30 December 2008

Winter harvest

A few mild days have melted the snow (much as it did this time last year) and made it possible to get a fork into the ground. Made it possible to see the ground, in fact. The surface of the soil did freeze again last night, but not so much that it stopped me digging up the last of the leeks, a few carrots and some parsnips this morning.

27 December 2008

Retrospective, 2008

Time for a bit of a backward glance before falling headlong into plans for 2009.

2008 was our first full year in Canada and there's been quite a lot of progress to report. On the self-sufficiency front we had the solar hot-water and geothermal systems installed and our bank of solar panels wired up to generate electricity, starting on 29 October (830 kilowatts so far). The latter two systems require a bit more work to make them function perfectly (the geothermal develops a fault when the outside temperature drops below -15°C and the panels aren't at their full capacity yet, but we'll get there...).

The kitchen was stripped back to the wood framing and then re-fitted and all the old alumin(i)um wiring in the house has been stripped out. The latter took so long that the electricians began to feel like they were part of our family.

In May we got the apple, pear, plum, cherry and apricot trees into the ground, creating the orchard. It'll be a few years before we get decent quantities of fruit from the trees, but they all seem to have established themselves successfully.

Much work went on in the vegetable garden, including the construction of a 'tyre garden' for rhubarb and asparagus. The eight beds that we created for vegetables in 2007 became ten, mainly due to over-enthusiastic sowing of brassicas. Amazing quantities of produce were harvested over the year. This despite some notable failures: the onions were washed away, the fennel and one of the rhubarb plants rotted after the unusually heavy July rains and the waterlogging which followed them. This also severely disabled the chillies, peppers, aubergines and paste tomatoes. I got a few cauliflowers, but overall those suffered from a lack of water in June, I think. Maybe in 2009 the weather will be more evenly balanced between rain and sun. No, I don't think so, either. With any luck, our attempts at improving the drainage of the area will help a bit.

My pleasure at the complete absence of slugs and snails in the garden was slightly tempered by my introduction to the tomato hornworm, a truly fearsome beast. We also have a small (in stature and in number) rabbit population which nibbled through most of my sweetcorn plants before they had a chance to reach maturity.

Building the greenhouse was perhaps the biggest (in all senses of the word) achievement of the year and I am thoroughly excited at the prospect of using it to extend our growing season in 2009.

I see that I've taken 4,368 photographs this year (not including the ones I've deleted...). Nearly 12 every day, on average! Thank goodness for digital cameras - can you imagine how much that would have cost in film and development costs?

I'm conscious that this blog was started as a record of an emigration experience, but has turned into more of a gardening/cooking/self-sufficiency log. Eighteen months into our new life, perhaps I should be saying more about how the immigration has gone.

I can honestly say that my overwhelming feeling about our move is that I have come home.

Yes, I miss certain things about my life in the UK: particular people; ancient monuments and gardens to visit; and certain food items. People are fairly mobile and are able to visit, but I have to get my fill of the other things through books, TV programmes, DVDs (I'm watching The Buildings that Shaped Britain on BBC Canada and The Victorian Kitchen Garden on DVD at the moment) and on my intermittent trips back to the UK.

These are minor things that come nowhere near to outweighing the benefits of the move. This is where I belong. This is where I will set down my roots.

25 December 2008

A small Christmas miracle

I'd resigned myself to not having sprouts with Christmas dinner, but yesterday's rain and the high overnight winds melted and scoured away enough snow to expose my sprout plants this morning. The harvest was small, but supremely satisfying. To round things off to perfection, lake-effect snow (all the way from Lake Huron's Georgian Bay) was falling all morning.

Here's (part of) me modelling one of my presents from Mike:

He bought the 'large' size (for which he has not entirely been forgiven), but I think I approve of the sentiment...

Merry Christmas!

24 December 2008


There are some Brussels sprouts on the plants out in the vegetable garden which I had been planning to harvest for Christmas dinner, but the plants themselves are visible only as small mounds in the snow this morning, so I think I'll give sprouts a miss this year. I've still got potatoes and parsnips in the house that we grew this summer, so at least some of our produce will end up on the table tomorrow.

