Beautiful Blackcurrants August 23, 2016 15:15
Pheasant Plucker would make a very good witch. After all, the concept of a sisterhood of like-minded individuals and the opportunity to concoct new recipes and potions in the company of a cat is an appealing one.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time hunkered over a heavy black cooking pot, bought for 50p at a village fete, stirring with great intensity and muttering to ourselves. In the absence of a cat, Louie the chicken has stood guard by the kitchen door and inquisitively poked her beak in from time to time.
Unfortunately we haven’t been mixing up hexes or evil spells but just making jam. This is the high season for it, and although raspberries, redcurrants and strawberries are more or less over, there is still time to turn your attention to blackcurrants, plums and damsons. A lot of people think there’s something complicated about jam making and are put off by scary-sounding recipes that use terms like ‘jam thermometers’ and ‘test for pectin’ but Pheasant Plucker has no time for any of that. We like our jam quick and easy and on a piece of toast as soon as possible.
Here then, is the easiest blackcurrant jam recipe you could think of. It contains only four ingredients and once you’ve prepared the blackcurrants, you can be done and dusted within half an hour.
800g granulated sugar
Medium size knob of butter
To prep the blackcurrants, remove the stalks and any large, dried heads where the flowers used to be and wash them thoroughly. Put a saucer in the freezer.
Place the blackcurrants in a large, heavy bottomed cauldron (or saucepan) and pour the sugar on top (it’s important to put the sugar on top of the fruit rather than the other way round, so that the sugar doesn’t burn and stick to the bottom of the pan). Then pour in the water and bring to the boil over a high heat.
As the mixture comes to the boil, skim the surface if you need to and add the butter, which will prevent it from frothing too much.
When the fruit reaches a rolling boil, so that it can’t be stirred down, look at your clock and time 10 minutes. In the meantime, sterilise some jam jars by washing them in hot soapy water and drying them in a warm oven. (You could swish them out with some boiling water out of the kettle without too many problems instead of the full sterilising method but to be honest, it’s not really that much effort).
When the jam has boiled for ten minutes, take the plate out of the freezer and pour a teaspoonful of the jam onto it. (Be careful because it will be HOT). Leave it a minute and then poke it with your finger – if it wrinkles a bit and isn’t too runny, it’s done. Use your initiative at this point, you may prefer a slightly runnier jam or you may like it really thick. If you think it needs a bit longer, continue to boil for another five minutes and then test again. I’m of the opinion that it’s better to have a slightly syrupy consistency than a jam that’s too hard and chewy (if you decide it’s too runny when you’ve put it into jars, you can decant each jar as you use it and boil it up again for a couple of minutes in the microwave. It usually does the trick).
When you’re happy with it, let it cool for 5 minutes and then very carefully ladle it into the jam jars. Let it cool further and then seal with some greaseproof paper circles and put the lids on. Once it’s cool completely, store it unopened in a cupboard for up to a year or in the fridge when you’ve opened it.
And that’s it. Delicious blackcurrant jam in the time it takes to learn to fly a broomstick.
Lovable Labradors August 11, 2016 13:50
Baby bro with Duke the Labrador at a pet show. Literally nothing runs like a Deere.
We had a succession of adorable but stupid Labradors when we were little.
First up was Sam, who was already old when we came to know him. Poor old Sam was epileptic and from time to time would have fits out in the yard. He was always very embarrassed about them afterwards and would hang his head sheepishly for the rest of the day and lie listlessly in the shade. He probably felt awful, the poor old boy.
Next came Duke, star of a previous blog post and the most stupid of them all. If Duke was an actor in a film, he’d be an exasperating rogue that the leading lady, despite her better judgement, fell head over heels for in the end. You couldn’t help but love him, with his big brown eyes and endlessly wagging tail which somehow worked independently to his body. He lived in a kennel out in the yard and would chew anything he could get his teeth round: wellies, toys, sticks, school shoes, large rocks… he really didn’t mind. His food bucket was an old, large plastic tub that had once contained something to do with the horses and he would wander aimlessly around with it in his mouth, tail going non-stop, making funny whining noises with his dog biscuits spilling out behind him, like some kind of doggy Hansel and Gretel trail. We spent hours trying to train him to be the good gun dog he was supposed to be, hiding dummy pheasants around the garden for him to find and trying to make him recognise different whistle sounds but it never seemed to have much effect. He just snuffled around chewing stuff and trying to lick us. However, apparently out on the shooting field proper, he would rise to the occasion in front of the other, posher retreivers and didn't let himself down too badly most of the time.
