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Archive for the ‘Rare Breed Pigs’ Category

I had been hoping for some follow-up from the ‘meeeja’ after The Independent wrote a very positive review of my little book ‘Crushed, My NHS Summer’.

The following simple email appeared in my inbox.

‘Dear Jan,
I wonder if you might consider doing an interview on ‘Saturday Live’, Radio 4’s weekly magazine programme broadcast on Saturday mornings,
kind regards,…’

I didn’t want to gush too much about how much I admired The Reverend Richard Coles for his gentle wit, Sian Williams for being, well, for being, both brilliant and gorgeous, there! I’ve said it… and Corrie Corfield for having one of the most sensuous voices on the planet, as well as being an accomplished Ipad daubette. J.P. Devlin’s voice carries the memories of my Irish influenced childhood. I first became hooked on Saturday Live in the days of Fi Glover, her unique quirkiness made me smile so much. Put simply, it is a truly great programme.

I was even more thrilled that my presence was actually required, live, in the studio. I have done a few radio interviews over the years, mainly BBC Radio Leicester with Ben Jackson, Tony Wadsworth, Jonathon Lampon, and Damien St John. I have done a fair bit of telly with my friend Clarissa Dickson Wright, Great British Food Revival on BBC2, and more recently Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on BBC4. In 2001 I filmed a Foot & Mouth special with Tony Francis and before that had huge fun working with Aaron Patterson of Hambleton Hall on both series of Wild About Food. But, Radio 4 has a special place in my heart as it saved my business back in 1998 with its ‘On Your Farm’ broadcast with Oliver Walston. Six months or so after having started Northfield Farm Shop, following my redundancy from banking, and before the existence of the re-born Borough and Broadway Markets in London, the business was just not reaching enough customers. That Radio 4 broadcast, early one Sunday morning, had customers beating a path to our door within a couple of hours. Many of those customers are still with us today all these years later.

On the Saturday morning, December 2012, I walked the short distance from a nearby hotel to the bright new BBC Broadcasting House, and was redirected to the original building next door. Rookie error at the time. Already waiting in the reception area was Emma Kennedy, unknown to me then, but, I soon discovered, a superwoman for modern times. Emma writes, acts, amuses, entertains, tweets and is addicted to BBC 4’s ‘The Killing’. In fact, so addicted, that she has taken on the self-appointed role of official stalker to the series’ star character, Sarah Lund and written ‘The Killing Handbook’. As if that were not enough, she dropped into Masterchef in 2012, and won. Emma and I were quickly shown upstairs to meet Chris Wilson, the executive producer and shown into the studio where I was introduced to the two presenters. They, Richard and Sian, are really just as I had anticipated and have described above. The four of us sat in a slightly gloomy, but very atmospheric room, gathered around an octagonal desk kitted out with screens, microphones and headphones. My back was turned to a large plate glass window behind which the production team sat and weaved its magic. This was the BBC at its sparse best, think the retro newsroom feel of ‘The Hour’ , late and lamented, on BBC2, without the fishnet stockings, cigarettes or Single Malt. Some of the lights appeared to be held together with sticky tape and post it notes, definitely no over-spend here. The room exuded what the programme achieves namely, relaxed, refreshingly old-fashioned professionalism.

Listening again to the broadcast, I realise that I failed miserably at answering Sian William’s questions. I seem to be a master at answering part of the question and then rambling away in my own direction. I hope she forgave me.

It really was huge fun to have become even a tiny part of the history of this great show.

You can listen to it here about 18 minutes in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p027s

You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1908684194/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

Available in Paperback or Ebook form

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I was upstairs when my phone rang, my elder son’s name, Leo, showing on its screen. A short pause.

“We’ve got two for the price of one here” his slightly breathless voice called across the crackling line.

“What are you on about?” I asked, laughing.

Leo was driving home from Agriculture College and stopped to check on our in-calf cows in one of our fields. One of our rare breed White Parks had just calved, a bonny heifer calf already up on shaky legs and tottering towards Mum’s teats to suckle the all-important colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk, thick, golden in colour and full of the antibodies without which the new-born would be left exposed to many otherwise harmless illnesses. As he walked quietly up to the old cow Leo saw a movement in the long grass a few feet away. Puzzled he altered his course towards the movement to find a second calf. At first Leo looked around thinking that another cow had calved, but he quickly realised that this was the last White Park due.

“We have a set of White Park twins”, Leo answered, “a boy and a girl” both seem to be doing really well, as is Mum”.

