Friday, April 29, 2011

Fattening the Pigs

It's fall now in the valley. It's kind of weird, only a couple of months after still seeing daylight at 10 PM, to realize the light is fading and it's only 6:30--and we're still in Daylight Savings time. Next week is really going to be gloomy.

But the weather is really something. Crisp mornings, but days when the golden hour (sic) seems to go on forever, when the sun feels warm and cozy without ever getting hot. Last week we declared Tomato Solstice, celebrated with a massive Tomato Medley salad; the onslaught of tomatoes having reached, apparently, its peak. It's all downhill from here.

The pigs know it too, at least physiologically. Somehow their desperate squeals and grunts, always aroused by the least prospect of being fed--a human presence in the driveway, for example--now have an extra level of urgency. They want to get fat, and their calorie requirements are heading skyward. What's more, we WANT them to get fat, so we've started chasing around the valley after calories to shovel into them.

This is a challenge even in normal times. We had a well-appreciated respite a couple of months ago, when Eamon bequeathed us a bin of past-it kiwifruit. Past it? Okay, they were rotten, a good portion of them, and had reduced in volume from the cubic yard or so that a bin starts at to something like half that. But the pigs couldn't get enough of them. Toss a shovel or two into the pen and they'd go to town, though not so enthusiastically that they couldn't rigorously cherry-pick the best ones, then snout out the fruit from the peel, until what was left was a pile of dead peels and fluttering labels. Hard as we shovelled those at them, we felt they were getting enough calories for several weeks.

But now the default diet has settled down to barley grain and kitchen scraps. Hardly enough for two growing piggies. So the hunt is on for supplements. Fortunately, it's apple season, so calories aren't too hard to come by. There's always a bin of secondary fruit around somewhere, but this season we've lucked out: Jennie and Jeff, the local organic apple orchardists, have bins they actually need to get rid of, and even some on the tree. I tell you, it's an odd feeling, grasping at apples on the tree and stuffing them into bags, and realizing you're doing this...for a pig. I mean, what has happened to our priorities these days, anyway?

There are two main problems with the apple strategy, though. You don't want to feed too much appleage to your pigs, because the fat gets all squishy and the meat can get to taste winey. The second problem is that the Pest Of The Year award goes, in a walk, to the common wasp. And wasps LOVE apples--especially half apples that the pigs have opened and passed on. So the pigs learn to shun the apples, which I never thought they'd do. Porkers with a food disorder: who knew?

So the saving grace for fattening the pigs has turned out to be: acorns. Freely available under many oak trees, nobody wants them, so car wheels and shoes alike just crunch right through them. And pigs love them. Will spend hours browsing through a nice pile of acorns, no matter how many twigs and leaves and last year's acorn shells are mixed in. Gets them out of the house, at least.

But even in acorn-collecting there is adventure. I started out by the side of the road. There are a couple of nice trees on the way into town: with a box, a leaf rake and a few sacks you can do quite well, if you don't mind all the debris that comes with the acorns. Yes, I must have spent fifteen seconds picking up individual acorns by hand before wondering why I was doing this rather than the pigs. And frankly, it feels a little furtive, parking the car on the brink of danger, scurrying around on the edge of someone's property with cars zooming past, never being quite sure that they won't come out and object to having their valuable acorns absconded with. On my second trip to those trees I did walk up the drive to get explicit clearance, and the people couldn't have been nicer. They almost seemed grateful to get rid of them.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Best Fruit You've Never Eaten

New Zealand doesn't have many unique, homegrown treats. (Who does, these days, what with global instanteneity and all?) There are unique elements of the landscape (the kiwibirds and the equally reviled and beloved kea). And there are plenty of qualitative distinctions in the food world. But the feijoa really is unique.

The center is a sweet jelly punctuated with soft seeds, surrounded by a faintly gritty pulp. You eat it by cutting it in half and scooping it out, one bite per half, where it lands on your tongue with any number of flavors. Guava? Banana? Peach? All sorta kinda, but really it's just...feijoa.

Anyway, this is the season, and bags of them are landing on our kitchen counter from people whose trees are going crazy. Feijoa jam, feijoa-apple crisp, or mainly, just one feijoa after another, viz:

That's my pile. It never occurred to me that another fruit would ever compete with my ability to consume watermelon, but they go down so easy...

PS I say that it's unique and particular to New Zealand, but that's not quite true. A year or two ago we were in Berkeley Bowl and there, at the top of a bin, cradled in a shrine-like basket, were half a dozen wan-looking feijoas, crowned by a sign: $3. But we had to share this with our friends--well, our GOOD friends, anyway--so we took a couple to the checkout...only to learn that they weren't $3 a pound, but $3 APIECE.

Friday, April 1, 2011

My Pal Psycho

This is the wanderer. The miscreant. The paranoid psychotic cattle-beast. We call him Psycho, and it's been at least two months since he's been where he belongs: on our property. The reason this looks like a surveillance photo is that this is as close as he'll let anyone get.

His story begins when we got him from Uwe, two years ago. He was part of the compensation package after Uwe had been grazing his stock on our land for several years before we shifted over from Wellington (the other part being a whole cow that landed in our freezer and still isn't entirely consumed, two years later). He was traumatized by the attempt to load him into the trailer and he's been nursing the grudge ever since--especially against me. If I come anywhere in sight he's got eyes for nothing else, and if I get within bowshot he's off for the hills. Across a fence, up a clifflike hillside, through a 5000-volt electric tapeline: all are as nothing for a Psycho in flight.

