With a little help from our friends

If there’s anything we’ve learned over this weird, wonderful, busy summer is that we only get by with the help of our equally weird, wonderful and busy friends. The saying that ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’ was clearly directed at the best and brightest by whom we are lucky to be surrounded.

Hay Ho, Let’s Go

As predicted, the hay guy rolled in with his balers and rakers and tractors and all manner of clanking machinery and cut the paddocks exactly when they needed to be cut. He left us with over 500 bales neatly marching in rows across our three big fields. We still had about 200 left from last season, which were taking up half of our precious hay storage real estate. Given we’ve been pouring all our hard earned into fence posts and tractors, our charitable donations over the past 12 months have been sorely lacking. In this part of the world hay is currency though and so we decided to donate the season’s excess to a lovely local horsey charity – Cherry Lane Equine Retirement. Knowing how much roughage it takes to keep golden oldies in good nick, it seemed like a good use of our ‘funds’.

With the sheds cleared though – there were still 500 bales to bring in. It had been a daunting task last year at around the 400 mark with just Dave and myself doing it in eight hours with one car and horse float and neither of us were keen to further that effort. Here’s where the friends outdid themselves… with naught but the bribery of a sausage sizzle (hey, it works for Bunnings) and some cold beverages in the esky, we rallied a crack team of drivers, trailers, stackers, BBQers (and plenty of kids to get in the way 🙂 ). Brothers, sisters, cousins, parents and friends… I don’t know WHY you would volunteer for such torturous (prickly, sweaty, dirty, dusty) labour but we love you for it. With three cars and trailers, a couple of buyers straight out of the paddock, and eleven people, the job was done in an incredible three hours on a warm (but thankfully not hot!) Friday evening. There is an adage somewhere about full sheds being akin to happiness and it is partially because it’s good to know you have the horse feed set aside for the winter months, but it’s also because that filthy job is DONE for another year.

Clear eyes, full shed, can’t lose

The Gift Horse

Our lovely Clydesdale Sunny was worth her (considerable) weight in gold over the last few months of the senior Borrowed Farmer’s life. Patient and kind and appreciative of carrots and pats, she’d stand solidly to be rugged and fussed over with just a lead rope around her neck (putting a halter on even a cooperative Clydesdale is a job that is really only for tall people, or those standing on buckets).

When it came time for funeral arrangements, it seemed obvious that Sunny would be part of the proceedings. We didn’t know a lot about her past but we knew she was harness broken (and obviously working bred), so the tiny germ of a ‘wouldn’t it be perfect?’ idea was formed. The trainer who had broken Hugo into harness was called, and asked if he would take on an unknown quantity Clydesdale and see if her buttons still worked and if she might be called in for hearse pulling duty. Quite rightly he suggested we call John Allison Monkhouse and leave the equine funeral processions to the professionals, but he said he would humour us and give her a go.

She looked around at his yard, full of harness, carts and other horses, and visibly relaxed. She knew what this was about. Harnessed up for a quick long rein, she was expertly circled around the yard as the trainer worked out what ‘her’ words were…he tried a few until he realised she’d been trained by a real old timer and, switching his language, she in turn switched into gear. ‘She’s got a beautiful mouth – someone’s done a good job with her!’ She pulled a tyre along the driveway without flinching and looked absolutely thrilled to be showing off what she could do. It was if she was saying ‘Finally, they’ve figured out what I’m for!’ The trainer said ‘Go ahead with your plans – she won’t let you down’. He kept her for the week in preparation for the funeral and she didn’t put a foot wrong the entire time.

Of course, the next piece in the puzzle was a suitable horse-drawn vehicle. It needed to be small enough for a single old mare to pull, and the right height and shape to lift a coffin onto. The sheds at Wilandra had been stocked with gorgeous draught horse vehicles, long disused and draped in pigeon-poo-covered canvas sheeting, and I assumed that they were not in working condition and meant for a team of Clydesdales at Melbourne Show grand parades. But when the idea was put to Wilandra’s patriarch (now in his 90s), in the hope that he would know someone who had such a vehicle, he unhesitatingly offered his beautiful lorry – ‘it’s perfect for one horse, and doesn’t need anything done to it.’ And it didn’t – the covers had protected it beautifully from the marauding winged rats. With harness borrowed from the trainer and another trusted family member roped in to do the driving on the day (as well as the massive task of Clydesdale cleaning – those white feathers take some washing!), we had somehow managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat (or a retired draught horse out of a paddock). We (and Sunny) were being entrusted with a family heirloom, and with a family ceremony of the utmost gravity.