I don’t know the statistics, but twins are very rare in cattle. Our rare breed British Lop pigs frequently have litters of ten to fifteen piglets. Our ewes commonly have twins, and even triplets every now and then. I have been breeding cattle for over twenty years. Twenty Years!  I barely feel old enough for that to be possible. This is only our third set of twins in all that time. Even then the last twin was a calf we found wandering around the barn early one morning, disowned by its Mum, so we never actually managed to find out who produced her. She was hand reared largely by Dom, my youngest. For many years we used a more than life size photo of him bottle feeding her in our marketing. Dom hated this photo as it apparently did nothing for his considerable street cred.

A couple of days later, I went to check on the cattle outside. Rain drove down from the hill above the farm and raced across the land under glowering skies as the evening light faded early. I drove my old Land Rover up the lane to view the cattle. They were all there, oblivious to the elements, except that one of the twins was nowhere to be seen. Calves are funny sometimes. They like to sleep a lot, and often will search out the tallest grass, or a thick clump of nettles or thistles, as if by instinct, like Brer Rabbit, they understand these to be the safest places to snooze. So, almost certainly, the missing calf was nearby, but any stockman worth his salt would want to know for sure, as did I. No matter how well you know your cows, it really is not a great idea to walk among them newly calved. We’d had so much rain recently that while my trusty Land Rover was unlikely to get stuck, it would certainly make a mess of the long lush grass. The light was failing fast so I drove quickly back to the farm and took our quad out of its secure hiding place and gunned it up the lane. I didn’t have time to dress for the weather, and the sharp needles of the rain pierced through my clothes to my skin within seconds. Once in the field I rode across and up to where the cattle were huddled, not far from an old hedge, backs turned into the howling wind and biting, cold rain. The cattle called to me in unison and trotted over to where I had come to a halt, no doubt hoping that I might have some food for them. The mother of the twins held back, watching over the same calf that I had seen earlier which lay curled up asleep nearby. She called to me again, but this time she also clearly looked all around as if searching for her other calf, which no doubt she was. I could barely see as my spectacles lacked windscreen wipers, but the cattle settled down once it was clear that I bore neither food nor harm. I moved the quad as close as I dared to the White Park cow. Its calf woke up, raised its head and looked at me for all the world as if it saw wet farmers on quad looking down upon it with great regularity.

I spent the next hour searching the field from the quad, going over and over the same ground again and again. Part of the field is very steep and leads down to a brook which normally babbles innocently along. The innocent babble had turned into a furious torrent which, in a few places, had broken its banks. There are ancient hawthorns, bent and twisted, shrouding hobbit-like refuges dug out over the years by sheep and cattle sheltering from the elements. Old trees and bushes grow in thickets, probably dating back centuries to when the whole of this area was covered in forest, and only populated by truly wild animals.

I was really cold, by now soaked to my skin, tired and having been quite jolly about the adventure initially, now very down it the mouth and increasingly certain that disaster had struck in some shape or form. It was almost dark and visibility sorely lacking. I have heard tales over the years of people snatching young animals from fields and barns. There is an increasing amount of poaching and butchery happening in fields. Reports of farmers finding mutilated lambs and ewes in their fields abound. With these tales in mind, I took one more slow turn around the field, searching the fence line. Down a steep slope in wet corner, furthest away from where the herd was still standing in the relentless rain, I thought I saw a flash of white. I stopped and looked again, but it was gone. I turned the quad carefully around to look again, and there, barely visible through the long grass, and only visible from that one specific point and at that one specific angle was something white. Hopeful that it was the missing calf, half certain that it was probably not, I inched the quad bike slowly forward. Whatever it was, lay on the far side of the fence, just at the top of where the river bank dropped steeply down to the swollen torrential water flow. I stopped alongside the fence, stood up on the bike and leaned over towards the white thing. Sure enough, it was the missing calf. It lay very very still. It noise, ears and feet tipped in black, the rest of its body brilliant luxurious white with flecks of black randomly splashed over its body. I dismounted from the quad and clambered over the fence. Still the calf stayed curled up tightly in a ball, either dead or asleep. I bent down and gently caressed its head and moved my hand down the length of its body. To my relief, the velvety coat was warm to my touch. First one eye, sheltered by long 1950’s movie star lashes, opened, so slowly and then the other. Seemingly oblivious to the Lear-like weather conditions and the loud thrumming of the bike a couple of feet away, the missing person looked me straight in the eye calmly and slowly blinked a couple of times.

