"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ill-Timed Harvest (Bowls of Cherries)



The cherry trees are loaded. The cherry harvest is nearly over, in fact - the cherries are early this year, as is all the fruit. We have been picking cherries off the low-hanging branches of our three cherry trees for a week or so. Today, though, it suddenly occurred to my husband that if we didn't pick the cherries - NOW! TODAY! - they would fall on the ground and be wasted while we are in Oaxaca. 

Waste is a cardinal sin in his moral universe, so he marshaled the troops and drove the Case loader into the orchard. He lifted the girls in the loader up to the higher branches and told them to get picking. Within an hour, they had brought some twenty pounds of cherries into the house. These are Rainiers, beautiful yellow cherries with a pink blush. Rainier are the most highly prized local cherry, commanding a premium at the grocery store. Myself, I actually prefer the black cherries like Bings. I think they have a deeper, more intense flavor. 

No matter how much we enjoy them, however, it's unlikely we will be able to eat twenty pounds of fresh cherries by tomorrow night. I haven't got the time to try and process them. I don't even know how to process fresh cherries, other than by pitting them and submerging them in a jar of 100 proof vodka. So I think we will simply eat as many as we can and send the rest to the compost pile. 

When we planned this trip, I knew we would be missing strawberry season and raspberry season, but I assumed we would be home before the blueberry harvest and certainly before the would blackberries were ripe. Now I don't know - the blueberry U-pick farms are open already and the blackberries are already in the hard green stage. We may miss berry season entirely. 

All the more reason to gorge ourselves on cherries right now. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Oaxaca Trip (Bad Timing)


It's been three full years since we returned from our year in Oaxaca (for more about that trip, see my sister blog, www.newtomexicanlife.blogspot.com). Three years is a long time in the girls' lives - they were children of eight and nine when we returned and now they are young ladies of eleven and twelve. Their memories of Oaxaca are hazy - especially Paloma's, who is the youngest - and their fluency in Spanish has taken a few giant leaps backward.
Therefore we were very happy to be able to plan a fairly long trip this summer - six weeks. We are supposed to leave on Friday. Back in February or March, there was a short period of time when airfare was very cheap. It was so cheap that we decided to fly all the way to Oaxaca, instead of flying to Mexico City and going the rest of the way by bus, as we usually do. Mama was ecstatic that we would be bringing her grand babies back to her, and the girls were delighted at the prospect of seeing their cousins. In fact, since they are so grown up now, we thought we would let the girls stay at Tia Temy's house with their cousins, and Homero and I would stay at Mama's house, fifteen minutes away by car. Maybe we'd even be able to get away for a three-or-four day trip, all by ourselves. 

Then this happened:
Image result for oaxaca unrest 2016
Fires set by protesters to block the road

And this: 








Image result for oaxaca unrest 2016
a truck carrying chickens set ablaze and used to blockade the highway

And this:


Image result for oaxaca unrest 2016
civil unrest in Nochixtlan

The perennial dispute between the branch of the teacher's union known as section 22 and the federal government has once again flared into violence, as it has been doing every couple of years since at least 2006. This particular exacerbation is probably the worst since that time. Eight protestors have been killed by police, and there are fires and marches and blockades and rocks being thrown and molotov cocktails being tossed and batons swinging all over town.

Blockades are nothing new, and for the most part have been traditionally seen as nothing more than annoyances - inconvenient, yes, but a legitimate tactic nonetheless, like a strike. In fact I would venture to say that most Oaxacans view blockades and strikes with a kind of grudging admiration: "these people have guts" sort of thing. If it weren't for these people putting themselves on the line we'd all be ground under the heel of the imperialist oppressor. At worst, a blockade is met with a resigned shrug.

That changed, however, at least among the people I knew, a few years ago when the teacher's strike dragged on so long that schoolchildren missed almost a half a year of school. Those who could afford to sent their children to private schools. Those who couldn't do that had to miss work to care for kids or else leave them at home alone. Blockaders were so inflexible that a woman died in an ambulance that was not allowed to cross the blockade to the hospital. Tourism shrank away to nothing and many jobs were lost.

