The road that comes up to the farm is 1.5 miles long. The first half mile has 4 houses and a holiday cottage along it, but the last mile is empty and straight, stopping at a dead end at our gate. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a call from a visitor, asking if they are on the right track as that last mile seems to stretch on forever.
When we first moved out here, a neighbour expressed concern about me being here alone all day every day "I worry about you being alone way out there. Don't you get lonely?" I laughed. When we first moved here I had envisioned working all day in my PJs, not seeing anyone for days and building a reputation for myself as the Recluse of Gartur. However, the truth is that rarely a day goes by that someone doesn't pop in, come for a visit, spend a night, take a class, drop something/some child off, pick something up, take a look around or stay for a meal. And despite my initial desires for the kind of isolation that meant I never had to wear a bra or brush my hair, the reality of a bustling homestead makes my heart so full. Because while I wouldn't have chosen this jam-packed life for myself in the past, the truth is that in the busyness of every day life I seem to have found my thing.
In pretty much every self help book, there always seems to be an exercise where you imagine your perfect day - mine was always reading in bed with coffee, but now when I close my eyes I see friends and family around my old battered table, eating food from the farm, laughing together. We fill the house with people - from guests to workshop participants, family and friends. This summer we have so many people staying that the tent has made a permanent feature in the garden so we can squeeze them all in. There is always something going on - extra kids building forts in the playroom, friend and family working at the kitchen table, Kevin giving goat milking demonstrations to anyone that asks. It catches me off guard some times, how different life is from what I imagined, but not even that, just how happy it makes me.
And with this realisation, we have changed the farm to suit - we are putting the finishing on the studio this week to seat 16 and the refurbished dye studio fits 24. So, I've had to retire the idea of the Recluse of Gartur and instead am adopting the title of Party Director.
The road that comes up to the farm is 1.5 miles long. The first half mile has 4 houses and a holiday cottage along it, but the last mile is empty and straight, stopping at a dead end at our gate. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a call from a visitor, asking if they are on the right track as that last mile seems to stretch on forever.
When Kevin and I lived in Windsor, Sunday mornings were for long lie-ins, thick stacks of newspaper and a special breakfast at our favourite coffee shop. In this life, Sundays start pretty much at the same time as every other day - early - and consist of the same routine as every other morning. Our one nod to that previous life is a special breakfast, served with a big pot of coffee and lingered over a little longer than the goats would like.
Most Sundays, Kevin is the one to get up early, switch the oven on and pop in the sourdough cinnamon rolls he made the night before. Sourdough cinnamon rolls are quite different than their commercial counterparts - a bit denser and they have a lovely depth of flavour lacking in their very sweet counterparts. He's become the pro in our house and has graciously shared his recipe here (possibly in hopes that I will be the one to get up this Sunday and make them).
160g whole milk
1 large egg
60g butter, softened
360g bread flour
For the Filling:
200g brown sugar
1T ground cinnamon
For the Icing:
60g icing sugar
2T orange juice
Method for Cinnamon Rolls:
1. Mix all ingredients until no lumps remain
2. Rest in a warm, covered spot for 3-4 hours, doing 3-4 stretch and folds in that time.
3. Roll out dough into a long rectangle.
4.Spread 200g of brown sugar and 1T of cinnamon all over the dough.
5. Roll up from the long edge. Cut into pieces 5cm in length. Place in a lined pan.
6. Refrigerate over night.
1. Bake at 180c for 35 minutes.
2. Serve with icing. Our favourite icing recipe is about 60g of icing sugar with the juice of one blood orange.
New to sourdough baking? We've launched an online version of our popular Everyday Sourdough workshop. You can find the details here.
Last Thursday, we said goodbye to Freya the goat. She and her daughter Cinnamon were taken to live in a field with cows to keep a billy goat company on a lovely hill farm in the Ochil Hills. In the lead up to her going, I did wonder if I would feel sad. She'd been with us for 2 years, since she was 8 weeks old. I was always her favourite...she would lean up against me for scratches, sniff my pockets for the biscuits I knew she liked and always kept tucked away for her.
As she pulled away, rather than regret, I felt that she had gone one day late. You see, the day before she ate the entire contents of my veg garden. In the blink of an eye, 3 goats (freya and het two kids) pushed open the garage door, ripped up 2 meters of chicken wire and inhaled a year's worth of dahlias, peas, yarrow, kale, lettuce, beans, pumpkins, comfrey and lupins. I am not going to lie, I cried angry hot tears and used more swear words than I even knew I knew.
Once the red mist of anger cleared, I decided to see it as an opportunity. Rather than mope away the rest of the summer, I put pen to paper to make a list of everything I was going to do with this gift of time I'd been given
This summer, I am going to:
1. Learn the ukulele.
2. Go wild swimming and not feel guilty I should be weeding.
3. Read the stack of books I have by my bedside table and not feel guilty I should be putting up garden produce. So far, I have read Skinful of Shadowsand the Beekeepers Lament (both excellent) and have started the Immortalists.
4. Pick wild berries and not feel guilty that I have veg just sitting in the garden waiting to be harvested.
5. Repaint and floor the studio, kitchen, kids' rooms and playroom.
6. Watch TV and not feel like a lazy slob who neglects their garden.
7. Replant my front garden and window boxes with confidence that they won't get eaten.
8. Really dig deep into my foraging skills to make up for the veg they ate.
9. Have clean fingernails for the first time since March.
10. Explore the 11.2 million ways to eat courgettes...because they were the only plant that wasn't eaten.
Chicken of the Woods is one of those treasures of a wild mushroom hunt. Its tasty, easy to identify and there is a lot of eating on them when you do stumble across one. It gets its name from its chicken like taste and texture, and not in the usual way every protein of an unknown origin 'tastes like chicken', this mushroom really does.
