Big news and strawberry popcorn!

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I only have time for a very short post this week. We are taking a short break at the end of the month for our annual fix of the bushveld with Ashley. I cannot wait! But of course there is a lot to do before we leave and not enough time! I am also doing my very last trip up to Pretoria for work… yes, after 6 years with the Treasury (2.5 working remotely from the farm) I have resigned and finish on Friday! It is quite daunting to leave my life as an economist behind, but I know that lots of exciting new things await. The time has come to embrace this new life of mine and carve out my niche properly, without dropping everything and running back to the city every second week. You will have to watch this space to see what develops!

My former life... with the Budget team in 2011.

My former life… with the Budget team in 2011.

On a totally different and unrelated note, I have been meaning to share these photos of my experiment with strawberry popcorn. I was intrigued last year when I ordered a packet of heirloom seeds for “strawberry pink popcorn that grows about 1 meter tall and produces small strawberry shaped and coloured cobs on each plant” from Living Seeds. I planted them and nurtured them and when the time came I harvested the cobs. They have been hanging in my kitchen since March drying out.

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When my beautiful niece Sibella came to visit at the end of May we decided it was time to try them. She diligently picked the dried kernels from a bunch of cobs and then we popped them in a pan. It was quite a delight to see and taste the result! The kernels are much smaller than normal popcorn so one has to be careful not to burn them. I think we were probably too sparing on the oil and could have used more to get the kernels to pop more quickly. We had a big debate about whether the kernels should be placed in cool oil first and allowed to heat up or straight into hot oil. I’m still not sure if it makes a difference! As a kid we had one of those air blown popcorn machines which worked like a charm and I’m really wishing I had one now!

Anyway, I can highly recommend trying this for a treat. They are easy to grow and look pretty hanging above the island in my kitchen. One small bunch yielded a whole bowl of kernels and popcorn for the masses. I was rather hoping that the final popped corn would be pink too, but alas, it’s not!

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Happy Birthday Blog!

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I can’t believe it’s been a year since I started this blog! At the time it seemed like a crazy thing to do, but now it feels like an integral part of my routine. I had no idea how much I would enjoy sharing our experiences at Vastrap with you and how valuable it would be to join the community of bloggers on WordPress from all over the world. It is crazy how much one can learn from others and how one can develop friendships with people you will probably never meet. The whole experience has really been so much more rewarding than I ever anticipated and I am so grateful for that.

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In memory of the past year, I thought I would share some facts and figures about this blog and a few of my favourite posts.

  • Vastrap Farm has 107 full-time followers, but many people view the blog via Facebook and stumble across it through online searches. By far the most popular search terms are related to information about Boran cattle. Quite a few searches have also involved information about Aga stoves.
  • Including this one, I have written 74 posts and 5 pages.
  • There have been 10,917 views of pages on the blog over the past year, with the most views (301) on the first day when people read my first post Welcome to my World! and the pages I had set up About Me, History of Vastrap and About Ladybrand.
  • The most viewed page has been The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen, which provides information on the benefits of Boran cattle and shows some photos of the Boran in their original habitat in Kenya. Because of the huge interest in our cattle, I designed a dedicated site for Vastrap Boran in December with detailed information about our stud (www.vastrapboran.com).
  • Vastrap Farm has been viewed by people in 101 countries! About half of total views have been from South Africa (5,302), followed by the UK (989) and the US (750).

It is hard to choose favourites, but posts that stand out for me about the farm include R.I.P Little Calf (about a newborn Boran calf that didn’t make it through a very cold snap in winter) and Mellow Yellow (photos of the sunflower crop in full bloom). Many people were amused  by my experience at Stockman school, which showed just how much life had changed for me since moving to the farm (see The stockman and his love)!

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Stockman 010I had great responses to my posts about our Aga stove (see The Magic of Aga), and I hope that some of the information has been useful to people with anthracite stoves.

