27 December 2010

Roughing it in the Bush

I've been meaning to read Susanna Moodie's 1852 account of her early years in Canada for years now, ever since I first heard about it. She emigrated from England to Ontario in 1832 and spent the first eight years here farming, first near Cobourg and then north of Peterborough. After that time, her husband was appointed Sheriff of Hastings County and the family moved to Belleville. Roughing it in the Bush describes the family's experiences in their attempts at farming. Most of the book was written by Susanna, with a few chapters by her husband, John.

The Moodies emigrated almost exactly 175 years before we did, so the book was sure to be interesting, in seeing how things had changed for new emigrants in all that time. As someone with a fairly strong interest in history, I thought I would be bound to enjoy it. I was disappointed. There were some interesting details about household and farming life in the mid-nineteenth (I had no idea you could make coffee from roasted dandelion roots, for example), but the overwhelming impression I gained was of Susanna Moodie's strong sense of entitlement and even stronger sense of self-pity. I found her irritating in the extreme. For example:

My husband and I had worked hard in the field; it was the first time I had ever tried my hand at field-labour, but our ready money was exhausted...and there was no help for it. I had a hard struggle with my pride before I would consent to render the least assistance on the farm

In the end, the best part of the book was towards the end of it (I'm glad I persevered), when she talks about Prince Edward County a little (having moved to Belleville - whose population was 4,554 at this point). Suddenly her tone changes completely and it's like reading one of today's local business development brochures. Here's what she had to say about the County:

Large quantities of wheat and other farm produce are transported over the ice to Belleville from the neighbouring county of Prince Edward, which is an exceedingly propserous agricultural settlement, yielding wheat of the finest quality, and particularly excellent cheese and butter. The scenery on the shores of Prince Edward is exceedingly picturesque, and there are numerous wharfs at short distances, from whence the farmers roll their barrels of flour and other articles on board the steamers on their way to market. I have seen no scenery in Upper Canada presenting the same variety and beauty as that of the shores of Prince Edward in particular...Certain it is, that more quiet, industrious, and prosperous settlers, are not to be found in the Province.

I particularly liked her description of the local women-folk:

The counties of Hastings and Prince Edward are celebrated for female beauty, and nowhere can you see people in the same class more becomingly attired. At the same time there is nothing rustic about them, except genuine good nature and unaffected simplicity of manners. To judge by their light elastic step and rosy smiling countenances, no people on earth seem to enjoy a greater share of health and contentment.

I'm going off now, to try to perfect my light elastic step.

23 December 2010


We got some lake-effect snow last Saturday, our first real snow of the winter. Today was the first time I'd walked along the path in the picture since the snowfall. You can see that there are a lot of tracks in the snow - they're mainly made by coyotes.

We got a more gruesome reminder of the coyotes' presence when the dog came running out of the woods with a deer's leg in its mouth on Monday. We distracted him with some dog biscuits and Mike took the leg away to hide it from him. The following day, just south of the spot in the photo, I found the leg again, this time gnawed almost clean. I didn't have my camera with me, so no photo. (For which I'm sure you're grateful!) Luckily the dog was behind me at the time, so I just turned for home and he didn't see the leg. Today, it had vanished again and I hope that's the last we'll see of it. Does make you realise that those coyotes aren't to be messed with, though...

17 December 2010

Festive ice cream

These are my Christmas gifts for my co-workers at the library (it's OK, I don't think they read this blog, so it should still be a surprise!). I decided to make ice-cream for them this year. With a North American flavour.

The orange-coloured layer at the bottom of these pots is pumpkin pie ice cream. I roasted my pumpkin at the weekend and it produced about five pounds of purée. Mike suggested that my colleagues might like it as ice cream. A quick hunt online found a few recipes, including this custard-based one which was what I used as the foundation for my version. I drained the purée in cheesecloth in a sieve for half an hour or so, first, as pumpkin can be quite watery. The other departure from the recipe was to stir in pieces of crystallised ginger to the finished ice cream (an idea from one of the other recipes I found).

As you can see, the pumpkin pie ice cream didn't really fill the five containers, so I needed to think of something else for the top layer. Originally, I was just going to do vanilla, but then it occurred to me that it wouldn't take much to turn vanilla ice cream into egg nog ice cream. Just a bit of nutmeg, cinnamon and a generous slosh of brandy, in fact. Tastes pretty good. There's some left over and I think it will be great as a topping on my Christmas pudding. A mix of Old and New World. How apt.