Identifying the Chicken of the Woods:
When identifying mushrooms, always check with at least 2 sources before ingesting. If you have doubts, don't eat them. Even mushrooms that may be considered safe to eat, can still cause poor reactions in some people, so be aware. Also the general advice is to always ensure that your mushrooms are well-cooked before eating as this helps to neutralise any potential toxins.
Chicken of the Woods is one of those mushrooms that once you identify it clearly the first time, its hard to mistake for anything else. In the UK at least, there are very few mushrooms that can be confused with it and those that can, the Dryads Saddle or the Blackening Polypore, are both safe to ingest (and really don't look much like it any way). It is a bracket fungus that grows mostly on oak trees, but can be found on other hardwood and yew trees, so will be found without a stem, growing in a clump off of a tree or stump and it does not have gills. As a young mushroom, it starts off apricot in colour and then fades to white as it ages. Like most mushrooms it is best eaten fresh and can be frozen, but this does change the texture.
Fresh, my go to recipe is the same for all wild mushrooms, fry in lots of butter with garlic and finish with a bit of creme and thyme. However, you an harness that chicken-like nature and use it in recipes that call for chicken. We've made tacos, stir fry and pasta with our mushrooms and all were lovely.
This recipe for fried chicken of the woods was inspired my my friend Jeni who loves to batter and fry all the things. I simply brought my love of fried chicken to the mix and even the kids couldn't get enough.
1 large section of Chicken of the Wood Mushroom (about 1kg)
- 920ml/ (4 US cups) water
- 3T salt
- 240g (2 US cups) of plain flour
- 2 eggs
- 230ml (1 US cup) of ale
- 2 cups of crushed corn flakes (if you want to substitute bread crumbs here, do, but corn flakes really do give a superior crispiness to the batter).
- 1t smoked paprika
- 1/2 t black pepper
- 1t salt
- vegetable oil for frying
- Clean the mushroom, ensuring you remove all tree bark from the mushroom, especially if it was found on a yew tree.
- Cut off any dry or flaking bits at the edges and slice into pieces roughly 1cm thick.
- Mix up the brine and let the pieces soak for about 5 minutes while you mix up the batter.
- Add all the ingredients for the batter to a bowl, except the corn flakes. Mix into a smooth, thick batter.
- Crush the cornflakes and place in a shallow pan.
- Remove the mushrooms from the brine and pat dry. Dunk each piece individually into the batter, then coat with bread crumbs.
- Heat about 1cm of oil in a frying pan. Working in small batches, lightly fry off the breaded mushrooms, roughly 2 minutes each side to seal.
- Once browned, place mushrooms on a tray and bake in the oven for about 15 minutes at 180c/360F
- Serve with garlic mayo or in a wrap or taco.
Upcoming Foraging Workshops at Gartur Stitch Farm
I seem to have spent my life tromping around the woods with a badly behaved dog by my side.
The other day we were all arguing about what we were going to go do. Some of us wanted to go swimming, others needed to work and one, rather stubborn little boy quite didn't know what he wanted. After running through a list of just about every activity I could think of, I asked him to lay down with me, close his eyes and imagine what his best day would look like. Where would he go? What would he do? Who would be with him? What would he eat?
After a few minutes of silence, I asked him what he had been thinking of. As it turned out, his perfect day involved watching Netflix in bed alone eating crisps in his pants...not quite the wholesome activity I had been hoping for. We laughed and then he asked me what I had been dreaming about. I told him that what I most wanted to do that day was to wander in the woods with my dog and a basket, foraging for dinner.
For as long as I can remember, rambling through the woods with a badly behaved canine at my side has been my happy place. The dogs have changed, as have the woods and what I am looking for, but the essence of the activity has remained the same. One of my favourite memories of my childhood summers was that my mother sliding the glass back door closed and sending us into the woods for the day. My Scottish Terrier, Snickers, and I would head out into the woods with a small flower identification book and I would spend my day searching for flowers to classify then press in the pages of my book before Snickers would tear away towards the road to chase some unknown (and probably squirrel shaped) threat.
There is something deeply meditative about focusing wholly on one thing - whether it be looking for North American wildflowers, small yellow mushrooms unfurling on the ground, scanning the hedgerow for berries at exactly the right shade of red or purple, gathering up the greens that add an extra bite to a salad or reaching into the trees to compete with the birds for the juiciest berries. Foraging requires a special kind of focus, not dissimilar to those magic eye pictures where if you look at it correctly a sailboat appears out of the jumbled mess of colour, but in the case of foraging, it is the infinitely more useful dinner that appears.
I have come to recognise that this is my kind of meditation. Where apps and guided audio fail me, walking out in the woods helps quiet my mind and ground me fully in where I am, the season we are in and the nuances of my surroundings. As someone who struggles to "do nothing" the productivity of gathering items that can be of use in our kitchen, medicine cabinet and dye pots helps me to justify this precious act of self care in a way that I probably wouldn't without that utilitarian aspect. Step by step, through the woods, always watchful of my surroundings...
Until the dog runs away towards the road, of course. Because some things never change.
Some of the things we are foraging at the moment:
Blaeberries (also known as Bilberries or Huckleberries)
My favourite foraging book is Food for Free by Richard Maybey.
