Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Fresh Eggs

So . . . once again, optimism triumphs over experience.

Longtime readers of the Bee Drunken adventures-in-farming will know about Ralph and Lauren -- who used to be our chickens.  Perhaps they are someone else's chickens now; maybe they didn't like the fact that my oldest daughter kept changing their names?  Possibly, they wandered off to seek greener pastures.  Quite probably, the wily fox got them -- although he didn't leave any feathery evidence.  All we know for sure is that when we got home from our Spanish cycling trip, those chickies were gone.  They had flown the coop.

I will admit that I dealt well with my grave loss.  After all, who was the one who waded through the mud all through the winter to feed them?  Who scraped all of the chicken poo and hay off the eggs?  Whose flower borders were wrecked, more than once?

As time went by, though, my hard feelings softened.  As I gazed out of our kitchen window, my eyes would inevitably fall on the empty hen hut.  And I would feel just a teensy bit sad.

There were practical reasons, too, to miss our poultry.  For one thing, the stale bread kept piling up.  Also, as I bake a lot, we never seemed to have eggs anymore.  I was always forgetting to buy them after three years of a steady supply.

Unsurprisingly, when my youngest daughter started making noise about getting more chickens it really wasn't that difficult to wear me down.  Yes, I am a sucker.  Not only that, instead of holding the line at two chickens (one for each child), we left the farm with FOUR chickens -- two of which (whom?) won't even be earning their keep for another 9 months.  "But Mommy, they are so fluffy and cute!"  Yea, yea.

Do you dear bloggy readers realize just how many breeds of chickens there are?

We bought our chickens from a 13 year old astoundingly knowledgeable farmer's son.  He had a dozen breeds at least, and he tried his best to educate us on their finer points:  how to tell males from females when they are young, what color of eggs they each have, etc.   I was somewhat overwhelmed, though, by the profusion of farm animals.  The main thing that I learned, and can pass on to you, is that an unruly chicken may be "tamed" by grasping it by the legs and flipping it upside-down.  Apparently, the blood rushes to its meager brain and it immediately goes docile for you.  Well, it worked for the farmer's son; I didn't test the technique, actually.

My youngest daughter immediately determined that we must have the "white silkie" breed.  They lay very small eggs, but compensate for this shortcoming by being soft and cuddly.  Frankly, I think they are the "dumb blondes" of the chicken world.  It has already become obvious that they don't eat a lot of carbs, either.  Ralph and Lauren were plain, but they were sturdy and reliable egg layers.  They could dispatch half a loaf of bread, no problem.  These dainty dimbos haven't laid an egg yet and they keep trying to eat the baby chick food.

One of my daughter's friends raises chickens, and her only comment on the white silkies was: They are really stupid chickens.  Since all poultry is fairly dumb, this is hardly a recommendation.

Still, my daughters spent all weekend gazing adoringly at them.  They promised me that, unlike last time, they are going to take care of these chickens.

I give it a week.  Maybe two.

Monday, 28 September 2009

domestic sensualist

Months ago I was nattering on about something and I described myself as a domestic sensualist.  Several readers commented that it sounded like a good blog name . . . and so I filed it away in one of the dustier recesses of my brain.  Seeing that the world of blog is an ever-expanding universe, you just never know when you are going to need another blog, right?

Over the past year, I've gotten to know Julochka at Moments of Perfect Clarity -- and discovered someone who is a kindred spirit.  Well, she is a much more creative and prolific kindred spirit; so let's call her an inspiration, really.  We love lots of the same things -- especially food and books -- and then she loves even more things.   We are both rather greedy, really.

Like me, Julochka is a displaced American who has been exploring the world long before blogging made travel so easy.  Although she makes her home in Denmark, the place is too small to contain her.  Truly.  This summer, Julochka pioneered the concept of Blog Camp and I was fortunate enough to spend the weekend with her.  Not only did the experience totally DISPROVE my husband's belief that blog friends are not real friends (because they are), but it created this big bubbling energy that continues to impact my life in interesting ways.

Although Julochka speaks fluent Danish now, and has acquired a sense of irony and Scandinavian cool, she still retains that American zest -- and the openness to embrace new people and new ideas.  The woman is an absolute whirlwind of collaboration.  One evening, her fertile brain was spitting out ideas and she struck on the notion of the two of us starting a foodie blog . . . not just recipes, but also stories, and book reviews, and food politics, and, well, inspiration.