Once were farms in Moorabbin!

With her coat shining and the Essendon colours plaited into her mane and tail, with black and red feathers pluming from her headpiece, she completed her solemn duty with dignity and took her person home to his resting place. Like a famous player coming out of retirement for the big game, she knew what she was doing, put her head down and her shoulders into it and accepted the attention and praise with humility. She did her job well and did everyone proud.

She was collected a week after the funeral to go back to her previous home, as much as we would have loved to have kept her a while longer, having gladly taken over carrot feeding duty.

Seven weeks later, in a strange twist of Facebook fate, a post on a page I do not follow popped up on my newsfeed. I follow plenty of similar pages, but not this one specifically –it is a page that lists horses being sent to the saleyards up on the border.

A note about saleyards. They have their place in the equine marketplace but as a general rule you’re picking up a horse as an unknown quantity and as a result of some misfortune – someone needs quick money, has a horse they can’t afford, a horse they can’t manage, or just one they don’t particularly care about for whatever reason. It’s also the end of the road for plenty of horses with no reserve price.

So this saleyard page posted a picture of a Clydesdale mare. A Clydesdale mare with a distinctive hook in her blaze above her eye. The photo showed enough of her brand to pique my interest further. I read the caption – the description fit. My heart pounding, I noted that even though the page provided the option for bidding via mobile phone, the auction deadline had passed about twenty minutes previously. Still we rang and asked – could she tell us this horse’s name? She couldn’t (there were 120 horses for sale and she was taking lots of calls) but she said that the auction was running late and we were welcome to still bid via text. We hung up, and texted her saying ‘We think that horse is called Sunset Boulevard – and if she is, we have no maximum bid, please offer what you have to on our behalf’. She texted back with a picture of her papers saying ‘I don’t know how you know that – but this is Sunset Boulevard’. The auction was running so late that we didn’t hear back for a nerve-wracking three hours, but she finally confirmed – Sunny was coming home again.

Luck doesn’t begin to cover the events that brought her back to us – 120 horses for sale, and the only photo posted on their page was of Sunny, with a good enough picture to capture her unique markings and expression. We had been paid a bonus that month that hadn’t yet landed our accounts, but when it did it covered her purchase price almost exactly. To quote Nick Cave (with the appropriate gravity and timbre), even if you ‘don’t believe in an interventionist God’, it’s hard to credit chance with such a perfect storm of events. We’re grateful.

Again, friends helped immeasurably (say what you will about the horse community but it is full of generosity) – we had offers of transport, we were loaned a float more suitable than our own for a large horse on a long trip, cash was borrowed, and champagne was shared.

Collecting her was quite an emotional experience. We found her (after dashing back and forth along the gangways trying to find her pen) alone amidst rows and rows of steel yards in a gigantic livestock facility. She walked straight up to Dave and put her face in her halter, as if to say ‘Guys, this wasn’t even funny. What took you so long?!’ It was a sight to see her power walk out of there and straight onto the float, and even the prospect of a three hour trip didn’t seem to daunt her.

Renewing acquaintances with the neighbours

Arriving back in her paddock, she looked around with her wise eyes, took a long drink from her trough, and settled immediately back into her paddock ornament life – yet always ready for ceremonial duties should they be required.

We’re still not sure how he did it, but it seems that the senior Borrowed Farmer knew how to manipulate Facebook algorithms to bring his girl back home – perhaps to say thanks for her doing the same for him.

Advertisements

Glen Mistmas Listmas

Glen Mist is looking a bit more Christmassy this year, given that last year we were barely moved in. It is hard to feel festive when surrounded by boxes that aren’t presents, and the only thing we were unwrapping was glassware we didn’t know we owned.

