Monday, 19 December 2016

Meaty few weeks

Well it’s definitely been a meat focused and at times an emotional few weeks! The end of the year and all its festivities are fast approaching, and here has been no different. And it is safe to say we will be entering the New Year with a stocked freezer. So much so we purchased a new chest freezer, as we did not trust the (very) old one in the shed with our produce.
I have posted numerous times about our animals and their purpose; discussing them in both live and meat context. From which I have received feedback as many struggle with the idea of discussing piglets with pork… and at this time of year ham.
I guess smallholding forces you to accept and face the responsibility of being a meat eater. And we chose to care and nurture our animals whilst they are will us, offering them the best life we can. And in turn produce the best quality and sustainable food for our family table.
We have been raising livestock now for ourselves for over 5 years and admit that the decision to process one of our own still remains a weight, and I suppose the day it becomes matter of fact is probably the day we should stop. However the last few weeks have been pretty emotional, even for us.
Two weeks ago Sage delivered her most recent and largest litter to date. Arriving just before D-day for our porkers; the ‘three amigos’ (two for a butcher and one for ourselves).
Unfortunately she did deliver one still born and the runt didn’t look promising either. Whilst piglet losses are often discussed as common in commercial setting (hence why they use sow stalls). This is something we have had very little experience with. [Berkshires tend to have smaller litters of larger piglets and as the sows are not that large an animal we have not had issues with losses from being rolled on or smothered.]
The following morning (D-day) resulted in a strange scenario: Having brought food down for our porker, in aim of keeping things ‘normal’ and as stress free as possible. I proceeded to feed the other pigs, only to find the runt outside and alone in the dirt. Quickly fishing him out of the pen I discovered he was still breathing; just.
So through the process of dispatching and preparing our porker for the freezer I continued (in vain) to warm and attempt to bottle feed the runt; in the hope that feeding him would allow me to return him to his mother… Yes I am aware of the irony.
Despite the fact we rear our pigs to sustain our meat consumption, losing an animal is always difficult. The decision to dispatch can be hard, but you reconcile yourself with the knowledge that you did the best for them whilst they were with you and that, that was their purpose. It’s never easy, but it is the reason we rear the livestock to begin with; without that purpose they wouldn’t exist. Losing something leaves you wondering if there was more you could have done. Since we had lost another, potentially smothered we are unsure. So our largest litter has resulted in our largest losses… the reality of smallholding.

Our next emotional roller-coaster came this weekend. We visited a wonderful local Lowline producer to investigate our next beefy purchase.
A subject I will discuss in greater depth in future posts. 

However we were only able to discuss this as we would ‘have an opening’. In that we had booked a local mobile butcher to process our steer, Bart.
The decision to let someone else process him may seem strange, given we have successfully completed two cows previously ourselves (with help). And there were a few factors that cumulated in this decision. The most prominent of which being; cows being significantly larger than pigs require more planning and organisation logistically, along with equipment and more hands are also useful. Coordinating those things had meant we had already ‘put off’ the task multiple times. Personally having reared him from a four day old poddy calf and having him with us for 3 ½ years the task seemed over whelming. That and we felt an obligation to do him justice, so paying a professional seemed appropriate.
So Saturday was a sombre day; all went well (as best as they can anyway). So we currently have a mobile cold room parked in our garden. Where he will hang for a fortnight prior to the butcher returning to process. (Update to follow)

If you are interested in the butchering side of either pigs or cattle I have covered these in the past (though am sure I will post again). But please note some may consider these posts graphic.

On a more upbeat note Sunday we took delivery of our new beefy’s as well as some new meat chicks which we intend to trial. So I guess you could say it all starts again, so more from those to come.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

What a 'buzz'y week!

There has been a real 'buzz' of activity here over the last few weeks (it must be spring). And a large part of that activity could be attributed to this year’s addition of our bee hive; as they fruit trees and veggies have flourished.
Other than selecting a position for our hive (preparing and providing some much required TLC to the previously loved hive and then purchasing our ‘brood’ from a local honey supplier the bees have pretty much been left to their own devices for the past six months.

I had (on occasion) made an attempt to 'check in'; in other words, suited up I took a look at their progress in the hive... which did result in my being stung! Note to self: running tights do not make appropriate apiarist attire! Although to be fair in general they have been mostly placid. The hive is situated at the furthest point of the house yard, close to the pig pen. This allows for ease of maintenance (mowing, trimming grass etc). and the bees are situated near trees and water. 
We are no bee experts and are still learning ourselves, so here are a few basics we have had to learn (and may make this post easier to read) 

 [if you are a seasoned apiarist and disagree with any of this, please feel free to correct me.]

Apiarist is a beekeeper; an apiary refers to the location of hives.
A hive refers to the structure or nest occupied by a colony of bees. So hive is the housing and a colony refers to the bees who occupy it as a group, including their ranks/functions.
Hives may take a number of forms from wild or native hives (so ones wild colonies construct themselves) to artificial hives that house domesticated bees. 

