wrong way round wasn’t bad enough!* Still, I imagine the sloe gin will help with the said confusion. “If you can get it through customs”, my future mother-in-law helpfully said.

I’ve never made sloe gin before, so this is all rather much in the way of experimentation. I have already discovered from a small amount of post factum research that August is traditionally regarded as a bit early to pick sloes for gin, and that ideally one should wait for first frosts (which could be any time now, if the general August weather is anything to go by) or until 1st September at least. I live and learn. It will not be the first time that I have drunk some rather strange alcohol in the process. To be honest, the likelihood of us having a free Sunday in September with equally nice weather to go tramping along dykes is already looking a bit slim, and even if we had found such a weekend, it surely wouldn’t have been as much fun as out walk with this weekend, nor would there have been so many hands to get covered with thorns and scratches. If by some chance another such Sunday does turn up, I’ll just have to make another bottle.

The Cottage Smallholder seems to have become my online sloe gin guru, so following her advice, my basic recipe was as follows:

1lb of sloes (or thereabouts)
1 empty litre gin bottle
4 ounces of castor sugar
1 tsp of almond essence
Enough gin to fill the bottle

There does, however, seem to be some dispute what one should do with these ingredients. Should the sloes go in the freezer? Is it better to leave sugar and sloes alone for a week to get to know each other better and add the gin later? I have accordingly made three subtly different batches.

- One ‘basic’ recipe. Sloes were pricked, creating much sticky mess and placed in the bottle. Sugar was added, gin poured on top and finally the almond essence sneaked in at the last moment. The whole lot given a good shake and left until further notice, aside from further shaking to ensure that all the sugar has dissolved.

- One ‘sugar first’ recipe. Sloes pricked and sugar added as above, but then the resulting sticky mess left to sit before the gin is added so that the sugar can draw out the juice from the sloes, which I might add it is doing admirably. I’m not entirely sure when I should add the gin though – any tips?

- One recipe à la sloes gelés. These sloes are still in the freezer.

The bottles have been labelled accordingly (with uncharacteristic care), so I hope I will be able to make a suitable judgement as to the best method around December. Providing, of course, that I stay sober long enough to write a blog entry afterwards.

*For any Southern hemisphereans out there, I know this can be a touchy subject. I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that you have every right to have summer in December, and to associate Christmas with hot sunshine, sunburn and barbecues rather than cold, overcast skies, snows, and roaring open fires. Still, you have to admit that continuing to put snow and robins on your Christmas cards is little bit weird.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Sloes and dykes

A surprisingly sunny Sunday afternoon on this much-welcomed Bank Holiday weekend found us taking a lovely walk along Devil's Dyke. For us, this has been one of those walks that we've been meaning to do for an absolute age, but somehow have never previously managed to get beyond the fine and aptly named Dyke's End pub in the lovely village of Reach. This time, we were determined to celebrate our first genuinely free weekend of the entire summer by finally putting down pints and pulling on boots. Happily, after church we bumped into a couple of good friends who accepted our invitation to come along with alacrity, we all piled into Hilda (our trusty Nissan Micra, who doesn't much like accelerating with four people plus picnic inside) and off we went.

On a fine day, the Devil's Dyke walk is truly lovely. Unusually for Britain, where most earthworks are Iron Age, Devil's Dyke is Saxon (or rather Anglian, since I am a geek and a pedant when it comes to early medieval matters) and stretches for about seven or eight miles from Reach to Woodditton. I am endlessly fascinated by how local rulers gathered the labour to built such a feat before the days of machinery and mass communications (OK, big swords, I know), and how different the landscape must have looked then to make a seven mile earthwork an effective defense between fen on one side and low hills and forest on the other. It is all the more remarkable because we know that the region stretching from Cambridge to Ely and beyond was the last part of England to have a multitude of local kings and kingdoms, long after other parts of the country had been joined into the great overkingdoms of Wessex, Mercia et al. Local legend tells that it was built by a king Hrothgar (all kings in Anglo-Saxon legends are called Hrothgar) to preserve the honour of his daughter against an unwelcome suitor from the fire Gods, but it is more likely that the Devil's Dyke was one of the ways in which a local fenland king preserved his independence against outside encroachment from Mercia or East Anglia. Certainly he would have had a good view from the top, as the surrounding land is so flat you can see for miles. Seeing Ely cathedral soar above the fenland, for the first time I really appreciated how the medieval folk who first built the 'Ship of the Fens' must have seen it as they approached the isle across the water.