And so, we launch domestic sensualist today.  We will be posting every day this week, so Please come and visit us!

pink sky at night

Just a few thoughts about this (totally unprocessed) picture:

The sky really was that pink tonight.
I almost missed it; I was taking laundry off the line, and I suddenly looked up and glimpsed the vivid edge of it.  I wonder what other marvels I miss by not looking at just the right time?

In order to get this view, I had to run around the back of our garage and climb up onto a low wall that borders the farm next-door.  As I angled my camera (and body) to get a better shot, I actually fell off the wall into the hedge.  My first thought was to protect my camera . . . which I held aloft even as I hit the dirt.  (Thank goodness no one has the photographic evidence of that "moment.")

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

County Show

Every September, for a hundred years now, immense crowds of people have gathered for the Newbury Show.  It takes place somewhere at the crossroads of agriculture, commerce, competition and "a good day out."

It's the sort of place where you can buy your new tractor, display your prize sheep, stock up on homemade jam and pick out a new shooting jacket.  If your interests don't lean toward the agricultural, you can just amble around -- like most of the folk -- and take in the sights.  There is a bit of something for anyone, and a lot of food and drink for everyone.

I am always struck by the democratic qualities of "the Show."  Girls with punky pink hair and boys in corduroy stand side by side looking at chickens.  The old and young, rich and poor, farmers and white collar types all jostle together.  I walk around constantly thinking, "Where did these people come from?"  It makes me realize what well-worn grooves we must all follow, despite sharing a corner of Berkshire together.

Although people-watching isn't part of the official programme of events, it is my favorite part.  This teenage mother and her pink infant have the same peachy plumpness, while this man wears his history on his skin in a very literal fashion.  (If you double-click on the picture, you can read some of the details.)

What do you suppose he does for a living?

I'm also fascinated by the enormous variety of hobbies and interests on display at the Show. Don't you find people endlessly strange and wonderful? I spoke to this woman, at some length, about her passion for wool and spinning. She told me, ever so proudly, that the local chapter of spinners has 110 members. Who knew? One of her comrades is a skein-collector. She is attempting to spin the wool from every breed of sheep, no matter how rare, in the United Kingdom.

This father and son are competitive pole-climbers. (Do loggers do this for fun? I'm not sure how else you would get involved in this "sport.") The father, who is first in his age-class, bested his son in this particular race. It was impressive to watch them run, in a strangely crab-like fashion, up these towering poles.

There are races of all kinds at the County Show. 

Here, the young farriers are pounding away at their anvils.  Competitive horse-shoe shaping and shodding, I think.

This man was driving his llama through an obstacle course.  I wonder where you train for that sort of thing?

Have you ever seen a ferret race?  This man is showing off his first-prize ferret, both of them flush with recent victory.  The handlers spray their ferrets with water to cool them down before they race. 

I'm not sure if that step is always necessary, but it was gloriously hot on this September day.  The summer weather always seems to come just when we've given up on it.

I don't know if it is the heat, or the crowds, or full tummies, or so much walking around, but there is something utterly exhausting about being at the Show all day.  I wonder how many children sack out, like these piglets, on the way home?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Family Life

"Felicity in family matters is as rare as hen's teeth,"
I once read.

I tend to think of myself as the keeper
 of the family happiness,
but is that a thankless task,
or even possible?

I am like the self-appointed shepherd
of a small, ornery flock
who only want
 to be left alone
to go their own way.

My idea of a blissful family day is a pub lunch,
all of us together, 
followed by a long walk afterwards.
Only rarely is this wish indulged,
because one person doesn't like to eat out
and the other doesn't like to walk
and the third wants to listen to a radio programme

Let's go to Combe Gibbet, I said.
High upon Combe Down
is a long chalk pathway
with incredible views
of Berkshire and Hampshire,
and maybe even Oxfordshire.

I remember reading about Combe
In her memoir about
the intense love and rivalry between sisters
Hilary du Pré says
that her famous sister, Jacqueline
described Combe as "the top of the world."
Jacqueline du Pré took her husband
Daniel Barenboim
up to the Combe Gibbet.
She loved it; he loathed it.

It is a wild, beautiful place
but a little haunted.