A classic family portrait with Duke and Sam the Labradors. (That pink jumpsuit paired with blue jelly sandals and extra thick plaits is still a favourite go-to fashion choice.)
The last Lab we had was our golden girl Molly. She wasn’t anywhere near as crazy as Duke and didn’t feel the need to chew everything she saw, although she’d have a quick gnaw of your trainers if you left them in her way. Poor old Molly once had a problem with her legs and had to be taken to the vet, who said she needed an operation and would have to stay in for a few days. Pa Pheasant hated to see animals suffering and it upset him to see her in so much pain. However, the operation went well and the vet called a few days later to tell us she could be collected. Pa Pheasant duly set off to get her and bring her home. Molly was in a pretty sorry state – she’d had to have her front legs shaved as part of the operation and was obviously sore and tired. Pa Pheasant gently put her on the backseat of the car with a blanket and began the drive home.
Halfway back to the farm was a village called Blyton where a dairy farmer had diversified into making delicious ice-cream and we often called in for a treat in the summer. Being from a family where food, particularly sweet things, was seen as a tonic for all ills, Pa Pheasant couldn’t resist it and called in, got out and came back with two vanilla cornets, one for himself and one for Molly. Although I wasn’t there to see it myself, I have an enduring image of Pa Pheasant, with Molly next to him in the front seat, enjoying an ice-cream together in the sun and slowly feeling better with the world.
Do you have any photos of you as a child with your pet you want to share with us? Email them to us and we'll send a bag of Pheasant Plucker goodies to any that we feature on the blog.
Sweet Williams and the first flush of love May 23, 2016 13:45
As teenagers growing up in the country, we were lucky to have on hand two indispensable manuals for our impending adulthood: Jilly Cooper's seminal showjumping novel Riders and its gripping television sequel Rivals. Twenty years later and relevant passages still pop up, parrot fashion, in our minds in certain situations or at particular times of the year. To paraphrase the beautifully wise and insightful Mrs. Cooper in Rivals, there comes a time in May when even the most dedicated workaholic feels the first breath of summer and longs to stroll hand in hand through the fields with a new love. Well, we've reached that point this year and it's got us thinking back to one such time many moons ago.
Lambing season April 25, 2016 21:30
These months of the year irrevocably bring back memories of lambing season – a tense, exciting, tiring, happy time with all the ups and downs you can easily imagine. Our lambing shed was in the main barn, a large, corrugated tin roofed building that smelled of the accumulated cycle of farm years – cattle in the winter and the potatoes and hay they were fed on; a dusty tang from storing barley, wheat and oilseed rape in the summer, dried mud all year round, oil and exhaust fumes from the tractors and the particular wooly, milky, ovine smell of the spring.
The shed had an atmosphere of quiet calm and it was dimly lit, with warm, intermittent spotlights above the newborn pens. I remember watching my first lamb being born and the ewe quietly panting as her stomach began to contract more frequently. Pa Pheasant had a very easy way with animals, years of experience and a natural empathy and kindness towards them paying off as he carefully pulled the lamb by its back legs out into the world. We looked on in fascination, as this tiny, slimy, yellow bundle slipped out onto the straw and Pa cleared its airway before passing it up towards the ewe to clean. A few minutes later, the lamb struggled up on its wobbly, gangly legs to suckle. Some of the lambs, for all sorts of reasons, had to be bottle-fed and we had to hold the bottles tightly as they sucked forcefully on the teat, gulping the milk down and waggling their tails behind them.
Everyone learnt to give Pa a bit of a wide berth during lambing and to choose their moments carefully, as he’d be up at night checking the ewes and feeding the babies himself. He would bed down on the sofa in the hall in between shifts and be bleary eyed and a bit snappy in the mornings (so many things learned on the farm jump back at you when you have your own children).
As the lambs got bigger, they were taken outside into the fields and one of my earliest memories is watching them gambol around the paddock outside the kitchen window with Gran. There was a slope with a slight lip at the top of it which they’d race to the top of before jumping off, twisting their little bottoms in mid-air in what seemed to be a general celebration of life.
Lambs’ wool would often get caught in the fence wire and it felt soft and kind of slippery with an oily smell of lanolin. We docked the lambs’ tails painlessly with elastic bands, and they'd drop off in the fields. I didn’t realise at the time but they were also castrated in the same way and I shudder to think what the wool collection that I kept in a glass jar next to my bed really contained.
It always seemed a shame that the lambs lost their sparkle and grew up. I guess if there’s a lesson to be learned it’s to try to be more like the lambs in the fields, experiencing the joy of fresh air and life, rather than just simply turning into a boring old sheep.