This is a problem not only for invading the neighbor's territory. It's a problem because he's our largest cattle-beast and he's due to go to the works this year. If he can't even be brought onto the property, how will we ever get him onto a truck? The alternative is to do a homekill, but we're in no position to take the meat. What would we do with it?

Did I mention that he's been next door for two months now? I'm not sure how to convey the parade of failed tries at getting him across the fence--at least a dozen to date. We've tried surrounding him to get him to jump the fence again. We've tried bringing several people down the hill to squeeze him toward the gate. We've tried getting our other cattle over to the other side to get him in with them, but they only wandered away while he ran for the woods. Last week, Doug, the neighbor, tried enclosing him with the electric tapeline, and I guess he must have blinked twice too often because Psycho took off, snapping a line charged to 5000 volts.

If there's anything that will make you feel like an urban idiot who's only playing at this farming thing--and trust me, there are many, many ways to get that feeling--floundering around failing to control animals is it. So it was some consolation, if not a source of moral satisfaction, when I called David--this is David The Man, our canonical ideal of the capable, inventive farmer, even in retirement--to help with one of our flounderings. It took about two minutes to flop (this time Psycho rolled down and up a stream ravine the pitch of a Take Your Life In Your Hands ski slope), but David at least had the grace to throw up his hands and advise giving up. His only comment: a gentle cluck of hopelessness and "It's no good trying to control them on their own. You've got to get him in a group."

And so it goes. The drive from the house to the road runs by the boundary fence, and most trips to and fro, there he is, a constant reminder of ludicrous failure, silently daring us to try again. It's like Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football: Come on. Do it. Give it a shot. This time it'll work!

And there he stands.

But this week: THIS WEEK, there was hope. I hadn't cleared out the tapeline after Doug's attempt, and one day I went down the drive and there he was, inside the enclosure--or at least, within shouting distance of being enclosed—or at least within careful, gingerly manipulations of being closed. All I had to do was sneak in on one side, tie off the breach, hang the hook on the electric fence, then sneak in at the other end and run the line across Doug's drive to the fence on the road. Piece of cake (sic). But no Hitchcock film could convey the suspense of trying to move in and do actual work without sending him off. I don't know if he was watching me more intently than I was watching him, but, rigorously avoiding eye contact, I climbed over the fence, crawled up the hill like some kind of rural Ninja to tie the tapeline again, then crawled back down, casually, slowly picked up the hook and--back to him--glided over to hang it on the fence. So far so good. He only moved a little out of sight around a knob. Then, across the fence, down our drive to the roadside gate, while he stood across the fence eyeing me for automatic weapons: still no bolting. Rigid, hypervigilant staring verging on a springlike getaway, but there he still stood. I opened our gate at the road, then theirs, then got up to the line, hooked it up, and backed gingerly away. Then I let out my breath.

I couldn't believe I'd pulled it off. Psycho was actually enclosed. Pray that he doesn't get agitated enough to not mind getting another jolt.

That's enough for one day: let's let him get used to the enclosure and see about introducing our cattle in the morning. I got uphill back to the house, and looked back. He was still there. I probably checked half a dozen times that evening, still not believing that I had him under control. I imagined him staring back at me from 300 yards away.

Morning comes, and he's still there! The tapeline is holding, and he doesn't even seem that eager to break out. Krys, houseguest Angela, and I rustle up the other six and get them down the drive toward the gate. They're a little confused about why we're moving them to this little opening on the driveway, but soon enough, they're through. Another miracle: our cattle are in the same physical location for the first time since, what, Christmas? Using the truck and a fence gate to block access to the road, we opened the gates to the two properties, and there they are. All they need now is to eat the grass down enough to motivate a return and there's maybe a 50% chance they'll wander back together. Quivering with excitement and prospective triumph, we drive--quietly--off to a neighbors house for a cup of tea.

A word about the layout here. Our drive runs away from the road, with the fence immediately to the right. So the cattle have to go down the fence, and make a U-turn through two gates to get back home. This was a sensitive situation, but we'd done all we could. The only thing for it was disappear and hope for the best. True, our neighbor Hamish shares the first part of our drive, but he so rarely uses it that it didn't even occur to me to coordinate with him. (Cue foreboding music.)

I had to come back to the truck for something, and when I snuck up and peeked over the hood my heart skipped. There was Psycho, mingling with his long-lost mates. Hope there was. I rejoined Krys and Angela at the neighbor's, but my mind was never far from pre-gloating at getting the better of this creature.

After an hour, we were headed off somewhere else, but we couldn't resist checking on the situation. When we pulled up the road, we knew something was off right away. There was a truck on the road opposite the gate (never happens). Looking over our truck, we could see that the two gates were now closed and tied off. What the...? Finally connecting with the cattle, I could see them in a group, all eyes riveted across the fence at...Oh my god. There was a homekill truck not 50 feet from them, the carcass of Hamish's last cow hanging by the heels, a massive pile of guts and a bloody head lying on the ground, the butcher beavering away in his gory apron with a saw. Not only that, but Kath our neighbor was on the scene: she had a dozen or two sheep in the yards down by our gate, waiting for their turn. This is the gauntlet that our cattle were supposed to be running.

So yes, at the very moment of triumph--not just the day, but to the very hour needed to bollox the whole affair--our quiet rural neighborhood--not just the neighborhood, but the exact, critical 50-yard swath of territory--explodes into activity; gory, noisy, crowded activity. (There was a carnival waiting just down the road, but they couldn't quite squeeze in.)

I couldn't believe the luck. I still can't believe it.

But one good thing came out of this debacle. In chatting with Kath and commiserating over the situation, I get all the information I need to find people to take homekilled meat. Solution: shoot him where he stands. How sweet the sound.

Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est

fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better

Run run run run run run run away