Perhaps you'd think I'd seen enough snowflakes this Christmas, but I thought I'd bring a few indoors by icing the cake with some, this year.

It's actually raining right now, but there's so much snow on the ground that I don't think there's any chance of it not being a white Christmas!

21 December 2008

Bleak midwinter

I was going to post about the cooking I was doing this morning - but then I read Amy Williams's entry for today over at her Garden of Eatin' blog and I lost my appetite for it. We hear stories of the credit crunch on the news all the time and here is evidence of its effects on one of the families who are feeling the full force of the downturn. And yet Amy is still managing to keep posting recipes and find ways of being pro-active about the situation, in spite of it all. Good for you Amy, and I really hope it all works out.

19 December 2008

Snowy not-a-snow day

I was fairly sure that it would be a 'snow day' for the kids today - high winds and a day of snow had been forecast. But I was wrong - the buses were running as normal. It seems extraordinarily difficult to predict whether they will run or not - I think the bus board takes pleasure in being fairly random in its decisions.

By the time the kids came home there was a lot of snow around - being blown all over the place. There's more snow forecast for Sunday and for Christmas Eve, so it looks like it will be a white Christmas again. I was supposed to pick up the bird today (finally found a supplier of fresh, free-range turkeys, yay!), but decided that it would be prudent to wait until tomorrow. I hope we'll get all the food shopping done then, before retreating inside for the rest of the season.

15 December 2008

After the rain, the sun...

At the end of last week the weather dropped very cold. This picture shows the dog next to the frozen surface of the stream that runs down from the pond.

Just under his chest you can see a gash in the ice. I've been experimenting with lowering the camera into these gashes to try and capture a fish's-eye-view of the stream underneath the ice:

Today the weather warmed up considerably, with rain which melted all the snow and much of the ice. The lake which the stream feeds was already frozen this time last year, but isn't this time round. Here's the view of the stream this evening:

The rain cleared away as the sun set, leaving a lovely sky.
It's dropping cold again now and it look like there'll be more snow before Christmas. Although the Weather Network woman warned that the "models were not in agreeance" last night, so we'll have to wait and see...

13 December 2008

It's pants!

"...not trousers, Mummy, that's soooo English!"

So I was scolded yesterday, by Child #2. Suddenly I was on the defensive, in a conversation that had started with me demanding to know exactly why he had come home from school still wearing the ripped trousers/pants I'd asked him to change in the morning.

Intellectually I know that trousers=pants, as petrol=gas, jubilee clips=hose clips and skirting board=base board. But there's a linguistic problem with using the word pants, as it still means 'underwear' to me and has an associated taboo around it.

Then of course there's its relatively recent emergence in British English as a mild swear word (e.g. "That film was absolute pants!"). The Oxford English Dictionary dates this usage to the early 1990s (it seems to be generally blamed on Radio 1 DJs). I think I first came across this use of the word when I started working in Manchester in 2001.

The first sentence of this post illustrates another fundamental linguistic issue for British English speakers in North America. I think of myself as a 'Mum', but everyone else is a 'Mom'. We actually managed to find a birthday card for Mike's mum with the word 'Mum' on it yesterday, but it was the only one in a shop full of Moms.

Perhaps as part of my re-education/re-programming, Child #2 bought me a Christmas present of a bracelet last year:

I don't think he noticed that the beads had been threaded wrongly, so that whichever way you look at it, it spells 'WOM'.

12 December 2008

Moon shots

I read on the BBC website about the moon being at its closest to the earth today, so thought I should make the effort to try and take some pictures of it, since the skies were clear this evening.

The time and date.com site gave me the information I needed about when and where the moon would rise, so I got up to the hayfield just before it was due to appear. At first I thought it was going to be hidden, as it was cloaked in a line of cloud:

But it gradually emerged:

I didn't have a tripod with me, so these were just me trying to hold the camera as steady as possible, and using the 'twilight' setting.

I was out for about 45 minutes in all, which was quite long enough in the sub-zero temperatures.