This year however, in a bid to seed some Borrowed Farm traditions, we dug through the shipping container, thanked ourselves for accurate box labelling, and came out with a few trinkets with which to brighten the place up. We’re not quite at Wilandra Christmas level, but at least we’re trying.

So what have we learned in this year of making it up as we go along? We may not yet have gained too much wisdom, and we’re certainly not considered locals but we’ve made enough mistakes to have learned a couple of lessons.

Don’t hassle the hay guy

Hay contractors are a special breed. They communicate via monosyllabic text messages at strange times, weeks after you have made contact. They alone understand the weather  – do not question them. They will not be moved by any increasing desperation in your messages, as you watch surrounding properties sprouting neat rows of bales overnight, while your grass starts to sigh and shudder under its own weight, and your fences and dogs become increasingly difficult to find (and your four year old learns to play Marco Polo in the paddocks.) ‘It’s too early. You’re on my list. I’ll see you after Christmas’. I know we will, and it will be fine.

Sheep are evil genius

The sheep are forming a super feral herd in the mountains. Our neighbour wandered over the back paddock, looking for his own mob and we had to confess that they had probably joined our wild bush sheep, and are no doubt plotting against us.

If you are ever interested in which parts of your fences are sub-Alcatraz standard, we recommend Dorpers for the quickest results.

Tractors are simple machines with complex feelings

So the most anticipated machinery arrival ever (after the quad bike) has been the tractor. Dave finally is fulfilling his Farmer Joe fantasy and put-putting along in his 1963 Massey Ferguson – bright red of course. The Fergie has many many jobs planned for it, but first we have to learn its quirks. It is not a sophisticated machine – it doesn’t even have headlights, let alone upholstery, and drives a little like a sewing machine on a unicycle. Dave hasn’t yet run it into a fence, but he has run over something that immediately gave it a puncture, and then stalled it irrevocably in the driveway and had to tow it ignominiously down the hill with the Jeep. The mechanic, who had only just been out to service it, was recalled to find out what was wrong. He only slightly smiled when he said it needed petrol. (To be fair – the tank wasn’t empty but a ‘feature’ of the tractor is that it only draws from the top half of the tank, so we need to keep it always at least half full. This flies in the face of our natural inclination to see how far our cars can run on fumes, so will require a paradigm shift on our parts.)

Minimalism starts with getting rid of stuff that’s not even yours

Now we did have an unconventional beginning to property ownership here, with our vendors not entirely understanding the concept of settlement (ie, you have to move out). So we were lenient on how much of their stuff they actually removed, focusing more on the ‘just please leave’ aspect. They took advantage of this and left us with a shed (and half a house) full of absolute banal rubbish. No interesting treasures, or vintage trinkets – but bona-fide junk. Broken furniture, mouldering carpet, obsolete and non functioning technology (including a teeny tiny mobile phone, that fit into the palm of my hand – remember when the smaller your phone, the cooler it was?), water damaged board games (we will be finding Trivial Pursuit question cards across the paddocks for years) and piles of magazines. Amusingly enough, many of them were Vogue Living, which I can assure you, had never been read.

Our goal was to get rid of this rubbish before the 12 months were up, and we just squeaked in. Two hard rubbish collections, one scrap metal guy with a truck, and a 12 metre skip (filled by using the tractor as a bulldozer) and we have a hay shed paddock that does not look like a tip anymore. It feels good. #declutteringfeelsgoodwhenitsotherpeoplescrap

IMG_20171209_135443.jpg

Land ties you to the community

The same can be said for children and animals too, but we have found that having a bit of land really stitches you into your community in a way that didn’t happen so easily in the suburbs. It’s easier I guess when your neighbours are fewer (and further away) to be friendly and open (ha). But within weeks of moving in we’d met most of the surrounding neighbours, and the rest of them we have crossed paths with walking the dogs, chasing the sheep, riding or driving the horses, or of course drinking wine at the local winery. Not to mention the deliveries and the services you need to bring onto the property – from fencing supply deliveries, quarry trucks with gravel for the driveway, the aforementioned hay contractors, vets, farriers, horse dentists, tradespeople, and even the kind man who drove his excavator ten kilometers up the highway so we could put Ali to rest in her own paddock. Inviting these people into your home, some on a regular basis, links you in with your neighbours and with your town – stories are swapped, connections are found and services are rendered with familiarity and friendliness. It has been the best revelation about having our own property and it more than makes up for the rough edges and sagging fixtures of the place. With those around us, sharing their knowledge and expertise, we are carving a space here that will be both of our own making, and part of a beautiful community.

