Sunday, December 26, 2010

Winter Chores

This winter, more than ever, we love our truck. The Toyota Tundra with its 4-wheel drive has been a godsend for hauling water up to the big barn in the snow and cold.

Jim's been a big help, too! Nice to have a friendly farmhand for these challenging days. We got our brag tag for the truck this week but haven't been able to get into town to show off yet.

But we did get to try out our new snow plow. Not on the truck, mind you. This one attaches to our walk-behind tractor. After last year's 18-inch snowfall that trapped even our mighty truck for a few days, we thought we were buying an insurance policy against another big snow. I really expected the snow blade to sit unused for 10 years. Instead, we found ourselves ready for it almost exactly one year later. The truck can get out ok without plowing for now, but our neighbor's car (we share part of the driveway) cannot.

After much wrestling and only partial success getting the blade attached--it's on but not locked in--Jim found he could get it to work despite the poor connection.

And it works a treat. From the workshop to the top of the driveway and back in less than half an hour.

Frankly, I was impressed that we even were able to get the tractor started after letting it sit for months unused in the unheated workshop.

We're back in the house warming up before heading out for the next round of feeding and watering the buffs. Here's Eschol from yesterday when Jim had just filled the water tank in the barn:

Now he's considering whether to keep drinking or come play with the photographer....

...the way he made Jim pay the love toll before letting him deliver the water.

I wish I could convey in pictures how much fun it is to throw hay from the upper level down into the troughs below. The camera can't quite capture the full effect of three heads pushing through to get at the hay all the while getting covered in it as they can't wait for me to finish dropping it before they dive in. I'd really need to have a sound recorder going to give you the true picture with all of the attendant huffing, chewing, and horn-clanking-against-wood sounds.

Oh. If you're wondering why you're not seeing any adorable pictures of the buffs frolicking in the snow, it's because they don't like the snow. They seem to have no use for it. All it does is cover up the grass they'd like to be grazing. They are staying in the barn as far as we can tell except for the very occasional and quick trip to the mineral block. Just as well that they are not venturing out much as the wind is picking up. And the snow is making it hard for the solar fence charger to do its job.

So, we're all doing well for now. Fingers crossed that the power stays on, so that we can continue to draw water from the well. Hope everyone is warm and well wherever you are!

Winter Wonderland

We've got at least 6 inches of snow on the ground (everyone around us is reporting more like 9 inches, so maybe it's just compacted as it's fallen) and they say we may get 3-6 inches more before it's done tonight. The wind is picking up and the temperature is dropping, so the fun part of a big snow is probably over now. Still, it's been pretty.....

Fortunately, the creeks are still flowing, but here's what Sandy Mush looked like a week or so ago:

Stay tuned for pix of chores in winter.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Menu

Assorted Neal's Yard cheeses (including our all-time favorite: Lancashire Poacher)
Black Trumpet Mushroom Pate
Carbonnade a la Flamande (for her)
Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes
Wild Mushroom Shepherd's Pie with Mushroom-Pinot Noir Sauce (for him)
Cranberry Compote
Mincemeat Pie

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Buffalo? They Can Walk on Water.

One of the questions that we often hear is: "Why water buffalo?"  There are a lot of ways to answer that. I'll skip the snarky ones to save time. For us, the answer is: because we find them fascinating.

For most people, meeting a water buffalo for the first time is a revelation. They are incredibly alert and interactive. If you've ever stood by a field where cattle are grazing, they probably didn't take much notice of you or if they did, they probably went back to eating as soon as they ascertained that you weren't an immediate threat. Water buffalo, however, will typically watch you with great interest and often will walk right up to you. Whether you're a threat or not, they want to check you out. And if they feel comfortable, it won't be long before they are trying to lick you, get a chin rub, or lean up against you. If they feel threatened (yes, I'm talking to you dogs), then that lean may involve the head, horns, and some serious pushing.

Even experienced cattle people who will tell you that some individual cows have lots of personality are often quite taken with the buffs. Some of our cattle-owning neighbors get a kick out of riding their ATVs by the pasture because the buffs always race them up and down the fence line. And they are quite good runners and jumpers. It's both heart-stopping and fascinating to watch them run up and down the hilly pastures at full speed. Their agility is remarkable and they cover a lot of ground quickly. That can be challenging when trying to get some work done in the barn without their help. They are very aware of what's going on all around them and they can sneak up quickly and quietly when they want to.

