The pride of Yorkshires

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 9th November & the Gazette & Herald on 7th November 2018

For what, in your opinion, is Yorkshire most famous? Obviously, I would put Heartbeat up there, along with the Yorkshire Dales, Herriot country, Captain Cook, cricket, cycling…I could go on.

But at the top of the list has to be Yorkshire puddings. Can anyone who is not a born and bred Yorkshire person make them quite as well as us? If my attempts are anything to go by, then the answer might be ‘Yes’, as my success rate over the years has been hit and miss, and my Nana Smith will be turning in her grave knowing that her granddaughter is a bit rubbish at producing consistently decent Yorkshires.

My nana, who hailed from Egton Bridge on the North York Moors, was a pudding master and, unlike me, my mum has inherited her skill. When I was little, Dad would tell me that Nana Smith made the best ones in the whole wide world, which of course I took literally, and boasted about this international accolade to all my friends.

In his column from 11th November 1978, Dad talks about a visit from some Americans, and he wanted to show them how fine our county’s most famous food was. They explained that they had eaten it already somewhere down south, but that it hadn’t impressed them.

“That experience must have been horrific to say the least,” writes Dad, “because the Yorkshire pudding had been served with the main course; worse still, it had been a flat, thick, rubbery substance which might have been useful for soling shoes or upholstering chairs.” Oh dear.

He was eager to restore its reputation and took the visitors to a local hotel known for its excellent puddings. Like my nana, it served them in the way they were supposed to be, which is as a starter with gravy. The guests were instantly converted, and bestowed the greatest of compliments by asking for the recipe.

But simply knowing the recipe isn’t enough. Us natives understand that making great Yorkshires is an art that has to be perfected over years of practise. You don’t just need the right ingredients; you also you need the right tins, you need to know the foibles of your oven, and above all, you need experience.

The mistake many people make is to think that the rise of the Yorkshires is the most important element, and although some can look fabulous on the outside, they often taste like bland doughy buns. This is usually because they have been made with (brace yourself) self-raising flour! This is a cardinal sin, and you should never be tempted to go down that route just to ensure a rise.

I’m pleased to report that of late, I’ve nailed it, and my Yorkshires have come out perfectly risen, crisp on the outside, with a satisfyingly deep well in the middle. It’s taken years of trial and error, and so here are my tips on how to get the perfect Yorkshires (As for quantities, I can’t help as, like my mum and nana before me, I do it all by sight).

1. Make sure the oven is very hot (no less than 200C).
2. Sieve plain flour from a height into a bowl, and add a pinch of salt and a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. Make a well in the centre, and add two eggs.
3. Whisk this up. Then add half milk, half water, until it is the consistency of cream of tomato soup.
4. Find an old greasy muffin tin that you never wash properly.
5. Grind a little black pepper into the bottom of each well (to prevent sticking), and add a dessert spoon of oil. I use plain vegetable oil (which is actually 100% rapeseed oil. I used to use lard, but I didn’t get as good results).
6. Put in the oven until it is literally smoking hot.
7. Then, as quick as you can, pour a little of the batter into each well (it should sizzle) and put straight back in the oven. Do not open the oven door again until they are well risen and golden brown, which will be about 20 minutes.

I have no idea if my nana would approve of this method, but it works for me. Good luck, and use my blog and Twitter (below) to send me pictures of your successes – and failures!

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

ENDS

A night full of mischief

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 2nd November & the Gazette & Herald on 31st October 2018

This week sees the twin celebrations of Halloween and Bonfire Night. I have many fond memories of dressing up and going out Trick or Treating with my young boys, although it might as well have just been called Treating, as the tradition of playing tricks on those who didn’t offer treats had pretty much died out.

I remember asking one of them if he knew why we said ‘Trick or Treat’. He didn’t, and when I explained, he was quite mystified as to why anyone would want to play tricks at all. As our neighbourhood was full of young families, we embraced 31st October with great enthusiasm, and many houses were elaborately decorated with the Halloween theme, while illuminated carved pumpkins were left outside to show us which houses would welcome the young trick or treaters.

