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Day of Honey

While bees here in the midwest, at the height of summer, swoop busily in and out of their hives carrying the the prizes they’ve claimed from the flowers they’ve found in the fields and my vegetable garden, I’m reading Day of Honey, a book about Lebanon and Iraq and their grasps at peace.

I haven’t devoured the book, as I often do when reading, but I am enjoying it. When I finish, I plan to tackle at least one of the recipes found in the back.

What author Annia Ciedzadlo does best is describe people and cities, but most importantly, she has the most vivid descriptions of food.

Day of Honey has been a very interesting story as many of the places she describes during war time are cropping up in newscasts again today.

It’s been a great summer read.

Summer storm

Last summer was hot, humid and produced very little rain. The winter was mild, but there was very little snow. This spring has also been dry. All those seasons passing by with little rainfall has been a recipe for a drought.

Which means the two inches of rain that fell Saturday night were a blessing.
The skies grumbled for a long time before the rain came. We were both skeptical that we would get anything. Forecasts that have predicted a 90 percent chance of rain have found us on the 10 percent side that got nothing. We’ve tracked weather radar only to see storm cells split and go to the north and to the south, leaving us high and dry.

But this time, the skies kept their promise of rain. We finished chores just as the clouds opened up and dumped their load. Periodically we’d walk onto the porch or stand at a window just to prove to ourselves that it really was raining. It made for a lovely evening of reading and sewing.

When it finished, the dry, browned seed heads that stand on golden stalks in our pastures glowed a deep, burnt orange. The sky was bruised with purple, green, and gray. The rain gauge held two lovely inches of rain.

We are thankful, but we are still worried. That moisture won’t stick around long this week. Temperatures are forecasted to be in the mid-90s all week with plenty of wind to dry things out.

Still, everyone breathed a little easier Sunday morning. The grass looked a little greener, and the vegetables in the garden seemed to triple in size overnight.

I will spend part of today tying tomatoes that shot up a foot in the night. It’s a good job to have this summer.

Say cheese

Many years ago we left the platform at LaPlata, Missouri, and headed east on an Amtrak train bound for Vermont. I had signed up for a cheesemaking workshop taught by Margaret Morris at a small sheep dairy there.

It was a great class and it gave me more confidence to try my hand at hard, aged cheeses.

What it didn’t give me, though, was more time.

So, one of my goals is to use the milk that Julia produces every day more effectively. I’m good about making butter and yogurt on a regular basis, but I’d let the art of making aged cheeses slip away from me last year.

Every week since school’s been out, I’ve fired up a double-boiler stock pot system so I can make cheese. I’ve scaled down my efforts a bit. Instead of trying to use five gallons at a time (for a five-pound wheel of cheese), I’m using two gallons at a time. The advantage is that the process goes a bit more quickly, and the pot of milk is definitely easier to deal with. Hoisting forty pounds of warm milk out of a hot bath is not an easy trick.

The process of heating the milk, adding culture, rennet, cutting the curd, stirring the curd and then molding the curd, takes about four hours in total. A lot of that time is spent stirring slowly and heating the milk by two degrees every five minutes. Not the type of thing you can just walk away from.

But, I’ve managed to produce three nice little wheels of a sweet smelling cheese. Once the rounds have been brined in a salted bath, and the rind has had a chance to air dry for a couple of days, I rub the cheese with a light coat of olive oil and set it into an old laboratory refrigerator set at 57 degrees.

Every week they get turned, and in two months I’ll cut one open to see how it’s turned out.

The recipe I’m using is a hybrid of one from Ricki Carroll’s book Home Cheesemaking and Margaret Morris’s The Cheesemaker’s Manual. Both are excellent resources.

Stirring the curd

Pressing the curd

Air drying the rind

Going Thoreau

I did it.

I quit my job.

Friends, co-workers and my students have very gently and kindly referred to it as my “retirement.” I’ll be 45 this summer. Kind of young for retiring.

Retreating might be a better word.