09 December 2008

Grey, grey, grey

The weather turned mild and wet today, slowly melting the snow around the farm. The strips of snow on the roof of the grain bin next to the big barn seemed reluctant to fall.

Yesterday's icicles have been replaced by running water.

08 December 2008

Nicely icy

It's been very cold here over the last 24 hours: down to -18°C and no higher than -8°C. There was snow on Saturday night; enough to let the kids go tobogganing for the first time this winter. But by Sunday afternoon they decided it was too cold to stay outside. There was quite a breeze, which made it feel more like -24. Today was as cold but less windy, so it felt more pleasant (as long as you stayed in the sun, anyway).

There were a few icicles hanging from our water-collecting gutters on the big barn:

The stream had several layers of ice over the top of it.

This tree looks as though someone in charge of a line-painting vehicle had got a bit carried away:

The old tree-roots that form much of our western boundary look gorgeous with the snow on them. Well, I think they look lovely anyway, but the snow really enhances their contours and cragginess.

04 December 2008

Bird life and death (or maybe not)

This skein of Canada Geese treated me to a noisy fly-past this morning, but Tuesday's bird encounter was a bit more disturbing. The dog found this Ruffed Grouse by the side of the small barn. I got to the bird before he did it any damage and picked it up to put it out of his reach. I had thought it was dead, but when I picked it up it seemed to be vibrating with life, so perhaps it had just knocked itself out by flying into one of the barn windows.

I hope it woke up before the local fox found it. Part of me feels that if I were being truly self-sufficient I should have wrung the bird's neck and turned it into supper in true Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall style. But I'm just not ruthless enough. And it wasn't big enough to feed four of us, anyway...

29 November 2008

Greenhouse complete

We've been able to make sporadic progress on the greenhouse during November and today the final gaps in the structure, the sliding doors at one end, were finished. Not bad, considering it's nearly December. Here's a view through those doors of the inside, with Child #2 at the other end for scale. He's six foot three.*

The fears I expressed back in July have proved to be groundless - we have managed to get the structure up without the involvement of divorce lawyers (although my breezy estimate of 'a month or two' looks a little optimistic with hindsight). In fact the whole process has filled me with admiration for my husband's determination to see the project through. If it had been down to me alone I would have given up long ago, but Mike's refusal to be beaten (some might say his bloody-mindedness (I wouldn't say that - obviously)) has brought about this fine result. He calls it a 'giant Meccano set', but I don't remember Meccano involving working at heights with heavy drills in icy winds.

My role in the construction has mostly been of the magician's assistant variety. Without the glamorous hair-do and over-the-top make-up. Or the sequinned outfits, for that matter. Now I've just got to decide how we're going to make the best use of this space. To put it into context, I should explain that this is only the second greenhouse I've ever owned. Here's the first:

So basically I'm a complete and utter novice with a huge space to make use of. At the moment I'm contemplating putting a series of raised beds down one side of the house, with staging on the other. I'm not planning to heat the greenhouse (for the time being, anyway), so will mainly be using it to extend the growing season and as a place to start off seeds like onions and peas that don't mind the cold but don't like the wet. But, like I say, I'm a novice, so if anyone has any sage words for me, I'll be glad to hear them.

*This is not strictly true.

What? And why?

My self-imposed task today is to sort out our utility/mud room which has become a repository for all kinds of junk. Some of it (most of it) is our junk, but in my clearing-up I've also found previous-owner junk. This object is one such item. It's a small coat-hanger style hook, about five inches wide. I think it's supposed to be in the shape of a cow, but that is guesswork based on the fact that this used to be a beef-cattle farm.

What would/should this be used for? Clearly, someone put a fair amount of work into making it, which makes me feel bad about throwing it away, but I really can't think what else to do with it. Answers in the comments, please: and if anyone would actually like to own this object, please shout!

23 November 2008

Ice wrappings

Very cold and clear this morning. One good thing about the shorter days is that you get to see the dawn more often than you do in the summer.

Usually, Mike takes the dog for his early-morning walk, but I volunteered to do it today, as I thought there might be some good photographic opportunities. The stream running down from the pond had frozen over:

There were small crystals of ice everywhere.