IMG_20171219_205006.jpg

With apologies to Mr Paterson 

Hugo’s diet plan

There was little movement at Glen Mist Farm

For the word had got around 

That the sheep that we regret had got away 

And had joined the feral deer

They were worth a couple of bottles of wine

So the unwilling shepherds gathered round for the fray. 

Tractor contemplating the sunset

There was Dave, who didn’t make his pile this year 

Because Coles its bonuses didn’t pay

But he still got his tractor, red as brick

And few could stay beside him at the end of the day

He’d go wherever quadbike and man could stick.

Spot the deer (not Hugo)

Caroline of the (washing) overflow came down to lend a hand

She preferred to rattle a bucket than a whip

But that tactic required having a clue as to where the sheep had hid

And it seemed they preferred freedom to a lamb. 

Blonde dog #1

And two dogs were there, both of them with their own hair as blonde as Sweden

But that’s where their similarities end

Rosie didn’t care where she went as long as she was running 

While Wally was only concerned with the feeding. 

Looks relaxing Wally

We had spent the weekends fencing, setting up a lush sheep field

With posts and rails and dorper-proof mesh

It seemed like the sheep were watching until the final hole was sealed

And chose that very moment to make their dash.


The hills around Tynong are dense with tea tree stands 

And though the neighbours are on the lookout for the strays 

It’s been some time now since we’ve seen them and we’ve run out of  stock hands

Perhaps it’s time to wish the mob good day. 

We’ve learned that dorpers have more smarts than their woolly minded mates 

And only the very best of fences will keep them on track 

And while we’re still repairing all the things that were left in shambolic states

Even if they came back alone and unassisted, we don’t want them back.

Four seasons in one day

Twelve months ago we spent our first night here at Glen Mist Farm, The Borrowed Farm Mark 2. Twelve months on it is true that all the ridiculous stress we felt around the having the mortgage approved, and having the settlement happen, and having the vendors actually move out seems insignificant. Funny how that happens and although we probably knew that in the back of our minds at the time, we probably wouldn’t have appreciated being told that fact.

Lots has happened, as is the way of things, and we have celebrated many milestones (Dave learning to use gripple pliers, Caroline not learning how to harvest chestnuts successfully, the little one learning the delights of head to toe mud) and have lived pretty happily in commune across our three little dwellings. Right now we’re quietly mourning one of our own. Thus for once I have very few words to share.

If there was somewhere to spend your last 12 months, this is a pretty good place to choose.

 

 https://www.instagram.com/p/BbWnBqMhz9q/

It was all yellow

There is a lightness in the air finally – mostly wattle pollen from western Victoria if the strength of the wind gusts is to be believed. Some hardy blooms are pushing through, which is encouraging after the frosts we’ve had. I’m thinking of starting a hashtag #isthisdead? and taking photos of all the sticks that remain after everything froze a few times, including my lovely blue hydrangeas. I’m hoping they’ll return, but right now the bush looks pretty dead. Same with nearly all the succulents in the cat run, although given these are all plants that came with the place, I’m trusting they’ve survived frosts here before and will return from their burned brownness in spring. So the daffodils, wattle and jonquils are gratefully received!

There have been a few weekend projects going on at the moment – weeding garden beds (seems the weeds don’t mind frost), cleaning out pony paddocks (Hugo very neatly leaves it all in piles to be collected), pruning fruit trees and trying to protect the birdlife from our cats.