More often, however, they make funny little grunting noises when they are running toward something they really, really want (like food). Another endearing quality is the gentle huffing noises they make when they are content. They don't low or bellow or trumpet. They just make this gentle exhaling noise when they are eating or getting a tummy rub. Yes, they roll over for tummy rubs. How could you not love that? If that weren't enough to convince you, then you need to see/hear them when they blow bubbles in their water tank. And just look into those eyes.....

OK, so that's kind of the soft and fuzzy side of the answer. They're cute, smart, lovey, and they make us laugh. But what justifies the care, effort, and expense required to keep these huge animals? Do we really want or need 900 pound (and growing) pets? They're incredibly useful and versatile farm animals. They make great dairy animals as their milk is incredibly rich. The high butterfat content makes for spectacular cheese (e.g., buffalo mozzarella), yogurt, and ice cream though I have yet to be fortunate enough to try the latter. Our plan is to use the water buffalo for home dairy purposes (it's too expensive to try to set up a commercial dairy).

Water buffalo make for great eating, too, for those who eat meat. Much like bison, theirs is a very lean red meat. With about half the fat and cholesterol of beef, it's a relatively healthy choice for carnivores. I had the pleasure of dining on water buffalo tenderloin a couple of years ago and much as I wished Jim could have tasted it, the meat was so delicious I was kind of glad that I didn't have to share. If we end up with bull calves that no one wants to buy from us, then we will be filling our freezer with buffalo meat.

While we don't really have any call for it on our little farm, H2O buffs also make excellent draft animals (think oxen). More typical of the swamp variety of water buffalo, even our riverine buffs can be trained to handle hauling and plowing duties. People who've seen buffs at work in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia will probably have seen swamp buffalo with the horns out to there. One of the reasons that they are preferable to cattle in rice paddies is that their hooves are wider and don't sink into the mud as readily. Plus they are more resistant to hoof rot in wet environments.  Here's an image of a Thai farmer which I borrowed from the American Water Buffalo Association website.

working buffalo

Although it may be in large part due to the fact that water buffalo have not been factory farmed like cattle, they tend to be healthier and more disease-resistant than cattle. They are susceptible to many of the same diseases but often fare better. They are also more efficient at turning low quality forage into good nutrition meaning that they can survive on scrubby, weedy grassland where cattle would need grain supplementation.

For us, that means that the buffs eat a lot of vines and weeds. Not only are they helping to rehabilitate long-neglected pastures by keeping the weeds down but they are improving the soil quality with natural fertilizer. We don't have to add fertilizer or plow up whole pastures to re-seed with grass. That saves money, time, and fossil fuels.

If we lived in an area where invasive water vegetation was a problem, we'd use them for clearing it. The whole reason water buffalo were brought to the US in the 1970s was to help clear waterways in Florida. Water buffalo are excellent swimmers and are reported to be willing and able to dive as much as two meters underwater to get at vegetation. For our part, we're trying to keep the buffs out of the creeks here to prevent erosion of the banks and limit the amount of manure that ends up in the water (excessive nitrogen is not good for creek life).

Existing in climates ranging from the tropics of Asia to the frigid plains of Canada, water buffalo have proven to be highly adaptive--a quality that may become increasingly valuable with the weather extremes that climate change may bring. They do need a bit of shelter from extreme conditions--access to water or shade in the heat and protection from wind and wet in the cold--but with just a bit of care, they can do quite well.

Are they perfect? No, of course not. Like all animals, they have their challenges. The upside is they're smart. The downside is they're smart. Much like dogs, the smart ones are often harder to handle because they're harder to fool. They can be stubborn. And their heat cycles are often short and silent (not showing signs) which can make breeding by artificial insemination a bit more challenging than with cattle (the bulls know when the cows are in heat even if the humans can't see the signs so the old-fashioned way of breeding works fine). And they are huge, powerful animals with horns. Even a good-natured, well-intentioned buffalo could do some serious harm just by swinging its massive head around when you're not paying attention. And not all of them are equally good natured. They most definitely have individual personalities which can vary greatly.

