Garden colours

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While the roses are preparing for their next big flush, the rest of the Vastrap garden is coming to life thanks to some healing rain. Hydrangeas, agapanthus, dahlias, pelargonium, hollyhocks, daylilies, lavender, scabiosa, salvia, nasturtiums, echinacea, buddleja, and many more have all started to flower. The herb garden in the courtyard has gone crazy with tarragon and mint growing like weeds! Despite my lack of energy for gardening over the past few months it seems we’ll have no shortage of colour around the house over Christmas. But it’s probably wise for me to enjoy it all from a distance rather than getting into extensive flower arranging, because even taking these photos today has completely exhausted me. I guess that’s to be expected with my growing belly and only a month to go until the big day! Deep breath in, deep breath out… the countdown really has begun.

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Scratching in the maize

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On a lazy Sunday afternoon during crop planting season a farmer’s mind is never quite at rest. Will the rain forecast for the week ahead materialise? Have the seeds planted in the last week germinated properly? Should certain contours be replanted? When the mind is busy there’s no better antidote than to pile pregnant wife and dogs into the bakkie to go and walk the fields and scratch in the soil. Simply looking from afar is not good enough you have to actually dig to find the seeds germinating under the soil. So far, it seems that the stuff planted in the past week will be fine because there’s been some sporadic rain, but the contours that were planted early before we had proper rain are not doing so well and are very patchy – one should see a nice solid line of green when you look down the line of a contour. These will probably need to be replanted to maximise yield, but it’s a tough decision involving extra time and cost. The veld has made a remarkable recovery in the past two weeks which is great for cattle, but the dams are still very low so we’re holding thumbs for some generous showers soon.

As usual, the dogs absolutely love a good run and little Hope is integrating so beautifully in the pack. She’s four months old now and has long lanky legs which help her to keep up the pace with Patch and Coco, but she’s still petrified of cows and other dogs, which sometimes gets her into trouble. There’s always the risk that she’ll run off into the mountains with Coco when they catch a scent, but I’ve taken to carrying treats with me to make it more tempting for her to come when we call rather than follow her mother. Beagles will be Beagles though so it’s not a guaranteed strategy and we’re still keeping a very close eye on her to make sure she’s safe.

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Super smoothies!

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Cooked breakfasts are a rarity here at Vastrap, usually saved for Sunday mornings when we have a house full of visitors. On a normal day, we have coffee and a rusk early in the morning before Quentin goes out to do his rounds on the farm. He usually returns home between 9h30 and 10h00 for breakfast and without fail, when I ask what he would like to eat he asks for a smoothie. Not exactly what you’d expect from a farmer! The disappointment on his face when there’s no smoothie is too terrible so I try to be prepared and serve up something fresh and delicious every morning. Of course it’s much easier to do this in summer when there’s an abundance of fruit, but I’ve figured out some tricks to keep our smoothies rolling throughout the year.

Our Vastrap smoothies graduated to super smoothies about a year ago when I started investigating the effects of raw food and various super foods like cacao, Maca and chia seeds on fertility. For a few months I decided to go all out and tried everything and anything until I found something that worked. I subjected Quentin to the terrible bitter taste of Maca and a concoction of weird looking green smoothies. I made almond milk and nut butters and tried to steer clear of dairy for a while. Eventually I realised that this would not be sustainable if I couldn’t find a way for all this stuff to taste good and for us to look forward to eating it every day.

The turning point was replacing our stick blender with a proper high-speed blender. It made a huge difference to the taste and texture of the end product because I was suddenly able to use a much wider variety of frozen fruit, including frozen bananas, which add a beautiful creamy texture and a refreshing chill. Overripe bananas in our fruit bowl are a thing of the past because I simply peel and freeze them – alas, that means no more banana bread! I have a dedicated freezer drawer packed with smoothie ingredients including peeled bananas, peeled and sliced mango, frozen berries and cherries, catawba grapes, nuts and seeds. The contents of the drawer change according to seasons. For example, I bought a box of overripe guavas on the side of the road in September, which I peeled and quartered before popping in the freezer. They were absolutely perfect and added a fabulous depth of flavour to our usual smoothie combination.

