Back in August of last year I wrote about my first experience of butchering the back half of a pig, which had been kindly given to us by a friend in the village.
This year things got a lot more serious on the farm and it was time for us to complete the full cycle of life from birth to death for some of our animals. I had known that this day would come eventually, but it is a hard one to prepare for having no previous experience.
Back in March it became very apparent that we had too many sheep (27 in total). This was after a successful lambing season, on top of the fact that we didn't sell or slaughter any of the previous year's lambs. They were eating us out of house and home (or at least all of our grass down to its roots).
Something had to be done.
The idea had always been to start eating our own meat. We thought it would be our steer (Stew) who would be first in the freezer, but he has a reprieve for another year.
Not knowing the first thing about slaughtering, dressing or butchering livestock I called upon a local farmer (Farmer G) to ask some advice. He offered to come round and assist, an offer I took up straight away. I had completed our sheep yards earlier in the year so Niki and I were able to muster the sheep and separate out one of last year's wethers and return the rest of them to the paddock. I am not embarrassed to say that I thanked the animal for its life. We had been responsible for it from birth through to death.
Warning: Graphic description of slaughter follows
Farmer G and his wife came round on a Friday afternoon and I was all set to go. I had my .22 ready, sharp knives on the bench and plenty of nerves. Farmer G told me what to do and I got on with it. A clean shot to the back of the head at point blank range was enough to down the wether. Next was bleeding it out as soon as possible. This involved cutting the throat, ensuring the jugular was severed. During this there was quite a lot of reflexive movement and it was necessary to hold tight (by the way, there was absolutely no doubt the sheep was already dead).
We then moved the carcass to the shed and began the dressing (skinning and gutting) process. Once we were at this stage, it was much easier to see the animal as future meat, not the same as the sheep that had been walking around only 10 minutes ago. We started cutting the skin at the knees (careful not to cut the tendons which are needed whole for hanging) and worked away (front and back legs). Hoisting the carcass to hang in the shed was an effort even with two of us and I promised myself I would purchase a pulley for next time. Once the carcass was hung it became much easier to separate the skin using a closed fist to punch down between the skin and the brisket. Apparently in abattoirs there used to be the job title of 'left handed brisket puncher' just for this task. Once the skin was removed all the way to the neck, the head was cut off and the head and skin/fleece were removed. I would, in future like to use as much of the animal as possible, but this time I didn't plan to save the skin.
Next was removal of the offal, a task to be carried out carefully to avoid any contamination. All of the stomach, intestines, etc. went into a blue plastic bin for later disposal (great for worms). Then there were the heart, lungs and liver. I kept the very healthy looking liver. Niki and I had liver and onions for lunch the next day, it doesn't get any fresher than that. Once the dressing was complete the carcass was wrapped to keep the flies away and left to hang for a few days (being late summer a couple of days was enough, in winter it could easily hang for a week or more). Meanwhile Farmer G's wife was in the kitchen with an emotional Niki. I was exhausted!
Of course, dressing the carcass is only half the job. Unless you are doing a spit roast it's a bit hard to fit a whole sheep into your oven! Luckily one of our near neighbours is a retired butcher and he had already offered to give me a hand turning my sheep into useful cuts of meat. A few days after hanging the carcass he came over to show me what to do. We spent a Sunday afternoon in the shed with a trestle table covered in plastic, a large piece of untreated eucalypt as a chopping board and lots of sharp knives, an axe and a machete. We turned the carcass into 26kg of recognisable cuts of meat - chops, roasts and shanks. I think I'll need a few more goes at it to get better and know what I'm doing, but I now have a grasp of the basics.
I bagged up all the meat, weighed it and, except for a shoulder put it all in the freezer. Niki slow-roasted the shoulder the following week and it was truly delicious. What an amazing experience to have a plate of food in front of you where everything on the plate (4 vegetables and meat) came from our farm - that's why we're here.
