31 January 2011

Groundhog Day

You know that 'stuck in a rut' feeling? Well, walking the dog is just that at the moment. The depth of snow has made it easier to follow a particular route, which has now become a regular pathway, brooking no variation to our twice-daily excursions. It's getting a bit...samey.

I'm almost looking forward to the promised (threatened?) 'Groundhog Day storm': 20-30cm/8-12 inches of snow which will obliterate the path and force us to forge a new trail.

25 January 2011

Libraries and volunteers

Wellington Library
This post is slightly off-topic for this blog, really, but at the core of it is what seems to be a deep difference between the way things work in Canada and in the UK. The context is the deep cuts in library services that are being made across many areas of Great Britain. This grim map shows the extent of the planned closures. There is an assumption being made by those advocating closures that volunteers will step up to keep libraries open.

My very limited experience here in Canada is that volunteers have an important (actually, essential) role in small libraries. There is a core of paid staff, but a lot of desk-duty, book-shelving and labelling is undertaken by volunteers. When I started reading British librarians' objections to the use of volunteers, my first reaction was to think 'well it seems to work quite well here', and wonder what the fuss was about. The work done by volunteers in just one library I'm involved with here is worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.

But then I reflected a bit further and realised that 'here' and 'there' aren't very similar in this respect. My sense is that volunteering is much more common here and there is much more community spirit. Of course, part of this is the difference between living in a rural area here and (most recently) living in a city, there, but I also lived in an Oxfordshire village for a while and I still don't think there was the same extent of voluntary work there. There was a central hard-core set of retired people who had time to spare for community work, but I would say that was it. Just here in the County there are so many different organisations which do charitable works in the community - Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, Legion, Elks, Odd Fellows, Masons, Women's Institutes, to name but a few (and that's not even looking at the activities of the various churches). And all for a population of only 25,000.

In Ontario, children have to do 40 hours of community service once they get to high school, which helps to get them into the volunteering mindset, I suppose. The Canadian Citizenship Study Guide we've got to learn for our test emphasises that one of the responsibilities of citizenship is 'Helping others in the community'. I somehow doubt that the same point is made in the British equivalent, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong about that.

Philip Pullman's wonderful, passionate speech in defence of Oxfordshire's threatened libraries makes good points about the scarcity of volunteers in the UK. I wonder why the two countries are so different in this respect, and whether it has always the case, or if something changed at some point in the UK to make people less likely to volunteer their time for others.

24 January 2011

Icy Mondays

Last Monday was the coldest we've seen here, as previously reported. The inside of the chickens' plastic water bottle froze around the edges (even though it's sitting underneath a heat lamp). The circle of ice looked like a crown, we decided.

Today is cold again and this time the ice from inside the water feeder looks more like a pork pie hat.

One of the things I really dislike about this very cold weather is the way the snow sounds when you walk on it. It's squeaky: like walking on polystyrene. Then the laces on my winter boots freeze solid and I have to stand in front of the wood stove for a minute or two before I can get them off. It has been too cold to melt the snow on the solar panels, so although the sun has been shining, we've made hardly any electricity in the last two days.

 It will be warming up tomorrow, to -1°C/30°F, which will be quite a relief!

20 January 2011


Sparkles of sunlight
in yesterday’s snow. Stars that
fell down in the night?

17 January 2011

Coldest yet

The temperature dropped to a new low of -28.8°C/-19.8°F this morning (at which point the weather-recording device decided to stop working. I don't blame it.) It wasn't quite so cold when I took the dog out for his mid-morning walk. More like -15°C/5°F. He didn't seem to mind, though.

It makes me laugh when he has to negotiate deep snow - he bounds through it, like some kind of giant dog-rabbit.

You wouldn't think that water would be running after such a cold night, but the spring near the pond was still flowing:

In other places, where there had been some water visible a few days ago, the ice had formed interesting new structures on the surface. I thought I'd seen all the different types of ice that could form on or around the stream, but these ones were new to me. They look like flowers, or somebody's crystal-growing chemistry experiment:

14 January 2011

Ginger syrup sponge pudding and vanilla ice-cream

Another day, another egg-induced panic. Ice cream is always a good way of using them up, of course. For future reference, here is my bulk recipe for basic vanilla ice-cream, made with home-made cream, for reasons previously rehearsed.


1lb/454g unsalted butter (must be unsalted)
32 (UK) fluid ounces/900ml milk (3-4% fat)
1½ cups sugar
8 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

To make the cream, melt the butter and then put it in a blender with half of the milk (16 fl. oz/450ml). Blend on high speed to combine them well. This is your cream, but it will tend to separate back into milk and butter if you don't emulsify it with the eggs (my Bel cream maker can do the emulsifying, but it's such hard work - this way is much easier). So that's the next stage. Put the cream back into the pan in which you melted the butter (wipe it round with kitchen paper first, so that you don't have big globules of butter left in it), add the sugar and put the pan on a medium heat while you deal with the eggs.

I use whole eggs, rather than just yolks, for my ice cream but find that they work best if I blend them first. You don't have to clean out the remains of the butter and milk mixture from the blender - just break the eggs into the empty goblet and blend briefly - you don't want it too frothy, just uniform-looking. Pour the remaining milk into a large bowl and set a sieve over it.