On this last point – I would have thought the cat run was a reasonably good defence for the native birdlife. Best of both worlds – the cats still get to spend time outside pretending to be panthers, but don’t have the run of the place to actually get near any prey. I did however underestimate the size of birds’ brains. We covered the cat run in chicken wire, which is what we had plenty of, and is obviously plenty small enough gauge to keep the cats in, but not, as it turns out, to keep teeny finches out. Dot has been averaging a kill every couple of weeks of these lovely teeny green-black birds, with red masks (bird watchers, feel free to enlighten me!), that are tiny enough to flit through the wire, and then become panicked and trapped once they realise the mistake they’ve made. Dot brings them inside, chirruping proudly and always bewildered at the horrified reaction she garners.

So I decided to set up a bird deterrent inside the cat run (since the cats themselves apparently aren’t deterrent enough). Bird tape is basically shiny holographic wrapping paper and given that we (like most Gen Xers) have spindles and spindles of blank CDs, for all the mix discs we suddenly didn’t make when digital music swept all before it, I decided to use their shiny properties instead. I made a daisy chain of blank discs that will hopefully sparkle in a threatening manner and keep the birds out of the run – or confuse them enough to stay away. Two weeks in and Dot is nought from nought, so obviously these are millenial birds.

 

We also have had a go at pruning our wild and woolly fruit trees. The apple tree was at least 15 foot tall and leaned over the bungalow, cheerfully dropping apple bombs onto the roof in the middle of the night. This required a chainsaw prune as it is a very established big tree, so it was really more of a chopdown rather than a trim.

The stone fruit trees were not as tall, but were leggy and out of control and had suffered in the wind storms. We considered getting in a professional to do it for the first time and then following their lead (like getting your eyebrows waxed professionally and then just copying their lines over and over), however we thought this might be overcapitalising in this first year. It’s obvious they all had been pruned properly at some point, but now branches shot out from the old stumps at all angles, branches criss-crossed each other in all directions, including directly down. A bit of research reassured us that we couldn’t hurt them too much, after wading through all the technicalities of laterals and feathers and terminal buds. (A good resource we found was on the Flemings website.)

The basic principles are – winter pruning is to promote growth, summer pruning inhibits it. Open up the interior of the tree so that sunlight can penetrate into all branches, and keep the tree at a height where you can reach the fruit (seems obvious!). Remove branches that cross others, that are broken or drooping, and take everything back to a couple of buds. Given the state of our trees, this first year was a bit of an experiment in what damage we can inflict on the trees without hurting them, and it will take us a few seasons to get them right, but they’re greatly improved already. Toolswise, I can definitely recommend borrowing the good secateurs and trimmers from Mum (she uses Fiskars – they make short work of the sinewy branches!).

And now we wait for the blossoms!

For those following at home, my last post about Glen Mist (my brother’s cantankerous spirit animal apparently) garnered a flurry of reminiscences and a social media success story. After posting a link to the previous blog post on the Halvorsen Club’s Facebook page, in a matter of mere hours, Glen Mist was located – renovated and much loved on the Gippsland Lakes. The new owners were delighted to find out more about her history and a summertime reunion is on the cards! 

What’s in a name?

Is there anywhere more golden in your memories than childhood holidays? Anything more longed for as the tedious school year crawled to a close? Songs are written about them, photo albums dedicated to them, and many a family get-together is spent laughing over stories that begin with ‘remember when…?’

There is something special about having a regular haunt for those holidays too – camping at Rosebud, your apartment at Noosa, taking the caravan to Lakes Entrance. For my family that place was Lake Eildon – more specifically an old wooden cruiser moored at Anderson Harbour. Her name was Glen Mist.

My parents and their best friends had been searching for the perfect holiday solution for their young families. My Dad and his mate were into anything with an engine and were keen self-taught water skiers (before You-Tube tutorials were a thing) and imagined a waterside block of land, perhaps a ski club campground, but Lake Eildon’s notoriously moveable shoreline made this property hunt a bit tricky. Houseboats looked promising, until the building and insurance costs proved similar to an actual house, and it was starting to look like a lost cause, until they found the Glen Mist advertised.