Since then I have slaughtered, dressed and butchered a lamb and taken 9 other lambs to the sale yards and sold them for a good price, we sold 2 others to neighbours. We are now back down to 10 ewes, almost manageable for the little grass we have left.
Postscript: After packing and weighing the meat I calculated how much it would have cost to buy the same cuts at the supermarket using a well known supermarket website. The 26kg of meat would have cost me $467 at the supermarket. I could have probably sold the live animal for about $70-80. That tells you something straight away - somebody is getting well paid for meat - and it's not the farmer!
Posted by Farmer Wan
And I'm not talking about Game of Thrones here.
We were blessed with 16 straight days of glorious weather during April; we had temperatures up to 26 degrees C and no rain. Of course it all had to come to an end. We now lose the sun over the hill at the back at around 4:00pm and the temperature plummets accordingly. This morning we awoke to an outside temperature of 5 degrees C with a wind chill which made it feel like -8 degrees C, there is a dusting of snow on the ranges and we've had the fire lit all day. Time to get all those winter jobs done (plus all of the summer ones that weren't completed!)
So what have we been doing in the month since we last posted?
Bounteous harvest (Plums, plums and more plums)
Last year the apple trees were loaded with fruit and the plum trees were virtually empty; this year we harvested maybe a dozen apples and several kilograms of plums, which Farmer Nik proceeded to turn into the most beautiful Plum & Lavender or Plum & Vanilla jams. Just as well really, because all of the French Apricot Jam made in Jan/Feb was finished off during Mum and Dad's visit in February. (Note to Farmers Nik & Wan: make more next year!).
"Wee" Bonnie arrives
Early in the month we had a new arrival: Bonnie the Highland cow was delivered from nearby Tadmor Valley and settled in well with the rest of the herd. She is almost twice the size of our bull so we may have to build him a box to stand on when the time comes for him to do what bulls do best (only kidding!). She loves molasses spread on hay and will now take it from our hands.
Easter Bunny pays a visit
Having family visit at Easter prompted an unexpected visit by the Easter Bunny. On Easter Sunday morning there were numerous bunny footprints around Muntanui. These were eagerly followed by the youngest of the party and led to various locations of hidden chocolate eggs (including amongst the real eggs), each discovered amidst squeals of delight.
During this Easter family visit we headed once more to the Hidden Cafe for lunch and a quiet afternoon in the sculpture garden, well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Saffron harvest early
We had expected the saffron corms to flower in early May, so when they started popping up on the 1st April (see below) we were surprised. The harvest peaked just prior to the middle of the month, unfortunately coinciding with our four-day tramp to the Blue Lake. Fortunately, thanks to the generosity of friends from Wakefield, we were able to complete the tramp and they took care of Muntanui, all the animals and the saffron harvesting/processing whilst we were away. We have processed all of the harvest so far; and having peaked at 120 flowers in one day, we are now picking no more than a dozen each morning. (Note to Farmers Nik & Wan: don't go away in April!).
The Blue Lake Tramp
Farmer Nik pitched the idea for a story about the Blue Lake to NZ Geographic magazine, the original idea being to hitch a ride on a DoC chopper and then write the story. The DoC representative who Farmer Nik spoke with thought this a good idea but suggested the story might be better if Farmer Nik actually walked all the way to Blue Lake. She agreed.
Buying lots of gear (boots, jackets, gas cooker, freeze-dried meals). Climbing to the top of Beeby's Knob (1441m) one Saturday to make sure we were actually fit enough to attempt a four-day walk.
Thanks to the generosity of neighbours Chris and Jean, we were able to avoid the high cost of a water taxi to the head of Lake Rotoroa. Chris took us all of the way up the lake in his tinny and dropped us near the Sabine Hut at around 10:00am. This was the first time that either of us had had sizeable packs on our backs for many years and it took a bit of getting used to. The sign said “West Sabine Hut 5 hours”. No worries, we thought, these guide times are always on the generous side. Eight hours later, just as it was beginning to get dark, we arrived at the river crossing close to the hut. The swing bridge had been washed away the previous year, but a convenient log enabled a shaky crossing to the other side of the river. We were alone in the hut that evening and soon realised that the first item to be added to our “List of Things to Take Next Time” was candles.
