February on the Farm
February has a reputation for being wet and gloomy. I long for it not be that way, and grasp at the lighter mornings and evenings. The sun does more than scrape itself off the horizon. The morning chorus of songbirds kicked off earlier in the season than I remember. I know it’s birds defending territory, but it is a gorgeous start to the day as first one bird, then others join in till you get a swelling joyful sound.
The crops are looking forward to drier roots. They have not been able to root deeply - no oxygen for the roots to use. If we get dry weather later, they will be less poised to harvest water and nutrients from deeper in the soil. We’ve had a warm winter, so the plants are starting to grow, but a lot of nutrient has been washed out, and waterlogged soil has less life in it, except slugs. I notice the seagulls are looking happy at ponded water on the fields, and the rooks are looking sleek on the slugs & worms close to the surface, again in search of air. It feels like the soil has lost structure over the last year – how long will that take to restore?
We need an early spring; we are eking out our stocks of stored grass (silage) with chopped straw. The barns are emptying of stores fast. Both us and the cows look longingly out at the grazing fields. They are all looking a bit battered after the winter. We know the spring is coming, it comes every year, and I leap on every sign, the quiet signs of growth that I will to be more than they are. We have some dry cows out on paddocks on the red land, pecking at the grass that grows. We supplement them with bales of straw, counting out the swindling store.
The spring cows calve, not so fast and furious as last year. We look for signs of the dreaded Schmallenburg virus….I don’t want to tempt fate by predicting how it will go. We’ve heard from shepherds the agony of dragging deformed stillborn lambs out of ewes, feet and head in all directions, or worse still having to cut them out. It is midge borne, doesn’t affect people, and blew over from mainland Europe. So far, so good, long may it remain that way. By the end of February, we will have calved nearly half the cows. It’s satisfying to see them through from dreamy end of pregnancy, through the ordeal of calving, into the parlour with the discomfort of the first milking, then the visible relief as the ‘nature’ (firmness from the colostrum) comes out of their udders and they settle into milking. By the end of the month, I hope they will be out at grass, after the winter that started when the floodwater came almost to the cowshed in mid November.
The calves look lovely: shining, fluffy, trusting. We bed them with some of our precious straw, them get them onto woodchip as soon as we can. Their big sisters are growing on. We plan to weigh them more this year so we can keep track of how they are growing; we weigh them at birth, then we will weigh them whenever we handle them through the crush. It’s all extra work, and will help us keep a better eye on them.
By the end of the month, noticeable amounts of new season milk comes through, the vats start filling up, so we do less of the catching up, board washing and rack repairing we do after Christmas. We’ve been working on getting some common words to describe flavour we can all agree on so we can define how each of our starters makes cheese and then how each matures. Our starters are our heritage yogurt-like cultures that turn the milk sugar into acid and give traditional savoury flavours rather than the sweet flavour of the alpine starters used in many cheddars. Each has a different balance of the distinctive flavours of cheddar – sharp, buttery and brothy, each which develops further to grassy, caramelly, and bovrilly (our words, it would be great to hear yours, I want to make a common language we can all understand). It’s interesting which starter develops which balance of these flavours. My favourite consistently gives layers of all of these in balance. It’s interesting that the freeze dried cultures we have tried, the industrial alternative to our ‘wet pint’ artisan cultures, can do one axis of flavour, but don’t do the complex layers. With a cloth bound cheddar, like ours, you also get all of those flavours from the varied mould-garden that is the rind, and the roundness of flavour from the cheese breathing as it matures.
My distant cousin Lionel Quicke lives in France, descended from a black sheep of the family several generations ago. He had some of our cheese for Christmas, and sent me a recipe for ‘Le Welsh’, posh French cheese on toast. He says: ‘It has been imported and adapted in the French Flanders (around Dunkerque) and around Lille, and became a typical dish known as "le welsh”.
In a small individual earth pot I put a slice of wholewheat bread (can be toasted, but my toaster is out of order) and a slice of cooked ham.
The Cheddar Quicke (500g for 8) is melted in half a glass of hot beer (ale or stout). It should be constantly stirred, otherwise it burns! I added a spoonful of mustard. You can add more beer if you wish. When the cheese is melted, I pour it over the bread and ham and the pots are instantly put in the hot oven. Keep an eye on it! When the colour is between gold and light brown, serve it and eat it hot with the same beer used for the cheese.