hard lessons

“I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.”

Robert Browning Hamilton

I don’t want to give the impression that something dire has happened–this quote can be applied, I believe, to life’s great misfortunes as well as the minor ones.  Experience is a great teacher, and a smooth road holds few lessons.

If you have never experienced the soul sucking, gut churning feeling of having the drain lines freeze in your home you are indeed lucky.  I have learned, thru experience, to deal with frozen water lines–living as I do in a mobile home, which is only a house in the broadest sense; it is a container in which I live.  An over size RV.  It was only meant to be temporary but as these things often do, has turned out to be not so temporary.  I mean, it’s perfectly ok.  The layout is actually very nice.  Situated as it is on the crest of a south facing hill, the views are beautiful.  But it is not a house.  And the flimsy, thin vinyl skirting is not much of a barrier against the winter wind or temperatures.  The water lines, exposed as they are, are vulnerable to the wind, particularly the south-east wind.  The water line is insulated as it come into the trailer, but it freezes right at the floor level, INSIDE the trailer in the porch.  A few moments with my trusty blow dryer soon thaws the line.

Sometimes it freezes in the pump house.  The pumphouse is also my potato storage facility so I have a small ceramic heater cycling every three hours to keep the temperature just above freezing.  Depending on the cycle and the windchill, the water will sometimes freeze overnight.  When I get up, before I hop into the shower, I turn the water on and let it run.  Several times I have hopped in and lathered up only to have the water peter out as the pressure tank empties, necessitating a frigid run out to the pumphouse to turn the heater up.  I learned that particular lesson many years ago.  If the water is frozen in the porch there will be absolutely nothing coming from the tap and I have only to prop up the blow dryer and wait for a few moments.

But yesterday, as I filled my coffee pot, I noticed the water wasn’t draining out of the sink.  I don’t know what prompted me to open the cupboard but I did and sure enough, water was pouring out of the drain underneath.  It looked worse than it was, as these things do, being only a two towel flood, but the drain was frozen under the trailer.  This hasn’t happened for five or six years as I have been very careful not to leave water sitting in the sink over night.  But I changed my sink last fall and the bottom is almost flat.  Therefore a pot sitting in the sink will pretty well seal off the drain, allowing only the tiniest dribble of water to leak out, which, due to the small volume, freezes on it’s way out to the septic tank.  The last time I went underneath to thaw this particular line I used a propane torch and almost set the trailer on fire.  So what to do?!?  I suited up and grabbed a flashlight, my trusty blow dryer, and an extension cord.  I slithered on my belly, thru the cat shit, bits of fiberglass insulation, and cob webs.  What a mess.  Every tradesman I’ve had out here has just left all their detritus where they dropped it–out of site, out of mind… And the cats, well, like everyone else, they like a  quiet, warm place to do their business.  (Back in high school, I remember our social studies teacher telling us the astonishing factoid, that the Canadian Government had given a poet a $40,000 grant for his chef d’oeuvre, a poem, repeating 45 times the line, “A warm place to shit“,  as this summarized the Canadian experience.)

I tapped on the black plastic pipe–it sounded hollow.  But it had to be frozen somewhere there, so on with the blow dryer.  I could hear the ice crackling in the pipe and I concentrated the flow on the elbow.  It began to drip underneath as well but not much and soon enough all the wet evaporated, the pipe dried and the crackling stopped.  I was all alone so there was no one to shout down that the water was draining.  I kept heating the line for 15 minutes or so, then slithered back out to see if there were any results.  SUCCESS!!

I’m only thankful I wasn’t doing a load of wash when this line was frozen.  That would have been a real mess.  So anyway, this wasn’t the disaster it could have been, but I’ve been complacent and not paying attention.  So I will now be more vigilent, but as Elizabeth Bennet’s father said about his guilty feelings when his youngest daughter eloped with George Wickham, that these feelings will pass, no doubt sooner than they should.  

well, ok then…

So it’s been 15 days since my last entry–has nothing happened you may ask?!?  So many things, all post worthy, but I have been a lazy bum…so what else is new…Perhaps a re-cap of the seasons events then I can carry on as usual…

Baking: blueberry pie, coconut macaroons. naked and with chocolate, mincemeat tarts, pinwheel cookies, and my father’s and my son’s favorite, South African crullers, Koeksisters. Goody bags for some of the ladies at my mom’s care home.