We have a couple of spots left on our August Wild Kitchen course as well, if you want to trop around the woods here with me (badly behaved dog will be staying home).
I wasn't going to add any more animals to the farm, so I added 10,000
We all sat at the front door from 10:55am. Our postman, Jim, has always been a punctual sort of fellow and we can set the clock by his 11:10am arrival on the farm. The waiting isn't uncommon - in turns we have all been known to watch the windows for our much awaited deliveries from the back of his red van - for me, cookbooks and yarn, for Kevin - new saws and blades for carving and the kids seem to forever be waiting for a package from Grammie.
That day, though, we were all waiting together, guessing at every passing sound if it was Jim bringing us our much anticipated parcel. Our 15 minute wait dragged on for what seemed like ever until finally, the crunch of tyres on the drive were his. He climbed out of his cab and slid open the side door as we stood back and watched him pull out the small white box marked "Highland Bees". We laughed about how his job was never dull, chatted about our plans for honey and he put his name down for the first jar.
As he handed me the box, I was struck by the weight of it. In retrospect, I don't know what I expected from 10k+ honey bees, their brood, frames and honey, but I definitely expected it to be lighter. The physical weight aside, there was something else heavy about the box...
I have been responsible for lives other than my own for the last 11.5 years. I remember the moment the tiny 5lb baby Ellis was placed in my arms and the following realisation that his life was literally in my hands. I thought there must be some mistake - how could I be in charge of such an important thing, I had barely kept a houseplant alive in the previous 27 years.
Two more children, a dog, 3 cats, 5 goats, 17 sheep, 16 chickens, 3 geese, 5 ducks, 2 turkeys and a peacock later, you'd think that I would be well used to the role of caretaker, but there was something different this time and it wasn't the sheer number of lives contained therein. Bees aren't like the hobby sheep I keep to cut the grass that could as easily be done by the mower or the goats I milk for cheese that I can find in shops, there is something a bit more urgent about stewarding these little lives that simply wouldn't exist without beekeepers.
And just like those early days with my other babies, I keep checking that they are ok - watching them come in and out of the hive, just like I had watched little chests rise and fall in their sleep, leaving them for longer in between visits, trusting that they will be OK.
The first time I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I laughed hardest at the dad who sprayed Windex on every problem. Not only because it was funny, but because I had grown up with a mother who had her own particular panacea for all that ailed us - Bag Balm. Got a big bite? Bag Balm. Sunburn? Bag balm. Infected nose piercing you weren't supposed to get? Bag balm. Despite not having used it in 20 years, I still remember the acrid smell and sticky consistency that sat in the top shelf of her bathroom cupboard in its green tin throughout my childhood.
This salve has replaced Bag Balm in my own kids' lives, so much so that they often fetch the jar before they come to me crying with scrapes and bites. The making of this salve has become one of our early summer rituals for years and we always have some tucked away for whatever we might need it for. I start scouring the hedgerows as soon as its warm enough, stockpiling jars to last us throughout the year.
The balm is based on yarrow, comfrey and plantain infused olive oil and thickened with beeswax. This process of infusing and oil and then thickening it with wax is a great technique for making all manner of balms. We also make a lovely calendula balm in a similar manner.
From Left to Right:
Yarrow: a hedgerow relative of the sunflower, its scientific name Acheallia Millefolium relates both to the invulnerability powers it supposedly gave Achilles and its highly segmented, feathery leaves. It has a peppery smell and likes dry environments. It has a range of uses, but in a salve it helps stop bleeding and has anti-inflammatory properties.
Comfrey: Large, green furred leaves with purple flowers. Its used for healing wounds and broken bones, in fact traditionally it was called "knit bone". It has been shown to enhance cell production and is mildly astringent, helping to kill bacteria.
Plantain (both narrow leaf and broad leaf plantain): the long veins in this plant are the key identifiers. Plantain is great to stop itching and is known as a sort of hedgerow panacea, with antimicrobial, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Used together, these three hedgerow powerhouses are my favourite blend for the scrapes, brusies, bug bites, nettle stings, scraped knees, sunburn and chapped lips.
Note on picking from the hedgerow: To harvest herbs responsibly - never take more than 10% of a plant and look to harvest in areas that aren't heavy in traffic and haven't been sprayed. You may well find all of these in your garden, I know I can.
50g of freshly picked comfrey, plantain and yarrow leaves
250g olive oil
200-250g of beeswax (I buy beeswax pellets from here)
(optional) a few drops of rosemary essential oil
1. Place your herbs in a glass jar and cover with olive oil. Let it infuse for 4 weeks in a warm spot. Ensure your herbs are fully covered in oil as anything exposed to the air may grow mould.
2. Strain off your herbs and compost them. Place the oil in a small saucepan. Add beeswax (more makes a firmer ointment, less makes it looser - start with less if you aren't sure what you would like and if it sets too soft, reheat and add more wax)
3. If you would like to add essential oils, do it once the pellets have all melted. We don't use essential oils and don't miss it from this salve.
4. Pour into jars and let cool. Label and save. We like to have a couple of small jars for handbags and backpacks and one large jar that just sits on the counter.
We are running a new Natural Home and Beauty course this autumn if you want to learn more about making your own cleaning and natural beauty products.
Goats seemed like such a good idea...
Earlier this week, a friend shared a comment she'd seen about Instagram stories. The poster was recommending her favourite accounts and added me to that list (thank you, if it was you!!) and writing that I speak to the camera well but always seem to be looking for my goats.
