And so it begins!

The Beginning

Game season for me began in the first week of October, for what has become an annual day organised by one of my friends near Southminster in Essex, where super fast partridges and good early season pheasants were provided at Badnocks Farm (www.simulatedgame-shooting.co.uk), where I peg shared with my brother-in-law (it wasn’t a competition – honest!).  After not shooting for a couple of months, I was a little rusty to begin with, but soon warmed up when the wind got up behind the partridges and I had to be quick off the mark!  I also had the pleasure of standing on probably the most scenic peg I have ever stood on, on the shores of the Blackwater Estuary.

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Our Season

So after all the anticipation, hard work, cooking, baking and the keeping fingers crossed, the first Saturday in November dawned and our first game day of the season had arrived!  Having a shoot on the farm keeps us busy all year round,  not just on the day of a shoot.  There is always something to do – from pen maintenance, to woodland management, to cultivating and drilling covers, to looking after and feeding birds.   And we enjoy every minute of it!

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A typical day on our shoot begins at around 9am when everyone meets in the yard for coffee.  For us, every single person who comes on the day is either family or friends be they guns, beaters or pickers up.  Because of this, there is no divide between guns and helpers that you may get on some shoots – everyone is treated equally, and mixes together.

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Beaters the load up onto their trailer and guns are given an all important briefing (including how much it costs if someone shoots down the telephone wires around the house and yard). We then move off to the first two drives of the day before coming back to the yard for elevenses. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know this is where the sausage rolls that I am fanatical about making come in  (for elevenses on our first day I had made pork and fennel ones – simply sausage meat and fennel seeds, wrapped in my signature bought from a shop ready-made pastry!).  We also have mini quiches, sublime chocolate biscuit cake (if we didn’t have this I think some of our beaters would go on strike!) and the staple of shoot elevenses throughout the country – a sloegasm (a heavenly mix of cava/champagne/prosecco and sloe gin)!  Full credit for the quiches and biscuit cake go to another member of our shoot partnership – our partridge raising expert Nicola! Two more drives follow and its back for a lunch of soup and hot dogs.  We always try and source locally and our sausages are Sheering Pork Sausages, which can only be found at Fullers Family Butchers in White Roding, Essex (see:  http://www.fullersfamilybutchers.co.uk) and our rolls are from Dorringtons Bakery who have shops in Essex and Hertfordshire (see: www.dorringtons.com). After lunch we then do two more drives in the woods before retiring back to the yard for tea and cake.  We finish the day with a meal in our local pub.  Again everyone is involved – no one works harder, or walks further on a shoot than a beater, so they fully deserve joining in with everything we do.

The Must Haves

So several things get help us survive our game season.  Namely:

  • Good boots and/or wellies – an essential if you are shooting or beating.  Personally I wear either my Aigle Parcours wellies or my Dubarry Galway boots.  It is important that they are both comfortable and waterproof.
  • Waterproofs – whilst beating through covers, even if the sun is shining bright, covers will inevitably be wet, especially in the mornings.  Good waterproof leggings or trousers should always be in a beaters kit.
  • Gloves – again whatever you are doing on the shoot day, remember you are more than likely to be standing around in a field, probably in the middle of winter, in all sorts of weather.  Your fingers will get cold.  Whilst shooting I wear MacWet gloves as they are shower proof and not too bulky.
  • An urn – probably the most important thing we have bought for our shoot!  We spent the first season using kettles – not practical when twenty odd people want a cuppa on a cold day!  Five seasons in, we rely on Ernie (yes I know), as an essential part of our shoot day team!
  • Slow cookers – we have a team of three slow cookers, two of which heat soup up, and one which reheats the sausages (pre cooked the evening before).  These we switch on at the beginning of the day, stir the soups and rotate the sausages at elevenses and as if by magic, everything is ready at lunchtime!  They cut down on a lot of stress on shoot days.
  • A sense of humour – you certainly need this on a day when its throwing down with rain and extremely cold!

So here’s to the rest of the season!

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The Great British Day Out

If there is one thing I love, it is a Great British Day Out. I am sure every person’s perception of this is different. A day out at the seaside perhaps? Or a day sightseeing in London or Edinburgh? For me it is a day at a country show. One of the outstanding memories I have of growing up is that come rain or shine, every year, we would set off for the Staffordshire County Show or the [now sadly cancelled] Royal Show at Stoneleigh. To add to the excitement, days such as these would mean a day off school – it was a lot more acceptable in the 80’s and 90’s to be granted a day off mid-term! Now I am – for want of a better term – a grown up, I still adore a day out at a show. There is nothing quite like it.