16 December 2010


The lake is starting to freeze over at its eastern end. On Tuesday I picked up a newly-laid egg and cracked it into a frying pan for lunch. The white was already frozen.

11 December 2010

Ice contours

I don't understand the process by which these icy contours form, but the end result is attractive.

After a cold week, the temperatures got above the freezing mark today. The stream, whose surface had been completely frozen, is now running with water again. In some places, it is bubbling through holes in the ice, rather like a blow-hole:

The chickens didn't stir from the barn for two days this week, when it was too cold and windy for them outside. Today, though, they're back in the orchard. We got four eggs from them yesterday, which is the first time since 22 September that we've had that many. And about time, too.

With freezing rain in the forecast for tomorrow, and cold temperatures again after that, they'd better make the most of their day outside!

07 December 2010

Top deck

I was going to call this post 'New Layer', but I see that I've already done that, almost exactly a year ago.

Sigh, so hard to be original. It would have been even more apt for this post, as the new layer in question positioned her egg directly above where the older hen put hers - precariously balanced on top of the nest boxes, instead of safely inside one. There's quite a difference in size between the eggs. And yes, before you say so, I know that this looks just like the picture in that same post from last year.

I've put some more nesting material inside the boxes, to encourage the new hens to lay there. The former lining of hay was looking a bit sparse.

06 December 2010


We found a likely-looking tree yesterday and Mike performed his magic with the chainsaw, which took all of three seconds or so.

We had to cut another two or three feet off the bottom of it to make it fit in the living room (why is it so hard to judge the size of a tree when you're outside?) and even then, it's easily the biggest Christmas tree we've ever had. Our old Christmas lights looked so pathetic on it that we had to go out and buy some new ones. So much for our 'free' tree...

Anyway, it's now installed and looking as gloriously tasteless as any of its predecessors.

05 December 2010

Summer in winter

I enjoy making meals which use a combination of fresh and preserved local food. Today I did that with a braised lamb shank recipe. The lamb was from our meat CSA scheme and has been in the freezer since it was delivered in the summer. I've also used a jar of the tomatoes I preserved in August (even though we do still have some fresh ones).

The remaining ingredients are more seasonal: garlic, onions, carrots, swede/rutabaga and rosemary.

After browning the meat in an ovenproof dish, I cooked the chopped vegetables in butter for five minutes or so and then added the jar of tomatoes, some white wine and some stock. The lamb shanks were added back into the pan, which was covered, brought to the boil and then transferred to a 300°F/150°C oven for three hours. I served it with mashed potato and braised red cabbage.

And if that wasn't enough to fill the house with lovely smells, I also used the woodstove to dry some orange slices for use as Christmas decorations. I tried this last year and managed to burn some of the slices slightly. This time I've mastered the technique - the rack on top of the roasting pan keeps the slices sufficiently far away from the heat of the stove to let them dry more gently.

I love the way they look when they're finished: like small pieces of stained glass. A promise of summer.

04 December 2010

Here it comes...

A glance at the weather forecast yesterday spurred me into action in the garden. The temperatures were going to be below freezing for the next week and I still had some root crops to lift.

I got five pounds of purple carrots and three pounds of (rather gangly) parsnips, several small red cabbages and a fair bit of broccoli. Then I did a bit more clearing out in the greenhouse, removing the last of the aubergine, pepper and tomato plants. There are still some herbs and greens in there, including this determined little cilantro/coriander plant, which had established itself in a tiny patch of earth on the concrete floor.

Knowing that everything was about to change, I went out and took pictures of the watery landscape yesterday. After a cold night and some light snow this morning, things are already looking different.

Pond yesterday

Pond today

Woods yesterday

Woods today

02 December 2010

"The best soup ever!"

Writing this down quickly, as it's not often I manage to please everyone with a soup that's mainly made of  vegetables.


Sunchokes (about two handfuls)
3 medium-sized carrots
Potatoes (two handfuls: they were a fingerling variety)
1 leek
Ground pepper
Bit of butter
1½ pints stock (I used ham stock)
2 broccoli heads
Stilton cheese (about a handful, once grated)
3 rashers of bacon, chopped and fried until crispy

Very precise measurements, as you can see.

