Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Day of Reckoning

I'm sure most of us know that Hallowe'en was originally an old Celtic holiday called Samhain, but not everyone knows that Samhain was about cattle, crops and kin, back in the day.
Imagine you've been working your butt off to harvest everything you can before first frost, before winter really hits. The teenagers and unmarried folks have been up in the hills all summer, pasturing the cattle herds on abundant summer grass in a tradition called transhumance. After living in booley huts for the season, they are bringing the livestock back to the lowlands, and you get to see family members for the first time in months.
But a few other important things happened on Samhain. Rent day, for one.
In early Irish society, land was owned, not by individuals, but by the clan (or tribe) as a whole, and administered by a chief. The chief assigned the use of portions of land based on skill, family connections, popularity and politics. You would also be set up with a grubstake of livestock, housing and equipment based on your station in life. At some point you had to repay the inital investment, but any "surplus" livestock and crops you could produce were yours. Sometimes rent was payable in livestock, sometimes in service to the chief, and sometimes in agricultural products like butter or malted barely for brewing. Anyone who wasn't a chief or clan head owed rent to someone up the food chain, but often a chieftain would use some of the bounty to have a Samhain feast for the people s/he governed.
The myriad details of these transactions were governed by a complex system called the Brehon laws. Another facet of Samhain administered by this law code was the uptick in livestock value that was accounted for on this day. Every animal and piece of equipment on a rath was worth an assigned value (like in an insurance policy). Calves that were born before Beltaine of that year (May 1st) would now be worth even more money. That was always a good thing to a struggling farmer.Samhain is also the day when all crops and wild fruits were considered off-limits. Anything not harvested was food for the fairies or Puca. Children were warned against eating berries left unpicked for fear of angering the fairy folk, that it would make them sick. In more practical terms, farmers should have their crops in by now, and know just how much food they can count on until the next harvest.So, the cattle are in for the winter, and valued higher according to their age and gender. The rent is paid, crops are in, family are back from the hills, and it's almost winter. Time for feasting before the cold dark weather settles in for the long haul. And living family members weren't the only ones ready to reconnect after a long separation. This time of year, the walls between the dead and the living were considered the thinnest, and family members who had passed on were expected to return home, at least for one night. Places were set at the table and around the fire for departed loved ones who might return for a visit.

As times changed, and the Christian religion absorbed indigenous traditions, the focus of Samhain became more about placating ghosts and getting treats than about settling debts and visiting with loved ones. At Seven Trees, we like to celebrate Samhain by enjoying all the harvested yummies, visiting with friends, preparing for winter, and remembering our ancestors.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

All steamed up over pumpkins

This time of year my thoughts turn to pumpkins! I always fill the freezer full of pre-measured baggies of pumpkin puree for use throughout the year. I had one 2-cup bag left from last year to cook up before refilling with a fresh hoard of sugar pie goodness, so I settled on this recipe:

Here's their picture of it. And the recipe:

Notes: Serve this moist steamed pudding with sweetened whipped cream flavored to taste with rum.

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (3/8 lb.) butter, at room temperature

1 3/4 cups sugar

2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin

1/4 cup cup rum

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

1 teaspoon vanilla

1. In a bowl, mix flour with cornmeal, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt.
2. In another bowl, with a mixer on high speed, beat butter and sugar until well blended. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in pumpkin, rum, lemon peel, and vanilla. Stir in flour mixture until well incorporated.
3. Scrape batter into a buttered 8- to 9-cup bundt pan and set in a 12- by 17-inch baking pan. Place on bottom rack of a 350° regular or convection oven. Carefully pour boiling water around bundt pan almost to the level of pudding. Cover entire baking pan tightly with foil.
4. Bake until the pudding feels firm to the touch and a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, then invert over a plate to unmold. Serve warm, or let cool completely and cover loosely until serving. Reheat in a 350° regular or convection oven until warm, about 10 minutes. To serve, slice into wedges.

We used our pudding steamer, which sets in a large, covered soup kettle, with a few inches of water, to cook it. It simmered for about an hour then we had to run an errand. I turned it off, and steamed it a bit more when we got back, until a wooden toothpick came out clean.
Our version came out really dense, but tasty. Not sure if it was the extended steaming time, or that I forgot to mix in the eggs until later in the process. It unmolded perfectly (I sprayed the steamer with cooking spray and dusted it with flour) and we ate some with a drizzle of half & half, and some with huckleberry syrup. Tasty!!

Gratuitous kitty porn.....Magnus filling in as laundry inspector, making sure the dryer is working within acceptable parameters.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Still at it...

Even though we've had a few frosts, and the garden is rather bare and sad-looking, we have plenty of food processing left at Seven Trees. Our hearth has been doing yeoma'am's duty, curing squash, ripening peppers (in paper bags with an apple for ethylene gas), drying beans and wet outerwear. The kitties will be happy when there's room for them to bask in the heat again.

