Sunday, 30 November 2014

Rainbow Week

But none of our days were black.

We had some red - plenty of red wine used in the salami making, loads of shiny ruby red cranberries went into our six jars of cranberry and orange sauce we made yesterday ready for Christmas (but tested today with roast chicken and several set aside for gifts, the rest will go with our hams).

Orange - not just orange, but pinks, yellows and streaks of all colours across the skies every morning for sunrise and every evening for sunset. This time of year we get a breathtaking show twice every day as the sun announces coming and going - a mere six hours apart - each day.

There was yellow - there are gorse flowers still blooming all around the island reminding us that the burst of spring flowers are never that far away.

Green - green shoots on the garlic which I finally managed to get in the ground in a very late cutting it awfully fine for autumn sowing.

Blue, blue skies. I have not had to wear a coat yet, t shirts are the order of the day inside and twice this week have been stripped down to outside too. It is crazily mild for the last week of November and while I am worried about just what the implications of this global warming wise are, I can't help but celebrate every day which is not wet, windy, grey or dismal at this time of year.

Indigo are the night skies - once it is dark it is properly dark. Inky blue skies pricked with stars strewn across them like someone dropped a tub of glitter on a dark carpet. The longer you look up the more you see, like one of those magic eye pictures where the depth just keeps getting more intense. You don't leave the house without a torch at this time of year because you never quite know what might delay you coming home and without a torch you'd be struggling to navigate.

Violet, well okay I'm going to cheat here just because rather than the colour I have been drinking in the taste of violet. Inspired by some delicious liqueurs we had in a cool restaurant in Norwich when we were off on our cob course earlier this year I bought some cinnamon and violet natural flavourings and have been making some gorgeous alcoholic drinks with them. In theory I am testing to check them before I decant some into pretty bottles as festive gifts, in practise I may have to get some more vodka to make more because the bottom of the bottle seems to have come up rather quickly! In my defence I did have help drinking them and we have had many things to be toasting the last week or so.

So, December tomorrow. Christmas is very much coming. We have dug out our decorations and plan to go and find a tree this coming week although it won't go up until next Sunday, as Scarlett's birthday is on Saturday and we don't put the decorations up until after that. But the Christmas cake is feeding nicely with regular drams, the Christmas tunes have been dug out ready to start playing from tomorrow, the cranberry sauce and pickled onions have been made and jarred this week, the Christmas ham is in the freezer awaiting glazing and baking and the Christmas turkey has been identified and is now penned and feeding very regularly.

It's a far cry from the mainland madness I have been hearing about on the news. The times we feel lucky to be stranded way up here far from the crowds and craziness are frequent, this week they have been very often indeed.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Sausage and bacon

When we butchered the pigs last week we did various things with the three different animals. We took meat from the back and belly from all three to make bacon. We also created various roasting joints from all three - some went into the freezer to be used as pork, but some we held back to make ham and gammon joints with. We diced up some of the meat to be used in pork stir fries and we froze bagged up ribs for next years barbecue season. We had just over 5kg of meat for mincing and another 4kg mix of meat from the front of the third pig for making salami / chorizo with.

The bacon and several of the smaller joints set aside from the pigs went into plastic containers in a dry cure mix. Made up of salt, sugar, juniper berries and black peppercorns we rubbed the dry cure into the meat and then every day drained off the excess liquid the cure had drawn out and added a little more of the cure to the tub. After a week the texture and colour of the meat had totally changed and was darker, denser and much drier.

I sliced up the bacon into various cuts - rashers, lard-on style streaky bacon and some cubed for use in things like pasta bake or quiche.

I had also put two bone in leg joints into a dry cure. This I have frozen and will roast whole to be used as ham for slicing for sandwiches. We did do some dry curing last year but this was the first time I tried joints and last years cured meat was smoked and chopped up for us. It was good to do the whole process myself this time.

This year I also experimented with wet curing in brine. One whole back leg which is a huge joint is due to come out of the brine soak tomorrow and be hung up for 24 hours to air dry. I am planning to bake and glaze that as part of our Christmas banquet (we will feast like self sufficient kings this year at Christmas!). I also soaked four smaller boneless joints in brine - which was a solution of water, sugar, salt, cloves and juniper berries. These came out tender, very soft and smelling like Christmas! As they had been boned they needed rolling and tying into joints for cooking. Another new skill learned and thanks to some internet research I can now tie a butchers knot in my butchers string - well with help - it is definitely a job requiring more than one pair of hands!