As if this wasn't enough to keep a gin-soaked medieval historian happy, I discovered that both Dyke and surrounding hedgerows were absolutely awash with sloes. I had searched in vain for some sloes on my elderberry mission in Grantchester Meadows. Plenty of bushes, but only about twenty fruit, and my mother later warned me later on the phone that it looked to be a bad year for sloes, since that their local hedgerows were also bare of fruit, so I abandoned my hopes of a row of bottles of sloe gin to go alongside the elderberry schnapps. Ever the optimist, I took along a couple of plastic bags. Perhaps, I thought, I would find enough for one small bottle.

Between the four of us, we picked nearly six pounds of sloes, enough for three bottles per couple. We only gave up when the plastic bags were threatening to split and the lure of a well-earned pint became too great. On the path between Swaffham Prior (a fine sixth- or -seventh century Saxon name) and Reach, bush after bush dripped so much of the cloudy purple fruit that they looked like great bunches of grapes hanging down, with many to be found on the Dyke itself as well. Anyone who lives in or around Cambridgeshire and wants sloes, look no further. There are plenty left for everyone and fine views into the bargain!

Saturday, 23 August 2008


Hedgerows in Cambridge are absolutely dripping with shining black clusters of elderberries at the moment, so today we took advantage of a rare break in the relentless rain of this August and spent nearly two hours gathering berries in Grantchester meadows. I absolutely adore foraging for hedgerow fruits and today was tremendous fun, alongside the usual array of glittering dragonflies, wet Labradors, incompetent punting and happy if overly loud tourists waddling back from their creams teas a la Rupert Brooke. I must confess that we got fewer amusingly surprised looks than the last time blackberrying, when our green wellies seemed to make at least one group of Americans think we had been laid on as an especially 'English' photo opportunity. Life in a tourist hotspot is not without its charms. As it was rather too warm for wellies today, I decided that a short skirt and open shoes would be a good sartorial choice , apparently forgetting that 95% of hedgerow goodies require a scramble through a nettle patch first. Fortunately my skills at dancing through nettles reasonably unscathed are fairly well-developed, unlike the various South Africans and Australians of my acquaintance, who invariably find it hard to remember that England has plants that looks so innocuous and yet hurt so much. I delight in introducing them to the humble dock leaf.

We gathered over a litre and a half of elderberries in total. Currently stripped, washed and sitting in the freezer, they are destined to become the first stage of elderberry schnapps tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

More to life than stereotypes

I went to the University ‘kaffeklatsch’ (for want of a better word) for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women last week. I don’t go that often these days, but I was vaguely involved in setting it up many years ago and still have some good friends in the group, so I like to make an appearance every now and then. Five minutes after I arrived, a girl I hadn’t met before asked if anyone would mind if she got her knitting out. Of course we wouldn’t we said, we all like knitting. She was going great guns at making a fine pair of green 'gothic spire' socks , I was most impressed. I mentioned my current knitting projects. Another girl started to describe a blanket she was crocheting. We swapped tips on wool suppliers and local knitting groups, and suggested we turn the coffee meeting into an informal knitting circle.

University LesBiGay societies periodically have a bit of bother with student evangelical Christian groups. At Exeter University, one rather extreme Christian group was removed from the register of student societies after a prolonged campaign for promoting homophobia and campaigning against transgender students. I can’t help feeling that if they actually went along to some of these events they would be terribly disappointed

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Blight update

I've now both removed all the affected tomato leaves and sprayed my plants with the following mixture from Lydia's Organic Gardening and Healthy Living Blog:

-1 gallon of water mixed with 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 2 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
-Shake well
-Add 1/2 tablespoon of pure Castile soap
-Shake well
-Decant into a spray bottle and spray well, keeping shaking all the time