You had to be dressed for the -11°C temperatures though. Here's my Self-portrait with balaclava.

20 November 2008

Electric blankets

The first snow of the winter fell overnight - just a centimetre or two. By 9.30am the solar panels were almost clear of it.

In front of the barn the young shoots of the garlic that I planted in mid-October are still visible. There's a blanket of hay underneath the blanket of snow, so they're pretty well insulated under there. I always used to plant garlic in the autumn in England, but have read conflicting advice here about whether it's best to do it in autumn or spring, so this is a bit of an experiment.

18 November 2008

First sprinkling

Back home and it is cold. Not above 0°C yet and it's lunchtime. Any standing water has a thin film of ice over it. This morning we've had a few flurries of snow: enough to coat the pond with white.

The geothermal system is keeping the house a lot warmer than it was last year, although we're keeping it set at a fairly low temperature and are using the wood-burning stoves as our main source of heat. It really feels luxurious (and rather decadent) not to have to get out of bed into a cold house.

16 November 2008

Where in the world...

...am I tonight?

Well, here's a visual clue:

You may already be guessing that I'm not in rural Ontario.

I'm on another of my intermittent city jaunts and, as usual, am mostly taking pictures of plant life. At home all the leaves have left the trees (and it even snowed a bit this morning), but here there are still some leaves attached to branches, although there are plenty more blowing about in a blustery breeze and coating the ground of the big park in the centre of the city:

This next view of this park probably gives my location away:

Yes, it's Central Park. Which somehow is a lot more rugged and wild-looking than I was expecting it to be. I've never been to New York before, but you see the city so often as a backdrop to films and news reports that it is instantly familiar. I'm trying to be cool about being here, but there's a small part of my brain that keeps jumping up and down excitedly and shouting out "I'm in New York, I'm in NEW YORK!".

It really is a fleeting visit - I'll be going back tomorrow - so I won't have time to do the proper touristy things. I did go past the American Museum of Natural History this afternoon, so here's a picture of one of the two festive dinosaurs outside it, for my son, who was very jealous that I'd be near the set of Night at the Museum.

Although, to be honest, I wasn't at all sure about the fact that the dinosaurs were holding a wreath each. It didn't seem like a likely activity for a pair of, well what are they, iguanodons? I suppose they were herbivores, but still...

14 November 2008

Almond and raspberry tart

November is a famously depressing month (even without monster headaches), so comfort food is an essential, rather than a luxury. I made this tart on Sunday and it didn't last beyond that evening, but I'd left my camera cable at work so couldn't post the pictures until now.

This is really Nigella Lawson's 'Bakewell Tart with Raspberries' from her book How to Eat, but simplified (and it was already pretty easy to start with).


Shortcrust pastry

I use 250g flour and 125g butter, whizz it in the food processor and then add enough water to bind it into a big lump. To make this even easier you could use bought pastry or a bought pie crust, but the food processor version is so quick, it hardly seems any extra bother.


3 eggs
125g/4oz/1 cup ground almonds
125g/4oz/½ cup butter
125g/4oz/⅔ cup sugar

Put the pastry in the fridge while you make the filling. Melt the butter and take it off the heat. Beat the sugar into the eggs and then stir in the butter and almonds. Roll the pastry out and line a 10-inch/26cm dish with it. Prick the pastry with a fork. Scatter raspberries (as many as you have/like) over the base of the dish. I only had frozen ones, but fresh is fine too. If you don't have raspberries then a layer of jam over the base makes a more traditional Bakewell Tart.

Then pour in the almond mixture. It doesn't matter if some of the raspberries are poking through.

Cook it for 45 minutes at 200°C/400°F. Then it will look something like the picture at the top of this post.

Nigella says that "this is the sort of pudding people who say 'I don't eat puddings' have second helpings of." I don't think I know any people like that (not sure I'd be able to relate to such beings), but I almost wish I did, just to test that theory out.

13 November 2008

Analysis of a headache

As a kid I always used to get a headache when my mother had served us sausages. I'm sure she didn't believe me and thought I was trying to get out of eating sausages, but it did happen. I've had occasional really bad headaches as an adult - maybe seven or eight a year, but I've never associated them with a particular cause.