Chop the sunchokes, potatoes, leeks and carrots into small pieces (about ½ inch cubes) and sweat them gently in the butter for a few minutes with a little freshly ground pepper. Add the stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Leave for around 30 minutes and then add the broccoli heads, broken into individual florets. Cook until the broccoli is tender, for about five minutes.

Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the grated Stilton. Blend until fairly smooth, pour into serving bowls and top with the bacon pieces.

I didn't get a chance to take a photograph of the soup (though there's a photo on this blog that gives the overall effect), but it got rave reviews from both children, which is quite miraculous. Especially as I had no idea what I was going to make for supper until about an hour before we ate it. In the days when I used to buy cartons of fresh soup, when we were back in England, my daughter's favourite was always Broccoli and Stilton. This is the closest she's had since - and I managed to squeeze in a whole load of other home-grown vegetables, too!

An improvement on the reaction to last soup I served up (butternut squash, carrot and lentil), which Child #1 says she had to pretend was chocolate sauce in order to finish...

30 November 2010

True colours

Dull, damp days are sometimes the best for seeing the true colour of things. Round these parts, the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a common weed tree.* There are many of them growing on our property, of all different sizes. As its Latin name suggests, it isn't a cedar at all, but a juniper. This becomes obvious when you see a young female tree like this one:

At this time of year, the red cedars turn brown and I love the contrast of the blue juniper berries with the brown needles of the tree. The larger brown growth at the bottom left of this picture is the dormant form of the cedar apple rust gall, which blossoms into sinister life during summer rains.

Since we've been in Canada, we've always bought Christmas trees, as I didn't think that the red cedars, with their brown coloration, would make good specimens for the living room centrepiece, despite having so many that we would hardly miss one. But I read an article a while ago which promised that once placed in a warm room, the trees revert to their summer green. So, this year, in another attempt at self-sufficiency, we're going to give one of these 'weeds' a chance to take the stage as our Christmas tree. We'll see if it works!

*I'm still getting used to the idea that we own enough land for it to be possible for a tree to be a weed...

26 November 2010

21 November 2010

A taste of winter

It hasn't been quite as mild as last November, but it has been warmer than average and sunnier, too. It had also been fairly dry, but on Tuesday this week we had some significant rainfall (over an inch), as the bars in the graph below indicate.The line shows the highest temperature for each day.

On the following day the wind got up and our greenhouse suffered the loss of one of the plastic panels on the west wall:

And of course, it would be one of the ones at the highest point of the structure. Mike got it back up again today, but it wasn't a fun job, as the temperature didn't get above 1°C/34°F.

We also spent some time in the chicken coop this weekend, shoring up its rodent defences and sweeping off the largest cobwebs from the roof. Seems we've still only got one chicken laying - and I still haven't worked out whether it's a new hen or one of the original set.

16 November 2010

Roasted winter veg

Swede (or rutabaga), beetroot, carrots and leeks, roasted in olive oil for about 50 minutes (the leeks for about 30). A warming winter side dish with a lovely range of colours. All lifted from the garden this afternoon.

I hated swede when I was a kid. We never had it at home, but it was often on the menu at school. Mum always threatened to serve it up for Christmas dinner. I think it must have been the way it was cooked: boiled and then mashed. Roasted, it's a completely different vegetable.

12 November 2010

Going equipped

My old hiking boots, bought years ago in England, have finally given up being impermeable after providing me with stalwart daily service through three Canadian winters. I've had to invest in a replacement pair and have gone for these monstrous beasts:

They're so heavy that I feel like someone's turned off the gravity when I remove them. But they're sturdy, warm and waterproof, so I hope will do the job. Not that they need to be, at the moment; the weather's been gloriously mild, dry and sunny. Will probably regret typing those words any day now. ;-)

And, in chicken news...tada!

The last egg before this one was laid on October 22nd. Three weeks of no eggs: most upsetting. Let's hope that this is the start of a more productive period. Not sure if it was from one of the new hens or one of the old ones - I'll keep a closer eye on them over the weekend to see if I can work out who's responsible.

05 November 2010

Exotically local

Charlotta's post about her Jerusalem artichokes (which from now on I'm going to call sunchokes, for reasons of brevity and linguistic pedantry) reminded me that I had yet to investigate whether my May-planted specimens had produced any tubers.