This is a two-person gibbet, apparently.
were hung in this place in 1676.
For crimes against family: adultery, which led to murder.
I wonder if the sky looked as ominous
on that day.

Against this backdrop,
even the haystacks look a bit menacing,
and lonely, too.

And yet, unexpectedly,
the sun will sweep across
the landscape.

Family life is like that, too.

 Here we go
over the stiles,
one after another.
Sometimes with a helping hand,
sometimes entirely alone.

These oak trees have endured
who knows what.
They seem to have grown together.
I think that can happen in marriage, too
if you are fortunate.

If there is anything that makes me happier
than seeing my children happy, together
I can't think what it might be.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Urn and all

When it is dark, damp November,
please let me remember
this week of golden September.
Unlike Keats,
I would rather have
the living, dying rose --
yes, thorns and all.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Dispatches from Jane Austen's House

Last May, I visited Jane Austen's house for the first time. The roses 'round the door weren't in bloom yet; but bee that I am, the place had an irresistible lure for me.

As luck would have it, the place was undergoing an expansion/renovation (kitchen, reading room, bookstore . . . yes, all of my favorite places) and they needed more volunteers. It seemed a tailor-made opportunity for me, and believe me, I'm not one to look a gift-house in the mouth.

One of the reasons that I adore my blog-friends is that they seemed to think that this was a splendid idea. And because I have received many emails asking if I did indeed ever go to work at Jane Austen's house, I thought that I'd throw a little light on the subject . . .

One of the delights and privileges of being a "steward" to the house is opening it up before the guests arrive. Although Jane lived here 200 years ago, she must have risen in the morning to open the same sash windows that I do. As she looked out of her bedroom window, she must have gazed with pleasure at the greenness of her garden. As she folded back the shutters of the dining parlour windows, she must have watched, with keen interest, as the little village of Chawton came to life.

Each window has wooden shutters that fold back, each in their own idiosyncratic way. Behind the shutters in Mrs. Austen's room, you can still glimpse traces of the 18th century green and white wallpaper.

After we open the windows and turn on the lights, we put vases of fresh flowers in the deep windowsills. Jane had her own morning routine: She kept the keys for the tea caddy, and it was her task to carefully spoon out the precious leaves. After breakfast, she practiced the piano for two hours . . . at least that is what we tell the children who visit.

When Jane's father retired from the rectory at Steventon, in 1800, he sold most of the house's contents -- including much of his extensive library, and Jane's piano and sheet music collection. For nine years, Jane and her sister and parents drifted from rental houses in Bath to the homes of friends and family. In 1809, after Mr. Austen's death, Mrs. Austen and her daughters moved to the house in Chawton -- and Jane began to write and make music again.

Although the piano in the drawing room didn't belong to Jane, it was made in 1810 by Clementi. (We like to think that she played on something quite similar.) Surprisingly, house visitors are allowed to play on it. Yesterday, this young man from Germany opted for some Mozart. You never know when you are going to be treated to an impromptu concert. A few weeks ago, a group of W.I. women gathered around the piano to sing Jerusalem.

There are three kinds of visitors, really: those who want a private experience; those who ask questions of the stewards; and those who want to share their own knowledge, opinions and feelings about Jane. That latter category is certainly the most entertaining.

Although I have spent the summer boning up on all things Jane Austen and Regency period, I'm rarely asked to show off my command of the subject. (Annoyingly, when I am asked a question, it is often something obscure about the house and I am flummoxed. I wonder when that learning curve will start flattening out?)

Jane Austen's fans are notably possessive of their idol; unusually, for a historical figure, she is almost always referred to as "Jane" -- hardly ever "Austen" or Miss Austen.

Interestingly, the house allows for the really personal relationship. Unlike most historical homes, which are circumscribed by velvet ropes, Jane Austen's house is warm and welcoming. Visitors are allowed to wander around on their own, and may even take pictures (with the flash off, please).

Yesterday I had a memorable encounter with an irascible man who reminded me a bit of Squire Western, from Tom Jones -- one of the first English novels. As soon as he entered the house, he pounced: "Jane Austen would have been part of my family if she hadn't done a runner!" (Further questioning revealed that he was related to Harris Bigg-Wither -- the unlucky man who proposed to Jane, and was accepted, only to have her change her mind during the night.) Although the almost-relation had never read any of the Austen novels, and kept insisting that his wife had a shelf of them as long as your arm, he was awfully proud to be related to the man who has gone down in history as being jilted by Jane.

I've been asked, more than once, if the stewards dress in Regency costume. Sadly, the answer is no; we are not so picturesque.

(pictures from the Heritage Day at Chawton House)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


I've just tucked my daughter into bed; and tomorrow, when she wakes, it will be a school morning.  Six bags -- full of all sorts of shoes, hockey sticks, towels, school supplies and boarding kit -- sit by the door.  I wonder if she will sleep tonight?  I always felt (and still do feel) such a mixture of excitement and trepidation about the new school year.

I keep thinking, today, how endings and beginnings are somehow inextricable.  I feel a bit sad about the end of the summer, but at the same time I'm eager to crack on with fall.  I woke up feeling so deep-down weary, but as the day developed so did my energies.

We have spent much of the summer travelling, and now I feel ready to hunker down.  I'm feeling all "nesty," as Julochka described it during an email brainstorming session.  For the first time in ages, I feel like cooking . . . and applying myself to other slow-simmering projects. 

In the late golden light of the afternoon, we picked blackberries -- which became blackberry crumble, so juicy and buttery.  Yes, summer was sweet, but I think that I'm ready to move on.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Norfolk: summer's end

Norfolk isn't a place that you might just pass through; no, you have to want to go there. It requires a bit of an effort. It's one of those land's end places where the land meets the sea and a great overarching sky.

Perched on the edge of the North Sea, Norfolk was a hunting ground for Viking invaders. But if you are trying to approach it by car, instead of long-ship, be warned that is one of the few counties in England without a major motorway.

Much of England divides itself into a north/south paradigm, but Norfolk really doesn't fit into either category. It is exactly halfway between the two, and far to the east, and possesses its own sub-culture -- like most isolated places. "Normal for Norfolk" is either pejorative, or said with pride, depending on the speaker.

It seems fitting that England's most famous naval hero, Horatio Nelson, was a Norfolk lad. He grew up in Burnham Thorpe, which was only ten miles from the coastline. The Navy was a typical career choice for the younger son of a good family, and Nelson joined up at twelve, as did Jane Austen's two youngest brothers. (One of her brothers, Francis, actually served with Lord Nelson.)

One night we ate dinner at The Lord Nelson -- which was named for the hometown boy made good, following his decisive victory at The Battle of the Nile in 1798. As an adult, Nelson rarely returned to Norfolk unless he needed to recuperate from one of his injuries. I don't know if Norfolk was a place to sail, or just a place to sail away from . . .

While visiting the nearby Burnham Overy Staithe, we dropped into the village fête. Of course I couldn't resist the used-books stall, and I came away with several biographies with local interest -- including England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton and The Wilder Shores of Love. Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson were the ultimate celebrity couple of their time, and Hamilton's life story truly proved the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. I haven't read about the wilder shores yet, but it features four 19th century women whose lives were just as adventurous as Emma Hamilton's. One of them, Jane Digby, grew up at the local Holkham Hall. She later travelled with a Bedouin tribe, as the mistress of a Sheik. Norfok must have given her a taste for wind and sand and wide open spaces.

The estate of Holkham claims, with some justification I think, to have "the best beach in England."

A picture cannot begin to capture the seemingly limitless panaroma. There is so much sky there, and such a vast expanse of white sand, that even on a Bank Holiday weekend the beachgoing hordes seem about as significant as ants.

Although I am usually leery of horses, I have to admit that I wanted to be in the silver slipstream of this rider. It must be a glorious thing to gallop down such a beach.

Unfortunately, those beautiful Norfolk beaches are also rather windswept. We were grateful to be there during a sunny spell, but even so, we had to huddle in the long grasses of the dunes to eat our picnic. Even on a late August day, the wind is a cold whip.

Poor Fanny Nelson. Not only did Lord Nelson throw her over most publicly for Emma Hamilton, but he transplanted her from a West Indies beach to a Norfolk one. Apparently, she was "debilitated by the Norfolk damp and mud" (Williams, p. 189). "Mrs. Nelson takes large doses of the bed," reported her father-in-law.

Impervious to mud and wind, my youngest daughter didn't want to leave the beach. Not even when the golden hour turned to dusk.

We came to Norfolk in August, but when we left, it was already September. So now the sun sets on summer . . .