When the cream is nearly at boiling point, pour it into the blended eggs. Don't do it the other way - putting the eggs into the cream - they will curdle and you'll have wasted all that effort. Then tip the cream and egg mixture back into the pan, still on a medium heat, add the sugar and stir continuously until the mixture (custard, really) starts to thicken. When the custard thickly coats the back of the spoon (so that if you draw your finger across it, the line you make stays there), then it's ready.

Pour the hot custard through the sieve into the milk to make sure that no bits of cooked egg white go into your ice cream. Mix the custard into the milk and taste the mixture to make sure that it is sweet enough for you (it's often at this point that I realise I've forgotten to add the sugar, so I always taste it, to be sure!). Add the vanilla extract and allow the mixture to chill before putting it in your ice-cream maker. This quantity makes three batches in my machine - enough to serve about 12 people. Or (more likely) the same four people three times.

Of course ice-cream is all very well, but it's somehow not that appealing as a dessert on days like today, when the outside temperature peaked at -6°C/21°F. Something more warming was called for, so I made an old British favourite - syrup sponge pudding, with a warming ginger twist.


4oz softened butter
4oz sugar
2 eggs
4oz flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons syrup (I used a mixture of Golden Syrup and maple syrup)

Mix the butter and sugar together until creamy. Beat in the eggs, then fold in the flour, baking powder and ginger. Grease a one-litre/two-pint bowl and spoon the syrup into the base. Pile the mixture on top of the syrup. Cover with plastic film and microwave on full power for about two and a half minutes, until the pudding is well risen. You can steam this pudding too, but that takes a long time (two hours!) - this is one case where the microwave really comes into its own for a last-minute dessert.

I didn't have time to take a photo of the finished pudding before it was itself finished. But here's a nice one from the Pudding Club, which gives the general idea.

Except that you have to imagine a scoop of home-made vanilla ice-cream melting into it...

13 January 2011

White and curvy

It looks like a marshmallow-making machine has gone berserk in places, after yesterday's snow.

I pressed my snow-shoes into service today for the first time this winter. I'm not sure my hips are grateful.

As we're now drowning in eggs, I decided to pickle a couple of dozen. I've never eaten a pickled egg*, so I've no idea if I'll like them or not. But I like eggs and I like pickles, so I'm cautiously optimistic.

*Oh dear, that somehow sounds terribly snobbish.

09 January 2011

Up and down

The January snows have not been accompanied by high winds, so it has accumulated evenly on every surface.

Likewise, although it's been cold, it hasn't been really bone-chillingly cold yet, this month. I've been enjoying the crisp air and the winter scenery. I'm sure I'll feel differently when I have to go out to the chickens in a blizzard, but right now, I'm feeling well-disposed towards the season.

Melting snow on the metal roofs of the barns have created the usual interesting icicles on the nearby fences.

Winter definitely has its compensations.

06 January 2011


Oh dear, what a terrible title for this post. So sorry, but I'm a bit distracted and don't have time to think of a better one. For one thing, I broke open a double-yolked egg today:

I've never seen a double-yolker before, and this is the first we've had from our hens. So that was a thrill. Yes, I'm easily pleased.

After a dearth of eggs in October and November, the hens all started laying at once in mid-December and we've been rather inundated. I made a new mini-sign for our farm-gate one over Christmas:

I'll never make a sign-writer, but it seems to have worked, because this morning we had our first farm-gate sale to a couple who went off with four dozen eggs. We've sold a few eggs to friends and neighbours before today, but these were our first 'proper' customers. The egg mountain is suddenly looking a bit less intimidating. I might let Child#2 have something other than eggs for breakfast...

02 January 2011

Deprived childhood

Growing up on the south coast of England, we never had much in the way of proper winters. Or proper summers, for that matter, I suppose, but that's a topic for another post. We got snow sometimes, but never all that much and never for very long. My brother and I had inherited an old toboggan which had been given to us by our grandfather. We lived half-way up a smallish hill and we would jump at the chance to ride the toboggan down the pavement/sidewalk on the rare occasions when it did snow. I remember our (utterly selfish) outrage when Mr Collins, our elderly neighbour, put salt down on his part of the pavement and spoiled our fun. I suppose we were about ten and eleven at the time.

We took our toboggan elsewhere and made a new slide on a pavement of a different road, a few streets away. The road was a quiet one, mainly inhabited by elderly people, but it had a nice slope and that was all we cared about. We had a great time for an hour or two, but the major disadvantage of our new toboggan run was that it was visible from the upstairs windows of our own house. Mum saw what we were doing and was (quite rightly) horrified - what if some of the old people had slipped and fallen on what was now an absolutely lethal pathway? She came to put a stop to our fun and I remember her being furious with us, although there is a blank space in my memory as to what the consequences of our selfish hour of fun were. If I'd been her I would have made us scatter salt on the slide, but I can't remember if that's what happened.

Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that we didn't get a lot of snow and ice to play with when we were young. There was sometimes a layer of ice on a puddle to crack, but that would be about it. I'm baffled now, by my own children, who spend hardly any time at all playing outside in the winter. On the plus side, it means that they're not getting up to the mischief that my brother and I were at the same age, so I'm not having to worry about what they're doing, but I can't help feeling that they're missing out.

I, on the other hand, am still making up for lost time. The recent thaw has thinned the ice over the stream. The winter-deprived child in me takes great delight in breaking the ice and creating mini ice-bergs and ice-jams. I know my eleven-year-old self would have been out there playing for hours.

So why aren't my kids?