Built sometime in the 1940s, Glen Mist had been a patrol boat in WWII, which I told absolutely everyone about.  I imagined where the guns had been and what derring do she had seen in her time. (She had not been within cooee of any active service – officially, but they always keep details like that secret, don’t they?) By the time our families walked on board, she was more than 30 years old, stripped of her military history and painted mission brown inside.

Life in a cruiser is all maritime romance and inconvenience. While houseboats are basically floating caravans, with no hydrodynamics – they are equally ungainly travelling sideways, forwards or backwards in the water – cruisers are made to sail, and you never forget you’re on a boat. Glen Mist in particular never let you forget that she was no simple, push-button piece of machinery. She required coaxing and wheedling and the toolbox to always be on hand.

She was powered by two huge Chrysler engines that lived under couches in the central living area. There were plenty of times that we were corralled up one end of the boat, as the cushions and floorboards were pulled up to access the dark, oil-stained, yawning engine cavity. Her innermost workings were fascinating to us kids – pilot lights for the fridge, the howling toilet, the monstrous batteries that powered the capricious flickering lights, and the regular visits to both the poo barge (oh how we giggled) and the fuel barge (which was usually an occasion of Barney Banana icecreams for everyone). Her propeller and algae covered hull were things of nightmares, although that may be due to me being traumatised by watching the shipwreck scene in  The Black Stallion at a formative age.

Each summer, we’d leave home early on Boxing Day and head to the lake to bring Glen Mist out of hibernation. She’d be all tarped up tightly, and as Dad unfurled the covers for the first time in months my arachnophobia was seeded, as countless huntsmen would rush from their hiding places and be flicked overboard at which point they would run across the water to the shore (sweet dreams everyone!).

It was a bucket brigade to ferry our luggage from the cars, down the steep banks to the marina and gingerly pass things across the back deck, then cover up the cars and leave them for the duration. At Christmastime, the marina roads were lined with car shaped shrouds, as people left their land lubbing vehicles behind for the summer.

Us four kids grew up on this boat – we learned to ski (although none of us ever mastered our Dad’s trick of taking off from the Glen Mist’s duckboard and gliding back onto it at the end without getting his hair wet), we learned to swim without touching the underwater trees that haunted the lake edges, and we learned to never, never take anything you cared about outside on the deck, for fear of losing it overboard. It is a testament to all of our parents that they managed to have family holidays with children ranging from newborns upwards and not actually lose any of us in the drink (although we were never allowed out on deck without lifejackets for an embarrassingly long time). The list of things that did go overboard from either the Glen Mist or during a waterskiing session includes sunglasses, diamond rings, a freshly varnished (but hitherto untested for buoyancy) handmade pair of trick skis, countless hats and the mouse from Mousetrap, during a particularly ill-advised boardgame session on the front deck.

I was quite famous in my Girls Guides patrol for actually having a practical application for the knots we were learning (yes, of course I got that badge). It was a great source of pride for me that I already knew how to tie a clove hitch (I know, how is it possible I was ever single?). As a result, it is possible I got a bit too cocky about my rope skills. I was entrusted once to tie the skiboat onto the back of the cruiser as we were moving camp, and then, joy of joys, I was allowed to steer the Glen Mist, taking pride of place on the captain’s chair. We had worked up a good pace and were merrily motoring along for quite some time before Dad astutely observed that we were missing a boat. Poor Solution was a mere dot bobbing on the horizon. We executed a slow uturn to collect the errant vessel and Dad performed an excellent Magnum PI leap into the orphaned ski boat, to bring it back alongside and tie it properly to the mothership. I was swiftly removed from my post (both as boat steerer and knot tie-er forever.)

Tom Selleck was an influence in more ways than one.

Glen Mist’s age eventually became enough of an issue that she needed repairs that could no longer be carried out on the water. Combined with the fact that our families had each built homes on a bit of acreage, which now took up the summers, the cost of a police escort for an old boat to come down the Black Spur seemed extravagant. We sold her for the cost of the mooring permit at Lake Eildon and she was replaced with a gleaming soulless houseboat before the following summer. We last heard she was somewhere on the Maribyrnong River, hopefully relieved of her mission brown interior and huntsmen. We all scavenged what souvenirs we could – barometers, chrome filters and flags, but had to leave the yellow fridge and the captain’s chair.