As the children grew older and began going out alone, we made it very clear that they were not allowed to knock on the doors of houses that didn’t have any decorations or pumpkins outside, ensuring the residents were not disturbed. It’s worth taking a walk on Halloween evening just to see all the amazing elaborate carvings that people do these days. One of my neighbours used to carve intricate designs, and her house became a must-see destination. My friend Jane would turn her garage into a witches’ coven with smoke swirling outside, a hideous potion in a cauldron and gruesome challenges that the children would have to attempt before being rewarded with their treat. The children that were brave enough enter loved it.

On the subject of pumpkins, I hope today’s youngsters appreciate how lucky they are to not have to experience the sheer frustration of trying to carve a rock hard swede or turnip. Just scraping the insides out was exhausting, and I could not understand why I couldn’t achieve the same elegance and panache as those pumpkins I’d seen on TV. To be honest, I didn’t really know what a pumpkin was.

In my day, trick or treating was not very common, and unprepared householders had nothing but fruit or the odd biscuit in to give us. We were happy with whatever was handed out, but if they didn’t respond to our knocking, or had no treats, then the braver ones among us might play a trick, such as smear Vaseline on the doorknob or post leaves through the letterbox. It was harmless, although no doubt irritating for the residents.

Halloween is swiftly followed by Mischief Night, which is 4th November, and is not really marked any more. But in 1978, as my dad writes in his column of that date, the practice of playing pranks on Mischief Night was more popular than on Halloween.

“Gates will be taken off hinges, children will knock on doors and run away, slogans will be written on windows and walls, and other japes will take place,” he writes. He then goes on to talk about ‘unruly elements’ who spoiled the fun for everyone else by using the night as an excuse to inflict damage and vandalism on their neighbours. I’d heard of people putting fireworks through letterboxes and was so scared that every Mischief Night I’d make my dad tape our letterbox closed. He also used to put our absent front gate back on its hinges for the one night in the hope they would only take it off again, so deterring them from inflicting more annoying pranks, like daubing our windows with lard.

I think the event that caused the fear to become deeply ingrained happened when I was about four or five years old. At the time, we lived opposite a farm which had a large barn which was full of bales of straw for the winter. For some reason, on Mischief Night, someone decided to set fire to it. As it was bone dry, the whole lot quickly went up in flames. It was terrifying, and despite the fire engines rushing to put it out, the barn was completely destroyed.

There were mutterings the village about whether it was deliberate or not, but I don’t know if the culprit was ever caught or punished. But from that night on, every subsequent Mischief Night filled me with fear and dread.

So on Halloween night, when I see the flickering pumpkins and the happy groups of children dressed up in their spookiest best, I will not mourn the demise of Mischief Night one little bit.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

What a right old mess

 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 26th October & the Gazette & Herald on 24th October 2018

My dad wasn’t known for causing too much of a stir through his writing, but in his column from 28th October 1978 he does say something which I think would have been quite controversial.

He says: “I am sure that country folk behave better in towns than townsfolk behave in the country.”

I’d like to know if people reading this agree?

I suppose, though, you have to decide first if you’re a townsperson or a country person. Obviously, it’s cut and dried for those who come from our larger towns and cities. But what are you if you hail from somewhere like Helmsley, Malton, Bedale or Thirsk?

It upsets me when thoughtless visitors to the countryside leave their litter behind or when a rural lay-by is desecrated by fly tipping. It is so selfish, and already stretched resources have to be used to clear it up and, ultimately, these costs will be passed on to us all. I’m also flummoxed by how many full dog poo bags are left lining popular walking routes. If you’re going to do something that is so socially unacceptable as leave your own dog’s mess behind, why do you put it in a bag at all? If it doesn’t end up on the sole of someone’s shoe, it will naturally decompose eventually. But taking the trouble to pick it up and put it into a plastic bag before tossing it on the ground is unspeakably dim.

