October is glorious. The trees are in their autumn party clothes, hedges and orchards dripping with fruit, and the sun shines over it all, lower light giving etched shadows behind every blade of grass.
Then we enjoy the drama of autumn storms. The wind shreds the leaves, rain fills the soil to the brim, clouds tear overhead, cattle put their rumps to the wind.
We saw a little fallow buck in the orchard. He'd been eating apples and drunk or for the sheer joy of living leapt and pranced in full view.
He dashed into the wood and caught sight of a weasel who streaked across his path. He stopped, in alarm or curiosity, head down, then charged after the weasel into the wood. The buck will take his chance in the rut this month, and his blood is rising. He won't succeed this year, he's too small to challenge the big bucks, and he's got a lot of style.
This month we cultivate and seed the autumn crops. That involves lots of tractor action. We do as much as possible with one pass. We cut the surface of the soil, pull tines through at a depth to break up any compaction if it needs it and crumble the soil in front of the seeds, place the seed and finally tuck the seed up with soil. When I started farming, we'd take tractors six or eight times across the ground, ploughing, several cultivations, harrowing, seeding and rolling.
Arable farming must disturb the ground to make a seedbed, and the less you disturb soil, the more the natural soil processes can work. It's remarkable how soft, open, friable and full of life soil is that doesn't get stepped on or worked. Our aim is to keep it as close as we practically can to that pristine state.
Grassland soil is more full of life as it stays undisturbed, although just the weight of animals walking over it or tractors driving squashes the soil. The closer we can get to one third soil, once third air and one third water, the more productive our soils will be. To harvest it, the cows or tractors must go over the ground, and we limit the damage by careful work. We measure the grass growth, and measure some of the highest growth rates of the year before cold limits it, so we know the soils are working well. (And we can always do better). We don't cut the surplus grass that grows now. We store it growing in the fields and it will feed the animals into the winter, and even carry some over into the new year. As the soil gets wetter, it gets tenderer, and we need to be careful to avoid animals digging too deep with their hooves.
The new calves, born in the last couple of months, are enjoying the grass. We take milk to them, and they nibble away at the lush tips of the grass, getting a taste for their staple food, without forcing them to eat too close to the soil.
Their bigger sisters, the heifers, are on their last lap of the farm eating the fields away from the milking parlour.
The cows need to be within walking distance of the milking parlour, to come in twice a day for milking. That limits where we can graze the milking cows.
When I was a child, we used to take the cows across the main road out to milk and back to grass. Now it feels like that would inconvenience too many commuters, so we are planning to put up a milking parlour across the main road.
We will take one more crop off those fields then put them back into grass. We'll do the planning work for that project this month.
Our renewed vat is working well. We completely refurbished all its inner workings: the steam pipes that warm the milk, the jacket that contains the steam and the frame it sits on. The vats came to us second hand when my mother built this dairy in 1972, so they deserved a little love and care.
One vat done, and three to go over the next few years.
You can make good cheese in a poor vat, with care and attention, and it's easier to have one that spreads the heat properly and generally behaves itself.
The October milk is rich and balanced.
The autumn cows settle into milking. The spring cows are coming towards the end of this lactation as their calves grow. In late pregnancy, cows' milk gets less and creamier; the balance of the autumn cows' new milk and the spring herd's rich milk is just right for cheese. That's lucky, as now we are making a lot of the cheese that will sit on Christmas cheeseboards next year. We are sending off last year's cheese made around this time to sell for Christmas and Thanksgiving across the world. I love to see our cheese set off on its travels, now mature and ready to take its place in the world. That means a lots of work in store and packing, as we send off whole cheese each in its own box, or cut them up into deli or cheeseboard size pieces.
In the Shop, we are getting some lovely feast foods in, mostly made from the sun, soil and water of our valley or close by.
In the Kitchen, we are starting off with a new chef, who is enlivening our menus with some gorgeous interpretations of those lovely ingredients. Book your holiday meals and hampers for friends.
Celeriac & Potato Gratin
Autumn is the time for the joy of root vegetables, and nothing suits roots more than the richness of cream and cheese.
Our new chef has this lovely recipe.
Slice potato and celeriac in equal measure and briefly boil them in water till still just firm (put the potatoes in a couple of minutes before the celeriac which cooks quicker).
Make a white sauce with milk and single cream.
Lightly season (season more heavily for a standalone dish) and add some grated Quicke's Mature Cheddar.
Layer the vegetables in a buttered baking dish.
Bake in a medium oven till golden
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