Will it work? Probably not, but it's worth a go. I decided to forgo the Strong Chemicals in favour of sticking to my principles and am attempting to accept graciously that organic veg growing brings with it such pitfalls. To be honest, I hadn't really done any research on organic tomato growing before I started, and I fear that I'm now reaping the literal harvest. I have to admit that I have often watered all my plants very late at night and have not generally been careful about only watering the compost and not letting the leaves get splashed, which is apparently the best way to encourage blight. It is also true that the warm, wet and windy weather we've had so far this summer in Cambridge has hardly been on my side, but I've definitely not helped matters. Ho hum.

If all else fails, I'll follow Casalba's eminently sensible advice and try and ripen some green tomatoes with the help of a banana. I've been suspecting in any case that the Centiflor tomatoes need a bit more sunshine than we've been getting to ripen.

I shall now go and inspect my kale for caterpillars. Despite two layers of net, I've found so many this week that it feels rather more like I'm picking kale off my caterpillars than the other way round. I hear that eggshells on sticks help.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Help! Blight!

Today has been quite literally blighted by my discovering of blight on my tomato plants. I first noticed a brown patch on one of the unripe tomatoes yesterday, and today I spied a number of tell-tale brown patches on the leaves of most of the plants in two of my three tomato locations, affecting both the heritage varieties I've been growing. I'm absolutely gutted as I've raised all these plants from seed and they were doing really well, promising a bumper crop later in the month.

Can anyone offer any help? I'm hoping the blight is in a fairly early stage at the moment, since most of the patches on the leaves are currently only tiny spots. I've moved the most affected plant to the other side of the patio and removed all the discoloured leaves and fruits I could find. I also discovered a recipe for an organic remedy on an American site that involves Castile soap, vegetable oil and baking soda, so I was wondering if anyone had tried that. Other than that, most advice seems to involve Strong Chemicals. I feeling worryingly tempted right now.

This pretty much rounds up an absolutely disastrous couple of weeks in the garden. I also realised today that the reason the kale plants were still being munched by Cabbage Whites is that they can get through the holes in the net. I've put another net on top, so maybe that will help. The runner beans also remain disappointing, since although quite a few plants are now climbing, they are going so slowly that only one plant is actually producing a crop. To top it all, both courgettes and patty pans are thriving, with giant handsome healthy plants and lots of flowers - but not a single fruit has started forming. I had one baby courgette last week, but it turned yellow and dropped off after a few days of especially cold and wet weather. The only thing producing a steady supply of anything edible are the ever-redoubtable spring onions.

Grr, grr, grr.

Monday, 11 August 2008


This weekend was definitely a weekend of contrasts. K and I celebrated my newly acquired driver’s licence (!) by driving all the way to North Yorkshire and back on Saturday so that we could take my Grandmother out for lunch on her birthday, while Sunday was spent lounging around the flat recovering. A rare lazy Sunday give me a chance to blitz my current main knitting project, a long knitted waistcoat that I have been crawling along with for the last couple of months. After many weeks of searching I found exactly the pattern I was looking for so I'm keen to get it finished by Autumn, but it's my first adult knitted garment and I don't know how long it will take. This is all I have so far...

I tend to get a bit frustrated with available knitting patterns, for pretty much the same reasons I get irritated with dressmaking patterns. My Grandmother, bless her, is no longer able to knit because of arthritis, so passed on a heap of her patterns on Saturday. Unfortunately I have to say that most of them were utterly hideous, just like most of the knitting patterns that I encounter in our local shops. Frills, ruffles and multi-coloured everything yet again seems to be the order of the day, and it can seem practically impossible to get a decent yarn that is both 100% wool and a natural colour. Obviously there is a good market for the kind of patterns favoured by Grandmothers, but in light of the increasing popularity of knitting amongst younger women, I can’t help but think there also is room for some good plain down-to-earth styles, since lots of the younger women who knit are looking for a bit more simplicity in their clothing, whereas the patterns provide quite the opposite. Have you any idea how hard it is to find a simple wool jumper in the kind of shops usually frequented by 24 year-olds? I for one like to knit and sew because I want the option of making clothes in the styles and colours that I can’t always find in the shops. This does not generally include mohair cardigans in a delightful pink and lime green blend.