I can't report on the flavour of the brine experiment yet but I can confirm the dry cured bacon was delicious - it needs a 10 minutes soak prior to cooking to remove a little of the salt as I was a bit heavy handed with the dry cure (again!) but we have had bacon sandwiches and cheese and bacon pasta bake already with this years supply. I suspect it will not last long!

Today we were flexing our learning muscles again and having defrosted the bags of meat destined for mince and for chorizo we spent several hours mincing, mixing and stuffing!

First - sausages. We were both trained in sausage making when we did our venison processing training but it was a brief session in the middle of the processing of a whole deer and there was more hilarity than sausage making as I recall! However one of our WWOOF hosts had been an excellent sausage maker and although he had not actually let us anywhere near the black magic art that is linking and twisting we had keenly observed and some of it must have rubbed off.

We minced the pork, then added sausage mix and water and minced it again. Then we loaded up the sausage maker and created one very long sausage!

And then the moment of truth - word was out and we had quite a kitchen full of Rum folk popping by to watch, laugh and share their comments on our sausage technique. But I confess to being pretty darn proud of my efforts...

Sausage Queen!

Over 100 sausages made, bagged up and ready to freeze

We  very much enjoyed sausages for dinner this evening. I can confirm they were delicious and won 'best sausages ever' status with empty plates all round. I would like to pretend it was all in the linking, Ady would like to take credit for his superb cooking of them. I think we are agreeing on it being a team effort!

sausages and a tiny bit of leftover sausage meat fashioned into a  burger,

Then to the salami / chorizo. As far as I can tell the difference is in the ingredients with chorizo being spicier. I am happy to be corrected though as it will be a long while before I get to be the Queen of Chorizo - these are still months away from being ready as they will be air drying til well into next year.

A controlled blend of lean pork and pork fat, some garlic, red wine, paprika and a 2% salt content all blended together made for a gorgeous smelling mix. We had a small amount of sausage skin left so made one small salami which will be our tester ready first. Then filled the five large salami casings and tied them off with our butchers string.

These need to air dried hanging up. They will get a coating of white mold on the outside and will shrink and shrivel and harden. I will update on progress on these as it happens.

Achievements like the slaughter, butchering and processing of the pigs number among some of my greatest life moments so far. This is the embodiment of our dream - the reason why we headed off on our first adventures WWOOFing in 2011 and why we took on Croft 3 and do the things we do. A desire to eat meat but to know it is of the highest possible quality, reared to the best possible welfare standards and having had the best, most natural life. Learning new skills, taking on challenges which even 5 years ago I would have sworn were far beyond us. I am so, so proud of our family for this. For Ady and I in stretching our talents and skills and being prepared to have a go and try, for the children in facing all of these lessons head on, being so keen to be involved and understand how things work, knowing their own personal limits and the bits that they can and can't do. Davies has been amazing in getting bloodied up and close in the butchering side of the pigs - next time he wants to be there for the slaughter and I imagine in a few years he will be able to do that side of it himself. Scarlett is philosophical about it happening but does not want to be involved in that side of it but comes into her own in the processing - she would be able to wet and dry cure, make sausages and other produce next time quite comfortably.

I think the reason those sausages taste so great is due to many, many factors. The amazing quality of life and the humane respectful death of the animal. The knowledge that the meat is top quality as we know it's full history - it's natural diet, no medication, perfect health. Top quality organic additions in the way of sausage skin and added mix. But the secret ingredient is pride - and it tasted amazing!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Living the dream...

I've always thought our children have a near perfect childhood. That when they reminisce, all halcyon tinted nostalgia they won't actually be glossing over all that much.

They have always had the luxury of time - time from us and time for them to do the things that really matter to them. As someone who has thrown away many of modern life's conveniences and expensive distractions to enable me to only do things which I love and which mean something to me I don't think this can be underestimated.