2013-11-11_0006There is no perfect smoothie recipe. The beauty is that you can adapt it to your taste and what you have on hand. Our fruit supply in town is quite limited so I buy things when I see them. In addition to the frozen fruit mentioned above I always have a stash of raw almonds, cashew nuts, brazil nuts, mixed seeds, honey, nut butters, rolled oats, cacao nibs and chia seeds. I sometimes use milk as the base, but mostly I use fruit juice and fresh orange juice if I have a bag of oranges. The other day I bought a fresh coconut and used the coconut water as the base, which was delicious! For green smoothies I often just use water as the base. I always add some yoghurt. My favourite is the Organic Vanilla yoghurt from Woolworths, but any plain or flavoured yoghurt will do.

2013-11-11_0007Basic super smoothie for two: 

2 x frozen peeled bananas

3 oranges juiced (or equivalent milk, fruit juice, almond milk or coconut water)

Hand full of strawberries or frozen berries (frozen grapes work well too and the seeds are full of antioxidants)

A few pieces of fresh and/or frozen fruit (guava, mango, pineapple, papaya, sweet melon)

Hand full of raw almonds, other nuts or equivalent home made nut butter

Half a hand full of seed mix or chia seeds

1/2-1 cup of Organic vanilla yogurt

Optional: honey, rolled oats, cacao nibs, goji berries, Maca powder

Whizz together for at least 35 seconds in a high-speed blender until smooth and creamy. The smoothie will still have some bite if you’ve used things like seeds and seeded grapes or guavas, but this is good because it makes the drink feel more substantial as a breakfast if you need to chew on it a bit.

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Lately I’ve been using frozen pitted cherries that I saved after last year’s Ficksburg Cherry Festival. I’ve been very precious about these cherries, but am happy to use them liberally now because cherries are in season again. Frozen cherries are deliciously decadent paired with cacao nibs in the smoothie!

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Green smoothies are a slightly different proposition that I’m less comfortable with. I’ve had some big hits, but also some disasters. I tend to stick with a similar base of frozen banana, yoghurt, water, nuts and seeds and then add some green leaves, sprouts, cucumber and other fresh ingredients like sweet melon. Cold sweet melon adds an amazing fresh taste to any smoothie as long as it really is a sweet one! To add some real zing you can also add a whole lemon, skin and all. It’s incredibly refreshing on a hot summer morning and super healthy to boot!

Nesting Time

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With only six weeks to go until we welcome our precious baby girl into this world, there are unmistakable signs of nesting at Vastrap. Furniture is being moved, cupboards unpacked and repacked and the baby’s room repainted. Living far away from the city one has to be organised so I tick things off my list every chance I get. I’ve been massively spoiled by friends and family in Joburg and Ladybrand with two beautiful baby showers. In their own ways they were both very special with the most spectacular and creative decor and food. I was so incredibly touched by the effort made and the thoughtfulness of the gifts we received.

The first celebration was at my mom’s house in Joburg organised by my very dear friend Julia and my sister Hannia. There were armloads of beautiful flowers, truckloads of pink, blue and green helium balloons and a heavily laden table of home made cakes, including the most gorgeous glittering pink macaroons made by my cousin’s Parisian fiancé Alix. My nieces and nephews crowded round to help me unwrap presents while my friends Briggie and Fiona’s babies were passed around from lap to lap. The celebration would not have been complete without oupa Koos and ouma Hannatjie who have never looked better at age 89. Everyone was asked to include a photo of themselves as a baby and a personalised wish book from Macaroon was passed around for people to write messages for baby de Bruyn. After that weekend Quentin and I returned to Vastrap with a cattle trailer full of furniture for the baby room and a boot full of the most gorgeous pink (and leopard) goodies!

2013-11-19_00092013-11-19_00082013-11-19_00102013-11-19_00112013-11-19_0012The second celebration was held at Living Life Station Café in Ladybrand, my favourite local foodie destination. My friends Heidi and Jenny hung white lanterns and washing lines full of baby clothes on the outside veranda and the tables had vases full of antique roses from my farming neighbour Vicky’s garden. As usual, the food was scrumptious and plentiful and my mother-in-law, Karine bought champagne and orange juice to kickstart the morning. Everyone was asked to bring something with a handmade touch and once again I was blown away by the effort and thoughtfulness that went into the gifts. Muslin clothes with crochet edging, knitted jerseys and hats, a play mat and cushion, a personalised shopper for the “Princess of Vastrap”, an olive tree to plant in her honour, and the prettiest “nappy cake” I have ever seen made by my talented friend Ziona who also knows a thing or two about real baking!

