beekeeping

Early in October, when autumn was convinced it was summer, we visited my dear friend Sarah and her children in the city. In her beautiful kitchen I stumbled upon the most beautiful and unexpected object.

honey frame

A frame from their beehive, thoroughly sculpted with honeycomb, heavy with honey. I had no idea Sarah kept a hive in the garden! I fell over. Such an astonishing, amazing thing. How much would I love to do this! Like keeping chickens, beekeeping takes some studying, a well-designed structure, a good spot in the garden and a bit of bravery – and learning from watching someone else helps so much. Now I have a beekeeping friend to watch, with keen interest.

honeycomb

I’ve admired the hives on Old Plawhatch Farm near our old cottage in Sussex, and listened to a fascinating talk there by the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Sarah and I talked about how she’s caring for the bees, instinctively following principles I’ve become so interested in. What if the hive isn’t opened often, so it stays warmer, the way the bees need it? What if honey is only taken when the hive is particularly heavy, so the bees have their natural food through winter?

<beehive

The hive strikes me as an unimaginable treasure. The intoxicating scent of beeswax, and so many wonderful uses for the beautiful stuff; the exquisite particularity of flavours of a local honey, and its extraordinary healing benefits; the tremendous contribution a beehive imparts to the health of the neighbourhood’s flora; the utter delight of watching the grace and beauty of bees at work. I love it, I am completely inspired. Thank you, Sarah.

halloumi

After making cheese at home, cheese as delightfully simple as cream cheese and as entertaining as mozzarella, I was thrilled to spend a day studying how they make cheese on the farm. Another soft cheese, the exquisitely squeaky halloumi. Follow me around Old Plawhatch Farm‘s dairy to see how it’s done.

making halloumi cheese

We begin, of course, with the milk. Old Plawhatch’s biodynamic farming practice is not only idyllic, deeply in tune with a beloved herd and the rolling Sussex hills they graze on, but it produces a living food, full of all the enzymes needed to digest cow’s milk. It’s clean, gorgeously rich stuff, and what’s more, we’re making cheese just at the time when the cows are eating that rapidly-growing springtime grass that seems to promote extraordinary healing. You’ll see the golden evidence in the pictures below.

making halloumi cheese

Compared to my cheese-making, even seeing this much milk at one time is remarkable. The walls of the vat are filled with hot water to slowly warm the milk.

making halloumi cheese

Meet Tali, who runs the dairy. She’s measuring and preparing rennet for when the milk reaches the correct temperature;

making halloumi cheese

Then stirring the rennet well in, just as I do with mozzarella and other cheeses.

making halloumi cheese

We clean the dairy extremely well in preparation, as we’ll need a sterile environment to culture the cheese.

making halloumi cheese

Isn’t the old cheese press gorgeous?

making halloumi cheese

Large, round cheese moulds are lined with a reusable cheese-cloth. A metal screen is also sterilised, ready for when it is needed to strain the whey from the curds.

making halloumi cheese

Tali has a good trick for checking if the vegetable rennet has set the milk: press a finger into the surface, then lift up – the curds should separate cleanly.

making halloumi cheese

We attach large metal blades to the mechanism to cut the curds. This is the same step in making mozzarella, when you slice the curds into cubes with a long knife.

making halloumi cheese

Gorgeous, chartreuse whey releases from the curds.

making halloumi cheese

While we’re between tasks the brine is made by measuring sea salt into a clean bin and filling it with water.

making halloumi cheese

Now the screen is fitted to the vat. Here we go! The next part is a bit like a fire brigade, only with whey. Luckily we had a bit of an international brigade of volunteers.

making halloumi cheese

Open the tap; catch the whey in a clean bucket;

making halloumi cheese

And pour it into another vat. This one will heat the whey.

making halloumi cheese

Scoop up the curds;

making halloumi cheese

Into the waiting cheese moulds.

making halloumi cheese

Fiddle with the cheese press, add weights, set it all up to press on the moulds.

making halloumi cheese

Whey will drain across the table and into waiting buckets. A treat for the pigs! Let’s go have lunch at the farm shop while we wait for it to press. I love the food there, grown on Plawhatch, the sister farm Tablehurst, and all over England.

making halloumi cheese

Pressed. Look at that.

making halloumi cheese

That is a cheese!

making halloumi cheese

For halloumi, there’s a few more steps. Having turned the cheeses out of their moulds, cut them up.

making halloumi cheese

Cut, and cut.

making halloumi cheese

Once it is cut you can see what an astonishing amount of cheese it is. Remember the hot whey?

making halloumi cheese

Drop the cheese into the vat of hot whey. We leave it there for awhile;

making halloumi cheese

Then lift the cheese out;

making halloumi cheese

Rub it well with sea salt;

making halloumi cheese

And send it off to chill.

making halloumi cheese

Once it is chilled, drop the cheese into the waiting brine. The sea salt will preserve the halloumi well, for a soft cheese. Tali recommends soaking the halloumi in water for a bit to draw out some of the salt before using it.

making halloumi cheese

Have you eaten halloumi? I adore it grilled, served with lots of vegetables. Absolutely delicious. Thank you, Old Plawhatch!

quilted mats

Do you remember some patchwork quilted placemats I was making? I used the projects to experiment with patchwork and stitching various quilted patterns. Four of them were just right to fit round our table.