Until yesterday, when the penny finally dropped. A headache slowly came on during the afternoon and I had no painkillers with me, so had to wait until I got home at 6.00pm. By which time the headache was a full-blown migraine and it was too late for the recommended dosage of ibuprofen to have an effect. I spent the evening in bed feeling utterly wretched, finally accepting that this was a migraine rather than a bad headache and trying to work out WHY it was happening.

Parmesan. I'd had rice with mushrooms and parmesan for lunch. Could it be parmesan that was causing this? So this morning, with a slightly tender skull but otherwise recovered, I researched 'parmesan headaches' and ended up discovering that yes, parmesan can be a trigger, but also (thanks to this brilliant article) that in women our menstrual cycles are a major contributory cause of migraines. When oestrogen levels are low (at menstruation and ovulation), migraines are more likely to happen.

So I feel greatly relieved at finally understanding these migraines and knowing that there are ways to avoid triggering them. The article also had some hope to offer: "Many women will experience an improvement in their migraine after menopause." So that's something to look forward to, then!

Image Migraine #2 by Arty Smokes on Flickr.

11 November 2008

Joyeux Noël

No, I'm not getting all previous and becoming overly festive (although there are folks around here with their trees up already). Instead I'm referring to the 2005 film of this name which arrived in the post from our DVD rental company the other day.

Remembrance Day seemed to be the perfect day to watch this movie, which is based on real events surrounding the truces in the trenches at Christmas in 1914. It might be a bit sentimental for some tastes and probably wasn't anywhere near realistic in terms of the conditions in which the men were existing, but there was a message of hope, fellowship and mutual disrespect for authority which pleased me.

07 November 2008

Marketing and the male mind

My crop of Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkins is all safely tucked away in the basement now, but I have run into an unanticipated problem with actually using them. Child #2 (aged 9) has decided that he hates pumpkin. He won't touch pumpkin soup and refused to even try the pumpkin pie I made for Thanksgiving (which, with the right kind of pumpkin, was a vast improvement on last year's, by the way). So I have started researching other ways of using them up.

Yesterday's attempt was pumpkin bread. But such is his aversion, that I cunningly informed the children that the dish was known as 'Autumn Loaf'. We all tucked into the bread and everyone agreed that it tasted fine. Child #2 happened to be sitting next to the recipe print-out and I (stupidly) pointed it out to him before offering another slice of the loaf.

"No, I don't like pumpkin."
"But you liked the first slice."
"I'm not eating it - it's got pumpkin in it."

And that was it, he utterly refused to eat it any more, despite our remonstrances.

I wanted to give both the children a slice of the bread for their packed lunches this morning. The conversation with Child #2 went like this.

"You liked that Autumn Loaf I made yesterday didn't you?"
"Would you like a slice of it in your packed lunch?"
"Yes, please. It isn't pumpkin bread?"
"No, just full of crushed up autumn leaves. Is that OK?"
"Yes, that's fine."

And I got a big hug in return for my blatant lie.

D'you think he's going to have big therapy bills in the future?

04 November 2008

Winter coats

The asters and goldenrod flowers are now sporting their woolly winter outfits, forming a browny-greyish swathe where only a few weeks ago they made a splash of colour.


22 September:

A succession of workmen inside the house (first attending to the kitchen, then re-wiring everywhere) has limited our outdoor activities to weekends, with the result that work on the greenhouse construction has effectively stalled since September. On Sunday we managed to get back to it. We spread out the polythene layers that will cover the structure and started to pull the first of them over the frame. It wasn't particularly windy, but even the relatively light airs that arose were enough to lift the sheet up like a sail, which was a bit alarming. So we gave up and waited for a still day.

I kept an eye on the wind-speed during Monday and noticed that it started to drop at about 3pm. We tried again and this time the sheet went over without trying to take itself and us off into the skies. The second sheet went over even more easily than the first and then we managed to secure them at the ends and fix down the sides to the wooden battens.

There's still quite a lot to do - the ends, for instance - but it is beginning to feel like a structure now, rather than an interesting piece of garden sculpture.