31 December 2011

Crème brûlée weather

We had about an inch of snow on Thursday night, followed last night by a short period of freezing rain. Walking outside this morning is like stepping through the crispy layer of a crème brûlée into the soft snow underneath. Very satisfying crunchy noises ensue.

Winter has its compensations.

I'm now congratulating myself for my laziness in not shovelling the front steps yesterday: it's a lot easier to shovel snow with a thin layer of ice than it is to remove a thin layer of ice from a hard surface.

29 December 2011

Advancing ice

Yesterday there were hints of ice at the edge of the stream, nothing more:

After a very cold, clear, night, the ice is now covering the stream completely:

Any blades of grass sticking out above the surface have been caked in their own covering of hoar frost. I never get tired of this effect. Makes me think of aerial photographs of pine forests...

26 December 2011

Boxing Day bonus

The mild winter (still no snow!) means that some of the greenhouse vegetables which would normally have been killed off by frost are still producing food. After the rich main meal of Christmas Day, it was time for something a little lighter for our Boxing Day lunch. I was able to harvest salad onions, some lettuce and dill, along with some young spinach leaves (these were about the only thing which would normally still be alive at this time of year).

The dill and onions were chopped up and combined with a block of cream cheese and some lemon juice, salt and pepper to make a quick and easy pasta sauce. Once the cooked pasta was coated with the sauce, I stirred in some leftover smoked salmon, cut into strips. The spinach was sliced into thin strips and mixed with the lettuce leaves and some chopped cucumber (not from the greenhouse - but it was Canadian!) to make a green salad to go with the pasta.

Then we completely ruined all that lightness and freshness by having Christmas Pudding for dessert. I didn't serve it yesterday, having finally learned from long experience that no-one is capable of eating it on Christmas Day.

23 December 2011

Christmas dinner harvest

There's a hard frost forecast for tonight and tomorrow, so just now I seized the window of opportunity of a mildish spell (a bracing 0°C) to dig up some winter vegetables for our Christmas dinner. I got a big haul of sunchokes and a good handful of Cavolo nero from the barnyard and some carrots, sage and parsley and the last of the beets from the greenhouse.

The Cavolo nero (black Tuscan kale) has been the surprise hit of the winter garden. It has a sweetish flavour and has been holding up well outside to the frosts we've had so far. It's good steamed or used in a stir-fry. Most of the other brassica crops did very badly in this year's cold and then very dry late spring, but this kale managed to survive all of that. I'm impressed by its resilience and will definitely grow it again next year.

13 December 2011

Non-white Christmas?

The Weather Network produced a story based on statistics released by Environment Canada on the likelihood of a white Christmas in various cities across the country. We don't have any snow on the ground at the moment and there isn't much in the forecast, as the end of the Fall season continues to be milder than usual. I went out for a bike ride yesterday, which isn't something I'd normally expect to be doing in mid-December.
The tree-foraging detail was out in force on Saturday. We repeated last year's self-sufficiency trick of cutting down one of our red cedars for our Christmas tree. Much more fun than picking up one wrapped in netting from a shop!

It seems that this might be the first Christmas for us in Canada where there isn't snow on the ground. Which doesn't bother me in the slightest, but has got me thinking about why it's such a big deal. When did people first start making a fuss about whether it's going to be a white Christmas or not? Is it all because of the song, 'White Christmas'? Was that the trigger? Can we blame Irving Berlin for this obsession? Or is this desire for snow on the ground older than that?

UPDATE: The BBC Magazine has a piece about Charles Dickens this week, which firmly places the blame on him:

Specifically, the idea of a white Christmas - which was and still remains a relatively uncommon occurrence in much of the UK - appears in A Christmas Carol as if it happened each and every year.

In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd wrote: "In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas, it is interesting to note that in fact during the first eight years of his life there was a white Christmas every year; so sometimes reality does actually exist before the idealised image."

I had a quick look at the Project Gutenberg version of the book and the word snow appears 12 times. Generally he's not romanticising it, though: he describes it quite realistically and is mainly using it as a contrast to the warmth and comfort of indoors and the high spirits of the people.

By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cosy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them.

The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and waggons; furrows that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.

 The phrase 'white Christmas' doesn't appear at all in the book. I had a look at the Google Ngram viewer, which searches across the text of books published between 1800 and 2000. It's case-sensitive, so I searched for both 'White Christmas' and 'white Christmas' and these were the results (click on the image for a closer look):

The red line is 'White Christmas', the blue one 'white Christmas'. A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and, sure enough, the phrase starts appearing at about that time, increasing in popularity until the big bump after 1941, when Irving Berlin's song was first performed. It's not a very scientific analysis, I know, but perhaps the original concept does owe more to Dickens than to Berlin.

