MARY’S DAIRY DIARY - MARCH 2011
March - early spring warmth after the cold weather is like breathing out after a shock - just the joy of it is enough. All the signs of spring hasten on, buds swelling, birds engrossed in their courtship and nesting, spring flowers start - primroses, daffodils, blackthorn. The landscape, so long held in suspension, slowly then faster and faster animates in the wild dance of the seasons. Ravens call from the woods, a fat fallow hind, belly big with calf, can’t be bothered to skitter out of the way when she sees no threat from me, and walks over the hedge into the copse. They’ve got a good eye for what’s a threat: there is an old fallow hind who follows the woods tractor, knowing that the felled trees will give a good lunch on the soft bark from the top of the tree. When she hears the grunt of the tractor, she follows the sound: won’t follow other tractors, just the one with Tony in it who fells the trees.
CROPS - The wheat, that’s sat so long patiently tolerating the frost, spread like so many spiders on the ground, now starts its orderly growth. The tillers develop first, the secondary plants that each will produce an ear - too few and there aren’t enough ears, too many and each ear never gets quite enough nourishment to make fat grains, full of starch, and makes lots of little withered grains, with too much leaf that’s prone to mildew. We wait for some clear days to till the barley after the winter fallow. It’s done its job harbouring flocks of birds. There is enough keep on the established crops and on those fields we are fallowing for the next year. Our wildlife scheme comes to an end this year: we hope to continue with it, using funds from Europe; we couldn’t fallow the areas we do without this backing. It’s a skilful thing to do, invented in this country, from insights provided for instance by my father, to get farmers to provide environmental services. In other parts of the world, the farmers and environmentalists can be on opposite sides, each demonizing the other.
COWS - The cows are out grazing. Just the same as every year, we watch as the meagre store of grass that came through the frost and has grown since disappears down the mouths of the cows. It’s always an anxious time and then in late March, it suddenly turns round on a sixpence, and the grass starts looking less like a lawn and more like leafy meadows. Milk from the tender grass of early spring is flavoursome and not so fatty since the grass is so low in fibre - does the opposite to cows’ digestions than low fibre does to humans. You just don’t want to be too close behind a cow doing one of the things a cow does best.
CALVES - Calves everywhere, lovely. We are making sure that each one for certain is getting enough colostrum: gut looks a bit hollow after a few hours on mum? Top them up. We are determined to make sure these calves get the best start, and enough colostrum and all sorts of health problems just don’t show up. The older calves from the autumn and heifers from the year before have all come through the winter well, looking even, shiny and no coughing. I walked through the yards kicking the feed in to their reach, and heard not a single cough. The youngstock will follow their mothers out to their grazing south of the main road when the weather is warm enough for them - young animals can find it tough being out in wet and cold, one or the other is OK, both too much.
CHEESE - The milk is now established from the spring calvers, less cream than a few weeks ago - ‘lovely to make into cheese’, as Bruce said, so different from winter milk, particularly from the late calvers. The curd is more robust, more protein compared with fat, more flavour from the grass. The curd had a nice firm feel, which we don’t have to work to get. On the other hand, the amount of milk rises day by day, one vat a day becomes two - will it go to three vats by the end of the month? Just the sheer volume of milk makes it demanding for our labour intensive handmade cheese. More curd to make sure is cheddared and salted right to the corners, more cheese to dress and press and handle. So we are thinking about evening the calving out, calve more in the autumn as it is difficult to have a four times more milk in mid April than in mid January, and diluting the late lactation milk that is most tricky to make into good cheese. We now sell more cheese for Christmas, and Thanksgiving for our American customers, than we used to so it seems more sensible for the milk to follow the time of year people want to buy more cheese.
RECIPE - I grew salsify and scorzonera, easy to grow roots that lasted the cold winter very well in the ground when I managed to stop the deer eating them. I’ve also learnt how to cook with them, having been inspired by a lovely salsify sauce in a wonderful restaurant in San Francisco, ‘Quince’. I’ve been playing with recipes I enjoy for these neglected vegetables with a delicate flavour. Take a handful of salsify or scorzonera, I skin them before cooking, but put immediately in stock (or put in water with lemon juice in to stop it discolouring) , and simmer till soft with some chopped onion and a garlic clove. Blend with a stick whizzer. Add some flour and butter mixed together to thicken the mix a little, season with salt, pepper, and add a little Quickes Traditional Mature Cheddar just to add that richness to the flavour without overwhelming it. Top with a little chopped parsley. Add some cream if you’ve got some in the fridge. Serve as a complex and pleasing sauce on fish or white meat.