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What a difference some rain makes!

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The past few weeks have been unbearably hot, windy and dry on the farm. The little bit of rain we had at the end of October quickly dried up and things started to look pretty desperate again. The sky all around us was thick with dust churned up by the wind and tractors hard at work preparing fields for the summer planting season. My heart really went out to all the tractor drivers sitting on open vehicles covered in clouds of dust. Being a tractor driver holds a certain amount of status and prestige amongst farm workers, but at times like this it really cannot be a nice job!

2013-11-17_0001The rain finally came on Friday and carried on all through Saturday. Soft, beautiful, drenching rain! Many other parts of the country experienced heavy flooding, but we had just enough to be satisfied. As luck would have it, we had important work to do on Friday with the start of our first IVF programme for our Boran cattle. Fortunately our new cattle facilities provided enough shelter for the vets to carry on with their work and everything went off smoothly. Many cattle breeders rely on embryo technology to reproduce top quality cows at a faster rate than would normally be possible using donor cows and surrogates. One way to produce and retrieve embryos is to stimulate the donor cow to produce more than one egg and then to artificially inseminate her so that the eggs are fertilised internally before being “flushed” out. Another way is to extract the unfertilised eggs or oocytes directly from the cow’s ovaries and to fertilise them externally in a semen culture. The resulting embryos are left to incubate for seven days before being implanted back into the receiver cows. This latter method is a new development in cattle reproductive technology and we are very excited to see the results. It should be less invasive to the cows since they don’t have to receive extensive hormone stimulation and it’s easier to synchronise the programme with our normal breeding season so that calves aren’t born at odd times throughout the year.

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2013-11-17_0004After two days of gorgeous rain, the sky was crisp and clear today and everything looked brighter and fresher. We took the dogs for a long run this afternoon and along the way checked some of the newly planted maize fields to see whether the seeds have germinated. Some of the fields look very patchy in places, but hopefully this rain will help to get things going nicely. Once the lands have dried up a bit the planting season will begin in earnest. In our area, we can only really plant maize until the first week of December so there is still much work to do! Fortunately the cattle won’t be as labour intensive now that there’s some water in the dams and newly growing grass. How quickly the mood can change after a beautiful gift of rain!

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Marinated Artichokes

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I absolutely love marinated artichokes. Not the sloppy bland kind that come in a tin, but proper Italian ones marinated in olive oil, which invariably cost an arm and a leg. I don’t often buy them, but sometimes I indulge in a special treat and serve them up with a platter of antipasto or in a salad. I have a distinct memory from my childhood of a long afternoon in the kitchen with my mother making our own marinated artichokes. It must have been the end of season because she had bought a whole box of small ones for a steal and I helped her go through the laborious process of peeling the hard outer leaves off each one to reveal the sweat and tender heart. I will never forget the pleasure of dipping into our jar of homemade deliciousness and the disappointment when they were finished!

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Needless to say, one of the first things I did in the Vastrap veggie garden was to plant globe artichokes. I bought three established plants and started a few from seed. Having heard that they take quite a long time to produce anything, I didn’t expect much. We harvested a few last year, but only enough to eat there and then. This year it’s a completely different story! I have about seven plants and all of them are producing, including the ones I grew from seed last year. In a quick round of the garden last night I picked about eight beautiful artichokes, which was far too much for the two of us to eat so there was nothing to do but marinade them. It’s the first time I’ve done this since that day in the kitchen with my mom, but it’s really not rocket science. The recipe can easily be tweaked to suit individual taste. Unfortunately the preparation is a bit time consuming, but it’s definitely worth the effort and can be done in stages if you don’t have enough time all at once.

Ingredients:

6-8 globe artichokes

3-4 lemons

3-4 cloves of garlic

Dried chilli flakes

Dried origanum and thyme

Salt & pepper

Good quality extra virgin olive oil (about 500ml)

Method: 

Wash the artichokes thoroughly to remove any bugs that have settled between the leaves (save the ladybugs if you can!) Cut each artichoke in half from top to bottom. I like to keep the stems quite long. Scoop out the hairy choke with a spoon or pairing knife. Squeeze some lemon juice over each one to prevent the flesh going brown. Place in a pot and cover with salted water. Boil for about 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the hearts. Check the centre of the heart to see if a knife goes through easily – there should still be some resistance, but it must be cooked through.