Davies is now 14 and Scarlett will be 12 in a few days time. They have grown into independent, capable, responsible individuals. They have clear ideas, firm stances and views on things. They are articulate, interesting, funny, creative and full of ideas and inspiration. I love this current age which is a mix of clinging onto childish pleasures, delights, playing tinged with a hefty dose of knowing how to make mature decisions and act in the right way.

Today was a perfect example. Ady and I had gone to feed the animals, get some bits from the shop, collect something from the freezer and bring up some more firewood. We had all had breakfast together and Davies and Scarlett said they were going 'ice hunting'. It was a clear, crisp, sunny morning following a cold, clear night so there was a ground frost making things twinkle.

When we got back they were filled with excitement having been looking for frozen puddles on the croft and heard a disturbance in the fruit cage. They spotted a bird trapped inside so managed to get in and free it from the netting it was trapped and tangled in. It was bleeding a little and they were not sure what it was so brought it up to the static to clean it up a little and photograph it. They checked it was not ringed and debated bringing it down to the village for the resident bird ringer to do but decided that would take too long and cause undue stress to the bird.

They took some photos and then released it. Off it flew!

They then used various bird books to try and ID it and decided it was a snipe. When I got home I asked if they were sure it was not a woodcock as they are pretty similar so they got another book out to look it up, compared the description and images in the books, looked again at the very good photos they had taken and decided that actually, yes, it was a woodcock.

It was moments like this, coming home to hear them chattering with excitement, brandishing books and cameras and keen to share their experience, their research, their knowledge that make my heart sing and know what a fabulous life they have.

Monday, 24 November 2014

What a week!

It's been an amazing seven days.

From the slaughter, butchering and preserving of our pigs at the start of last week for the first time independently. We have had roast pork, bacon sandwiches, pork stir fry, pork in ginger sauce. On Wednesday we are spending the day making sausages and salami.

Midweek we were firewood processing. We have been given heaps and heaps of old, rotten wood from a building project on the island which will provide firewood for us for probably the next year including perfect wood for the cob pizza oven. We have been moving it about, creating space to store it dry and chopping up what we need for this winter and storing it up next to the caravan.

Over the weekend we were helping with Operation Hot Water over on the neighbouring croft. The cabin over there is being finished over the winter and the first big project was to get water over there for a shower and then to heat it up via a gas boiler. We have been thinking about how to sort out our hot water for a bath (oh, a bath!!) once we build the cob house so this was an excellent learning opportunity for us too. The gas boiler is the same one we have in our caravan and was incredibly simple to install - cold water and gas in, hot water out! The gas is courtesy of a bottle, the same as all gas on the islands, something we would one day love to get away from but for now the best, most speedy option. But first, the actual water to the cabin?

Our water is from the burn - filtered at several points and piped over with blue pipe. We use a water tank to ensure regular pressure and then a solar powered pump draws it into our caravan as we have a sink in the kitchen, one in the bathroom and the shower. We are 300 metres from the water source and the cabin is a further 400 metres from us - nearly 3/4 kilometre from the source of the water. It felt like quite a daunting prospect. But - three reels of pipe, several pipe connectors and a very wobbly walk across the two crofts later there we stood with water coming out of the end of the pipe, spraying on the wall of the cabin!

There were stupid grins on all of our faces as we splashed each other. It was as good  a feeling as striking oil or finding gold - water - the absolute life essential! From there it was a small leap to hot water and suddenly these mostly unforgiving, unyeilding 20 acres of croftland, a mile away from the village, 16 miles away from the mainland started to feel like something we have tamed, even if just a little bit.

Today we were back on Croft 3 once more and had the symbolic breaking of ground as we started digging out the first trench for the cob house. I've a post writing itself in my head about the timeline and progress for that, but for now I'll leave you with a few photos which hopefully convey in some small way the regular doses of euphoria the last seven days have held.

breaking ground on cob house site

big old pile of wood!

pig to pork

and delicious it was too!



ready for splitting


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Too old for this?

When we told my parents that we were going to buy a campervan and spent a year traveling the UK my Dad said to me 'But really, Nicola, you are too old for this. You should have done this in your twenties...'