This time looks to be pretty bad. But it's so hard to judge without being there. A friend of mine who lives in the city center says that the blockades are so bad that grocery stores are running out of food. He said all he could buy at the local market was potatoes, yams, and cucumbers. Mama, on the other hand, just returned from a trip to Tuxtepec and said her bus had no trouble with blockades and that the stores in her neighborhood are perfectly well-stocked. She and my siblings-in-law are pooh-poohing the situation and say that we ought to come down as planned. In three days.

Here is a case where differing cultural expectations can be glaring. When I expressed concern to Homero that there might be a blockade on the road leading from the airport to the city, so that we might be stuck at the airport with no way to get to mama's house, he waved off my fears.

"The blockades are only stopping vehicles," he said. "you can walk around. It's only a few miles."

Somehow, the idea of attempting to traverse "a few miles" of terrain like that in these photos - a terrain littered with tire-fires, riot police, dead chickens, and rock-throwing youth does not inspire confidence. Especially when I imagine having to do it in 90 degree heat, with young children in tow,  dragging all our luggage. I know those Oaxaca highways and even at the best of times they are not suited to those little plastic suitcase wheels.

Thus far we have not been able to contact the airline. My brother suggested that given the situation, the airline would probably waive the change-date fees. Maybe - IF we could get ahold of a human. But really, what good would that do? Who knows when the situation will be any better? Homero spent an hour attempting to contact the customer service department of AreoMexico and only succeeded in soliciting the information (from a computerized voice) that the change-date fee is $250/ticket.

I think we will go. Nothing is ever as bad as it looks on the news.

But I'm bringing a carton of Cliff bars in my carryon.








































Thursday, June 9, 2016

Cows and Compromise



One of Homero's clients just traded him a newborn Jersey heifer for a complete engine rebuild on his truck. She's healthy and adorable, and came to us on the day after she was born, after 24 hours on her mom for the colostrum. The first bottle feeding didn't go very well, but she learned quickly and is now able to suck down her twice-daily two liters in about three minutes flat. We are giving her a mixture of milk-replacer and fresh goat's milk - which is something we have too much of at the moment.



Haku is being gentle with the baby. He is very interested, but not frantically exited, the way he was with the baby goats a few months ago. I don't know if he is calming down in general around the livestock or if baby goats are simply more enticing than baby cows (I certainly think so). 


Homero says she weighs about sixty pounds. 


We set her up in the calf hutch, in the small pasture all by herself where she won't get bullied by the goats or the ponies. Just like any bottle baby, she is extremely friendly and runs up to us for attention whenever we come near. I have to admit she is endearing, even though I am not a fan of cows, in general. 

In fact Homero and I have had a few arguments about cows in the past, and I was not in favor of accepting a cow in trade for work. You can read all about my objection to cows and my (very reasonable and valid) arguments in favor of goats as a superior livestock option here: Imaginary Cows. For those who won't click the link, my argument can be boiled down to "we don't have enough land for a cow." 

However, Rowan and Homero are both over the moon about the baby. Rowan has adopted her as her own special pet and taken responsibility for feedings. Homero is already looking forward to milking her. Who am I to stand in the way of such happiness?

As much as I am loath to admit it, I have been pretty selfish about molding the farm in the image I have nurtured in my own mind and not ceding much, if anything, to the imaginings and dreams of others in the family. Homero and I have wrangled about the size of his shop; the amount of land he wanted to devote to a parking area; and how many non-running automobiles ought to be allowed to accumulate thereon. Rowan and I have wrangled about the garden space and the use of the greenhouse, and the species and placement of trees. 

Truly, I don't think of myself as a control-freak; but then again I am comparing myself in my head to my own mother, who is undeniably a control-freak of epic proportions. I suppose it is possible that others in my family might see me as just a tiny bit.... well, inflexible. 

Over the years, Homero has adopted the very effective tactic of, rather than debating with me beforehand,  simply presenting me with a fait accompli. This new cow is the latest example. She was just there one day when I got home from work. 

In my own defense, I will say that I think I have shown adaptability and if not grace, well, then at least resignation when these things happen. I am resigned to the new cow. Her name is Nettles. 