I rubbed its body more vigorously to get the blood flowing and helped it to its feet. I lifted it up and lowered it gently over the fence into the field. The calf shook himself like a dog in the rain and then took off like a race horse, along the line of the fence, found a hole in the wire and tried to return to the safety of the long grass. I grabbed his back legs as he tried to disappear through the wire fence again. He was too skittish for me to be able to herd back to the family group, so I carried him over to the quad and held him in my arms while I sat astride the big machine. The calf, actually not so little when he’s slung across your lap, struggled at first and then settled down. I pointed the quad at the hill, lent forward over the great hairy lump on my lap, one hand on his back and used the other to open up the throttle and head up the steep hill. Once at the top, I could see the rest of the cattle still stoically resisting the rain at the far end of the field. I felt like a cowboy in an old western film, bringing back the lost calf to camp and to the adoring eyes of some tightly clothed Hollywood bombshell. In my case, no bombshell, and the only eyes on me were distinctly bovine. The calf, surprisingly strong, tried to leap to the ground a couple of times during our journey, but otherwise behaved very calmly. I pulled up as closely to his Mum as I dared and called to her, making my best impersonation of a calling calf. As she began to come towards me, I let the calf slide gently off my lap onto the ground. With no look back, its tail high in the air, the little thing raced over to Mum, immediately searching for the milk bar. I stayed watching for a couple of minutes, savouring the moment. I drove happily back to the farm and a hot shower.

If you enjoy reading about Northfield Farm you might like my E-Book available on Amazon at  www.amazon.co.uk/Crushed-My-NHS-Summer-ebook/dp/B007X4L2LM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335351051&sr=8-1

 

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If, at any distance from home, I mention to someone that I live & work within the Borough of Melton Mowbray, most immediately make the association with Pies. This association of object to place is almost unique. It is the sort of association that branding and marketing experts would, and do, dedicate their careers to achieving. Others might think of fox hunting, privileged young thrusters painting red crosses on doors late at night. Windmills, cheese, beer, pigs, castles, canals, elderflower cordial, farming, music, cinema, dog food, sport, cloth, bread and baking, all these and more form part of activity in and around Melton Mowbray.

The town itself is, like so many towns, a jumble. A mix of rich and poor, proud and humble, light and dark. Within and without the town, if one only looks, are buildings and places of real beauty. The key words there are ‘if one only looks’. This beauty is not unique to Melton Mowbray, but it is there and it is there in abundance.

The beauty I refer to may seems strange to those of us who live in the area because we are all guilty of seeing but not truly appreciating what surrounds us.

This is a familiar theme, but came home to me more strongly than ever before since I have read and watched television programmes about David Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition, ‘A Bigger Picture’.

I am no art expert, but one of the many ways in which this seems unusual is that all the work within it was painted and created for this particular exhibition. Another, pretty well known now, is that Hockney used his Ipad to create many of the works on display.

When I first watched an interview with Hockney about this exhibition, I couldn’t help wondering whether he might not be testing us all a bit, whether the impish seventy something year old is not in fact teasing us all, pulling our legs. At one stage I even had the temerity to consider the Ipad paintings akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Many better men than me have sought to define Art. One simple definition of sorts has always seemed to me to be for the viewer of a piece, to ask two questions.

‘Do I like it?’ and ‘Could I do it?’ In general if the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively, then It is Art. Of course this is a rubbish definition for many reasons, but for the reason I have just cited, I’ll pursue it no further.

Although I have not been to the Hockney exhibition, I have looked and looked at the works. The more I look, the more I see, and the more I look. This work of Hockney, which also explores film in a way which is so familiar, because of the ubiquity of television, and yet so new in its approach, is a lesson in how we should look at our surroundings. These works are all depictions of a small number of places in the countryside of East Yorkshire.

Similar places, many more beautiful, exist all around us in and around the Borough of Melton Mowbray.

 

Northfield Farm Shop & Restaurant

Open for Lunch & Dinner Thurs, Fri & Sat & Sunday Lunch

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Sorry if this is a bit long, but I hope it puts the reader right into the straw with me & shares the gore & the glory of the experience.