In many ways he was right. I don't deny that a part of what sent us off on crazy adventures was probably a repressed urge to be crazy that I bottled up in my twenties when instead I was paying a mortgage, working full time in stressful jobs, pretending to be a grown up.

But then if we'd done this then we either would not have had the kids, or would have delayed having them, or not had sufficient crazy in us to be the parents we are to them. And taking an 8 year old and a 10 year old off on the WWOOFing adventure was the perfect age for them. They remember it so well, will always remember it, it formed such a big part of who they are. And moving here with them aged 9 and 11 was also perfect - they had enough mainland memories of urban life, access to museums, art galleries, 24 hour supermarkets, zoos, cinemas, group activities, scouts and guides, family and friends, camping trips, sitting in traffic jams on motorways - to sustain them through the lean times of island life not offering those things. To allow them to compare and contrast, to see where this life is lacking but also where it makes up for the deficits.

We were talking the other day about life expectancies. About how at 40 I am hopefully not even half way through my life, about how I still have so many more ideas, dreams, hopes, ambitions. But of course the truth is that at 40 there are things which are probably outside my reach now. A day of hard physical work takes a toll and there is no hot bubble bath to soak tired muscles at the end of a long day here in our current life.

There is a line in the fabulous poem by Mary Schmich, the Baz Luhrmann version of which I listen to at least once a week, which says:
Enjoy your body, 
use it every way you can…don’t be afraid of it, or what other people 
think of it, it’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own

I could drink less wine, eat less food, find numerous ways to fit into a smaller size of jeans. But this week my body has done amazing things - slaughtered and butchered pigs to feed my family, offered cuddles, kneaded bread, chopped firewood, walked up and down that croft hill carrying things to and fro.

For now, and it may only be fleeting, and there are often times when I sigh to myself and my Dad's words of wisdom ring in my ears, I am using my body to do precisely what it is able and it's just the age to manage it.

Project Pig 2014 complete

After a very smooth first day on Sunday we have processed a pig a day and now are back to just Tom & Barbara again with the three piglets from this years litter now in the freezer, in our tummies, or in containers dry curing or soaking in brine.

We have over 50kg of meat, a combination of large and small roasting joints to see us through the whole of the next year, kilos and kilos of curing cuts of bacon, pancetta and lard-ons, gammons and hams soaking in brine, spare ribs ready for barbecues next year, lean pork strips for stiry frying, heart, livers and kidneys bagged up ready for making pate, a huge bag of over 4kg of meat waiting for salami and chorizo skins to arrive and another big bag of nearly 5kg for mincing and sausage making.

It's been a very exciting three days doing it all ourselves and today having watched Ady do it twice I did the third pig myself, which was both scary and made me feel very proud. As a confirmed meat eater I am very pleased to have actually done the deed myself. It was quite a big deal and once I'd done it I did have a little cry (having hidden my feelings prior to the act, not wanting to create any atmosphere of stress around the pigs).

Davies did not want to watch the actual slaughter but came and watched all of the gutting and skinning and found it very interesting, getting gloved up and involved in it all. Scarlett prefers to come and see once it looks more like meat but she brought us a cup of tea once she decided it was a 'safe' point to visit.

Tom & Barbara are luxuriating in all that space and food and it's a relief both on the animal feed bill and with the approaching winter not to be taking smaller more vulnerable animals into the Rum wind and rainy season.

Now begins adventure in curing, brining, air drying, sausage making and charcuterie. Experiments, inventions and plenty of new skills and knowledge to acquire.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Pig 3

a.k.a Sausage Roll.

Another landmark day here for us on Croft 3.

Last year we successfully bred and reared our pigs (well the pigs themselves did most of it!) and earlier this year with help we killed, butchered and processed the meat. The friend who helped us with killing, skinning and butchering the pigs has now left Rum so we knew we needed to work out another way of managing it.

After a lot of research we invested in a bolt gun - which meets all the criteria for welfare, humane killing and laws and regulations governing the slaughter of animals for own consumption. After losing two pigs last winter we had already decided not to take young pigs through the poor weather conditions again. The additional cost of feed to sustain them once the grass and general grazing is over for the year does not equate to any level of weight gain and the young pigs really struggle with the wind and rain of a Rum winter.

