The Great British Bark Off!

You can’t beat a bit of home barking, sorry I meant baking….

I love a baking challenge and when Oggi’s Oven Baking Mixes arrived on our doorstep, I couldn’t resist the temptation, much to the delight of our hungry dogs!

There are 3 varieties available, Scones, Biscuits and Cakes.  It’s great to hear that they are all free from artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, made from human grade ingredients and 100% British.

The packets contain the mixes ready to go, all you need to add is water and/or vegetable oil and the Biscuits and Scones come with their own cutters.  Full instructions for all are included on the box so now there’s no excuse not to get baking.

Scones (with paw cutter):  No need to use a mixer, I stuck with a bowl and spoon as suggested and was pleasantly surprised to end up with a lovely soft dough and less washing up!  I rolled it out to what I guessed was about 6mm and found that I didn’t have quite enough to make the 14 scones stated on the box, instead I ended up with 12.  Luckily that was enough to divide evenly between our 3 dogs.

They cooked quickly and rose slightly.  When I took them out of the oven, they smelled delightful.  The dogs were hanging around hoping I may drop one or two but no such luck.

Biscuits (with bone cutter): Once again it was easy to mix straight from the packet but this time it was a much stiffer dough to roll out.  At first I wasn’t sure about the cutter as the bones seemed to stick inside, but a firm tap was all that was needed to release them.  I managed to get 24 bones from the mix rather than the 20 stated on the box and they were nice and chunky just the way the dogs like them.

Cakes:  For the cake mix there are a couple of suggested options, either a 12 bun tin or a 7″ cake.  I chose to use cup cake cases in my bun tin. These need to be removed before serving as I’m sure our dogs wouldn’t bother and would wolf the whole lot down.  I thought that the cup cakes cases were a bit on the big side, our dogs have to watch their waistlines, just like us, so I used some of the mix in petit four cases.   They were more bite size and would make a better training treat.

I was a bit confused by the mixture, expecting it to be of pouring consistency like a normal cake mix.  Instead it was like chewing gum.  I thought maybe I’d not added enough liquid but I’m sure I followed the instructions to the letter.  I carried on regardless and dolloped the mix into the cases safe in the knowledge that the dogs wouldn’t complain if they weren’t perfect (unlike some critics I know, no names mentioned!).  Despite the thick mixture they cooked OK, apart from the fact that I didn’t get the domed rise you would expect to see on a cupcake, instead they remained rather “rugged” looking, more like a muffin.

The verdict:  All three mixes were quick and simple and cooked perfectly – no soggy bottoms there.  Since they state human grade ingredients, we were keen to taste them ourselves.

The scones we found slightly sweet, despite claiming to be savoury on the box.

The biscuits I thought tasted a bit meaty but this may just have been my imagination.

The cake, again was rather sweet and very “cakey”. As suspected the smaller ones were better as quick bite.

Overall, I think they are ideal for a bit of a doggy treat.  The bones would be the better choice if you were going to use them for training, you could always add a bit of smelly cheese to the mix to give them some extra incentive!  Good fun and an ideal gift for any dog loving friends.

And what did the dogs think?

Well there were no turned up noses, they were keen to try all three, although Daisy was reluctant to let anyone else join the tea party.

Goosey goosey gander

A stray goose arrives and trouble begins

A couple of years ago we discovered a goose strolling around the yard.  Thinking it was one of ours, we shepherded it back to the field.  However, when we got there we realised that ours were all present and accounted for.  We could only assume that someone had dumped it as they don’t usually fly.

We already had 3 geese and a gander, and one of the geese has lived here longer than us!  We ushered the newcomer into the paddock, left it with the others and initially it seemed fine. Then we noticed that the gander was picking on it a little.  It gradually got worse and feathers were being plucked.

Since he wouldn’t accept the newbie, we assumed it was a gander (geese are not easy to sex) and moved it in with the ducks where it lived quite happily for almost a year.