Here's a new batch of kraut-chi in the works. We added some grated beets to this one, so it's now pink-chi.

We had to do a rush harvest of all the peppers left in the garden, thanks to the sub-freezing nights we've had lately. They weren't all fully ripened, but look at the color on those Jimmy Nardellos!

We put a light in the coop for the hens, to help them keep laying as the days get shorter. They get a couple hours, morning and night. At bedtime, they tend to go in & out like it was a poultry night club. Mornings, they get up in the dark and are looking for scratch while it's pitch black. I've never had hens who liked the dark, but as long as they're happy, we're happy....

We have a few batches of homebrew in the works now - a spiced winter ale just bottled, an English bitter that will be bottled next week, and a cyser, made from fressed pressed apple juice and raw honey, still bubbling away in the carboy. If we can find enough cheap pears tomorrow, we'll press them for perry and try a batch of hard pear cider.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Too cool!

Here's another "farm home convenience" I like, from a USDA Famers' Bulletin, March 1918.
We use a version of this concept for our pantry, involving keeping a window cracked and the door shut, so that the whole room stays quite a bit colder than the rest of the house. Not as ideal as a root cellar, but a good compromise for our house. The idea below would be pretty easy to manage, assuming you have a north-facing window you wouldn't mind giving up for the duration. We're also exploring the old-fashioned cool-cupboard idea, involving vents cut into the wall/floor/ceiling to best allow flow of cooler air through a cupboard or storage area. My house in Seattle had wall cupboards in the kitchen with built-in screened vents. A dandy low-tech way to extend food storage!

And our customary critter pic - Newt enjoying corn on the cob. Who knew kitties liked corn?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Stella mooves on

Stella has found a new home with a wonderful family in the nearby town of Granite Falls. Here she is being led to the trailer. It was not an easy decision, but one that should put us in a better place to work on all the other aspects of Seven Trees we have planned. Having a milk cow was a great experience, but with both of us working full time, we were running full speed to keep up. We may look for another cow in the future, but for now we'll enjoy working with Gemini and raising the two boy cows.
Now it's time to get ready for winter. We expect first frost any night now, and most of the garden has been harvested. We're both suffering from some horrific cold/flu bug, so the chore list is much too long for the time we have. With the economy going nuts, planning nexts year's garden is even more crucial. We'll be evaluating veggie varieties that we have tried to see what we want to repeat, and eagerly awaiting new seed catalogs for new things to try.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Farm Home Conveniences

It's hard to imagine living in a situation where this "convenience" would markedly improve the quality of food storage. We're so used to easy availability of appliances or at least ice, for keeping food cold. I hope we never end up relying on this kind of "technology" but in the spirit of "hope for the best, plan for the worst" here are instructions on making and using your very own Iceless Refrigerator.
Notice the assumption that everyone knows how to do basic carpentry and has the tools and materials at hand for small projects...
I could see a little "fridge" like this sitting on our porch to keep fruit or baked goodies cool. When I bought my c.1930 house in Seattle, there was a pie safe and metal-lined bin on the back porch, plus one set of upper cabinets (on the north wall) had small screened vents, top & bottom. This was used as a cool cupboard, for foods that were less perishable but still benefitted from being kept cooler than indoor temperature. We often ponder having vents put into our pantry wall (also on the north side) but it's rather drastic to poke two holes into an otherwise perfectly sound wall. Later I'll post a nifty cool cupboard idea from this same pamphlet, which would work great if you have an easy-to-open window on your north wall.
Notice the need for sewing skills and equipment in making the refrigerator cover! No wonder farms worked best when one person could stay home all day. You need that much time just to work on all these projects.
Also relating to farm home conveniences, and after much consideration, we've decided to sell Stella and Ryder. The logistics involved just with getting Bob up here to rebreed Stella got us pondering the logistics of the whole cattle breeding empire in general. As rewarding as the experience has been, most of our resources have been focused on cattle needs and infrastructure, with the result that all our other plans have been pinched, poked and shoved aside more than we like.
Another factor in our decision is that we've found a dairy, 3 miles away, that produces milk we really like. It's not raw, and it's not organic, but the owners take good care of their cows and are very willing to share information about their operation. We've sampled milk from every dairy in our county, raw, cooked, conventional, organic, and Breckenridge Dairy produces milk that is the next best tasting to Stella's, for $3 a gallon. They also make their own cream, half & half and butter.
So we'll keep Doug for the freezer, and when Stella & Ryder are gone, we'll probably buy an auction steer to raise for beef each year. One cow and one pony, plus our laying flock, should be a great balance of critters to eat our grass, without having to break the bank bringing in hay each year.