Thursday, June 2, 2016

Shear Siliness

I




We cannot afford to hire a professional shearer to shear our lone sheep, nor would one likely agree to come out to the farm for such a small commission. Shearing a few animals, like haying a few acres, is just not a paying proposition. However, the poor sheep needed to be sheared, just for her own comfort. We are going to be gone all summer, and the poor thing can not be left with ten pound s or more of wool on her back. This is what we were able to do with sewing scissors, in about twenty minutes. Most of the wool is off the sheep: although we won't be able to use it for spinning or felting, it did make a great silly wig. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Friends and Hymenoptera



Memorial Day weekend. Old friends came in from out of town. I've been down to see them - Portland, Oregon - fairly recently, but they had not visited the farm since our housewarming party nine years ago, when it still existed mostly as potential.  

They arrived Saturday afternoon, in the middle of a cold rainstorm. We hugged, and ate tacos, and commiserated about the weather. They had been planning to camp, but decided to take advantage of our commodious and dry RV instead. Having made preparations for a barbecue the following day that including buying three dozen local oysters, I hoped and prayed that the weather would change.

It did. Yesterday, Sunday, was an absolutely perfect Pacific Northwest day. There has not been such a perfect Pacific Northwest day yet this year, or perhaps ever. The sky was mostly a clear cerulean blue, but decorated with impressive and towering cumulonimbus clouds that bore watching and incited speculation. The temperature was high enough to be hot on the shoulders and brow, unless you deliberately sought the breeze, which was cool and sea-scented and right there waiting to be found. 

After a breakfast of sourdough pancakes and our own ham, I took their 9 year old daughter with me to do chores and she learned how to milk a goat. She and Paloma, my 11 year old, hit it off quite well and spent the next little while looking for eggs in the hayloft and jumping on the trampoline. 

Later I took them to Lynden. Lynden has lately been undergoing a sort of renaissance and has some very nice new shops and bookstores to explore. In the beautiful Lynden city park, our children played while we sat by the stream and watched ravens bathing in the cool, quick moving water. A pileated woodpecker landed a scant ten feet from us and began hammering for his breakfast, until the ravens chased him off. 

On the way home, we stopped at a U-pick strawberry farm. The five of us spent about twenty minutes picking berries and brought home twenty pounds of fragrant, beautiful fruit. Then my girlfriend and I spent a leisurely afternoon drinking beer and preparing side dishes. The menfolk drowsed in the shade and the children took turns falling on their backs, arms spread wide, into the head-high grass. 

Around five o'clock, we roused ourselves and wandered slowly about gathering chairs and folding tables and tablecloths and firewood, setting up for the feast. Homero did his usual fire-starting trick involving a blowtorch and a little bit of home-brew biodiesel. My sister and her family arrived bearing tofu-dogs and corn on the cob. 

A long afternoon slowly faded into evening as we shucked oysters and gnawed on corn and drank local microbrews. The adults talked about everything and nothing: politics; philosophy; the pressing minutiae of our lives.  The children ran about and hollered. The fire leaped high and orange as the sun set and the stars came out. I saw an amazingly bright meteor in the southeastern sky that nobody else saw. My sister and her family drifted off. The ice in the cooler melted and the shells and the empties piled up. The beers became lukewarm and unattractive. Eventually we turned a hose on the fire, and staggered off in various directions to sleep. 

This morning dawned fine and hot. Not a cloud overhead. My friends wanted to get an early start home, so I only brewed coffee and used the leftover steak from last night and some canned ranchera salsa to make a quick breakfast, folded into hot corn tortillas with a smear of goat cheese. Farewell. Happy Trails. Drive Safe. 

Back to bed. A while later, leftovers and more coffee. Netflix. Too beautiful to stay inside. Out with the goats and the last beer. It's hot, really hot. All the blackberry blossoms are open, and the smell of the vines is strong after the rain. As I sit in a folding canvas chair, book opened and turned upside down over my knee, I close my eyes and I can hear the thrum and the buzz of hundreds of bees. It seems to me that I remember this sound from a dozen occasions of my childhood. 

The apple tree in full blossom, and the blue sky seen through the young leaves as I lay on my back underneath.  A lone hawthorne in a neighbor's field, alive with bees in the snowy blossom. Red clover; bull thistle with its fine purple hairs; the climbing roses behind the garage, a bee in every pale pink rose's heart. Such a hopeful sound, a hundred bees, somehow both soporific and energizing. 