While I can't particularly comment on the first bit, the latter is not actually true, because I don't really have to look for the goats any more. If they aren't in their field, I simply need to consider where in the vicinity they could get into the most trouble and there they will be. I hear our neighbouring farmer driving up? Without a doubt, they will be in his field grazing with his cows. Next door's holiday cottage door is open? They will be in the kitchen eating the holiday maker's dinner (true story). Have I bought new houseplants that day? Unquestionably they will have broken into the house to eat them. While the sheep just escape, the goats plot.
On Thursday morning, I woke up early to water the garden before the heat of the day. As I turned the corner to the veg plot, I saw 5 goats happily munching away at my peas, dahlias and raspberry bushes. They looked up at me quite innocently as I screamed at them to get the *&^* out of my garden, unperturbed by my flailing arms, tears and cuss words. If goats could wear facial expressions, theirs was one of utter astonishment...as if they couldn't believe I hadn't grown the whole garden just for them.
Of course I threatened all sorts of ends they would meet (meat), as I led them out into their field. Curry was mentioned, as was a rug or 5. I locked the door behind them and stomped off back to the house to compose myself with coffee and breakfast.
That breakfast was an omlette - eggs from the hens, spinach from the garden and the best feta you will ever eat, made from the milk of those horned ravagers of vegetable patches. I softened by bite one and by bite five, I sort of forgot why I had ever been mad at them in the first place. The power of a good cheese.
Fact: things in 'burger' format are 267% tastier. Maybe its the fact that the outsides are fried? Or that they are easily slipped into bread and carbs are life? Who knows, but quinoa mixed with cheese and then fried turns this 'health' food into something even my kids like.
I've used my homemade feta here, which is a bit less crumbly than the store bought kind that uses calcium chloride to help firm it up.
300g Quinoa (Ive used Lidl's multigrain quinoa here, but plain works well)
200g feta cheese - crumbled or cut into chunks
2 eggs - beaten
2 Tablespoons of flour (GF is fine)
25g finely chopped herbs. I love chives in mine.
1. Cook quinoa according to pack instructions. Usually this involves boiling it in 1 part quinoa, 3 parts water for 15-20 minutes, until the spiral germ separates from the seed. Leave to stand for 10 minutes then drain off extra liquid.
2. Once its cooled, add the rest of the ingredients. You may need to add a bit of extra flour to get it to stick together.
3. In a frying pan, heat 2TB of oil. Once the oil is hot, shape the mix into patties slightly smaller than your hand and place in pan.
4. Fry for 3-5 minutes on the first side. Don't flip too early or it will fall apart.
5. Flip and brown on the other side.
Serve with a salad and homemade chips.
Want to learn to make your own feta? Its covered in our Intro to Cheesemaking class.
In summer, at least twice a week, we have "Stuff on Bread" night. It really is that simple - we rummage around the cupboards or the garden and see what is available. Some veg get roasted or grilled, there may be a bit of leftover meat or egg mayonnaise from earlier in the week, and there is almost always cheese. If we are low on toppings, out comes the food processor and some form of pesto is added to the mix.
I've used carrot tops in the recipe below, but really you are only limited by what is in your fridge, garden or hedgerow here. We use this same recipe with ground elder, nettles (don't forget to blanch them first), spinach, rocket, chard, young kale leaves, beetroot greens and wild garlic. Sometimes we leave out the cheese, if you leave a bit of water on the greens from washing or blanching them, the liquid and oil will emulsify nicely to form a creamy base.
Carrot Top (or any Green) Pesto:
A big pile of carrot tops (from a bunch of carrots, this is usually around 200g)
2 cloves garlic
1/3 cup (50g) nuts - I like walnuts
1/2 cup (60g) parmesan
1/3 cup (80ml) extra virgin olive oil
Using a food processor, chop the nuts until they start to stick together. Coarsely chop the garlic, carrot tops and cheese and add them in. Blend until finely chopped and start adding olive oil to form a paste. Salt to taste.
Mix into whole wheat pasta with sautéed courgette (zucchini), red onions and pecans with oregano sprinkled on top.
A few months ago, Scotland came to a standstill.
The "beast from the east" came and dumped snow upon our normally green land, then blew it into drifts large enough to grind the motorways to a standstill and leave most of us able only to travel for as far as we could walk safely.
Living at the end of a 1.5 mile single track road, we expect to spend some part of the winter cut off and prepare accordingly, keeping a couple of dairy goats and plenty of flour on hand so at the very least we can have bread and cheese (I won't go into the fact that we'd under prepared without enough coffee and tonic water to get through - rookie mistake, Goldin), but my uncharacteristically Facebook timeline was filled with my more urban friends who could make it out of their homes and to the shops only to find them empty of bread. Scotland had run out.
A few weeks previously, I'd run my first Sourdough Bread making workshop. Our informal class had taught a handful of people the skills necessary to make bread with the most basic ingredients - flour, water, salt - in their own homes. As the majority of my timeline filled with folks mourning their lack of toast, these students were posting pictures of their homemade bread.
I count that as one of my best moments in my working life. Of course, not that the country had come to a standstill or that people couldn't get out of their homes to get basic necessities, but that some how in a world where we are so dependent on systems that don't always serve us, I had given a handful of people the skills to do it themselves and provide for their families.
The times that I have felt most creative and then empowered are those where I have HAD to be creative. Maybe we didn't have enough money to buy a finished product or couldn't find something we were looking for and we had to make it ourselves. I started baking because we moved too far out and my love of a baked good wasn't enough to get me to drive the 20 minutes to the nearest cafe. I had to figure out how to do it myself on a budget that ensured we could continue to pay the rent. And once you get into that mindset, its addictive. I look around at all of the things that need to be done in our kitchen or around the farm and I instantly start singing "I Can Do That" from A Chorus Line**.
