John, pictured here with a young fisherman, was amazed to see the pike attack
“You see all sorts of things by the waterside. In all the years I’ve been fishing, I’ve rarely seen waterfowl actually taken by pike, even though it’s supposed to be a common occurrence. In fact, so often have I fished and so rarely have I seen such pike hunting activity that I began to discount it altogether. Then, just a few days ago, I had to revise my opinions.
It’s mid-afternoon. I’m fly fishing a Norfolk lake. There are a couple of coots busy in front of me, ten yards out, feeding over a shallow plateau. Suddenly it happens.
Out in deeper water, a bow wave builds up heading towards the coots. As the bow wave reaches the shallows, it grows in extent and it accelerates. The nearest coot is hit. There’s an enormous swirl. A pike’s head comes clear of the water, grabbing the bird. There’s an appalling squawk. There’s a thrash of water. Then nothing. Silence. Just black feathers eddying in the aftershock.
The coot’s abandoned partner clucked and looked for its mate for the rest of the long Spring afternoon. That’s nature: the beauty and the beast. Wondrous and pitiless at the very same instant.”
“Our second Quite Easy filly was born this week. She looks to be a very fine bay, with two big splotches of white on her face. Her mum, Idem II, is possibly the best bred of our mares. Her maternal line goes back to numerous half-thoroughbred horses with competitive records.
I am still in the early stages of learning about bloodlines and how to evaluate them. It’s like box scores: people who are real geeks can reel this stuff off like a times-table, but I am still struggling. What I have learned is that the French term “souche”, which means root or origin, is all about the mother line, and this is what really counts. Or as Pierre puts it: it’s 60 per cent mama, 30 per cent papa, and 10 per cent pot luck.
In particular, a horse picks up a great deal of its temperament from the maternal line; its intelligence, trainability, ability to trust and so forth. My father, who was a great racing aficionado, used to say that his daughters’ intelligence came from the distaff side. I never knew what he was talking about at the time, but now I know it’s a horsey term referring to the maternal pedigree.
I’ve been watching this filly on Foalcam, and she is hilarious. She charges around the box in canter half the time, and is flat out on the ground the rest of the time. I can’t wait to meet her.
Pierre and I are thinking about our string of mares and how we can evolve over the next few years. Obviously, it’s always a work in progress, and, like any garden, it needs planning and pruning. There are definitely some in my portfolio that are of marginal value, some that are pretty good and a couple of real crackers. Where we cut and where we add depends to a great extent on our breeding strategy, the lines we want to knit back into, and what we want to produce.
Interestingly enough, I was just offered the chance to buy a very nice looking young mare that has been on the competition circuit and has had to give up due to an injury. She’s a seven-year-old Shérif d’Elle out of a Quidam mare. We already have Shérif d’Elle in our mare Mamzelle; ah, but I just told you - it’s the maternal line that counts, didn’t I? Let me get back to you on that…”
"The farm is 650 hectares. At around 1,000 feet above sea level, with thin, stony soil known as Cotswold Brash, growing arable crops can be quite a challenge.
The cropping is rotated around the farm and this year is made up of 100 ha of winter wheat for bread or biscuit making, 140 ha of oilseed rape for making cooking oil, 130 ha of spring malting barley for making beer and 10 ha of spring beans for animal feed.
The warm, wet spring has been excellent for growing conditions. Unfortunately this type of weather not only encourages crop growth, but also weeds and fungus on the crop leaf. We are not organic and rely on pesticides to control weeds and crop disease. Due to two weeks of either wet or very windy days, our window of opportunity to spray has been very narrow. We are starting to get very worried, particularly about the amount of disease in the crop which can have a serious effect on yield."
Smoked loin of venison with Spanish Picota cherries and red onion chutney
"Here's a great recipe for you to try at home.
I've used Picota cherries from Spain as they are now in season. Picotas are a large cherry, that have a deep red colour but no storks. They have a really juicy flavour, which works well with the venison.
Venison loin can be expensive but, if you can't find it, use the solid topside muscle or silverside muscle from the haunch. These cuts are stronger in flavour, but once they've been cleaned down, they will look the same except for the meat grain being slightly courser.
This recipe serves four portions as a starter.
500g Venison loin (cleaned cannon of venison)
1 lt water
300g Spanish Picota cherries
1 large red onion
1 eating apple (russet apple, if you can get them)
30ml aged Balsamic vinegar
Teaspoon full sugar (optional)
Step one: take the sugar, salt and water and mix them together, so that the sugar and salt dissolve. Drop the venison into the solution and leave it for 30-minutes to soak.