The next day dawned beautiful once more and after our (interesting) re-constituted freeze-dried cooked breakfast we set off to Blue Lake; according to the signs, a four-hour walk. Crossing several avalanche paths, we made our way further up the valley and then started the final climb up to the lake. This time we managed the four hour walk in five hours, but it was well worth it. The Blue Lake is the clearest recorded freshwater in the world and a very special place, surrounded as it is by an amphitheatre of mountains. To read more about it, look out for Farmer Nik's article, we'll post when it is published and where to find it. That evening we shared the Blue Lake Hut with three Kiwis, an Englishman and a lone Israeli tramper.
In the morning we stayed long enough to see the sun once more on the lake before heading back down to West Sabine Hut. Going downhill has never been my favourite part of walking and doesn't do much for the knees. However, having neglected until now to use the walking poles we had been lent, we both decided this would be a good time to try them – good idea, wish we'd thought of it sooner. We both had this crazy idea that walking poles were related to walking sticks, i.e., for the infirm or old. No. Using one pole each was more like having a third leg, especially when it came to descending steep slopes or crossing streams, very useful and took some of the strain from the already weary legs. (Note to Farmers Wan & Nik: Buy walking poles before next tramp). The descent to West Sabine Hut signposted at 3 ½ hours took us only 4 ½. We were definitely getting better at this.
We enjoyed more company in the Hut that evening with Diana the volunteer warden and Sandra and Markus from Switzerland all passing the night there before they headed up to Blue Lake and beyond. We were up early and crossing the river again by 07:30am. This time we had a deadline; we had arranged for Chris to pick us up at the head of Lake Rotoroa, (perhaps optimistically) at 2:00pm. We did the five-hour walk in six hours and arrived at the head of the lake just as Chris and Jean motored into view, bringing with them a very welcome flask of hot tea. We hadn't walked particularly far in four days (approx 40km) but it was one of the hardest walks we had both ever done, well worth the sore feet and knees.
The Swiss are coming
When we met Sandra and Markus during our last night on the tramp we had said to them, "Come and have hot showers and a meal and stay over", knowing they had four days more walking to do after we left them. We expected them to stay the night and head away the next day... how wrong we were! They arrived at our place mid-afternoon a few days after we got home and immediately offered to help with any work around the farm, so they were tasked with digging up the main crop spuds, a job they completed at a rate of knots. Next morning, they requested more work and we set about relocating the cattle yards in the front paddock, a job that took longer than expected. Their third day here was spent cutting firewood, building compost heaps and weeding in the vegetable garden, these guys are machines! We very much enjoyed their company and cannot thank them enough for all the work they did whilst here. As I have said to Farmer Nik on several occasions, I have never met a Swiss person I did not like and these two were certainly no exception.
So, a busy and most productive month and certainly the best and most settled weather we have experienced since arriving here. We have completed our first harvest of a saleable crop and look forward to finding out how much it is actually worth.
Finally, we were interviewed for the local free newspaper. Please excuse the several mistakes in the article, don't believe everything you read...see here on Page 22. (The Leader Richmond-Waimea, 26 April 2012)
Here is a selection of photos of April fun:
Posted by Farmer Wan
About Ewan and Niki
Scottish mechanical engineer with a deep and abiding passion for good food. Outstanding cook. Builder of lots of stuff. Cattle whisperer. Connoisseur of beer. A lover rather than a fighter.
Kiwi writer and broadcaster who hates cabbage, even though she knows it's good for her. Chook wrangler. Grower of food and flowers. Maker of fine preserves. Lover of dancing and wine. Definitely a fighter.