Run your finger on the shelf and you may find
It’s time to clear out your cluttered mind
Like a clock – days, weeks, months – measured time.
Air filled with sparkles when sunlight shines.
Observe space in solid form – a universe, stars and planets.
Gone today, here tomorrow, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
Take charge, stretch and clean
But from a sterile life what can be seen?
“it always looks worse through a window”
“no bad weather, just bad clothing”
Would sitting in be such a sin, though,
Instead of in this storm a roving.
The less than silent leaking jacket
The swooshing, pounding, tiresome racket,
And mist so pretty on a meadow
But on my foggy glasses less so
The promise of abundant green
Mother nature truly mocks
As mushrooms sprout within my socks
My muddy boots, her glowing sheen.
Release me from the soggy prison
Of a tidy aphorism.
Last year I went on an exchange trip between my local village, Cernovice, and their twin, Biglen, in Switzerland. The pretty Emmental countryside was full of grass meadows and happy cows, and not a single fat northern bloke in a vest. Our town mayor had held a meeting where we discussed what presents we could take to give our Swiss friends a flavour of Bohemia. The decision was cheese and chocolate, and explaining the idiom “taking coals to Newcastle” was unfortunately beyond the grasp of my Czech conversation abilities. However, it did get me thinking about what foods are really unique to Bohemia.
- Local bread – light, fluffy Housky and Rohlik rolls as well as the more substantial rye bread loaf. You need to buy rolls in the morning from the bakery as they become rock-hard in a matter of hours. To be properly Czech you must fight the urge to cut open the rolls and make sandwiches – instead butter and cheese must be applied to the outside of the crust, making eating them a fine balancing act.
- Bohemian Sekt – we cannot, of course, for legal reasons call this pink champagne. There is also an alcohol free version of this drink, which is very nice of you’re not on the booze and want something a little more grown-up than Kofola.
- Kofola – a kind of cross between cola and root beer. This is available on tap in most establishments serving beer, and is the drink to turn to if you want to pass as a local or reminisce on your communist childhood.
- Blueberry yoghurt – In the Czech Republic, blueberry is your go-to fruit flavour. In the same way that the strawberry is ubiquitous where I come from, you will find blueberry everything – including syrup for diluting into drinks (or squash as we call in the UK). In July, the extensive forests of Bohemia are full of bilberries – the small, wild blueberries – and you can also find cranberries, raspberries and tiny, flavoursome strawberries.
- Elderflower cordial. As common as orange squash in these parts. In the supermarket, look for Jupi with a picture of elderflowers.
- Bohemia Chips – once I left the Czech Republic to live in the UK, these crisps are what I would beg from anyone who was planning to visit. Now I live just five miles from the factory where they are made. Coincidence? Current flavours of interest are mushroom or rosemary. The old-favourite is paprika.
- Dried apple. In a country where cider is a foreign drink, they turned their apples into spirits or dried them into circles “Krouzky”, which could then be snacked on through the winter or made into natural apple tea. The locally produced apple juice is also excellent, inexpensive and commonly available.
- Lime flower tea- the Linden Lime tree is a national symbol. The flowers are gathered and dried in early summer. In shops, look for tea with the word “Lipa”. I find it highly reminiscent of the scent of washing powder. You may not.
- Local cheeses are a blue cheese called Niva and a mini Camembert called Hermalin. I’d say they’re nothing to write home about, however, you might as well try them while you’re here. Farming methods were standardized across the soviet union, leading to wierdnesses such as pigs and cows being kept inside barns all summer as well as winter in massive factory farms, and all local variation in food production being suppressed. It is taking some time for the idea of local to catch on here, as you’ll see if you visit Farmer’s markets outside of Prague. Things are changing, but let’s just say people here eat a lot of Edam.
- Nealko beer. The Czechs have a proud heritage of beer production, and zero tolerance in law to drink driving. As keen beer consumers, the natural result of this equation is that their alcohol free beers are really pretty good. One local company which you’re unlikely to see anywhere outside of the Czech Republic and produces an excellent range of alcoholic and alcohol free beers is Bernard (produced Bear Nard with two rolled r’s). Czech beer bottles are robust because they are reused via a deposit system, so don’t throw them away!
