Signs and Portents – autumn on the way

Swifts gathering

The mornings are dawning bright, crisp, and soaked in dew the last week or so.  I’ve been in my wellies sorting out the hens and walking the dog.  Last Thursday I snapped this photo (sadly on my mobile phone – it was a gorgeous morning and I only wish I’d had my good camera with me!) of our local swifts gathering for their southward migration.  They’ll soon be gone, now, for another year.

The autumn fruit is ripening in the hedges and it won’t be long before we’re picking sloes for this year’s batch of sloe gin.  The blackberries are just about ripening now.  The lambs are big and fat and hard to tell apart from their ewes.  The harvest is nearly in, summer has given almost all her growth and fecundity for another year, and the autumn nights are definitely starting to draw in.

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The Butterfly Bush – a photo from the garden today

It’s been a funny year, weather wise – we had a very late, wet spring, and summer has been resolutely grey and damp with only flashes of heat and sunshine, and we’ve seen very few butterflies.  And in the last week, suddenly, they’re everywhere.

The buddleia, which grows in a scruffy bit of ground behind our pond, has really been earning it’s name of ‘butterfly bush’ in the weekend sunshine.

Peacock butterfly on buddleia flower.

This is a peacock butterfly – which are around at the moment by the dozen.  In just a few minutes, I also saw several tortoiseshells and a couple of red admirals.  I’m so pleased to see them all around at last, here’s hoping they enjoy all the lovely late nectar on offer and get a good breeding season in!

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Meet the Family – Dave the dog

This is Dave, our eight year old rough collie.  He’s the ‘face’ of the country skills blog and twitter avatar, too. 🙂

I took this photo yesterday night, while he was ‘hanging out’ on the sofa, enjoying the new sheepskins we brought back recently from Yorkshire.  I should add, he’s not allowed on the sofa, really – but he sprained his elbow a few days ago and is feeling a bit sorry for himself, so has extra privileges just now!  I love how his coat blends and contrasts with the fleeces in this picture.

I hope all of your pets (if you have them) are enjoying good health today, and are as much a source of joy to you as Dave is to us!

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Signs of Summer – hedgerow posy

It’s great to see the field margins and roadsides crowded with flowers at this time of year, isn’t it?  I couldn’t resist, and picked a small posy from our paddock – red clover, buttercups and grasses.  It looks a treat on my window sill.

Hedgerow posy

Go and pick one of your own – it’s a little bit of summer, for you to enjoy indoors!  Beautiful, and best of all, completely free!

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Ice and a Slice – a great little tip for your summer drinks!

Summer is finally here – what could be nicer on a sunny afternoon than a lovely long drink over ice, with a slice or two of lemon or lime?  And how often does half a citrus fruit end up mouldering in the door of the fridge until it’s completely useless and inedible?  Even worse perhaps, how frustrating is it when there’s no edible lime in the fruit bowl just when you really really fancy that G&T?

Sliced lemon and lime

Here’s my top tip to save waste and avoid citrus fruit frustration this summer – freeze them!

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingWhen you’ve sliced what you want, keep going, and finish slicing the whole fruit.  Pack them in a bag (I like using ziplock sandwich bags, if I have them, because I can re-use them time and time again).  I lay them in the bag in twos, if I can, since that’s how I tend to use them in drinks.  Put them in the top of the freezer with the ice-cube trays, job done!  Couldn’t be much simpler, could it, really?

Citrus fruit portions from the freezerHere are a couple of bags of frozen lemon and orange segments I pulled out of my freezer just now.  I freeze all sorts of pieces – half lemons can be defrosted in the microwave (a few 10s blasts should do the trick) and used in cooking and baking (microwaving fresh citrus fruits briefly before juicing is also a useful tip and greatly increases the juice extraction!).  The slices go in drinks, of course (or into the cavity of whole fish before baking!) and the segments are multi purpose – great in a long drink or squeezed over whatever you like.

No need to defrost before using, if it’s a long cold one you’re after.  Just toss the slice or segment into your glass with the ice, and pour over your drink of choice.  The citrus flavour will take a little longer to diffuse into your drink than a fresh slice, but it will all happen as the lemon thaws – which is almost instantaneous for a slice, slightly longer for a segment perhaps but patience is a virtue!  Sit back, and enjoy – and never waste a lime, or go without your wedge of lemon again!

Your long cold drink, ready to go!

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Adventures in Quilting – my first jelly roll, and baby steps in a new craft

A couple of weeks ago, friends introduced me to a wonderful local quilting shop, The Bramble Patch in Weedon, Northants.  All those beautiful fabrics made an impression on me, and I’ve been thinking about possible projects ever since.  Today I was back for a return visit, and whereas last time I escaped with five pretty fat quarters and a relatively small hole in my wallet, today’s visit was a bit more costly!

Jelly roll, fabrics & batting

I came home with a jelly roll – my first *ever* jelly roll – ‘Reunion’ by Moda, a metre of quilt batting, a metre and a half of a matching fabric from the Reunion collection to use as backing, as well as a couple of necessary bits and bobs.  I love the idea of jelly rolls – little strips of lots and lots of co-ordinating fabrics.  I would never buy even fat quarters of such a wide range of fabrics, and the diminutive size of the strips (just 2 1/2 inches wide) is its own challenge.  This collection is particularly lovely – in turns fresh and colourful, classic and muted.