I think this will be a weekend long remembered.




Monday, May 16, 2016

The High Cheese Season



I took all the milk products out of my fridge to take stock. We are in the high cheese season now for sure, friends and neighbors. More or less from left to right, we have:

- Four separate hard cheeses, in eight half-cheese packages, vacuum packed and aging slowly in the fridge. The vacuum packing is something new I'm trying this year. I'm hoping the cheese will keep for several months this way. The oldest vacuum packed cheddar was packaged on 3/13, according to the label, and I haven't broached it yet to try it it. Looks fine though. No mold. I think, altogether, there is about 12 pounds of hard cheese. 

- in the jars at the rear there is a half gallon of fresh milk and a half gallon of yogurt. 

- the ziplocks bags in the middle foreground hold chèvre. 

- a big bowl of chèvre, on the right front. This particular batch was a tiny bit watery and I made the mistake of trying to let it dry a bit through evaporation by leaving it out in the hot sun with a screen over it. I don't know what I was thinking. I should have remembered that too much heat will only develop the caprine compounds - read, make it taste like a randy buck goat. I may be able to salvage that chèvre by using it in some kind of disguised application like a lasagna. Or it might only make randy buck goat-flavored lasagna. 

Temperature, arguably, is the most important variable in cheesemaking, after the type of culture used. Not only do you employ different temperatures during the inoculating and curd-cooking phases of cheesemaking, but the temperatures at which the cheese is held afterwards will result in very noticeable differences. Temperature is also the most difficult variable to control in the home kitchen. During this recent heat wave, I probably shouldn't have attempted to make chèvre at all, because room temperature was well over eighty degrees and unpleasant flavors are likely to develop when the cheese is held at that temperature for long. 

- in the stockpot on the stove in the far background is another batch of cheddar, which I will press this evening. That will be with red pepper flakes. 

There's enough cheese here to feed the Russian army, as my mom was wont to say. But I have to keep making it! I have only a month left before we go to Oaxaca for the summer and dry off the goats. All of this year's cheese has to be made before we leave. 

I wonder if chèvre can be frozen? 


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Getting' Grubby



It is only during the short window of time after the grass begins to grow and before the fruit sets on the trees that we can let the horses graze in the orchard. There's nothing to eat before growing season, and if we let them in there after the fruit sets they would eat all the green fruit and get colic. But right now, the window is open, and we are putting the horses to graze in the orchard almost every day. 


Which means there is always fresh horse poop in the orchard. 

Which means this: 



Haku loves to roll in fresh horse poop. He loves it almost as much as he loves tearing up feather pillows and chasing the sheep. And he does not understand why we insist on removing all his lovely smelly horse-poop camouflage by rubbing him with a soapy towel before we let him back in the house. He only wants to jump back into our bed and roll around in it, to give us some of his beautiful fragrance. Because he loves us. That's all. 


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Fermentation Files (Sourdough)


A couple of months ago, a neighbor gave me some sourdough starter that had been in her family for a very long time. The label on the container said "Skilly Dough, Alaska, 1890." While I can't vouch for the history, I can vouch for the deliciousness. 

For the first few weeks I used it only to make pancakes. I had never made sourdough pancakes before, but that was how my friend used the leaven, so I decided to try it. The pancakes were incredible, with a complex tang I had never tasted before. 

Next I tried making naan - Indian flatbread. That was a revelation, too. The flatbread went from being merely a way to convey curry into my mouth to being the star of the meal. The curry became merely a seasoning for the chewy, delicious bread. 

I made challah - sweet egg bread - for Easter, but I wasn't very happy with it. It was too dense, almost a kind of bread pudding, moist and rich with egg yolks and sugar. It tasted good, but it was not what I was trying to make, and nobody could eat more than a tiny bit of it. 

The same thing happened when I tried to make seeded rye rolls. I didn't get the lift I needed, and the bread, though flavorful, remained dense and wet, without the airiness I wanted. 

I let the sourdough languish in the fridge. A thick crust formed on top, and I thought that I might have let it die entirely. As a test, I took about a tablespoon out of the jar and mixed it with a cup of flour and a cup of warm water. The next day the mixture was bubbling vigorously, so it obviously hasn't died. 