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There have been quite a few cooking posts, although I really am not an expert in the kitchen. I write about things I actually make regularly rather than designing recipes specifically for the blog. My favourite has to be Let’s make jam! simply because it’s one of the most typical things farm wives are associated with and because it was one of the very first things I did when I moved to the farm. There are also some great stories about our cooking club, (see Happy Cooking Pasta! and Cooking in a Castle)

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We have done a lot in the garden over the past year, but our dry summer made it difficult to sustain things for very long. In retrospect the garden was definitely at its best in December (see An Explosion of Colour!) I was very proud of the changes we made in the vegetable garden, although the free-ranging chickens dug up more heirloom seeds than I care to think about. Such a shame! I will definitely not let that happen again (see What a coop!).

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There were a few stories very close to my heart celebrating the achievements of family members – see My extraordinary mother, Purple rain and A lifetime of love.

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Finally, our dogs are ever-present in most of my stories. They are such an integral part of our lives as any visitor to Vastrap will attest! My favourite dog post is without a doubt How Paris ‘Sees’ the World, about our beautiful brave blind dog Paris and her unfailing zest for life.

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Well, all I can hope is that the coming year provides lots of material for some great stories to share with you. Life is never static on a farm and you never know what lies around the corner. Keep reading to find out! I really appreciate all your feedback and support. Please let me know what you have enjoyed most and what you would like to see more (or less) of on the blog. Your opinions are highly valued!

Bright Spots

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Winter has well and truly arrived at Vastrap in the past week wrecking havoc in the garden. My beautiful pink daisies, geraniums, nasturtiums, hydrangeas and many more have all frosted over. Although I know it always happens, the devastation caused by the first frost always comes as a shock. There are a few last roses blooming in more protected spots, but they won’t last long. Things that do really well in Free State gardens in the winter are aloes and red hot pokers. They provide a gorgeous burst of colour in an otherwise dreary landscape and the birds go mad for them! I went to the nursery to buy some fresh pansys and violas for some cheer. The courtyard is much more protected so the geraniums there should make it through winter unscathed. The primulas we planted in the courtyard last year have spread everywhere even where the soil is just gravel. I just love the vibrant patches of colour that are appearing on their own. What a treat!

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What a Coop!

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Tseliso has done a fantastic job upgrading our chicken coop and we are thrilled with the result. A while ago I wrote about how frustrated I am with the devastation caused by our free-ranging chickens in the garden and how we never have a reliable source of eggs (see Project Chicken!) Thank you so much for all the wonderful advice I received. It has been such a help and I am determined to learn more about what makes chickens tick. Anyway, there was unanimous opinion that the coop needed to be upgraded with an outside chicken run so that they don’t have to be let out as often. It has taken a bit of effort, but I think Tseliso has done a fantastic job so far. His brief was to re-use as much stuff lying around our yard as possible and to raid the farm workshop for any other supplies he needed. I downloaded plenty of photos from the Internet with ideas to show him. It is not the most fancy and luxurious coop compared to some we have seen, but I think it will do for now. We could add some more bedding and dry leaves, but already when I visited this morning there were four eggs to collect – the first in months! What’s for breakfast I hear you ask? Why boiled eggs on toast of course!

DSC_3734DSC_3775DSC_3763DSC_3736A beautiful old pepper tree hangs over the run so there will be plenty of shade during the day. Sticks and branches have been placed strategically to give them some places to roost outside. I also read somewhere that chickens love to scratch in ash so we’ve re-used an old water feature from the garden to hold ash from our fires in winter. We could also easily add dry leaves and food scraps from the compost bin as a treat. Inside, there are some new nesting boxes made from old plastic containers.

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The best thing about this new coop is that I can sit on a rock and observe the chickens much more closely than before when they would simply scatter and run around the garden. In fact, this morning whilst counting and watching them I realised that we have one more white rooster than we’re supposed to. I have no idea where he came from! The chicks are also starting to grow up so we’ll soon be able to separate the hens from the roosters. There is much thinning out to do and some of the old ladies are definitely past their prime. One piece of advice I received is that hens stop being productive after about three years so no wonder there are no eggs!

