The days slowly lengthen, the sun creeps a little higher at noon and wider at dawn and dusk. The dark mornings have me slow to wake, the dark evenings tricksy - is it six or midnight?
I drove my car one dark evening along a lane, came to water over the road. In the dark I didn't see how far the water was from the stream, and drove on. The water was over the headlights and I could see a flooded car and tractor beside the road - can't stop or the car will take in water. I made it to the humpback bridge, which is covered in water, can't turn round, maybe I'll make it across the next low bit of road. I set off, lights go under water, the car sighs to a halt. There is silence, then I hear the gurgling of water coming in through the doors. The windows don't work. Will I be able to get out? I open the door, water pours in almost to the top on the seat. I scramble into the boot to put my wellies on, get everything I can think of onto the roof, and climb onto it myself. I phone for help from Adam, who I know is on the farm, who comes with his truck in some waders, and calls James Ayre in his Landrover to haul me out. The car is still dripping hours later, looks like pondweed in the on board computer. What writes the car off, though, is the seats getting wet, too expensive to dry or replace them. It's still raining, fields wet, soil wet. Even the rabbits look damp. It's a good time to find some indoor jobs.
CROPS - The crops we planted established late and the pale green shoots show against the glistening soil, but don't protect it from the flow of water. We will have lost soil, although we have gained it where the flood water spreads, slows and drops its precious cargo of silt. I dug a spit of soil to see what is happening (lots of water) and found little pearly slug eggs looking like so much pale lumpfish roe. It's now warmer and wet, ideal for slugs - we need to keep our crops safe from those hungry mouths in waiting.
GRASSLAND - The grassland is looking battered and sad, a bit like my car. By the end of the month we will be looking to put cows out onto the fields, to eat the grass we didn't get to in the autumn. By the middle of the month, we can start spreading slurry again - phew, it's been a long winter to store all the muck and dirty water, and the fields are looking hungry, all the goodness washed out of.
COWS - The cows are starting to look wistfully over the fence, warmer weather having grass grow appetizingly to their acute noses. Coming out of the parlour, they dawdle before they go back to the full mangers, wondering when they can go out - not yet, girls, better to leave the pasture till a little later, a little drier. Out they go to eat the stored wealth of the fields from (slightly) drier times, the silage. They are eating into the winter stores alarmingly quickly, three bays left to go in the big silage pit. We hope for an early spring. Perhaps when it stops raining, it'll stop for a long time, since the weather seems to come in big lumps at present: then I’ll be fretting about lack of water. The rows of cubicles are full, cows lying on their beds, that warm smell of cow breath that immediately feels so comforting.
Up in the straw barns, the heifers are inside too, in their groups. The autumn's calves are in the old pig sheds, half open yard, half under a roof. They look very sweet, and are tucking into their straw. The larger girls are in sheds that are fully inside, and we keep taking more of the side walls out, as the more fresh air the better they look. The largest heifers and the dry cows are getting ready to calve, bellies getting filled up with calf.
CHEESE - So many cows are dry, this is the lowest milk time for cheese, we make just one vat of cheese a day. At the same time, orders are seasonally slow - my fridge at home has still got its fair share of Christmas cheese, maybe yours is too. So there is less cheese to pack. Time to get all the shelves clean and repaired, everything shipshape for the coming flush of milk. The milk is rich from the stored forage, maybe lacking some of the sparkle you get from grazed grass, and the butteriness gives a pleasing richness to the flavour. Too much cream, we can make some adjustments to the cow feeding. Oddly enough, too much fibre makes more creamy milk, so less fibre reduces fat to what the protein in the milk can tie up. More creamy gives richness to the flavour, too creamy has the cheese too soft, not quite enough texture to deliver the length of flavour I’m looking for.
RECIPE - Time to use up those little nuggets of cheese left over from Christmas. Time to fill up on vegetable soup - filling, warming and makes you feel virtuous after too much excess. Most vegetable soups are improved by some grated cheese, either grated on top at the end, or just grated in during cooking to give richness to the flavour and body of the soup. Use vegetables from the garden or the fridge, or even leftover vegetables from a meal. I like leeks and potatoes, roughly chopped, boiled till tender in some stock, seasoned and Quickes Traditional Mature Cheddar grated into it, and whizzed up makes a good first course or filling lunch with some bread and butter. Lee Smith of 'Cheese Connoisseur' came to stay, and her favourite soup is carrots and potatoes, cooked the same way - true comfort food to celebrate the dark times of year.