Friday, 4 October 2013

Why nothing goes to waste on Swiss farms

Our plum tree, Victoria, has excelled herself this year
Autumn is here with a vengeance and the garden is a’swirl with yellow, red and brown leaves. The greenery in the polytunnel is beginning to abate, the potatoes have almost all been dug, and Vinnie the vine has yielded the risible harvest with which he deigned to bless us this year.

A potato mosaic (variety Rooster)

Could do better - Vinnie Vine's meagre offering
As predicted in my last post, I spent a lot of my time in September picking and peeling plums. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this experience transported me back 31 years to the summer when I was a mere 19-year-old stripling employed on a dairy farm in Switzerland, where one of my responsibilities was the gathering and preparation of fruit from the farm orchard.

The idea of this working holiday had been to improve my German (mistake number one – Swiss German is almost unintelligible even to native German speakers, so I’d basically to learn a new language called “Mundart”) by spending time on a farm, which I thought would be a relatively pleasant way for a farmer’s daughter to spend the month of August (almost mistake number two).

I say “almost mistake”, as overall my Swiss episode was indeed hugely enjoyable – mainly thanks to the wonderful and welcoming family for whom I had the good fortune to be working. However, it has to be said that the experience wasn’t quite what Yours Truly – as the daughter of a Scottish arable farmer – had been expecting...

I think I first perceived that things were different on Swiss farms when I discovered that the entire farm extended to just 15 Hectares (around 40 acres). Having spent most of my life on a farm which (at that time) extended to some 1,800 acres, this was a shock to say the very least.

What’s more, this tiny farm supported not only farmer Hans and his wife Vreni (plus their two young children) but also Grossvater and Grossmutter (Hans’s parents) who still did their bit around the yard, although they were no longer up to some of the heavy work.

And when I say “heavy work”, I am not joking... At home, even thirty years ago, we had mechanical bale-stackers to lift and load bales onto trailers. On the Swiss farm, it soon became evident that the bale-stackers were Vreni and... er, Yours Truly. As I watched Vreni deftly spear a square bale of hay with a pitchfork and swing it up into the air and on to the back of the trailer, my heart sank swiftly.

The heaviest thing I’d probably ever lifted in my life at that point was a curling stone – and they didn’t need to be swung over your shoulder and propelled several feet up into the air at the end of a flimsy fork.

Vreni and Hans tried desperately not to smile as they watched “das schottische Mädchen” attempt the manoeuvre, and eventually came to my aid until I’d got into the hang of it – which I did... after a few days. Indeed when I returned to Scotland, Supergran reckoned that my shoulders were a good couple of inches wider than when I’d left!

For me, undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of the Arnis being able to support a family off so little land was the fact that absolutely NOTHING went to waste.

Everything (by which I mean fruit and veg peelings, rancid milk, meat leftovers, dry bread, etc.) was fed to some incumbent of the farm – be it cows (delightful dreamy dairy cows with huge, gentle eyes), hens, rabbits (gorgeous giant rabbits, which I loved – little realising at that point that they were for eating!), pigs (the enormous boar, Hubert, used to stand up on his hind legs in the sty, with his forelegs on the gate, waiting for his breakfast and squealing loudly) or the slinking farm cats and quick-to-nip-you dogs. Not a scrap of comestibles was wasted.

Much of the fresh produce – predominantly plums, carrots and apples – was frozen, sealed in jars or (in the case of the apples) sent to the local fruit juice plant to be made into “Süssmost”. This was the local name for gorgeous, cloudy apple juice, which returned from the plant in dark green bottles and was stored underground in the farmhouse “Keller” (cellar) to be enjoyed over the following year. 
Peeled plums playing on my mind...
The apples and plums hung plentiful and heavy in the orchard, which consisted of at least a dozen trees (making our one plum and one apple tree here at The Sparrowholding look a tad paltry).

Needless to say, the bountiful fruit harvest meant hours and hours – and indeed days and days – of peeling and slicing apples and plums. So the mere 150 or so plums that I’ve dealt with this autumn pale into complete insignificance compared with my peeling exploits in the summer of 1982. Back then, I was actually dreaming of plums when I shut my eyes and was haunted by visions of rows and rows of plum trees all waving their laden branches at me and shouting “peel me” (sadly, I’m not joking!).

Still, plum trauma notwithstanding, those intense few weeks on the dairy farm proved to be a very happy and fulfilling period of my youth, even though the hallikit* Scottish farm labourer managed to put the spike of a hay rake through her trainer one day and nearly pinned her foot to the ground!

Working alongside Vreni, Hans and the “Grossis” (as the grandparents were affectionately known) was a hugely rewarding experience – not in any financial way, as I think I earned about 90 pounds “pocket money” in total after deductions for my accommodation and keep, but rather because of what I learnt about how hard people can work physically, day after day, and yet still be content with their lot.

It is a period of my life that I will never forget.  I lay in bed each morning and listened to the cows clinking their way (each wore a bell) melodically towards the milking parlour around 5.30 a.m. I tucked voraciously into lunches of homemade bread and fabulous Swiss cheese produced from the milk of those same cows. And I watched, fascinated, as Grossmutter expertly plaited the “Butterzopf” (literally “butter pigtail”) which was the special loaf of slightly sweet bread made every Saturday evening as a treat for Sunday morning breakfast.

I am still in touch with the family – Vreni and I ring each other on our respective birthdays. Days spent in an easy camaraderie working on the land led to a friendship that has endured over 30 years. That friendship and the vivid memories of a very different way of rural life more than compensate for the hours spent peeling plums...

Last, but not least, here are a few autumnal photos which were snapped out and about around The Sparrowholding recently:
Courgettes still growing in the polytunnel
Looking forward to making green tomato chutney!
Runner beans are still growing in the polytunnel

It was National Poetry Day this week,  so
this spade made me think of the late
Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging"
Spot the sunbathing bluebottle! (on the left)
Autumn Crocuses in all their purple glory - this poor lost butterfly was flying round our hall!
We're on the road to nowhere - autumn leaves

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