One morning when collecting the eggs, we found a huge one in the duck shed.  It was a goose egg, therefore, she wasn’t a gander after all!  We moved her back in with the geese but sectioned off a piece of the goose hut so that she would be away from the gander.

All was peaceful and eventually we removed the partition so they were all living together.

Unfortunately though, a couple of weeks ago just as the geese were starting to lay, the gander once again began picking on her.  He became quite nasty, so for her own safety, we returned her to the duck shed and installed a nesting box for her.  If she starts to sit on her eggs, it won’t be much use but we may be able to slip a few duck eggs under her for hatching.

She seems contented now and the ducks don’t seem to mind so we may as well leave her there permanently.

Well, well

We discover our water supply is not fit for human consumption

When we first moved here, we knew the water supply wasn’t up to scratch but we were so excited at the prospect of having our own well that we didn’t give it a second thought.  We never drank water straight from the tap anyway.  Rather than a quaint “wishing well” we were rather disappointed to find a concrete tube outside the kitchen window.

We live in an area full of peat bogs.  As a result, when it rained the water was always a delightful yellow colour but we weren’t that concerned.  After a couple of months however, we found that our hair was turning green, well those of us that still had hair!

The copper was being stripped from the pipes so we hastily invested in a ph filter and that cured it.  Unfortunately the filter was so large it had to sit outside next to the well and has been known to freeze in extremely cold weather, leaving us rather dry.

Recently we found out that our local council are encouraging householders to apply for grants to improve their private water supply, so we decided to enquire.

We had the water tested from the kitchen tap and got a call a few days later, followed by a letter telling us “DON’T DRINK THE WATER”.  Apparently it was full of bacteria, but luckily no e.coli.  We just carried on as normal.

A week or so later, we got the full test results and discovered that there was a large deposit of aluminium.  Boiling obviously wouldn’t remove that.

In fact we discovered that aluminium was not easy to get rid of and therefore not covered under the grant; we would have to find an alternative water supply.  Boreholes and mains connections were mentioned but these run into many thousands of pounds and we would have to pay half.

On top of that we were told that if we did have a new borehole dug and they still found aluminium in our water, the grant would be null and void.

We were a bit stumped.

The EHO returned to do a second test, this one straight from the well and we were on edge waiting for the results.  Eventually they arrived and surprisingly there was no trace of aluminium!  With so much rain in these parts the water table changes all the time so it could be that there was something in the water at the time of the first test or it may mean that the aluminium is in the house, although we can’t think where.

However, it does leave us clear to apply for the grant to get a decent filtration system installed which eliminate all the other nasties and for the first time we may actually be able to drink it.

An early lambing

Lambing earlier than usual was not the best idea considering the weather

It’s been a very busy month here on the croft.  In the past we have always lambed later in the year when the weather is better (supposedly).  Last year we decided rather rashly to put the tups in earlier than usual and as we had considerably more ewes than normal, we would stagger it over 3 months.

The plan that every four weeks we would have a new bunch lambing went horribly wrong, as did the weather!  With snow and bitter temperatures, we welcomed triplets in the middle of the month, 3 weeks overdue from our predicted date for the first batch.  Less than a week later, lambs from the second batch started to put in an appearance so instead of having plenty of room in the shed to house them all, we rapidly ran out of space.

We had to turf the goats out of their large loose box into a smaller one and hastily build another pen, just 24 hours before it was needed by a new mum!

With space still short, we invested in some sheep gates and quickly set about clearing a space in the hay barn to house the ewes who were getting fatter by the day and eating us out of house and home.

For the time being, everyone has their own little suite but very soon now, the third batch will be starting and we will have to shift them all round again.

As far as the lambing itself is concerned, it has been very tiring. We have been taking turns to watch them throughout the day and the cold nights but not only that, the births themselves have been difficult.  The ewes seem to be delivering huge lambs that are reluctant to come out and we’ve come to the conclusion that we have fed them too well this year.  We also had one ewe prolapse which involved a vet visit and an uncomfortable delivery.  Mother and baby are now doing fine.