 

I got back to the farm from a night away and went straight to check our first British Lop Sow Sally. She had seven piglets scrambling around her teats and her ‘lady bits’. Some were clean and bright while others still had a thick layer of mucus around most of their body. Thanks to their determination these had at least broken through sufficiently to breathe. I cleaned the piglets up with some clean straw and settled mother and little ones down. Then I watched quietly for about five minutes. The scene of quiet had me fairly convinced that there were no more piglets to come, so I headed into the house to catch up on a variety of issues that required my attention, waded through the carnage created by the young Labrador puppies overnight and headed upstairs to change into clothes more appropriate to porcine midwifery.  When I got back to the farrowing pen, barely ten minutes later, five more piglets were squirming about. As I set to cleaning these up, small shrivelled, black mummified Halloween, horror story of a creature slid out of her back end.  Sows quite often give birth to these distorted mini versions of themselves. They tend to have died at a much earlier stage of the pregnancy, and though often quite putrid, the sow seals the monstrosity in its bag so that it rarely affects the rest of the litter. I set the nasty mess immediately to one side just as more slithering hot baby pigs began to squirt out of the mother. They were now coming so quickly that I barely had time to assess each one as it landed onto the straw bedding. I quickly pulled each piglet, firmly but gently away from the mother so that the umbilical cord would shred in a natural way. Cut the cord and the piglet chances bleeding to death. Next I would clear the mucus from around the head and pass my finger through the mouth as far back as I could without choking off the air supply. Eight more slipped out like sausages out of a machine. Unfortunate imagery, I know, but accurate. Two came out and unlike the others were neither breathing nor wriggling. I took the first, went through the routine described above, rubbed its side roughly with clean straw, still no sign of life. I then held it upside down and patted its sides quite smartly while swing it gently but bringing it to a fairly sharp halt at the bottom of each swing. These actions combined seek to clear the airwaves and shock the pathetic little creature’s system back into life.  This all takes quite a few moments of concentrated activity during which it is just about possible to continue to go through the basic actions needed to process the other slithering lives as they pop out. An immediate decision needed to be made, however, as I certainly do not have the skill to do this to two unbreathing piglets simultaneously as well as tending to all the others. I put the second unbreathing piglet to one side. Fortunately after a few minutes of application the heart of the still corpse in my hands began to beat, although the lungs were not pumping and the eyes were still firmly closed. The gently beating heart encouraged me to continue until the eyes opened slowly and the little mite took its first breath. Now breathing, but with no strength or co-ordination in its body or legs, I inserted the good sized but paralysed piglet in among its siblings to keep it warm. I checked through the other piglets and attended to the last few newborns. Nineteen live in all. Putting the little near dead piglet in with its fellows also meant that it was jostled constantly by the general push and bustle for a limited number of teats. This often works as a way of massaging the life back into these borderline cases. I checked on this one regularly over the following hours or so and each time it was a little stronger until it was soon impossible to recognise it among it fellow guzzlers.

It is nearing mid night. I have sat with Sally and her 19 survivors since around 4 O’clock. I am writing during one of the many lulls in activity. A very jolly Spanish themed Chieftains tune is playing via Itunes on my laptop. At this moment a cockerel across roosting with his girlfriend on the side of another farrowing pen decides that he really want to join in with the jolly tune and starts crowing very loudly indeed. Sally has decide to dig around to find the somewhat well-trodden placentas which she has firmly ejected over the last few hours and have a goulish but very important midnight feast. I have made a cordon of packed straw and half pushed, half thrown, gently of course, all nineteen piglets into the corner under the low heat lamp, and managed to persuade them that this is the safest place for them until their mother settles down again. Her snack completed, Sally tries to impress upon me that she really should be allowed to squeeze in with and on top of her babies, which of course would mean that I might as well be in bed and just let nature take its course. Trouble is that nature in this instance would probably see no more than one third of her babies survive. Of course, even with all my efforts, this may be still what happens.  Persuading a very large and determined sow that she should not lie down on top of her offspring under a very inviting heat lamp, is none too easy, but eventually we compromise and I allow Sally to lie with her head next to the pile of wriggling, but content piglets.

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I wrote this in early 2009. I was driving over London Bridge on my way to Borough Market. The financial world was dancing on its head. The Borough Market management seemed to be living on a different planet from normal mortals and the future looked very uncertain indeed.

The sun was shining brightly and as my car crawled through the traffic I saw a group of striking women standing on the edge of the bridge holding and waving enormous flags on great high poles. I can’t remember what they were promoting, but it made a stunning spectacle.

White flags flutter on London Bridge

Leaden-footed folk glumly walk,

run or drag themselves from train to work.

Familiar faces from another time

now bent and creased with lines.

And the girls are still smoking

——————————-

Trapped prisoners in an open jail

so many doomed to fail.

Can’t understand where it all went wrong,

stuck on tracks that come and go,

fighting on, fast and slow.

And the girls are still smoking

———————————-

Dreams taunt lost hopes,

crushed by pride and greed.

Trust is in short supply,

ruined lives asking why?

Blame, excuses, lies.

And the girls are still smoking

————————————-

Cameras film our every move

as money rolls by on frozen wheels.

Cash falls in showers but never lands,

billions in empty boxes on display.

