Monday, January 24, 2011

Out in the cold

When the temperature drops below zero, it’s cold outside! Somehow, we all seem to get along.

I don’t know how the sheep handle the cold, but they look and act just the same on warm days as they do on very cold days, so they must have good insulation and built in heaters. The angora goats do mind the cold, especially after we shear them. They are much more apt to hang out in the barn for up to a week after shearing. The sheep are ready to go outside the next morning. Only on days like we had this weekend when the wind roared through the barnyard, do the sheep hang out on the lee side of the barn. Of course, during really cold weather, Dave and I watch the animals more closely and increase their feed to give them extra energy reserves.

Dave and I handle the cold completely differently than the sheep do. We both add layers. I wear a longer coat, Dave wears lined mittens except when he’s feeding bales of hay. You just can’t get your fingers under the bale strings with mittens on; you have to wear gloves. We don’t restrict ourselves to the house on those cold days, but spend an hour or two outside. We feed the animals, load the wood boxes, and snow shoe on the windless side of the woods.

Even though we aren’t out in the cold all the time like the sheep are, our feed intake definitely goes up. I’m much more apt to make desserts in the dead of winter and we find that bits of chocolate with our coffee after lunch are an important part of the day.

This last cold stretch, I deep fat fried three times – first doughnuts, then Laotian wontons, and finally Somali sambusa (meat pies). I don’t normally deep fry foods at all, but this winter I am testing recipes for a community cookbook, and the coldest day of the year just seemed like a good time to make doughnuts. And then once I had the oil hot, I just kept frying.

It will take several trips around the woods on snow shoes and a lot of hard work out in the cold to burn off those extra calories, but it’s worth it. It will be a delicious cookbook.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Filling myself with sweetness

We usually extract honey in September or October when the weather is still slightly warm. Last fall, we ran out of time and so we extracted honey last weekend; and it was a very different experience.

Some of the honey in the combs had crystalized and so running the capping knife across the surface of the frame was a much harder job. The house was cooler even with the wood stove running as hard as it could, and the honey flowed more slowly out of the cut combs and into the extractor, out of the extractor and into the strainer, and out of the strainer and into jars. And cleanup that we usually do on the back deck with a garden hose hooked up to the hot water faucet was a little messier. We still used the garden hose hooked up to the hot water, but we did it in the kitchen. It’s amazing how far a little water can travel when you least expect it.

The main advantage to extracting honey in mid January is the absence of live bees. I didn’t mis the sound of their buzzing or brushing them off the frames or vacuuming them off the ceiling.

Other than the bees though, extracting honey in January is still a celebration of the senses. Our hands and feet feel sticky for days. The light shining through drips of golden honey is always beautiful. The smell, as air sweeps up out of the extractor as the combs spin is the best fragrance in the world. And the taste...well the taste is an invitation to gluttony.

The taste is a lot like honey from the store, only much better. Extracting honey gives many, many opportunities for tasting. I grab one of the first pieces of capping as the hot knife slices the lids off the honey comb and pop it into my mouth, chewing the wax and honey mixture until all the flavor is gone. Then as the extractor spins and we watch honey droplets stream from the comb, I carefully slip a finger down the wall of the extractor and scoop up some honey to taste. When the extractor is full, we lift it up onto the counter, open the valve and watch beautiful golden liquid flow down to the strainer. I can’t resist sticking a finger into that flow to watch the changing patterns of honey on the surface of the strainer and, of course, to catch another taste. And finally, at the end of a long day of tasting. I use a spoon to scrape the last of the honey from the bottom of the strainer and put it in my mouth, savoring the pure rush of flavor.

I usually try to restrict my diet and eat appropriate amounts of appropriate foods, but the days we extract honey, whether in October or January are the days I let loose and fill my self with sweetness.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The wool shed

Shearing is scheduled for February 12. That means that lambing is just around the corner and that I’d better get the wool shed cleaned out.

Every January I look at the unsold fleeces in our shed and decide what to do with them so that we’ll have room for new fleeces. Sometimes I send the year old fleeces off to be carded into roving for spinners and felters. Less often, I have enough to design a new yarn and I send the fleeces to a spinning mill to have the yarn spun. Some years all the fleeces have sold. Some years I only have questionable fleeces left – those with a few guard hairs or those with more veggies than I like in my fleeces. This year I have all of my fleeces left except for the one we used for experimental dyeing on the last fiber day at the farm.

Sales have been down lately, but I hadn’t realized that they were that far down. The last two years, people have bought very little and I’ve blamed it on the economy. Fiber artists have no more disposable income than anyone else. People also seem to have busier lives. I have seen a trend; people buy carded wool rather than raw fleece which they would have to wash and then card before they can use it. More people buy pre-spun yarn because they don’t have time to spin it themselves before they knit or crochet it into something.

I understand that perfectly. It has been many years since I’ve had the time to spin enough yarn for a project. I have a skein of a wonderful soft brown alpaca waiting beside a pile of unspun fiber. I probably only need eight more skeins to begin that sweater I’m going to knit after the one I’m working on now which I’ll get back to after I finish the baby hat.

Many spinners suffer from the same cluster of problems. Too many good ideas, too much yarn already accumulated, and too little time. Actually, many crafts people fight the same pressures. Our eyes and minds are always on the look out for new ideas, new challenges. But our life is already scheduled rigidly enough that we have to plan those projects far out in the future or resolve not to finish something we are presently working on.

Actually, that’s not true. In the seventh year of a quilt that I was supposed to be hand quilting, my daughter Amber commented that if I didn’t work on it, it wouldn’t ever get done. An obvious conclusion, but a real revelation to me. I followed her lead and worked on that quilt for half an hour most evenings and finished it! Now I just have to make the same decision about the beautiful cable sweater with lots of color variations in the pattern that has me completely intimidated, and I’ll be able to finish the sweater.

But not until I finish the hat for grandson Jasper, and certainly not before I pull all the fleeces out of my wool shed and send them off to be carded into roving or spun into yarn. With almost fifty fleeces in the shed, I have the luxury of designing another new yarn, but I’ll have to work fast, because I need room for fifty more fleeces in exactly one month.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter sun

ten deer on a hill
coats aglow in the winter sun
dig through snow for food

twelve below zero
frost in the bright air
tickles my nose hairs

just before sunrise
in the hushed, still distance
color explodes

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Snow day

“I hope we’re snowed in tomorrow.” Gautam, our son-in-law from India, said last night as we stared out the windows at the snow drifting higher and higher in the yard.

More than six inches of snow accumulated over night. The major highways in this part of the state are all closed. Our driveway won’t be passable until Dave gets the tractor going this afternoon when it warms up a little.

Bad weather had been predicted, so we stocked up on food for people and animals. The Hairy woodpeckers have returned to the suet feeder. The gray squirrels and chickadees are arguing over control of the sunnies. The sheep have plenty of hay and can retreat into the barn from the worst of the wind. And we are perfectly content to spend the first day of 2011 not going anywhere or doing anything special.

Dave is baking bread. The rest of us are sleeping, reading, cooking, doing dishes and laundry, writing, eating, and playing with nine month old Kieran. From inside, the winter yard looks cold and serene, as beautiful a space as one could imagine, and yet even in the sun, the thermometer has only reached 2 degrees.. Today, we’ll enjoy our snow day from inside and be glad that we don’t have to go anywhere.