I always loved the imagery evoked by her name (as soon as I realised she wasn’t named after someone called Glen) – not only the misty Scottish highlands, but also our glorious summer holidays that will always be etched in our collective memories. So it seemed fitting to call our little personal glen after an emblem of childhood, summer and families and we hope that our little one (and his cousins and friends) recall this place with the same fondness. Because nostalgia – and also because we may never be able to afford holidays again.

The devolution of an Instagram post

There are lots of lovely things about winter that make up for the gasping cold mornings, the YouTube worthy slipping in mud dance in your gumboots, and the unremitting darkness. The fireplace is lovely, bonfires are basically mini adventures, the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, set off by the layered clouds – and red wine and hot chocolate laced with Rum Chata (try it!) are basically mandatory. I was excited to discover we have lovely twin chestnut trees, which just brought to mind Judy Garland or Dean Martin waxing lyrical about roasting chestnuts while ice skating or something (I’m sketchy on the details). I do love trees that clearly mark the seasons, like these ones, or the liquid ambers or the oaks – stark branches against the sky at the moment, giving way to green fuzz in spring, dark lush leaves in summer, and all the colour and drama of autumn.

Alongside their sunny yellow autumn leaves, the chestnut trees bristled with prickly sea urchins that fell to the ground alongside the dropping foliage. My chestnut curiosity was piqued – there were so many that the ground was basically carpeted with these vicious spiky balls and I had visions of neatly bagging them up at the farm gate and becoming some kind of nut mogul via a roadside stall (nevermind our deadend road with no passing traffic, except for a guy who takes his daily constitutional along the overgrown verge and actively hides if you attempt to wave at him).

I found this delightful recipe blog, which confirmed that chestnuts are some kind of luxury gourmet ingredient that are made for lush photography and accompanying gorgeous antipasto platters.

So I donned the gardening gloves and collected the prickly balls from the ground and loaded up two white plastic buckets to begin with, confident that I’d be back for a more photogenic collection method for the next round (perhaps a gingham blanket to  gather them on, or a vintage tin bucket). Chestnuts are best left to fall to the ground before collecting, so this suited me perfectly (note – I’m not actually a fruitarian, just lazy). I used a knife to split open the spiky skin and pop out the glossy brown nuts. They look lovely and appetising at this stage, like shiny coffee beans, but you would be very wrong to get excited and try to break them open with your teeth at this stage. Very wrong. The spiky skin is the first layer, the glossy brown layer is the next one. You are not there yet.

There are a few recommended methods for getting to the actual flesh, once you have despiked the nuts. Blanching them in scalding water is suggested before roasting, to loosen the skin away from the nut, so I tried this, before carving an ‘x’ in each nut and popping them in the oven to roast. This is a dangerous task, fraught with slipping knives and impenetrable skin. I ended up using the bread knife to gently saw the ‘x’ into the shell, which actually worked well (if not quickly). Apparently once roasted, these x-shaped cuts will open up like flowers and the nuts will slide right out of their curled back skin, in a perfect golden globe of fluffy all-American Christmas movie nostalgia.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned how much we miss the Aga, but our nasty Chefmaidinghouse (the brand name has peeled off) oven is a tricky beast, whose temperature control is uncertain, and whose lighting requires a hazmat suit to prevent singed faces. So I’m not sure if it’s because I blanched too long (blanching is a very quick process that I may have overdone in the mistaken belief that more is always better) or because the oven was not hot enough but I ended up with rather a lot of unpopped nuts, or nuts that refused to let go of their flesh, and so I destroyed many many chestnuts in an attempt to get a mouthful of chestnut by gouging into them angrily with a fork. I created a delicious fluffy pile of nut crumbs, which sounds like something Heston would use as edible gravel to help you reminisce about a caravanning holiday (note, I thought of it first!).

The two buckets of chestnuts took about six hours on a Saturday to process to this stage, and yielded two Tupperware containers of nut fluff. The nut mogul lyfe has not chosen me yet, but there is always next season.