04 December 2011


The French tarragon which looked so woebegone a few weeks ago has come back to life after some intensive care in the kitchen:

And the remaining tomatoes are slowly ripening:

The greenhouse tomato plants were killed by frost in the last week of November and I spent an hour or so this morning clearing the plants and their supports from the beds. But it really hasn't been very cold yet this November and December (tempting fate by saying that, I know). I'm still picking broccoli florets from the plants in the greenhouse and the Tuscan black kale outside is producing well.

Yesterday morning brought a hoar frost. It turned these swamp milkweed seed pods furry:

And made the asters look like they were flowering all over again.

23 November 2011

Mixed precipitation

We had our first storm of the winter overnight: a mixture of rain, freezing rain, and snow. Made for some nice photographs this morning, so I'm not complaining.

I've been taking pictures of these beautiful Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) berries for weeks (there are just so many of them this year), but today's weather has brought them to Christmas-card perfection:

And, just along the same fence, even barbed wire can look attractive when it's encased in a coat of ice:

21 November 2011

Dropping fast

The sun and the temperature. Very clear today and we're expecting a low of -6°C/21°F tonight. That might finally kill off the greenhouse pepper and tomato plants. The sun's now setting at around 4.30pm and it's a lot easier to get the chickens are to settle in their coop than it is on summer evenings.

I was wrong (again!) about the gender of the three chicks that we hatched this year. They turned out to be two males and one female. It's good to have roosters back in the flock after we lost the father of these ones in the summer.

18 November 2011

Fronts on Front Street

The older stores on Belleville's Front Street show a genteel, polished appearance to users of the street, but it's a different story in the alleys leading up to it. There, the limestone structure of the buildings is on display, with no attempt to hide its roughness with a layer of plaster.

I haven't yet worked out why 'Front Street' is the preferred term in this part of the world for 'Main Street' (or what would be 'High Street' in England). But when you see the contrast between the sides and the fronts of these buildings, it makes you wonder if that's got something to do with it...

12 November 2011

Pre-winter harvest

It's getting to the point where denial of winter's approach is not going to be possible for much longer. In acceptance of this fact, I've picked a lot of the still-green tomatoes this morning and they're now taking up a good part of one of the kitchen counters. I've scattered some ripe ones over them pour encourager les autres. There's still some more to pick but there isn't room for them and this was as much as I could carry in one trip! They will gradually ripen over the next few weeks.

I also picked a lot of the spinach that's still outside and some of the prodigious quantity of parsley that I've got in the greenhouse. The spinach I trimmed of its stalks, blanched for 2 minutes and froze in ziplock bags. The parsley I just rinsed, divided into bunches and froze whole in small bags. Whether I remember to actually use any of them is another matter entirely...

11 November 2011

Cooking from itch

I've only mentioned my pasta machine once here, I think, but it's proved to be one of the more heavily-used of the kitchen gadgets I possess. One thing I really like about it is the ability to mix flours so that I get a light wholemeal pasta. I've always found 100% wholewheat pasta to be too stodgy, whereas white pasta just doesn't fill us up for very long. It's a similar story with bread, although I use a different mix of flours with pasta. With my bread I usually make it half-wholemeal, half-white. When it comes to pasta I prefer a mix that's a quarter-wholemeal, three-quarters white.

Tonight I made spaghetti bolognese. Yes, it does take a bit longer, making the pasta first, but not as long as you'd think, with the machine doing most of the work.

I used one of the frozen batches of tomato sauce made from the greenhouse tomatoes, bulked up with carrots I'd harvested from the garden last weekend. Our onion crop was disappointing this year, so it contained store-bought onions, but at least the herbs were fresh from the garden. I steamed a few spinach leaves and sugar snap peas from the greenhouse over the boiling pasta and that was that. Feel like I've come a long way from the days when most of a meal like this would have come out of a packet, jar or tin.

The phrase 'cooking from itch' isn't mine, I should add. I heard it the day I bought the pasta machine at the yard sale and have been meaning to use it ever since!

06 November 2011

Overwintering herbs

I've had mixed luck with keeping herbs alive over the winter. Thyme, sage, mint, and oregano seem to survive fine in the border next to the house and parsley usually comes back well in the spring. Plants like rosemary and French tarragon which would have survived over winter outside in England are less likely to do so here, so need some winter protection. The first winter, I dug up the rosemary plant and put it in the basement. Where I promptly forgot about it and it died of dehydration rather than cold. In the following year I took cuttings from its replacement and kept them in the kitchen, where I did remember to water them and they lived until the following year although the parent plant, left outside, did not. Last year, the rosemary plant I left outside did actually make it through the winter, although the smaller plants I kept in the kitchen did not. I'm just not good at remembering to water indoor plants...