I do remember, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a number of Public Information Films to highlight how antisocial dropping litter was, and it really did become unacceptable among the vast majority of us. Big names were recruited to get the message through to us young ones, and it had a significant impact. A-list celebrities of the day, such as Abba, David Cassidy, Marc Bolan, Frank Bruno and Morecambe and Wise backed the Keep Britain Tidy message.

Interestingly, in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for major celebrities to endorse causes without expectation of payment, which meant they chose things they actually believed in. Today, we can assume that most celebrity endorsements come about thanks to offers of substantial fees, publicity, and kickbacks, and therefore we question whether they genuinely believe in whatever it is they claim to support.

So I think this lack of credibility is one reason why it is difficult to get these messages across to our youngsters. Also, they are a generation who do not sit in front of the TV as they used to, and instead use smartphones to watch YouTube videos or programmes on paid-for streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. It means the traditional TV campaign will not work on them any more.

But it’s not just our youngsters who are guilty of littering. My friends and I regularly go to the races at York, and love to enjoy a picnic on the cheap side when the weather is good. We take along bags to collect up all our rubbish and recycling at the end of the day. Despite that, there is always a sea of waste left behind by inconsiderate racegoers. A team of litter pickers then clears up the mess, the cost of which will be reflected through rising ticket prices. But the people dropping the litter must be too stupid to realise that the more they drop, the more they will pay.

I don’t know what the answer is, but am hopeful that the impact of programmes such as Attenborough’s Blue Planet and more recently Liz Bonnin’s Drowning in Plastic will at least draw attention to the fact that we all have a duty to take responsibility for our own waste. If we all did our little bit, it would add up to a massive difference.

A quick thank you to Nigel Pattison who, having read my column in August about BBC Radio York’s Cake and a Cuppa event on Yorkshire Day, invited me along to his monthly Cake and a Cuppa at Pickering Methodist Church Hall. It was lovely to see all the people there, young and old, coming together to socialise over a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Nigel is well-known for his freshly baked Eccles cakes and I can honestly say they were delicious! Thank you Nigel!

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

ENDS

Outfoxed on a dog walk

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 19th October & the Gazette & Herald on 17th October 2018

Until today, when I read my dad’s column from 21st October 1978, I had no idea that badgers were such clean, house-proud animals. Apparently their setts have several similarities in design to the human house, and how they manage that and keep it spic and span is a lesson to many (particularly my own sons who could learn a thing or two about tidiness and hygiene).

Its home is the centre of a badger’s world and is made up of a number of underground interconnecting tunnels and chambers. Like a human house, it has separate quarters for sleeping, or for the sow to use when she gives birth, and a number of different entrances. Both the male and females regularly bring in fresh bedding, which consists leaves, grass, bracken and even bluebells, and they keep their feet clean by scraping their claws across a scratching post just outside the set.

Not too far from the home will be a spot or two where they go to the toilet, thus keeping the inside of their sett very clean.

They live in clans, with several badger families using the same one, which will often have been established over many generations. Setts can be extensive, and consist of the main sett, and a number of sub-setts nearby.

In the column I mentioned earlier, Dad talks about a debate he was having with some of his colleagues over lunch which concerned whether foxes and badgers were known to live side by side in the same burrow. It seems the opinion was split with some arguing that badgers and foxes made quite happy housemates, while others declared it would never happen because, where badgers were the Hyacinth Bouquets of the woodland world, foxes, on the other hand, were the Waynetta Slobs.

A fox will eat just about anything, dead or alive, rotting or fresh, and also has a very stinky scent gland at the root of its tail. If it is being hunted, it will try to disguise its distinctive B.O. by rolling in farmyard muck, and it has no qualms about dragging all that pongy poo and plother into its home.