I was pleasantly surprised - in the first six inches of my row I harvested two and a half pounds (over a kilogram) of sunchokes:

I've been reading about sunchokes having unfortunate digestive effects on people, so thought it best to introduce them in small quantities at first. Mike had found wonton wrappers in a local Asian food store in response to a request from Child #2 for steamed wonton dumplings. One of the recipes I'd been looking at called for water chestnuts, for which sunchokes seemed a fair substitute.


1 lb (500g) side of pork, minced (from our meat CSA scheme)
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 spring onions, finely chopped
3 small sunchoke tubers, finely chopped
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons cornflour/starch

c.80 wonton wrappers

Once everything is chopped, mix all the ingredients together. Then comes the fiddly part: foming the dumplings. I found it easier to work with about six to eight wrappers at a time, keeping a damp piece of kitchen paper over the rest of the pile.

Put a teaspoonful of filing inside each wrapper:

Moisten the edges and then draw the corners together:

Put the dumplings on plates, covered with damp kitchen paper, until you're ready to cook them. I used a lightly-oiled regular stainless steel steamer on top of a pan of water, but you could also fry the dumplings. In the steamer, they take five minutes (I initially thought this wouldn't be enough time to cook the pork, but it was). I did them in batches of ten at a time.

I served up dipping sauces of chilli jam and a mixture of hoisin sauce, honey and rice wine vinegar. I was concerned that 80 dumplings might be too many for a family of five, but I need not have worried!

The principle ingredients for this dish all came from the County. Even the wonton wrappers were only made in Toronto. Inspiration from China: ingredients from Ontario. Love it.

31 October 2010

Last harvest?

There were a few snow flurries today, and tonight the temperature is supposed to drop below freezing. I thought it best to pick most of the greenhouse crops. I love walking back to the kitchen with a container full of vegetables under each arm (although I do worry that I might be developing some sort of Demeter complex) and today I was sad that this might be the last time I do that this year.

There were a lot of green tomatoes, which may or may not ripen by the kitchen window. I blanched the spinach and froze it and the cayenne peppers. The aubergines/eggplants are destined for a moussaka that I'm planning to make for lunch on Tuesday. They've done really well this year. There were some Hungarian Hot Wax peppers too, which I've pickled. Here's a picture of those, (a special request from our neighbour, Elizabeth).

Mike and I were busy in the lower vegetable garden this morning, pulling out the old corn, sunflowers and squash plants and then adding chicken manure to the beds and tilling it in. In the process, we turned four smallish beds into two large ones, to give us more growing space and to reduce the amount of grass-cutting that's needed in the summer. I'm delighted with the way the chicken manure turned out - it's rotted down to a rich brown material which I hope will do wonders for the potatoes next year.

Manure is the only useful thing that the chickens are producing at the moment: the older ones are in a moulting phase and have stopped laying, while the younger ones have yet to start. The new feathers are starting to come through on the older hens, making them look rather piebald and scruffy:

I hope they all start laying again soon: we had to buy eggs this week for the first time in a year, which was most upsetting!

28 October 2010

Molten silver

High winds and bright sunshine conspired to turn the lake into something quite bewitching today:

24 October 2010

Catching up

Nearly three weeks is a long time to be away. The garden has changed considerably, with two frosty mornings in my absence. The outside tomato plants which I'd left green and fruiting are now brown and dead and the basil plants are blackened skeletons. Other vegetables are still going strong: there's a fair broccoli crop and the spinach is looking fantastic.

The new chickens are now as big as last year's hatch, but they're not yet laying. The feathers of the older hens look quite faded in comparison to the younger ones:

There has been an excellent crop of shaggy ink-cap mushrooms in the orchard, although I've missed the peak of production. We did manage to gather enough for the three adults to have a pleasant supper of mushrooms-on-toast last night. This year, with the losses to the May frost, we've actually picked more mushrooms from the orchard than we have fruit!

I transferred the wormery from the garage to the basement, to protect the worms from the frost. They'd converted two trays of kitchen waste into crumbly black compost, which I've added to one of the greenhouse beds. Mike and Child#2 put three tractor-loads of wood into the garage, ready for the days of wood-fires.