Cars stand silent, unwanted badges of today’s history.

And still the girls are smoking

———————————–

Why do the white flags fly?

Held aloft by smiling beauties

they fly for victory.

They fly for you and me

they fly for surrender

And still the girls are smoking

Jan McCourt Northfield March 2009

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I wrote this two years ago as the realisation of a real modern recession began to set in. It is a measure of something that little has changed.

The Posh, well reared birds still seem to selling, so not too much has changed there, but the economy seems to be as uncertain as ever.

 

The official mad time of year is now here and in the press, food writers, cooks, chefs and critics are fighting amongst each other to gain the greatest prominence. Wherever you look you will see reports analysing the best birds, cakes, tracklements (accompaniments to food), not to mention little black dresses, handbags, knickers and bangles.

One eye-catching headline last Saturday in the Times Weekend supplement shouted the question: “Are Posh Birds Worth It?” Having once been married to one and knowing quite a few others, my first thought was “yes, they probably are”.

Then I realised the question was being asked about Free Range Turkeys!

Within its pages, I found two references. The first from Tom Parker Bowles, who should know better, wrote, “So this year, stuff the turkey and celebrate Christmas with a proper British Feast. One of the birds he was recommending to replace it was a pheasant. Mercifully he did also recommend a really good Chicken, Pork belly or a rib of beef.

I am sorry Tom, great supporter of Northfield and others like us though you have been, a pheasant is not a replacement for a turkey. Besides, cooking a pheasant remains far more demanding than cooking a turkey.

My concern though, is what if a seriously large number of folks were to take him seriously and boycott proper British Reared Free Range Turkeys? The effect on those specialising in these birds could be far more catastrophic that the threat a couple of years ago of Bird Flu. Like everything we do, from scrapping cars to building houses, we have to consider the ripple effect of our actions.

Tom PB is absolutely right in saying that there are many great alternatives to a turkey, just don’t damn the wonderful British Farmers who are the masters at producing these birds.

Northfield Farm’s Free Range Turkeys and Geese are produced by local specialists, who do only that:  produce great ‘Posh’ birds. By all means ditch the imported or intensively reared birds of all kinds that are available in the supermarkets. Follow the rule of least remove and buy your bird or other meat from someone you know. If you don’t know that someone well, get to know us at Northfield Farm.

Further on in the section Tom Norrington-Davies (this year it seems ‘Posh’ Birds, need posh-sounding critics to write about them) answers the original question with a resounding ‘yes’

“First off, the bad news: anyone hoping to pass off a mass-produced bird as a superior hand-reared one will be disappointed. We tasted the supermarket turkeys against a benchmark of three birds from specialist producers and price would always out.”

Sadly he did not taste a Northfield Farm bird, but the principle holds good. The bird he referred to closest to ours in quality and provenance cost more than £4-00 per kilo than an equivalent Northfield Farm bird.

In some 12 years of feeding our customers at Christmas, the only complaint about turkeys I can remember was one who phoned up on Christmas Day as he was carving his bird. A good friend as well as a long time faithful customer, he was spitting with rage, complaining at how bony the Northfield Farm turkey was.  A few moments later his wife called to apologise, and explain that she had decided to cook the bird up side down that year, and her husband, taking the bird from the oven to the carving board had failed to notice and was therefore trying to carve the bird bottom up, so to speak.

Cooking your turkey upside down can help keep it moist, just don’t forget to turn it back over for carving.

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Funny old game this. Last night, Saturday, we were empty. Not one single diner. Chef, me and one other, candles lit, gas and lights burning, logs on the fire and the central heating boiler fighting to repel the cold wind attempting to break in.

Today, Sunday, we were almost full with a combination of  booked tables and ‘walk-ins’. Having plenty of staff, I was able to really do my principal job which is to conduct proceedings and talk to clients.

Otherwise known as schmoozing, I am sure that this job is as important as any other that goes into the running of a restaurant. In part this is so that the client establishes a direct link with the establishment. Equally, if not more important is for me to understand what our diners want. Today we seem to have delivered well. We had a range of people from around England and abroad. Some came with high expectations which we exceeded, others’ expectations were unclear but the compliments were very encouraging for me and the team.

For some we equal or exceed anything that London’s best has to offer, for others we are doing something totally different. A common view is that if one were to stumble upon us while on holiday in Italy, Spain or France, we would be the highlight of that particular visit.

What I am trying to achieve is a simple dream choice of high quality, honest, great tasting food in a comfortable welcoming environment. Today it became clear that I am succeeding, but if we have many more empty Saturday nights, the dream may end.

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