Back to the waistcoat, you can imagine my delight when I discovered Sirdar's new ‘Eco-wool’, complete with really nice book of patterns that even included that waistcoat I had been searching for. Seriously, they could have used me as a focus group - the colours are perfect (‘sludgey green and sludgy brown’, according to my mother), the yarn is that rare thing, 100% DK wool, and is made without any artificial dyes or chemicals. It's lovely to knit, and I would certainly recommend it to any other knitters out there looking for something both natural and straightforward. Best of all, the wool smells of rich, heady lanolin, reminding me of the clumps of the sheep’s wool caught on fences and picked up on walks as a child . Or indeed on walks as an adult, as I'm pleased to say that I haven't yet stopped filling my pockets with interesting bits of wool, feathers and pebbles every time I step outside in my wellies.

I've already made a hat from the same pattern book. It's kind of organic-goddess-meets-Bob-Marley in style. The kitten’s name is Douglas. This year my parents can officially claim to be self-sufficient in black kittens.

Before too long I should have a waistcoat to match my profile picture.

Thursday, 7 August 2008


There was a military coup in Mauritania yesterday. I don't know much about Mauritania, to be honest, perhaps a little more than most people, thanks to the particular interest (!) in African affairs that I have developed during the last three years. I know that it is an ex-French colony, a large, poor and predominantly sandy country in West Africa. The BBC website has previously been so kind as to inform me that it is possibly the only place in the world where stretch marks are considered to be the pre-eminent sign of female beauty. It is also the newest oil producer in the world, although that doesn't seem to have played much of a role in the overthrow of its first democratically elected president. Rather than oil, this seems to be about power and the army; the army has been involved in every previous election since independence, and that can be a hard habit to break.

News of this coup struck me particularly hard for two reasons. By sheer coincidence, i was browsing through the archives of my friend Westminster Wisdom's blog yesterday, right before reading the news, and found his piece on Mauritania, which was written in the wake of Mauritania's first 'free and fair' elections in 2007 and comes close to predicting exactly these events. I've also just finished reading Martin Meredith's truly excellent State of Africa, a history of the African continent since independence, a book I would strongly recommend, but which is in many ways a supremely depressing work, since it is in effect a chronicle of the repeated descent of promising countries into cycles of coups, exploitation and chaos. Yesterday's developments in Mauritania show how much these cycles are still ongoing for many countries, however much we might hope that Africa is making something of a fresh start in the 21st century.

So, a bit off topic from my usual posts and not something about which I have a great deal to say, but I felt strongly that it shouldn't pass unnoticed.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

101 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Have a Good Power Cut

We had a power cut on Sunday evening. It lasted about two hours, which is quite a long time for a power cut these days, at least in Cambridge. I remember when I was a child in the late '80s having power cuts that lasted several days, which is very exciting when you're about six and your mother insists that you sleep on a camp bed in their bedroom to maximise warmth and reduce the potential for frightened children (actually I thought it was terrifically exciting). Since I've been living in Cambridge, I can't remember the power being down for more than an hour or two. So, Sunday's power cut wasn't that long, but it was at a time when most people were awake and the vast majority sitting at home relaxing with their families. A power cut on Sunday evening probably encourages the largest possible number of people to find a form of entertainment that does not involve TVs, computers, DVDs, playstations, and God knows what other forms of technology that I haven't even heard of (I may be 24 and living with an extraordinarily computer-literate engineer, but for me a blackberry remains a tasty hedgerow treat).

Well, I for one thought it was great fun. We covered the flat with candles to combat the growing gloom outside and I spent some time chatting to Z from our outside stairs about Power Cuts We Had Known. Suddenly there seemed to be a lot more people than usual talking to each other in the street. Forced to abandon our DVD, we sat on the rug in our living room and played poker for scrabble pieces by the light of the candles on the hearth. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a Sunday evening so much.

I wonder if I can persuade K to let me have power cuts on Sunday evenings more often?