Looking forward to it all being over and done with and getting back to having a proper nights sleep.

Give me a hug

We went from knee deep mud to knee deep snow almost overnight and then back to mud again

Last month we mentioned the lack of snow.  We should have kept our mouths shut as this month we have been inundated with it, as has most of the country.

At first it was a relief to swap the thick mud for the lovely clean snow.  However, it didn’t last long as the snow got deeper and it became more and more difficult to feed the animals.

Everything was freezing, the water barrels that served the livestock had a thick layer of ice on top and no sooner had we filled them up, than they were starting to freeze.  Dragging a wheelbarrow full of hay or buckets of feed across a snowy paddock was not much fun either.

However, there were some who were absolutely delighted with the change in the weather, the dogs.

They absolutely loved it.  Fin guzzled it down like ice cream and the two youngsters played in it happily for hours.  They obviously don’t suffer from cold paws like we do.

As the snow started to disappear we were left with treacherous ice which was even more of a feeding challenge.

Now, sadly we are back to mud with a side order of gale force winds!

A brown Christmas

Sadly no white Christmas for us this year

Whilst most of the country has been virtually under water, we too have had our fair share of rain and there have been huge “lakes” in the fields, but thankfully, we have not suffered flooding.

Of course, there is another side effect of all that water – mud.

We have been wading in it for weeks now, although the biggest problem is of course the dogs.

The big ginger Fin isn’t too bad as he doesn’t race around like the other two.  But Daisy, with her fondness for chasing tractors along the hedge line, is usually smothered.  Archie likes to join in the chase, but chases her instead.

It’s got to the point where we long for snow just so that we can have clean dogs.

We’ve developed a sophisticated system for cleaning them after their morning and evening runs, we call it the Dog-o-matic.  Otherwise known as a watering can.

We had the perfect rose fitted on the spout, until someone who will remain nameless, ran over it with his tractor!

Daisy hates the Dog-o-matic and grumbles all the way through her twice daily rinses, Archie puts up with it and conveniently lifts his legs so that you can get to his filthy underbelly, but Fin absolutely loves it and tries to push to the front of the soggy queue.

Here’s hoping we have some decent weather soon so that we can all dry out.

That sinking feeling

Plumbing in the dairy

We have deeds for our croft dating back to 1913.  At one time it was just small stone building that probably housed both the farmer and his livestock but over the years, extensions have been added and not very sympathetically, to make it habitable for a family.  Although there is now plenty of space, it doesn’t flow very well and the utility room, is on the other side of the house to the kitchen.

We use it as a dairy.  It houses the cream separator, butter churn and a small fridge where the goat’s “cheddar” ripens.  The layout was very awkward with the sink being right in the corner so you had to lean over to use it.  We decided to swap it around, a simple sounding job but a big mistake.  In order to save money we decided to replace the old stainless steel sink with an even older Belfast sink that had been sitting in the polytunnel and used for washing veg.

We made a draining board from timber that was lying around, along with a wooden stand for the sink.  It looked very rustic, but quite charming.  Our only concession to modern living was the mono-block tap we splashed out on.  There are a lot of milky items to be washed up and the spray would come in handy.

However, once we had ripped everything out and cut pipes, we discovered the ancient plumbing, which is not a standard size.  The local plumbers merchants scratched their heads in disbelief.  The water is pumped from our well which is just outside the window, heated by the Rayburn and then goes into a header tank upstairs.  When we finally managed to connect the old pipes to new, much thinner ones, we were disappointed to find we had no water pressure.  It wasn’t designed for trendy taps.  Another pump would be required to fix that problem.

But if that wasn’t enough, the plughole of the sink is leaking.  We have tried all sorts to fix it, none of which has worked – so far.  The whole fiasco has been ongoing for weeks which means the room is out of action but the most annoying part is that we thought by recycling we would be saving money, whereas the whole debacle has been a false economy.   If we had gone out and bought a spanking new top of the range sink and draining board, we would have been better off!