This year I was lucky enough to spend two days at one of the biggest events in the rural calendar – The Game Fair, this year held at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. It is a three-day extravaganza of all things rural and pretty much has something for everyone, no matter what background you came from.

However, my own personal kryptonite at The Game Fair, is the shopping. There is so much there to choose from – clothes, footwear, accessories – you name it, it is sold there. You can always guarantee that I will find something that I didn’t know I needed until I have seen it. I have a particular fondness for tweed – especially tweed which has a show discount. Purchases at past Game Fairs have included a lovely tweed shooting waistcoat (because obviously I needed it – no really, I did), and a seriously bargainous tweed coat. However, this year I went with one mission and one mission only – new boots. Ok, so I may have deviated off a little when purchasing a new gillet (I didn’t have one in blue before… my excuse and I’m sticking to it!), but I am now the proud owner of a smart new pair of Dubarry Galway boots, which I have already put to good use when shooting at a Sim Day.

At both the Game Fair and the rather lovely Fenland Country Fair, held over Bank Holiday weekend near Cambridge, I had the absolute privilege of helping out on the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club stand. I have been involved in this amazing ladies shooting club for about four years now, and I can safely say I have never had as much fun shooting as I do when I’m with these ladies. I always struggled with my shooting confidence, being easily intimidated when shooting at clay grounds and always being concerned that I was holding people up. Now it doesn’t bother me in the least – all thanks to a fantastic group of girls who offer a whole load of support to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are an experienced shot, or have never picked up a gun before. If you want more information go to: http://www.shotgunandchelseabunclub.co.uk Oh yes if you need any further encouragement – we eat cake (three are some serious bakers amongst us) and drink tea…!

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Countdown has begun
Now that the Glorious 12th has passed, the inevitable countdown to our own shooting season has begun. Partridge rearing is coming along nicely and we have welcomed pheasant poults in recent weeks. The most important preparation is also underway – soup making for shoot lunches. I used to fly by the seat of my pants and make soup and sausage rolls the evening before shoots, but after our first season (and the purchase of a huge freezer), I decided that instead of giving myself heart failure every time, I would prepare ahead. Soup is a very forgiving food to freeze. Apart from defrosting slightly thicker that when it went in the freezer, it holds out exceptionally well, and can be made way in advance. When I say way in advance I mean months! I have just made a huge batch of carrot and coriander soup for our first shoot, which will be in early November. This will be retrieved from the freezer 24 hours before the shoot and then put into slow cookers on the morning of the shoot to heat up whilst we are doing the morning drives.

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My carrot and coriander soup recipe is, as with most of my creations is very basic and relies on personal taste. It is simply made up of carrots, potatoes (not too many as it will make the soup go bland), red onion, ground coriander and vegetable stock. Once this is all boiled up together, I whiz it all in a blender with fresh coriander. I then decant it into large containers and, once cooled, pop it in the freezer.

So the official countdown has started!

Spring has sprung…. Or has it?

Here in West Essex, the weather has sent us on a roller coaster ride since winter rode off into the [rather weak] sunset.   After poking their heads through in January, Daffodil’s flowered in deepest darkest February bringing a brightness which had been lacking since the demise of the shooting season (always a low point of the year in our house).  We were then treated to a March and early April, which can be summed up in two words:  warm and dry.  I managed to get sunburnt at our local point to point on 8th April in 22 degrees (an easy thing to happen as I am blessed with the double whammy of red hair and pale skin!). Now as I sit here at the end of April, we have just had a couple of nights of zero degrees and frost, and it even snowed last Wednesday.  Good old English weather – it does like to keep us on our toes, and we have had many ‘what the hell?’ moments over the last few weeks.

Everything is currently in need of a good drink; be it in the garden, where we are watering onion sets and peas in the veg patch which are seeming reluctant to put their heads above ground; or on the farm, where crops are growing, but are needing to kick on a bit and to make the most of fertiliser which has been applied. Nothing is ever perfect in farming – the weather doesn’t ever do what we want when we want it, we either need rain to start, need rain to stop or need it not to be windy so you can go spraying.  It would be nice for once for whatever it is to align in the stars and for mother nature to say ‘here you go – here’s the weather you need’.  Everybody can have a dream, I suppose…?