The gun arrived yesterday, along with a supply of blanks - it operates by shooting out a bolt fired by blank cartridges. The weather was nice today, so we gathered together all the necessary equipment and headed down to the pig pen.

The deed was done - very straightforward, utterly humane and without awareness let alone suffering. The other pigs continued to snuffle around nearby unbothered. I'll not go into huge detail as not everyone reading is interested in the process but it certainly met our own personal very high standards of welfare, caring and respect for an animal that we have cared for, tended and raised over the last 7 months of it's life.

We are unable to carry out the traditional scalding of a pig here on the croft so we skin them which means no crackling but our animals due to their slow grown, outdoor life do not have massive amounts of fat anyway. Skinning beasts is something Ady is getting pretty good at - this week he was involved in skinning two deer during a venison processing session. Pigs are much smaller but trickier due to a layer of fat that deer don't have and nothing like the same level of hide. We did it in under an hour though, then we butchered it into various cuts - roasting joints, ribs, liver & heart, meat for curing, meat for mincing and meat for stir frys etc. In total we had over 20kg of pork.

We had the whole lot done and back up at the static in bags within 3 hours. The meat for curing  - we should have bacon, gammon / ham and pancetta/ lardons is in salt, pepper and juniper berries. The rest is bagged, labelled and in the freezer. We are planning to do the other two piglets over the next two days at which point we will use the combined livers & hearts to make pate, mince all of the meat for mincing and make sausages.

bacon curing

Pig 3

butchering 'in the field'

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


Yes I know, I celebrate way too many 'versaries' - moving to Rum, being told yes we had the croft, heading off WWOOFing in the first place... what can I say, we like celebrating!

I realised earlier that it was about three years since we first came to Rum between ferries to view the croft and meet a couple of the people here so I checked. 10th November was the first time we stepped foot on Rum, walked the north side nature trail which took in three sides of our croft and then got back on the ferry and started the two day drive back down to Sussex.

back in Sussex - everything we owned aside from the contents of Willow. We don't even have all that now!

Celebrating being back in Sussex. This bottle of fizz traveled all around with us and we opened it when we returned home to my parents - 3 years ago today!

walking the croft boundary - 3 years ago.

As rollercoaster rides go it has been a long one so far. And it's not over yet!

Cob on

We've had a fair bit of interest in coming and being part of the cob build already and I have written a couple of articles for various newsletters and magazines which will come out over the next few months and should drum up more. We already have a couple of people 'booked in', the 'whiteboard of control' ready to be filled up with plans and action points (currently it is a wipe clean graffiti wall in the bathroom which we are all enjoying!) and we have been re-reading our library of cob build books.

Today though we were out 'getting practical' on the house site. After nearly three years familiarising ourselves with this bit of land we are confident that we have selected the best spot so today we cleared a large area with the scythe - all of which went to the pigs and marked out the northeast corner point from which the south and west points are marked and the quarter circle shape spans.

The next step is to begin digging out the perimeter of the footprint and laying in drainage. It was very exciting today to stand in the space which will be our bedroom or lounge and imagine ourselves standing on that same spot this time next year and being inside.


Living in a community like we do is both a privilege and a responsibility.

When we were interviewed for our croft here on Rum one of the questions we were asked was what we could offer the community here. Our reply was that if we were to move to Rum and make our lives here then we would be expecting an awful lot from Rum. It would need to be our everything - meet all of our social, educational, recreational, financial needs. In order to expect that much from Rum we would need to be prepared to give at least that much, probably a whole lot more, back.

I think we do that. We do it in lots and lots of ways.

We do it by the small part time jobs we work - at the shop and post office, the castle, the venison company and previously at the school. We work for hourly rates lower than we earned 15 years ago in our mainland lives but it keeps the local economy turning, ensures those jobs do get done and while we know if we didn't do them someone else would being the people who do them gives back as much as we get back in wages.

We do it by working our croft - putting energy and time and money into making good the land we took on and slowly improving the soil, demonstrating that it can be done, growing local produce, supporting the tourist trade by creating our brand and adding to the offering of goods and services visitors to the island can buy from.