In England, the trees were still mainly green. Here, the ash trees have lost all their leaves. The only deciduous trees with leaves still attached in our little bit of wood are the oaks. And we only have two of those, so it's looking pretty bare. Considering that the temperature in both countries is similar at this time of year (and that we're further south here, and therefore get more daylight), it's quite a striking difference.

21 October 2010

Adventures in public transport

I've been on a trip to the UK since the beginning of October, which I hope explains my blogging silence. It was a strange visit, starting in Aberdeen and ending up in Kent, with lots of buses, trains and walking in between.

One of the big differences between living in rural Ontario and living in a British town is the availability of public transport. In my trip away I saw the best and the worst of UK public transport, from severe overcrowding on trains in London and Leicester, to punctual and frequent bus services in Aberdeen and Dundee. OK, the bus from the airport into Aberdeen on my first day wasn't so good - I had a half-hour wait in wind and rain and then the woman who was sitting behind me vomited into her bag as we got into the city. But otherwise, my bus experiences in Scotland were fairly positive.

In Leicester I enjoyed the scenic environs of the New Walk very much. Except for the point when a man entered the park and urinated against a tree just twenty feet from where I was sitting. That was another low point of the trip. As I walked back to the station, a couple were having a screaming row on the path. So loud and passionate were they ("This time I never slept wiv no-one!"), that I half-suspected it to be a piece of street theatre, with hidden cameras recording the responses of passers-by. At times on this trip I wondered if all these people had been sent to misbehave around me just to reassure me that I'd made the right decision about emigrating.

The only other note-worth journey was the experience of going into and out of London's St. Pancras station on the Southeastern Highspeed trains. It was novel to get from Kent to London by first travelling through Essex. The trains had a mildly annoying three-note chime before every announcement.*

On my journey back into Kent something had gone wrong with the automated announcements altogether and it seemed to be stuck on a continuous loop, repeatedly informing us that the train was on its way to Faversham. This began by being irritating, but soon I became close to breaking into unseemly giggles, as everyone else in the carriage was studiously ignoring the repetitions. Perhaps it happens every night. I began to feel that there was some deep significance to the brief pause and then seductively breathy emphasis that the female voice gave to the final word of the announcement "and...Faversham". It was quite a relief to get off that swish, clinical and high-tech train at Rochester, to board a smelly regular train, whose digital display insisted, for the remainder of the journey, that the next stop was going to be Bromley South.

Where we are now, there isn't much public transport at all, so I miss these delights, in a perverse way. Now, when I go back, I feel like an outsider and observer of British life, rather than a part of it. It's an odd feeling.

*British readers of a certain age might remember a similar arrangement in announcements made in the 1980s sit-com Hi-de-Hi. It was very similar to that.

29 September 2010

A bit garish

As a new undergraduate, all those years ago, I was waxing enthusiastic about the autumn colours to an American student who lived on the same corridor* as me.

"This is nothing!" she assured me. "I'll show you proper Fall colours**."

She dashed off and came back with a series of photographs which she had taken the previous year on her New England campus.

They were gorgeous. Vivid reds and oranges under a clear blue sky. But I wasn't going to admit that her American Fall was better than my British autumn.

"They're a bit garish, aren't they?" I sniffed.

I remember that the woman's first name was Susan. I'd like to take this moment to apologise to her for being so snotty. I'm cringing in embarrassment at the memory and trying not to let it prevent me from loving every minute of the Fall colours we seeing right now.

*In a room on the same corridor, of course. We weren't so hard up as all that. Still had student grants in those days...

**Being American, she probably would have said 'colors', of course.

22 September 2010

20 September 2010

First-time crops

A couple of success stories for the 2010 harvest, both vegetables I've not grown before and both plants that seem to thrive on neglect. Which is always good...

The swede/rutabaga were a surprise success. You can see from the photograph how stony our soil is, but these sturdy little plants have managed to produce good-sized roots despite that.

I've been growing winter squash of various types since we moved here, but this year was the first time I've grown butternut squash. These five fruit were all from the one plant. Next to them is the only pumpkin I've picked so far - there are two more on the plant, but they're still green and I'm not sure they'll reach maturity. The yellow ones are 'Small wonder' spaghetti squash, which have done brilliantly this year. I've picked over twenty so far and there are more still ripening on the vine.