I have to say, that even when I despair of the state of my children’s bedrooms, which can resemble student squats, I haven’t yet got to the point where I don’t want to live with them, and maybe the badger is tolerant like that. According to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), foxes and rabbits will not only inhabit abandoned setts, but have also been known to live side by side with badgers. So if they say that, then it must be true and puts an end to the argument.

There is one thing about the fox, though, that really irritates me, and that is: Why do they have to poo in places popular with dog walkers?

To some dogs, fox poo is like a heavenly elixir sent down by the gods themselves. They gleefully gallop up to it, usually when the owner isn’t looking, and joyfully roll around in it until as much of their fur as possible is coated in its smelly sticky loveliness.

To the owner, however, a dog coated in fox poo is arguably the worst thing to experience on a walk. It is one of the most disgusting, nauseating stinks ever known to man, and trying to remove it is akin to trying to eradicate toxic waste from a nuclear bomb site. It just stays, wash after wash, and ordinary dog shampoo is no match for it.

I haven’t come across many novel or foolproof suggestions for getting rid of the rancid smell, but one suggestion that has cropped up more than once is to use tomato ketchup. I haven’t yet tried that myself, but would love to hear from anyone who has. I prefer to stick to special fox poo shampoo, although it still takes several applications to work effectively.

Once experienced, you never want to go through that kind of trauma ever again, and so when I’m walking dogs in rural areas, nowadays I turn my fox poo radar up to maximum. However, it is inevitable that at some point my guard will slip.

So if you spot me on a walk, and I am shouting “Nooooooooooooooooo…..” while sprinting towards a dog in a ‘Tom-Cruise-in-Mission-Impossible-Just-Before-The-Bomb-Goes-Off’ fashion, you will know why.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

Feeling the blues in Bilsdale

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 12th October & the Gazette & Herald on 10th October 2018

One of my all-time favourite routes to drive has to be the B1257 between Helmsley and Chop Gate through Bilsdale. Along with the spectacular views and landscape, the road has a pleasing undulating quality to it that sets it apart from other well-trodden highways. If I am heading back home from the North-East, I sometimes deliberately come off the A19 early just so I can take this road. It is longer, but my goodness, it doesn’t half stir the soul!

The reason I mention it is because I saw the heading ‘Bilsdale Blues’ in my dad’s column from 14th October 1978 and assumed it was going to be about that glorious part of North Yorkshire. So I was quite surprised upon reading it that he was in fact talking about pigs!

The Bilsdale Blue, also known as the Yorkshire Blue and White, was commonly seen at local agricultural shows until the just after the Second World War. It was a white pig with big blue spots and had large, floppy ears. Unfortunately Dad reports, “I have no records of its continued existence, nor do I know if examples of this breed still exist.”

Of course, I had to find out, and it didn’t take me long to discover that sadly, the breed is now extinct. According to the British Pig Association (BPA), by 1954, only three boars were licensed, which was a minuscule figure when compared to the 16,751 Large White boars on the register. In the early days of pig rearing, individual breeds were developed in different regions to suit the local conditions and market. The Bilsdale Blue was popular because of its hardy characteristics and the fact that the sows made excellent mothers.

But as transportation became easier, and tastes for meat changed, breeds became less localised, and numbers of pure native breeds like the Bilsdale Blue diminished.

The BPA states that today, none of our native breeds have more than 500 sows registered, which puts them at risk of extinction, so it is working towards a goal of having stable figure of at least 1000 to secure the survival of their unique genetic heritage.

My research led me to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust which highlights the plight of livestock under threat. Set up in 1973, a key part of its work is collecting genetic material and storing it at the UK National Livestock Gene Bank making it possible to reintroduce a breed if extinction occurs.

Sadly, it came too late for our poor Bilsdale Blue, but according to the trust, it hasn’t lost a single breed since it was established. Pig breeds under the most threat at the moment include the British Landrace, the British Lop, the Large Black and the Middle White, with fewer than 200 sows currently registered for each one. As well as pigs, there are watchlists for sheep, cattle, equine, poultry and goats.