Kitchen Creations for April

Anyway when all is going out of sync outside, I like to think that I can bring a little saneness back into our lives by creating something in the kitchen, where possible using ingredients sourced from the garden, or locally.

We all love a good picnic and our local Point to Point at High Easter is always a good excuse to pack the car full of food, wine and beer.  A great feast is always put together between a few of us, and it usually takes at least until halfway through the afternoon to migrate from the carpark to the races – in fact I can remember a few years where we haven’t seen a horse at all!  This year I made that staple of the picnic; Sausage rolls – be it a Pork, Venison and Red Onion Chutney version, which I have been making (and trying to perfect) for elevenses over the last few shooting seasons.  So simple and easy to make.  The venison I used was local – we have wild deer in abundance around here – and has an earthy, gamey taste, whilst not being too strong.  Simple recipe is:

Pork Sausages

Venison, chopped into small chunks (I used shoulder this time but any cut will do)

Jar of red onion chutney

Readymade puff pastry (as I freely admit I am useless at making it myself!)

1 egg, beaten

Salt & pepper to season

The venison to pork sausage to chutney ratio is an entirely personal choice, and really does depend on how much you like venison – I’ve always found it to be a bit like marmite, you either love it or hate it.

Method: skin sausages and place alongside the venison and chutney in a food processor and mix well, season as desired.  Roll pastry out to about half a centimetre depth.  Roll mixture into a long rolls and place on pastry.  If you are using the ready rolled pastry as I do, you can usually make two long sausage rolls out of a sheet.  Wrap the mixture in the pastry and cut to required lengths.  Place on baking sheet and brush with the egg, to prevent burning.  Bake in oven at 200 degrees for 25 minutes or until the sausage rolls are golden brown.

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April has also been the month that rhubarb has become one again good enough to harvest, and we have what is becoming a substantial plant in our garden.  It has been mowed a few times – not sure if that has helped it fight back with a serious determination. Now I am not afraid to say – I am in no way a fan of the stuff, however the rest of the world seems to love it, and as such some has therefore been harvested and I have put it in a cake.  The recipe I used was for Summery Rhubarb Cake, taken from the amazing Miranda Gore Browne’s lovely book ‘Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can’.  I love this book, and it is my current go to, when I am in the mood for baking.

summery rhubarb cake

So here’s looking forward to May, and hopefully enough rain to keep my Farmer happy, (but not enough to completely destroy our sense of humour), country show time and the start of our preparation for the next shooting season!

Harvest Fayre

As July travels towards its descent into August, harvest is happening all around us. Combines are busy in the fields, veg patches are producing home grown goodies and hedgerows are producing a veritable bounty of goodness. I must admit that from now until October, it is one of my favourite times of the year.

I found myself last year making a valiant attempt to become a chutney maker, following the two yellow courgette plants in our veg garden becoming completely carried away with the number of courgettes they produced. A first go at making yellow courgette and tomato chutney resulted in it tasting slightly too much like essence of vinegar. The second batch improved somewhat, although was slightly sweet. These issues may well stem from my insistence that recipes are only guidelines which are to be followed loosely and can always be improved on, with substitutes and additions. This year I will be a good chutney maker and try my upmost to follow instructions no matter how tempted I get to deviate off track!

I mastered pickling a couple of years ago, and can now preserve shallots and beetroot with reasonable success, and have even attempted chilli and red pepper jam – although it turns out that I make a really good sweet chilli sauce instead! I have always steered away from proper fruit jam making – I’m not totally sure I have the attention span to successfully stay and monitor what’s happening, and much prefer to just bung everything in a saucepan and forget about it for a few hours, stirring only occasionally so it doesn’t stick!

Blackberries

Our hedgerows have started to become active with producing blackberries – something which seems to be happening earlier every year. Another week and there will be enough ripened to pick to start my first round of preserving of the year – if you can call making blackberry gin preserving? To be honest, and true to form, I don’t really have a specific recipe, but roughly I generally go by:
1lb blackberries
1/2lb of sugar
150cl of gin.