Today, I took that mixture and mixed it with a cup of fresh warm goat's milk, a half cup of sugar, half a stick of melted butter, and more flour. I kneaded it for five or ten minutes and let it rest for a few hours. It didn't double in bulk, but it definitely grew. 

I kneaded it again, formed it into an oblong oval, places it on a greased cookie sheet, and let it rest another hour. Then I slashed the top, preheated the oven to 375, and baked it for 45 minutes. 

As you can see, it's freaking gorgeous. A little bit of the bottom crust stick to the cookie sheet and so I had to pry it off and eat it (I HAD to) with butter. It was perfect - shatteringly crunchy, slightly sweet, and toothsome. I am currently waiting impatiently for the loaf to cool and finish cooking on the counter, before j can slice it and slather it with butter and devour it. 

It smells so good in my kitchen I had to go disturb my husband, who was watching a movie, and make him come into the kitchen and smell the bread. He agreed with me that it smells heavenly and that furthermore I am a genius and he is a lucky man to have married a woman who can bake such a miracle. 


Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Fat of the Land



What's in these jars? Honey? Apple cider?

No! Lard!

I finally took the big package of pork fat out of the freezer and rendered it all. It was a slow day. I don't know how many pounds of fat these six quarts represents - probably about fifteen or sixteen. The sliced fat filled my largest cauldron.

It's not all from our last pig - when I went to the butcher's to pick him up, there was no fat, which I had specifically asked for. The lady behind the counter said  - "oh, let me go look."

A suspiciously long time passed. When she reappeared she apologized and said that the order to save the fat hadn't gotten written down. She gave us a big bag of pork fat that was clearly from a much fatter pig than our had been. I hope nobody else is missing their fat! Not likely - most people don't even want it.

Which is kind of hard to understand. Lard is a wonderful thing, assuming you like pork. Home rendered lard will not be odorless and tasteless like the lard at the store; it will have an unctuous, rich, porky taste. And contrary to popular belief, lard is not a terrible fat, health wise. In fact, it is probably better for you than butter or coconut fat, which is so trendy these days.

To render lard from pork fat, keep the heat on medium to medium-low. Even if all the pieces look like pure fat, there will always be skin and connective tissue, and you don't want to scorch it. As the fat starts to melt, add a cup or two of water. This will help you regulate the temperature (water is simmering = good) and also help avoid scorching. The water will boil off as the fat melts completely.

Occasionally stir and turn the fat to make sure all parts come in contact with the hot bottom of the kettle. The connective tissue and skin and little bits of meat here and there will start to fry, eventually becoming dark, crispy cracklings. These are not the same as chicharrones, which are made from pieces of actual skin. These cracklings will probably be too fatty or greasy to be good, except for the occasional piece of deep fried meat. They do make good dog treats, though in small quantities!

When everything is melted, the water has boiled off, and the cracklings are dark brown, you are ready to store the lard. I am storing mine in quart jars in the chest freezer, plus one jar open in the fridge, for everyday use. There's no need to actually can the fat - it will keep virtually forever in the fridge or freezer.

Simply wait an hour our so with the kettle on the lowest possible heat, for all the solid bits to settle at the bottom. Then you can ladle the clear lard off the top. The last little bit can be poured through a coffee filter. The lard in the photos above is still hot - when it cools it will turn almost pure white.

Lard has a myriad of uses in the kitchen. I probably wouldn't use this lard for pie crust, unless I were making a savory pie like a quiche. Might taste a little funny in a sweet pie. But you can use it as a regular sautéing fat; it's especially good for frying eggs or making fried rice. A spoonful of lard is the best medium for making refried beans. However my favorite use for lard is in tamales. There is nothing like the lard from a real pastured pig to make tamales taste fantastic. One of these days when we are all home and have nothing to do, we will get together and make a whole bunch of tamales together as a family. Here's how my mother-in-law taught me do it. 

I don't think we will get a pig this year. We are going to be gone most of the summer and lately I've been feeling that we have quite enough animals already, thank you. Plus the pasture is still recuperating from the last pig. We have eaten most of that pig already - there's just some unflavored sausage and a ham left. But with all this lard I can have some pig flavor whenever I want, for the foreseeable future.