With domesticated bees, the internal structure consists of beeswax cells called honeycomb. These maybe artificial or formed within frames with or without a foundation.
The honeycomb is used by bees to store food sources (honey and pollen) and their “brood” (their eggs and larvae).  The methods used to host the bees and therefore harvest the honey really does depend upon the type of hive used.

Probably the most common (or commercially used in Australia) is the Langstroth. This is the setup we have used as the hives and parts were easy to source and to 'get started'.- They are the white stacked style of boxes you have seen and recognised as beehives
The Langstroth hive is a modular system consisting of boxes filled with frames. To begin with he supplied a local honey producer with a box filled with ‘prepped’ frames.
These frames have wire that permeates through them which can be heated to melt/attach a wax foundation upon which the bees will (hopefully) build and fill their honeycomb. In this instance we are hoping for the contents to be a strong “brood” (larvae). Once this box contained a quantity of honeycomb, larvae and young bees the supplier then contacted us to retrieve our box.
This then formed our “nucleus”- brood, young bees and importantly our own queen. This nucleus would allow us to form our own colony.
 The advantage of the Langstroth hive is that it is modular and the form and parts are common and easily sourced. So as with sourcing our “nucleus” they are easy to transfer or “split”.  

However these are not the only types of hives. Many prefer the 'top bar', the benefits include; Lighter to work with and ease of use- by switching the set up from a vertical plane to horizontal the honey then becomes front of the hive and brood/nest at the back. This arrangement should be less disruptive to the bees and therefore many claim they do not require smoke or bee suits to inspect.
Making this type of hive increasingly popular with backyard bee keepers/producers, as it is accessible to all ages and physical ability levels- Langstorth boxes get rather heavy when full, so this horizontal format reduces/eliminates the need to lift.
This method is also commonly homemade, with a number of instructions/ plans etc available online (with a little research), therefore this may be the most cost effective for the beginner, starting out.
Any also prefer this method as it is deemed 'more natural'; the bees construct their own honeycomb structure, also allowing for the honey comb to be utilised. This does however mean that improperly formed combs can break off and a greater level of attention and potential intervention is required. Some also experience issues with ventilation and heat retention over winters (not too much of an issue in the tropics).
Another increasingly popular hive here in Australia is the 'Flow hive'. This is a newcomer to the market being developed by an Australian family, who became one of the world most successful crowdfunding campaigns.  Launching their patented idea on Indiegogo in February 2015. This product is adaptable to other hive setups (particularly the Langstroth) and for the lowest box is primarily the same. But the honey box comprises of two moulded sections creating a honey comb form. These are then moved (using a key) to split the form, draining the honey content.
The idea being there is less disruption to the colony when extracting honey, less equipment and time required, and (according to their website, and the prompt to develop this method) fewer bee injuries/ squashed during the process. I personally cannot comment on this as I don't know of anyone who has one, or seen one in action (though I am curious).       
Downside is the initial purchase is more pricey; although this should be offset by the need for equipment and time for extracting honey- hot knives, honey extractor/spinner, filtering equipment etc.  

The colony, all members of a honey bee colony start as eggs and undergo complete “metamorphosis”, passing through the larvae (legless ‘gr

ubs’ that feed on honey, pollen and nectar to pupal (bee young), before becoming adults that  perform specialist tasks.

Queens are the only members of a colony able to lay fertilised eggs.
Workers bees are the largest population within a colony and are entirely female, but they are unable to produce fertilized eggs. If there is no queen they may lay ‘unfertilized eggs’, which become male drones.
Workers forage for pollen tend to all other bees and  larvae, ventilate the hive and defend the nest. The average life span of worker bees is approximately six weeks.
Drones are male and have only one task: to fertilize new queens.
Swarms are a natural part of colony behaviour, and are generally the result of overcrowding within the existing hive and/or the presence of multiple queens. In which case the older queens will leave with approximately half of the hive’s worker bees, leaving the new queen in the hive with the rest of the workers.  Whilst swarming is a natural cycle for bees, in  domesticated bees most bee keepers attempt to prevent this occurring through “splitting” hives.  
One of the most misunderstood things I found out from keeping bees, is that whilst swarming honey bees are generally at their most docile; as they do not have young or a nest to defend and as such, their incentive to sting is reduced. Although they will still attack if provoked, as they still have a queen to defend.
In the open a ‘swarm’ maybe encouraged into an artificial hive; as they are actively seeking a new home. This is a cost effective means to obtaining a colony given you know what you are doing. Often mistaken for ‘swarms’ are wild hives that may have been constructed in hollow trees, building cavities etc. These are far more difficult (if not impossible) to remove and may require pest management to assist.