Boy meets girls

Time to introduce new blood to our little flock

It’s that time of year again when the tup is once again reunited with the ewes in the hope that they will produce a lovely crop of lambs next spring.  This year it’s been more fun than usual – but not for us.

We have to introduce new blood into the flock so our old ram who has a gentle nature, unlike some we’ve had in the past, needs to move on and we have acquired two new boys.  They are only youngsters born earlier this year so as yet unproven.  One is a pure bred Lleyn and the other a Texel Suffolk cross.  Both will be a good match for our girls who are a mix of Lleyn, Suffolk and Cheviot so they are not small beasts.

This year we decided to stagger the lambing as there is not enough room in the shed for all of them at the same time, so we picked the first batch of girls and put the Lleyn tup in.  We had a harness and crayon on him so that we could tell when he’d done his job but since he is not yet fully grown, it was far too big.  We had to remove it as it was hampering his efforts. The next morning we discovered to our horror that the old ram had managed to break through the fence and was busy courting the ewes who were promised to the new boy.  We had quite a job persuading him to leave.

Four weeks later we put the second new tup, the Texel Suffolk cross, in with the remainder of the girls and once again went out the next morning, only to find that he preferred the ones betrothed to the Lleyn and was busy chatting them up.  It was a Monday morning and we had all of the weekend orders to pack but we found ourselves in the field chasing sheep and getting splattered with mud!

With all the wet weather we’ve had, the posts are loose and the fences are barely holding anything in.  We have had to move everything around so there is no danger of beasts escaping.  For the time being they are all where they should be but who knows how long that will last.  Now we have to wait 5 months to see the results of all our efforts and find out if the boys were up to the challenge.

Utterly buttery

Finally, we get to grips with butter making

With two goats in milk, the twice daily routine was taking much longer and was tough on the hands, so when we were given an ancient Alfa Laval milking machine (just like the one on Wartime Farm, if anybody is watching it), we were delighted.  It needed quite a bit of work to restore it to full working order but once it got going, it made our lives so much easier and the goats don’t mind it either.

We have been busy making cheese, ice cream and have finally after many false starts, managed to make butter.  In the past when we’ve tried, we’ve ended up with a solid cream instead of the butterfat separating from the buttermilk.  Therefore, it was an exciting moment when we ended up with our first dish of home made goat’s butter!

Rather than the usual yellow colour we are all familiar with, goat’s butter is pure white but with a sprinkling of salt, it tastes delicious.  It also makes great pastry, even though it’s a little difficult to handle (can’t imagine anyone on the Great British Bake Off using goat’s butter pastry) and of course the buttermilk is perfect in scones or soda bread.

It takes a while to make it.  Firstly the cream needs to be separated from the milk and this needs to be collected for about 3 days before there is enough for a decent amount of butter.  The cream then has to be beaten until it separates and when drained is shaped using the antique butter pats that we bought especially.

Perfect on home made rolls, muffins and crumpets.

Baling out

Disaster strikes when cutting the grass

The last few weeks have been a tense time, constantly watching the weather and being disappointed when day after day we had rain.  And not just a shower, but gallons of the stuff pouring from the clouds.

We got off to a bad start when the wheel broke off the tractor when we were cutting the grass.  A neighbour had to winch us out of a very boggy area.

Whenever there was a hint of sunshine we were out there turning the grass and making plans to bale. Time after time we were disappointed when the black clouds moved overhead.  We thought we would never get started and were worried that the grass laying in the field would be ruined.

There have only been a couple of days in the whole of this month when it has been possible to bale any hay and we took full advantage, working late into the night and bringing in the bales by moonlight.

Today we weren’t expecting rain until 4pm so we were working furiously to get the last of it done.  Typically the heavens opened up at 2pm and it was a race against time to get them all loaded onto the trailer and into the dry barn. We can only hope that they were dry enough to prevent rot and spontaneous combustion!

Despite the bad start we have 333 bales to feed the beasts over winter and the problem facing us now is where to put them.