- Tartar sauce – this is the local condiment of choice. You’ll find it a necessary accompaniment to the popular and common “American” potatoes, breaded pork & fried cheese, which would be hard to eat without it.
- Locally produced chocolate. Full disclosure: the Bon Bon company you’ll see all over the Czech Republic hales from my local village, where they have an excellent cafe with every form of chocolate available. As a gift to take home, their range of chocolate confectionery is hard to beat, if you can resist eating it all yourself.
Finally, if you are staying somewhere with access to a kitchen I recommend:
- Waldorf salad made with locally grown apple, walnuts and a little ground elder (the wild cousin of celery).
- Sekanice – a cut stuffing loaf. There are both veggie and pork versions of this recipe, but the main constituent ingredient is nettle. As in stinging nettle. After a long, hard winter under feet of snow, the hardy perennial nettle is the first edible green which pops up in Bohemia, and was traditionally an important source of nutrition. Nettles can also be used as a substitute ingredient for Kale Chips & once they are baked in salt and oil are surprisingly moreish.
- Wild mushroom pate – as mushroom collecting is part of the national psyche. Porchini and Chanterelle should be sampled and a pate made with equal parts butter, cream cheese and lightly cooked mushroom is the best way to experience their flavour. Please don’t pick the mushrooms yourself. Urban legend has it that ten people a year die of mushroom poisoning in the Czech Republic, and it’s not a pretty way to go.
This is what we need to do on a daily basis at Novy Mlyn at present (End of July 2014) however these things evolve on a weekly basis as the needs of the animals change.
- First, let Bunbury outside to pee. We then keep her inside for the next hour or she will eat the chicken’s food. She got quite fat recently before we realised what she was eating.
- Open the hutch on the back porch where the black & white hen lives with her babies – 2 yellow and 3 black. Make sure their food dispenser is full, then clean out their water dispenser. The babies will get ill if the water dispenser becomes slimy from not being washed properly.
- In the larger black container mix together one cup of grain with one cup of milled food, add enough water that it is lumpy, not powdery or liquid (about half a cup).
- Once the babies have finished eating and run off into the garden with their mother, put their food dispenser back in their hutch and close it. The water can be left on the step for them to drink during the day.
- Put the rest of the mixed food into two bowls at least two metres apart – so both the goose and teenagers can eat. Each bowl needs to have water beside it as the goose cannot eat the food safely without water. Open the ark to let out the goose and the five teenage chickens (2 white and 3 black).
- Ducks – clean water & fill food. They have a bathing bowl and a glass of water. The water is important as they need to clear their mouths with water when the eat the dry food, and they love to paddle in the bowl. We keep the door of the dog cage closed at night so that they are safe from foxes. During the day they are in the wider enclosure – to keep the dog & cats out. George is an avid hunter of wild ducklings and so will lurk around them looking for his chance for a tasty breakfast.
- Fill the goose bath with clean water.
- Milk the goat wherever is convenient. She will jump up onto the trailer in the barn, or the picnic table in the garden (you can take her there on the dog lead). For milking, I give her a large cup of grain as well as a handfull of fallen apples as a treat. The milk must be filtered and immediately put in the fridge in a glass jar with the date & am/pm. Wash all the milking pans etc. in cold water first as hot water makes it more difficult to clean. Once dried, the silver pan, jug and filter live on top of the cupboard by the back door. Dijon goat will be quite vocal when she decides it’s milking (apple eating) time. She usually goes and stands on top of the wall of the ruins (goats really love to climb!) and bellows at you till you milk her.
- After the teenager chickens have had a chance to eat, put their food and water in the Ark and prop the door open about 10cm so that they can get in and eat this later, but the adult chickens (who eat cheaper grain & find their own food) can’t just eat it all up.
- Open the hen house and scatter some oat grain for the adult chickens.
- Make coffee for all takers – the milk must be pasteurised before use by boiling it.
- Empty the dish washer.
- Feed Bunbury and the cats
- Breakfast for humans
- Tidy & clean kitchen – please make sure that the table, work surfaces and cooking hob are all wiped clean, and all dishes either in the dishwasher or in cupboards. In general I can cope with any number of visitors and chaos in the rest of the house as long as the kitchen is clean and tidy. If you make sure that there is never any washing up left on the island, or dishes left out to dry, then we will get on very well.