Then a yummy hunter stew with rabbit and mushrooms, with spaetzle in browned butter…there are all kinds of gadgets to make spaetzle, but the best by far is the way my aunt makes them–cutting them off a wooden board with a knife into boiling water, then into the pan of browned butter to get all crispy…

Some yummy salads to go with the stew, because, first, you eat with your eyes…(the broccoli salad just needs it’s dressing–mayo thinned with rice wine vinegar and a good stir, crunchy with salted sunflower seeds and the pepper salad is just dressed with rice wine vinegar, the perfect foil to the richness of the hunter stew…)

Winter has found us these past couple weeks and the frosty mornings have been amazing…

I hope you all had a fantastic Christmas and all the best for the New Year from my family to yours…IMG_8730

The past

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there…” L.P. Hartley

This time of year gets me thinking of Christmases past.  After a year of university in Moncton, New Brunswick, I determined I would not continue until I had seen some of the world.  A girlfriend and I made plans to backpack thru Europe, and after a summer of frugal living (at home, sponging off my parents and banking every sou I made) we took off in mid-September.  By the end of October we were so thoroughly sick of each other we parted company, she to travel in Israel and I to travel north to Scandinavia.  Early December found me in Haarlem, in the Netherlands.

Ida Berghuis.

She was the lady running the bed and breakfast I stayed in.  I was keeping company with a young Norwegian and we decided to split the cost of the room, both being financially embarrassed.  I can’t remember this young vikings’ name–lets just call him Sven.  Sven and I weren’t really together together, just taking advantage of a cheaper room rate for two.  I can still remember how bitterly disappointed Ida was that we chose the room with two single beds instead of the double.  I don’t think it really had anything to do with extra sheets to wash–she genuinely thought a young couple should share a bed–and considering it was early December and the entire upstairs of her house was UN-HEATED, she probably thought we had a greater chance of survival if we shared some body heat.  But we were young, we each had a down sleeping bag and had no intention of sharing a bed.

Ida was originally from Austria and she spoke no English.  Neither Sven nor I spoke Dutch but I had some German, and we had sign language.  We made out just fine.  My memory is that I spent several weeks there, with Sven departing for home after several days to refill his wallet.  I can’t possible have stayed there that long–there really wasn’t that much to do.  A day or two exploring Amsterdam, 20 minutes away by train. I remember a tour of the Heineken brewery, followed by a ramble thru the Van Gogh museum.  “Starry Night” never looked so animated after the several free litres of beer at the end of the tour.

Ida was 76 years old at the time, and drove a robin’s egg blue Volkwagon Beetle.  She loaded us both up the one day and drove us up north to the sea wall, and across a long causeway, stopping at herring stands on the way for pickled fillets of herring, eaten by holding the tail and munching your way up the fish, starting at the head.  We also had fried herring in crusty buns.  It was a lovely sunny day and for not having a common language we had lots of laughs and a great deal of fun.

Breakfast at Ida’s house was an experience I’ll never forget.  Warm buns, fresh from the bakery,  buttery wedges of cheese, both Edam and Gouda, a plate of sliced meats, jams, and the richest darkest coffee with thick cream.  She sat on a high stool in the corner of the kitchen encouraging us to eat more, and still more, until we thought we would burst.  We didn’t need anything till supper.

After Sven left, Ida and I spent the evenings in front of the TV, knitting and drinking gin.  My sister had just had a baby and I was knitting a little outfit, Ida was working on some other project.  She broke out the gin, an extremely good quality Dutch gin, jenever,  fragrant with juniper and other botanicals.  The only North American gin which comes close is Hendricks, but even more similar is Icelands’ Brenevin.  And we sat and knitted and sipped gin.

I walked lots thru the town and one afternoon I began to smell this intoxicating smell.  I knew it was some bakery item, and after wandering up and down streets I found the source.  The first clue was a line of shoppers snaking their way down the street, lining up at the door of a small bakery.  I stood in line too.  I wanted to see what could possibly smell so good.  Once in the shop, I could see that people were purchasing pastry sticks, about one inch diameter, and a foot long, with a crinkly crackly topping.  When my turn came, I asked for a “small” one, still not knowing what it was.  The rather well proportioned Dutch lady behind me snorted with laughter–“she wants a small one” hee hee hee.  Others were walking out with two, three and four sticks wrapped in paper tucked under their arms.

Once I got home, and sliced into this strange pastry, it all became clear to me.  Buttery flaky pastry, wrapped around a log of almond paste (the source of the intoxicating smell), melted together in the most crumbly delicious way possible.  I should have asked for a large one, or for two, or three.  That was the joke–they were so delicious, a small one just whetted the appetite for more.  I can’t think of Christmas without thinking of this pastry.  And I never knew the name of it–or if I did it was quickly forgotten.  The magic of the internet gave me the name and a recipe several years ago and this year I decided I had to make some.

The pastry is called banketstaaf (incomprehensibly translated as banquet bar?!?) Formed into bars, or letters, available at Christmas, and in my case, back ’83, for a limited time.  After I discovered what I had purchased I went back for more and it was all gone.  There was no more for days, perhaps there would have been more closer to Christmas–but I was on my way to Vienna.  That was all I had, “a small one”.