But I am persevering and have taken four cuttings from the surprise survivor of last winter. I'm keeping these next to the kitchen sink in the hope that this will prompt me to water them more regularly...

Then I remembered the French tarragon plant I bought this year. I like tarragon but it's one of those annoying plants that can't be grown from seed, so I had to buy it from one of the local nurseries. I left it in its pot, thinking that it would be easier to bring it indoors in the winter that way. I went outside to find it and was rather disheartened by what I saw:

There are some small signs of life (if you look very hard), so I've brought it indoors anyway in the hope that a spell in the warmth of the kitchen will effect a minor miracle and bring it back to full health. Gardening is all about optimism, after all...

01 November 2011

On borrowed time

It's been quiet around here because I've been away on a work trip to the UK. Coming back from such a trip at this time of year, I'm never sure whether the summer vegetables will have been killed by a frost or not.

This time we've been lucky and the tender veg in the greenhouse are still hanging on, despite a few frosts which have killed the tender plants outside.

Over the next week I'll be doing a big harvest of all the remaining tomatoes and peppers before we start getting into the really cold weather. Fortunately, there's no frost forecast in the short term, so this is not as urgent a task as it might have been.

The fall pea experiment in the greenhouse has partially worked. I picked a good harvest of sugar snap peas today but the regular peas ('Lincoln') on the right of this photo have not been quite so successful, despite good germination rates.

I'll probably just sow the sugar snap ones next year - but it was definitely worth trying.

The chickens are still laying which is interesting because this time last year we didn't get any eggs at all. We're only getting two or three a day now, but there were none for three weeks last year between October and November. Strange...

19 October 2011


Forty-two new citizens took the oath of citizenship in Belleville today and four of them were our family. There were 18 countries represented in the group and it seemed that England was the supplier of the largest number, with about nine of us in all (there were also two Scots, so a fairly good showing by the UK!). The ceremony had everything necessary: a convivial presiding official (Roy Bonisteel), civic dignitaries, bilingual proceedings, lots of maple leaves and, of course, a Mountie. We swore our Oath of Citizenship (which involved promising to obey the laws of Canada and "to be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second"), received our Certificates of Citizenship and then sang 'O Canada'.

We came away clutching bags of Canadian swag (I am never going to be short of Canadian flags) and feeling, on the whole, quite proud and happy.

10 October 2011

Cider apple experiment

I don't know what I'm doing wrong with the orchard, but I'm not having a lot of luck with it. Last year we had no fruit and this year the only tree to produce anything was one of the cider apple varieties (Brown's apple). I had about six apples from it, total weight 1 lb 4 oz. Hardly impressive.

And now I had a problem: six apples is hardly enough to make cider from. I could have used them to make apple juice, but at the moment I don't have an apple press of any kind. I couldn't work out whether cider apples are good for anything much else apart from making juice. This post is by way of a public service in case there's anyone else out there wondering the same thing.

I decided to take a chance and turn them into apple strudel. I took the precaution of tasting the raw apple first and it was surprisingly sweet. I'd been expecting them to be more like a Bramley cooking apple than an eating apple and thought I'd have to add a fair bit of sugar to them to compensate. After being cooked in the strudel, they did disintegrate to mush in a way that a Bramley wouldn't - but they tasted very good and I would certainly use them in cooking again.

I still harbour hopes that one day in the future I'll get a crop that's big enough for me to be able to justify the investment in a small cider press, but this year all I have to show from the orchard is this single apple strudel.

08 October 2011

Dream scenes

Just recently I've been having a lot of dreams where I'm taking photographs. Seems odd - my mind conjuring up a scene and then trying to record it. I'm obviously taking too many, though, because the other night, the batteries in my dream camera ran out...

I don't know if the dreams mean that I'm taking too many photos in my waking hours, or too few, but I woke to the promise of a misty dawn, the sort of weather that usually provides great photo opportunities and I was up like a shot, heading to the lake to see what it looked like.

Quite lovely, of course, but the water in the air transforms even the most workaday views: the silos and the stubble of the corn in next door's field:

Our big barn:

And a tuft of Canada thistle caught in the chicken-wire fence:

02 October 2011

Closet photography

It's not often that I get compelled to take a photograph upon entering a toilet cubicle. But yesterday was one of those days. The (slightly eerie?) combination of the frosted glass window, tendrils of living and dead creeper was crying out to be recorded.