Friday, April 22, 2016

Bees and Heat



The last few days have been uncharacteristically hot, to say the least. Records were broken. In fact, records were obliterated - the previous daily high for one recent day was 77, back in the eighties; this 
time, we hit 88. And we had four or five days in a row over 80 degrees - totally unheard of for April. 

Also unheard of - the fields near me are being cut for hay. In April. I remember just a year ago or so seeing the same fields being cut in May and thinking, holy shit, that's early! If this trend continues, we will be cutting hay year round pretty soon, anytime the fields are dry enough to support a tractor. 

Another unsettling thing - despite the hot weather, I had seen nary a bee this year. A few bumblebees here and there, and as usual a ton of wasps, but no honeybees. A beekeeper friend of mine told me that her bees were so busy she was already putting honey supers on top of the hives, something she usually does in late June or early July. She thought it was probably from a lack of competition. I told her that other beekeeper friends of mine had lost most of their hives last winter - apparently the mites were just terrible last year. 

I wonder if our warm winters don't have something to do with the bee die-off. Perhaps if the temperatures are high enough, they don't really go into full hibernation and eat more of their stores? Perhaps the mites like the warm winters? Perhaps when fruit trees and other plants don't go into hard dormancy, they produce less or poorer quality nectar the following spring? In any case, I am worried about our fruit harvest this year, because there were seriously no bees around. 

Until the day before yesterday, that is. I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink, and looked out the window to see a vast cloud of big insects flying right outside. At first I thought they were flies and was grossed out; but I quickly realized they must be honeybees swarming. 

I ran outside to see where they were going. For a few minutes they kind of wandered back and forth across the front yard - a loose cumulous cloud of glittering bees, concentrated at the center and ragged around the edges. Then they veered toward the highway. 

"No! Don't cross the highway!" I thought. "Stay here!"

Finally, they settled into a blackberry bush, almost down on the grass, about two feet from the ditch along the edge of the highway. I didn't know how long they would stay there, but I know about five people who would be totally psyched if I called them to come collect the bees. There's and old saying: "a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay. A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon." I don't know what a swarm of bees in April is worth, but I'm thinking it's worth at least a quart of honey this fall. I put the word out, and sat down in the shade to keep an eye on the swarm. 

A neighbor of our called me back, and said they would be over in a half hour with a box to get the bees. He told me not to worry, they wouldn't go anywhere for a while. The queen was resting from her maiden flight. He also told me not to worry about getting stung - without a hive to protect honeybees are very docile. 

"You could stick your hand right through that ball of bees and not get stung." 

I believed him, but could see no need to put it to the test. 







My neighbor put on a mask, but was working in shorts and without gloves, and it the bees gave him no hassles. The way to collect a swarm is to bring an appropriate vessel, place it under the swarm, and give a sharp tap to the branch they are hanging on. All the bees will fall right into the box. In this case, he couldn't put the box under the bees, because they were practically on the ground. He set the box to one side, and carefully clipped the blackberry bush until he could grasp the one cane that supported the swarm. Then he cut that cane, picked up the swarm, and tapped it against the edge of the box. About two thirds of the bees fell right into the box. 



Since the queen is inside the ball, it's most likely that she fell into the box, too, but we had to wait to be sure. My neighbor put the lid on there hive, leaving a crack, and then we waited. If the queen were outside the box, the bees on the inside would soon figure that out and start coming out. If the queen were on the inside, the bees that were still outside the box - a few thousand - would begin to settle on the box and go inside. 

After a few minutes, my neighbor pointed out a line of bees standing on the rim of the box, pointing their rear-ends up in the air and waggling them. 

"She's in there," he said. "Those bees are wafting out pheromone to tell everybody to come on in." 

By this time, it was close to sunset. My neighbor said he had to go pick up his kids from sports practice, but he'd be back later to get the bees. They needed plenty of time to get all of them inside and to decided definitively that this was their new home. 

And that's what happened. I hope this turns out to be a good strong queen and that they make a good strong hive. Homero wants to try having bees again as soon as possible - in fact he was annoyed with me for calling any body at all, and wanted to try to get them himself. But we don't have any equipment anymore. We can start getting some stuff together and when and if we see another swarm this year, we'll be ready. If we don't see one - as seems likely; this was the first swarm I've ever seen - we will at least be ready to start next year with a bought colony.