Monday, 25 March 2019

Lady Day in Dorset

I'm up bright and early on Dorset's highest hill, looking out across the vale to a hazy coast, at around about twenty past seven.

This is a 'no filter' photo from my phone. It's wonderful up here this morning, with no-one else about.

On the top of the world, looking down on creation.

It's Lady Day today, and also my only brother's birthday. Two important events in my family's calendar over the years: the latter because he is the Golden Child, the only male in a gaggle of females, and the former because it's the traditional day for farm tenancies to change.

As children, we were brought up on a county council smallholding in Somerset, so Lady Day has always been part of my inner make up. It's the first of the four traditional English quarter days (the others being Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas Day). It's called Lady Day because it marks the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the Angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that not only was she expecting a baby but that he was the Christ.

I've just looked up Lady Day on Wikipedia and it's fascinating:

In England, Lady Day was New Year's Day from 1155 until 1752, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted and with it the first of January as the official start of the year.[1] A vestige of this remains in the United Kingdom's tax year, which starts on 6 April, or "New Lady Day", i.e., Lady Day adjusted for the 11 lost days of the calendar change. Until this change Lady Day had been used as the start of the legal year. This should be distinguished from the liturgical and historical year. It appears that in England and Wales, from at least the late 14th century, New Year's Day was celebrated on 1 January as part of Yule.[2]
As a year-end and quarter day that conveniently did not fall within or between the seasons for ploughing and harvesting, Lady Day was a traditional day on which year-long contracts between landowners and tenant farmers would begin and end in England and nearby lands (although there were regional variations). Farmers' time of "entry" into new farms and onto new fields was often this day.[3][4] As a result, farming families who were changing farms would travel from the old farm to the new one on Lady Day. In 1752 England finally followed western Europe in switching to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar. The Julian lagged 11 days behind the Gregorian, and hence 25 March ("Old Lady Day") became 6 April ("New Lady Day"), which assumed the role of fiscal and contractual year-beginning. (The date is significant in some of the works of Thomas Hardy, such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, and is discussed in his 1884 essay The Dorset Farm Labourer).
You learn something new every day.

So have a wonderful Lady Day and, if you're my brother, have a great birthday.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The first day of spring

In a poor imitation of Harry Secombe, I’m walking down through the field singing If I Ruled The World.

It's just as well no-one else is about. It's not a very good imitation, especially the high bits. Even the dog is cowering.

But the song just popped into my head. And this has nothing to do with Brexit, Bercow or people jostling for positions in the forthcoming local government reorganisation here in Dorset. It'st because the second line is ‘every day would be the first day of spring’.

It’s feeling very spring-like this morning, despite ribbons of mist in the valley and grey skies overpowering the blue. Despite natural and man-made disasters around the world, despite climate change, plastic pollution and our materialistic culture. Despite bickering politicians, sleaze and crime.

In my world, there are woodpeckers drilling for England, pigeons cooing their plaintive call and grey squirrels scampering through the skeletal branches of beech.

Up on the hill, there are clumps of bluebells just biding their time before bursting forth their sweet, sweet, sweetness.

Mud and cow dung give a satisfying slurp as I wade through in my wellies. This morning, the phantom gate leaver opener has failed to strike and the cattle are lowing in the field in which they're meant to be lowing.

A horse chestnut tree is budding, the cherries are in blossom and my wallflowers having been giving the village a good show since well before Christmas. In the verges there are violets, primroses, celandines and daisies.

The world is still turning, just.

Today marks the Spring Equinox, a magical time when the days are as long as the nights. There is a change in the seasons, a sign of new hope.

Today, I'm wearing my Star Wars T-shirt and wishing the world were a better place. Like Harry's, if I were in charge, my world would wear a smile on its face.

I've just logged out of Twitter, where inane chattering does my head in, but not before I discovered that as well as it being the first day of spring, it's also the International Day of Happiness. Who knew?

This year's theme is Happier Together, focusing on what we have in common, rather than what divides us.

Amen to that.

That's about it.

Love, Maddie x

Monday, 11 March 2019

An evening out at River Cottage HQ

We wait in the car as the rain pours down outside.

There's a shelter opposite and a few people in there are enjoying a hot drink. We put the windscreen wipers on and we see steam coming from the cups.

We make a dash for it and squeeze into the shed as more people arrive. The hot drink is mulled apple juice and it's very fine indeed.

Our names are ticked off by a lady with a clipboard, and then the tractor and covered trailer arrives and we're squashed inside it next to complete strangers and they're all animated in their excitement.

River Cottage celebrates its 20th birthday this month. We've seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's baby from the very beginning and watched it grow. Mr Grigg is in one of the early episodes of the television series, captaining the peasants' cricket team against the toffs.

It's become part of what West Dorset (and East Devon more recently) is known for. Most people here this evening are from away and are staying locally in hotels, guest houses and B&Bs. We must be the only locals.

Both my children have sampled its delights and thanks to a Build and Bake course taken by Mr Grigg, we now have a clay oven out in the garden called Jabba the Pizza Hut. It's even made from clay from a local field. And now I've finally made it here, too.

And we're all set for a superb evening.

Down the hill in the trailer we go and there's lots of babbling and chatter from the twenty-five or so people on board. At the bottom, we're ushered into a large yurt with a log fire in the middle and enjoy elderlflower champagne and some rather spiffing canapes. There's farmhouse rarebit, cauliflower hummus on rye cracker and then, down in the barn, purple sprouting broccoli with blood orange hollandaise sauce.

By now we've been joined by the second trailer load and the place is buzzing. We're sitting next to complete strangers again, whose names we have memorised from the seating plan.

This is a place that excels in cooking beautiful dishes using local produce. And, for us, the Dorset theme continues with a tall glass of smooth Black Cow Vodka and tonic for me while Mr Grigg enjoys a nice G&T, with Conker Gin with our canapes.

More dishes arrive and I struggle to write down the ingredients that were rattled off earlier. I'm writing the old fashioned way, shorthand in my notebook, while the young chap next to me is tapping it all into his phone. By the end of the evening, we compare notes and this is an approximation of what comes next:

Air dried beef, rendered down pork dripping with onion, house pickles, radish salad.

Baked celeriac puree, pear, crispy kale, pumpkin seeds, preserved lemons, sage, tamari and olive oil and goats cheese with rosemary.

Beetroot, soft-boiled egg, anchovy and garlic. tamari and balsamic vinegar, parsley, chives and chervil.

Leg of lamb, chargrilled and finished in butter, in a red wine sauce with cubes of haggis made from the offal, parsnip puree, whole red onion and a salad of red Russian kale, pickled brine and garlic and spicy dressing.

Fennel and bay pannacotta with blood orange, raw rhubarb and gingernut crumble.

Then there is coffee or tea with sweets. I'm so stuffed by this stage I don't eat them and I've lost the will to write down what they are.

This is all washed down by an excellent selection of reasonably-priced wine.

With two really warm and interesting couples either side of us, both of whom are staying locally, the evening passes by really quickly. By the end of it, they're not complete strangers at all.

The food, ambience, service and ethos has been fantastic.

So thank you, River Cottage and Mr Grigg, for a wonderful evening. It was everything I hoped for, and more.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

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