Reunion by Moda fabric collection

My project, after consideration, is a set of six place mats and a co-ordinating table runner. I hope that the small size of the working pieces and the limited scope of the project should make it one I can pull off without too much stress or anxiety!  In deference to my complete lack of prior quilting experience, and relative lack of sophisticated general sewing skills, I’ve chosen the simplest possible pattern – just stripes of colour laid next to one another, edged by turning the backing fabric to the front side.  It’s such a pretty fabric and it saves a lot of faff with binding!

Finished place mat - front     Finished place mat - back

This is my first place mat – the size was chosen with my narrow dining table in mind and is about 22 x 36cm.  The more observant among you will notice one doubled seam where I messed up slightly – this just adds to the cosy hand-made feeling, in my opinion, and in any case is only visible from the back.  I’ll post a full how-to in due course once I’ve finished making it up as I go along – although talk about the blind leading the blind!  The backing fabric was folded over and the corners mitred by hand before being sewn down in a single row close to the edge.  I’m quite pleased with the final result, not bad for a first effort, eh?

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Signs of Spring – the lambs are arriving!

Not much to say today, folks.  Just thought I’d share some photos of lambs that I shot yesterday evening just before sunset on my mobile phone camera.  Aren’t they wonderful? (The lambs, that is, the matter of the greatness or otherwise of the photos is left as an exercise for the reader…)

          

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Foraging Skills – blossom watch

Spring is in full flood now, with bulb flowers and that lovely acid spring green colour of young leaves appearing everywhere.  You’re likely to be seeing lots of frothy white blossom in the hedges, and that’s worth keeping your eyes out for.  The sort you’re looking for is on otherwise naked branches, and spread evenly over the bush rather than forming clusters.

Blackthorn blossom

This is the blackthorn (the name is no coincidence!) or sloe bush.  So if you’re a fan of sloe gin (and let’s face it, isn’t everyone?) and fancy making some this autumn, make a note of any really good stands of blossom you see in the next week or two.  Final identification takes a slightly closer look – single small white flowers, armed with some nasty spikes on dark coloured wood.  The leaves, when they appear, will be small and rounded.

Blackthorn blossom - close up

You’ll notice that the blossom extends quite a long way inside the bush – this is one of the things that’s going to make picking, when you get to it, a bit of a challenge!

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Finally – Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge is here!

I love home-cured bacon, and I think you will too!  The experience of making streaky bacon for the first time was one of the main motivations behind setting up this blog, and more recently I’ve had great success with home-cured back bacon, too.  And yet despite how simple it is, and how wonderful the final product, the most common reaction I get is ‘Oh but that sounds very complicated, you’re braver than me!’.

Home-cured back bacon

In order encourage as many people as possible to try this simplest of all foody experiences, I’ve come up with the following, very simple plan.  I’m calling it ‘Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge’.

I will post an 80g pack of ‘Supracure’ curing salt (enough to cure up to 1kg of bacon) to the first 10 people to send me their UK postal address.

Then, I’ll post day-by-day instructions to follow.

Thank you everyone, I now have a full set of volunteers!  Instructions, and hopefully feedback, coming soon!

That’s it, simple as that!  All I want from you in return is to make your bacon, and to write about it, take photos of it, tweet about it, post to facebook about it and generally brag to anyone who’ll listen about how awesome, easy and worthwhile it is!  With any luck, for some of you it may even become a habit of a lifetime.

In order to make your very own bacon, you will need to provide a piece of fresh pork belly or pork loin up to 1kg in weight (ideally with the skin on), a non-metallic dish big enough to hold the meat, ~20g of sugar (soft dark sugar is best), some cling film, a refrigerator, and a couple of minutes a day for five consecutive days.

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That Wedding Bunting – now well underway!

The quick and simple Christmas Bunting was only ever a dry-run for the big task – I’d promised my sister bunting to decorate the village hall for her wedding reception.    Time is ticking on, so I’ve been getting on over the last few weeks.

Wedding bunting, complete

My plan was eventually to make 6 strings of 10m length each, in pursuit of which I’ve begged, borrowed and not *exactly* stolen all manner of fabric scraps, old clothes and bits and pieces.  I also bought a 72 yard bolt of yellow double-fold bias tape from the US via the marvel that is ebay.  This time I’ve chosen a bigger pennant, 8″ long by 6″ across.  I’ve also tightened the spacing so there is 6″ between flags.

Bunting pennants, laid outIt’s a great selection of colours and patterns, garnered from friends, family, work colleagues, the back of my wardrobe, and freecycle.  The fabrics come from three sets of curtains, three blouses, a pair of jeans and a pair of cords, one pair of jim-jams, two offcuts of woollen suit fabric, some polyester scarf material, and one tea towel.

Bunting pennants, cut and ironedA bit of back-of-envelope calculation and I worked out I needed 29 flags per string.  I drew a new template on cardboard from a packing box.  Words cannot express what a slow boring job cutting out 180 triangles is, but with perseverance, and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the telly evening after evening, we got there in the end.

Bunting pennants, sorted into groupsAfter ironing and sorting into piles, time to assemble the bunting.  Bias tape has quite a lot of ‘give’ in it, so peel a load off the roll and give it all a good stretch, this will also help it lie flat.  I measured 10m lengths and then found the middle of each.  Then starting in the middle, pin the pennants one at a time into the fold of the bias tape, measuring the gap between them approximately.  After that, it’s just a matter of running the whole length through your sewing machine using appropriate complimentary – or if you like, contrasting – thread.  Try to avoid skewering your fingers on the pins too often.

Completed bunting

There it is – I hope she likes it!  Only four more strings to assemble before it’s all done!

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