Do they walk on water? Yes. If it's frozen. They continue to surprise me nearly every day. This week, when the creek between the main pasture and the Booth was frozen solid, they seemed to avoid it. Then one day, there they were--at the top of the Booth, soaking up what few rays of sun were to be had. I feared that they had skidded across the ice and gotten stuck on the wrong side of the creek away from food and water. I took some water across to them. No sooner had they lapped it up than they came back across the ice to see if I'd brought more goodies. Not one of them slipped or skidded. They walked across the ice as if they'd been doing it all their lives. Actually, better than I ever walked on ice and I have been doing it all my life.

They are strange and wondrous creatures and that's why we have them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Drink Warm Thoughts

Freezing. Cold. Really, really cold.

On the plus side, I'm spending more time indoors so I have time to blog. On the minus side, I have to go outside to haul water to the buffalo thrice daily. Back on the plus side, being out in the dry, frigid air inspires me to drink lots of hot tea with milk from my Frigidaire. OK, it's a Whirlpool, but I couldn't resist the rhyme.

Ever since I first went to England as a junior in college, I have loved strong black tea with milk. Hot tea managed to cut through the cold and damp in a way nothing else could while the milk added a soothing element. Even now that Jim has hooked me on coffee, my first and last cup of the day still has to be tea. But it was the memory of many a petit déjeuner in France that left me longing for something better than a cup or mug from which to slurp the steamy goodness.

Thanks to winning a giveaway on the blog A Spicy Perspective, I was finally able to acquire the necessary vessel. A Pillivyut drinking bowl. OK, the CSN store whose gift certificate I won calls it a coffee bowl but I consider it an all-purpose drinking bowl. 

I have such fond memories of dunking my toasted bread into my bowl of Thé Éléphant. Although it took a little adjustment, it wasn't long before I was buttering my toast and dunking it like the locals even if it meant a weird oil slick would develop on the top. Nowadays, I'm content to deal with the soggy crumbs in the bottom of the bowl but don't really see the need for butter.

And then there's the matter of dunking into hot chocolate.

Sheer heaven. Makes for a great late afternoon snack.

Actually, I have been preparing for this moment for a long time. Years ago, I went on a hunt for a toaster that could accommodate a sufficiently long piece of bread (preferably a big hunk of baguette sliced in half). It took quite awhile, but eventually Jim found a Cuisinart that was perfect: just one very long slot that can handle wide slices. Ours is too well-loved at this stage to be photographed nicely and I can't seem to find a picture online, so use your imagination.

I'm not sure why I'm so enamored of drinking tea and cocoa this way. Maybe it's just nostalgia for France or that little thrill that comes from drinking out of a bowl when you were raised to believe that it's not proper to do so. And for you cafe au lait drinkers, this is the best. Not into hot beverages? Then put your cereal in and slurp up the extra milk when you're done.

Now for my next quest: authentic French cider bowls. Sure, I could use the same bowls (it's basically the same shape) but I have my heart set on a very rustic-looking cider bowl (preferably one that says "cidre") from Normandy or Bretagne. I can see the Platonic ideal of cider bowl in my mind but have yet to find one that I can order online. Perhaps we'll have to take a trip to France so that we can learn to make their distinctive style of cider and pick up the necessary accoutrements in person.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Buddha's Hand

Some time back, I saw one of these on a food blog and thought "How cool! But I'll never be able to buy one."

After last year's love affair with Meyer lemons, this strange and wondrous relative of the lemon seemed a likely candidate for my next crush if only I could lay my hands on one. As luck would have it, a little gourmet grocery store in town that I rarely visit (The Fresh Market) brought one in from California two weeks ago. Actually, they had several, but at $8 a pop, I had to show some restraint. Introducing the Buddha's Hand Citron:

If the wild shape wasn't enough to recommend it--Jim calls it the squid lemon--it has a delightful scent and flavor. Definitely in the lemon family but on the sweeter side and with a floral component. I think it's what you'd get if you combined Meyer lemons with rosewater. The strangest non-shape-related aspect of this lemony food critter is that is has no juice. Nor pulp. Nor seeds. It's nothing but rind and pith. 

