The Archers Year of Food and Farming – an October nugget

book packshot strapline roundel

This is the second of a collection of extracts from the book I wrote in 2019. The Archers Year of Food and Farming is published by Seven Dials.

The October chapter starts like this:

I have to warn you, there is a lot of sex in October. And it is described with very direct Middle English words, so buckle up.

‘Tup’ is both a noun and a verb. It’s the old name for a ram, and you will still hear it used in that way. More frequently it is used to describe the act itself. At many farms, including Brookfield, October into November is tupping season.

As the morning sun lances through the mist, giving an ethereal quality to the familiar pastures, David and his younger son Ben drive their bleating ewes. David nods with approval as sheepdog Bess responds fluidly to Ben’s commands. A firm “Come bye!” and Bess moves to the left, clockwise around the flock. “Away!” means the opposite. When Bess is at a distance, Ben uses the whistle – a curved-sided metal triangle that sits on his tongue. A quick, high double note through the small hole signifies Come Bye, a single mid-tone Away. Now Ben blows a longer, higher blast and Bess immediately drops to the ground, alert and ready for the next command.

These ewes are being placed in various fields depending on their weight. Too skinny and they may not ovulate, but too much fat will bring problems come lambing time. So they will be fed appropriately to bring them all near the ideal tupping weight of about 70 kilograms. This will be a daily job for someone, and they need to as nimble as Robert Snell in the Village Hall doorway. Keen Flower and Produce Show contestants are as nothing compared to hungry ewes hearing their dinner tumbling from that large plastic sack into a long metal trough. David has had his legs bowled from under him on more than one occasion.

Ben turns to his father. “So we’re not doing anything for Harvest Supper this year?”

David’s face darkens. “No. Uncle Tony’s giving them a side of beef.”

“That’s good isn’t it? If we don’t have to bother – ”

“Because your uncle Kenton reckoned Bridge Farm beef was better than ours.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. Thanks, brother.”

Celebrations of the end of harvest exist all round the world. In Britain, the tradition dates back to pre-Christian times and is synonymous with this time of year; literally, given that the Old English word ‘haerfest’ actually means autumn. A good harvest could mean the difference between life and death. So when everything was safely gathered in, it was usual for the farmer to host a meal to thank everyone who had been involved. ‘A meal’ makes it sound like a sedate and civilised affair. But we can imagine that the relief after a month of toil, coupled with free food and (especially) drink gave the peasantry licence for the hooliest of hooleys. Imagine the Grundys in full flow, with a side order of Horrobins, and you will get an inkling.

The Ambridge Harvest Supper is a true community affair; lots of people mucking in with the arrangements and the catering. There is usually entertainment of some sort – often a barn dance with the steps called by buxom, buckskin-clad Jolene Rogers, the one-time Lily of Leyton Cross.

At various times the meal has been held at the Village Hall, Brookfield Farm, Bridge Farm, The Bull, Home Farm, and even in a marquee on the village green. In 1997 it became a truly moveable feast, on ‘safari supper’ lines. One course was served in each of the surrounding villages: Darrington, Edgeley, and Penny Hassett; while in Ambridge, Jennifer Aldridge waited with the desserts she had lovingly created. And waited… And waited. She eventually learned that each village had gone so over the top with their catering that most people were stuffed to bursting and could not consume any more. Poor Jennifer!

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies 

The Archers Year of Food and Farming – a September morsel

book packshot strapline roundelIn 2019, I wrote a book, The Archers Year of Food and Farming. It was published by Seven Dials in September of that year. 

As it has twelve chapters – one for each month of the year – I thought it might be nice to dust off my ancient blog and put up a monthly extract, to give people a flavour of the book.

As I’ve only just had this idea (in November, duh), I’ll put up three this month and one a month thereafter. 

This is how the book starts:

No, you haven’t opened the book at the wrong page – and the publisher has assembled it in the correct order. A teacher will tell you that of course the year starts in September. And so will a farmer, so that is where we are starting our Archers year

But for many Ambridge worthies, September also means a culmination. Armed with weighing scale and preserving funnel, trug and trowel, they are preparing to do battle in the annual Flower and Produce Show. Two rivals are gearing up for this gladiatorial contest. It started with an unthinking remark from Fallon Rogers, during a busy Sunday in her Ambridge Tea Room. Apparently unaware that the 1950s ended some time ago, Jennifer Aldridge had treated her stepson Ruairi to a slap-up end-of-the-holidays afternoon tea. A wizard wheeze, Ruairi had dubbed it, although Jennifer did not quite catch the irony. In any case, both had been sent into raptures by the scones and driven quite ecstatic by the Victoria sponge.

[There’s a recipe for Victoria sponge at this point]

The sugar rush might have had something to do with it, but Jennifer was effusive in her praise. “It’s just as well you can’t enter your cakes in the Flower and Produce Show, Fallon”, she had said, dropping her change into her Moroccan leather purse.

“It leaves the way clear for people like Emma”, Fallon joked as she closed the till, unaware that her employee had suddenly turned as cold and chippy as the mint choc ice-cream in their freezer.

“What did you mean by that?” The cafe was now empty, and Emma was sweeping the floor with unnecessary vigour.  “Are you saying I’m an amateur?”

“Um…” They usually rubbed along well, but sometimes Fallon was reminded that Emma was Susan Carter’s daughter. Both could take offence in an empty room, if they thought it was casting aspersions on their status.

“’Cos I bake as much of the food here as you do.” This was not strictly true, but Fallon knew better than to quibble.

“No, I just meant… you have put stuff in the show.  Your…  those Brazilian things.”

[Recipe – Brigadeiros]

Fallon blundered on. “It just wouldn’t seem right for me to enter, somehow. I’ve been a judge.”

“If you did, I’d give you a good run for your money.”

“I’m sure you would, but I can’t, can I.”

Emma’s eyes narrowed. “Not with a cake, maybe.”

And so the battle lines were drawn and the weapons selected. Cakes were clearly off limits. But the chutney that the tea room serves with its Ploughman’s Platefuls comes from a small supplier in St John’s Parva. So there could be no accusations of professionalism in that category.

[This imagined story continues through the chapter, interspersed with explanations of what’s happening on the farms in Ambridge, food-related stories from The Archers Archive, behind-the-scenes insights and lots of recipes. Over the months, I’ll choose bits from all these categories.]

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on my Twitter stream.