Making from scratch, figuring things out, embedding creativity into the most mundane things, taking back a tiny bit of power in a world that wants us to hand it over with our cash...yep, pretty much the reason I get out of bed every morning. Well, that and coffee.
**In our next instalment, Kevin lists the DIY projects that fall into the "Just Because You CAN, Doesn't Mean You Should" category. ;)
I've put my favourite sourdough recipe on the blog, if you fancy giving it a go. If you don't have a starter, I recommend this method, or you can always buy one from the shop.
I also have spaces available on my upcoming sourdough workshops!!
We bake sourdough bread most days. Be it as a morning breakfast/vehicle for melted butter or a staple in the summer time "stuff on bread" dinners we have at least twice a week, sourdough is embedded in our life.
We've tried a lot of methods and recipes, but with so many of them, there was a level of technicality that simply didn't fit into our busy family life. While technical aspects of hydration and starter peaks are important to know, we have come to the understanding that the best bread is the bread that fits easily into your every day life. This bread dough isn't very wet, which makes it ideal for a starter sourdough, as its a lot easier to handle.
I've written this recipe for people who make bread regularly - every day or every other day. If you are baking once a week, you may not get the rise you need from your starter, so feed it about 12 hours before you are due to make bread and see if that helps.
I start my bread as I am making dinner in the evening and it sits next to the aga for the first few hours before it goes in the fridge for over night. I then turn on the oven to bake when I go down in the morning for coffee.
400g tepid water
650g strong bread flour
1. In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients until the flour is completely incorporated.
2. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 3-4 hours, depending on the warmth of the room. Every so often (at least 3x), stretch and fold the dough to help with the gluten development.
3. Tip dough out onto a floured surface and shape into a tight round. To get a nice surface tension, stretch the dough from the outside and bring it into the centre all the way around. This will be considered your seam.
4. Place seam side up in a banneton or bowl lined with a lightly floured towel. You can either leave for about an hour in a warm place and then bake or place in the refrigerator over night.
1. Place your dutch oven in the oven and heat the oven to its highest temperature.
2. When the oven has reached temp, place your baking parchment on top of your banneton, then the baking tray on top of that and flip your bread out of the banneton onto the tray. There is no need to remove your bread from the refrigerator prior to this, in fact it is easier to work with a cold loaf.
3. Score your bread using a knife or razor blade.
4. Slide the loaf into your hot dutch oven and put the lid on. Place it back in the oven and reduce the temperature to 220c/430F. Bake for 35 minutes with the lid on. Remove the loaf from the dutch oven and bake for another 12 minutes or until the crust is brown.
– Replace 200g of the white flour with brown flour
– Add 2T of turmeric at Method stage 1. Then add about 2c of finely chopped leeks and onions on your final stretch and fold.
Want to know more about Sourdough baking? We have on online course!!
I am pretty sure I have told you before that our house sits at the end of a 1.5mile track. We are the only ones who live this far down, with our nearest neighbours just over a mile back towards the main road. 99% of the time, this isolation is so welcome. There is nothing quite like heading up the track after travelling for work and knowing that I won't see anyone but my family until I make my way back down the road. And then there is that other 1% of the time - when the milk runs out or someone is sick and the outside world can't come fast enough...
Or when it snows. In our 4 years in this house, we have only been properly snowed in once before this year. It was for about 24 hours and the snow melted quickly and we were released. For 6 days last week, the Beast from the East kept us firmly indoors and cut off from civilisation. Our road made impassable by about a quarter mile of drifting snow. Fortunately, I shop like the apocalypse is coming and with a dairy goat and the fact we make our own bread, supply wise we were ok. It was more the constant presence of my family that had me clawing at the door and imagining a Shining type situation. Fortunately, we were released from our snow bound prison before I started writing Red Rum on anything.
However, a week on life has mostly returned to normal. The storm began and ended in time with both of our goats kidding. Freya, our Toggenburg had two bouncing (and I mean BOUNCING) kids and, sadly, Dasher, our Saanen, lost her singleton buckling to dystocia (getting stuck). We've had to watch D like a hawk, so rather than heralding the snow melt with getting stuck into garden tasks like planting seeds, we've spent most of the last week walking back and forth to the barn.
In between those moments, we have been dreaming about the seasons ahead. We've had a number of really successful fermentation and sourdough workshops and have planned a series of foraging and feasting days as I simply can't wait to get back into my normal routine of walking the dog, basket in hand, looking for that night's dinner and I thought it would be fun to take 10 or so people with me!!
Its just gone 7am. I've thrown Kevin's oversized lumberjack shirt and boots over my pyjamas to make the 8 steps to the studio. My coffee has settled to the perfect lukewarm temperature and I am squeezing in a few precious moments of writing before I begin the daily ritual of breakfast/chores/school run.
This week has been exactly what I needed. The first week since the holidays where our familiar routines seemed to fall into place - work/school/farm all bustling along at exactly the right speed. We hosted our first workshop of the year on Saturday, which was so wonderful and I feel like the positive energy of that has propelled us along all week (plus workshop leftovers are the best leftovers to start the week). Even little Theo, whose reluctance to leave my side and go to school has been the dominating force in our mornings, seems to have decided that school isn't that bad after all and I have been able to wave him off at the bus stop two days in a row.
I have to admit that I am always a fan of January for precisely these moments - when the excitement of the holidays is behind us and we settle back into our little habits and routines - with the added dose of New Year's reflection. There has been a lot of the latter, being the sucker I am for resolutions, but also coming out of a challenging year for work and family life - with 2 new ventures (workshops and air bnb), a thriving Crochet Project, a new flock of sheep and the tiny seeds of a long awaited yarn line they signify. With the addition of some personal problems that effected us deeply, the last half of 2017 felt overwhelming. So, I head into this year feeling I need to at least to attempt to future proof our lives as much as humanly possible. Being much more intentional with our time and money and growing our businesses to support us and toying with some big questions about where we go from here- with some big questions like should I rename Slugs on the Refrigerator? (turns out it's not a great name for a workshop venue! ha!) to smaller ones like which homemade dishwasher soap recipe actually works (I'll let you know).
Fortunately for the over thinker in me, there isn't much time for reflection with a herd of sheep hell bent on getting into my neighbour's field, 2 pregnant goats who are eating me out of house and home, a peacock and a chicken who believe they should live in the kitchen, an attack turkey and the rest of the menagerie.
And the school run...there always seems to be a school run!
Have a wonderful weekend!! I will be:
Listening:: THE NEW FIRST AID KIT ALBUM!!!
If there was a word to describe this week, it would probably be full. Or chaos. Or “pretty much normal” because chaotically full and full of chaos seem to be our new normal.
Recently, I've felt thrown back into the early days of blogging and designing when the kids were little and I woke up crazy early to work before the rest of the house woke up and swept me up in the raging tide of family life. Some of this is motivated by my renewed energy to get shit done and starting fresh in the new year. However, a lot of it is just that every other moment seems to be full, so getting up earlier seems my only option.
The truth is, I thrive on busyness. I am at my best when my days are full and my over analytical brain can't engage and I just have to do. I think my most happy days are when I haven't sat down all day - doing the mix of farm, work and family tasks that seem to expand to fill every moment of time available.
There is one caveat to this. The control freak in me hates when things don't go to plan. It is a terrible character flaw that my most beloved Kevin will tell you has caused more fights in our 20 some years together than any other thing. And I have learned recently that nothing throws a spanner in the works like animals.
Because in amongst the added work of busy deadlines, back to school angst and January financial juggling is a farm yard of animals hell bent on escaping/breaking into the feed store/getting into the house/developing health concerns/keeling over dead. You know how lessons in your life come back again and again until you learn them? Smallholding is that lesson in adaptability biting me in the backside on a daily basis.
So please excuse me for the short blog post today, because the carefully carved out hour I had to tell you the tale of my week has been cut in half by 9 sheep who will not stay in their field and have wandered half a mile away, a goat who may be giving birth any day, chickens that knocked over two bags of feed outside the front door, a peacock who got into the studio, a dog that seems to have developed some sort of allergy to everything and a cat who left me just the innards of a mouse on the living room floor.
Full of chaos, chaotically full. Wouldn't change it...well, mostly.
Did I ever tell you about the years we lived across from Windsor Castle? Our flat was the top floor of an old guard tower, with views to the Castle, exposed, black beams and the changing of the guard disrupting our weekly garbage pickup (they were deemed a security risk). We spent our weekends wandering the town and Great Park, drinking coffee at this little cafe in the station we liked, joking about how many tourists' photos we were inadvertently in the background of as we wandered the streets
I worked for the NHS at the time, in Public Health - a field I'd been passionate about since I was a teenager, but the passion was slowly leaking out of me - my skin worn thin by the constant brushes with bureaucracy of the health service. On one hand I felt like I was living in a chic lit novel about an American girl finding her feet Across the Pond (though my meet-cute had been years previously)and on the other I felt unbelievably out of place. When I wasn't looking for an escape at the bottom of a wine bottle, I was doing every self help course I could find, studying for Master's degrees I never finished, trying to imagine a life outside of the one I had. Outwardly things were so perfect, but I still drew pictures of cottages with chickens and dogs and wanted something else. That desire would move us 5 more times in 8 years, forever looking for a place where we fit.
We had this small roof terrace that I was determined to fill with flowers and vegetables. With no car, we would drag bags of compost up the three flights of stairs and through the flat, leaving a trail of dirt behind us. I wanted an english country garden, with mismatched pots and blousy flowers, so when an old butler sink appeared on Freecycle, I made kevin take the train with me across Berkshire to get it. It was the day before the wedding of Charles and Camilla and we had to wheel this enormous sink across the town, through thousands of tourists and reporters all so I could have my little patch of earth.
I've been thinking about that flat a lot recently - nostalgia being a common occurrence at the beginning of a new year, I suppose. Now, rather than being the chic lit novel itself it is the flashback in another book about a woman that goes back to the land, makes her own cheese and deodorant and collects sheep. When things get hard here, I imagine wandering down to the station and ordering a flat white and a bagel.
In truth though, those moments of sentimentality are few. I make my own bagels now and there is always a pressing need that keeps me out of my head and in the thick of life here. I've traded castles for mountains and tourists for a raggedy band of Soay sheep, wine tends to be of the home brew kind and my commute takes me 8 steps across the courtyard to a cold, converted barn. I think Windsor Kat would be delighted that this is where Part 3 of her book took her.
I've stopped looking out the back windows to the house. While the views beyond the paddock to the forests and mountains is stunning, inevitably when I do look I will see that the three goats that are supposed to be grazing and foraging in the foreground are no where to be found.
