Category Archives: Margot’s farm

Land girl

You’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve been swotting up on the good life this month, dear Reader.  As most of you will know, when we first moved here in summer 2013, it marked the beginning of a new life for the four of us – turning our back on the urban sprawl and learning the ways of the countryside.  In fact it was the view above of one of the cottage’s neighbouring fields which convinced us to move.  For a couple of beginners like Jerry and I, the prospect of living the good life was more than a little daunting.  Yet here we are, nearly three years down the line and we’ve raised orphan lambs, adopted a Large Black called Cumberland and an elderly pony named Willow, taken on hens and now have a share in three little piglets, Huff, Puff and Snuff.  We never intended to grow such a menagerie – it just sort of happened.  I often wonder if our friends ever thought that we would turn out to be this animal mad when we left the Big Smoke.

I suppose you could say that it was all Country Living’s fault.  Almost as soon as we had moved in, I stumbled on a series the magazine had commissioned on Walnuts Farm and its owners Nick and Bella Ivins.  Charting life as a family run smallholding, it gave an insight into how the bucolic pastoral idyll we had always dreamed of could be achieved.  I say we, dear  Reader.  Anyone who knows us well will certainly agree that Jerry never pictured washing down a sheep’s backside in his idyllic rural scene.  Country Living’s series on Walnuts Farm shared Nick and Bella’s growing your own tips, how-tos for those brave enough to give livestock a go and many a delicious recipe using hedgerow fodder.  Nick and Bella painted a wonderful portrait of smallholder life and made it seem somehow achievable on a small scale for a pair of Londoners seriously lacking in green fingers.

Imagine my joy, dear Reader, when Nick and Bella announced that there was to be a book to follow the series.  The New Homesteader was an eagerly awaited parcel – thank you to Nick and Bella for the fabulous gift and for the invaluable tweets and replies on caring for lambs, pigs etc when we got a bit stuck.  I very nearly bit the postman’s hand off to rip open the jiffy bag and devour the contents!

Homesteader3

The book doesn’t disappoint.  It is a wonderfully put together tome of self-sufficiency and learning to live the good life.  Leaving the city behind and relocating to Walnuts Farm ten years ago, Nick and Bella have embraced becoming smallholders with their daughters Flora and Peggy, making it work for them and fit in with family life, rather than being slaves to the land.

Their book offers practical advice on a plethora of ‘good lifer’ topics (accompanied by Nick’s beautiful photography) from yoghurt and butter making… Homesteader to the benefits of planting wild flower meadows…

Homesteader2keeping pigs and hens, planning an orchard and getting started in the kitchen garden.  Nick and Bella’s aim with The New Homesteader is to inspire others to give modern homesteading a go whether it’s in the countryside, city or suburbs.  You might not be able to keep pigs in a courtyard garden in South West London but you can grow fruit and veg in pots or try your hand at making your own butter (not as difficult as you may think).  Honestly, dear Reader, even if you have no desire to up sticks for a rural living, I challenge you not to fall in love with the wonderful pictures and story which Nick and Bell tell in The New Homesteader.  It’s a rare treat and the perfect read for those who yearn for a slice of the good life.  The pictures of their delightful home will have you on Pinterest seeking to recreate their country chic in a jiffy!

Taking yet another leaf out of Nick and Bella’s book, Jerry and I have turned all land girl on our little plot (I’ve been channelling victory rolls and khaki cropped dungarees) this spring.  Jerry looks wonderful in a head scarf and pinny…..  He’ll kill me for telling such fibs.  With our veg patch sowings underway, we’ve planted our own wildflower meadow in a patch of long grass bordering the driveway and taken to some guerrilla sowing on our verges too.  We used seeds from a fab little company called Seedball  – thank you so much chaps for sending us a selection of your marvellous seed tins.  We’ve already ordered a few more tins!  The Seedball seeds couldn’t be easier to sow.  Each Seedball tin comes with seeds, compost and a little chilli to put off the birds all rolled in together so that the seeds have the best chance of growing.

seedball

Growing your own wildflower patch is as simple as throwing the seedballs onto the area which you’d like the wildflowers to grow, watering a little and then waiting for them to pop up.  Perfect for the more erratic gardener like me…..  I can’t wait to try the Herb and Tea seed mixes.  Not blessed with acres of kitchen garden, I shall be popping those in a container near the kitchen window.  Now’s the perfect time to sow and you don’t need a huge garden to scatter a few seeds.  The bees will love you forever and you never know, it could be the start of your very own smallholding, dear Reader.