It is important to remember that blackberries, unlike bitter sloes, are perfectly sweet already and do not need nearly as much sugar. The quality of gin you use is completely up to you, however I really do find that just using, dare I say it, cheap supermarket own brands is perfectly acceptable, and really does make for good quality end product. My method of making the gin is a simple as it gets; I place the blackberries and sugar in a Demijohn, pour in the gin, seal and shake to mix. The demijohn then goes into hibernation for a few months under the stairs (but any cool dark place will do), for around three months, being shook every few weeks. The gin is then poured through a sieve into the original gin bottles. As blackberry gin is made early August in our house, the demijohn then becomes free in time for sloe gin making in October.

Looking forward
July is also the time that we start thinking properly about the coming shooting season, especially as we will be full flow with combining imminently. We spent a day last weekend putting up partridge pens in our covers, ready for September, when our partridges, which are currently in their nursery accommodation at a friend’s, will be arriving.

Partridge Pen

Our pheasant pens are nearly ready for their new inhabitants arriving in August, when game keeping duties will start. There is something completely cathartic about being in our woods in the evening time checking on the birds – even when you have to chase them back into the pen! No matter how hectic or bad my day at work has been, the peace and quiet is completely restorative to my soul.

 

#essexasitreallyis

I am lucky enough to have a job which takes me out and about into the countryside, especially at certain times of the year. I am certainly not a person who can sit in front of a desk day in day out. On my journeys out I find myself constantly surprised on the diverse nature of the Essex countryside.
I am in no way a city girl. I hate too much traffic, I hate being overlooked by other people when in the garden. Towns are ok to go shopping in (but there has to be a specific reason to go) and I am never happier than when on the train home from London when I unavoidably have to go there for work. Born and raised in Staffordshire, I only moved to Essex twelve years ago, when my husband (then boyfriend) got a job here as an Assistant Farm Manager. I will be the first to admit than when a move down south was suggested my first thought was; ‘that’s a bit close to London’. The stereotypical view of Essex of boy racers, white stilettoes jumped in my head and a huge plethora of Essex Girl jokes were bandied about (ok, I still do get Essex Girl jokes levelled at me, but I’ve learned to have a sense of humour about them). And really don’t get me started on TOWIE!
Whilst the south of the county does merge almost effortlessly into the Boroughs of London’s East End, the majority of Essex pleasantly surprises by being extremely rural and diverse. Recently for example I have been traversing down steep, narrow country lanes in Mid Essex with high banks either side and beautiful thatched cottages all of a sudden appearing around sharp bends. If you pull up in a gateway, close your eyes, take a deep breath, you could [almost] imagine you are in the West Country. I now find myself becoming something that 25 year old me would have shuddered at… I am now a dedicated lover of Essex! I have even started hash tagging my Instagram pictures #essexasitreallyis to try and get across the fact that Essex is simply stunning, and has pretty much everything you need for a rural area, and 80% of it is not what people imagine it to be. So go on, try it, you may even like it…

essex sunset

So here in our little bit of rural heaven, we are now experiencing a heatwave to eclipse all heatwaves. We finally got a bit of rain just in time for our local Agricultural Show, organised by the outstanding Essex Young Farmers, and the run up was a little muddy to be honest. However, the day arrived and it was outstanding – although typically I got sunburnt. Since then, we have had pretty torrential rain and high winds which has now merged into unbelievable heat for June.
Even though its June, our thoughts are now moving forward to the Autumn and the next shooting season. Our release pens are getting a spring makeover, wire has been replaced, feeders have been fixed and covers have now been drilled (just in time for the rain). Unbelievably in this time of 30oc we are longingly thinking of colder times, and looking back on what happened last season, to see what we would do differently.

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Finally, this month I have once again been experimenting with sausage roll fillings. This time I decided to be a rebel and try some chicken, bacon (apparently its some kind of unwritten rule that pork products have to be included somewhere) and tarragon ones. All it took was some chicken breasts, some bacon and some amazing tarragon paste I found in the supermarket, whizzed up in the food processor, all rolled up inside my signature straight from the shop ready made and rolled puff pastry (because I agonise over pastry, and ready made is far nicer than anything I will ever create!).  Once cooked they had a lovely spring feel about them with none of the heaviness of the ones I normally make for shoot elevenses.

So next comes July, and a quick pre harvest/pre birds arriving holiday, then the real work starts, when the husband isn’t seen until September (unless it rains), and I turn reserve gamekeeper when the Pheasants arrive in August.