That does somewhat limit its usefulness if you were hoping to use it in place of a traditional lemon. From what I've read, some people use them as natural air fresheners but most seem to use them for infusing vodka. We're not big on flavored vodkas, so I decided to take advantage of its all-rind-all-the-time nature and use it for candied lemon peel. And candied lemon peel just begs to be dipped in chocolate.

I confess, I was in such a hurry to get the goodies into Christmas packages going out to friends and family that I neglected to take photos of the best examples before I dipped them in chocolate. And I shipped those out before snapping pix of the dipped peel. What's left are the odds and ends but what tasty odds and ends they are! There's also some Buddha's Hand simple syrup resulting from the candying process and it's just hanging around waiting for the resident mixologist to get creative at cocktail hour.

I hope more Buddha's Hand comes my way. The more I think about it, the more ideas I'm having for using the zest/peel in other dishes. Or I might just put one in a big jar of alcohol just to preserve so I can look at it every day. Whimsical fruit makes me happy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ray's Weather

Like you need one more person complaining about the weather, right? It's cold, it's snowy, it's windy, it's dreary....we're all in the same boat. Well, if you're not in this boat, you can just swim silently 'cause the rest of us are not in the mood to hear about your nice weather. When I lived in Chicago and worked in customer service, I hated being stuck on the phone in January with some gloating guy in Florida or Texas just had to inquire about our weather just so he could regale me with excruciatingly specific details about his balmy weather ("why, I'm in shorts today and am about to go throw a steak on the grill").

Since one of the reasons for living in NC instead of Chicago is to avoid weather like this, I'm especially resentful. The biggest insult to injury is that we're getting lake effect snow. Yes, Lake Michigan snow. That's just wrong.

As you might imagine, this brutal cold snap makes the farm chores just that: chores. Bundling up against the sub-zero wind chill wouldn't be so bad if it were just a matter of tossing some hay to the buffs a couple of times a day (thank goodness I kept all that Chicago-style winter wear). The real pain is water. Water freezes in their tanks quickly and even my backup supply, the creek, is frozen so I have to haul water several times a day so they have some in liquid form. Since it's too cold to use the standpipe outside, I have to fill the containers in the house then take them out to the buffs. I've been using a sledgehammer to break up ice in the tanks but it reforms awfully fast and today the buffs seem disinclined to leave the protection of the barn to seek out water if they don't have to. We have one tank in the barn which doesn't freeze as quickly but it is the most challenging to fill and will succumb to the extreme cold of the next two days (teens and single digits with much lower wind chills). On the bright side, the snow isn't deep, so I'm not fighting through snowdrifts on top of everything else.

Speaking of bright sides, when it comes to winter weather, I'm usually hard pressed to find something cheery to say. Much like a trip to the dentist, reading a winter weather forecast is not something I expect to bring a smile to my face. Yet I've been lucky with my time in the South. Not only did I have a dentist in Atlanta who made me laugh so much (sans nitrous oxide) that I actually looked forward to my appointments, but now I have an independent weather source which makes me happy even when the news is bad. Ray's Weather is a quirky little website devoted to weather here in the mountains of western North Carolina. Based around Boone (home to Appalachian State University), it draws on the bevy of professional meteorologists in this area to come up with independent forecasts. Something about our myriad microclimates, funky topography, and playing host to the National Climatic Data Center attract meteorologists to our area. And these folks have a sense of humor.

Given that so much of the appeal of our area is the great outdoors, Ray's has a system for quickly assessing the day's potential without having to wade through a lot of pesky details like temperature, wind, and precipitation: the Golf-O-Meter. The number of golf balls appearing on the day's forecast tells you whether you want to be outside.

Sadly, today was the first time I've seen a no golf balls indication. Still, it made me smile when I reviewed the official definition of a no golf balls day. I think my favorite forecast was the day after Leslie Nielsen died and the entire extended forecast was interspersed with random quotations from Airplane and no explanation was offered.

Oh, and the forecasts are very good. Even when they're very bad.