Thanks to the brilliant students who walked through my classroom door for the past five years, I’ve learned a lot about how to teach, how to deconstruct and reconstruct a sentence, and how to deconstruct and reconstruct a story. Mostly, though, I learned a lot about myself.

One thing I know for sure, there’s a lot more to learn.

So here’s the plan: take care of what I have – my husband, my family, my farm, and myself. More specifically it means cooking better meals, spending more time with family, reversing the effects of five years of farm neglect, and writing. Writing religiously. Make it a job.

In the past two weeks we’ve gotten most of our hay put up, I’ve started a deep cleaning on the bedroom, and I’ve been making cheese. Today it will be another two-pound wheel of Monterey Jack.

I’ve also been writing. Religiously. Faithfully. Daily.

I have ideas for novels that have been floating around in my head for more than a decade. It’s high time they come to life. I have no idea if I’m doing it right, or even if I’m doing it well.

All I know is that I’m doing it.

Milking season

Last night, while thunder rumbled and lightning popped across the sky, Julia gave birth to her second calf. This time she had a heifer. Because the heifer is a Jersey/Angus cross, she’s about the size of a small labrador retriever. She’s also a dark chocolate brown.

She’s beautiful.

This morning I fed Julia some grain and tied her loosely in her stall. While she ate, I milked out about a quart of colostrum. The little one had taken the rest. Then John and I got the stall cleaned up, rebedded, and properly fluffed.

Mother and baby are doing just fine.

Julia seems quite contented in her stall, keeping watch over her new baby. Looks like she'll produce quite a bit of milk for us this year.

Here's the latest addition to our farm, all hunkered down and sleepy after a big breakfast.

Springing forward

In our neck of the woods, March doesn’t come on like a lamb – more like a stampede of lambs.

Two weeks ago the spring peepers began their rhythmic chorus and a few days after that, the turkey vultures coasted onto the scene, spiraling and circling in the air currents above the farm.

The daffodils and tulips I optimistically planted in November are coming up beautifully. Thin green daffodil stems are topped by tight, yellow-tinged buds. The short, squatty tulips haven’t progressed that far.

Already, the bed needs weeding.

Garden seeds are toasting their toes on a greenhouse heating mat, covered with a clear plastic tray lid, waiting to burst through a moistened sterilized soil mix. There are 18 plum tomatoes, three heirloom Black Russians and three hybrid slicing tomatoes. In cells next to the tomatoes are six green peppers and six Anaheims. The rest of the 72-cell flat is filled with kale.

Starting seeds is my favorite part of gardening. All promise. No weeds.

All the while, Julia’s been growing rounder and rounder. Her sides have bulged so much under her spine and hip bones that she’s turned a rather triangular shape. I came home tonight to find her contentedly chewing her cud, curled up in the comfort of her deeply strawed stall. She lumbered to her feet when I showed up in the doorway, and then she groaned a bit as she ate her dinner. I guess carrying an extra 60 pounds is starting to take its toll.

The string of mucus sliding down her backside was enough to earn her a midnight visit. We’re officially on baby watch countdown.

I’m a typically heavy sleeper, until it comes to midnight barn checks. I can wake up at midnight on the dot without an alarm clock. Tonight, guided by flashlight, I’ll be serenaded by the peeper’s song. If I’m lucky, I’ll also hear Julia’s soft, urgent moo-moo-moos signaling another spring arrival.

Gratitude redux

I fell off the gratitude wagon. Sort of.

I continued to write what I was grateful for on the whiteboard at school every day, but I stopped posting it here.

Then I watched Shawn Achor give a TED Talk about happiness and learned that seven days of a gratitude journal isn’t going to cut it. I need to carry on for at least 21 days to feel any of its effects.

So, let’s try this again.

Monday: I am grateful for snow days.
Tuesday: I am grateful for John. I can’t imagine sharing my life with anyone else.
Wednesday: I am grateful that one of my former students invited me to hear her compete today at the regional Poetry Out Loud competition where she was the runner-up. Her performance was spectacular.