23 September 2011

That time of year...

...when the harvest is gathered in...

...when chickens lose their feathers...

...when leaves begin to change...

... and when I'm back to wearing jeans and my three-season boots.

18 September 2011

The flaw in the door

As we had a spare door after the bathroom work was finished, Mike thought he'd replace Child2's bedroom door with it. A few problems with one of the old hinges and one or two curse words later, the door was in place.

Here it is, fully closed up.

Turns out the bathroom door was two inches narrower than this bedroom door. So perhaps not such a good idea after all. We tried selling the improved ventilation angle to Child2 but he wasn't impressed. His old door is now back in its original place.

This house never stops surprising us with its little idiosyncrasies...

11 September 2011

At the County fair

Some of the sights at the County Fair were what I was expecting. Beautiful vegetables:

And shiny fruit:

The Demolition Derby was a new experience for me, though. I do vaguely remember seeing banger racing in England as a child, but that was an actual race around a track. This was more brutal: like the dodgems but with real cars, played out in what seems to be a very small field of battle. The driver of the last car still capable of moving wins.

In theory, I disapprove of this form of entertainment: it's dangerous and not at all environmentally friendly.

But there's no denying that there is something thrilling about watching people deliberately crashing cars into each other. The crowd gets really involved, with lots of cheering for particularly spectacular collisions. I can see why this has become a standard part of county fairs in North America.

I feel a little guilty about enjoying it, that's all...

08 September 2011

Bright spots

The last few days have been dull, cool, windy and altogether back-to-schoolish. As I type, the setting sun has made an appearance, but we haven't seen much of it recently.

There are some cheering sights around, though. At last we're getting a corn crop that people other than myself will eat. The multi-coloured variety is interesting. It's called 'Rainbow Inca Sweet'. Personally I feel it's somewhat lacking in the green and orange department for a name like that.

The goldenrod has been flowering for a few weeks now and the asters are just starting to open up to keep them company.

04 September 2011


I'm conscious that I usually share the tourist-brochure view of Prince Edward County in these posts. Just for a little balance, here I'm treating you to a glimpse of a candidate for 'Most Ugly Building of the County'. I stopped to take its likeness yesterday on one of my bike-excursions:

A true monstrosity: unattractive grey bricks, awful windows (if that's the right word for them) and a general appearance of a high-security prison for the most dangerous pigs in the world.

31 August 2011

School days

Child#1 is embarking on her first year of high school next week and she spent part of yesterday at an orientation session at her new school, picking up a lock, student card and her schedule for the year. I took one looked the schedule and went "Huh?". Maybe not the most eloquent of speeches, but that document really confused me. Partly because it seemed to be written in code (I'm sure she's looking forward to her first lesson of PPL101b, for example), but mostly because it was so simple. For the first five months of the school year she will have the same four classes every day. Then in the rest of the year, she'll have a different four classes.

Each day of the week exactly the same and only four different classes: this is the 'semester system' and it seems very strange to me. I imagine it makes timetabling a lot easier, but it does sound rather monotonous. And odd not to be doing a core subject like English, French or Mathematics for half of a year! When I think back to my timetable for the same age (13/14), I had 13 different subjects (and 12 separate exams at the end of that year (now I'm feeling hard-done-by)). Seems like the kids specialise very early here. Will be interesting to see how it works out.

24 August 2011

Taking the test

We reached another stage in our emigration journey today.

This imposing building is the immigration office in Kingston, where Mike and I reported earlier this afternoon to establish our identities, prove we could speak English - bit tricky for Mike, that one, but he seemed to manage OK ;-) - and complete a 20-question multiple-choice test on Canadian history, geography, economics and politics. It was fine. The questions were straight-forward and we were in and out of the building in one hour. There were only ten of us taking the test and curiously, Mike was the only man. We all had a bit of a chat before the test started and heard some horror stories from one of the women whose family had taken the test in Toronto, where there were many more people and it took three hours to interview them all before the test started.

When we got home, the children proudly presented us with a cake that they'd made to mark the occasion:

Hidden by the generous helping of sprinkles are the words 'Nice Job' and a thumbs-up. Good to know that they have confidence in our abilities!

We won't know for sure whether we've passed the test until we hear from the immigration office. If we have, then we'll be invited to a ceremony with a citizenship judge in September. Fingers crossed...

We're thinking we will have a party to mark the transition to officially being Canadians. It will be quite nice not to have to read the 'Discover Canada' book again: we've been having to learn the whole thing over the last few weeks. And we are comprehensively Sick To Death of it.