I was particularly saddened to learn about their latest appeal, ‘Save Our Working Class Heroes’ which is dedicated to rescuing three of our most recognisable heavy horses, the Shire, the Clydesdale and the Suffolk, all of which are at dangerously low levels. Despite the mechanisation of farming and warfare, which meant the traditional roles of these horses disappeared, the trust argues that they still have a useful role to play in areas such as the army, policing, equine therapy and commercial logging.

It would be such a shame to see these wonderful beasts vanish, especially as they served the generations before us so loyally. I remember as a child being awestruck when the magnificent Shires, decked out in their gleaming leather tack and brasses, used to visit our local shows.

Samuel Smiths brewery still stables two Shires behind the Angel and White Horse pub in Tadcaster, and the pair make local beer deliveries five days a week. Perhaps there is scope for the pub community to pull together to help save these beautiful horses. After all, to this day many of them still display the brasses from the days when the horses were used to deliver the beer. But how sad if these animals, these working class heroes for whom those brasses were made, are no longer in existence.

Thank you to Paul Foster and Jenny Horne who commented through my blog, James Larcombe who emailed, and my mum who phoned me – all think that my mystery plant featured two weeks ago is a climbing hydrangea (hydrangea petiolaris). Mystery solved!

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

ENDS

An apple a day

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 5th October & the Gazette & Herald on 3rd October 2018

A friend of mine owns a commercial carrot farm, and he was featured on Countryfile this week, explaining that his yield is 30% less than last year (which by contrast was very good). He sells them by weight, and although those from the early crop were healthily large, the ones gathered so far from his main harvest are less than half the size thanks to the persistently dry weather. The story is the same for other root vegetables like onions, and although the potato harvest is only recently under way, things are not looking good. You have to feel for the farmers who are having such a difficult year.

On the other hand, it has been a good year for our autumn fruit harvest, with very healthy numbers of apples, pears, plums, and blackberries. It seems 1978 boasted similar success in the fruit world. From his October 7th column of that year, Dad mentions that our garden had produced a bumper crop of apples and plums. We had three plum trees, but they hadn’t produced any fruit for the previous ten years which meant that only in 1978 did we discover we had in fact three different varieties – one was a greengage, one a Victoria and the third a mystery, although the plums were large and bluey in colour. Dad wondered if they were Merryweather Damsons, but wasn’t sure.

We also had four apple trees which in 1978 had done very well too although, like we have experienced in recent weeks with storm Ali, high winds meant we had boxes of windfalls to contend with.

It amazes me that, if stored correctly, apples can last several months. They are best kept in a cool, dry, frost-free atmosphere at between three and five degrees Celsius. Apparently, rooms above stables are ideal, as the heat from the horses keeps the temperature just about right. But for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to have a horse, a garage or cellar will do as long as the fruit is kept away from pungent smells emitted by things such as garlic and onions, or paint tins and the like. They don’t have to be covered, but my dad believed the best way to prolong their lives was to cover them with newspaper or straw and lay them in trays so they are not touching each other. This is very important to stop the spread of rot, which can happen if one bad apple is touching another, so windfalls should be pristine with the stalk in tact.

You can also keep them in an unheated bedroom, which were plentiful in the 1970s, although one of those might be hard to find in 2018 among us unhardy, central-heating-loving lightweights.

I would worry though, if I were storing fruit, how one keeps the rats and mice at bay as surely, tray upon tray of lovely ripening fruit would attract them into our garages? I’ve tried to find out if there is a foolproof way to deter them, but have not come up with anything failsafe. Obviously, traps and poison are an option, but I was wondering if there was another less severe method.

According to TV presenter and Guardian newspaper columnist Alys Fowler, rats hate the prickly nature of holly, so if you dry it out (it becomes even more prickly that way) and spread sprigs of it in and around your apples, it may help. They are also said to dislike fresh mint and mothballs, so they too might be worth a try.

All this talk of apples reminds me of a stay I had with a friend in London. She was in the middle of preparing dinner and asked: “Is there anything you don’t eat?”