It’s probably a bit of a shock for the chickens that they are not being let out into the garden, but I will let them roam a bit once or twice a week. They also seemed quite happy whilst I was sitting with them, clucking and chatting away. Again, I’ve read that a noisy chicken is a happy chicken. There is still much work to do on this project, but I think we’re making progress thanks to all of your great inputs and Tseliso’s hard work!

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Cooking in a Castle

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I had the most wonderful weekend of cooking with good friends from Ladybrand, Maseru and Bloemfontein. The cooking club I belong to, which is called “Happy Cooking”, organised a two day course with a well-known Johannesburg-based teacher, Alexis Kriel, who specialises in vegetarian Indian cooking. Unfortunately I have missed all our cooking club meetings this year, which have included a Spanish day and a master class in meat cutting (for examples of what we did last year see our blog Happy Cooking Club). I wasn’t going to miss out on this weekend though as I knew it would be special. Our friend Adri organised for us to stay at a wonderful guest house called Union House near Fouriesburg and we spent the whole of Saturday cooking in the kitchen of Destiny Castle, which is perched on a cliff with 360 degree views of the Maluti mountains. It was simply spectacular. In Alexis’ words: like being on top of the beanstalk! 

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And the cooking was spectacular too. Alexis has a very particular food philosophy or consciousness, which stems from her years living in a hindu temple in Chastworth. In essence, it is thought that the person who cooks the food and the way in which they interact with it makes a huge difference to how the food is experienced on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. Before we started she explained all the different spices we would use. There were some that we had never heard of like asafoetida (hing), which is often used in place of onion or garlic. Then she requested us to use all of our senses whilst cooking so that rather than constantly tasting everything we should touch, smell, listen and observe the food to assess when it is ready. We should also not tamper with or stir the food too much. This was quite a difficult thing for many of us, but it really worked to maintain the integrity and beauty of the final dishes.

DSC_4163We chose to cook her Bollywood menu, which includes deep and pungent Indian flavours based on dishes we know well from restaurants. Although everything was vegetarian, most of the dishes could be easily done with meat too. The first day included: Paneer Tikka Masala (including home made paneer); Mushroom Rogan Josh; Apricot Chutney; Biryani; and a sweet dessert called Dhapa Dhoi.

DSC_4209On the second day we combined all the dishes that she would normally teach in two classes: Cashew Nut Curry; Soy Beef Vindaloo; Pear Chutney with Star Anise; Dried Fruit Pulao; Paneer Makhani; Coconut and Cashew Nut Rice with Mustard Seed and Curry Leaf Tempering; Pistachio Korma with Cauliflower; Green Chutney; and dessert of  Choclat Burfie and Black Tea Cinnamon Truffles. We also begged Alexis to share her secret for perfect rotis, which she graciously did and they were a big hit!

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We cooked in the amazing kitchen in the castle with a roaring log fire in the dining room. Destiny Castle used to run as a guest house, but the owners recently tithed it to the Church and plan to use it as the location for a very high level faith-based leadership academy. It certainly is the right place for quiet thought and contemplation of the complex leadership issues facing our continent.

Needless to say, it all ended in a feast of flavours! The pictures speak for themselves. We drove down the treacherous hill back home sated and satisfied. Everyone agreed that we had experienced something truly unique in a quiet little corner of the Free State.

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Malefah’s Rusks

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While Quentin’s cousin was visiting us last week, I was in the middle of preparing for the real V.I.P. visitors from the Cape we were expecting for the weekend. Every single bed in the house would be occupied for the occasion of my half-sister Beatrice’s 21st birthday celebration – 12 adults, 2 kids and my Dad’s dog Chloe. We were so thrilled when Beatrice asked us if she could have a gathering at Vastrap and didn’t hesitate for a second to agree. You see, people who are lucky enough to live in the Cape need a very good reason to leave their beautiful surroundings to visit other parts of the country. Moreover, the Eastern Free State is not exactly around the corner being 1150km away! So, this would be the perfect excuse for a gathering. A way to get the whole family together in new and different surroundings to mark a very special event.