Step two: cut the cherries into four and remove the stones. Slice the onion finely. Peel, core and chop the apple into very small dice sized pieces.
Step three: heat the oil and add the onion. Don't fry it - just sweat the onion down for five-minutes on a low heat. Add the vinegar to onions and allow it to reduce down by half. Add sugar if the balsamic is not an aged one.
Step four: add the cherries to the onions and cook for two minutes, then add the apple and cook for another minute before removing from the heat. The chutney should be syrupy and the cherries and apple should still be visible. Leave the chutney to cool; the heatin the mix will break down the fruit to give a full flavour. Once the chutney is cool, place it in the fridge. This chutney is best served cold.
Step five: remove the venison from its water solution and dry it with a cloth. Place the meat in a hot smoker for 25-minutes, turning it twice. If you do not have a hot smoker, place some wood chips into a deep tray, then place a cooling rack or the shelf from an oven into the tray and place the venison on this. Light the chips using a blow torch and, once they are smouldering, place the tray into a low-heat source. Place the venison on its rack onto the smouldering tray and top with foil, leaving one corner open. When smoke begins to escape, seal this corner and allow it to sit on the heat for 10-minutes before removing the venison and allowing it to stand until cold.
Step six: once the venison has cooled, wrap it tightly in cling film and place in the fridge to get really cold. The venison should be cooked on the outside, but still fairly pink in the middle.
Step seven: serve the sliced venison with a small leaf salad, the picota cherry chutney and a split balsamic dressing.
"Things are hotting up here at Westminster Kingsway, and it's that time of year when our students are looking forward their exams - or not, as the case maybe!
Over the last year, things have changed in the way that our students are assessed and now we have a set of synoptic tests as well as an end of year exam. The exam menus have been set, specification sheets written and demonstrations of what the students must produce are being performed as I type. I have no doubt that the students will do well; over the past three years, I have had the pleasure of teaching many of them and giving them the skills they need to pass the course. The college is a fantastic place for these guys; they learn the skills that will last them a lifetime and prepare them for the world of work. We teach so much more here than just how to cook: we teach the story of food, its background and its providence.
Yesterday, I did a demonstration with some venison from my trusted game dealer, Morris Bond at UK Game. Over the years, I have built up a business relationship with Morris that ensures the quality of the game that I want and need. I can count of the price being good and Morris will always give me some information on where the game was from - even going as far back as the estate so that I can include this information in my menus.
This providence of food is important to understand because it gives background to the product and, as chefs, an understanding of how best to use it. I have been lucky to have gained a wealth of knowledge about food and game, and I not only prepare and cook it, but also harvest it. I have always said that if we have a little knowledge about our food's providence and the best cooking method to use, we can produce any number of dishes so we don’t necessarily need recipe books. Our countryside is a larder with a wealth of ingredients for us to understand and use and here at the college, we hope to open the doors to that larder so that our guys understand what’s in there, how best to use it and shout about its story."
“I had a really funny conversation with a client this week; he contacted us on a recommendation from a friend of his. He explained that he had a really nice spaniel bitch that he thought the world of, but - and it was a big but - she had taken to biting people that visited his home and place of work.
Dogs that bite are not at all funny, and of course can be a real danger to those that come into contact with them. The funny part of the conversation was the way that the gentleman relayed the story.
“I’m a big chap - I can deal with Daisy biting me every now and then, but I’m just at my wits end. Every time I bring a girlfriend home, Daisy bites them and that’s three really nice girlfriends that I’ve lost now,” sighed the client.
At this point I burst out laughing, which I know is unprofessional and some might say irresponsible, but I just couldn’t help myself.
“You should think yourself lucky that Daisy loves you so much that she’s willing to fight to keep you,” I replied.
Fortunately, this gentleman has a sense of humour and Daisy is now here at Mullenscote while we evaluate her behaviour and see if we can change her ways.
He was right; the next morning, as I walked down the line of kennels with feed bowls, Daisy rushed forward to the front of her kennel with her lips curled, baring her teeth and growling. I simply ignored her and carried on about my business. As soon as she had settled down, I opened her kennel door and gave her the feed bowl.
Daisy has settled in brilliantly and she is really enjoying the company of the other dogs in the kennels. With some careful and well thought through training, there is an improvement already. Make no mistake, this is not something we are dealing with lightly.
There will be no quick fix, and every consideration will be taken to ensure that Daisy learns that it is unacceptable to bite. Firstly, we must continue to assess what triggers this bite reflex and then find ways to rehabilitate her. Once a dog has learned to bite, you can never really be sure that if put into a difficult situation again that it might resort to old methods.
I’ll keep you up to date with her progress.”
“An early Tuesday in May, and it was great to start filming again in preparation for a new series with H&C. The idea was that the camera and crew would follow me on a fairly typical day around the Kingfisher Lakes, where I am the Fishery director.
After a wet start, the weather bucked up and I was able to talk about the fisheries and what fishing means to me. Matt and I soaked up a bucket of wheat and fed it to the newly-stocked carp to augment their diet. The idea is that this extra injection of protein will get them spawning and we’ll be self-sufficient when it comes to carp stocks in the future.
Then, with my old friend Mick, we walked round the Lily Lake to discuss swim improvements. The big issue is to make life easier for the anglers without harming in the wonderful landscape down here.
Finally I was allowed a bit of fishing! On my first cast, I managed to make contact with a pike just into double figures which fought like a fish possessed! Then, it was a small tench and a small carp from the Lobster Pot and, finally, a reasonable bream from Lily Lake.
Hopefully, we got some nice stuff in the can that will set the series up in a positive way.
The first couple of weeks in May have seen almost constant brisk winds across all the stillwaters. In some ways, this is good news. Carp especially are known to follow the wind and head for the windward shores. This is great when it comes to location on big waters but, not being a ‘pro’ carp angler, I’m often concerned that these stiff winds do my more general style of fishing no good at all.
The cooler the wind, the colder the water and that tends to suppress the appetites of tench. Tench will feed when the water temperatures are dipping but they’re not ravenous. They tend to sit lethargic on the bottom and don’t move nearly as much as they do in hot, stiller conditions.
Interestingly, you’ll often find roach in areas of water sheltered from the wind - in bays, for example, or behind islands. And where the roach are at this time of the year, the pike are bound to follow.
So, whilst the carp boys celebrate, I have my own reservations and look for those wind strengths on the weather forecast with a certain sense of foreboding.
I don’t really do targets at my age, but if a 10lb tench were to come along in the next couple of weeks you’ll be hearing from me!”
"At the Cotswold Farm Park, we have six different breeds of cattle. The cows are early and late spring calvers so that we have young calves for our display when we open in mid-March, and then more being born in front of the public in April and May.
The Belted Galloway are one of the hardiest British breeds of cattle and one of my favourites. They can produce great quality beef off upland areas with poor pastures. They calve with ease and can live outdoors all year round, making them ideal for conservation grazing projects.
The Belted Galloway are naturally polled or hornless and have their tell-tale white belt that completely encircles their middle. There are various colours; black, red and dun. I keep all three colours and we have recently had a dun and a red heifer calf born. The red, being quite unusual, is very valuable and a fantastic addition to the herd.
Other breeds on the farm are Gloucester’s, White Park, Dexter, Longhorn and Highland."
“It’s been a quiet week here, mostly due to the inclement weather. On the positive side, the grass is now growing better and the area that we reseeded after the fencing and the new shed were put in is faintly green if you look at it from the correct angle.
Herbert, our second lamb, has been renamed Dickie after a well-known TV personality. Can you guess who? With the warmer weather, we’ll be treating the sheep this week to prevent fly strike. This is particularly nasty problem where flies lay their eggs in the wool and the maggots eat into the sheep’s flesh. Jura had it last year, but we noticed it very quickly and were able to treat it promptly. She seems none the worse for it but I’d rather avoid a repeat.
The pigs are now on 2lb of food each per day. I’ve taken out the trough and just feed them on the ground. They seem to prefer it that way. They don’t seem to be making much impact on the grass yet, but they are still only young. I inadvertently made them a wallow by forgetting to turn of the hose while filling their water trough. Much fun was had running in and out of the water and blowing snout bubbles.
We planted a willow hedge earlier in the year on the riverbank. Partly, this is for shade, for the sheep to browse, for wood and to stabilize the bank. Most seems to have taken really well, despite the rabbits’ best efforts. Dan also planted an apple tree out there. I thought it was past its best and was prepared to dispose of it, but Dan stuck it in with the willow and it’s covered in blossom. Naturally, he never says: “I told you so”.
We’re off to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society’s Smallholder and Garden Festival this weekend; full report next week.”
"I felt very quiet this morning, which I think was understandable. I had breakfast and left Badminton early – I'm not good at not riding or not being involved!
Half-way home, my lorry had a problem so we had a pit stop and watched the show jumping from Badminton. Congratulations to Oli – a class performance and what a superb horse. One day!
After a significant time on the side of the road, we limped home – I think 'it never rains but it pours' definitely applies to my weekend. I was home by 4pm, unpacked the lorry and had a BBQ. The week ahead has to be better - please!"