“Only bananas. They’re the one thing I really can’t abide. Their smell, their texture, everything about them, ugh…” I said with a shudder.

“Oh dear,” replied my friend, and continued stirring the caramel sauce which I quickly found out she was making for banoffie pie.

I felt very bad, and tried to hastily remove my foot from my mouth. But I needn’t have worried. Having already made the buttery biscuit base, my resourceful friend covered one half with bananas as planned, but the other with baked sliced apple. It was delicious.

We couldn’t come up with a satisfactory name for this new half-and-half pie, though. Any suggestions? (Sources: hobsonfarming.co.uk, rhs.org.uk)

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

Nostalgia for childhood freedoms

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st September & the Gazette & Herald on 19th September 2018

Reading through Dad’s columns from 1978, us children often get a mention thanks to the things we have brought back home from on our days playing outside in the countryside.

We were very blessed in ways that perhaps our town-living peers weren’t, and today’s primary-school-age children certainly aren’t, in that we could disappear out of the front door in the morning and our parents would not worry if we didn’t come back until the end of the day.

I was talking about this to my mum the other day, and reminiscing about how much freedom we were afforded back then. She confirmed that they never worried about us while we were out, nor felt the need to contact us in any way. If something happened, then so be it! Thankfully, bar a case of food poisoning caused by undercooked sausages the first time me and my friend went camping up the nearby field, we got off relatively lightly.

That’s not to say we didn’t have the odd scrape and near-miss (you may have read about our less-than-safe trips atop a stack of bales on the back of a tractor a couple of weeks ago). One particularly memorable occasion was the time we were playing in the hay barn right at the top when the whole lot came crashing down. We were lucky not to have been crushed or suffocated, and of course, like every well-behaved child, instead of owning up, we scarpered when we saw what a mess of tumbled down bales we had caused. I don’t think the farmer would have been in any doubt who was behind the calamity, and yet he never told us off. What a patient soul he was!

In Dad’s column from 30th September 1978 he mentions that we had brought home some red berries we had found growing in a hedgerow. Although it is likely that he knew what they were, he wanted us to find out for ourselves, and says something which I believe too (yet I might be on losing wicket): “I encourage them to do their own research, believing that it enables them to understand the value of books and also that they remember what they find if they do it themselves.”

Despite being grandchildren of an author of some 130 books, and sons of a writer, I’m afraid that these days, my own children are rarely seen with a book in their hands. ‘Research’ to them involves watching a video on YouTube or a visit to Wikipedia, which I think is not unusual among their generation. Although to give my oldest his due, I did recently come downstairs and almost fainted when I caught him sat on the sofa reading a book. It turned out to be a biography of Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk. I’m very proud to say that he has recently graduated with a degree in web programming so hopefully some of Musk’s talent and entrepreneurial skills will rub off on him so that soon, he will be able to keep his mum in the manner to which I’d like to get accustomed.

As for the red berries, we discovered from one of Dad’s reference books that they were from the guelder rose, which is a small tree fairly common among our hedgerows. It flowers in May, with beautiful umbrella-like white blooms comprising a circle of larger sterile white flowers surrounding a centre of much smaller fertile white flowers, and it is these flowers which produce the red berries in early autumn.

What is particularly distinctive is their odd smell. According to Dad’s column, it is ‘like crispy, fried, well-peppered trout’. Hmmm, is that a good smell? I’ll have to get out there next May and find out.

I have included a photograph with this article taken on one of my dog walks in early June of what I thought was a wild guelder rose, but my research reveals that the foliage is wrong. A guelder rose has leaves with irregularly-toothed prongs, not dissimilar to acer leaves, whereas in my image, although the flowers appear right, the leaves are more teardrop-shaped than ‘prongy’. The nearest I could come to finding one similar is the American wayfaring tree but, as its name suggests, it is not found over here. Can anyone enlighten me as to what mine is?

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.