My sister Hannia and her family also joined us from Johannesburg and were kind enough to bring Quentin’s daughter Ashley with them. She had not been to the farm since January so we were very excited to have her “home” albeit only for the weekend. I organised a special surprise for her by redecorating her room with a an old four poster “princess” bed that Hannia and Beatrice both used when they were little girls. I love the idea that this special piece of furniture is being passed down from generation to generation.

Antique four poster bed with cushions from Living Life.

Antique bed with Living Life cushions and light.

There was a flurry of activity as we got everything ready for the big event: planning menus, baking rusks and biscuits, making lemon syrup, stocking up on biltong and slaughtering sheep to exchange for a cooler full of fish promised by my brother Johnny, the spear fisherman. Food is an essential part of our family bonding so I wanted everything to be just right with all the warm and fuzzy “home-made” trimmings that are associated with being on a farm.

There are few things more evocative of South African farm life than coffee with home-made rusks. Quentin and I cannot start the day without our morning ritual of rusks dunked in a mug of steaming hot coffee. We always have a fresh supply in the house and even carry them with us when we travel.

Rusks are basically like dried out biscuits. They come in all different shapes, sizes and flavours. At the moment my favourite kind is packed full of nuts, seeds, raisins and cranberries, like a wholesome breakfast in one bite. Quentin still loves his mother’s recipe for buttermilk rusks the most, but I’m not good at making them so I leave it in the capable hands of our housekeeper Malefah who used to work for my mother-in-law. The funny thing about these rusks is that they aren’t made with buttermilk at all, but rather Amasi or maas (fermented milk widely available in South Africa). I don’t know if it makes a huge difference to the taste, but Malefah likes to stick with tradition. The recipe is not written down anywhere so I just watched her and documented the steps so you can see how easy it is. The aroma and anticipation of fresh rusks baking in the oven is simply heavenly! (see also Tempting Buttermilk Rusks).

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Malefah’s Amasi Rusks:

2kg self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

500g softened butter

3 cups castor sugar

4 eggs

2,5 cups Amasi (substitute with buttermilk or plain yoghurt)

Mix the sugar, eggs and Amasi together. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking power and salt together. Rub the softened butter into the flour mixture until fully combined. Add the sugar, egg and Amasi mixture to the butter and flour mixture. Work together with your hands until combined.

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Grease a large deep baking pan with some leftover butter. Press the mixture into the pan and smooth over the top.

Bake in 180 degree oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour until golden brown on top. Allow to cool in the pan then tip out and cut into rusk size rectangles (if you are lucky, you have a fancy pan with dividers that cuts the rusks automatically!) Place on baking trays and dry out in 80 degree oven for 6-8 hours or overnight. Enjoy dunked in hot coffee!

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Happy Visitors

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We’ve been so busy entertaining visitors over the past week that there’s been little time for blogging. These were no ordinary visitors. No, they came from very far away in the Cape which is about 11 hours’ drive away so we had to pull out all the stops to show them the best that Vastrap has to offer! I can’t write about everything at the same time so I’ll start with Quentin’s cousin Pierre and his girlfriend Anneke who were with us for a night last week. Pierre often visited the farm as a child with his three brothers, but has not been here for over two decades. It was great to welcome them into our home and show off all the changes we’ve made. We love having visitors because it forces us to leave our usual routine and get out and enjoy the farm whilst spending quality time with friends.

The weather was unseasonably hot for most of May and Pierre and Anneke struck it lucky with the most perfect windless and clear day. In the late afternoon we took them to meet our herd of Boran cows before heading off for a short walk up the koppie for sundowners. Our Boran are a hit with everyone who meets them. It really is a special experience interacting with these beautiful beasts and they seem to only get friendlier! The sundowner spot was awesome too requiring a bit of scrambling up the rocks to get the best view. As usual the dogs were in their element exploring in the veld. Coco is under close watch at the moment because she has come on heat and is ready to have puppies. She is hating being under lock and key, but this week we’ll take her to visit her friend Roger, the handsome Beagle in town for a bit of fun!

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