2013-11-11_0001Once cooked drain off the water in a colander. I like to chargrill them a bit on a griddle pan, but it’s not strictly necessary. You can do this while they are still hot or even the next day when you have more time. Place each artichoke heart-side down on a hot grill pan until there are some nice brown stripes. At this point  you can set some of the artichokes aside to eat in the traditional way with olive oil, butter or mayonnaise. Otherwise start with the next process of removing all the hard outer leaves and cutting off the prickly tops. Some people do this before the artichoke is cooked, but I think that’s too difficult. My knives are not nearly sharp enough!

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You should be left with a pot full of artichoke hearts and the tender inner leaves. Add the garlic, chilli flakes, herbs, salt and pepper and olive oil. Bring to the boil for 5-10 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse. Add the juice of one lemon. Place the artichoke hearts in a glass bottle or container and cover with the oil, herb and lemon juice mixture. Store in the fridge and top up with new ones as you go along.
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Happiness is…

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We had one of those fabulous farm weekends where the laughter of playing children permeates every inch of the house from early until late. We had a house full of visitors for half-term weekend, including Ashley who we hadn’t seen since September. The weekends always fly by far too quickly, but it’s magical to see how much the kids enjoy their freedom and all the activities the farm has to offer – riding on tractors and combine harvesters, feeding cattle, stroking calves, endless games in the garden, sundowners and more! Of course the parents can have fun too, and we indulged in good food and wine while the conversation flowed seamlessly and people joined in and sneaked off for naps as they pleased. We made a special effort this weekend because it’s probably the last big group of friends we’ll have at Vastrap for a while. Quentin’s busy season on the crop farming side is about to start and I’m planning to take it easy as my expected due date early in the new year approaches. Apart from family visits, I’m hoping to wind down the year quietly.

Our little puppy, Hope was a big hit with all the kids and we exposed her to some new experiences on the farm. She was 12 weeks on Saturday so it’s time for her to toughen up and become a farm dog. She wasn’t so sure about her first ride on the back of the bakkie, but it’s only a matter of time before she’s clamouring to go for a ride, just like her mother! We’ve been waiting for Ashley to visit before doing a proper memorial for our Boerboel Tumi, who passed away unexpectedly a month ago (see Endings and beginnings). We bought a beautiful sandstone angel from Living Life and placed it under a newly planted purple Pride of India that is encircled with a heart. This morning we all got teary eyed as we remembered Tumi and all the things we miss about her. I can see the angel from my kitchen window so it will be a constant reminder of her gentle, loving spirit.

Happily, we’ve had a bit more rain and this afternoon there was a huge hail storm. The veld still needs time to recover and our dams are still low, but it’s been a great start. The garden is looking so colourful and I’m loving the luxury of walking out and picking buckets full of gorgeous flowers. All of these things are a constant reminder of how incredibly lucky and blessed we are.

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R.I.P. Tumi.

Hope with her two mothers.

Little Hope at 12 weeks with her two mothers.

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The gang!

The gang!

29 weeks - counting down to 2 January!

29 weeks – counting down to 2 January 2014!

Road trip and rain!

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Quentin and I had an unusual day of work on Friday as we set off on a mission to deliver two of our Boran bulls to a fellow farmer in Barkly East, which is about 4.5 hours south of us in the Eastern Cape. Our route hugged the Lesotho border and passed towns like Hobhouse, Wepener, Zastron, Sterkspruit and Lady Grey. I was keen to go along for the drive because I’ve never visited this part of the country, which is quite remote and not really on any of our main driving routes. My sister’s best friend from school days grew up in Barkly East so I’ve heard a lot about it and the magnificent farm gardens in the area. Unfortunately drought conditions were evident all along the way, but there was an encouraging build-up of clouds as we approached the town.

The bulls were well behaved and by lunch time they were loaded onto another truck en route to their final destination in Matatiele in KwaZulu-Natal. We stopped at the local home industry for a bite to eat and couldn’t believe it when the only other person having lunch was my sister’s friend’s mother! I had never met her before, but as soon as she introduced herself the penny dropped. Their farm is 50km out of town so it really was a huge coincidence to bump into her like that. In typically friendly farmer style she invited us to visit next time we pass through.

