Summertime

Summer is not my favorite season by any stretch, yet in spite of unprecedented weeks of heat here in the Pacific Northwest, this summer has been filled with charm and simple luxuries.

The creek is at what neighbors say is a record low for this time of year, and I believe it. But it still offers burbling pools for swimming, and a multitude of wonders such as impromptu crawdad boils and a reprieve from the scorching afternoons.

The wild berries are bountiful, and my daughter and I spend much of each day picking– and she eating. The variety is astounding here. The common blackberries are just beginning to reach ripeness in greater quantity than could ever be picked, and the cooking and canning finally shall begin.

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We’ve dug the first row of potatoes– 17 pounds– and the garlic and shallots, which were small due to late planting and infrequent watering. Fortunately they yielded a good handful of delicious scapes, or as I always knew them, whistles.

Our great friend made an impulse purchase of two Muscovy ducks and brought two for us in exchange for keeping them here. My husband was quick to day “I told you so” when I conceded that they’re great– adorable, easy-for-now to care for, and will eventually be a good meal that led a happy life in the grass and water. Long-term, we intend to dig a pond in the pasture area, partially for run-off management, and then raise more ducks.

Our rabbits were successfully bred, and delivered ten of the most adorable babies: tortoiseshell, black-and-white, and all-white rex-New Zealand crosses. I’m pleased and relieved that all have survived and thrived, whereas in the past these mothers have struggled.

We took in our male rabbit, who I believe is a black-and-brown rex, several months ago after losing our buck. I hoped to have colorful pelts for a variety of uses. However, my plan backfired: these bunnies are way too cute for food, my husband insists. Some will therefore be sold, some will be eaten, and we will be purchasing an additional New Zealand buck.

The garden is filling out, which feels slow but good. I’ll be prepping fall beds this coming week and planting brassicas, as well as more beans on the pea trellis after we harvest the stunted shoots for salad tonight. This incredibly hot summer has had no sympathy for our late plantings.

This is the first year in many that I’ve been filled with visceral euphoria in anticipation of fall. I suppose it’s because I’m back home. And here, I think we will enjoy the most sumptuous fall of any, and I can enjoy these sweltering summer days for their promise of eventual cool and falling leaves and rain.

Making Plum Wine

 

After early blossoming, the plum trees already have surprisingly sizable fruit showing, and it has me thinking about last year’s wonderfully successful venture of country winemaking. Plum was my first attempt, and it’s been one of the best among apple, mint, nettle, pumpkin, mead, pomegranate mead, jujube, and rosehip.

Until last year, I was mostly unaware that wine can be made from pretty much any fruit or vegetable matter, from peaches to rhubarb, parsnips to zucchini, even nettles and flowers. And contrary to standard grape winemaking practices, the basics are, well, very basic.

Essentially: Prepare fruit or whatever you’re using; add sugar, yeast and (sometimes) water; ferment once; strain; ferment some more. There are other varying steps of straining or racking , boiling the fruit, and so on, depending on what your basis is, but for the most part, that’s the process.

The plum and other trees have faired poorly in the drought, and last year’s fruit failed to ever completely ripen.  The largest among them were tiny, greenish, and olive-like, many beginning to shrivel.

In spite of my husband’s skepticism, I picked the tree clean: six quarts of unappealing marbles. Then, while he was out of town, during our baby’s naptimes, I made them into wine.

Since  I gave absolutely no consideration to peeling and pitting the plums, I rinsed them and removed the stems, then dumped them into our 20-quart stainless pot. I poured in 14 quarts of water, then boiled them until they had plumped up like about-to-burst cranberries. I scooped many against the side to squeeze out the flesh, but didn’t bother with most. To my surprise, the aroma was wonderfully sweet and plummy.

I then waited a few hours, enough time to pop (start) the packet of liquid yeast that happened to have been sitting in our fridge and also have my husband purchase an enormous bag of white sugar. By then the plum mixture had cooled to room temperature, and I measured in 11 cups of white sugar and stirred it well to dissolve and aerate. Then I dumped in the yeast, stirred some more, covered it loosely, and set the pot on a large baking tray in an out-of-the-way place (a good choice, since it overflowed in a sticky mess as it fermented wildly).

I’d been worried that the yeast was too old to work properly, but after a day, the concoction came to life with frothy, foaming activity. It smelled lovely, and when I stirred it twice daily, a white fizz erupted from beneath the leavened plums.

Five days after cooking, the fermentation had slowed down slightly and I was excited to move along when my daughter went down for her afternoon nap. I filled a six-gallon brewing tub with no-rinse sterilizer solution and dropped in my stirring implements, strainers and syphoning hose. Then I syphoned the solution into a 5-gallon carboy.

Next, I scooped my plum must through a medium mesh strainer into the tub, pressing out liquid and depositing the solids into the chicken bowl (meanwhile wondering if the chickens would be staggering around with a buzz). I let the liquid sit overnight, covered.

In the morning, the surface looked like a freshly baked cookie.

At morning naptime, I again scooped the concoction through a strainer, our finer mesh conical style, and agitated it as the liquid slowly drained through leaving a saucy deposit that again went to the chickens. Then I added 10 more cups of sugar, the remainder of the 10-pound bag. I stirred it up and let that settle until afternoon naptime.

Finally, that afternoon, I syphoned the mix, keeping the hose below the surface but above the level of sediment at the bottom, into the carboy.

I racked the wine once more, after a month or so, then bottled it. The clarity had improved and the flavor was surprisingly marvelous– sweet, plummy, with well balanced alcohol. While I didn’t measure the initial potential alcohol and therefore could not measure the final product, I would guess by its effects that it contained as much as a strong zin: certainly a percentage in the high teens. When we drank it, we always used small glasses.

Plum wine was a wonderful inspiration that set me off into the world of country winemaking, and a fantastic lesson in the value of otherwise useless fruit.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

Trouble with Free-Range Chickens (A Comedy of Errors)

When we moved to our home in California, it was our first place with land. I had grown up with chickens and even showed bantam Brahmas and Buff Orpingtons in 4-H, so a nice little laying flock was our first purchase. We chose Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Sex Links– all fairly standard selections.

We were situated with the unusual “luxury” of a farm in the midst of a city that had grown up around it. All drawbacks aside, this meant the only predators are dogs and hawks, and neither are a threat at night when the birds are roosting. Therefore, the chickens sleep in the rafters of the barn and browse the entire three acres throughout the day.

Once the hens were laying, a few months later, we thought it would be swell to add a rooster, mainly for the novelty as well as flock management. We had chatted lightly about harvesting chickens for meat down the road but didn’t dedicate much serious discussion to the plans.

So with total disregard for practicality, this is the rooster we got:

A white-crested black Polish. We named him Kowolski.

Kowolski was a charming fellow who did his jobs well. And before we knew it, we had cute little fluff balls running around. Their puffy feather hats were amusing. We kept the mother hens and chicks confined until they were larger, then they joined the roaming flock.

This next generation was wilder than the first, since they were never handled, and with an odd mix of  features. They laid consistently, though the eggs were small.

The trouble was, these hens brooded on rogue nests in the tall grass in what seemed like all seasons. One clutch that appeared unannounced was 17 motley chicks strong!

And even after we got a second rooster, a rescued Old English Game cock once used for fighting, and still after Kowolski’s untimely demise, several generations later the birds continue to boast tufts of varying magnitude.

Now, with a flock growing to epic proportions, and with our increasing interest in self-sufficiency, we began harvesting the roosters, which seemed to comprise a disproportionate number of each batch of offspring. Mixed breeds that they were, and ornamental lineage at that,  the birds were gangly, the feathers dense and difficult to pluck, and the meat sparse and tough.

The only way to capture them– and I consider myself a more-than-competant chicken-catcher– was the go into the barn at night and climb onto tractors and fences to try to select them from among the hens in the dark.

Chickens are practically comatose at night, hence the reason foxes and the like can pluck bird after bird from their coop without disturbing the lot. Yet after only one attempt at this method, the roosters already extremely wary of me for the numerous attempts to snare them in daylight, began sleeping on edge and would fly squawking into the night the moment I appeared within reach.

It took me months– many, many months– to catch the populous group of roosters as it continued to expand.

But finally, there is one. And as the weather warms and the hens grow inclined to find a nice place in the grass to hide a pile of eggs, there will have to be none.

When the chickens are moved to the new property, the myriad predators will require that they be cooped. We’ll keep these hens for laying, mismatched as they are, and start a second flock from scratch (no pun intended) for meat. And they’ll all be the same breed. Lesson painfully learned.

Wisdom and the Meaning of Homesteading

“The words homesteading and organic still make me cringe,” my husband said as we discussed my recent post Why We Pursue Homesteading. Words like these, he argues, have grown into buzzwords, overused and oft misappropriated.

“Would you ever consider yourself a homesteader?” I asked.

“I don’t want to consider myself anything other than happy and successful. Because once you start labeling yourself, you start comparing yourself to others.”

His insight defined a thought I’ve explored in writing about our activities, a qualm that’s persisted. During our time in California, our levels of production have had ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. After our daughter was born, our garden grew meek, hardly a significant contribution to our diet. And once our attention began to transition toward the move to Oregon, our motivation to plant and weed further waned.

In this interim, we still make soap and wine and meals. We still harvest our own meat and forage from the land. But at times I’m conscious of what we’re not doing– or, as my husband points out, what others are doing and we’re not. And that only occurs to me, I now notice, when thinking in terms of definitions and qualifications.

Writing and reading about the endeavor is about sharing in the triumphs and failures, about gleaning inspiration and inspiring others. For these purposes, practices must be named.

Apart from homesteading and self-sufficiency, a phrase often used to describe the sorts of undertakings we enjoy is “the Good Life.” How telling that I therefore might have titled my recent piece “Why We Pursue The Good Life.” That, it seems, would require little explanation.

Goose Down

I’d read numerous warnings about the arduous task that plucking the goose would be. Perhaps the dreadful anticipation contributed to my positive surprise.

Yes, it took at least two hours, maybe three with the final tweezing of the pinfeathers. But the work was pleasant, almost meditative. I sat out in the yard in a cloud of snow-white down, stacking the primary wing feathers and coaxing the airy fluff into a bag. The feathers were divinely soft and silky.

I found that they came out so easily, I declined to scald the bird even though I had a pot hot at standby. (I wonder if by chance the way we dispatched the goose inadvertently released the feathers, because the ease I experienced did not ring true to the descriptions I’d read about. I won’t be overly optimistic going into it next time.)

The roasted goose, prepared as usual a la Hank Shaw, was decadent and supremely delicious. The giblets were the finest I’ve cooked or eaten– so large and lovely that we reserved most for frying up as an hors d’oeuvre, rather than putting all in the stuffing.

As I pondered over the next day what to use the magnificent feathers for, a wind storm blew in along with a light rain, and before I knew it our yard was papered with wilted down.