- Check all plants to see if they need watering – you will need to feel the soil to see if it is dry. During the day – especially if the weather is hot, they will need to be watered again. I have to keep the inside windows on the south side of the kitchen open as if the sun shines all the the plants will dry out and die quickly. After checking and watering every plant in the morning, I do a visual check a couple more times during the day and water again if necessary. There is a large yellow watering can outside for the plants on the external windowsills and front porch. I use the spray bottle for seedlings in the cans in the corner and any jug or bottle to water the plants inside the windows.
- Water the sprouting beans – I usually have two or three things growing for us to eat as sprouts – the beansprouts for stir fry as well as lentils for breakfast (wheat in bread makes my stomach bad so I usually will eat very lightly cooked sprouted lentils with garden greens instead of toast in the morning). Also I’ll have chick peas soaking if we’re going to make hummus or curry.
- I usually do the rounds after breakfast, break time and before lunch to do a head count of all the animals – and make sure nobody is in the wrong place.
- Animal bedtime. We recently lost half our adult chickens to a fox. Foxes hunt at dawn and dusk, when the levels of light are low. On this occasion there was a very big thunder storm and it attacked at about 5pm – three hours before dusk. So – animal bedtime is weather dependent. Unfortunately, if a big storm rolls in, we have to go outside and corral the adult chickens into their house so they don’t get eaten by a fox. The younger ones in the garden are less likely to be caught because they are in sight of the house. If the weather is sunny, I will sit outside in the garden in the early evening until the adult chickens are all standing around outside the hen house as the sun sets behind the trees. If it’s a cloudy day, they will be ready a little earlier than usual. So – first the adults are locked away in the hen house, then the teenagers and goose are herded into the ark with the help of the food left in there, then finally the mother hen and babies go into the hutch on the back porch. Please put clean water in their dispenser and put this in the hutch as well as a little food. The mother hen may be sitting with the babies under her by the composting toilet on the back porch. You will need to be careful moving her as she is very, very protective of her babies and will peck you hard enough to draw blood if you try to pick up the babies in front of her. She will be more likely to cooperate if you show her the bowl of food and lead her using that, in which case she’ll call the babies over to share the food and you can put it down in the hutch.
- Things to watch out for: If you hear a wild bird making a sound like a car alarm, go outside and walk around. Go into the back paddock and round by the lake, then back around the front. This bird has warned us before when there have been foxes in the area. Also, if the chickens or goose start making a noisy racket, it’s worth having a look to check there are no predators.
Today, at the beginning of March, there are just a few patches of snow left in the valley. The land is khaki brown, devoid of fresh colours for the time being. Each tree is completely bare. The ground has thawed and mud now oozes out plentifully, but there is still snow in the air. We are living in the bated breath of spring.
I’ll be turning forty in a few days. My husband pointed out this means that I’ve spent a quarter of my life with him.
I have spent the winter productively and now have eighty thousand words which form a mildly amusing account of our adventures in the Czech Republic. I wanted to write something for us, before we forget, and also for my grandmother – now ninety three, her health issues now prevent her from coming here to visit.
I really enjoyed the process of writing, especially when the plot unexpectedly thickened into a narrative. Now I am leaving the first draft to settle – three months is necessary, though this will bring us to mid-summer – a time for scything at dawn rather than sitting in front of a computer. Currently, I keep thinking of things that I have left out of the first draft, but I’m resisting the temptation of running back to it.
It’s now time for active life again – to plant seeds in pots, repaint and repair the winter damage. The snow was the greatest excuse. It did not so much cause as disguise the disorder, and some part of me wishes it back.
Over the previous month I have been spending my afternoons soldering on. We have a kilowatt of individual solar cells to stick together to build our own photo voltaic system.
As ever, it has been a learning curve. First, watch a lot of youtube videos. Second, figure out which of the youtube videos are made by people who have natural self confidence rather than knowledge or ability. There is a neophyte tendency with some to share their experiences, without then following up to admit when things go terribly wrong.