A whole pound of cold butter grated into four cups of salted flour.  Moistened with milk till a firm dough is formed, chilled overnight.  The almond paste was also grated, eggs and a very small amount of sugar added, well blended and chilled overnight to firm.  I didn’t like to look of the paste, it looked too loose to stay in the pastry, but I did follow the recipe.  IMG_8573


The paste was dolloped along the rolled pastry, the edges moistened and pinched and the logs washed with egg white and sprinkled with sugar, pricked to let the steam escape and then baked.  It took about seven minutes for the filling to leak out, but I carried on and let them finish. IMG_8577 I wonder if any filling was left inside?  They turned out beautiful, apart from all the leaked filling.  IMG_8581IMG_8586The pastry is so light and flaky and crackly–enough filling is left inside to flavour the log with the intoxicating scent of almonds.  I made a third one, which I put back in the freezer.  Maybe if I freeze it the pastry will cook and seal before the filling has a chance to leak out.  I’ll keep you posted.


Making room in the freezer

I had to make room in the freezer for the roosters I had just processed. The freezer has been filling fast with all the produce from the garden. I took out raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. The first two were for jam and the blueberries were for a pie. I ran the raspberries thru my mothers old juicer.  

   I didn’t want any seeds and didn’t want to push 5 quarts of berries thru a sieve. It actually worked very well and the kitchen filled with the smell of summer ripe berries. A splash of lemon juice and sugar to taste.  
I got ten pints of lovely jam. There was only enough strawberries for three pints of jam and just one pies’ worth of blueberries. A few drops of almond extract made the blue berries pop with flavour. Tomorrow I’ll make pastry, enough for a few pies and some tarts. 
It wasn’t particularly cold today, only -7 but the windchill made it feel much colder. It’s quite damp too, the sort of misty drizzly foggy cold  that gets into your bones.  

For chores I suited up in my coveralls and fur hat and put the wiener in her winter coat. She hates me 😳😳 

 Now I’m going to veg on the couch with a book, under a blanket and my furry hot water bottle. (I think she really likes her cosy coat 😊)


Where does the time go?

I feel as though I just posted my last story but here it is, three weeks later. How did that happen??  This weekend was so incredibly gorgeous. The forecast was right on the money and I planned to butcher the roosters during this warm spell. They had to go sooner or later. If I’d left them I may not have been able to finish them before spring.  These birds were ones I hatched out here on the farm. My layers are getting older and I like to add new girls to the egg roster every spring. This year I had so many broody hens and they are so much better at hatching babies than the incubator I had.  I think I had about 50 chicks and half turned out to be roosters. These are all heritage breeds, slow growers compared to the frankenbirds that are sold as meat birds. I’ve grown the Cornish giants and after the first couple years I learned to control their feed so their legs wouldn’t buckle under their weight. They are truly marvels of genetic engineering, growing incredibly fast, so fast that their legs, heart and lungs can’t really keep up with them. So many sites on line vilify these poor birds but if their feed is controlled and they have room to move they are the best feed converters around. Six to eight weeks will produce a 4-5 pound bird.  KFC uses these birds exclusively–a six week bird grown in a cage with unlimited feed. Their drumsticks are straight cause the poor things are just sitting in front of the food conveyor belt. Eating and pooping. What a life. My boys were free range all summer and only were cooped with the cold weather. But their coop was big and they had lots of room to move. 

Last Thursday and Friday I planned and got everything ready. Saturday morning I built a firebox for the scalding kettle, made a table from straw bales and a sheet of plywood, hauled in a load of firewood and we started. My daughter is the chicken catcher extraordinaire. I killed and scalded. Scalding mean to swoosh the carcass in hot water, 145-155 F so the feathers loosen. Then we hung the bird and my daughter plucked. Then the bird was transferred to my table and I gutted.   Into a tub full of icy cold water to chill and onto the next one. A real assembly line.  Saturday was such an unseasonably warm day but it’s still December and we had limited day light. We got 13 done from 11am to 4pm. I was glad to quit. Then Sunday we carried on and finished the last eight. Those of you paying attention will note that doesn’t add up to 25. I kept two roosters for next year. My daughter choose a third. And there were two we really weren’t sure if they were roosters or not so we gave them the benefit of the doubt. And one of the thirteen was a little silkie. My daughter wanted to try one. They’re supposed to be very tasty and are quite prized in the Asian market having black skin and flesh. We’ll find out. 

I’ve never let the birds chill before, having limited fridge space and I always butchered in the heat of the summer. Butchering in December had the advantage of a large outdoor cold room and the very special advantage of no wasps, the bane of my outdoor life. Safely stored inside the large Tupperware containers I left the Saturday carcasses to chill in the barn till today (48 hours) and will finish the last eight  tomorrow. They weigh between 3-5 pounds, much smaller than the 10-12 pounders I used to process but they are not frankenbirds. The proof of the bird will be in the eating  I suppose. I added corn to their feed to see if I could change the color of the carcass  to make them look more European. I was amazed in Spain and Vienna at how yellow the chickens were. It’s definitely the feed.

 I have no pictures of the gory process but this tray of beauties makes me proud.