Mary's Dairy Diary: December 2012
The dark time of year, dark mornings, night comes so early. When we have sun it seems very special, and with a thick enough coat and hat is a magical time, precious brightness, low light highlighting every bare twig and blade of grass. The earth feels like it is ruminating, digesting last year, brewing next year. The undergrowth disappears, leaving everyone’s tracks clearer. Tom & I were in the garden one late afternoon, and about 20 wild boar solemnly trooped by on the other side of the stream, a couple of sows, a few gilts, but mainly this year’s piglets. Boar, like the farmed pigs they are so closely related to, have large families. Tasty, but scary when you get too close. When we said we wanted more room for wildlife on farms, I’m not sure we meant this: be careful what you wish for, you will get it.
CROPS - This has been a difficult year, and the hangover will last till next year and longer. We are struggling to get our autumn crops in, amongst the rain that makes the soil un-drivable on, and unworkable. We haven’t managed to drill all our winter crops. The barley needed to be in by mid November; the wheat we can put in to Christmas, but the later you go, the lower the yield. We’ve got varieties that unusually can be sown as spring crops as well; any ground undrilled we can do next year. That’s lucky, because seed for spring crops will be like hen’s teeth. We are better off than other people – some have still got maize to harvest, and that will damage soil that will take years to come out. The slugs are extraordinary – I’ve never seen so many, so various. We have two fields of oilseed rape that we have had to re-sow to wheat because they scoffed the lot before it could get away.
GRASS - This year, grass has saved our bacon (or our cows). The deluge we had in November, along with the rest of the country, put paid to grazing, probably for the rest of the year. Our cow marshes, where the dairy cows graze, where completely flooded. The water came almost as high as in 2000, which was a fifty year flood. The flood water brings down a lot of silt – the old flood meadow system that was the main way of manuring your pastures in days gone by. Just right now, the soil is too tender to put the cows out, even for our New Zealand grazing system where you send the cows out in a great mob, eat the paddock down quickly. It may look like a rugby team has been in the paddock, but just like a rugby pitch, it recovers quickly. The grass is a little bit long – we expected to graze it down a little more, so if it goes dry, we will get cows out if it looks as if it’s so long it will get damaged by frost.
CALVES AND YOUNGSTOCK - are all tucked up in the barn. We keep them well bedded on straw. We will need to feed them on straw as well to stretch out our silage. Should we get a straw chopper to bed them well with half the straw? All the straw lorries, going on the major roads from east from the crops to west with the livestock, show straw will be in short supply and expensive.
COWS - came in, we didn’t think they needed swimming lessons in the flood. The autumn calved cows are seeing Mr Bull, and by Christmas it should be all quiet on the mating front. They are showing a little less heat than usual - it’s not so easy to frisk around bulling inside as it is in a field. The spring cows will almost all be dry by then, giving a quieter time over the holiday period. Spare a thought for the farmers over Christmas – cows need milking and animals need feeding every day, and for some reason machines seem to break down preferentially just going into a bank holiday.
CHEESE - We don’t make cheese on Christmas and Boxing Day. The milk is less, and we can hold the milk over for a day or sell out. The milk is richer at this time of year, and the creamy richness makes up for the lack of grazing in the flavour of the cheese. We are getting some lovely rich buttery notes now. We’ve done some work to see how each individual starter ages on. Starters are the lactic acid bacteria cultures that look (and taste) like a scrumptious yogurt that we use to acidify and give flavour to the milk to set off the cheesemaking process. Ours were collected in the 60’s and 70’s from the best dairies. Cheesemakers lost control of them, and they fell into the hands of a French starter company that wanted to destroy them so we would buy their (much less complex) cultures. The cheese tasted wrong, but fortunately the microbiologist of the company couldn’t see them destroyed and lifted them into the care of the cheesemaker Barbers who preserves them for all our benefit. The complex flavours we have come in part form these heritage starters, and we so nearly lost them.
SHOP - getting all decked up for Christmas, making up baskets and gift boxes for order. We’ve got lots of interesting and delicious local products in for Christmas – you really can feast from this valley, and support our glorious landscape in so doing. We can mail to UK addresses and send it out for Christmas as long as your order it by Monday 17th December.
RECIPE - Our two plus year old Quickes Traditional Vintage Cheddar is tasting very rich and gorgeous at present. It is wonderful on a cheeseboard; its rich flavour works well when palates get jaded with a little too much jollity. I’ve really been enjoying winter vegetables – parsnips, carrots, leeks and winter squash. Sometimes the easiest and most satisfying thing is to chop them up and bake them with cream, lots of black pepper, topped off with even quite modest amounts of Quickes Traditional Vintage Cheddar (the flavour goes a long way) grated with breadcrumbs on top. The cheese adds a lovely complexity. So many dishes gain an edge with those complex flavours added – I reach for cheese before I reach for a stock cube, as it adds subtle and complex flavours when a stock cube can be heavy on umami/MSG.
A Very Merry Christmas to all readers!