We do it by attending events, being there and making up the numbers. Competing for Rum in the small isles games, going to the ceilidhs, the quiz nights, the parties, the nativity, the halloween party, the bonfire night, Burns night, hogmanay, the birthday celebrations, the cinema evenings, the ranger events.

We do it by supporting the other small businesses here on the island, by buying food from the shop, arts and crafts from the other makers, tea and cakes from the teashop, meat from the venison company.

We do it with the voluntary posts we hold - director of the community trust, small isles community councillor, sitting on steering groups, attending meetings, interviewing employees, writing for the local newsletter, the website, editing and compiling the community newsletter, emailing, talking to, liaisiing with....

We do all of this because we want to be here, we want to take back from this community to meet our needs so we need to make sure it exists by giving to it as much as we can. We understand how lucky we are to live here and be part of this and how much energy and effort is required to ensure it is here at all.

But this afternoon, despite having 101 other things we could have been busy with on the croft, or doing on the computer, or planning or talking about we bunked off. Between at least five meetings already this week and another scheduled by phone for this evening (and it's only Tuesday!!) we headed off where we knew we'd see no one and just enjoyed neither taking or giving anything other than to each other.

Sunday, 9 November 2014


Making the most of the dramatic landscapes that this time of year offers Ady and I have been out and about lots with cameras this week. We have had a couple of days of sunshine and a few of torrential rain. All of which make for drama, gorgeous light and stunning photo opportunities.

It might have gotten a bit competitive... :)

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Falling in love again

I am sure I have mentioned before that it was Bonfire Night on Eigg which fully sold us on island life. This year there was no community built bonfire, no barbecue, no soup. But it was still a group of my favourite people, children (of all ages!) excited about sparklers and plenty of whizz-bangs lighting up the sky.

And this year it didn't rain. Result!

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A thin place photo

I've blogged before about thin places. Look at this photo Ady took tonight from the croft.

It looks like you could hold your breath and jump through that hole in the sky. This time of year certainly brings it's challenges but it brings a whole load of stunning photo opportunities too...

Saturday, 1 November 2014

cha cha cha

I read a great quote this week:
An optimist is someone who realises the one step forward followed by two steps back is not a disaster, more like a cha-cha
The onset of November and winter is looming a bit this week - there has been a *lot* of wind and a *lot* of rain which means a *lot* of condensation - bane of our lives each winter. I am sure we spent the whole winter wearing clothes adorned with splashes of mud with the aroma of mildew clinging to us.

Fortunately with Halloween last night that was perfectly appropriate! We attended the annual party at the school, played spooky games, danced frankly terrifying dances and won scary prizes. Then we headed to the shop for the pumpkin carving competition.

Davies and Scarlett were declared joint winners - the clearly winning entry was disqualified on the basis of being on the wrong axis - it was awesome, as was the clear runner up - we do live with some very creative and artistic people here on Rum.

This week we were visited on the croft by a rather unusual guest - a young whooper swan who hung out for a whole morning on the croft trying to join in with our birds. He seemed to think he might be a goose - our geese were having none of it though and kept seeing him off with much hissing. The ducks were most impressed with him but he knew he was better than them. Eventually after grazing all morning, having a bit of a splash about in the river and having his photo taken he flew off, hopefully to rejoin his family group who were hanging out at the north side of Rum.

Meanwhile Operation Cob House 2015 continues in the background. We have not cleared the site yet, we spent time building a turkey pen and extending our fruit cage instead during outside weather windows. The turkey pen is because we have lost two more of this seasons turkeys. We have decided not to buy in any more birds and concentrate instead on making better housing for our current stock to breed and rear their own. We are trying to find a way of working an incubator without electricity too. So the three remaining (from eight bought in - grr) are now penned in a large area to get fattened for the next 8 weeks or so.

The fruit cage extension means we now have an enormous fruit cage with a nice big space ready for the apple trees which should be arriving fairly soon. It's netted at the top too to make it both deer and bird proof - fingers crossed everything does well next year.

On the Cob House Build front we have agreed for 2 more WWOOFers to come and join us next year with the project and my giant white board purchased to keep control of the whole plan has arrived, been 'tested' by Davies and Scarlett and is now up on the wall in the bathroom ready to start filling with dates, lists and masterplans.