flying the coop

When it was time to take our leave of the cottage on the lake and go to live in the old farmhouse at Ravenhill, moving house was quite literally what we needed to do. Our sturdy little henhouse had a journey to undertake.

We made a date with a crane to pluck it from under the trees, fly it through the air, drive it through winding narrow forest country, and lift it over the herb farm fence to a spot we’d levelled and set with stones.

In the midst of packing up, we were struck with news that a tumour had returned, and I would face another major surgery in a couple of weeks time. When it rains, it pours! Which is precisely what it did – happily not until after we’d set the henhouse in place, and brought our eleven sweet hens to it, nestled in boxes of pine shavings, to settle in and wonder what just happened.

Deconstructing, then reconstructing the mink-proof run was an enormous challenge, for which I am so grateful to my father and his methodical approach. Now we are all settled in (and wondering what just happened). I am recovering well, having been carefully tended by my sweetheart and children through my convalescence, and we are beginning some new and exciting things over at Ravenhill Herb Farm! Yes, Noël Richardson wrote such exquisite books about this place. I loved In a Country Garden, and read it when I was convalescing the first time, back in March. How strange life can be. The new landowners here are wonderful, you must come and visit their farmstand if you’re ever on Vancouver Island.

ricotta cheese 

While it is true that one can extract a bit of ricotta cheese by cooking acidified whey leftover from yogurt or other dairying, I like to produce this simple cheese from a gallon of goat’s milk (from the goats we are tending now! That’s a story for another day.) Quite a lot of cheese is produced using this method, and it is the easiest and the quickest cheese I know. Let me show you how it’s done.

You’ll need a pot that easily holds a gallon of milk,
an acid like lemon, vinegar, or citric acid,
sea salt,
a thermometer,
a whisk,
some cheesecloth or butter muslin,
a colander,
a fine mesh strainer,
a slotted spoon,
and a bit of string just in case.

Make sure all of your tools are very clean. Cheesemaking books say to sterilise them – I use straight vinegar, well rinsed away, after hot, soapy water, and I scald my cheesecloth.

First, acidify the milk with lemon, vinegar, or citric acid – I use 1.5 teaspoons of the latter in our goat’s milk. In cow’s milk, use less.

Add a teaspoon of sea salt. Using a whisk and making up-and-down motions is a good habit to get into when cheesemaking.

ricotta

Raise the temperature very slowly, over a good ½ hour, to between 184 – 190F, stirring now and then to prevent burning on the bottom.

When you see the milk separate into curds and whey (chartreuse liquid), you’re done – take off the heat and cover the pot, let it sit for ten minutes.

Scoop out the whey into a clean cloth – I use butter muslin – over a strainer, first using a slotted spoon, and at the end, a fine mesh strainer.

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Gather the corners of the cloth and tie them securely, and then string this up to suspend the ricotta to drain for a quarter of an hour. Sometimes I put two tall milk bottles on either side of the bowl with a long wooden spoon holding the tie. The longer you drain it, the dryer. After that you could put a plate on top, and a weight of some kind over it, and you’d have paneer!

You’ll have a lot of whey left. If I cannot use it up in a couple of days, I freeze it or use it in my fermented chicken feed. However, you can add it to soup, to sourdough starter, in place of water in any baking recipe, in milk shakes. It’s really high protein.

Keep the ricotta in the fridge for up to a week – ours never lasts a day. Glorious in lasagne, desserts, on homemade crackers with some herbs.

lip balm

Making our own lip balm is easier and faster than preparing dinner most nights. Even with highest quality ingredients, making it is cheaper than buying it, and one can make it just so. What’s more, melting oils and waxes and watching them set is ever so pleasing.

Sourcing your ingredients and some good tins is the trickiest bit. (Locals, we are particularly fond of places like The Soap Dispensary in Vancouver, and Self-Heal Herbs in Victoria for this stuff!)

We made this with young friends recently (with the elders in charge of melting ingredients) and it took no time at all.

There’s not much to it:

1 tablespoon shea butter 

1 tablespoon coconut oil 

2 tablespoons sweet almond, hemp oil, or olive oil  

2 tablespoons beeswax, grated, or up to 4 tablespoons if you prefer a firm, less oily balm 

optional: 1/4 tsp edible oil/extract such as peppermint, orange, vanilla 

Melt the butters, oils and wax in a double boiler, or a heatproof bowl set inside a pot, above an inch or so of water, set to very low heat.
Once melted, remove from the heat and then stir in the flavoured oil.
Pour the mixture into tins and let it set without lids until morning, or chill it in the fridge if you’re in a hurry.

Like making soap, a little effort once a year or so is all that’s required to make what we need. I like that I can refill the containers, too, when we run out. Nothing wasted.

artichoke harvest

Growing artichokes is very much like a long friendship of the sort that, once established, requires little and gives a lot.

I longed to grow these gloriously elegant, edible flowers. I did try, in London – not enough sun, too many snails. And in Sussex – another failure, do start the seeds in late January! One must be patient with an artichoke’s youth, though if you really have started early enough to catch some cold weather, you may see flowers that summer. Finally at our lakeside garden, the seedlings sprouted very well, and grew into tender adolescents.

A year later they took off with impressive splendour and soon we harvested the giant buds. To prepare them, we cut the base flat, and stand them in a bit of water, covered, to steam for a very long twenty minutes, during which there is plenty of time to melt butter and squeeze lemon into finger bowls.

When a low leaf pulls softly away, it is time. With our largest mixing bowl ready in the center of the table to catch the great leaf-pile, and tiny bowls of lemon butter at each place, we pluck petal after petal from the outside of the artichoke, dipping, scraping teeth over leaf to graze the softest bit. More patience required, but the sweetest kind. This is most definitely a seductive food. I help the children when they reach the heart, prickly on one side and still protected under tiny leaves on the other. If you pry at a slight angle, with a sharp knife, you can separate the itchy prickles from the artichoke heart without much trouble. Then a buttery, lemony chin is inevitable, as is a bit of rapture.

All this for a bit of water, a haircut in late summer, a mulch before winter. Resilient plant. These artichokes may be our companions for twenty years! What a pleasing thought.

curing garlic

Each year in late autumn we plant the garlic, and each year around midsummer, we dig it up and lay it out to cure in a warm, airy, shady spot.

(Our cats were here to oversee the whole project, we got them from a rescue at garlic-planting time. They’re adults now, and such affectionate creatures, yet such brilliant hunters, curbing our rabbit, rat and mouse populations. Luckily they don’t like garlic themselves.)

The garlic bulbs are petite in the site I chose this year, but this harvest is still plenty for our needs. An easy thing to grow, and one less thing to remember to buy, I love that.