So that’s the basics as I understand it. So over the past six months our ‘nucleus’ has been allowed to develop into its own colony within the two box (high) hive. Sometimes I have heard these ‘boxes’ or layers referred to as ‘super’. Once there was evidence of the “brood” (formation, larvae etc.) in half of the frames of the second box we placed a third on top; separated by a “queen excluder”.
This should allow for our colony to continue to grow, whilst the plastic barrier allows the rest of the colony to enter the upper most box, but no the queen. This is what is referred to as a “honey super”. Therefore the colony can build honeycomb and honey, but there should not be any fertilised eggs (as the queen is unable to get in there). This allows the queen and larvae to feed from and inhabit the lower box/es, leaving us harvest from the highest box; safe in the knowledge that we are not harming the young or the queen, and therefore the future of our colony/hive.  
So to our first harvest!
The top box, or honey super now had four ‘full’ frames of “capped honeycomb” also known as "capped frames" and two partials. “Capped” refers to the bees covering the comb with wax once the cell is full. Therefore you want to harvest the capped frames. Now I doubted myself (given this was my first harvest) as some of the frames were not filled to the edges and some were thicker than others.

This is where I wish I had had another set of hands with me to take photos- I had had the best of intentions in that respect, however this does become a sticky process. So between not wanting to aggravate the colony more than necessary and not wishing to sticky my phone, am afraid I can only try again next time… And in all honestly why I contemplated not writing this post.

In all honesty the bees were rather accommodating (may have had something to do with me being more appropriately dressed- lesson learned). So I swiftly transferred the four full frames into an unused box- for easier transport.
Then using a ‘hot knife’, following the frame as a guide. I opened the capped honey comb into a food grade container, placing each frame immediately into the extractor/spinner.
I read a post that suggested capping one side at a time, so the honey wasn’t spun back on itself. I am not convinced this had any affect, but it did mean the frame wasn’t oozing as much when I uncapped the second side (given I had spun some of the honey out already.

After quite some effort and spinning I did repeat the knife process a few times and eventually use a needle scraper to open some of the lower cells that the knife hadn’t reached. And spun some more.

Once satisfied with my efforts, and if I am honest I wasn’t sure there was that much in the bottom of the extractor… and there was some still in the cells. I guess I left I shouldn’t be greedy and leave some for the bees.
I returned the frames to the top box; leaving the honeycomb formation (and some honey) on them, ready for refilling.

We then released the honey into food grade containers before filtering. Now you can purchase honey vats with filters and taps. To transfer into and then bottle. As We hadn’t quite got that far (and this is only for ourselves) We filtered the honey through paint strainer into a purpose bought stainless steel bucket. This was then siphoned into jars. This is considered raw, filtered honey. This actually produced around 6kg!

The honeycomb residue and honey mess collected in the food grade container during ‘uncapping’ we transferred to an oven dish (via a sieve- removing the largest particles) and heated until melted. This we removed, allowed to cool- separating the wax, as it floats to the top and sets and most of the other undesirable particles. Once lifted off and removed we then strained it as before, providing another kilo +. Only we used this honey to attempt Meade (honey wine), as it is 'heat treated' and often thought to be less suitable for consuming raw. General advise seems to be best for cooking... So will let you know how that goes in 6-12 months. 

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Sourdough 'restarter'

On our return from holidays I decided it was time to start another sourdough starter. I had made an attempt at this in the past, but something went a little wrong. So before the weather heats up too much I thought I'd best get 'start'ed.

In baking terms sourdough is the ultimate 'make your own', especially if you start your starter from scratch. And I am assured time and again that it's very forgiving- many neglect it for weeks (or longer) and it will still come back. 
Believed to be the oldest form of leaven bread, possibly dating back to ancient Egyptian, sourdough would have been the primary method until the introduction of commercially produced yeasts in 19th century. So you can understand its appeal... we love all thing heritage here!   

So what do you need for this ancient tradition of capturing "wild yeast"?

Well the easiest method would be to use an established starter (and no I do not mean from a packet). And users/enthusiasts are generally happy to share, as they need to regularly "use" or split their starter anyway. (You usually use this for baking) Alternatively making your own involves very few ingredients, the main one is patients!
The interesting thing with sourdough starters is that no two batches will ever be the same. As the yeast is captured and matures within its environment, and will reflect this.

·         As per book

  1. As per book
  2. Note how I adapted using mixer and bowl cover for first week. Then storage methods, jar, how I use pudding bowl with lid.

Sourdough "terms" and tips

Hooch: Watery liquid on surface ranging from clear to yellow or dark brown.
This liquid contains alcohol that forms on your starter. This is a normal by product of the fermentation process. Pour off the liquid if the starter is thin or stir it in if the starter is thick. 
*Note this may mean your starter is ‘hungry’.
Proofing: Allowing your starter to ferment and become active.
Sponge: An active starter, ready to use.

Never use an airtight seal, as fermentation does produce gases, so there maybe a risk of explosions.
Once established you can keep in the fridge (so I am assured), just leave out prior to use and feed, so the starter is active. This maybe in form of a sponge for use and feeding the starter before returning to storage.
  Ieal consistency for starter is like a thick pancake mix, but this varies from person to person.