Charles acre

Spring has sprung

In the midst of the wet miserable winter with water coming through the ceiling, trampling through the endless muddy quagmire of a garden and carting wood into the house on a daily basis to keep warm, I wasn’t sure that spring would ever come to us.  Yet, here it is and I am so very glad to see it, dear Reader.  Such a tonic for the soul – birds singing, walking about without coats, blossom appearing in the hedgerows and the garden coming back to life.  Not to mention catching a glimpse of one of nature’s truly awesome sights – hares boxing in the field.  The perfect reward for our epic early morning school run.

Hares

Filled with the joys of spring and buoyed by wondrous blue skies and a sunny day in the offing, we packed the car to the rafters and headed for the beach.  I haven’t seen Poppy and Primrose frolic about together so happily or heard them laugh so much in ages.  Bliss.

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Dora loved her first trip to the seaside too – splashing about in the sea, digging in the sand and managing to photobomb every photo I tried to take of the girls.

Dorabeach

Lovely to have a day of doing absolutely nothing as things have been rather busy at Margot and Jerry HQ.  From our first Point to Point as a family which saw Poppy completely hooked on the horses (she is currently planning her rise to riding fame when she tackles the Grand National whilst Primrose has developed rather too much of an interest in betting)…..

Point

….to learning the piggy ropes on a pig course for a new smallholding project with lovely friend and fellow Good Lifer, The Townie Farmer and discovering rather too much information about breeding……

I’m still sniggering like a schoolgirl about this little gem, dear Reader.  Definitely not Dior.

Boar

Then of course there was the excitement of Lady Agatha, our Cream Legbar, FINALLY giving us an egg…..

Aggie egg

and the arrival of some wee Easter chicks.  4 little ones, a few days old, which a lovely neighbour in the village has installed in her shed with a heat lamp.  I am not sure who was more thrilled, me or the children.  One of these tiny fluffsters is destined to join our flock after a bit of growing time but for now, the girls and I are enjoying peeping into the box in the shed and giving them a cuddle, whenever we can.

Best of all that spring has brought with it so far though was a little something I’ve been waiting to arrive on the doormat.  The May 2016 issue of Country Living Magazine with my feature on the wonderful charcuterie made at Parsonage Farm by John and Sarah Mills.

I feel honoured to have had my work commissioned by Country Living but to see it through  to the shelves, married up with stunning photos taken by the HUGELY talented Simon Wheeler (his work can be seen in River Cottage books and so much more), has had me bouncing like a bonny spring lamb.  I am so delighted to have been able to tell John and Sarah’s story and share it with readers all over the country.  They are wonderful people, have taught me heaps and changed the way I think about farming forever.  This feature means a great deal to me, not least because I’ve also ticked off No.1 of 3 on a wish list I made when I started writing nearly three years ago, dear Reader, when we moved from town to country.  To be honest, if this wonderful start is a sign of things yet to come, then we’re in for a good one and I, for one, intend to walk with maybe just a little bit more of a spring in my step.  I do hope you’ll join me, dear Reader.

Spring

Bluebells, birthdays and a touch of fever

Oh dear Reader, I could really do with a bit of cheering this week.  More on that in a mo but suffice to say that things have been rather hectic of late at Margot and Jerry HQ.  Celebrating reaching halfway to 70 (let’s gloss over that one fairly quickly) was top of the list, shortly followed by some pretty amazing birthday presents from Jerry and the girls.  What could be better than a bottle of my favourite gin, a bottle of Pol, a jolly green handbag and A PIG?!!!!  Yes that’s right, dear Reader.  Jerry bought me a PIG, just a few weeks’ old, for my birthday.  A gorgeous Large Black with inquisitive snout, floppy ears and a penchant for pig nuts.  It was pretty tricky to tell who was squealing more, when we first clapped eyes on each other!  Although, I’m not sure that the dear little piggy will be squealing with excitement quite so much once he’s realised that he will be salami come the autumn…..

CumberlandHaving promised that we wouldn’t name any more animals we intended to eat, Primrose and Poppy promptly dubbed our teeny little porker, Cumberland.  After the sausage.  Obviously.  I suppose if you going to name an animal you’re going to eat, it might as well be a foodie name.  Names aside, there is another little snag with this whole piggy thing….this little piggy doesn’t actually live with us.  Nor does he even live in our neighbour’s field like the lambs did.  Essentially Cumberland is at boarding school.  I know dear Reader and yes, you did read that correctly…we now have a pig at boarding school.  The lovely John and Sarah Mills took pity on me and my dreams of being a pig farmer and offered for me to adopt one of their pigs, taking it from weaner all the way through to slaughter and beyond.  So Cumberland will live with his brothers (Lincolnshire, Merguez, Chorizo…..I could go on) up at Parsonage Farm, home of delicious Hampshire charcuterie for the duration of his fattening up period.

PiggiesSince Jerry and I haven’t suddenly inherited a large estate or managed to persuade any of our other neighbours to part with some land for us to rent, this seemed a very good option for now.  Although, we won’t be able to be that hands-on with Cumberland, this is the very best in next best scenarios and at least we can go and visit him regularly.  When abattoir day comes, I will then pop over to practise my newly found butchery skills and hopefully persuade John and Sarah to let me air-dry some ham over in their cabinets.  A little bit sad that I won’t get to use my new Pig Haynes Manual but a good learning experience all the same until I can have a couple of weaners in the garden…..don’t tell Jerry, dear Reader!  It wasn’t so long ago, that I persuaded him to move all his stuff out of the shed so I could house the lambs temporarily whilst I was still doing their night feeds!  I’m only hoping that he didn’t notice how much damage the piggies had made of a grassy patch in just two days down at John and Sarah’s!

Piggies2

From pig fever to fever of a whole other kind.  With birthday celebrations over (and hangovers overcome), our little Poppy, with her habit of catching the more rare and unpleasant childhood illnesses, ended up joining more than a handful of Victorian poets and half the population of a workhouse too as she caught scarlet fever.  Never a good moment when the GP has to Google for a diagnosis but there it was in black and white, or rather scarlet spots, scarlet fever.  Always a worry when it’s on the Notifiable Disease list too.  Poor Poppy.  Probably the worst thing she’s had and with imposed house arrest plus feeling distinctly unwell, there wasn’t even an episode of Peppa Pig that would cheer her.  To add to the sickness woes, Primrose then fell ill with an ear infection and a large touch of cabin fever set in, almost resulting in me very nearly trading them both in for a dachshund puppy.  A lie down in a darkened room with the Pig Haynes Manual was the only answer at that point and of course a medicinal gin.  Mother’s ruin?  More like Mother’s restoration, dear Reader.

Bluebells2With all slowly on the mend, the four of us took to the woods for a much needed change of scene.  It’s a wonder a red cross hasn’t been daubed on the front door!  Still, our little secret glade of bluebells never fails to lift the spirits and we even managed a bit of den building too.  It’s such a gorgeous spot.  Pity I can’t keep Cumberland up there really.  I certainly wouldn’t mind having to venture up to the woods each day.  Perhaps I should just build myself a “Mummy needs a quiet 5 minutes” sort of den up there instead, complete with emergency gin rations and a good book?  Now there’s an idea, dear Reader………

den

Bringing home the bacon

Ooh dear Reader, I have been really looking forward to telling you about my latest exploits all week.  As you know, I have had my eye on getting a pig but with no land nearby for sale or to rent, having my own pigs is just not an option at the moment.  A huge blow but not an unexpected one.  Our village is particularly anti-pig and since every field around here is prime grazing for ponies, Jerry and I have been thinking about alternatives to renting a grassy field.  There must be someone nearby who needs a piggy rotivator!

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Determined to learn more about all things porcine, off I popped to discover more about the joys of pigs at Parsonage Farm and join one of John and Sarah Mills’ regular workshops.  John and Sarah Mills are true advocates of field to fork eating and their livestock doesn’t travel much further than to the abattoir and back, before making it to the butcher’s block.  I know I have mentioned it before but their salami and air dried ham and beef is to die for too!  So much so that I have been dying to learn how to make my own salami as well as bacon and sausages since I met them.  So, where better for a beginner like me to start than with one of their Charcuterie workshops, dear Reader?

I confess, dear Reader, that I know very little about butchering any kind of animal.  When our orphan lambs went to slaughter last year, we took the carcasses to a local butcher who did the job for us so going on a butchery and charcuterie workshop was high on the priority list to aid me in my quest to advance my good life skills!

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Taking us through from whole pig to pancetta was the wonderful Marc Frederic (Le Charcutier Anglais as he is known) who, apart from having the best butcher’s chat I’ve heard in a long time, is also a dab hand at all things charcuti (wonder if I could make that one, catch on, dear Reader…?) and his skills are known from here to Thailand.  His selection of butcher’s kit is incredibly impressive too, including a rather large knife rather hilariously named a “chopper” (yes, I did snigger like a school girl, dear Reader).

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Getting down to the nitty gritty, I learn that different pigs are better for different things.  For example, a Tamworth (the meat we are working on) makes a good pig for bacon as it has the ability to achieve the right meat to fat ratio.  So it might be perfect for bacon and sausages but not so good for other types of charcuterie such as salami or air dried hams.  Other slow growing porkers would be a better option if charcuterie was the end goal.  I have to say for me, the Tamworth is my favourite of the pigs on the rare breed list – I have rather a soft spot for their russet hair and they make the cutest piglets you’ve ever seen, dear Reader.  Back to pork…..

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Some serious sawing, filleting skills and knife sharpening lessons later and we begin to see what you might recognise when choosing choice cuts from the butcher’s counter.  There’s also a large tray of meat (and fat) that is reserved for later – offcuts from our butchery.  I think that I learned more about meat in the first few hours of the course than I have in a lifetime of cooking and eating it!  Coppa, lardo, bath chaps, trotters for gelatine……a good butcher knows how to use as much of the animal as is possible.  Real nose to tail eating.  Everything but the squeak but not the pesky sinews, tendons and bits of cartilage which shouldn’t even go into sausages.  Marc’s knife skills (and patience guiding us beginners with the right cuts here and how close to take the blade) are amazing.  It turns out that I have been sharpening my knives at home completely the wrong way for years.

Sausage making was hilarious!  I can’t wait to get my own kit.  Brilliant fun and so easy once you know how.  The best bit with making your own sausages is that once you’ve mastered the basics, you can begin experimenting with flavours and create your own sausage recipes.  Endless hours of fun in my book!

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Marc made it all look so easy.  Getting the hang of the sausage machine certainly had me in fits of giggles but then, dear Reader, I have never been known for my maturity! photo 1Almost impossible not to think of every sausage (and sausage skin) innuendo in the process but in the end, I was quite proud of my handiwork – not too embarrassing for a first try.  Tying them is a real skill I can assure you, dear Reader.  I made sure that I shot a video of Marc’s demonstration because I knew that I would never remember any of it when it came to having a go at home!

Perhaps the most exciting part of the whole day for me was learning how to make bacon – something I could definitely see myself doing at home.  Marc showed us how to prepare the pork for curing and the steps needed to create our very own pancetta.

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A fantastic day, dear Reader – I can highly recommend it and Marc’s insight and teaching alongside his witty repartee made the day full of fun as well as learning.  I loved every minute of the workshop and Sarah and John’s delicious lunch was a triumph and a reminder of all the amazing things that can be done when care and respect is given to bringing food from the field to the table.

I can report that the bacon after its seven days curing was well worth the effort!  Jerry, Poppy and Primrose are already wondering when I shall be making some more.  I’ve even been looking for meat slicers and sausage machines on Ebay!  Now if I could just find somewhere to put these little beauties!  You know me, dear Reader, never take no for answer……so keep this to yourself, but I may already have a plan in mind!  Oink oink!

Sarah's pigs

An Easter delivery

Easter chickWith spring flowers, chicks and eggs both chocolate and hen, Easter is certainly hot on our heels.  A little rabbit even crept onto the table too (thanks to Pol Roger Champagne for inviting me to share a dinner party favourite), leaving Poppy completely appalled that Mummy and Daddy might have kidnapped the Easter bunny and eaten him!

rabbit

However, Easter just wouldn’t be Easter dear Reader, without lambs.  Bouncing little bundles of spring joy.  In fact, Poppy, Primrose and I have been reminiscing about our orphans from last year and wondering about a few more.  Since I don’t have any grazing of my own to speak of, finding willing landowners happy to part with a field for six months is pretty tricky.

Lambing2015-2 So, missing my three bleating little ones, I decided to offer my very inexperienced services to a lovely local (very patient) shepherdess whose flock was about to triple within a matter of weeks.  The maternity wing was already full of triplets when I got there and in the biting wind and driving rain, the shed was by far the best place for lambs, ewes (and Margot) to shelter.  Keen to put me to work, the shepherdess had me learning the ropes in no time – docking tails, castration (cross your legs – it’s all about the rubber bands)….checking feet and monitoring newborns.   Even the polytunnel had been cleared out to be used as a makeshift intensive care unit for difficult births and struggling lambs.  Such a lot to get done before the next birth and all that while you’re on red alert for any ewes who look as though they might be going into labour.  Scanning and dating I learn, is no real guarantee of just when lambs might make an appearance and the shepherdess has her trusty notebook with her at all times, referring to notes on when each ewe is due and how many babies.  Some are first timers, others are old hands at lambing and will be giving birth for the third or fourth time.  First timers are always more of a worry, the shepherdess tells me.

