Sunday, 12 August 2012

August 11th - Sean Bean's arms and a Manifold Valley Turnout

Dear Nigel,

Many years ago i can remember slobbering over Sean Bean on the tele - usually a Romantic hero in some historic drama-piece or other. And then on camera would come this hazy blue bruise-thing on his naked arm. Of course we all knew this was an out-of-focus cover-up for a tattoo (in a time when tattoos were a good deal less common). I spent many an evening trying to work out what it read - and then, eventually: '100% Beef '.

This was what was on my mind as i watched the children's sports at our Jubilee celebrations outside the village hall. Only in a small village could small weedy four year olds be pitted against large strapping ten year olds in the same race. And 100% Beef. My friend June commented, 'Farmers sons'. I knew just what she meant.

These children weren't fat or obese in any way. These were tomorrow's entrants for the tractor - pulling competition: They are built, not grown; and they are 100% Beef. Their hands are large, their necks are thicker, their whole frames are broad and solid and they glow with rude health and sunshine.

The Beef in question comes from Bagshaws farm shop, almost certainly. Half the village are related in some way, Bagshaws is the main farming enterprise, and so dinner must follow.

The village shop has long since bit the dust it seems, though the Post Office lingers on three days a week. But we do have a superb butchers - and outlet for a local farm which takes animals from the surrounding area. They are closed on Mondays as this is when they do their killing, but open the rest of the week.

A door at the back shows through to an enormous butchery area. A shop like this only exists because the main concern is butchery for Restaurants and pubs in the surrounding valleys. When we ate at 'The Greyhound' in Warslow last week, the menu said steaks from Bagshaws. And what a superb and tender steak it was. Like the nursery rhyme Jack Sprat (...could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean...) i couldn't decide which was tastier the steak itself or the amazingly flavoursome licked the platter clean.

We are spoilt for choice at the Butchers and so close that they can almost tell you the exact farm each animal comes from. That's zero miles for you. Naturally. The nice lady from the kids club pops up again to serve us in the Butchers. I say the kids will be there that evening as it seems to be the highlight of their week. She smiles. Everyone makes us welcome here. It's nice. I've lived in small places before where incomers are incomers until they go away again, but not here. I pull the kids along in their waggon. There is a flash flood on the way back and the road becomes a lake and their waggon a boat, and i wade home in my wellies.

It is a warm, hazy Summer Day today and most of the farmers are itching to get back to their haymaking. But today is Manifold Show - one of the few that wasn't cancelled because of the weather this year - and half the valley has turned out to show their cattle, polish their vintage tractors into spluttering life, and come to the show. I see almost everyone I've met since I've been here.

Anne Peach is here with first prize for her gigantic cabbage - about 5ft. in diameter, and close to having its leaves pulled off (to be used as fans) by my little darlings last week at her open farm and farm bakery day.

A farming family from Sheen take nearly all the prizes for their Belgian Blue and British Blue cattle. I feel a bit sorry for the other farmers leading their animals around the ring. The British Blue cow is something else. Like those old posters in Butchers shops with a cow covered in lines showing the different joints of meat, this animal seems to come with its own joints delineated on its coat. Every muscle seems to almost explode from the surface - the equivalent of a bovine bodybuilder, to be sure.

Over by the hog roast the last bones are being picked over. There are almost more dogs than people here. A man in the ring is calling 'come by' to a young collie pup who is chasing a group of ducks around a course. The show jumpers are preparing to come into the ring - so beautifully attired they put us all to shame.

But for me, the stars of the show are the huge graceful Shire Horses with their prinked-up, pastry-edge manes and their glossy flanks. There is something truly magnificent about these gentle giants and they are bewitching on the eye.

It has been a good day in the Manifold Valley. I trundle home in Archie, joining the queue for the exit. There are more Landrovers than cars, in all states of repair - a good thing, as Archie's hanging on with one door falling off and gaping at the top edge awaiting hinges from the garage. I make my Mum sit in the back - just in case we lose her when we go round a corner.

You are cooking good meat simply, for a hot day, too. It is Lamb chops with oregano and tsatziki, the oregano in full bloom right now in your garden. I will have to wait for next year for flowers on mine as they are young plants. The tsatziki is kept cool till the last minute and the lamb chops rubbed in a mixture of olive oil, oregano and seasoning and sizzled over a hot grill. Summer cooking at its simplest and most flavoursome. Perhaps you should try some of our chops from Bagshaws on your grill? They melt with that almost-muttony older lamb flavour i so love.

I drive down the valley past Longnor and gaze on green fields: The brighter green of the lower valley where nitrogen-throwing tractors have grown lush pasture for the cattle, and the higher fields - a different shade entirely, where sheep graze and pick their way around the rocks.

You finish with an orange yoghurt water ice to cleanse the palate and refresh in the stifling heat 'so hot i cannot cross the stone slabs of the terrace in bare feet'. I am watering next door's tomatoes as they are away but not a single one has ripened. It's really only been the last three weeks we've had any sun this Summer. I look at the grapevine that Terry is so proud of. It is almost a different creature to the one i remember.

I once bought a house for the sole reason that it had the most amazing grapevine in its greenhouse: Forty foot long with a trunk as thick as a man's leg. It came in from outside with water from a dripping gutter tending its roots and ran the entire length of the greenhouse. It must be about a hundred years old by now. I must not go back there. The past is a foreign land and a hundred years away. I must move on.


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