I'd like to think that you haven't lived until you have chased three dairy goats through two pastures, over a stone wall and down a lane so muddy you lose a shoe that turns up three days later, unrecognisable as a brown lump left on your front step by a hunter. Or stood in your kitchen making a cup of tea after that escapade and watching those hooved Musketeers head straight back over the wall and into trouble, their little upright tails flipping you the bird as they go. Climbing back into the muddy coat and new boots to spend the next 45 minutes looking for them, only to give up and head back to the house to find them standing in your kitchen waiting patiently for you, having eaten your houseplants. Who needs a gym membership, TV, a life or to get anything done when you have goats.
For the first year or so of goat keeping, goat escapes were tame. With just two goats, Dascha and Freya, they didn't get far. D was too fat and unweildly to go anywhere and F didn't want to leave her friend behind. At worst, Frey would stand on the wall just outside the pen and wait until bed time to go in. And then we got Red.
In order to keep ourselves in milk, the girls need to kid, or freshen, every other year or so. Dascha, being the breed that is one of the heaviest and longest milkers in the dairy goat world, has been in milk since a teenage pregnancy (she busted out of her pen as a youngster to cavort with a field of billies) since January 2015. But, her production slowed to a stop over the autumn and our supply of home grown milk and cheese was replaced with the store bought variety. Our debates about whether or not to bring a billy goat into our lives were abruptly put to bed when my friend said she had a billy in her trailer and was bringing him over for us.
And so Red joined our little herd. Despite his small stature and with the aid of his daily baths in urine and ejaculate (yes, I just typed that!!!!) he has proven irresistible to the girls whose increasing plumpness indicate that he has been successful in his wooing. So enamoured are they, in fact, that they follow him anywhere - over the fence and into the fields and forests surrounding the house in search of the tastiest leaves, branches and trouble they can find. With the expectation that his progeny will be equally as ornery, I have been costing up prison fencing and full time guards as my only viable containment option.
And so, I avoid looking at the paddock, knowing that when and if I do, I will be tromping through mud to round up my merry band of naughty goats who are never where we left them.
There are 25 pounds of green tomatoes sitting in my window sill. They've been there for 3 weeks, bought from the local market after asking weekly for a month if the owner was going to be able to get any in for our year's suply of green salsa. And there they have sat - waiting for the final ingredients of jars, green peppers, onions and tie to do something with them.
If anything were a symbol of the last season we've been through, it would be that rotting basket of tomatoes. So much intention, so little time.
I do hate it when people tell you how busy they are - the modern status symbol where people compete with each other to see who can drop down more dog tired than the other. But it has been busy here and in the moments it hasn't, we have dropped down dog tired. We seem to careen through the day by simply solving the latest and most urgent catastrophe. Any plans for moving forward, knocked back by the reality of forever trying not to slip backwards - chasing escaped goats, making beds, making food, making messes, chopping firewood, doing work, listening to trombone practice, fighting about homework and somewhere in there gulp down dinner and pray the bills get paid on time. Its all so fast, it feels like a blur.
These daily routines are also a tour through the things we haven't done. We haven't sorted the garden for autumn. We haven't planted the 10lbs of tulip bulbs I bought. We haven't put in the garlic or the onions. We haven't fixed the fence where the goats got in and ate all the beans and corn. We haven't sorted out the strawberry bed that was infested with creeping buttercup. The barn needs cleaning. The coops need wintering. I need to find a new straw supplier. I've always hated having items on a to do list hanging over my head and smallholding is a lesson over and over in never being finished.
And then out the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of how far we've come in the 3 and a half years we've been here. I see the much longed for sheep, happily munching in the field. I have a freezer full of chicken and lamb that we butchered ourselves. We had the best growing season yet in the garden, thanks to a new fence Kevin built. The autumn program of workshops was a huge success and more are booked in the spring. If I stand just so and squint, I can just about see that we are on the path we'd intended to be on when we drove down the drive way 4 years ago.
That is as long as I don't look at those fucking tomatoes.
Continuing on my posts about our trip to Kintyre with CalMac ferries. You can read Part 1 here.
On Sunday, we were up early to catch the 10am ferry to the Island of Gigha. We’d been before, taking Ellis as a baby and had fallen in love with the tiny island just off of Kintyre, plus it has a botanic garden – Achamore – and I couldn’t wait to nosy around the plants.
The ferry takes just 20 minutes and with glorious warm, weather it felt like we were stepping off the boat into another world. Gigha is lush with plantlife, that coastal climate making it so intensely green and lush. In fact, where our leaves up here had started to turn weeks earlier, we could only find one sign that autumn was on its way to Gigha as well.
Our first stop was Achamore Gardens. Wandering around the woods and the gardens was really like stepping into the foothills of the Himalayas. There were rhododendron specimens everywhere, and while we had missed the blooms, it wasn’t hard to imagine the woods being a light with colour in the spring. The walled gardens were full of late summer blooms and we could see signs of the new work being undertaken to restore the gardens by its new caretakers the Achamore Gardens Trust.
We spent the rest of the morning wandering around the beautiful little island. First, exploring the ruins of the Kilchattan church, then heading to the north of the island for some beach time. We had reservations for lunch at the Boathouse at the dock and I begrudgingly peeled myself off of the beach.