Lambing2015-1Lambing is a curious thing….much like giving birth to human babies.  A lot of waiting around, a bit of action, a lot more waiting around and then everything happening in a matter of ten minutes.  Reading my sheep husbandry handbook was no real preparation for witnessing my first live lamby birth – it was amazing.  Even more wonderful to be there ready to assist when one lamb got a bit stuck in the process and the ewe had to be helped out.  Oooh, dear Reader, this was truly Lambing Live and I was standing by like James Herriot in the middle of a field, with a bucket full of delivery essentials and a shepherdess sporting a long plastic glove.  I think that the shepherdess was rendered quite dumbstruck when I got out my phone and starting taking pictures…..  Oh the shame, dear Reader, I am a complete total farming amateur!  Too good to miss recording it for the children to see later that day though!

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When the second lamb popped out unaided fifteen minutes later, all hands were on deck to get the newborns and ewe into the trailer before the wet lambs became too cold up at the top of the field.  All this care, love and attention for something that will eventually reach the table.  I am in awe of the work all our farmers do and how much effort goes into bringing meat to consumers.

Lambing2015-3

Keen to get more practice in, I popped over with Poppy and Primrose to see how the rest of the ewes were getting on a day or so later.  Tons more naughty scampering triplets and happy ewes!  Anyone who thinks that sheep don’t have much personality couldn’t be more wrong.  You can see just what kind of mothers they are by watching them for five minutes.  Poppy and Primrose spent an hour running up and down the fields with lambs following and gambolling, their mothers watching on or trotting behind.  Definitely what Easter in the countryside is all about!

Much to the girls’ delight, there was even a spot of newborn cuddles to be had.  One of the shepherdess’ more troublesome ewes had given birth to her triplets just the night before our visit and one of her babies had really really struggled to perk up following the trauma of birth.  Dubbed Minnie, we found her in the kitchen in a cardboard box.  A tiny little thing and destined to be fed by bottle for the moment as she hasn’t had much strength and is considerably smaller than her siblings.  Snuggling up to a newborn lamb has to be the highlight for Poppy and Primrose this Easter – much better than a chocolate egg any day they told Jerry and I afterwards in the car on the way home!

Minnie

Looks like little Minnie may well be needing a foster home too………….the prospect sent me scuttling to the garage to get the huge bottle of Milton and lamby bottles out again.  Despite  Jerry rolling his eyes, there may well be a cardboard box with a lamb in it in the kitchen very soon!  Well how could we resist such a darling little face, dear Reader?!!!  Happy Easter!

 

Pass the pigs

Sam Bomb SaphhLately it seems that I have been all over the place meeting, talking to and tasting some truly beautiful produce all made in Hampshire.  Pop up supper clubs with the fabulous and utterly delicious food of Savage Kitchen, tasting Hampshire made Twisted Nose gin from Winchester Distillery (local watercress and lavender feature heavily in this little number), standing in the loo queue with some serious international journos of luxury mags at the new Bombay Sapphire Distillery launch at Laverstoke Mill, incognito visits to farm shops as a judge for Hampshire Life Food and Drink awards…..honestly I’ve been starting to think I should be pinching myself a bit harder to check that I haven’t metamorphosed into Xanthe Clay.  Perhaps not quite yet?!  Her job is safe….for now.

Jumping in the Lanny with Jerry and the girls on a misty Saturday morning and trekking across country a bit to the Bourne Valley, I felt like I was one of the producer’s on Rick Stein’s Food Heroes programme.  The food heroes in question: John and Sarah Mills from Parsonage FarmContinue reading

Summer of countryside love

MudefordProfuse apologies, my dear Reader, for my epic summer silence.  It seems an age since I was last tip tapping away a little note to you and I can only blame it on lots of work and plenty of lovely things happening at Margot and Jerry HQ, giving me not time at all to resume my position at the writing desk.  With Primrose and Poppy at home creating mayhem for almost 8 WEEKS of summer horror, I mean holiday, I haven’t had a moment to even hear myself think either!

Days have been filled with exploring our patch of Hampshire, trips to secluded sandy spots, sampling a lot of local goodies (wine, beer, gin…..) so when we finally headed off for our staycation and annual trip to Tom and Barbara’s shire farmstead, we couldn’t be too downhearted when it weed it down with rain.  Lots of time at home too – the spare room has had its bedding stripped more times than a boutique B&B of late!  As anyone who knows us well knows, we’re always more than happy to have friends to stay – any excuse for a good gossip over a large glass of something! Continue reading