Sunday, April 17, 2011
Cats That Go Baa
Izzy spotted them immediately. “Cats!” she shouted as the two fluffy black creatures stood quietly in the April sunshine. “No those are lambs, Izzy”, we corrected.
It was an easy mistake to make. Born just yesterday, our neighbour’s sheep are shaggy Ryelands. They are so tiny and fluffy, like baby yeti, they could just as easily have been moggies. Izzy shook her head at our stupidity: “No, cats”, she insisted. Sometimes it’s easier just to agree with a two-year-old. Pick your fights – save your persuasive powers for getting her to eat her lunch or not play with the carving knife.
“Why are all the lambs being born at the same time?” asked Sam, my 13-year-old. “Because all the ewes had sex with the ram the same week in November” I began confidently, eliciting an immediate and horrified “Dad, don’t”, as he put his fingers in his ears. Don’t they teach them anything about the birds and the bees in school?
Living on a farm in Northumberland has introduced me to several new discoveries. Not just the utter pointlessness of high street fashion – the mud covers the heels of any new shoe within seconds and even Jo admits designer clothes would look absurd down at the Ox Inn – but more important, fundamental things, like the natural cycle of life. Only now, after three years in the sticks, are we really beginning to appreciate the order that, with the man’s help, ensures that lambs are born after the winter snows and the tulips flower just as the daffodils begin to fade. To an outsider it’s like magic. I’ve not yet graduated to sheep farming, but I have been inspired to grow my own.
My former colleagues in L.A. would never believe this was the same me, dragging on ragged jeans and throwing myself into piles of manure. I’m learning by my mistakes. Like most townies, I abhor bare soil, so I tend to overstuff my vegetable beds to fill up space, not realising that peas and beans grow into vast overhanging forests, covering up anything you put next to them.
This year I’ve vowed to be more patient and have a goal: not to buy a single salad, vegetable or cut flower until the late autumn frosts. I’d be far too embarrassed to put my weedy little offerings into the local leek show – but I already understand just how easy and satisfying it is to eat with the seasons.
In the supermarket I eschew large but tasteless Spanish strawberries when my own bed is full of tiny flowers, waiting for June, and I positively cringe when I see someone pick up a packet of green beans from Chile. To me, “best before” is a meaningless concept: does it mean “unusable after”, “edible until”, or does it refer to its colour or taste? To me, “Best” is “still in the ground”.
So I was delighted by today’s reports that the government is thinking of scrapping “best before” and “sell by” labels on food, relying instead on the simple warning of “use by”, when food might actually be a danger to health. It would instantly cut down on the absurd waste of perfectly good food thrown away because of some printing on the label. Perhaps at last people will rediscover their senses of taste and smell to judge what to buy and when to use it.
Jo and I are determined that Izzy grows up to understand the importance of homegrown food. She’s already becoming a little gardener: armed with her toy spade, she insists on helping by heaping earth onto the heads of the dogs sitting patiently beside me as I dig. Mind you, I’m not looking forward to the moment, about six months from now, when I have to explain to her that the nice little “cats” in the next field have turned into lunch.