I am glad that our experiments have not, so far, been caught on camera. The first thing we learned was that the solar cells are extremely fragile. They have a similar consistency to eggshell, and must be handled delicately. Our second discovery was that only four fifths of them worked. Those that don’t tend to come in batches, so if you don’t test them first, you end up with whole strings which will decrease the efficacy of your system.
The cells themselves are fragile and also need to be protected from the elements – so that they don’t rust or become interesting places for various insects to set up home. For this you can use a type of silicone which will not discolour in the sun, or EVA plastic sheeting. We will try both, though the silicone is suspiciously expensive in small quantities.
Currently we have strings of twelve cells placed around the windows of the house in the twenty centimetre gap between the two layers of glass. We are getting a good number of volts, but the ampage is not high, meaning the overall power produced could be better. It’s also important to remember that at present the ground outside is completely snow-covered, meaning that there is a lot of reflected light. During the rest of the year, with no snow and the sun higher in the sky, we might actually get less light in those positions.
We have the inverter and charge controller necessary to build a system which will power the house from batteries when possible, and switch back to mains power when this runs out. We would need to have permissions and different equipment for a grid-tie system.
It takes about an hour to solder one string of twelve cells, so at least I can be doing this while we are learning about the other aspects of the system. I think that methods of encapsulation (and the pungent chemicals required) should wait until later in the year so that we can work outside in the fresh air or with lots of windows open – not possible right now when it’s quite so cold.
Our five hundred metre millrace joins a stream to our lake, providing fresh water for fish and, I suspect, the surrounding houses. The neighbour hires out the valley upstream to a horse farm. Our land is not fenced off, and at the end of the autumn there was quite a lot of rain. The horses then stood under the trees on the edge of the millrace and trampled down the edges of the bank until it was destroyed and the water poured out into the valley. We discovered this when the ground was already frozen hard, so there was nothing to do but be sad about the wet valley.
Luckily, there has been a period of warm weather between Christmas and New Year, so we have been able to spend a pleasant couple of days repairing the millrace by putting the bank back together with spades. Hard work, but after the excesses of a typical Christmas, it’s been a pleasure to be out working in the fresh air.
The horse farm put their electric fence, to contain the horses, on the far side of the millrace, meaning it isn’t protected. I hope that they will play nicely and not allow their horses to cause such damage to our land in future.
The winter may be fast approaching, but, for us, snow means solitude. After such a mixed bag of visitors this year I am thoroughly ready for a break. I need time to rediscover my enthusiasm for hosting the motley crew who wash up on our shores as lately I have felt really quite frustrated.
Activities with “help” take ten times as long as when I am working on my own. I guess few people choose to become managers; here I am teacher as well, but with all the teaching and managing, it sometimes feels that very little progress is being made at Novy Mlyn.
This is certainly not the attitude to have when hosting volunteers; perhaps it is time to investigate different ways of working.
Finally, finally, we are alone again.
As ever, October has whipped by at a rate of knots. We’ve had both sunshine and snowfall. A couple of weeks ago I spent Saturday afternoon sitting outside reading in the sun, and just last weekend we watched as our surroundings were blotted out by snow.
Building on the planning that I did in September, and with the help of Eva and Ricardo, the Homesteading Diary is now in print. There are a couple of changes I’d like to make after receiving the first physical copy – swapping a comma for a semicolon, and altering the line spacing on the to do list as it clashes with the lines on the facing page and so looks ugly where it shows through the paper onto the following notes page – which would make it elegant.
So – as well as making our first batches of soap, producing the diary, getting apple juice pressed and bottled and getting a lot of sorting out done in the garden, this month we have also created a geocache at Nový Mlýn (a point on a treasure hunt – a bit like Dartmoor letterboxing but on an international scale) – this is something that I’d thought about doing a long time ago, however it took the visit of a keen geocacher to make this happen – it’s so good when people arrive with skills and enthusiasms that spur you into action.
“A Grave Error” refers to the lost history of the Hussite battle up the valley- commemorated by the Cubist Chalice memorial but elsewhere forgotten, as well as the errors made at the starch mill which lead to the explosion in which two people lost their lives, and finally the fact that there is actually a grave up by the lake – the architect who committed suicide and so the Church would not permit him to be buried in consecrated ground. I hope that people find the story interesting: