As we march ever closer to January, I’m still struggling to come to terms with the year we have had. If any of us had been told last December what was in store for us in the New Year, I really don’t think we would have believed it. So many changes and challenges have entered our everyday lives.
More than that though, I don’t think I ever imagined that the simplest of things and those we take most for granted – like physically reaching out to another person, a visit to a coffee shop, chattering over a steaming mug of tea, hugging a family member – could be taken away from us. It is easy to get bogged down with all the advice surrounding social distancing but let’s remember, it is for the short term, and the aim is to help protect those we love, especially the most vulnerable.
Usually, by this stage in December, our house is knee deep in decorations: gifts are being wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree and I’m tunelessly crooning away to any seasonal music that I hear. This year, I haven’t physically gone shopping due to the lockdown, so I haven’t been immersed in the jingling of bells and the razzle-dazzle of tinsel. I have been going supermarket shopping every two to three weeks but otherwise, any shopping I have done has been done online.
I really don’t mind it so much. Every year without fail, I get all ‘into the mood for Christmas’ sometime in early- to mid-November. I peak too soon. By the time the twenty-fifth rolls around, I’m jaded by the whole affair and counting down the days till I can stow anything red or gold in the attic. I have certainly seen houses adorned in coloured lights, I’ve seen some adverts on the TV and of course I have seen plenty on social media and the internet, but aside from that, I have so many other things that are distracting me from ‘the big day’ that I’m not feeling it yet!
On the farm, we are continuing to strip-graze: as the weather gets colder and wetter, grass gets wasted when it is trodden underfoot, so we use electric fencing to give the sheep new sections to eat, day by day. It means that they always have fresh grass, but also that there is less wastage which will in turn leads to better recovery of the paddocks in spring. While this is a great idea and keeps the sheep reasonably happy, it can be tiresome setting up the electric fencing, especially when it is raining and blowing a gale!
I mentioned at the end of last week that we put our breeding ewe-lambs into the shed. We have been feeding them silage and some oats. It is an extra chore to check and feed them morning and evening, but personally, I love when the sheep are housed, especially when the weather starts to turn so miserable. They look so cosy and happy, snuggled up in their fresh bedding. It is less of a strain on their bodies because they are not battling the elements and for us the farmers, it is easier to keep an eye on their growth and progress. We hope these ewe-lambs will have lambs of their own in spring.
Of course, we don’t keep all of our ewe-lambs for breeding, so on Thursday, I brought a group to be sold at the livestock mart local to us. It was a bit of an adventure rounding them up in the field while it was still dark and pouring rain, but I had Luke - my ten year old son - to help me. We got them loaded up into the trailer and sold for a very reasonable price. I love selling lambs, especially at this time of year because it lightens the workload. They will have gone on to live out their days frolicking in the lush pastures of some other farm.
Our chickens have not gone on strike for the shorter days yet - we are still getting a few eggs a day – and our quail are not laying at all. At this stage I’m happy enough to accept that they are taking their winter break and will look forward to the resumption of regular service in the spring. Aside from going in and out to the birds and feeding the alpacas, I have done nothing of note in the garden. I did plant some snowdrop bulbs and hopefully we’ll have their happy little faces to greet us in the spring.
In terms of being a domestic goddess, no housekeeping was done this week, but I was delighted to do lots of cooking over the weekend. A trip to my trusty butcher meant that I did some batch cooking: I now have some pasta bakes and Bolognese sauce in the freezer, along with some shepherd’s pie bases (the meat part). The past couple of months I have been working on using up the food in our freezer so I’m happy to be at a stage where I can start refilling it again, and I adore having ready dinners I can grab and stick into the oven without thinking, especially when they are homemade!
I got two ‘oxtails’ and I made beef stock from scratch for the first time too. I am so happy with the result! I have frozen it in portions, ready for use and now I won’t need to buy stock cubes for the time being! By right, I should have canned it: if I had been brave enough to use my pressure canner, it would be storable on a shelf in my pantry rather than taking up space in my freezer, so that is a skill that is high up on my ‘to do’ list for January.
In preparation for Christmas, I have started another batch of ‘Bitters’. What are bitters? In a nutshell, spices are left to steep in a spirit alcohol – I use a vodka – and in the last step of making them, some sugar is added. Delicious and exotic tasting and you can even tailor the flavours you use to your own preferences! I first made this stuff during the summer. It is a long process as it takes a few weeks to infuse the spices, but it is a wonderful addition to cocktails, or even just to take as a tonic. There are many commercial brands available if you don’t want to go to the bother of making your own.
I made apple jelly a little while ago and used the leftover pulp to make my first batch of cider vinegar: because of the colour of the apples, it is a lovely pink colour. I don’t know how it will turn out, I’ll just have to wait and see, but I bottled that up and it sure does look pretty.
I mentioned before that we have been working on building a pantry… well, over the weekend, it got lights and a worktop! My gas hob is to be fitted during the week and I don’t have plumbing set up yet, but I have been told I can clean it and get it organised! Watch this space!
Another of the big projects this coming week, is to get the house ‘guest-ready’. This means a good clean, hoover and dust, ensuring that bedding is ready for visitors - my mother and brother will hopefully be joining us for Christmas. Over all we have been busy and the house has been neglected, so I have lots of piles about the place that are labelled ‘to put away’, ‘to tidy’, ‘to sort’ or ‘to reorganise’. And of course I am the only eejit who does this putting away, tidying, sorting and reorganising. I honestly don’t think my boys even see the chaos in our midst… please tell me I’m not the only one suffering this plight!
Then there is the paperwork. Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork! Again, this is my job, so I try to maintain our records and filing systems throughout the year – it makes it much easier – and if at all possible, I want to be able to get all our files to our accountant the first week of January… that way I don’t have it hanging over me into the New Year when we’ll be starting to think about lambing!
These are some of the highlights of the week, and you may have seen some of them if you have been following my ‘Stories’ on Instagram. I expect we’ll stay busy until we wind down for the Christmas break. For now, armed with a ‘To-Do’ list the length of my arm, I’ll keep on working away.