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We stayed over in Lady Grey on the way home and took the scenic route over the Witteberg via Joubert’s Pass. It’s supposed to be the 4th highest pass in the country (2236m above sea level) and was built entirely by hand in the early 1900s by a group of farmers looking for a short cut into Lady Grey. It was a spectacular drive through a deserted valley framed by majestic mountains. We came across one farmer herding a stunning group of Nguni cattle – such an unusual sight that we couldn’t resist stopping to take photos. The next day we also stopped to capture some Ankole cattle with their characteristic large horns grazing alongside the road.

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Lady Grey itself is quite a sleepy little town and we hardly saw any people on our walk on Saturday morning. We stayed in a lovely B&B called Comfrey Cottage set against a dramatic mountain backdrop. The town ran out of water a few weeks ago, but the guesthouse fortunately has a borehole. I can only imagine how lovely the garden would be in a normal year with its abundance of fruit and nut trees and old roses. They also have a herd of very charming Alpaca sheep which add a lot of character!

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We got home to a cloudy day and a forecast of rain for Sunday. We waited and waited and waited and the heavens finally opened with pouring rain yesterday evening. This morning everything feels fresh and bright and clean. Such a great change from the dust and wind. The veld and animals are rejoicing along with my farmer love who left home this morning up with an unmistakable spring in his step!

Silver linings

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Heat, wind and dust do not make for good walking conditions so I haven’t been getting out on the farm with the dogs that much over the past month. Some days, like today, the sky is thick with dust. This afternoon on my way back from town I had to literally stop the car as a dust storm reduced visibility to zero. When I got home the garden looked like it had been hit by a mini tornado and everything inside the house was covered in a layer of dust. Ugh!!

On a good day, there is a little gap of time just before sunset when everything goes quiet, the temperature drops and the dust settles. While friends were visiting us last week we took a gap and drove up the mountain for sundowners. It was absolutely perfect. There were clear views of the Maluti mountains in the distance and somehow it didn’t feel as dusty as the overgrazed veld below. The puppies, Hope and Poppy, were extremely curious on their first real walk with the big dogs. After our stroll we cracked open some cold beers (non-alcoholic for me!) and watched the sun go down before heading home for a meal of Vastrap lamb chops. It was the perfect distraction for my stressed farmer love and a reminder of how lucky we are to be living here.

Happily, today’s dust storm has brought some clouds to the sky and the forecast promises rain for next week…. please hold thumbs it materialises!

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Parched earth

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It is incredibly dry on the farm right now. We haven’t had a drop of rain since April and that after an unusually dry summer. Farmers never seem to be happy with the amount of rain they get, but this really is a drought. One which could have devastating consequences if it doesn’t rain soon. What is normally considered a quiet time on the farm has now become a daily struggle to make sure our animals have enough food and water. Many of our dams have been depleted to pools of mud so water has to be brought in by tractor twice a day – a very laborious and time consuming process. Fully functioning boreholes and windmills are precious commodities right now. Sadly not all of ours are working, which limits grazing options especially in the tracts of land on top of the mountain. There are spots of green where wheat is growing, but the crop is definitely a failure since the germination rate was only about 30%. The landscape would be pretty monotone brown if it wasn’t for the willow, poplar and oak trees! Nevertheless, life goes on and Quentin is making the best of a depressing situation carefully eyeing the weather forecast each day for rain. Hopefully it will come next week or at least before the end of October.

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Calving season has been in full swing since August, which is usually a joyful experience. We have many different groups of cattle sorted according to age and type (Boran, Angus and cross-bred animals). This year, our heifers (cows calving for the first time) have been very labour intensive because they are still quite young so many of them are having trouble giving birth. The heifer group is checked twice a day so that problems can be picked up quickly. I can’t count how many times Quentin has been called out to go an “pull” a calf or rescue a weak mother stuck in the mud. Sometimes it feels like he is a gynaecologist rather than a farmer! The calves are eternally cute especially when they have just been born and stand up on wobbly legs in search of their mother’s teats. One often has to look carefully to find the calves because their mothers hide them away from predators during the day. Most of our cows should calve by mid-November and then if it has rained, attention will turn to the planting of summer crops. It is amazing how the same cycle of activity can feel so different each year depending on the weather. In the three years I have lived at Vastrap I’ve experienced both extremes of too much rain and too little… is it too much to hope this time for a Goldilocks season that’s just right? Only time will tell.

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