patchwork quilted placemat © elisa rathje 2012

I’m quite pleased with how they turned out. I quilted a diamond shape, a simple angle, overlapping circles, and squares. The patchwork on these quilted mats is quite vivid, often I prefer to turn them linen-side up. I made my own linen bias tape to finish them, amazing how that brings it all together.

patchwork quilted placemat © elisa rathje 2012

Oh, I do miss that bright little room in the old English cottage.

coracle

Since the earliest days of spring I’ve been visiting the pond on Old Plawhatch Farm, to document a project that grew out of a beautiful mentorship. A handmade boat. To celebrate the solstice and long days at the water, swimming days, boating days, I bring you the launch of the Flying Terapin.

coracle-beginning
When Callum, our 9-year-old mate in bushcraft, woodwork and art, first showed me the coracle, it was a skeleton of young coppiced branches stuck deep into the banks of the spring and woven together along the earth. Logs from a major pruning round the water (the algae on the pond needed to be reduced by exposing it to more sunlight!) weighted the top to create the boat’s shape as the young branches aged.
the coracle wood
This is the coppice where the new, bendy, sprouting branches were cut from. I love the tradition of building a boat beside the water where it will be set afloat, and using the materials found around it.
<the coracle woven
On my next walk on to the farm the framework had been woven together with more young shoots. In the farm shop one day I ran into Callum’s mentor, the affable Daniel Yabsley, and asked him about the project.
the coracle
Calico would be a traditional cover, but being fairly expensive, Dan helped Callum attach a tarpaulin to the framework instead. Canvas or animal skins were also used for these types of boats. One beautiful day in June a crowd of us joined the boatbuilders down at the old spring to launch the coracle. We flipped it over, off the bank and into the water. You can see the seat wedged in, not an easy project in itself.
the coracle launch
I think a mentorship is such a brilliant way to learn. One into the boat, two into the boat;
the coracle - they're off!
And they’re off! The boys used just one paddle and a wiggly sort of rowing.
coracle-passengers
Once round the pond and to the bank for passengers. The coracle is astonishingly stable! A race with the rowboat, and just about everyone (and their dog, truthfully) had a go.
the coracle © elisa rathje 2012 with thanks to james mccabe
Even me. What a thrill, to be out on the water on a beautiful day, in a handmade boat. Callum popped open a bottle of sparkling blueberry juice to mark the occasion.
the coracle © elisa rathje 2012 with thanks to james mccabe
(For the coracle thrill-seekers amongst you, you might like to know that one can spin round in circles rather quickly.) Such a wonderful old British tradition, coracle building. Happy summer solstice!

knaves acre

Knaves Acre is the 400-year-old cottage in Sussex that we had the utter delight to live in for a couple of years. Such a community, such wonderful countryside, and a beloved circle of friends. The old cottage is featured in the summer issue of the British interior design magazine, Heart Home. There are beautiful, inspiring spaces in every issue, do go have a look. Would you like to see Knaves from their perspective? Here are some of the images.

knaves-10.jpg

In my studio, the hand-crank machine on the long antique table, usually covered in fabrics, papers, clay pieces, but sometimes transformed for a party.

knaves-1.jpg

The old treadle. Those steps lead up to a reading room in the eaves, and the door opens to the deck and a spectacular view across the weald.

knaves-2.jpg

I do love shelving in a studio for yarns and fabrics and excellent tools. I like to see my things, and know where to find everything at a glance.

knaves-9.jpg

Our daybed, much transformed since we acquired it, with the pillows I sewed as studies in linen all across it. Friends would sleep here, and it is the best place to curl up with tea and a book. I’m very fond of the craft cupboard in the corner.

knaves-8.jpg

We studied at the little round table in the mornings and shared our meals there in the evenings. I like to keep an old crate full of study books and pencils nearby, and basket for napkins and mats. I always thought of the ledge beside it as a mantel, though the little wood stove is opposite.

knaves-7.jpg

The writing desk that I fixed up, and its companion, the painted chair. I love to have a place dedicated to writing and image editing, and all the small things that surround that sort of work. Well positioned between the wood stove and the windows! The doors lead to the rambling old garden, once an acreage, with a pond and a swing and a greenhouse in it. And a cliff!

knaves-6.jpg

The settee is an upholstery project, my first. Next to it a table I revived, and my tall girl’s bluebird typewriter, with a story in it as always. The flowers all round the cottage were picked at Blooming Green.

knaves-4.jpg

Up the steps are the bedrooms, with the painted bed and pot cupboard. The vaulted ceilings are something else! From that window we could see the Bluebell steam by in the distance.

knaves-3.jpg

And through to the girls’ room, tiny but perfectly formed. The truckle bed helped the space function well, such a cosy little room in the eves. One wall was entirely lined with shelves full of books and beloved games.

knaves-5.jpg

I loved this kitchen for its marble counter in one corner, bright windows beyond the hob, and open space to stack my own pottery along with pieces I’ve collected. (And for its old edition of Mrs Beeton’s.) It was fascinating, and so much fun, to watch the lovely editors and photographer Paul Craig working to tell the cottage’s story, looking at the space so differently and shooting from angles I’d never have expected. We ate the tarts I’d baked, and had a lovely time.