If I had known what came next, I would have run. Holy lobster. I have never been a huge fan of seafood since an unfortunate incident with a fish finger when I was 3. I always want to like it, but very rarely can be convinced to try some. Well, count me a convert. The Boathouse’s menu of local (as in so local the lobsters are actually in kreels at the end of the dock and the oysters and halibut are from down the road) seafood completely knocked my socks off. I even ate an oyster. And loved it. Lobster mac n cheese, fresh langoustine tails, good bread and an outside table with a view of the sea. The perfect way to end a holiday before we made our way back by ferry to the mainland.
I can go for a week at a time without going further than the bus stop at the end of our road. Working from home and being a general home body means that, other than the occasional trip out to a friend's for a coffee and the weekly veg market, my world doesn't really need to be bigger than the 4 acres the house sits upon. I spent so much of my late teens and early twenties travelling that I rarely get much wanderlust and if I did, the sheer effort of packing up 3 kids and leaving a farm for any length of time cures me of any lingering desire to travel.
And then one day in my inbox popped an offer from Caledonian MacBrayne ferries asking if I wanted to work with them on a piece of content. Though travel and sponsored content aren't my normal scene, I've had a soft spot for CalMac ferries since I arrived in Scotland and this landlubber was introduced to the joy of travel by boat. I'll never forget our first trip to Arran as I nervously drove my car onto a boat, certain that such a thing shouldn't be possible (I'm from land locked Iowa, remember and such a feat was beyond what my Mid Western brain could handle). I was hooked.
And so, after a fair bit of scrabble to find house, farm and child sitters, Kevin and I departed on our first trip in 10 years without children. We took the ferry from Ardrossan to Campbeltown, boarding as the rain fell so hard it was bouncing off the deck. I’ve only ever taken morning ferries before and swapped my usual bacon rolls and tea (a firm requirement for all AM ferry crossings) to steak pie and local ale. It was all local and fresh, not the limp school cafeteria food that I was expecting (and worrying about how I'd write about it if it was awful) - the beef from Kintyre and the beer from just up the way at Loch Fyne.
The ferry takes 2.5hours from Ardrossan to Campeltown, with another 1.5 hours before that from the house to the ferry terminal. It is a bit longer for us to travel this way than just to drive, but the appeal of dinner and both being able to enjoy the trip really outweighed any extra travel time. I don’t like being inside when we travel by boat – its not travel sickness or anything, just a love for that feeling of being windswept and salty that only the top deck can give you – so the moment we finished I forced Kevin onto the deck. We watched for sea life and birds, and caught the sunset fading over Arran.
Arriving in Campbeltown just after 9, we checked into the Royal Hotel for our two nights there. The hotel is beautiful with views over the harbour (which obviously meant I took roughly 1,000 photos out of the window trying to catch the perfect sunrise). After finally tearing myself away from the window for breakfast the next morning, we headed a few miles over the peninsula to Machrihanish.
The tiny village sits on the the Atlantic side of the peninsula with wide, sandy beaches and views to Northern Ireland. At the southern tip of the village, there is the Seabird Centre and Wildlife Observatory. It’s a very small place, maintained by the local community, but with its resident seals (Kevin was sad he didn’t bring his mandolin to play to them) and bird life, we it was quite easy to lose track of time with so much to see.
The village boasts 2 golf clubs and another beautiful hotel and pub. Have I ever told you that I took golf lessons as a kid? Oh yes. My family was extremely into golf, so much so that at one time my brother wanted to study golf course management. However hard the rest of them tried, that love did not pass on to me, but as we walked around the beautiful Machrihanish Dunes Golf Course, I suddenly understood the appeal. In contrast to the golf course of my youth with views over Highway 30 and my friend's house, I could see the appeal of wandering this amazing landscape, watching the Atlantic and her wildlife, even if it involved a level of hand eye coordination that I was not blessed with.
After exploring the dunes and the amazing beach just behind, we headed back into the village for lunch at The Old Clubhouse. The Dunes hotels are all owned by an American and the menu was a glorious mix of locally sourced produce, meat, fish and dairy, with many American touches - which meant I got to eat the best beef brisket this side of the Mississippi.
After lunch, we drove back to Campbeltown for the Springbank Distillery tour. Unlike the other distilleries we’ve visited Springbank does all of its own barley malting and smoking itself and by hand. I don’t drink whiskey, but it was so interesting to hear about working with local farmers – either to use local barley for special batches or to move on the spent grain for animal feed. I love a family run business and Springbank really had that feel to it.
In fact, that was one thing that really came over strongly everywhere we went in Kintyre – from family run shops that haven’t been replaced by high street equivalents to the food on every menu being as local as possible. There was a strong sense of provenance – knowing where things came from and valuing the local.
The absolute highlight of the trip for us for us was visiting my friend Emma in the afternoon at the Torrisdale Castle Estate. The Estate has been in Emma’s husband’s family for generations and they moved back 4 years ago from Stirling, where Emma and I had met (over crochet of course). In that time, Emma and Niall have made some amazing improvements to the estate, including refurbishing their holiday cottages, to building a hydro electric scheme, and even starting a gin distillery! As Emma showed us around, we were just so inspired by the way the land and the residents work together – the hydro scheme powers the distillery, the forestry powers the wood fired hot tubs, Aunty Carol lives in the archway, Niall's mum runs an organic tannery that tans local sheep hides – all fitting together.
So as Emma and her family headed out to the local village hall for a celebration of the local fishing community and a haddock supper caught by those same fishermen, we headed back to the hotel for dinner in the Harbourview Grille and our own locally caught Haddock (well, Kevin had that, I had Chicken Parmigiana, because its my favourite and I’ve never seen it on another menu in the UK and it was exactly how I remembered it).
I'll be back next week with our trip onward to Gigha!